Disclaimer: I love ‘em, but I don’t own ‘em.
Author’s Notes: If Triangle, Dreamland, and Arcadia had a baby with bright blue eyes and a distinguished profile, it might look something like this. Straddles canon and AU…read it, you’ll see what I mean. 🙂
Fox Mulder wakes in the dark, a weak light from the half moon filtering through the windows, casting the room in blue-grey shadow.
He’d been having a dream—a very nice dream, a very unprofessional dream—but the good feelings disappeared as quickly as they came, leaving him in a cold sweat with a bad taste at the back of his throat. He gropes for the nightstand to his left, but comes up short.
He rolls to his side, fingers trawling beneath the bed, expecting to find the familiar musty carpet and the butt of his SIG, but instead touches something cool and solid and definitely not his gun.
Hardwood, he thinks absently. Now where’s the damn—wait, hardwood? What the—
“Mulder, what are you doing?”
The voice, drowsy but familiar, comes from the other side of the bed. He freezes, waiting. The rush of his own breath in his ears makes him wonder if he imagined it.
You’re still dreaming. That explains the missing gun, and Scully in your bed…well.
It was a nice dream.
He chuckles to himself, muttering, “Knew I shouldn’t have had that fourth beer.”
“Mulder? What’s wrong?”
Must have been some damn good beer.
He clears his throat, still rough from sleep. “I’m dreaming.”
He senses her, the soft dip in the mattress as she shifts. He momentarily thinks how nice it would be to roll over and see where the dream leads, to finish what biology and circadian rhythms began, then chides himself for the thought. How ironic, that his super-ego is powerful enough to shame him even in sleep.
There’s a soft click, and he flinches as the room is flooded with light.
“Mulder—what are you doing?”
“Trying to wake myself up…”
He blinks, taking in the unfamiliar space; the glimmer of the light on the warm wood floor, a dresser topped with photographs, a bookshelf full of texts and trinkets. There’s something that looks suspiciously like lingerie, green and lacy, draped over the foot of the bed, and he congratulates his subconscious, that this dream appears to be of the tasteful variety and not something more perverted.
Classy. Classy, and pretty damn real.
There’s a soft snort and a sigh as the figure next to him shifts on the bed, pulling up the covers and shutting off the light. “It’s three in the morning, Mulder. I have to be up at five. Go to sleep.”
“I am slee…never mind,” he says. An argument with his subconscious is an exercise in futility; an argument with his subconscious playing the part of Scully, even more so.
He lets himself sink back into the pillow, tucking the covers under his chin and closing his eyes.
Back to sleep. Sleep. No big deal. Just go to sleep.
A minute passes, then two. He’s not tired, in fact, he feels incredibly awake. His heart is pounding, a distracting pulse in his ears. The bed is too soft, too deep, too…real. He can hear her breathing next to him, feel the warmth radiating off her body, his senses screaming at the level of detail, the texture, the vividness of it all. Instinct is a dog with a bone, and it won’t let go.
“What day is it?”
“Um. It’s the thirteenth. Why?”
He sits up, still very much awake. “The thirteenth of when? What month? What year?”
A long pause. “It’s 1999, it’s May. Mulder? What is it?”
May 1999. Good, that’s good. All calendar days accounted for. So why…
“I’m…not sure. Scully, why are you here?”
Another pause, followed by an exasperated sigh. “What do you—Mulder, I live here.”
“But this isn’t your apartment.”
The light clicks on again, and the sight of the unfamiliar room is no less discomfiting.
“No,” she says, drawing out the word slowly. “I’m at home, Mulder. We’re at home.”
Home? Home. No…
He turns to look at her, expecting to see a monster where her face should be, an alien, a shapeshifter, a cigarette-smoking devil man, a nightmare to replace the nice dream he’d been having; anything to indicate his mind is playing cruel tricks.
But it’s just Scully, her hair wild and sleep-tousled around her face, an oversized t-shirt— s’one of my old ones, he thinks—twisted around her slight figure.
“Scully,” he begins, his tongue thick and slow around the words, “I went to sleep in my apartment last night, and I woke up…here.”
She reaches over, placing her wrist to his forehead.
“You’re not feverish. Did you hurt yourself? Hit your head?” she runs through this litany of questions in a cool medical drone, her fingers grazing the edges of his temples, his hairline, looking for bumps or bruises.
“No…no, not that I remember. Scully, where are we?”
She sighs. “I told you, we’re—“
“I know, I know, ‘home.’ But where is home, exactly?”
She blinks. “Woodbridge. Virginia. Mulder, if this is supposed to be a joke, it’s not funny.”
“I’m not joking, Scully, I just…I don’t know how I got here.”
“Mulder—I don’t know where you think you should be, but you haven’t lived in an apartment for years.”
He bites down hard on the soft, fleshy pad of his lip, hard enough to draw blood, hoping the pain will wake him, but no apartment materializes.
We live here. We. Here. In this strange-smelling house with the nice floors that’s gotta be way out of my income bracket for a cruddy government paycheck…
Her fingers graze his cheek and he jumps at the touch, too tender, too intimate.
“Your pupils aren’t dilated…did you take something? Cold medicine? A sleep aid, maybe?”
His throat is suddenly dry. He shakes his head “no”, unable to stop staring at her.
Why is she wearing my t-shirt?
“We need to take you to the ER in case this is some kind of blood clot, an aneurysm maybe. Amnesia is a serious symptom of—”
“It’s not amnesia,” he protests. “It’s…I went to sleep on the twelfth of May in the year 1999 and I woke up on the thirteenth, but this isn’t…this isn’t my house, Scully. And you and I don’t…we don’t live together.”
This gets a tentative smirk. “Mulder, we’re married, of course we live together.”
No. No no no no no.
“No, we’re not—Scully, we just work together.”
She holds up her hand, her ring finger gleaming, then points to his. The gold band is simple and a bit worn, but it’s there. He can’t believe he didn’t notice it before.
Panic crowds his throat as his partner-turned-wife looks at him with growing concern.
“Mulder, stop it. It’s not funny. We’re…we’ve been married for years—”
He scrambles out of bed, whether to get away from this stranger or to find evidence that he hasn’t gone mad, he isn’t sure.
The bureau is covered with photographs, all of the faces familiar, yet not; a wedding he doesn’t recall attending, a family portrait, and—
“Kids?” he blurts, choking on the words. “You have kids?”
“Of course we—“
“Not ‘we.’ Don’t say ‘we’, Scully–“
“And why do keep calling me that?” she says, with a rising note of contained fear. “You haven’t called me by my last name since the X-Files were shut down.”
“You…they…no. No,” he says, backing away from this person who cannot be his partner. His back hits the dresser, the possibilities screaming through his mind.
They’ve taken us…she isn’t herself…oh, fuck, what if it’s like with Diana, and the smoking son-of-a-bitch has me again, I’ll wake up with stitches in my head and—
“You’re pale. This is serious, Mulder, I’m calling an ambulance.”
The thought of having to explain himself to a doctor snaps him out of his panic.
“NO! Don’t…don’t do that,” he says. “Let me…look, I need you to trust me,” he breathes. “Do you? Trust me?”
“Mulder,” she pleads. “You’re sick. You need help.”
“I just—I need to look at the back of your neck, OK?”
She shoots him a look of blatant incredulity. “I don’t think—”
“Please?” he tries.
She sighs, then slowly turns around and lifts up her hair, revealing her neck, the slope of her shoulders visible beneath the oversized shirt.
No cysts, no nodules…but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
“OK, that’s good,” he breathes. It takes all his effort to keep his voice from shaking. “Now I need to see your blood.”
She whips around. “Excuse me?”
A wailing sound from somewhere in the house; a baby, crying. Scully’s eyes dart to the door, then back to him, and Mulder realizes with a sinking feeling that it must be theirs, their baby, crying from down the hall.
This is not happening.
“Your blood,” he repeats. “Just…prick your finger so I can see it.”
“Mulder, you’re crazy!”
He grins, feeling lightheaded, because she’s right. No doubt about it, either he’s gone crazy or she has, but her side has a house and kids and photographs to vouch for it.
“I know, I know it sounds nuts, but…please. Just…please. I need to make sure you are who you say you are.”
She’s shaking her head, mouth agape, reaching for the phone.
You can’t figure out how you got here if you’re in a straightjacket.
“Please! Please,” he begs, watching her hand grip the receiver, hesitating. “You know me. You know I wouldn’t ask you to do this if there weren’t a good reason.”
He watches her jaw clench and unclench, watches her hand grip the phone until her knuckles turn white, and when she picks it up, his heart sinks like an anchor in his chest.
She’s having you committed. Long time coming.
But she doesn’t dial, just holds the phone in one hand like a protective shield while she yanks open the drawer of the nightstand, searching for something, all the while looking at him out of the corner of her eye. She pulls out a tack, a pushpin, and presses her lips in a thin line as she looks at him, then jabs the point into the pad of her ring finger. Blood blooms like a rose at her fingertip.
Red. Red, not green.
“Thank you,” he breathes, faint with relief. His hands meet his knees as he bends over, trying to catch his breath. He startles at the feel of her hand on his shoulder as she kneels down to meet him.
“Mulder, I’m worried,” she says. Her voice is low and even, but he can see fear sparkling in her eyes.
“I know,” he mutters. “But I swear to you, Scully, it’s like…it’s like I woke up in someone else’s life. Mine…but not mine.”
“I—“ she begins, but the baby is screaming now. “I’m going to get him. You stay here.”
As if I have anywhere else to go.
She comes back carrying the baby. He can’t help but notice the way she circles around him, taking a wide berth, as if insanity might be contagious.
“What do you remember?” she asks, perching on the opposite side of the bed.
Mulder realizes numbly that she’s lifting up her shirt to nurse, and he turns his head, wondering what the protocol is for watching your partner-not-wife breastfeed your not-kid. “I told you, I went to sleep last night, in my bed, at my apartment.”
“Before that. Anything unusual?”
Does asking your partner to donate his sperm qualify as ‘unusual’, Scully?
He brushes the thought aside, shifting from one foot to the other.
“We, uh…we were working a case. Disappearances in the D.C. area, suspected abductions. The victims returned, but there were anomalies that pointed to…to extraterrestrial involvement, so I convinced Skinner to let us look into it. We’d spent the afternoon interviewing, and before that we had a meeting with Skinner. You kept nagging me about being late.”
She looks at him with cool blue eyes, a familiar skepticism in her features as she absently rubs the baby’s head. “Mulder…we haven’t worked together in years.”
“You said that before.”
“The X-Files were closed almost six years ago. They shut down the division and split us up. Don’t you remember?”
“No,” he says honestly. “No, because that’s not how it happened. They were closed, then we got them back.”
She bites her lip. “Are you sure you weren’t dreaming?”
“I thought I was dreaming here, but I can’t seem to pinch myself hard enough to wake up,” he says, giving his forearm a vigorous squeeze to demonstrate.
For her part, Scully looks equally troubled. “We met on the X-Files, but we only worked together a few months. We were reassigned; you did surveillance, then went back to VCU, and I returned to Quantico,” she continues, watching his face as she talks, her words slow and measured.
“No,” he says, shaking his head. “No, because…what about my sister? We never found Samantha. I wouldn’t have given up.”
If he’s certain of anything, it’s this, but Scully frowns. “You did find her. You worked the case in VCU…Roche’s life sentence was upgraded.”
“Roche? Sam wasn’t murdered, Scully, she was taken!”
The hurt in her eyes is enough to make him back down. “New evidence came to light after he was jailed, they found more bodies, more souvenirs. One of the hearts matched a nightgown belonging to your sister,” she says, trailing off, avoiding his eyes.
“No,” he says, shaking his head. “No, Roche is dead because I shot him, and Sam was taken, but there was a government cover-up, they ran tests, experiments—they even abducted you, Scully, they—“ but he pauses, suddenly uncertain.
No nodules, no bumps at the back of her neck. No scar means no chip, no abduction, no cancer, no stolen ova…like the last six years never happened…
His throat constricts, and Scully continues, “Finding your sister is what brought us back together after the X-Files division was closed. I helped you process the evidence, I…I identified her body.
“It was a terrible case, but we spent a lot of time together…we married the following spring.”
“Kids?” he asks, pressing his eyes shut against the inevitable answer.
She softens, stroking the baby’s cheek with the back of her fingers as he coos and wiggles against her. “Emma and Will.”
Good names, he thinks, fixating on the ring around his finger. He slips it off, passing it from one hand to the other.
“You’re saying you don’t remember anything. Not even our children.”
“It’s like I’ve stepped into another life.”
She makes a disapproving sound in the back of her throat. The expression on her face reminds him of a much younger version of his partner—one who stood in the rain and laughed at his theories, who followed him as he chased lights in the sky.
The baby flails in her arms, and she lifts him to her shoulder, patting his back. The sight of her doing so with such maternal ease makes his stomach lurch.
Ours. Our son.
“Jesus, this is a nightmare,” he moans, covering his face with his hands.
“Thanks,” she says drily.
“I’m sorry, I just…you’re not you, Scully, so I don’t know how to make you believe that I’m not me.”
He tries to recall cases involving alternate realities, parallel dimensions, but he keeps coming back to last night’s dinner, distracted by the baby resting on Scully’s shoulder with his fist curled in his mouth.
There was the ghost ship in the Devil’s Triangle.
Dream or near-death experience, it’s the closest thing he can come up with. It had felt real at the time, but the details are fuzzy now, lost in a painkiller haze during his recovery.
Scully interrupts his thoughts. “I want you to get examined. I have a meeting I can’t miss, but I’ll call Mom and ask her to take the kids. You need a CT scan, blood work…I’ll ask them to rush the results. They’ll do it, the guy at the lab owes me a favor.”
