Chapter 28: Rings and Crop Circles

     9:34 A.M.

     Mulder doesn’t know where he’s going, and it occurs to him that wandering into the woods by himself without so much as a compass or a piece of string to mark his trail is a dumb idea.

     Wouldn’t be the first, Spooky.

     He’s walked a great deal, and his bum knee is making its presence known. The ground is squelchy here, there must be a lake or a swamp nearby, but he can’t see water. Just thick trees, brush, and the occasional boulder.

     It’s not the first time Scully has locked him out, but it’s the first time she’s taken it this far. They’ve come close, but he’s never doubted her partnership.

     Until now.

     The distance between them the last few months had been too easy to brush off as the ebb and flow of their relationship. The late work hours, the lack of conversation, the faraway look in her eyes when they were together; he told himself she’d come out of it with time. They’d weathered much worse.

     Or have we? he wonders, still stinging from her words. She’s obviously been thinking about this for a while. Thinking, but not talking.

     He’s good at reading people, getting into their heads, understanding how they tick; he’d built a career around his talent for profiling, and would probably still be at it if he hadn’t thrown himself wholeheartedly into the X-files.

     But he’d failed to read the one person he thought he knew completely. 

     You didn’t see it because you didn’t want to see it, Fox.

     Their conversation from the car comes back, a slap to the face.

     …maybe we both need some time…

     This stops him, filling him with a renewed sense of despair, his knee throbbing in angry sympathy. He sags against the nearest tree, fists clenched.

     He pictures a small black box with two rings, simple gold bands, bought on a whim during a trip to D.C. He’d been consulting on a case, had wandered downtown, visiting old haunts, trying and failing to remember a time when he’d felt at home in the city. The jewelry store on the corner caught his eye, and for no particular reason, he’d walked in.

     It was a running joke between them that Scully’s Catholic upbringing made their living arrangements amoral, much to her mother’s chagrin. They never had a traditional relationship; marriage seemed an unnecessary formality in the face of everything else.

     But he’d bought the rings anyway, in a momentary flight of romantic nostalgia, unsure even at the time if he would ever open the box again. He’d tucked it away for safekeeping, thinking maybe one day he’d work up the nerve to give one to her.

     Too late now.

     He shouldn’t have walked away. How many of his own demons has he faced, always with her by his side? Now she’s struggling, and he runs away with his goddamn tail between his legs.

     But I can’t face losing her.

     It’s a coward’s excuse, but it’s the simple truth. She’s going to walk away, and he will lose the foundation on which his life is built.

     What had he told her once? You were my constant. My touchstone.

     And now she can’t even look me in the eye.

     He sits on the hard earth, ignoring his aching body’s protests, staring blankly, seeing nothing, letting his thoughts spiral into the black. He stays long enough for his ass to fall asleep, for the morning’s damp chill to dissipate. The sun burns off the fog, shining down through the trees, warming him. 

     It’s so bright.

     The cover here should be thick, lots of old forest, the terrain too rough even for loggers. It should be dark under the canopy of all these trees, with all the old growth.

     He looks up, squinting at the sunlight, at a blue sky so piercing it makes his eyes water…

     Is that…what is that?

     The tops of the trees are black.

     He stands, blinks, shielding his eyes with his palm. It must be a trick of the light.

     No, those trees are scorched. Where have you seen that before?

     His first inclination is to run back to the camp, to bring Scully here so she can see it for herself, get her scientific opinion. He thinks better, clearer, when she pushes him, his own personal devil’s advocate, but he wants to be certain. He doesn’t think he could take it if she threw this back in his face.

     He sets off in a northward direction, looking for a break in the trees, a clearing, hoping to get a better view. Occasionally he stops along the way to rest his leg, all the while staring upward, shielding his eyes against the light, following the same strange black slash in the foliage.

     His theory is confirmed a mile later, in a large opening with stones and malnourished, gnarled trees. He walks a few paces from the tree line, turning around, but it’s as he suspected. There are none of the usual signs of a forest fire; no felled trees, no burned underbrush, no ash. Just the strange black line, starting about twenty-five feet up, as though something massive left a dirty black footprint on the forest’s canopy.

     As though something hovered there. Something large enough to span more than a mile, with enough heat to char a forest without burning it to the ground…

     He stares at the trees until his vision swims, heart racing, mouth dry. Sprained leg be damned, he needs to get back to the camp to warn Scully and Isaac.

     They’re not alone. They’re not safe here.

     A desperate thought occurs to him as he makes his way back through the desolate wilderness.

     We’re not safe anywhere.

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