Title: Solstice
Authors: MaybeAmanda & Spookey247
written January 29/02
Rating: R
Category: S, A, MSR - holidayesque
Spoilers: Assumes knowledge through Existence

Summary: "What if it was about what you want, Scully?"

Disclaiming all: Chris Carter owns M&S; Fox owns The XFiles; we own this story. No infringement intended.

Archive: Sure. Thanks!

Thanks to: Ebonbird for beta; Dee, Weyo, Euphrosyne, Lori, and Connie for various and sundry chunks of test-drive; Uncle Chris, cuz we love him. (PD, your number is up next, so quit lookin' so smug)

Notes: Down there at the end

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"So, Pickles," Agent MacDonald asked, glancing up into the rearview mirror, "You been dead three days now. How'd you like it?"

Webster 'Pickles' Pickell III, long-time mob accountant and newly-minted FBI informant, leaned forward, adjusting his considerable frame in the cramped back seat. "Hours are good," he said.

"I'll bet." John Doggett shifted in the passenger seat, rearranging his long legs and loosening his tie. "Let me tell you," he said, "I got a real kick out of your obituary. 'Rare brain disease.' Gotta give 'em points for that one."

"Yeah, very inventive," MacDonald chimed in, as if they were discussing the neighbor's new walkway or a play from Sunday's game. "In the old days, it was just 'an undisclosed illness.'"

"Or the always popular 'natural causes,'" Doggett added.

Pickell shrugged, then turned his gaze back to the window.

"I went to the funeral, you know," MacDonald continued, reaching down to adjust the heat controls. "Tasteful ceremony. Real nice turn out."

"Yeah, I was there, too. Very classy." Doggett shot MacDonald a pointed look, then pushed a button, lowering his window a good three inches. "And cremation is so in style."

Cold air wafted toward the back seat, rousing Dana Scully from an unanticipated nap. Feeling slightly nauseous, she rubbed her eyelids with her fingertips, trying to revive herself. There was an ominous, pinched feeling between her brows that could only mean she had one killer headache, possibly even a migraine, coming on. 'Coffee,' she thought longingly, her eyelids drooping, in spite of her intention to preserve her professional image.

They were miles from anywhere, though, traveling south on a lonely country highway somewhere in the Appalachian mountains. It had been hours since she'd bothered to read a road sign, but judging from the darkness and the proliferation of snow-covered pines outside the window, it seemed safe to assume that there would be no coffee anytime soon.

Doggett twisted in his seat, craning his neck and casting a glance first in Pickell's direction, then in hers. "That too cold on you, Dana?"

Stifling a yawn, Scully stretched as broadly as modesty and such cramped conditions allowed, and shook her head. "No. No, it's fine."

The chill was, in fact, a welcome relief. For security reasons, the car's back windows didn't open at all, making it impossible to get any fresh air, and Jim MacDonald kept the car's ambient temperature so high that the windows kept fogging up. They'd still been on the Capitol Beltway when she'd struggled out of her overcoat, and her jacket had come off as the interstate climbed into the Virginia mountains. MacDonald's latest temperature adjustment left her cursing the sweater she'd put on that morning - there was, quite simply, nothing left to shed.

Doggett had apologized profusely at their last rest stop, blaming the heat on MacDonald's recent transfer from the Miami field office, but Scully was beginning to wonder if Doggett's alleged friend might actually be part lizard. That would certainly explain a few things.

MacDonald, for his part, sent an annoyed glare Doggett's way, then stabbed at the temperature controls again. A wave of hot air rolled through the vehicle.

Doggett gave a martyred sigh. "Jesus, Mac, I hope Santa brings you a transfusion or something for Christmas." His window slid a few inches lower.

"No one else is complaining, Doggy," MacDonald smirked, turning the blower to its highest setting.

"Dammit, Mac-" Doggett began, but the rest of what he said was drowned out by the whir of the fan motor and MacDonald's ear-splitting laugh of response.

Scully sagged miserably against the stiff vinyl seat and yawned again. William had been up half the previous night, not crying or fussing, just wide awake and willing to use his toothless grin to charm her full attention. She didn't blame him; the middle of the night was a lonely time for them both, and on those nights when she felt her loneliness most keenly, his gurgling, drooling, miraculous presence comforted her more than she could ever hope to express. Still, sleep deprivation was starting to take its toll. William could make up for his weird hours by napping whenever he felt like it, but she didn't have that luxury.

Shifting in her seat again, she rearranged the pile of coats and jackets that separated her from Pickell, making it easier to sit up straight. 'Wake up,' she admonished herself silently, and began mentally ticking off the things she still had to accomplish in the three days left before Christmas Eve: pick up the gift she'd special-ordered for Tara; have William's picture taken with Santa at the mall; upload that picture to the site the Gunmen had set up for her; watch 'It's a Wonderful Life' and 'A Christmas Story'; attend the Christmas pageant at St. John's tomorrow night with her mother; bake sugar cookies; bake chocolate chip cookies; bake gingerbread cook-

She checked her watch. It was nearly midnight, and as far as she could tell, they were still hours from their destination. After Pickell was safely stowed, she was going to have to navigate an unfamiliar airport on a holiday weekend, catch a connecting flight to Atlanta, and, if she successfully completed that ordeal, fight her way through the crowds and the traffic at National.

'Maybe I could just buy cookies,' she thought guiltily. Ruggiero's Bakery on Adams was good, really good, and frankly, Rosa made better cookies than she did. She could call in and order three or four dozen and pick them up after church Sunday, which would save her a couple of hours she didn't have. It felt like cheating, but she was sure her family would understand.

Well, her family would nod and smile. Close enough.

Another huge yawn. Now, if she could only figure out where to buy eight uninterrupted hours of sleep.

She pressed her forehead to the window, resting there a moment, savoring the contrast between her warm skin and the chilled pane. So cool. So cool and easy. So cool and easy and --

"Holy shit!" McDonald shouted. The car swerved, throwing Scully hard to her left, then slamming her back against the door. Her skull met the window with a sharp thud. Instantly awake, her gun was in her hand before she realized she'd drawn it.

"Jesus, Mac," Doggett exclaimed. "Dana? Pickles? You guys okay?"

She nodded, scanning reflexively for a threat. "Yeah, fine."

"You hit your head, Dana?"

"It's okay. I'm fine."

"Did you see it?" MacDonald asked. "Big buck in the middle of the road. Just standing there. I had to steer around it. Sorry."

"Steering?" Doggett asked. "Is that what you call that?"

"If you're gonna be a backseat driver, Doggy, you're gonna have to sit in the damned back seat."

"No harm done here," Pickell said. "Agent Scully? Are you okay? Sounded like you hit your head pretty hard."