“Scully, I feel fine—“
She shakes her head, putting an end to the argument with a familiar warning look. “We need to rule out a medical explanation.”
A pause while he catches his breath, trying to reconcile the woman before him with his partner. Her face is the same, perhaps a bit fuller than before; the cancer stripped her of any excess weight, but this Scully has no evidence of a chip, no sickness. Her hair is longer, thicker—post-pregnancy hormones do that, he reasons—but if he didn’t know her so well, he wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between this Scully and his partner.
If she’s a clone, she’s a good one.
“Fine,” he breathes. “Fine, I’ll go. But I swear to you, Scully, I’m not sick. I’m just…out of place.”
Another cry from down the hall, this one louder and more articulate.
“Emma?” Mulder winces, feeling even more out of place.
“Yeah. Here, take him for a minute,” she says, reluctantly offloading the baby into Mulder’s arms. “He needs to burp,” she calls over her shoulder. He can hear her footsteps retreat, hears her soft voice in the next room over.
“And Will. Will?” he says out loud to the baby, who gurgles happily. “You like that? Will. That’s your name, huh?”
The boy reaches out a chubby fist and grabs the closest thing he can find, giving Mulder’s nose a strong tug.
“Ow, cut it out, kid. You’ll have one of your own someday.”
“Not if he’s lucky,” Scully says from the door, a small girl in green pajamas clutching her hand. Emma looks at Mulder suspiciously before turning back to her mother.
“Where Dada? Dat’s not Dada.”
Scully frowns. “What do you mean, honey? That’s your daddy.”
Mulder tries a smile, forced such as it is, and the little girl’s face crumples.
“Noooo! Not Dada. Emmy want Dada!” she cries, startling the baby. Suddenly both kids are wailing, the sound echoing off the hardwood floors and up through the vaulted ceiling until Mulder’s ears ring with their desperation.
Scully picks up the girl, shooting Mulder a wide-eyed look over the top of the her head. He shrugs, biting his tongue hard to prevent a well-deserved “I told you so” from slipping out.
She ushers Emma out of the room while Mulder does his best to calm the baby. Eventually Will lets out a loud brrrrap, and follows it up with a wide, toothless grin.
“Impressive,” Mulder mutters, looking closely at the baby for the first time.
Blue eyes. Strawberry blonde. All Scully.
But there are hints of him in there, too. The smile and the shape of his eyes are too familiar.
He tears his gaze away with a surreal mixture of affection and fear, like he’s holding a particularly beautiful bomb. His partner-turned-wife and Emma are down the hall, having what sounds like a heated argument, with Emma’s side conducted in toddler-speak, garbled and punctuated with tearful hiccups.
Eventually Scully comes back and stands in the doorway, arms folded. She doesn’t take her eyes off him, and he realizes she’s watching him with the baby, worried he’ll do something stupid or dangerous.
“She’s settled for now. What was that about?”
“Maybe she senses something you don’t,” he says, sharper than he’d intended.
She scowls, talking more to herself than him, “I can’t miss the faculty meeting. It’s only an hour, just until Mom gets here…”
She doesn’t trust you. Do you blame her?
The hesitation in her voice stirs the guilt, and he has to bite his tongue again.
“We’ll, uh, we’ll be fine…won’t we, kid?”
The baby gives an agreeable gurgle, happy to take another whack at Mulder’s nose, and that seems to make the decision for her.
“I’m going to get ready. You’re sure you’re OK?”
He swallows his offense and smiles, trying for comforting but falling short, if the look on Scully’s face is any indication. When he speaks again, he’s not sure if he’s trying to reassure her or himself.
“We’ll be fine.”
He and Will take a quick tour of the house while Scully is in the shower. Modest, he thinks. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a back yard with a high fence and a swing set. The perfect picture of suburban bliss, which is exactly why Mulder doesn’t buy it.
If this were his real life, the picket fence would be topped with barbed wire.
Emma appears at the foot of the stairs, staring with the cold, calculating glare of a possessed doll as Mulder explores the kitchen. When he can’t take the silence any longer, he faces her. “Hey, kid—do you want something?”
“Not my Dada!” she replies, stomping up a few steps, perching on the landing so she can spy on him through the balusters.
“Wonderful,” Mulder mutters to Will, who coos and giggles. “At least you’re friendly. Now where do you keep the coffee?”
He finds it in the cupboard, and he’s about to pour himself a cup when the baby makes an odd sound, right before letting go of his liquid breakfast all over Mulder’s shirt.
“Told you he needed to burp,” Scully says, taking the baby with a smile that looks a millimeter short of smug. “Cream?” she offers, opening the fridge, Will balanced easily on her hip.
“Uh, I’ll pass,” he says, grimacing at the slick white trail of spit-up on his shirt. “I’m going to change.”
He can feel Scully watching him all the way up the stairs, can feel Emma’s intent blue gaze on his back as he passes, and breathes a sigh of relief when the bedroom door is closed behind him.
The closet is familiar, but not; the clothes are his style and taste, a size larger than he’d normally wear—domestic bliss has, apparently, made him complacent—and he’s surprised to find only one suit.
“What the hell do I do?” he mutters.
He’d ask Scully, except she’s on the verge of having him sent for a psych eval, and he’s not sure he could pass it.
He shrugs on a fresh t-shirt, cinching a pair of jeans tighter with a belt. There’s a new war being waged between Scully and Emma; something about cereal, he thinks, though it’s hard to tell.
Wife. She’s your wife.
The thought sends him reeling again, and he has to sit before his legs give out. If he weren’t stuck in suburbia, he’d head straight for Hoover and the sanctuary of his basement office, with its cabinets full of clues. Without the X-Files, without Scully—his Scully—there’s no one to turn to.
His heart surges, rebounding from despair to hope in an instant. The Gunmen have access to information, possibly even his case files. He’ll find them, and hopefully find a way out of this.
Spirits lifted somewhat at the prospect of a plan, he returns to the kitchen. Scully appears to have won the war; Emma is sulking over a bowl of Cheerios.
“Your appointment details are on the fridge. Mom will be here by eight,” Scully says, rushing around the table to where the baby is trying to stuff a napkin in his mouth. “I should have been gone five minutes ago.”
“Go,” Mulder says, not believing his own words when he follows with, “We’ll be fine.”
“You’re sure?” She shifts her gaze to Will, then back to Mulder, visibly torn.
“Yeah—just go,” he says, grabbing the rest of the napkin from the baby’s mouth, grimacing at the wad of spit that comes along with it. He wipes his fingers on his new jeans, leaving a sticky trail of paper and drool across his thigh.
“I’ll be back by six, and don’t forget the appointment,” she rummages in her purse, then stands before him on tiptoe and leans in. It takes a wide-eyed moment before he realizes she intends to kiss him.
“Um,” is all he can manage before she realizes he isn’t going to reciprocate.
“Right. Well…have a good day,” she mutters, turning on her heel, but not before he sees the flush of pink across her cheeks.
He doesn’t have long to reflect on the awkward disappointment before Emma gives off a doleful screech. Will has managed to upturn his sister’s bowl of Cheerios and is gleefully shoving the soggy cereal into his mouth.
When the worst of it is sopped up, Mulder looks at the little girl. “More Cheerios?”
“Not my Dada,” Emma says, pursing her lips in a manner too similar to Scully’s for comfort.
“Yeah, well, tell your mother that,” he sighs, collapsing into a kitchen chair and putting his head in his hands. His surrender seems to pacify her.
“Want wucky chawms,” she says. The request sounds tentative, almost thoughtful, a test of his loyalty. He hesitates.
“Wucky chawms wucky chawms!” she escalates. Will cackles in appreciation.
“Uh…Lucky Charms?” Mulder guesses, opening cupboards until he finds the one with the sugar cereal on the top shelf. He can’t believe Scully would keep the stuff in the house, let alone feed it to the kids.
“Wucky chawms! Yes yes!” the girl cries upon seeing the bright red box, the garish leprechaun leering at him, and Mulder decides what Scully doesn’t know won’t hurt her.
He puts Will in an activity center that looks like a giant plastic UFO, where the baby rocks and bounces for a minute before deciding he’d rather exercise his lungs.
Emma, on the other hand, has gone quiet, picking the sickly pastel marshmallows from her cereal, all the while keeping her gaze trained on Mulder, as if trying to decide if he’s worth tolerating.
Looks like her mother and acts like you, he thinks. Dangerous combination.
After a few minutes, she hops down from the table and comes over to sit with him, looking up at him curiously. “Show?”
“Wanna show,” she insists, pointing at the television.
“Sure, what the hell,” he mutters, trying to find the remote.
“Hell!” Emma cheers, and Mulder wonders how much damage an hour of sugar and swearing and television can do to a small child’s psyche. Thankfully the TV is already tuned to something bright, colorful, sickeningly cheerful.
By the time Emma is settled, Will’s screeching has reached uncomfortable decibels and there’s a curious smell wafting from the activity center. Limited experience with babies aside, Mulder knows he won’t like what he’ll find, but he also doesn’t want to invite the wrath of Grandma Maggie Scully, who will be here any minute. It’s a toss-up between a diaper and a lecture.
Poop wins by a landslide, he thinks, wincing as he picks up Will.
And a landslide it is. The baby is heavy and soiled; leaking through the diaper onto his outfit.
“Oh…oh God,” Mulder groans, glancing over his shoulder to ensure Emma is occupied; if her vacant, slack-jawed expression is any indication, she’s in some kind of sugar-and-television-induced nirvana.
He finds the baby’s room upstairs, and the changing table within, all the creams and powders lined up, the linens folded and stacked in tidy rows—a marvel of Scully engineering if he ever saw one.
He’s struggling and failing to secure a second diaper—the first having ripped in half while he tried to figure out how to untangle the Velcro-like contraptions at the sides—when the doorbell rings.
It’s all over the baby, and now it’s on his shirt. Will wails and kicks his feet, threatening to wiggle free from the changing table’s restraints, and Mulder wonders if he’s died and gone to hell. If not hell, this is definitely some kind of purgatory—stuck between a pile of crap, a screaming baby, and the mother of all mother-in-laws.
“Coming,” he growls, trying not to gag.
By the time he secures the new diaper on Will’s Jello-like frame, dons a new shirt, and rushes downstairs, the doorbell is ringing at a frantic pace, and the person on the other side is banging on the door. He swings it wide, trying to regain his breath, but the sight of the man on the other side knocks the wind out of him a second time.
“I was about to kick the damn thing in if you didn’t answer soon, Mulder.”
“I—you—sir?” he gasps.
Walter Skinner screws up his face. “What happened?”
“I…uh…the baby had a full one, sir.”
Skinner draws back, wrinkling his nose, giving Mulder the same curious look Scully’s been giving him ever since he woke up in her bed in this strange suburban house and told her he didn’t belong here.
“Are you going to let me in?”
“Uh, sure,” Mulder coughs, stepping back to let the man inside. Will kicks and wiggles, stretching his arms out toward his boss. “What, uh, what brings you here?”
“Maggie sent me to get the kids, she said you had some appointment you couldn’t miss,” he mutters.
“Why would Maggie—“
A streak of red hair comes flying at them from the living room, missing Mulder’s knees by a fraction of an inch. Emma throws herself at Skinner with all the force of a frilly red and pink cannon ball.
“Gampa gampa gampa!” she crows, shimmying up Skinner’s legs until she’s securely tucked in the crook of his arm. Mulder watches, growing cold with the dull realization.
“Hey, Emmy-bean,” Skinner says, visibly softening at the sight of the little girl. “How’s my princess?”
Hell, Mulder decides. I’ve skipped purgatory and gone straight to hell.
“What are you staring at, Mulder?”
“Das not Dada,” Emma informs Skinner in a loud whisper, and Skinner gives him the eyebrow again.
Mulder shrugs. “I…don’t know, sir,” he says, the words stumbling out of his mouth. “Would you, ah, take this one? I need to go…change. Yeah, I need to change.”
Skinner takes the baby in his free arm, cooing something about “his little man” that makes Mulder’s stomach twist. He retreats to the upstairs bedroom, pacing like a caged tiger.
His wallet, phone, and car keys are on the nightstand, and he pockets them, then turns back to the bureau. Inspiration strikes, and he picks up the wedding photo, drawing it closer. Scully and he stand in the middle, surrounded by family—mostly hers—but one figure stands above the rest.
Sure enough, Skinner is dressed in a tux, looking pleased as punch beside his new wife, Margaret Scully.
So what? She’s widowed. He’s divorced. It makes sense.
Your boss is now your father-in-law. No big deal.
Skinner is distracted, bouncing a happy baby on his knee when Mulder comes downstairs. Emma clings to the other man’s neck like a life raft in the midst of a hurricane, and it takes Mulder a moment to realize that strange ache he’s feeling is jealousy.
“You didn’t change,” Skinner remarks.
“Yeah, guess I forgot,” he deflects. “I’ll be back in a few, just have to—“
“Maggie told me. I’ve got this,” Skinner mutters, then just as quickly switches to baby speak. The sound of his tough-guy boss talking in falsetto is enough to make him think a stay at the psychiatric facility might not be such a bad idea.
“Right, well, later,” Mulder coughs, grabbing a jacket from the closet and closing the door before Skinner can respond.
A Dodge minivan and a Jaguar sit side-by-side in the driveway; Mulder fingers the key fob in his jacket pocket like it were a lottery ticket.
Please. Please please please.
The lights on the minivan flash twice as the doors unlock, and his faint hope withers and dies. He gives a last, longing gaze at the red Jag, then climbs into the van. It smells like old Cheerios and sour milk, and there’s something sticky smeared on the wheel.
He sighs and puts the van in reverse. “This day just keeps getting better.”
He double checks the Post-it from the fridge before parking at the hospital, wondering what kind of strings Scully pulled to get a same-day appointment.
