Chapter 22: Sleeping Bags

     They finish setting up in time to watch the sun sink below the horizon. The wind picks up; the air is significantly cooler at this elevation, and though she’s sweating from exertion, Scully worries the lightweight sleeping bags and sweatshirts they’ve packed won’t be enough to keep them warm tonight.

     Isaac retreats to his tent as soon as it’s ready. “Gonna read,” he mumbles, ducking under the flap without waiting for a response, leaving Mulder and Scully to their injuries.

     “Not much for small talk, is he?” Mulder quips, easing himself down next to the fire with a grunt.

     Scully smirks. “Were you excited to hang out with the ‘grown-ups’ when you were twelve, Mulder?”

     “I couldn’t get my parents to look at me for more than two seconds when I was twelve. But I may have been a special case.”

     She raises an eyebrow. “You’re still a special case.”

     He nods amicably, tilting his chin up to her, indicating for her to sit down.

     “You first,” Mulder says, holding out his hand. “Lemme see.”

     “Always the gentleman,” she murmurs, offering her palm. He pulls back the bandage she hastily reapplied after her fall; it’s soaked with blood.

     “Jesus, Scully,” he whispers, inadvertently pulling back. The first layer of skin has all but come off; her palm is red, blistering, and now bleeding.

     “Just needs antibiotics,” she says, but she’s pale.

     “You need a doctor,” he mutters, reaching across her for the first aid kit.

     “Guess I’m in luck, then,” she snaps, grabbing the first aid kit from him, pulling her hand away. She applies ointment to the wounds herself. He watches, bemused, as she struggles to secure the gauze one-handed.

     “Here,” he says finally, warm fingers gentle at her wrist as he re-wraps the gauze, taping it tight, topping it off with a dose of admonishment. “You’re too damn stubborn, you know that?”

     “Funny, I could say the same thing about you,” she challenges, meeting his gaze. “Your turn, Mulder.”

     “Couldn’t wait to get my pants off, could you?” This earns him an exasperated stare. “Alright, alright. Fine.” He winces as his jeans slide over his hips, giving her access to examine his knee.

     “There’s some swelling—”

     “I’m just really happy to see you, Scully.”

     That damned boyish smirk is back.

     “—but it doesn’t look like anything’s bruised,” she continues, feeling around the leg for tender spots, “…or broken. Just a sprain.”

     “So what’s the good news, doc?”

     She sits back with a sigh. “You’ll be walking again in a couple days. Four, tops, but you need to take it easy if it’s going to heal. Guess we should make ourselves comfortable.”

     “Glad the kid’s not the only one who brought reading material, then,” Mulder says, leaning back and pulling a sheaf of papers from the pack behind him.

     Given the events of the day, she’d forgotten about the files.

     “Here,” he hands over the papers. “I need your medical expertise on this one.”

     “I’m a doctor, Mulder, not a geneticist.”

     “You’re the closest thing we’ve got,” he smiles, “and you’re more than enough for me.” He waggles his eyebrows in a careful innuendo.

     Their eyes meet, and his shoulder bumps against hers, nudging her gently. A familiar fluttering tension signals its presence within her, an old friend, but she suppresses it, breaking his gaze. “You should get some rest. You haven’t slept.”

     He nods. “Gonna be cold tonight. You know, Scully, someone once told me that the best way to regenerate body heat is to—”

     “I’ve heard it before, Mulder. Go to bed.”

     “You’re no fun, Scully, but I love you anyway.” He plants a chaste kiss on her cheek. “Goodnight. Stay safe.”

     She’s lost in thought. “Mmm. Check on Isaac?”

     “Yeah, I will.”

     She hears the zip of the tent door, soft voices as Mulder and the boy exchange words, then silence. Within minutes, her partner is snoring lightly.

     She settles into her thoughts, the day’s events unraveling before her like a spool of black thread. She had hoped she’d reached a point in her life where near-death experiences were not a regular occurrence, but apparently God had other plans.

     Anger rises within her. Well, screw God and his plans, she thinks. God hasn’t done Isaac any favors.

     Her hand burns, but it’s nothing compared to the ache she feels for the young boy sitting a few feet away.

     Maybe it’s not the boy you’re hurting for, Dana.

     She knows now that giving up her son was a mistake. There can be no other explanation for what he’s been through. The power of this certainty is enough to double her over, make her physically ill.

     For his part, Mulder is pushing her, trying to get her to open up. He’s persistent, too—he waited seven years for her to come around to the idea that their relationship could be more than a platonic partnership. Even now, after nearly twenty years together, she’s surprised at his unwavering devotion.

     But how can he live with what she’s done? How can he forgive her when she can’t forgive herself?

     This is my fault. No wonder my life felt fake.

     She thought she could pursue her career as a doctor and never look back. She thought being with Mulder would be enough.

     It’s become clear that the last few years have been a facade for emotions as raw and ragged as the open blisters on her palm. Her son is an orphan, wrestling with burdens no child should have to bear.

     She pulls her jacket tightly around her neck and shoulders, shivering. The campfire’s flames dance with each other, licking and twisting with hypnotic grace, reminding her of the black shadow creature, the way it moved, undeniably inhuman…

     It’s not Mulder you’re mad at, Dana.

     It’s yourself.

     She shudders again, this time not from the cold, and her hand seeks out the warm, comforting weight of the gun in her pocket. Leaning back, she closes her eyes, and lets the darkness swallow her whole.

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