Heart thudding crazily against her ribs, Scully pushed her hair back from her face, brushing her fingers over the spot where her head had hit the glass. She was going to have a bruise, if not an actual lump. She re-holstered her gun, resisting the urge to rub her temple. "I'm fine."

Pickell paused. "You sure?"

"Yes, Mr. Pickell, I'm sure," she answered with a tight little smile.

"Weird seeing a deer out in the middle of the night like that." MacDonald said. "Now moose, that's another story. Remember that time we were up in Maine, Doggy?" He switched on the radio and country flavored Christmas carols began to play, drowning out any words that followed.

Pickell said something she couldn't quite make out.

"Excuse me?"

"Nice," he repeated, chin jutting toward the glass. "Out there."

"Oh." Small houses, frosted with snow and lit by twinkling Christmas decorations, dotted the hillsides on both sides of the highway, giving the appearance that the mountains themselves had been decorated for the holidays. It was pretty. She hadn't noticed before. "Yes. Nice."

"Nice quiet life to go with it, I suppose," he went on. "Peaceful."

"Hmm." In the six hours Pickell had been in her custody, she hadn't formed any opinion of him, beyond the obvious -- well-dressed, well-spoken, well-behaved mobster. Not all that dangerous himself, but dangerous to be around, just the same. "I wouldn't think a 'nice quiet life' would be something that would interest you, Mr. Pickell."

Pickell laughed softly and fell silent.

The adrenaline buzz was wearing off. Scully folded her arms across her chest and leaned back into her seat, letting her eyes slip shut. 'Just for a minute,' she told herself. 'Just until the headache's passed. Just until-'

"You ever been to Chattanooga, Agent Scully?"

"No," she murmured, without opening her eyes.

Pickell paused a long moment. "I hear it's a good place to start over."

"Must be," she heard herself answer, but her voice sounded distant, hollow, indistinct. Bing Crosby was telling her he'd be home for Christmas and the vinyl wasn't hard, really, it was soft as a cloud. Her temple throbbed with each heartbeat. 'God,' she thought, 'I really am tired...'

"Everyone deserves a second chance, right?"

For a moment she thought she ought to agree with Pickell, but the heat was suffocating her, it was dragging her down, and she was too weary, now, to worry about consequences, or appearances, or professionalism...

She wanted to tell him that yes, she thought everyone deserved the opportunity to put things right; she needed to believe that, and believe it completely, or she wouldn't be able to forgive herself enough to get out of bed most mornings. Instead, she found herself longing to hold Mulder's hand, even if only for a moment. She just needed to touch him, to hear his voice, to make him real.

She just needed to know he'd come home some day.

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The air was dense and rich. It was tinted crimson.

She smacked her parched lips, tasting the breeze. Ah, yes, she remembered: spiced apples and maple sugar.

And that smell, green and sharp, scratching the back of her throat...

Pine needles? Yes, it was pine needles, crushed and fragrant, like a walk through a pine lot or a hike in the woods. It smelled like home.

There was something else, too, something deep and earthy, roaring, howling, sputtering to her right, and another something, more insistent, keening madly to her left.

A wake-up call? No, wait; a warning.

And it was so hot-

She opened her eyes with a start.

Scully rolled from her side to her back, staring up in wonder at a huge stone fireplace, breathing in the sweet- smelling pine logs sizzling in its grate. Above it, there was a rough-hewn mantelpiece, trimmed with slender fir boughs, sprigs of holly, sugared fruits, and shimmering crystal angels.

For a moment she watched the firelight, watched the way it made the angels seem to dance in a primeval forest. It was pretty. So pretty.

But -

She sat bolt upright. "Hello?"

An insistent whistling was her only answer.

Reaching for her gun, Scully struggled to her feet, turning slowly to look around her. Amber firelight danced across a large, dark room filled with mismatched, overstuffed furniture. Tall bookcases lined with paperbacks loomed in the shadows at its edges. In a faraway corner stood a small dining table, set for an elegant meal, the colored lights from an enormous Christmas tree reflecting red, green, and gold against crystal goblets and gleaming silver.

A weak light shone in a doorway to the right. The whistling sound seemed to be coming from there.

"Hello? Is someone here?" She crossed the room cautiously, gun at the ready, watching every shadow for movement. "Hello?"

She stopped at the doorway and peered into a tiny kitchen, where a collection of scented votives flickered on an oval Formica-topped table. On an old gas range beyond it, a copper kettle screamed. Feeling certain that someone must be watching her, Scully ran her hand along the wall until she found a light switch, then flipped it up and down several times, with no effect.

"Is someone here?"

There was no answer. She crossed to the stove, lifted the steaming kettle, placed it on the back burner, and switched off the gas.

"Hello?"

The whistling faded, leaving only the muffled sound of snow striking the lace-covered windows.

On the counter next to the stove, someone had set out a china teapot and two cups and saucers. A tray held tea bags, milk and sugar, and a plate half-filled with sugar cookies.

Scully's stomach growled, shattering the silence.

"What's going on?" she whispered, rubbing her eyes with her free hand and tightening her grip on her gun. The last thing she remembered was...

...a headache. Yes, that was right. She was in a car with Doggett and MacDonald driving to...to Chattanooga, yes, Chattanooga. They were taking a prisoner - no, a witness - to Chattanooga and the car swerved and...and...

...and...

Heart pounding, she returned to the main room and felt her way around its dark edges. There appeared to be only two doors. One, dead-bolted and keyless, seemed to be the main entrance to the house. The other opened into a closet, a black, icy recess that filled her with so much irrational dread that she shut it immediately and hurried back toward the fireplace.

What was going on?

Flames guarding her back, she sat down on the hearth, still clutching her gun and staring in consternation at the glowing Christmas tree.

Why did this seem so familiar?

The heat parched her clothes, warming the flesh beneath until a rivulet of sweat coursed down her back. Shifting away from the heat, she reached up and deliberately touched the warm stone of the hearth, ran her fingers over the knotted threads of the rug, took a deep breath of the smoky, evergreen-scented air.

If it was a dream, it was entirely too vivid for comfort.

Bracing her elbows on her knees, she dropped her head forward into her heads...

"Ouch!"

...and grimaced when her fingers came into contact with the swelling at her right temple. She touched the spot again. A fresh jolt of pain shot through her.

She was certain now. It had to be some kind of hallucination.

A floorboard creaked above her head.

She rose to her feet. A gust of wind rattled the shingles and sent the flames behind her leaping, brightening the room for an instant and revealing a dark, narrow stairway on the far side of the room. She frowned, wondering how, on her earlier explorations, she'd managed to miss it.

Making her way across the room again, she watched the stairway intently, waiting for some sign of life, some movement, some answer. But there was nothing.

She pulled herself onto the first step and ascended, forced by the darkness to find each stair with her foot before climbing it. Arriving on the landing, she found herself in a kind of entryway too short to be called a hallway and too narrow to be called a vestibule. Fingers of light and shadow reached from an open door to her left.