The nurse at the front desk—her name tag reads “Penny”—recognizes him, and chatters small talk as she directs him to an exam room and takes his vitals.
“So how are those sweet little angels of yours?”
Mulder shifts, frowning at the blood pressure cuff she’s wrapped around his upper arm, wondering how to respond to the nurse’s strange intimacy with his family life.
“Uhh, they’re fine, I guess. Great,” he qualifies, forcing a smile.
This appears to be the right answer, because Penny grins, gushing, “Emma is getting so big! The last time I saw her she was just a peanut, now she’s so tall. She must have your genes.”
Mulder nods politely, coming to the dull realization that she probably knows more about his children than he does.
“And how is Dana?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, she’s great, too,” he says.
The nurse gives him an odd look, but he forces another smile, and that seems to set her at ease. “Well that’s great to hear, Mr. Mulder. Everything looks good, but Dr. Wankman will be in shortly.”
The doctor, wearing a tag bearing his unfortunate last name in large, bold letters, spends the majority of the consult frowning at his notepad, asking questions in a dull monotone.
“Your wife said something about head trauma?”
“I guess,” Mulder says, biting his tongue at the urge to correct him—she’s my partner, not my wife—knee bouncing beneath the paper gown.
This gets an eyebrow over his glasses. “Confusion? Disorientation?”
You have no idea.
“Not really,” he lies.
“Any recent injuries, accidents?”
He coughs. “Uh, not that I know of.”
The doctor flashes a penlight in Mulder’s face, examines his scalp, and calls for Penny to take several vials of blood. He resists the urge to roll his eyes when Dr. Wankman finally suggests a CT scan.
“Everything looks good, Mr. Mulder, but we’ll do the blood work and the imaging just to be safe. If there’s a clot, we want to know about it sooner rather than later.”
Mulder has suffered enough concussions at the hands of his job to know the routine, and soon he’s flat on a table, the CT machine whirring and clicking in a distracting buzz around him. Scully’s judgment is sound, but he knows the scan won’t reveal any abnormalities, that this exam is a waste of time. Whatever forces put him here will not be found in the pages of a medical manual.
His subconscious is heavy, nagging, a feeling he’s come to associate with the dawn of some new realization, but whatever it is remains stubbornly out of reach. Instead, his head is crowded with thoughts of Scully holding baby Will, of Skinner with Emma’s arms around him, and the wedding picture on the bureau, and he has to stop himself from fidgeting.
Eventually the machine stops humming, and he’s informed via a speaker that the procedure is complete. A different nurse points him to the changing area so he can re-dress.
At the front desk, Nurse Penny is all smiles, probably about to start singing his family’s praises, but Mulder cuts her off.
“Sorry, I have somewhere I need to be,” he says, shrugging on his coat, flashing an apologetic smile.
“Oh. Well, you’ll have your results in a few hours…where should we—“
“Just fax them to my wife.”
There’s a pay phone around the corner, a weathered phone book swinging from the underside. He thumbs through it, scanning the list of names with his index finger, starting with B.
Buller, Busker, Byers…
Byers, John F.
Heart racing, he puts in a quarter and dials the number, greeted on the other end by a polite, “Byers residence, this is John.”
“Byers! It’s me, it’s…it’s Mulder.”
There’s a moment of panic as Mulder realizes he might be shit out of luck if the other man doesn’t know him, but Byers recovers.
“Wow, Mulder, it’s been…well, it’s been a long time. How are you?”
He breathes a sigh of relief. “I’ve been better,” he mutters. “Look, I’m hoping you can help me with something.”
“Uh, sure,” he says. “What’s up?”
“I’d rather talk to you in person.”
“Oh, um—why don’t you come over? Susanne’s making lunch.”
Susanne? He looks down at the phone book. Suddenly it occurs to him how odd it is that any one of the Gunmen are listed. Doubt prickles at the nape of his neck.
“Mulder? Still there?”
“Yeah…um, yeah. I’ll…I’ll be right over. Thanks.”
He hangs up, noting the address, then flips to the F’s; if anyone is off the grid it will be Frohicke, but no such luck. He’s right there between Friese and Froil.
Frohicke, Melvin F.
That can’t be good.
Langly, same story. All at separate addresses, unconcerned that their phone numbers and full names are out there for the world to find.
There’s a sinking feeling in his stomach as he points the sticky minivan toward Byers’ new address.
The house reminds him of his alter ego’s; a blue and white cape set back from a tidy front lawn rimmed with rose bushes and shrubs. Byers himself is pruning one of the bushes when Mulder pulls into the drive.
“Good to see you, Mulder,” the other man calls, stripping off his gardening gloves. “Come in, Susanne’s almost ready for us.”
Mrs. Byers is the former Ms. Modeski, although Mulder almost doesn’t recognize her at first. The cool, detached woman he’d confronted years before in the bowels of a Baltimore warehouse is now a sweet, doll-faced housewife, complete with apron and a smile that looks pasted on.
Give her some credit, he thinks, offering a polite smile, you were stoned the first time you met her.
“Make yourself at home, Fox,” she chirps, and Byers points them toward the living room.
Byers himself looks as trim and neat as ever, but without the pasty-white complexion of a man who’s spent too many years living underground. It’s unsettling, this new version of his friend, and makes Mulder feel out of place amongst the knickknacks and color-coordinated furniture.
“So, what brings you out, Mulder? How are the kids? How’s Dana?”
“The kids are fine, Scully’s fine,” Mulder says absently, looking around. “Byers, I’m having a…a bit of a problem.”
“What’s going on?”
Mulder glances over his shoulder to the kitchen; there’s the clink of glassware, running water, Susanne chopping something on the counter. He sucks in a breath. “What do you know about alternate universes?”
Byers blinks, owlish. “Well…there are a few theories, but they’re just that—theories. And they’re pretty far out there, Mulder. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t think I’m me right now. I…I woke up this morning in a strange house, in a strange bed, with a version of Scully I don’t know.”
Byers narrows his eyebrows, lowering his voice. “Mulder…that’s—”
“You don’t have to tell me, I know how it sounds,” he says. “But last night, I went to sleep at my apartment, and I woke up married with a wife, two kids, and a mortgage. I think I crossed into some kind of parallel universe. Now, I know there are X-Files with this stuff, but I don’t have access at the Bureau right now, and I need you to—“
“What, hack in? Jesus, Mulder,” Byers hisses, paling. “I can’t do that!”
“Don’t you remember? They raided the Lone Gunmen, they took everything. I could get in trouble just for talking to you about it.”
“I don’t get it, Byers, you—“
“I’m not allowed to have contact with the guys. If I’m caught within fifty feet of a computer I could be arrested for conspiring to commit treason. The only reason I’m talking to you is because I know you won’t rat us out. You won’t, right?” he adds, growing even more pale.
“Ready for lunch, boys?” Susanne interrupts, in a tone far too cheery and bright for the circumstances. She’s carrying a tray of sandwiches.
“I’m, uh, I’m going to have to pass on lunch after all,” Mulder says. “Byers, could you show me out?”
Byers presses his lips together. “Fine.”
At the threshold, Mulder stops, impatient, frustrated. “Where’s Frohicke?”
“You’re not going to—“
“I don’t know who else to turn to,” he hisses, checking to make sure Susanne isn’t listening. “Scully doesn’t believe me, she thinks I’ve lost it. Skinner is—Jesus, I don’t even wanna go there. And if we don’t figure out a way to get me back to my old life, I’m going home to a couple of rug rats who think I’m ‘Daddy’ when I’m not qualified to take care of a houseplant.”
Byers sags against the door frame. “He works at the fast food place on Fifteenth. Mr. Moo Burgers. Mulder—”
“What?” he snaps.
Byers opens his mouth, closes it again, shrugs. “Good luck.”
Mulder deflates with a sigh. “I’m going to need it.”
The smells of fried potatoes and grease reign over the stifling din of the lunch time rush, and Mulder’s stomach growls, reminding him he hasn’t eaten since yesterday.
I’ll have my Frohicke with a side of fries, he thinks, watching the line of customers crawl forward.
The woman in front of him has her hands full with two young kids, one clinging to her leg while the other tugs on her arm and whines. Soon the younger one dissolves into tears and shrieks, throwing himself on the restaurant floor.
The mother frowns mildly and catches Mulder’s eye over her shoulder, offering an apologetic smile that seems to say, “This is what you have to look forward to.”
Suddenly he doesn’t feel hungry.
“I said, ‘next!’”
A teenaged girl with a black-and-white spotted apron and a face full of pimples glares at him from behind the counter as he steps forward.
“Uh, yeah, I’ll have a—“
He glimpses Frohicke’s balding head in the back of the kitchen, grumbling to himself over the Fryolator.
“I’ll have that guy,” Mulder grins, pointing at his friend.
The girl gives him the eyebrow before calling over her shoulder, “Melvin! Your boyfriend’s here.”
“Suck it, Tabitha—whoa, Mulder!”
Frohicke steps out from the kitchen, and Mulder breathes a sigh of relief. Somehow the hair net and the apron with the cartoon dancing cow on the front phase him less than he’d like to admit.
His friend turns to the cashier and growls, “I’m takin’ a break.”
“Whatever. Just don’t let Jack catch you. Have fun, boys.”
Frohicke makes a distinctive hand gesture in her direction before nodding toward the door. “C’mon, it’s quieter out back.”
“‘K, but keep your hands to yourself this time, Frohicke,” Mulder grins, loud enough for the cashier to hear. “I’m not ready for that kind of commitment.”
They step outside, rounding the corner and walking past a dumpster to a decrepit picnic table, where the ground is littered with cigarette butts and grease-stained wrappers.
“I bet this is where you take all the girls,” Mulder quips, still smiling, his heart decidedly lighter at the familiarity in his old friend’s scowl.
Frohicke rolls his eyes. “What the hell, man? Where have you been?”
“That’s what I’m here to talk about,” he says, taking a seat. “I need to ask you a favor.”
There’s no hesitation in the man’s voice. “Anything.”
Mulder explains the situation for the third time today, heartened when Frohicke doesn’t balk, doesn’t tell him he’s crazy, just listens and nods.
“I tried Byers, but he said—“
“Whoa whoa whoa, lower your voice. You should know better,” he says, looking around, as if a government official might pop out from behind the dumpster and cuff him.
“Yeah, I heard, your party got crashed. But without the X-Files, I have nothing. I know there are cases like this, but I don’t have access.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Frohicke says, “I have contacts. But we have to keep it on the down-low, got it?”
“Whatever you have to do to get me back to my life.”
Frohicke nods. “I’ll do my best. Hey, how’s the little lady?”
“Oh, just swell,” he mutters. “Before you ask, the kids are loud and smelly, but I assume that’s their natural state. I just want to go home,” he insists.
Frohicke looks nonplussed. “You really don’t know how good you have it, do you?”
“What do you mean?”
“If you think a couple of kids and a home with that beautiful woman is the worst that could happen to you, you need to check your priorities.”
The other man gives him a final nod and turns on his heel, leaving Mulder speechless, surprised at how much truth could come from a short, balding man wearing a hair net.
Skinner is irritable when Mulder returns, although it’s hard to tell why. Emma is quiet, concentrating on a floor puzzle in the shape of a duck, while Will snoozes in the baby swing, a contraption that presents with more buttons than the Bureau’s most sophisticated surveillance equipment. The house is even cleaner than when he left this morning.
“Mulder, didn’t anyone teach you how to change a diaper?”
Mulder hadn’t expected a warm greeting, but the other man is using the tone of voice he usually reserved for those times when Mulder was six weeks late with his expense reports. He blinks. “Uh—“
“It was on backwards. Will has a rash. Didn’t you use the cream?”
“The diaper cream. It’s on the second shelf, next to the—oh, hell, never mind,” Skinner mutters.
“Hell!” Emma chirps, without looking up from her puzzle.
Skinner shoots Mulder a look meant to insinuate that this shift in vocabulary is somehow his fault, then frowns at his wristwatch. “Maggie’s expecting me. For God’s sake, don’t forget the diaper cream next time.”
Skinner pats Emma on the head, then heads for the door, leaving Mulder at the mercy of the small, scowling mini-Scully behind him.
“Let me guess,” he sighs, turning around. “Lucky Charms?”
By the time Scully walks through the door, a scant hour later, Will is screaming, Emma is painting the kitchen table with something red and sticky, and it looks like a Fisher Price truck has exploded in the living room.
“Thank you,” he gasps when Scully puts down her briefcase and extracts the fussing baby from his arms.
“Something like that,” he says, poking his finger tentatively into the mess on the table.
“How are you feeling?” she asks; her tone is light, but the subtext is clear. She straps Will into his high chair, procuring some orange goop from a Tupperware in the fridge.
“Just peachy,” he mutters. “The doctor was as helpful as a rock, but with less personality.”
“I’m sure his bedside manner wasn’t the take away,” she says, handing him a rubber-tipped spoon. “Hopefully you can still figure out how to get the baby to eat his sweet potato.”
He grimaces. “Is that what this is?”
“Mmhmm. Mixed with breast milk.”
Mulder makes a face. “Better you than me, kid,” he says, attempting to get the spoon past the baby’s grabbing fingers. At the first mouthful, Will’s expression turns sour.
The phone rings, and Scully picks it up. “Hello?”
She waits a beat, brows knit together, then turns her gaze to Mulder. “Yeah, he’s here. Just a minute.”
Frohicke, she mouths. He takes the call, ignoring her eyebrow all the way up the stairs.
“Hey, what’d you find?”
“Mulder—I got something, but I don’t know how much help it will be.”
“Well I’m flying blind on a multitude of levels,” he says under his breath, wincing as a child’s wail filters up from downstairs. “Shoot.”
“My contact—who will remain nameless, of course—says there’s a sleep specialist, a Dr. Speakman, who might be able to help you.”
“Speakman? Dr. Harvey Speakman?” Mulder says, turning the name over in his head, remembering it.
“I know who he is, we investigated him…he was part of a possible abduction case back in—uh, where I came from. What does he have to do with this?”
“He’s into some pretty weird shit, you know? Waking visions, dream interpretation. The guy published some stuff that make me look normal, if that tells you anything. He’s postulated on more than one occasion that dreams are portals—”
“Are you saying this guy is abducting people?” Mulder interrupts, pressing a finger to his ear to block out the escalating sobs coming from downstairs.
Frohicke hesitates. “I dunno, Mulder. Speakman doesn’t have a record, he’s highly regarded in his field. He doesn’t seem like the type.”
The nag at the back of his mind suddenly becomes clear, there’s the rush of a connection as synapses fire, rolling over like gears clicking into place.
“Thanks, Frohicke,” he interrupts. “Look, I gotta go, the natives are restless.”
“Mulder, wait, he—”
He clicks off the phone before Frohicke can finish, then returns to the kitchen to find Emma red-faced and tearful.
“Want Wucky Chawms!”
“For the last time: You can’t have cereal for dinner,” Scully sighs, catching Mulder’s eye as he comes down the stairs. “What did he want?”
Mulder coughs. “He, uh, missed the latest episode of All My Children and needed a synopsis. If you ask me, Gillian is way too good for that jerk, Ryan, but Frohicke doesn’t agree. Can you believe that guy?”
She blinks, unfazed. “You two haven’t spoken in years,” she says. “Not since the Gunmen were put on probation; you said it was too dangerous, that you risked—“
“This was an extreme circumstance,” he mutters, resuming his place in front of Will’s high chair, changing the subject. “So, how do you want to do this, kid? You want the plane? The train? Open the landing bay, here comes the flying saucer…”
Emma sniffles from the opposite end of the table, looking back and forth between Mulder and Scully as though she can’t decide who’s to blame for her current distress.
“I don’t know where she got the idea that Lucky Charms makes for an acceptable meal,” Scully frowns.
“Beats me,” Mulder says, then quickly changes the subject. “Hey, you could have warned me about Skinner.”
“Why would I have to—oh, right” she sighs. “Well, trust that it’s just as awkward for me as it is for you. It’s not your mother he’s sleeping with.”
Mulder shudders in sympathy. “So what do you call him now? ‘Sir’ or ‘daddy’?”
“I call him ‘Walter’, Mulder.”
“You always did have issues with male authority figures,” he smirks.
“Whassa ‘thority figger?” Emma asks, momentarily distracted by her mealtime plight.
“Someone your mother lives to defy,” Mulder says, just before a dish towel smacks him in the face.
“No frowing tings,” Emma scolds.
Scully stands and looks around, hands on her hips, as if suddenly seeing the kitchen for the first time. “Mulder, did you have plans for dinner?”
“Huh? No, did you?”
She rolls her eyes. “I meant, did you make anything? It’s nearly seven.”
“Gee, Scully. I’m not sure when I was supposed to make dinner, between the doctor’s appointment, the diaper rash prevention lecture, and the exercise in sensory torture over here,” he says, pointing the spoon at Will.
Scully sighs and picks up the phone. “Delivery it is.”
He looks down at the container of sweet potato. “Better than the alternative.”
Will, blinking from beneath a smear of orange goop, seems to agree.
Mulder rests on the couch, pondering Frohicke’s call, half-listening to Scully talking on her cell phone in the other room.
The kids are finally asleep after a standoff rivaling any other he’s encountered in the course of his career. Mulder used to think his neighbors were a nuisance, but the occasional thump or footsteps from the other side of a wall can’t compare to the sound of two overtired children.
He pinches the bridge of his nose, feeling an unexpected pang of homesickness for his crappy apartment.
“That was the doctor’s office. Your test results came back,” Scully says, picking her way through the living room carnage to sit beside him.
“I’m not going to ask what kind of favor that guy owed you,” Mulder says drily, but she doesn’t take the bait.
“The scans were clear…no medical evidence of a bleed, contusion…nothing,” she pauses, looking at him with the same unsettled expression.
“Can’t say I’m surprised.”
“You really believe you’re not…you,” she says, a careful statement rather than a question, peering at him. He sympathizes with the specimens that routinely find themselves under her microscope.
“Yes. I do.”
She sighs, leaning back into the couch, drowsy and thoughtful. “How can a person exist in two places at once? It’s not possible, Mulder…”
“You’re the one who rewrote Einstein, Scully. I have a lowly liberal arts degree, but isn’t there a subset of physics that posits the existence of multiple, or even infinite, worlds?”
Her lips quirk. “I haven’t been a physics major for years, Mulder, but what I do know is that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is just that—a theory, with little solid proof to back it up.”
“I think Schrödinger’s cat might disagree.”
“Are you the cat or the box in this analogy?”
“I think this life is the box, and I’m the cat. I just hope I’m the living, breathing version of the cat.”
She laughs suddenly, a rare laugh that sounds foreign coming from her throat. “This is…it’s crazy! God, it reminds me of…of when we met. You were so…so…”
“I was what?” he asks, curiosity piqued.
“Intense,” she says finally, smiling a little, and this time there’s nothing familiar in her eyes. He has to look away.
“No, I think you were right the first time. Your exact words were, ‘Mulder, you’re crazy.’”
“Your memory hasn’t changed.”
“It doesn’t have to,” he says, crossing his feet on the coffee table. “You tell me I’m crazy at least once a week, if not more. It’s one of your less endearing traits.”
She arches an eyebrow. “So I have endearing traits?”
“A couple,” he says, skirting the truth. “Talk about intense,” he coughs, nodding toward the blinking baby monitor on the coffee table.
She snorts, but her eyes soften. “Yeah. They’re a handful.”
“Kinda cute when they’re not screaming,” Mulder says. “I’m out of my league. Emma could give that vein in Skinner’s forehead a run for its money. Hey, I meant to ask you…what, uh, what do I do, anyway?”
“What do you do?”
“Where do I work? Did I—your Mulder—stay at VCU? I’m guessing not, since my wardrobe isn’t exactly conducive to being a suit.”
Scully looks around the room, sips her wine. “You don’t want to know.”
“No, really—what do I do?”
She arches an eyebrow. “You’re a stay-at-home father.”
His face must betray his shock, because she can’t contain her laughter at his incredulity.
“You quit,” she finally explains between hiccups. “When Will was born, you sold the houses and cashed in your bonds. God, I don’t know why I’m telling you—“
“Your parents—they passed away, a car accident…” she trails off.
He tips his head, shrugs.
“They left you a substantial amount of money.”
“I knew about the money…I never touched it.”
He swallows hard. “It was tainted. I always thought my father was rewarded…that he wouldn’t have been so successful if Samantha hadn’t disappeared.”
“Ah,” she says carefully, tracing the edge of her wine glass with one finger.
“But I guess that didn’t happen here,” he continues, frowning. “If Samantha was murdered, the money would have been clear.”
“Between my salary and your inheritance, it’s enough. You wanted to be here for the kids.”
“What? What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” he smiles. “I just…that doesn’t sound like me.”
“Oh? What would you do? I mean, the real you,” she clarifies, smiling a little, as if this is a joke she still doesn’t quite get.
He opens his mouth, but closes it again. “I don’t know,” he says finally. “I’m not in a position to say. No kids.”
“Uh huh,” she says, an unguarded placating note in her voice, humoring him. “Then what do you do when you’re not time-traveling?”
“It’s not time travel, it’s inter-dimensional travel, Scully. And I work on the X-Files. With you. The other you,” he adds.
“Mm. The same X-Files known for investigating alien implants, government conspiracies, and the occasional liver-eating mutant?”
He gives her a sideways glance, tipping his head back. “That’s the one.”
“So, what’s changed?”
“With the X-Files? Everything.”
She smiles. “Give me the highlights.”
“The highlights,” he whispers, a surge of bitterness on his tongue, a soft laugh that carries no humor. He can’t look at her as he begins, “We’ve unearthed a global conspiracy designed to cover up the existence of extraterrestrials, a conspiracy that abducts innocent civilians and performs unsanctioned experiments on them in abandoned train cars, forcing them to bear disfigured humanoid hybrids and then dropping them on the side of the proverbial road to die.
“We’ve discovered a virus that’s sentient, that has the power to turn humans into makeshift wombs for a new race of alien beings. We’ve seen a race of beings that can take the form and likeness of a man.
“These conspiracies are run by some of the most powerful men on the planet, people who have no qualms about taking lives, as long as their objectives are met.
“And for everything we’ve seen, I have no answers about my sister’s abduction, and there’s no tangible proof, save for what’s in the X-Files. Not that we could get anyone else to believe us even if they considered the extreme possibilities.
“And if I never see another cigarette, it will be too soon,” he sighs, avoiding her eyes, realizing how tired he sounds.
She pauses, taking a longer drink. “And you want to go back to that?”
He can’t bring himself to smile. “Yes. God, yes.”
“And you think it’s connected to how you went to sleep.”
“Somehow, yes. I went to bed in one life and woke up in another. I was dreaming about—I, ah, I was dreaming, and somehow I crossed over. What if my dream was some kind of portal?”
“So you’re saying that when I have a dream about having sex with the Pope on the hood of the Popemobile, that some version of me out there in an alternate dimension is actually doing that?”
“Damn, Scully, your dream life is kinkier than mine,” he smiles, comforted by her skepticism.
She grins. “According to your theory, Mulder, that’s really happening…somewhere, out there, in the…in the multi-verse. I can’t say I believe that.”
“I would have said the same thing until I woke up in bed with you this morning.”
“So the idea of us waking up in bed together is unfathomable, and yet, you crawling through a dream window into another dimension is not?”
He swallows hard, a flush creeping up his neck. “It’s, ah, not like that.”
Her voice drops, a timbre that makes his stomach clench in a not unpleasant way. “So…what’s it like?”
“Between us? I wish I knew.”
Her persistent silence suggests she won’t be so easily put off. He realizes he can’t bring himself to look at her, too unnerved by her closeness; this other woman wearing Scully’s face. “We’re partners,” is all he can manage, in a voice that can’t disguise the underlying current of possibility.
“You don’t sound convinced.”
“We were having dinner the other night, and the conversation drifted into…intimate territory. I thought…” he pinches the bridge of his nose, feeling all of fifteen again; awkward, gangly, at a loss for words.
“You thought…?” she prompts, eyes glittering.
He chews on his bottom lip. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Something happened, then.”
The mother of all somethings, he thinks, gritting his teeth. “You could say that.”
Her fingernail taps the glass. “Something that gave you the impression I—she—wasn’t interested?”
He lets out a puff of air, his next words coming out in a rush. “She asked me to donate sperm for an IVF procedure.”
Her glass hits the coffee table with an audible clink, and she coughs, hard. “I what?”
“Yeah, that was my reaction,” he breathes, feeling oddly lightened by this confession.
She stands. “Well, then. We’re going to need more wine.”
He shakes his head, perturbed by her comfortable, fluid manner, so different from the woman he knows. She comes back with the rest of the bottle and a second glass for him.
“Doctor’s orders,” she says, filling his glass. He’s never been much for the stuff, but tonight it seems necessary. He takes a healthy gulp before continuing.
“One minute we’re talking about work, and then she’s asking me to help father a child. I mean, I’m flattered, but…I don’t know.”
She looks at him thoughtfully. “What did you say?”
“I stalled,” he frowns. “Asked her to give me some time to think about it. I went home, had a drink, then had another drink. I went to bed, then I woke up here,” he mutters, covering his hands with his face.
“Why not tell her how you feel?” Scully says, bemused.
He shakes his head. “It’s different. It’s…complicated.”
“In every imaginable sense,” he says, a half laugh, half groan. “She’d say our work is important, that she has no regrets, but it’s come at a price. She lost a daughter, her sister. She was left unable to conceive—“
“The IVF?” she asks, a hint of sadness crossing her features.
Mulder nods, sobering. “Her reputation at the Bureau is just as laughable as mine. All because she made a lousy career move and has even lousier taste in friends.”
“Me,” he sighs, swirling the dregs of his wine, watching it spiral and ripple in the low light. He can feel her watching him, can feel her thinking, and he closes his eyes against it. “‘Spooky’ Mulder.”
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” she says, “but in theory, that if what you’re saying is true, if there really is another version of me out there somewhere, who’s struggling, who needs this, it seems to me you have the opportunity to do something really good. You can give her something amazing; a gift.”
He swallows hard, gripping the stem of his glass, grateful for something to hold.
“And knowing myself, it probably took a lot of courage to ask. She must think you’re worth it, worth the risk.”
“I’m not sure I am,” he says softly.
“Well,” she says, smiling slightly over the rim of her glass, “if you decide to go through with it, I’d warn her—your genes have a tendency to bite.”
This makes him chuckle. “So I’ve learned.”
She blinks, suddenly concerned. “What if your alter ego, as it were, is running around in your world?”
Wrapped up as he is in trying to get back to his life, he hadn’t considered the flip side of the coin. He tries to imagine Family Man Mulder waking up in his new bachelor’s pad, examining his muffin top in too-small clothes, searching for his wife and kids and finding a handful of fish and an irate partner in their place.
If he knows himself—and he thinks he does, although this day has proven his connection to reality is tenuous at best—that version of Mulder is probably formulating a theory, erring on the paranoid side, storming into Skinner’s office, trying to convince his skeptical partner to believe him…
He whistles through his teeth. “For his sake, I hope not.”