"Hello?"

There was no answer. Mouth dry, scalp tingling, she raised her gun and stepped through the door.

The air was fresh and chilly, but utterly still, as if a window that had been flung wide for hours had just now been shut. A single candle lit the room, standing tall in a hurricane glass on a round bedside table. The antique bedstead next to it was high and square, with bedposts like tree trunks looming up into the gloom. On the bed, a figure lay motionless, swathed in patchwork quilts and surrounded by pillows.

"Hello?" she repeated. "My name is Dana Scully. I'm a federal agent."

She took a step toward the bed. "I'm sorry to bother you," she whispered, moving slowly forward, gun poised. "I woke up here a few minutes ago and I don't know how I-"

She stopped, gasped, swallowed a sob of disbelief.

"Oh my god."

No.

Wind howled outside the window. A draft wafted across the room, bending the flame of the candle and casting a twisted shadow over the figure on the bed. She backed away, open- mouthed.

She smelled blood. She smelled sweat.

She smelled *him*.

Sweet, unmistakable, the scent of him, memorized over the years and unique as any fingerprint.

"Oh god..."

She tore the blankets back, gasping at the condition of his body. The side of his head was purple, swollen, distended; black bruises spread over his ribs; deep lacerations raced down his arms and chest. There was a bullet hole, half- healed, in the flesh of his side, and another, fresher, piercing his shoulder.

"Mulder?"

She fumbled for his wrist, lifted it and felt his skin, its texture like a piece of familiar clothing, the fine hairs on his forearm growing just as she remembered, the tiny mole on the back of his hand raised to the perfect height, everything in its place, everything...

...cold. Ice cold.

She crumpled to the edge of the bed. Oh god, not like this, not like this again...

Bent double, she clung to the leaden hand, cradling it in her lap.

If this was a dream, she was ready to wake up.

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The sky was still dark beyond the windowpane, though it seemed as if she had been sitting there for hours, or days, perhaps; mutely assessing the indignities he had suffered, touching his abrasions and broken bones, silently cataloguing both his injuries and her regrets.

'Funny how your mind can play tricks on you,' she thought vaguely, brushing the pad of her thumb over a vein on the back of his hand. 'Show you what you want to see, even when it's not the way you want to see it.'

She turned her gaze toward the candle flame, which burned blue-gold just a few feet away. It was still fresh, still perfectly tapered. Not a single drop of wax had pooled at its base.

You're letting your fear get the best of you, she told herself. You need to take control. Once you've realized you're dreaming, it's supposed to be easy.

"Wake up, Mulder," she whispered. "This isn't how it's supposed to happen."

Yellow candlelight licked his ashen face. There was no response.

She closed her eyes and lifted his hand, spreading his cold fingers over her warm cheek and holding them there. So cool. So cool and easy. So cool and easy and...

No.

She knew she ought to fight, to resist the sick, sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, overcome the urge to climb in bed with him, wrap the quilt around them both, take his bloodied body into her arms and just stay there forever.

She was tired, though, really tired, and there was so much she had to do: pick up William; clean the house; wrap the gifts; pick out a suit; buy the flowers; trim the tree; arrange for a casket.

Bury Mulder.

Time to bury Mulder again.

Her lids flew open. A single tear slid down her cheek and pooled against his fingers. She pressed his palm to her face. "Wake up, Mulder. I can't do this."

His fingers moved against her cheek.

"Mulder?"

It had been no more than a flinch, but she was sure it was voluntary.

She turned his hand over in hers, laying her fingers eagerly against his wrist but finding no change, no trace of a pulse. Undaunted, she moved quickly to his jugular, pressing hard, searching for signs of life, but finding nothing.

This is crazy, she told herself. It's only a dream. There's nothing you can do except wake up.

Wake up, wake up...

"Mulder, please wake up."

His throat tightened against her fingers, swallowing - she was sure of it.

"Mulder?" she whispered, lifting her fingers away from his throat and stroking his forehead. "Mulder, can you hear me?"

His lids were fluttering, his eyes were opening, first one, then the other, and he was looking at her, he was...god, he was smiling.

"You're back," he said softly, sounding at once desperately weak and so utterly happy she thought her heart would break. "I've been waiting for you."

"Back?" He was speaking to her; why couldn't she find his pulse? "Back where, Mulder?"

Her fingers brushed a long gash below his ribs. If Mulder felt any pain, he didn't show it. "Back here," he breathed. "Thank god. I thought..." His eyes closed.

"Mulder, no, stay awake," she commanded, rubbing his cheek. "I need you to tell me what's going on. How did you get here?"

He leaned into her palm like a kitten seeking warmth. "Um..." He blinked up at her. The tip of his tongue touched his lower lip, leaving a smear of rust-brown blood. "I - It's no big deal, Scully. I think I just had one helluva bad dream."

"What do you mean?"

"I hit him with my car, I think, but everyone knows you can't kill them that way." He smiled again. "No, wait, that was -- never mind."

'Them?' Scully fought off a nauseating wave of panic. Oh god - where had Mulder been all these months? What had he been doing? She'd thought she was sending him into hiding, into safety. She should have known better.

Lifting the candle, she stood. "Mulder, I'm-"

Mulder reached for her hand. "Where you going?"

"I have to call someone, Mulder," she told him. She checked pointlessly for a pulse again, elevated his feet, tucked the blankets in around him. "God, I have to get you out of here. I need to find a phone-"

"There isn't one," he murmured. "Don't you remember?"

"Remember?" She paused and rubbed her forehead. The pounding was returning in earnest. "No, Mulder, I don't remember."

"You know," he said.

"I don't know what you mean. I don't remember how I got here. I don't even know where we are."

He licked his lips, smiled lazily. "We're here, Scully."

"What-" Her energy and resolve were draining away. She dropped to the edge of the mattress and buried her aching head in her hands, overcome by a sudden wave of helplessness. "Mulder, I...I don't understand." Raising her head, she stared at him, reaching out to lay her fingers on his throat again. Still no pulse. "Am I. . . are you. . ."

Mulder looked small in the bed, a shadow among shadows. Even in weak candlelight, she could see that his lips were blue. She tried not to think about it, picking up the corner of the pillow case and gently dabbing at the dark blood on his mouth and chin. "I'm going to get you out of here."

His eyes drifted open. "Why would you want to do that?"

"Because I have to save-"

"Know what?"

"What?"

"I'm cold."

She tucked the covers more tightly around him. "I'll look for more blankets, Mulder, I'll-"

"Scully." His voice stopped her. "Remember Florida?"

"Wh - what?"

The slow, lazy smile returned. "What would a guy have to do to get it to rain sleeping bags?"

"Oh." She hesitated, realizing what he was asking. "But, I - I don't want to hurt you."

"You can't." His smile grew broader. "You know that."