“The last six years have done nothing for my reputation. Our new boss isn’t as forgiving as Skinner, if you can imagine someone less forgiving than Skinner. And the last time I tried to kiss you, you punched me. Hard.” His hand rubs his jaw at the memory, although that had been little more than a dream, too.
“Did you deserve it?”
“Maybe. I hope your husband is prepared to get his ass kicked, Scully.”
She snickers. The alcohol makes his head spin; a warm, numbing comfort after the day from someone else’s hell. He senses her next to him, the brush of her thigh against his, casual, and yet…
Was she this close before? He can’t remember.
“I, uh…” he begins, meaning to apologize, but unable to speak. She’s flushed and warm; the low light reflects in her eyes, and he sees flecks of gold sprinkled around her irises.
He’s not sure which of them leans in first, or maybe they both do. In the end, it doesn’t matter; the result is the same.
The kiss lasts until his stomach aches from the sweetness of it, the undercurrent of some vast, unexplored pleasure roiling beneath.
Something else aches, too.
When they finally part, she looks at him as if she’s never seen him before, and for a split second, he thinks she finally sees him for what he is: a man lost in space. Her exhalation is wispy and fresh on his lips when they meet a second time, a hand across his cheek, her tongue teasing his.
“Um,” he croaks, feeling stupid, feeling amazing and giddy and perhaps a tad drunk. She pulls away, still stroking his cheek. Her palm is light and cool against the stubble on his chin, and he draws in a shaky breath as she traces down the line of his throat with one fingertip.
“Does it count as infidelity if we sleep together?” she whispers, teasing, leaning in, pressing her lips to the places her fingers wandered not moments before.
Bad idea. Bad. Idea.
Her tongue darts out, tasting him, a flutter of electric nerves against his collarbone, his throat; she knows exactly where and how to touch, her movements precise, because she’s done this before. His breath catches at the thought, her words spinning, echoing in the senseless cavern of his brain.
…sleep together sleep together sleep together sleep to…
His hands become separate entities, moving of their own accord, the only part of him that has any common sense left. He catches her fingers as she’s bringing them lower, and gently guides them away, pushes them into her lap.
“I—fuck—I can’t,” he gasps.
She arches an eyebrow and he looks at his hands—traitors, he scowls—then sits back, repositioning himself on the couch to put space between them. He squeezes his eyes shut, trying to block out the hurt on her face.
Suddenly he misses his Scully fiercely. This one has the body, the mind, perhaps even the heart, but there’s something beyond all of those things that makes her different. Part of him—the part that isn’t being driven by lust at this moment—knows that to trespass on that boundary would tarnish it.
Should he get back to his old life, he’s not sure he could go back to being whatever it is they are.
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs. “I can’t—“
“It’s OK, I understand,” she says, cutting him off. “You’re not…feeling well.”
His voice is shaky, and it’s a moment before he allows himself to speak. “Trust me, Scully, if things were different—“
“I know,” she says, waving him off, gathering their glasses to take them to the kitchen. “We should sleep. The baby will be up early.”
Mulder nods numbly. “I’ll take the couch tonight,” he says, not trusting himself.
She nods, looking disappointed, but not surprised. “I’ll get a spare blanket.”
As she turns to leave, he can’t stop himself from asking the question. “Scully?”
It must be the wine, opening his mouth. “Am I a good father? A good husband? In this life, I mean.”
She smiles, tired and genuine, forgiving. “The best. Goodnight, Mulder.”
It’s not his leather couch, but it will do; his head spins from their conversation, long after she’s handed him the blanket and gone to bed.
If things were different.
Obviously his partner thinks he makes a great friend, hell, a great genetic candidate, but nothing more.
He tosses fretfully, trying and failing to get comfortable. He can still taste her, the smoky combination of wine mixed with the scent of her skin, sweet, like vanilla.
Doesn’t she deserve this chance at happiness, even if it doesn’t include him? Maybe it’s the kiss, but for once, he can’t argue with Scully’s logic.
His eyes begin to close, and he sends a last, fleeting wish into the night, the mental equivalent of clicking his heels together.
Please, let this have been a dream. A good old-fashioned, fucked-up dream.
He tries to imagine what he’ll do if he wakes in his apartment. The first thing is call Scully and tell her…
Tell her what?
Scratch the phone call, too impersonal. Meet for coffee. Invite her to dinner. Go to her apartment unannounced, you’re good at that.
And say what?
Doesn’t matter, he thinks, nodding off. Just say yes.
He’s rattled into consciousness by the squall of a siren, and his heart leaps, not for fear but for hope. When choosing a place to live, he hadn’t considered the close proximity to a dispatch center a boon, but now the sound is music to his ears.
He bolts upright, never so happy to hear the whining drone of someone else’s emergency.
But the walls are the wrong color, the room is too open. There’s no burbling fish tank, the couch beneath him is plush fabric, not worn leather. There’s something hard poking into his back—he feels around and pulls out a red plastic teething ring. Fleeting hope disappears.
The siren is the baby monitor, bleating from its place on the coffee table.
She forgot to bring it to bed.
He grabs the flickering contraption, stumbling over an assortment of toys on the way to the stairs. Scully is sound asleep in the master bedroom, a petite lump under the covers with red hair splayed across the pillow. He’d intended to wake her, but decides against it. He finds the source of the commotion at the end of the hall.
“Hey, bud,” he whispers. Will stops crying at the sound of his voice. Mulder peers over the crib, and the baby grins and reaches out, the universal signal for “up”.
“At least one of us is happy I’m here. Let’s get you fed, I guess.”
The bottles in the fridge are labeled and lined up by date. He grabs the closest one, heating it in warm water the way he’d seen Scully do earlier that evening.
“You know what to do,” he says, handing Will the bottle, watching as the baby’s fingers flex and unfurl around it as he eats, eyes already beginning to droop as the warm liquid works its magic. The clock on the far wall reads 3:30, and he paces.
Mulder had never given much thought to having children. His parents’ list of atrocities was long enough that keeping the family’s genetic line going seemed akin to masochism, but the underlying concern was simpler; to have kids, he’d have to find someone who was willing to put up with his obsessive, narcissistic ass on a permanent basis.
Because that worked so well the first time, he thinks, picturing Diana’s face and inwardly cringing.
He’d expected to find himself playing the role of the fourth Gunman at this point in his life, just another paranoid conspiracy theorist living in a bunker, waiting for the sky to fall. His pedigree gave him a certain standing, but he’d long since worn out his welcome at the Bureau. If he wasn’t a superior profiler, they’d have canned him years ago.
Besides, if he wanted to settle down, he’d have to take his attention away from the X-Files, and since that wasn’t going to happen, his fate, as he saw it, was sealed. Back-issues of Playboy would suffice. He was married to his work.
And then came Scully.
He hadn’t expected to like her. At worst she was a spy, at best she was a distraction, but somewhere along the line, she’d become his friend. And at some point after that, he’d stopped thinking of himself as single.
He didn’t have a girlfriend; he had a Scully. They finished each other’s sentences, they shared each other’s coffee, and occasionally they bickered about things like his messy sunflower seed habit, or her tendency to spend too much time fussing over her nails. If that wasn’t a relationship, it was as close as he was going to get.
Then she’d started investigating the viability of her recovered ova, and the foundation on which they’d built their partnership began to change. Scully’s request hadn’t come completely out of the blue, he just hadn’t expected to find it so hard to say “no.”
“She must think you’re worth the risk.”
That was the problem; she always had. But what did she have to show for it?
What did he, for that matter?
The baby has gone slack, satiated. Mulder sets the bottle aside and considers him; fair skin, light hair, almond-shaped eyes. He takes an experimental sniff of the boy’s downy head and finds it oddly soothing.
In another lifetime, he thinks, feeling the hot weight of the child’s body in his arms as he carries him back to his crib.
He looks around the nursery, wrinkling his nose at the smell, but the diaper pail in the corner is empty. It’s a moment before he realizes he’s the source.
He imagines writing up the field report: Inter-dimensional travel poses a serious threat to personal hygiene.
He pads across the hall to the bathroom, starts the shower and strips, tossing his jeans and t-shirt into the hamper. He’s working on his socks when he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He desperately needs a shave, but there’s something else, too…
He leans forward, until the tip of his nose is almost touching the glass, and glares at his reflection. Something about his shoulder, the scar tissue there, bothers him.
From where she shot me.
He blinks, wondering why this seems important.
You’re tired. You stink.
He finishes undressing and steps into the steam, letting the water soothe his aching muscles, but he can’t shake the thought of the scar. He runs his fingers over it curiously, the tissue unnaturally smooth and supple. He remembers the shock of the impact, remembers laying in bed, poisoned, feverish, Scully leaning over him, concern written in every line of her face, you shot me…
You shot me…
Suddenly it becomes clear.
He doesn’t bother to rinse, just shuts off the water and jumps out of the shower, stopping to pull on his boxers before rushing down the hall with wet feet.
“Scully,” he hisses. “Scully, wake up.”
She rouses, mumbling, “Mmmwhat?”
“You need to look at this,” he says, water and soap stinging his eyes, hair plastered to his forehead.
“What time is it, Mulder?” she mutters, squinting as he turns on the light and perches on the side of the bed.
“What am I looking at?”
“My shoulder. Does your husband have a scar like this?”
She frowns, leaning closer, fingers grazing the shiny off-white skin. “No, you…Mulder, what happened?”
“Now do you believe me?”
“I don’t…I don’t get it, what does this prove?”
“You shot me,” he grins. “Five years ago. There’s no way I could have this without you knowing about it, right?”
She looks at him, eyes growing wider as his words sink in, as she examines the skin at the front of his shoulder. Her response is careful. “This is old scar tissue.”
“That’s because I’m not him, Scully.”
She looks at him, then back to the scar. “No…no, I guess you couldn’t be…”
“You believe me,” he says, but it’s not a question this time.
“I do. I do, Mulder…but…how can that be?”
“I don’t know. I mean, if I were to take a test, ten to one it would show I’m genetically identical to the Fox Mulder you married, but—“
“You’re not him,” she says, her voice weary and faint. “But you look just like him, you act like him, your mannerisms are—”
“There’s something about me that’s different. If Samantha hadn’t been murdered in this life, if I hadn’t found the answers here, I would still be with the X-Files. Which is why I need to get back to that life. My life.”
Her troubled look says everything he needs to know.
I believe you.
“I think Frohicke may be onto something, he helped me make a connection—“
She interrupts, and her hand finds his forearm, gentle but firm. “Mulder, stop. Let’s figure this out in the morning, when we’re fresh, rested.”
“Yeah,” he says, elation waning. “OK, yeah.”
She reaches out to ruffle his hair, finding it slick, and wrinkles her nose. “Rinse off first.”
He does, running the shower just long enough to get the soap out, slipping into a t-shirt and sweats. After a pause, he takes off the wedding ring and puts it on the bathroom counter where Scully will see it.
He returns to the living room, eying the couch, but his mind is thrumming with newfound energy. Scully’s laptop case sits next to the coffee table, reminding him of Frohicke’s phone call.
When in doubt, Yahoo, he thinks, taking the laptop to the table and opening a browser.
When Scully comes downstairs, he’s still sitting at the computer, a lukewarm cup of coffee leaving sticky rings on the table.
“Mulder, did you sleep?”
He glances over his shoulder, noting the circles under her eyes, the way she cinches the bathrobe around herself as if for protection rather than warmth. “Did you?”
She ducks her head, “Not exactly,” she admits. “What are you doing?”
“Following up on Frohicke’s lead,” he says, chewing his lip. “C’mere, you should see this.”
She leans over his shoulder, her longer hair brushing at the nape of his neck, and he suppresses a shiver.
“What am I looking at?”
“The guy Frohicke mentioned, Dr. Harvey Speakman. He specializes in sleep disorders, but his work delves into the metaphysical, using hypnosis to guide afflicted individuals on a spiritual dream journey as a means of treating a host of common sleep ailments, from insomnia to night terrors.”
The look on her face is perfectly Scully, but he presses on. “His research is based on the theory that altered states of consciousness are known to produce visions—“
“Hallucinations,” she corrects.
“Whatever it takes to get the job done. Native tribes performed rituals where they were said to communicate with the spirits of their ancestors, often aided by some form of hallucinatory agent—“
“Sometimes, but even extreme fasting or sensory deprivation is enough to bring on such visions, having no contact with the tribe for weeks or months at a time.”
She folds her arms. “So what does this have to do with your current predicament?”
“I think my theory was right; I think I dreamed myself here…maybe through some kind of hypnosis-induced vision.”
Her eyebrow is in fine form. “The FBI conducts regular drug screenings, Mulder.”
He grins. “And I would pass with flying colors, but here’s the thing. I know this guy. He was our primary suspect in the case we were working on before I left—the disappearances? He connected all three of the victims. He was their shrink.”
“He had a clinic outside Baltimore, yeah. We brought him in, but he had a solid alibi—he was at a conference when the victims disappeared, he was the keynote. We confirmed it with the conference director. And when they returned, they had no memory of seeing Dr. Speakman prior to the abductions; they would have recognized him.”
“Maybe he had a partner?”
“No, we checked. As far as we could tell, the lead was bunk. His patients had nothing but good things to say.”
“And you think he might have some answers as to why you’re in the wrong place at the right time.” She bites her lip. “So, where do we find him?”
“That’s the thing,” Mulder says, turning to face her, hands clasped between his knees, tilting his head back toward the computer, where he’s pulled up a newspaper article. “No one has seen or heard from him since mid-March. He disappeared without a trace.
“What if they got lost, too, Scully? What if they weren’t abducted at all? What if, like me, they got switched somehow as a result of Dr. Speakman’s treatment?”
“But you weren’t treated by him,” she frowns.
“No, I wasn’t…but we sat in on one of his sessions with another client,” he says slowly. “What if my subconscious picked up on his methods?”
“Mulder that’s a—“
She’s interrupted by Will, chattering to himself from the upstairs bedroom.
“Better get him before he decides to put on a full-scale operetta,” Mulder says. “I’ll do the honors while you read up. There’s coffee.”
He can feel her eyes on his back as he retreats upstairs to gather the baby, who is sitting up in his crib and protesting the terrible service.
“Hey, kid. Think we might get your real daddy back.”
“Da! Da!” Will cheers, using chubby fists to pat Mulder’s cheeks, before leaning in to give him a sloppy, open-mouthed kiss on the nose.
“Need to work on your technique, but I appreciate the sentiment,” he says, wiping drool off his face on the back of his sleeve. “Let’s see if your sister’s awake.”
Emma stands up in bed, clutching a stuffed bunny in one hand, head cocked to the side, prepared to negotiate.
“Bwekfast? Wucky chawms?”
“Gonna have to ask your mother about that,” he says, dodging the question, and the little girl narrows her eyes.
Scully is at the computer when they come downstairs.
“Mulder…Speakman, wasn’t the only psychiatrist in his practice.”
“I know,” he says over his shoulder, “Dr. Hoke. I was thinking I’d try to find her today, question her. Find out if she knows anything about Speakman’s disappearance.”
“We’ll come with you.”
He frowns, trying to figure out the buckles on Will’s high chair as the child squirms in his arms. “It’s not exactly a family activity, Scully.”
“Maybe not, but I’d prefer to stay close until we’ve figured this out.”
Her careful, neutral tone belies a sense of urgency, and it suddenly occurs to him that he’s not the only one invested in solving this case; as of yesterday, her husband is a missing person, and he makes a pretty poor substitute. He ducks his head. “Fair enough.”
She forces a smile and closes the laptop. “Besides, we can’t leave yet. It’s Saturday. Saturday means pancakes, right kids?”
“Pancakes!” Emma cheers. Even Will seems excited, banging out an agreement on his high chair tray.
“Normally that’s your job,” Scully says, opening the fridge, “but I’m guessing you’re not much of a cook?”
Mulder shrugs, thinking of his apartment’s barren cupboards, the orange juice souring in the fridge. “I’m good at eating pancakes, not so great at making them.”
She tosses him a dish towel. “You’re in charge of clean up, then.”
“That, I think I can handle.”
They manage to get out of the house, although Mulder isn’t sure how, between two temper tantrums, packing what looks like a week’s worth of luggage for the kids, and Saturday morning traffic on I-95. What would be an hour’s trip under any other circumstance has turned into two. Scully handles the whole ordeal with practiced aplomb, while Mulder’s fumbling attempts to help are almost moot; at some point he realizes he’s just getting in the way.
All the fuss appears to be for naught; they pull up to the office, but find it closed and locked. Mulder waits on the step for five minutes, shifting his weight from side to side, but it’s clear no one will answer.
“Any way we can get a home address?” Mulder asks as he climbs back into the car. Scully is attempting to pacify the baby with her keychain, and Emma is eying Mulder like he was her junk food dealer.
Probably wondering how she can get a Happy Meal out of this.
“It’s unlisted; not uncommon for practicing counselors who don’t want surprise visits from their patients. But I know someone…”
She pulls out her cell phone.
“Danny—it’s Dana Scully. Yeah, hi. I know, it’s been a while. Everything’s fine. No, I’m not in the field—not exactly. Look, I need some information…”
She gestures for a pen, so Mulder digs through the glove compartment, past a handful of crumpled napkins and baby wipes and a half-eaten bag of sunflower seeds before he finds a pencil.
She starts to write the address while he samples the sunflower seeds—stale, but passable—and looks out the window at the brownstone apartment building. If this trail goes cold, they’re back to square one. He shifts restlessly in his seat and pops another sunflower seed..
Scully snaps the phone shut with a frustrated sigh. “It’s the same address.”
“Mmhm. Must live in one of the upstairs apartments.”
A litany of inappropriate words run through his head, and his jaw goes tight. “Let’s stay for a bit, see if she shows up.”
Scully glances in back, where the baby has fallen asleep, but Emma is restless and whining.
“I’m going to take them to the park down the street to let her run off some energy,” Scully says. “I’ll meet you back here.”
“Do you have a leash?” he mutters.
She gives him a look, then softens. “We’ll find her, Mulder. Relax.”
Scully loads the kids into the stroller and disappears into the foliage across the street.
“Easy for you to say,” he says under his breath, then immediately regrets it. She’s stuck with him if this doesn’t work—the guy who couldn’t figure out the car seat buckles, the guy whose primary parenting strategy involves bribery with sugared cereal.
He swallows hard and sinks into his seat, focusing on the upstairs apartment, as if staring at it hard enough might make its owner appear.
A few minutes later, a woman turns the corner at the other end of the street. Mulder watches as she takes the steps to the brownstone. He calls out the minivan window, fumbling with the lock on the door. “Hey!”
The woman turns, frowns. “Can I help you?”
“Dr. Hoke?” He jogs up the stairs, reaching into his jacket pocket out of habit, seeking his badge before realizing he doesn’t have one.
“Yes…” she says, glancing over him with sharp green eyes. She’s petite, like Scully, with blonde hair instead of red, a maroon scarf loosely tied around her neck.
“My name is Fox Mulder. I have some questions about your colleague, Dr. Speakman.”
She grows rigid, her knuckles white over her keys. “What is this regarding?”
“I wanted to know if you knew anything about his recent disappearance.”
There’s a long pause, and he thinks for a moment that she’s going to walk away. “Are you from the police? I told them everything I know.”
He shakes his head. “I’m FBI—former—but I have a personal interest in the case.”
She folds her arms across her chest. “He was my partner.”
“In the business sense, we shared the practice; shared office space.”
“How well did you know him outside of the partnership?”
“Well enough. He was a little out there, some of his theories were different…but he was a good person.”
“Dr. Hoke, can you tell me a bit about your partner’s work?”
“He was renowned for his treatments for sleep disorders,” she says, a smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. “He used a combination of hypnosis and meditation to guide his patients into a trance-like state, inducing a deep, restful sleep.”
She nods. “He suffered from night terrors as a child. Most children don’t remember their bad dreams, but he remembered all of them in exquisite detail. They persisted long after he should have grown out of them, but he drew on those experiences with his research. He was an incredibly empathetic man, but too much empathy can be dangerous in a career like ours.”
She frowns, and he can see the internal struggle behind her eyes. “Like I said, he was a good person. Shortly before he disappeared, one of his closest patients was kidnapped, and it took a toll.”
Mulder cocks an eyebrow. “Kidnapped?”
“Mm. Taken from her bed in the middle of the night. She was only seven. Harvey—Dr. Speakman—felt terrible about it. The girl’s parents were beside themselves; they still haven’t found her. Worse, they suspected Harvey’s involvement. The police called him in for questioning, but they didn’t have anything.”
“Do you think he was involved?”
She blinks, her tone going frosty. “No, I can say with certainty that he would never have harmed so much as a hair on that little girl’s head. The parents were distraught and needed someone to blame.”
“So what do you think happened to her?”
The woman shakes her head, presses her lips together until they turn white. “I couldn’t say. I just know the effect it had on him.”
Mulder frowns in disappointment. He’s about to thank her for her time until she speaks up, her voice having grown distant and cold.
“You’ve heard of lucid dreaming, Mr. Mulder?”
“I’m familiar with the concept; a person becomes aware of and can control their actions in a dream state.”
She nods. “It’s one of his techniques. Given the ability to recognize particular cues, the afflicted can recognize the dream for what it is and re-orient themselves within it, thereby short-circuiting the fear response in the brain and allowing the person to rest. Harvey is—was—practiced at it himself.”
“You think there’s some significance? A connection between the disappearances and this technique?”
She has the familiar look of a woman who wants to believe, but can’t quite bring herself to do so. “I don’t know, but Harvey wasn’t himself after the girl’s abduction. He blamed himself.”
She looks at him squarely. “I don’t know.”
“Did you know how to induce this type of lucid dream yourself?”
“Of course. I’ve used similar techniques in my practice, but—”
“You could do it?” he presses.
“I suppose.” She sighs, shoulders sinking, murmuring, “If you ask me, his body is lying at the bottom of the Anacostia river and they just haven’t found it yet.”
“You think he was murdered?”
She snorts. “No, heavens, no. Knowing how he felt about that missing girl, the way he was acting, let’s just say suicide isn’t outside the realm of possibility. He was struggling. I didn’t see it until it was too late.”
She speaks with the frankness of a psychiatrist used to compartmentalizing, but her fingers haven’t stopped moving since they began talking—tapping at her forearm, rubbing lightly at the back of her neck, fiddling with an earring.
“Dr. Hoke, I’ve found myself in a unique situation, one in which I think Dr. Speakman’s skills would prove valuable. I have a hunch as to where your partner is, but I need your help to get to him.”
Her eyes widen. “So you do know something.”
“Nothing definitive, I don’t want you to—”
He trails off as he catches sight of Scully coming up the street, pushing the stroller; both kids have passed out, Emma’s arms wrapped around her brother’s chest as he snoozes against her. Scully’s coat flaps lazily at her calves, but he’s riveted to her expression, the easy gait in her walk.
She looks happy.
Despite missing her partner, there’s an air of contentedness he hasn’t seen on her face in years.
You could give that back to her, you know.
He grimaces, shaking off the thought. He’ll worry about that when there’s something he can actually do about it.
“Yeah, sorry. Like I said, I have a hunch, but nothing concrete. But I’d like to know more about this technique of his, and ask you to try to put me under.”
She shakes her head. “Mr. Mulder, it can take weeks, even months, of practice to become an effective lucid dreamer.”
He offers a faint smile. “Normally I’d agree with you, but I’d like to try it.”
She considers this, then sighs. “I have some paperwork and a few appointments to keep, but I’m open after six.”
“Thanks,” he says, looking over his shoulder to where Scully is frowning at something on the sidewalk—Emma’s stuffed bunny has tumbled to the ground. “I’d appreciate it.”
“Your family?” the woman asks, gesturing behind him.
“Uh, something like that.”
He meets Scully at the bottom of the brownstone steps, hands in his pockets, chewing his lip. “Well done, Mom,” he nods to the stroller.
“Not my first rodeo,” she smiles. “What did you find?”
“I think I was right, Scully.”
“You think he got lost in a dream?” she says, a note of blatant incredulity in her voice.
He smiles; this is the Scully he knows. “Yeah.”
“If that’s true—and Mulder, that’s a massive ‘if’—how do you propose we get him back? Or get you back to where you belong, for that matter?”
“I’m meeting Dr. Hoke tonight to go over his research. I think we’ll have some answers if I can get into a lucid dreaming state again. I might be able to find my way back.”
He picks up the little girl, her head a warm weight against his shoulder, and manages to transfer her to the car seat without waking her.
“Well done,” Scully says, smirking at him from over Will’s smaller, slumbering form.
“Not bad for a first rodeo,” Mulder whispers, resisting the temptation to plant a kiss on the girl’s temple.
They get in the minivan, and Scully pulls out her cell phone again.
“What are you doing?”
“Calling my mom to see if she can watch the kids. I want to go with you.”
“Date night?” Mulder grins.
She snorts. “Call it whatever you want, as long as we figure out how to get my husband back.”
Dr. Hoke’s office is decorated with tapestries, embroidered dragons with fire leaking from their snouts, hung behind a plush burgundy sofa. There are plants, large and thick-leaved, vining their way through the room, and the spicy smell of incense and candles. It’s more like a temple than a therapist’s office.
Hardly the place to delve into your daddy issues, Mulder thinks, giving Scully a sideways glance.
“It’s not your typical therapeutic setting,” Dr. Hoke says, reading his gaze. “I have the luxury of being selective about my clients.”
“What kinds of clients do you see?” he asks, taking a seat on the sofa, which is softer than it looks; he sinks into the cushions, shifting.
“I take a more holistic approach to mental health.”
“Like, what,” he says, gesturing to the dragon behind him. “Feng shui?”
The other woman smiles. “My clientele are looking for natural methods of emotional healing; bringing the mind, spirit, and body together in harmony, rather than throwing pharmaceuticals at their problems.”
Mulder catches Scully’s frown out of the corner of his eye, her brow forming a perfect “V”. He bites the inside of his cheek to suppress a grin. “And Dr. Speakman’s techniques were part of that methodology?”
“The course of treatment depends on the patient, but I consulted with Harvey on a few cases, yes.”
“Dr. Hoke, I don’t mean to be rude, but I fail to see how this…technique of your partner’s managed to lose his patient, or him, for that matter,” Scully interrupts.
The woman chuckles without mirth. “I know my practices are considered irreverent in some circles…but trust that I hold no illusions about the power of the human mind. Or about simple physics,” she murmurs, addressing Mulder now. “That’s why I was hoping your husband could enlighten me. You said before you want me to put you under.”
Mulder leans forward. “Yes, I’d like to try it.”
“Well, let’s get started,” she says, gesturing to the couch. “I’m going to ask you to lie down, and I’ll guide you through the relaxation process. Are you familiar with hypnosis, Mr. Mulder?”
“Very,” he mutters, trying to relax against the frame of the couch. Scully hovers in the doorway, arms crossed, watching with concern.
“I need you to find something—it can be anything, as long as it holds deep, personal value for you. Something tangible on which you can focus while you’re under, to remind yourself to maintain control. You don’t have to tell me what it is.”
He thinks of the scar on his shoulder and gives silent thanks for his partner having the courage to pull the trigger.
“Yeah, I’ve got it.”