She considered it only a moment longer. He was asking so little; she could do this for him. "All right. Okay." Leaving her shoes by the foot of the bed, she crawled under the quilt, placed her arms carefully around him and gently pressed her body against his. So cold. "Please tell me if I'm hurting you," she whispered.

"Silly." His eyes slipped shut.

"We'll wait for morning," she said, forcing herself to sound optimistic. "When the sun comes up, when there's some light, I'll see if I can get out of here."

"It won't," he murmured, sinking against her. "It never does."

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Scully woke up, and immediately wondered if she was still sleeping.

The bed her sleeping mind had concocted, the luxurious cotton linens, the soft down pillows under her head and the thick hand-knotted quilts cocooning her, the room itself - it was all as she had dreamt, every detail perfect, down to her gun resting on the bedside table.

But-

She sat up quickly, pulled back the neatly tucked-in quilt.

No blood.

Running her hand over the space he had occupied, she felt no residual heat, no hairs or fibers. There wasn't even an indentation where his bruised frame and battered limbs should have been. She sniffed the air tentatively.

No. No trace of him.

"Of course not," she whispered, closing her eyes with a sigh. "It was just a dream." She'd been thinking about Mulder, worrying about him, and her dream - her nightmare - had shown her what she most feared: Mulder had been dying, and she had been unable to save him. Again.

Shutting her eyes tightly, she winced. She'd sat up too quickly, she told herself. That's why her head was pounding, her eyes stinging. That was the only reason. Disappointment had nothing to do with it.

She stretched tentatively, and when it did not hurt, expanded the motion. Joints snapped and muscles sung. Except for a slight headache and some soreness on the right side of her head, she felt rested. It was an odd sensation, one she'd nearly forgotten. It felt good.

So where was she, exactly?

Glancing to her right, she saw that the candle still burned on the bedside table. It looked fresh; the flame was still burning at its very tip. Glancing to her left, she saw that it was still dark beyond the window. She ran her tongue over her teeth, discovered that they were not especially fuzzy. She must not have slept very long.

Searching her memory, she found nothing that gave her a clue as to how she'd ended up here. They must have stopped at some safe-house on the way to Chattanooga, and for whatever reason, must have decided to stay the night.

She reached up and touched the aching bump at her temple. That had to be it. The blow to her head must have been more serious than she'd realized. She must have passed out, and Doggett and MacDonald must have decided to stop, and they must have brought her inside. She must have taken in her surroundings to a certain hazy degree, and her subconscious must have filled in the rest.

"Agent Doggett?"

But why wouldn't they have taken her to a hospital?

"Agent MacDonald? John? Mr. Pickell?"

She listened carefully. There was no response but wind rattling the shutters.

There were no lamps in the room, no overhead light, but it didn't seems as dark now as it had...well, as it had in her dream. "It won't be long until dawn," she thought. "We were supposed to be in Chattanooga by now."

Navigating by candlelight, Scully rose with care and slipped on her shoes. Lifting the hurricane glass, she picked up the candle and turned to look around.

In the corner, almost hidden in shadow, there was an old fashioned washstand. Above it hung a small mirror, and on it there was a pitcher, a wash basin, a bar of soap, and a cloth. Resting the candle beside the basin, she touched the pitcher. Pleasant warmth radiated through the porcelain. She tipped the steaming water into the basin, took the soap and cloth, and began working up a lather.

The combination of thick cloth stroking her face and warm lather soothing her skin felt better than almost anything Scully could remember. She bent and filled both hands with steaming water, raising them to her face and allowing the warmth to work its magic on the pain in her head. When she was finished, she told herself, she'd find out what they'd done with her phone. She needed to call her mother, tell her what was going on, and check on William. The delay was probably going to make her miss her flight - she'd more than likely miss the service at St. John's this evening, and baking cookies had now made a definitive move out of the realm of possibility.

She looked up from the basin and into the mirror.

Lit from beneath by only a tongue of flame, her features looked hollow, ethereal, her skin milky and translucent, as if her face was no more than a mask, a thin veneer of cloudy ice.

She leaned forward, closer to the glass, squinting at her reflection. A wisp of breath condensed on its cold surface.

'It's like I'm not real,' she thought. 'Like I'm not quite me.'

She shook her head. She HAD hit that window harder than she thought.

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If she held her breath and listened very carefully, she could hear music. It was a Christmas song, faint, tinny and laced with static. Someone was playing a radio in one of the rooms below.

The stairs were just as steep and narrow as they had been in her dream. The living room was just as she remembered, or, rather, had imagined it, though, like the bedroom, its darkness now seemed less intimidating, more of a soft gray than a stark black. She wondered at the details her semi- conscious mind had been able to capture: the Christmas tree still sat in the corner, dotted with glowing lights; a fire still crackled in the fireplace; the mantelpiece was still festooned with ornaments and greenery. The music she had heard was coming from an old floor-model radio next to one of the bookshelves.

She had half-expected to find Doggett or MacDonald asleep on one of the overstuffed couches, but neither man was there. There must be more bedrooms on this floor, she thought, wondering where an actual bathroom might be found. She had bed-head and could really use...

A soft, steady pinging sound caught her attention. She turned toward the kitchen. Over Bing Crosby's crooning, she could hear the rattle of cutlery and dishes, the buzz of an electric motor, and the thin whine of the kettle trying to build up a head of steam.

"Hello?" she called. "Is someone...?"

There was a sudden squealing sound, like rusty hinges opening, followed by the strong scent of hot cinnamon. Her stomach growled. She'd been hungry before her nap and she was, she realized, far hungrier now. Someone was obviously baking something. Some of it, she hoped, holding the candle out and picking her way carefully toward the kitchen, was meant for her.

"Excuse me, I..."

She stopped.

He was bent at the waist, pushing something into the old- fashioned oven, yellow flannel pajama pants stretched across his backside. A gray cotton T-shirt, worn thin and made shapeless by too many washings and too much bleach, rode up his back, revealing a smooth patch of almost- familiar skin.

She'd know him anywhere. Even in a dream.

Deflated, she closed her eyes and leaned slowly into the archway. His name came out a soft, disappointed sigh. "Mulder."

"Hey." He closed the oven door and gave her a dazzling smile. There was a smear of dull white something on his cheek, and a dull white hand-print in the center of his shirt.

"There you are." His hand was on hers, relieving her of the candle. "Careful with that. This place is a tinderbox." He placed it on the table, then turned back to her, his smile broader, brighter. "I thought you were going to sleep forever."

His arms were around her, then, enfolding her, crushing her against the thread-bare gray cotton, his lips on her forehead, warm and soft. "I even tried to kiss you awake, but that didn't work." As if demonstrating, he kissed the bridge of her nose, then the tip. "Guess I'm no Prince Charming, huh?"