“OK. I’m going to ask you to take some deep breaths. You might feel tired, drowsy—that’s good. Lay back—relax your breathing. Relax your eyes…your mouth…feel the muscles in your face letting go as you sink, deeper and deeper…you are in control…”
Dr. Hoke’s voice takes on a soothing, reassuring quality, and his eyelids grow heavy, almost numb. The light dissolves into a black-red nothingness as his consciousness drifts. He’s not tired, exactly, but…fluid.
“Focus on your talisman,” she murmurs at the edge of his awareness. “Concentrate on it as you move deeper into sleep. A deep, restful sleep—”
A shape moves across his vision.
Something is wrong; she’s hovering over him, calling to him. He opens his eyes to tell Dr. Hoke to stop, but he’s no longer in the therapist’s office; there’s no couch, no tapestry, no incense—just a vast, green expanse of trees, a winding pathway extending in front of him, a street beyond.
Except the park is nothing like he remembers; there’s not another person in sight. No traffic, just empty cars parked along the street.
The hypnosis is familiar—he remembers it was like this the first time, the effect casting a surreal, murky edge over his memories—but this is different. There’s been no regression. This is stasis, and it’s too vivid to be a memory or a dream.
There’s movement in his peripheral vision, and he turns to see a flash of blue darting behind a tree in the distance.
“Hey!” he calls, following the shape that’s materialized and become a person, a girl with brown skin and long, dark hair. “Come back!”
His feet move as he tries to run, but his motion feels slow and stunted. She stops eventually, slowing to look over her shoulder, but still far off. His breath comes in short gasps. He’s barely taken more than a few steps, but he’s no longer in the park; in fact, he’s several blocks away. The world begins to tilt and he unconsciously reaches up, touches his shoulder, reminding himself of the scar.
Control. Something about control. How did I get here? he wonders, thrown by the passage of time, or lack thereof. The girl has stopped, is standing in the middle of the road, watching him.
“Hey…kid…” he gasps, bending over, trying to catch his breath.
He’s never seen a picture, but he doesn’t have to to know this is the missing girl Dr. Hoke told him about. Her nightgown is damp at the hem, her black hair drawn back in messy pigtails, the kind her mother might have put in just after her evening bath.
The girl regards him warily, but this time she doesn’t run.
“Hi,” he begins, his movements stunted. It feels like his shoes are coated with putty, and the ground seems to lift up, rocking beneath him, before settling back into place.
Just a few more minutes…
“You’re missing,” he says finally.
“You’re following me,” she retorts, though her tone is neutral, curious rather than cautious.
“I am, I think,” Mulder agrees, looking around. The scenery wavers, shimmering as though under extreme heat, but the temperature is cool. He pulls his attention back to the girl with difficulty. “What’s your name?”
She tips her head to the side, considering him. “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“That’s smart,” he agrees, smiling slightly. “How did you get here?”
“I come here sometimes…to get away from the nightmares.”
“Does Dr. Speakman help you?”
“Do you know how to leave this place? To go home?”
She shrugs, suddenly fascinated with something at her feet. Mulder notes her bare toes peeking out from under the dress, stained with dirt.
“I…I need your help,” Mulder says, but the words feel thick, gluey in his mouth. He’s briefly aware of the cloying scent of incense, then it’s gone, replaced by the smell of cold tar and cut grass. “I need to find him. Can you…can you help me?”
“I don’t want him to find me.”
“Why? What happens if he finds you?”
Her eyes are glassy. “You have to go back now.”
“What? No, I need—”
“Goodbye,” she intones, her voice dropping octaves. Her face drips like candle wax, her features melting along with her words.
“No, I’m not ready…I don’t—”
Suddenly he’s falling through the ground. The incense is back, overpowering everything else as the world dissolves around him. He reaches out, trying in vain to find the scar, to touch it, make it real.
There’s dark, flashes of red and black in his eyes. A voice in the background calls his name and breaks the illusion for good; it’s Scully, standing over him, brow furrowed with concern.
He blinks, re-orienting himself with some difficulty. He’s back in the office; the tapestries loom over him, dragons breathing fire through the leaves.
“Mulder? What happened?”
“I…I saw her,” he says, swallowing hard. His head hurts, his throat is dry. He can still smell the damp earthen scent of the park through the cloying incense. “The little girl.”
Dr. Hoke looks concerned. “You mean you had a vision?”
“No, it was her,” Mulder says, sitting up. “I don’t know how. She was real, and she was lost.”
The doctor’s eyes widen. “What did she say to you?”
“She said she didn’t want to be found,” he grimaces.
“I don’t know. The connection…it wasn’t strong enough, I couldn’t focus.”
The woman pauses, as if she can’t believe she’s going to ask the question that he knows she wants to ask. “Did you see him? Harvey?”
Mulder shakes his head. “He wasn’t with her.”
She ducks her head, disappointed, but her face quickly transforms back into a mask of professionalism.
“You went under easily. You’re sensitive,” she observes.
“I have prior experience with hypnosis.”
“More than that, Mr. Mulder. It was as if you were operating in an altered state of consciousness.”
He thinks about the scars along his temple, barely noticeable unless one knew to look for them. He snorts, rubbing his face with his hands, still shaky. “I’m in a permanently altered state of consciousness,” he mutters into his hands. Scully covers her mouth, frowning or stifling a laugh, he can’t tell.
“It seemed to work in your favor,” the other woman sighs, gathering some papers from her desk. “It’s possible you simply weren’t tired enough to get to the depth required to lucid dream. Perhaps tonight.”
He meets Scully’s eyes. She regards him warily, biting her lip; she has something she wants to say, but won’t, not yet.
He gives her a fleeting smile before the doctor comes back, handing Scully a manila folder. “This is the script. Normally I wouldn’t suggest trying this at home at this stage in the process, but given your hyper-suggestibility, that shouldn’t pose a problem. Will you let me know? If you find anything, I mean,” Dr. Hoke says.
“What makes you think I’ll be able to?”
“You seem like the kind of person who asks the right questions. Maybe you’ll have better luck finding the right answers.”
As they leave the office, Mulder has the feeling of having straddled two worlds that are slowly sliding along each other, tectonic plates pushing and pulling and eventually separating and dropping him into the crevasse. There’s a sense of urgency he can’t pinpoint, the thought that they’re working within a limited window of time.
He doesn’t tell Scully this.
“Mulder…what you said in there…”
He unlocks the car, unconsciously opening her door first. “Yeah?”
She presses her lips together hard, thinking. “You don’t know how to control this, do you?”
“How long do we have?” she asks.
“I don’t know. The connection felt tenuous,” he admits. “Like a radio signal, going in and out. But she was real, Scully. She was lost. I think—I know—we’ll find Dr. Speakman the same way.”
“You really think you’re going to find him there, don’t you?”
“I have to,” he says.
They drive in silence as evening turns to night, back to Scully’s mother’s house. When they arrive, rather than getting out of the car, Scully turns off the ignition and sits, waiting.
“What is it?” Mulder prompts, when the quiet grows too thick.
She feigns him off with a wave of her hand. “I guess this has me thinking. If we hadn’t found your sister when we did, how would the course of our lives have been altered? What if they’d never shut down the X-Files? And if your theory is true, if there truly are an infinite number of possibilities, an infinite number of worlds…well…I don’t know if that’s comforting or not,” she finishes, frowning at something on the dashboard.
“I guess it doesn’t matter what’s happening in the other infinity-minus-one universes when you’re living the one you’ve got.”
“‘Don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone,’” she murmurs to herself.
“Hey,” he says, touching her arm. “We’ll get him back, Scully.”
“And what if we don’t?” she asks. “What happens then?”
The unspoken question rings hard and clear between them.
He sits back, speaking with a measure of assuredness he doesn’t feel. “Guess you’ll have to teach me how to make pancakes.”
That night, perhaps sensing the adults’ impatience, the kids delay bedtime for what feels like eons. By the time the house is quiet, Mulder wonders if he’ll be able to sleep at all, let alone dream.
“What do you think?” Scully asks, letting out a groan of exhaustion as she collapses on the couch.
“I think I could use more of that wine.”
She smiles. “Sorry, all out. I do have warm milk or tea with honey.”
“What, no incense? No tapestries?”
“Fresh out of vining plants,” she smirks, sliding over to give him room.
“Let’s get this slumber party over with, then.”
He snorts, shifting to lay back on the couch. “As I’ll ever be…actually, wait—”
“I need something to focus on…the talisman thing. My last one didn’t work.”
Scully frowns, pulling something from her finger. “Here,” she says, pressing it into his palm. He looks down to see the ring—the one he’d left on the bathroom counter.
“Use this. I’ll get him another one; you—he—loses it at least once a week, anyway.”
His fingers close around the smooth metal, letting it nestle into his heart line. This is better than the scar, more tangible, easily held and remembered. He swallows, unable to read her face in the dim light.
“Better?” she asks softly.
“Yeah. Let’s do this.”
Her words grow soft around the edges almost immediately; it’s true, he’s more suggestible than most, but he’s also exhausted. His earlier dream, however brief, lengthened his sense of time. By the time his eyes close, he’s already well on his way to sleep.
He drifts for a while, sinking, no longer able to hear Scully’s voice, but something tells him she’s there; even the ghost of her presence is reassuring.
The black dissolves into red, to gray, and he’s standing in the middle of the field again; this time, the girl is nowhere to be found. Panic creeps up, but he quells it with a swift clench of the ring in his palm, tucking it into the pocket of his jeans.
He recognizes the place; a park, a different one this time, a few blocks from his apartment. He jogs this route occasionally, looking for a change of scenery, but today he finds it desolate and still. The ground feels solid, and there’s the sensation of being drawn inexplicably forward.
His hand reaches into his pocket, fingering the ring again. He’s tempted to push the collar of his shirt down, to check for the scar on his shoulder, but something tells him that might break the spell, so he resists.
If I were lost in a dream, where would I go? he wonders, unable to convince his mind to worry about the lack of progress. Time stretches like elastic around him, and soon he doesn’t recognize the neighborhood, isn’t even sure it exists in the real world.
But the girl is there, sitting on a stoop in front of an unfamiliar building, drawing something with chalk on the pavement at her feet. She looks up at him, blinking, before going back to her work.
“I was hoping I’d see you again,” he begins, keeping his distance.
She wrinkles her nose and keeps drawing.
“I was hoping you could show me how to get home…I think we’re both lost.”
“No,” the girl frowns, a practiced pout. “I don’t want to go back.”
“It’s better here. No bad dreams.”
“What about your family?” he asks, thinking of Emma’s small fists clenched at her sides, of the sugar-sack weight of Will in his arms, the way Scully had smiled even as the circles under her eyes darkened. “They’re looking for you. They miss you. Don’t you miss them?”
She looks at him suspiciously. “How do you know?”
“I don’t,” he admits. “But if I had a daughter, I’d want her to come home.”
“But I am home,” she argues. “This is just a dream. Dr. Harvey said so. The monsters stay away when I’m here.”
She doesn’t know, he realizes. She doesn’t know she’s gone.
Suddenly he wishes he’d thought to ask the girl’s name when he was questioning Dr. Hoke about her erstwhile partner. Somehow, he thinks this one will not be so easily plied with Lucky Charms.
“So what do you do here?” he says, kneeling beside her, attempting to keep her attention.
“Anything I want,” she says, the words tinged with defiance. She picks up a handful of pebbles that have collected along the edge of the stoop, and for a moment he thinks she means to throw them at him, to drive him away, but instead she tosses them in the air.
He winces, expecting to be pelted with falling rocks, but nothing happens. He looks up as the pebbles float, like bubbles. She grins as they drift, catching the breeze, before tumbling to the ground with a gentle plick-plick.
“See? Anything,” she repeats, smug. She goes back to drawing on the sidewalk.
Mulder blinks, mouth agape. “How did you—“
“I just think it,” she sighs in a way that suggests he’s dumb for asking. “You can, too.”
He feels nauseous at the prospect; the world begins to tilt slightly, enough to force his hand back into his pocket to check for the ring.
There’s movement in his peripheral vision; a figure approaching from the other end of the street. Mulder steps up, instinctively putting himself between the girl and this intruder, though she doesn’t seem to notice.
“Stay back,” Mulder calls, but before the other man can respond, the girl jumps up and runs past him.
Mulder jogs after her; sure enough, recognizing the missing doctor’s face. The man smiles, kneeling down and gently grasping the girl by the shoulders. “Trina, I’m so glad I found you.”
“Dr. Speakman,” Mulder says under his breath.
The man straightens, unalarmed. “Yes—and who are you?”
“My name is Fox Mulder; I work for the FBI.”
Dr. Speakman squints slightly. “Do I know you?“
“We’ve met before…sort of.”
“And how did you find Trina?”
“Actually…she found me, I think.”
The man cuts him off. “First things first,” he says, turning to the little girl, a hint of admonishment in his words. “You need to go home, young lady.”
“I told him already, I don’t want to,” the girl says. “The nightmares—“
“They won’t hurt you, Trina. You can’t hide here forever.”
“Yes I can,” she insists. “I like it here.”
“But your parents—they miss you,” he trails off, sighs. “You’re too young to be alone.”
Mulder watches the exchange, marveling at the man’s ease with his patient, the little girl’s unwavering trust.
She hesitates. “But I’m just dreaming. Am I really…gone?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. I had no idea it would happen this way,” Dr. Speakman murmurs. “I thought it was just a dream. I didn’t realize—“
“That you were opening a portal in the process,” Mulder finishes for him, and the man’s head snaps up, to hear the words spoken aloud.
“How did you know?”
“I found myself in a bit of a situation this week,” Mulder says. “I woke up in the wrong life.”
“I don’t understand.”
Mulder approaches. “I’ve experienced it first-hand. This unique state of consciousness has the potential to cross paths with alternate dimensions. This place is like a…a waiting room.”
Dr. Speakman’s brow knits in confusion. “This place…I found it in my dreams when I was a child. I thought it was a construct, something I’d made up—”
“There are others, too.”
The man pales. “Like Trina?”
“Yes, and like me. What I need to know is how to get back. How do you do it? How do you move from…this,” he says, gesturing to the scenery around them, “to the waking state?”
Dr. Speakman considers this, then pulls something from his inner jacket pocket; a polished stone. “You chose an object, yes? Something to ground you in the dream?”
Mulder’s hand closes around the ring. “Yeah.”
“Then let it guide you.”
“I don’t understand,” Mulder says, but the man has turned his attention to the little girl.
“Are you ready to go back, Trina?” he asks.
She nods, taking his hand.
“Your parents are going to be so happy to see you,” the man smiles, preparing to leave.
“Wait! You haven’t told me how to get back,” Mulder interrupts.
“It appears you’re exactly where you need to be.”
Mulder gapes as Dr. Speakman and his young patient vanish before him; the street is empty, daylight has given way to darkness.
Mulder shivers as the world begins to swim in front of his eyes.
No, not yet. Not yet!
He clutches the ring in his pocket, but it doesn’t seem to help, so he slips it on his finger. He turns in a half-circle, running a hand through his hair, until something catches his eye.
The apartment building they’ve been standing in front of is his own.
The stairs in front are crumbling, the railing is starting to rust. The light at the building’s entrance is weak, like always. He approaches slowly, as though he expects the building to fade away like the doctor and his patient. At the foot of the steps, the girl’s chalk drawings have disappeared, replaced by cracked pavement and an errant cigarette butt.
He takes the stairs to the fourth floor, heart pounding with the effort of each step. The risers have taken on a familiar sticky quality; every movement feels weighted and slow, and instead of the usual cooking oil aroma, the hallway smells strangely rich and spicy, like incense.
His apartment is open, the door unlocked. He takes a deep breath and pushes it open, revealing the entry and the living room, both swimming in his vision. It’s only a few steps to the bedroom, but it might as well be miles. His legs are lead weights; he can feel the ground giving way beneath him.
Almost there, keep going…
The bed is unmade—because it’s always unmade—and the simple sight of it makes him well up, but there’s no time for an emotional homecoming. He dives for the mattress just as the black hole opens, exhausted despite his elation, wondering how he can feel so tired when he’s already asleep.
He wakes anxious, like a kid on Christmas morning, taking in the feel of the wobbly mattress beneath him, the smell of what could either be an overflowing laundry hamper or a child’s dirty socks.
When he finally dares to open his eyes, he sees himself, bisected in planes of glass in the mirror above his bed.
I need to have that thing removed.
He sits straight up, heart racing. It beats faster as he lifts his left hand to reveal his ring finger.
Naked. No ring.
He stumbles into a pair of jeans, forgoing the t-shirt, and wanders into the living room. It takes a moment to register the figure sleeping on his couch, the long legs bunched uncomfortably against the arm, the suit jacket and tie hanging over the coffee table. His stomach sinks.
Oh, great. Skinner lives in my apartment.
“Mulder?” the other man grumbles, woken at the sound of footsteps. Skinner squints in his direction. “Where the hell did you come from?”
Mulder’s voice is thick and distant. “I should ask you the same thing.”
Skinner’s face turns a faint shade of pink, whether from anger or embarrassment, Mulder can’t tell. He sits up, rubbing at his eyes, and puts on his glasses. “Christ, Mulder. You’ve been missing for two days.”
“Missing?” he says faintly, and Skinner stands, huffing in frustration.
“You ran off without telling anyone where you were going. Scully was ready to call a full-scale investigation, it was all I could do to keep her from running after you. I told her you wouldn’t do something so stupid, but I was lying through my goddamned teeth.”
“I…he must have gone looking for them…for Scully and the kids,” he murmurs, still dazed.
“‘The kids?’” Skinner says. “You’re not making sense.”
“I…I know. It’s a long story.”
“‘You know?’ That’s the best you can do, Agent?” Skinner pulls himself up to his full height. “I’m going to give you two hours to make yourself presentable and come up with a good explanation. My office,” he growls. “Save your breath until then; I’m going home. I don’t know how you can sleep on that damn thing,” he says, gesturing to the couch.
Mulder grins, never happier to be the subject of Skinner’s ire.
“And call Scully,” the man adds, throwing on his coat. “She deserves to be the one to kick your ass.”
“I will, sir.”
He presses his back to the door after Skinner is gone. Past the exhilaration of his fortunate homecoming, it dawns on him once more where he left things with Scully, realizes Skinner is the least of his problems.
She’s going to kill me.
Scully picks up on the first ring, but it’s the longest ring of his life. He glances at the clock, realizes it’s early; not quite six, but her voice is sharp and clear. She’s probably been waiting up, eager for news.
“Scully,” he breathes, barely able to get the word out.
“Mulder!” The urgency in her voice makes his chest ache. “Where are you? What happened? Are you OK?”
“I’m fine, I’m at my apartment.”
A pause. “You disappeared, you wouldn’t answer your phone…”
“It’s a long story,” he says, unable to stop smiling at the sound of her voice. “You won’t believe it.”
He can hear her breathing on the other end, but there’s no response.
“I’m, ah, heading to the office,” he says finally. “Skinner wants to meet with me. I’ll bring coffee?”
“Sure,” she sighs, and the tone of a single syllable says everything he needs to know.
He fidgets through the tedious meeting, attempting to explain his absence. Skinner doesn’t buy it, but for once, no precious Bureau resources were harmed in the temporary disappearance of one of their most problematic profilers, save for Skinner’s back after a night on Mulder’s couch.
Technically, as Mulder is quick to point out, he was off the clock.
He’s sent back to the basement with a stern warning and a tray of cold coffee, which he presents to Scully with an apologetic grin.
“You’re back,” she says, frowning at something, avoiding his eyes as he perches on the edge of his desk.
“I’m back,” he agrees, wondering where to begin, warning bells going off at her posture, the distance, the way she hasn’t offered him so much as a glance, let alone a smile.
“So…I think I have a lead on the case we were investigating before I…disappeared.”
This catches her attention. “Oh?”
“I need to do some research, but…I think it’s going to work out.”
She looks at him, brow knitted in confusion, her face a chiseled mask. “Mulder…I don’t get it. You up and leave for two days without warning, you don’t bother to leave a message, a clue, anything, and now you’re telling me you’ve solved this case? Where were you?”
Color rises in her cheeks as she talks, the anger seeping out at his unspoken betrayal.
“I didn’t have a choice,” he starts, but realizes that’s the wrong thing to say, even though it’s true. “I…I had this dream.”
“I know, it sounds crazy, it was crazy, but…I was in a dream, in another world, trying to figure out how to get back here.”
She sighs, pursing her lips, and the subtle tremor in her jaw belies her hurt. “Mulder, if you didn’t want to…to help, I get it. I do. I know it’s a lot to ask, but you should have been honest with me if you couldn’t go through with it.”
It takes an unending moment for him to realize she’s not talking about the case, and his eyes widen.
“No, Scully, that’s not what happened, you have to—”
“Concocting some elaborate story just makes it worse. I don’t care if you went off on a weekend bender, but lying about it is…frankly, it’s insulting,” she says, eyes shining as she stands, reaches for her coat and briefcase.
“Scully, listen to me, it was real. It was a dream, I was stuck in another life, I know it sounds crazy, but I wasn’t trying to get away from you.”
She deflates at the threshold, her shoulders sagging. “I’m sorry, I know this isn’t the place,” she whispers. “We can talk later. I need to go, Skinner wants me to do an autopsy for another case.”
“Don’t go, Scully, I—“
The phone on his desk rings, shrill and insistent. She tips her head, raising an eyebrow, daring him to pick it up.
“Wait,” he mouths, reaching to pick up the offensive receiver. “Mulder. Yeah, sir, about that case; no, things have…things have changed,” he says, tucking the phone against his ear, reaching back into the drawer for a pen.
He holds up a finger to Scully, wait, but she shakes her head. She waves a folder at him, points to her watch.
“I think I have a lead—wait!” he calls, but Scully is already walking down the hall. He hisses through his teeth as her footsteps retreat before returning his attention to the call. “No, not you. I have something, but I need to follow up. Now?”
“Yeah,” he sighs through gritted teeth. “I’m on it.”
He pokes his head out the door, but she’s not there; already on her way to Quantico. Their talk will have to wait, and now he has a deadline.
For the first time since his return, he misses the simplicity of the life that was never his.
The man answers the door, blinking owlishly through thick glasses into the morning light. “Mr. Mulder? I didn’t expect to hear from you so soon. Is there something I can do for the investigation?”
“I think so. Dr. Speakman—“
“Call me Harvey,” he says, inviting Mulder in.
Mulder thinks of the minutes ticking, thinks of Scully’s angry footsteps retreating. “I can’t, I have another commitment. But I need talk to you about your patients—the abductees. I think I know what happened to them.”
The man raises a skeptical eyebrow. “Are you still considering, ah, ‘extreme’ possibilities, Mr. Mulder? Because I have to say, as a man of science myself, I can’t fathom how the FBI thinks this method is—“
Mulder interrupts. “You’re an expert in using lucid dreaming techniques as a means of sleep therapy, right?”
The other man looks surprised, wary. “You’ve seen my research.”
“I’m a little too familiar with it,” Mulder mutters. “The thing is, I think your patients were successful at your technique, and became so successful, in fact, that they got lost in their own lucid dreams.”
The other man snorts. “Mr. Mulder, that’s preposterous. Dreams are a state of mind, the brain isn’t even fully capable of moving the body in that stage of the sleep cycle—there’s no way these people just up and walked away from their lives as a result of my treatment.”
“No, you’re right, I don’t think they did walk away. They switched places. I had an experience similar to what you’ve described. In fact, I’ve met you before—not when I interviewed you, but after that, in a dream. You told me to find the center.”
The man blinks. “That’s what I tell all my patients when they’re on the brink of discovering a dream’s lucid state.”
“But you’re good at getting into a lucid dream state, too, isn’t that right? You used to suffer from nightmares, night terrors, as a child. It’s the reason you went into psychiatry.”
The other man’s voice is low. “How do you know that?”
“Your partner told me.”
“I don’t—my wife? She’s never spoken to you.”
“Not your wife—your partner. Your business partner, Dr. Hoke.”
“That’s ridiculous. Dr. Hoke—Marilyn—is my wife. I don’t have a business partner.”
“You do in another lifetime, in a world that exists beyond the dream state. It’s like a go-between, and it’s possible to get mixed up, to go back to the wrong life. It’s not as fun as it sounds,” he adds, as the other man’s expression goes from curious to thoroughly distraught.
“Mr. Mulder, I think you should leave—“
“Not before you listen to me,” he says. “What you need to do is get into that state, and find those lost people. Tonight, if you can. Help them get back, the way you helped me.”
“I—I don’t even know where to…”
“Look—if you do this, you stand more of a chance at getting to the bottom of this than anyone at the Bureau. If I were you, I’d start figuring out how, because there are no more leads. This is all we’ve got.”
The man presses his lips together, considering this. “I’ll take that under advisement, Mr. Mulder. Good day.”
“Thank you,” Mulder breathes, fishing in his pocket for a card. “Here’s my cell. Call as soon as you find anything.”
The call comes a few hours later; Skinner doesn’t bother with a greeting.
“How the hell did you do it?”
“Do what?” he asks his boss, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
“I just got a call from the D.C. police. Two out of three of our missing persons are claiming that Dr. Speakman brought them back from some kind of fantasy world; they’re saying they’ve been lost in their dreams for the last two days. Does this have something to do with you?”
Somehow the question sounds more like an accusation than praise.
“You’ll have my full report in the morning, sir,” Mulder sighs.
There’s a pause. “Mulder?”
“Go home. Get some sleep.”
He snorts. “I’d prefer insomnia.”
The phone clicks off, and he leans back in his chair, propping his feet on the desk. He should be piecing together the report, but the case is the second thing on his mind. The first hasn’t returned from her autopsy.
The time passes in practiced procrastination; the clock reads 8:30 p.m. before he finally admits defeat. Scully hasn’t materialized.
He’s certain the third victim will come forward, and he knows that soon he’ll have to conduct the interviews, tie up the loose ends, and try to formulate his thoughts on an X-File that, for once, will be marked solved.
He should feel good. Instead, he just feels tired. Tired, but anxious about the prospect of giving in to sleep. There’s at least one more thing he needs to do.
The cell in his pocket rings just as he pulls up in front of Scully’s apartment building. His hands are fidgety, nervous, making it difficult to hit the right button. He’s distracted as Skinner barks into the phone.
“The third one came forward? Same explanation. No, sir,” he sighs, with more sarcasm than he would normally risk. “The words ‘alien’ and ‘abduction’ will not feature in my report.” He slams the car door for emphasis.
Her living room lights are on; the window emits a weak, orange glow, and he can see a shadow moving about on the other side of the curtains.
He’s equally relieved and queasy at the sight, but Skinner is still talking, making demands in his ear.
“Yes, I’ll interview the victims. Tonight?” he asks. “Yeah, I understand. I’ll be there.”
He turns off the phone before Skinner can crush what little resolve he has.
He doesn’t remember walking the twenty steps to her building, or the forty-five steps to her apartment door. He’s thinking about a baby with blonde hair and chubby hands pulling at his nose, a little girl with blue eyes and a stubborn pout.
And Scully, smiling as she pushes a stroller on an airy spring day.
You have a chance to give her that.
The sound of his own knock startles him out of this brief reverie, and a temporary moment of panic renders him mute when she answers the door. Her expression is curious, maybe defeated, but not angry.
Just say yes.
He smiles, takes a deep breath, and steps inside.