Oh god. He sounded right. She breathed deeply, inhaling him: he smelled right, too. And she knew - she just knew - if she were to sweep her open palm across the plane of his stomach or kiss his warm mouth or run the flat of her tongue from his Adam's apple to his chin and back again that he would feel right, taste right, BE right.

In her dreams, he always was.

"Scully? You okay?"

She thought she would sigh, but a tiny sob slipped out instead. Another one threatened to follow, so she bit her top lip to hold it in.

The kettle, which had been quietly burbling in the background, erupted into full shriek.

"Hang on." He brushed his lips across her brow again. "I promised you tea. Let me fix it." He gestured toward a chrome-legged chair. "Sit."

She didn't want to sit. She wanted to wake up.

It was a dream. It had to be. But if dreams were answers to questions you didn't know how to ask, she simply did not want to ask this one. Not now, anyway. What good could it possibly do?

'Wake up,' she admonished herself silently, pinching the delicate skin of her forearm. At the very least, she wished she could force her eyes to turn away. 'Quit doing this to yourself.'

She sagged against the door jamb and watched him go through the ritual of tea making - pouring a little water into the pot, swirling it around, then emptying it into the sink, dropping the tea bags in, filling the pot with boiling water.

He placed the lid on top, then covered it with a dish cloth. "No cozy," he said in explanation, as if he needed to explain. He folded his arms across the white hand-print on his chest, shaking some of the powder loose. Leaning back into the counter, he gave a pleased little grin.

God. Even the grin was right.

She started to take a step into the room, then thought better of it. "You said you promised me tea," she said, trying to keep her voice light. "When did you promise me tea?"

"You know." He glanced at the stove. "Before."

"Before what?"

"You were sitting by the fire, remember? I took a break from dough making and came in to give you a kiss - you said you were cold and I said I'd make you some tea. So I went to put the kettle on, and you followed me in here, and um, you know, we ended up upstairs..." He smiled for a moment, and then his brows knit. "When I got back someone had turned the stove off. I had to start over."

She stared at him. 'It was me,' she thought. 'I turned the kettle off.'

But...

He brightened. "I finished the dough while you were sleeping, though. It turned out really great."

"I don't remember sitting by the fire. Or asking for tea. I don't remember any of it."

"No?" His bottom lip protruded slightly.

She shook her head. "No."

"Hmm." He gave a puzzled frown. "You must have slept longer than I thought." He picked the plate off the tray and crossed the kitchen, offering it to her. "Cookie?"

She scanned the contents of the plate without wanting to: plump chocolate chip cookies, packed with walnuts and chunks of white and dark chocolate, and sugar cookies cut in the shapes of leaping deer, decorated with glossy white icing and bright crystals of colored sugar.

She looked into his face. His gaze was unguarded and confident. Full of love.

Her mouth watered.

She took a step into the room, but then stopped, looked down, shook her head. "No," she whispered. "This isn't right. Mulder doesn't know how to bake."

"I do too." He took a deer and bit off its antlers, crunching deliberately, then smacking his lips. "Yum."

"No." She looked up, forcing herself to speak, though she felt a little ridiculous, explaining herself to a dream. "I'd really like to just go with this. God, you have no idea how much, but I can't. You're not him. You're not Mulder."

"Scully?" He frowned and stepped closer. "You're not making sense, honey. Why don't you think I'm me?"

"I don't know," she answered, trying to sound glib instead of scared and shaky. "Because you're baking, maybe. Because of the way you make tea." She gave a half-shrug and scowled down at the toe of her shoe so she wouldn't have to look into his not-his face. "Because you were dead a few hours ago and now, apparently, you're not."

There was a long moment of silence. He stood before her, eyes locked on her face. "I've been dead then not-dead before," he said quietly. "It never seemed to bother you very much." He looked down abruptly, spun on his heel, and headed back toward the stove.

Scully closed her eyes. The headache was back.

"Okay," he said brusquely, a few moments later, placing the tea pot back on the tray, and the tray on the Formica table. "If I'm not me, who am I?

Squeezing her eyes shut, she rubbed her forehead. "I - I bumped my head."

"Hmm?"

She looked up. "In the car. There was a deer in the road. We had to swerve around it and I - I was dozing, I guess." The spot was still tender when she brushed it with her fingers and she flinched.

"What car?" He took a few steps toward her. "Let me see."

She pulled away from his outstretched hand. "I hit the window. Hard."

"Oh." He let his hand drop, then held his antler-less cookie out to her with the other. "Here."

"Here what?"

"Get even," he said, his eyes twinkling. "Bite his head off."

"No." She turned her face away, brusquely, even as she chastised herself for being rude. "No, thank you. I'm not hungry." Her stomach growled in disagreement.

"Scully?" His voice was intimate, familiar. "You're really starting to worry me. What's going on?"

"I think, I think when I hit my head, I might have sustained a concussion."

"Oh. Well, that would certainly explain a few things." His tone was agreeable, but she didn't think he was really agreeing. He pulled out the twin of the chair he'd offered her and sat.

She took another step toward him. She was both compelled and afraid to ask. "Explain what things?"

"Tea?" he asked, and without waiting for an answer, poured her a cup, then poured one for himself. "There's honey on the counter or sugar in the bowl. Milk's here." He swirled a spoon around in his cup. "You take milk, right?"

She found herself standing by the table. The chairs were gray, covered in textured vinyl and flecked with tiny silver and gold boomerangs. They were exactly like the chairs her grandmother had had in her basement, the ones she and Charlie and Missy had covered with sheets and blankets and declared tents or fortresses or castles.

She hadn't thought about Missy in a long time. She didn't know why, but it made her heart race to think of her sister.

'Wake up,' she told herself. 'Please wake up, now.'

"Explain what things?" she found herself repeating.

"Why you slept so long. Why you're so disoriented." He shrugged. "Why you're so crabby." He bit into a chocolate chip cookie. "I think you should have a cookie, Scully. Real chocolate."

"I didn't sleep that long. A few hours, maybe," she answered, trying to ignore her hunger. She glanced out the window. "It was dark then and it's still dark."

He snorted around a mouthful of crumbs, then swallowed. "It's always dark here. I told you before."

"When before? And where is 'here'?"

He pursed his lips, staring at the table top. "Why won't you sit down?"

"When before?" she repeated.

"We were upstairs. You were holding me. I was dead." He turned his face to her. "As usual. Remember?"

"W-what?"

"As for where 'here' is," he went on, "it still looks a lot like Quanochataug to me, but -"

"Quanochataug? Rhode Island?" She'd been there, once. It had been spring. The furniture in the Mulder-family summer house had been shrouded in white sheets and everything had smelled of dust and disuse. Mulder had held a gun on her. It wasn't one of her happier memories.

He nodded. "Yeah, but there are things out of place. Like those Christmas decorations. And the electricity's on, but the lights don't seem to be working. Again. Oh, and this table." He rapped it with his knuckle "I never saw it before in my life." He exhaled noisily. "Afterlife. Whatever."

"Wha- ?"

"Your tea's getting cold. Come on. Sit down."

All the fight was knocked out of her, suddenly, and she sank into a chair. "Afterl-?"

The pinging she'd heard earlier started again, louder now. She realized it was the timer on the stove.

"Saved by the bell." He rose quickly, moving as gracefully as Mulder ever had moved. There was a bristling energy behind the fluid motions, though, that was unfamiliar and somewhat disquieting. Heart in her mouth, she watched as he turned off the timer, extracted a cookie sheet from the oven, and placed it on a cooling rack.

He stood still for a moment, hands braced on the counter, staring down at the pan. When he spoke, his tone was studied and bland. "I don't suppose you remember this, either?"

In spite of herself, she rose and crossed the scuffed linoleum. A featureless, cinnamon-colored figure occupied the center of the cookie sheet. It was no more than four inches tall.

Mulder regarded it intently, eyes glittering with a pained expression she remembered all too well.

"A gingerbread man?"

"A gingerbread boy," he said softly, looking into her eyes.

"I don't-" she murmured, feeling weak. "I don't understand."

His gaze softened. His eyes held hers for a long, long moment, then he looked away, down at the counter and the fragrant cookie. He touched its surface, lightly, with his forefinger. "We were going to decorate him together."

"What?"

"You wanted to name him Charlie. Not Charles. Just Charlie."

Scully stared at the cookie. Her head was swimming.

"You said you wanted him to have your brother's generosity and your father's eyes. He'd be kind, like your mother, open-minded like your sister, tall. And when he learned to talk, he'd sound like me, only higher." He chuckled softly. "I don't know why you'd want that, but you did."

Overwhelmed, Scully closed her eyes. "Oh." She didn't know what else to say.

He turned, leaning his hip against the speckled counter. His expression was troubled. "You really don't remember, do you?"

"I - no, I- "

He sighed. "You wanted a baby, Scully." His voice dropped low. "You asked me to help."

"But-"

His voice was gentle, sorrowful. "But it didn't work."

"But-"

"So I made this one for you." He paused. "Remember?"

She looked down at the tray again. "It's a - a cookie. Just a cookie."

He nodded. "I know." His expression was tender, heartbreakingly gentle. He reached out to her again. "But he's ours."

She didn't want his touch. She stepped away from his hand, her mind reeling. "But I - I had a baby."

"No, Scul-"

"Yes. I did. I had-"

He shook his head. "No Scully. We - you tried. There were only enough good eggs to try once. And it didn't take."

"No." Her confusion was turning into anger. "No. I'm telling you, I had a baby. A son."

Mulder sighed. "Scully, I was waiting at your apartment. I fell asleep on the couch. When you came home, you didn't even have to say anything. I could see it in your eyes. You said it was your last chance, and that it had been too much to hope for. You cried. I cried. And then," he cleared his throat. "And then I - I said something lame, and then we, um..."

She closed her eyes. "We - we made love."

"Yeah." He looked down at his bare feet, flour-dusted feet. "So you do remember? There was no baby, Scully. We laid awake after and talked about what he or she would have been like. What we'd each hoped for. And then we never said another word about it again. But, honey, there was no baby."

Her breath caught in her chest. God. He was right. Right in every detail. Right about everything. But-

"No." She said it firmly, and shook her head, backing away from him, toward the table. "No."

He followed, reaching out to her. "Scully,-"

"No." She held her hands out in front of her, erecting a solid, invisible wall between them. "No. All that happened. All of it. But there WAS a baby. Is a baby. My son."

"Oh, Scully." He sighed. The look he gave her was filled with fear and pity.

"My son," she repeated. "William. For your father. If you were Mulder, you'd know that."

His eyes widened. "Wha-?"

"I don't know who you are. I don't know how you know what you know, but you aren't Mulder, and-"

"That, that wasn't real." His voice scarcely reached her. "I only dreamt that, Scully. It didn't happen."

"What?"

"Before. When we were here, together. That was my dream."

"'We' were never here. I don't even know for certain where 'here' is. I don't even know who you really - "

"Yes, we were." His voice was becoming harsher, his words more insistent. "I was sick. I was sick, and I was worried they were going to take you, and I didn't want you going back to Oregon. So I went with Skinner. We found the ship and I walked into the light. And then," his voice dropped, "then I was here. With you."

"No," she interrupted, "I-"

"Yes," he countered. "We were here. We slept in the bed upstairs. We ate at this table. We made love on that cou-"

"No-"

"Yes," he insisted, his voice thick and tight. "And just a little while ago, while we were napping, I dreamt we were back there. Separated. That you found me, blue and rotting, in a field, and that you buried me under the snow."

She rubbed her forehead. "No."

"And then, somehow - somehow, I was back with you again, back in D.C., only it was different. I got fired. You had a new partner. You were pregnant" - he held his cupped hand about a foot and a half in front of his stomach - "I mean, really, really pregnant. And then a bunch of weird shit happened, and I had to send you away with this female agent, and - and you had a baby. A son. I teased you that he looked like Skinner, Scully, but you said-" his voice caught. He swallowed audibly. "You said you were naming him after my father. I thought it meant that. . .I thought it meant something."

Scully felt frozen. "Something?"

"I thought it meant you loved me." He gave a humorless laugh. "But then you asked me to leave - well, told me to go, actually - and I figured out that you never had. Which - it was okay, really, almost a relief. No chance of fucking it up, at least. After that, the dream is just a blur. All I remember is running, and fighting, and trying to kill as many of these beings who wouldn't die as I could. I wasn't afraid of them because I had nothing to live for. Then you woke me up and nothing had changed. I thought, thank god; she still loves me." He took a step toward the table, sank into the chair. "Guess not, huh?"

Scully opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again. She stared down at the table top, dragging her finger through a patch of spilled sugar, tracing an inverted 's' curve, over and over.

She didn't want to cry. She just wanted to wake up.

"You know-," she began, but she caught herself. Her voice was so thin, so slight, that she had to take a deep breath before trying to speak again. "Mulder knows how I feel about him."

He reached out and stilled her hand with his own. "I am Mulder."

She looked up at him. His eyes were mournful, his jaw set. He massaged her knuckle with the soft pad of his thumb as he held her gaze. "And, Scully, I never had a clue how you felt."

"How-" She licked her dry lips. "After everything, after all we've been through - together - how can you say that?"

"You know me," he answered. "Sometimes, I open my mouth and the truth falls out."

She studied the sugary wrong-way 's' on the tabletop, gazed at the plate of cookies beside it, at her untouched teacup.

Numb. She felt numb.

It was true. What he was saying was true. It had always been about the truth, after all. When had she lost sight of that?

Something inside her broke then, the wall that had been standing guard, surrounding her all these days and months and years while she stumbled along, sleepwalking through her own life. It quaked, crumbled, fell to dust, leaving her empty and aching.

Carefully pulling her shaking hand from beneath his, she brushed the grains of sugar from her fingers, and cleared her throat.

"The night you first held William," she told him quietly, "your smile was like nothing I'd ever seen. Then you kissed me and you smiled at me the same way you smiled at him."

Mulder made a soft sound of remembrance. He rose from his chair and moved toward her.

She couldn't resist anymore. She didn't even want to. She had carried this festering grief around far too long. Her eyes filled with tears. She looked up at him, felt the hot gush over her lashes, down her cheeks. "I thought *that* meant something."

"It did." He was close, so close that she could feel him trembling. "To me, it meant everything."

She reached out impulsively and caught his hand, twining her fingers with his. It felt so perfect, so right, palm fitting to palm, heat and moisture collecting in the hollow space between them.

"But - but you left us. You left me."

"Oh Scully," he said, very softly, his baritone slipping effortlessly through the charged air. "Of course I did. You *wanted* me to leave." She held back a sob. "It wasn't about what I wanted." Her eyes locked with his. "It was about what had to be. It wasn't a choice."

He nodded his understanding, his rapt face now hovering just above hers, his voice little more than a sigh. "But - if it had been?" He smoothed her hair back from her face. "What if it was about what you want, Scully? What *do* you want?"

She bit her bottom lip. "You know."

He shook his head 'no,' and bent to nuzzle the base of her ear. "Tell me," he whispered.

"I want - ohhhhh," she sighed as the tip of his tongue grazed her earlobe.

"Say it. What do you want?"

"I -" She tilted her chin, baring her throat to his lips.

He traced her jugular with his tongue, lapping softly, insistently, kissing his way higher. "I need to hear the words. Say it."

"I want -" She shivered, threw her head back, closed her eyes. It was too much, too good, everything she'd ever imagined, everything she'd ever wanted, ever would want.

"Now," he insisted, taking her face between his palms. He kissed the bridge of her nose, then the tip. "Open your eyes, Scully. Wake up and tell me."

There were no more doubts. There were no more questions. Opening her eyes, locking her gaze with his, she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him so close she could almost taste the cinnamon and tea on his lips and tongue.

"I want...*you.*"

He was hers, then, his mouth on hers, sweet and salty and hotter than anything she ever could have dreamed.

Because it wasn't a dream. It couldn't be. Fumbling for the hem of his t-shirt, she shoved her hands underneath the worn cotton, laid them flat against the warmth of his chest. Throwing her head back, she pulled her mouth away from his and stared into his face, into his eyes, so wide, so dark with passion.

*Mulder's* face. *Mulder's* eyes.

She spread her fingers under his shirt, combing them through the coarse hair, pressing her palms into his flesh until each beat of his living heart resounded against her fingertips.

Real. He was real.

He reached up and traced her mouth with his index finger, eyes steady on her face, darting from feature to feature. He opened his mouth, as if he wanted to say something, but seemed to have lost the ability to speak.

She kissed the tip of his finger, trailed her tongue along it, from tip to base and back again. His skin tasted sweet, like powdered sugar and chocolate and need. Mulder closed his eyes, mouth dropping open in mute appreciation of the sensation. She teased his fingertip between her teeth, then sucked it, hard.

He gasped.

"I want you to come home," she whispered, and he responded with a wrenching cry, dropping his hands to her waist and covering her mouth with his. The chrome table legs screamed against the hardwood floor as he lifted her to its edge, driving himself against her, his full length pressed against the fine wool of her slacks.

She wrapped her legs around him, moaning at the hot pain- pleasure pooling in her belly and thighs, at the rush of moisture between her legs, at the way her vulva seemed to swell, tender with need, rising to meet him.

His mouth was relentless.

She pushed impatiently against the hem of his shirt. Relaxing his grip on her for a moment, he reached back, seized it by the neck, and dragged it off his body in one smooth motion. Scully tightened her legs around his waist, pulling him close, running her lips down the side of his neck.

She inhaled. God, he smelled right. He WAS right.

She brushed her fingers across his shoulders, down his chest, and over the plane of his stomach, wondering at the scars that seemed to cover his body - all the injuries she thought she had imagined earlier, lacerations, abrasions, bullet holes, were exactly as she had seen them. Nothing had changed, but the wounds were healed now, freshly healed, so pink and smooth she was almost afraid to touch them.

"Mulder, these...they scare me," she murmured, touching the bullet wound in his shoulder, then bending to kiss it. "I'm afraid for you."

"Don't be," he whispered, tucking two fingers under her chin and lifting her face. "I'm not." He trailed his tongue along her lower lip, gazing into her eyes. "Not anymore."

"I can't -" she began but he stopped her mouth with his own, caressing first one lip, then the other, the kiss growing steadily more urgent, deep, intense. His hands snaked under her sweater, pushed it up. He reached for her bra clasp, opened it effortlessly, baring her to his touch, to his mouth, to his tongue.

"Ahhhhhhh...." her voice sounded foreign, ethereal, and she arched toward him, shuddering as his tongue made a warm, wet circle around the tip of her breast.

"When we were here before," he panted, breathless, "when you were here with me, it was good, Scully, but it was never this good." She dug her fingers into his shoulders, found his mouth again, kissed him hard. "It was never this real..."

Within seconds she was under him, her back pressed into the cool Formica, and there was a clattering sound, of cutlery hitting the floor and dishes breaking. She smelled ginger and cinnamon and laughed into his mouth because all the spices had been scattered and she didn't care, didn't care at all.

She grabbed his waistband, delving inside it and pushing it down, pushing the fabric away. He gave a low moan when she found what she sought.

"Oh God, Mulder, you feel so-" She wrapped her fingers around him more tightly. She had to tell him; from this moment on she always would. "You feel so good."

He made a choked sound in the back of his throat and rose to his knees. His eyes were feral - there was nothing gentle in his expression. He reached down, unfastening the button at her waist and peeling her clothes away.

She watched his face in wonder. This wasn't the cautious, eager-to-please lover she'd taken to her bed one heartbroken night. This was Mulder, the same passionate man she'd loved quietly for years, raw with wanting her.

He was burning. She'd started the blaze. All she wanted now was to feel that fire inside her.

"Mulder..."

His fingers were sliding between her folds, he was falling on top of her, they were locked together, chest to chest, belly to belly, sex to sex.

"Tell me again," he rumbled, breath hot against her lips. "Tell me what you want."

You. This. Now.

"Say it, Scully. Please."

She opened her legs, guiding him forward.

"Come home," she whispered. "Come home, come home..."

He slipped inside her, then. "I am," he moaned, pressing himself against her, into her, gliding straight to her center, his sex smooth and thick and irresistible. "I am, I am..." Then her belly was humming, her legs were shaking, she was pulsing, rocking, heaving against him.

She raked her fingernails along his back. He cried out and thrust harder, burying his face between her shoulder and neck. Rolling her head to one side, she lifted her chin, mouth open, lips quivering. She was his; she always had been.

She closed her eyes, her body overwhelmed, her heart overflowing. Fireworks burst on her eyelids, red and purple, orange and crimson, sending sparks of light and heat streaking through her.

She was glowing, she knew, they were glowing, together, and Mulder was deep inside her and she wanted him to stay forever; he was growling with pleasure, howling her name, and they were bathed in light, incandescent, blazing; they *were* the light, rising, breaking, dawning...

...dawning...

"Agent Scully?"

A gust of cold air slapped her cheek Pale pinkish light played over her eyelids.

Her eyes snapped open.

"Where-?"

She scrambled to sit up, panicked, reaching instinctively for her gun. "Muld-?"

"Good morning!" Agent MacDonald stood on the opposite side of the car, leaning on the door, peering in at her.

Her head turned rapidly from side to side. "How-?"

"Dana?" Doggett tapped on the car window next to her, his voice distant and indistinct through the glass. "You okay?" He squinted at her, his concern obvious.

She sat up and rubbed her forehead. "Oh my god -"

Her body was soaked in sweat, but the breeze through the open door was bitterly cold. A shudder worked its way through her, rattling her bones. "I'm fi-" she answered automatically, then shuddered again.

Doggett frowned, gesturing toward the lock. "Open up."

She did, then ran her hand over her hair, attempting to smooth it back into place. Her heart was thumping wildly; she couldn't catch her breath.

Oh god, she thought. Oh god, not again.

Doggett pulled the door open. He gave her an appraising look, appeared unsatisfied with what he saw, and stood up, leaning across the roof. "Yo, Mac. Take Pickles on up, okay? We're right behind you."

"Can do. Come on, Pickles." Pickell's door closed with a controlled thud.

"Dana?" Doggett stuck his head back in the car. His tone was deliberately bright. "Are you okay? Really?"

"Yes," she replied. "Really. I just, I got confused about where we were." She looked past him. They were parked in front of a nondescript block building. "Is this - ?"

"Yeah, Chattanooga. End of the line."

She looked at her watch. "Three hours. Oh my god."

He straightened and gave a casual shrug. "You looked like you could use some sleep."

She licked her dry lips. They felt swollen and tender, and oh god, she could almost still taste...

Her eyes filled with tears. She blinked them away. "John, I was -- we're on duty. You should have woken me up."

"Don't worry," he replied with an easy smile. "Mac was too busy running his mouth to notice and Pickell isn't real likely to mention it to anyone, if you know what I mean."

She swung toward the door and planted her feet on the pavement. Her legs were trembling; her back ached; muscles she'd all but forgotten felt taut and strained. Doggett took a step back as she rose unsteadily to her feet. "Still, Agent Doggett, you should have-"

"Still, *Agent* Scully," he interrupted, "you looked like you needed the rest."

She felt her hackles rise. "This isn't about what I -"

Doggett's voice dropped low. "Isn't about what you need? Well, hell, Dana, if you don't mind me asking, when *will* it be?"

Her mouth dropped open. "I - " Desperately uncomfortable, she stared down at her shoes, unable to meet his gaze.

Doggett's voice softened. "Hey. That wasn't a crack."

"Oh? It sounded like one."

"I didn't mean it like - I mean, I'm just concerned. Shit," he bent, trying to catch her eye. "I'm worried, all right? You've been pushing yourself too hard, you've been -"

"I've been pushing as hard as I have to," she snapped. There was a dizzying ache in the pit of her stomach and, she now realized, cheeks burning, a pool of moisture between her legs. Her body was cooling rapidly, the memory of her dream flying away into the frosty December air.

Alone. She was alone again. Oh god.

"Dana, you have to-"

"John, I'm doing all I can," she interrupted. "That's what I *have* to do."

"I know that." Doggett replied. "I just wish you'd admit that you're human, Dana, you know?"

She nodded, trying to find a way to answer him without sobbing out loud.

Her stomach gave a loud growl.

"Whoa!" Doggett's eyes went wide. "When did you last eat?"

She took a deep breath, trying to control herself. "John, don't try -"

"Stop." He commanded. "White flag. Truce. We've got three hours before our flight. I'll run upstairs, sign whatever needs to be signed, tell Mac to take care of Pickles. Then I'm buying you breakfast. Real food, too."

She looked at his guileless expression.

"You can call me a son of a bitch later. Kick my sorry ass up and down the road. Whatever."

A bright beam of light touched her face. She looked up. The sun had been edging its way up behind a tall downtown building. It had now climbed free of the gray urban landscape and was soaring higher in the sky.

'Don't be afraid,' Mulder had said.

"Breakfast sounds like a good idea." she said, feeling a reluctant smile tug at the corners of her mouth.

"Good." Doggett smiled. "Great."

She stretched, watching her breath rise in grey gusts in the raw early-morning air. "Just let me get my coat." She turned toward the car.

"Ah, shit," Doggett said. "Damned government- "

She grabbed her coat and bag. "What's wrong?"

"You'd think they could keep these cars clean." Doggett moved to her side, gesturing vaguely toward her back. "There's something all over your, um. . ."

"My what?" She tried, pointlessly, to look over her shoulder. "What is it?"

"Some kind of - here, let me, um, brush it -"

"Yeah. Please." She turned her back fully to him.

"Christ, it looks like you laid down in this stuff." He ran his hand carefully down her sweater, so lightly that he barely made contact. "I wonder how come no one noticed it in the seat."

"What is it?" She turned to face him, curious.

"I'm not sure." Doggett sniffed his palm. "I think it's. . ." He sniffed again. "Huh. Some kind of spice." He held out his hand to her.

A fine, golden powder clung to his palm.

She inhaled, breathing in pine logs and candlelight, truths whispered and dreams shared, paths that twine and flow together, if only for an instant in time. It smelled like home.

"Ginger," she said, reaching up and taking some on her fingertips. "It's ginger."

"Like the cookies? Really?" His brow furrowed. "How'd that get there?"

She shook her head. "It doesn't matter," she told him, eyes brimming. A smile, the first genuine smile she'd known for months, crept across her face. "Let's go get that breakfast. I want to go home."

The End

:~:~:~:~:~:~:~:~:~:~:~:~:

Notes:

(1) Very late. We realize that. Really
(2) Yes, Running Lessons III is in the works. Really.
(3) It seemed like a good idea at the time. Really.
(4) Real life sucks toads.
(5) Really.

Thanks for reading! spookey247@yahoo.com,maybe_a@rocketmail.com




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