Title: Ever After
Summary: Past and present collide, unleashing a deadly threat only Scully can see.
Author's notes at conclusion of story.
The scrape of a pebble beneath a shoe. The rustle of clothing. The faintest whisper of an indrawn breath. The softest of sounds on the edge of perception would be enough to guide her aim.
He was still there -- she could smell him. That filthy, animal scent had assailed her even before she'd felt the first blow.
He was close.
Poised for another attack.
Waiting, she knew, for her to flee in panic. Ready to strike at her vulnerability. Yet even surrounded by pitch darkness, she wasn't helpless. She pressed her body against the stone and adjusted her grip on the gun.
If he could wait, so could she.
Scully chanced a glance to her left, but her flashlight was nowhere to be seen. It had been knocked from her hand when her assailant first struck her, and was most likely wedged deep into one of crevices that cut across the floor of the cave.
She wasn't sure how he'd managed to take her by surprise. Had she been so lost in the artistry of the ancient paintings that she'd missed the sound of his approach? It didn't seem possible, yet the fact remained she'd been caught completely off guard. By the time she felt his presence behind her and smelled the stench, he was already swinging the weapon that had slammed into her arm and sent her flashlight flying.
Darkness and heat conspired with the silence to smother her. Sweat burned her eyes and slithered across her skin. Her bruised arm trembled under the strain of keeping the gun steady. But she didn't waver. If anything, the discomfort steeled her nerves and sharpened her senses.
This time when she heard the whistle of the air as his weapon bore down on her, she was able to react. She quickly dropped to the ground and rolled to the left, snapping her gun up, ready to fire. "Federal Agent! I'm armed. Drop your weapon and identify yourself!" Her voice rang out in the cave and spiraled away in an angry chorus of echoes.
Despite the authority in her tone, despite the fact that she had a loaded weapon ready to fire, the man did not speak, nor did he drop the stick he was wielding.
Her patience with the waiting game had come to an end. She fired a shot toward where she had last heard him.
The concussive blast was deafening; for long seconds she could hear nothing but the ringing in her ears. She studied the image the bright gunpowder flash had burned into her eyes. The figure she'd seen looming before her, trapped in the center of her deadly aim, looked like a man. In a maze of stalagmites and shadows, it was impossible to know for certain.
Taking nothing for granted, she cautiously rose to her feet, keeping her gun trained in front of her. She took small, slow steps, gingerly feeling ahead with her toe before putting her foot down. When she reached the place where she expected to find his body, he wasn't there.
She took another step, and another, using her foot to investigate the area around her, finding nothing. Her journey brought her to the opposite wall of the cave. She pivoted around, beginning anew the meticulous appraisal of her surroundings, cursing the absence of light. She knew the sound of gunfire would bring Mulder running, armed with a weapon and a flashlight, but she was uneasy. There was still a pungent odor permeating the air. Either her attacker was lying injured or dead within a few feet of her, or he lurking nearby, planning his next assault.
She weighed her options and decided to stay put. When Mulder arrived, he could chide her for foolishly pasting herself against a wall and pointing a gun at a dead man. Until then, she would operate on the assumption that the threat was still present.
It was no more than a minute before Mulder's voice called out to her through the darkness.
"I'm here, Mulder."
Any second, she thought, the beam from his flashlight would slice through the thick murk of the cave. She watched for the light and mentally willed Mulder to hurry, to put an end to this dark nightmare. She was relieved beyond reason when she saw the first dim flicker of light.
Relief curdled into dread when she heard the scramble of footsteps only a few feet away, accompanied by the whoosh of air that forewarned a strike by her adversary. She brought her weapon around to fire, and braced herself for another blow from the stick.
The pain, when it struck, was so much worse than she had anticipated. So much worse than she could bear.
Her knees gave way and she slid to the ground. She tried to stay conscious, tried to find strength to raise her gun, but nothing mattered so much as escaping the white-hot agony that gripped her in the instant the jagged point of a spear tore its way into her body.
On paper, Vernon Hampton was an impressive man -- a brilliant researcher, an acclaimed speaker, a revered authority in his field. In person, he was a man of singular arrogance whose condescending attitude toward the agents had already driven Scully into the cave to investigate the reported vandalism.
Mulder had been unceremoniously demoted to pack mule, forced to ask his questions while hauling armloads of shovels and survey equipment from the cave entrance to the back of the archaeologist's battered pick-up truck. Hampton seemed to take perverse delight in handing the agent the heaviest and dirtiest of the gear, while he himself carried small bags of artifacts and set them carefully in the front of the vehicle. "Such valuable relics," he said, "should not be handled by amateurs."
Fingers of orange and vermilion stretched across the sky in a farewell gesture from the setting sun, but the wilting Texas heat lingered. Mulder was parched and soaked with sweat by the time they finished their task. He looked on in annoyed silence as the researcher filled a cup with cool water, took a greedy drink, then spilled the excess out to be swallowed by the lifeless dirt. The agent considered excusing himself long enough to reeve his canteen from the pile of camping gear, but since this was the first time Hampton had been stationary since their arrival, opted to question the man now and drink later. "You said Patrick Lloyd was working alone the night of his death?"
"Is that at all unusual?"
"Not really. He was an eager student, anxious to impress." The scientist drew himself up to his full height and braced his hands against the truck bed as if it were a podium. "And let me save you a little time here by telling you that no, I don't know what killed him. I assume you spoke to the coroner?"
"My partner conducted the autopsy. Patrick Lloyd died of blood loss, but there were no external signs of injury."
"Assuming your partner isn't completely incompetent as a pathologist, she must have some sort of explanation for how this occurred. Mind you, I'm not terribly interested in the details. Regardless of the cause of his demise, Pat's dead, and his death creates an unfortunate delay at a critical point during the excavation."
"Vernon." There was a hint of reprimand in the soft voice of Clare Hampton as she approached the two men.
Mulder wondered what a lovely, bright woman like Clare could possibly find attractive in a man like Vernon Hampton. Was intelligence so alluring that it overshadowed rudeness and conceit? Did a secret magnetism emanate from scarecrow-thin old men with permanent scowls and shabby cowboy hats?
Whatever the reason, Clare was obviously devoted to the man, willing to spend her days as his colleague and her nights as his wife. And now she was his public relations manager, trying to put a positive spin on his image for the agent. "You must think we're awfully insensitive, Agent Mulder. To be honest, I think we're still in a state of shock over Patrick's death."
She sidled up to her husband and ran a caressing hand down his bony arm in an affectionate gesture, but one that seemed to say "Stop being an ass, Vernon, and let me handle this."
Apparently the message got through; Hampton remained quiet as his wife explained their dilemma. "It's just that we have a major grant up for renewal, and without significant progress, new funds won't be approved. We've put years of work into the Los Cazadores project, and we've made some recent discoveries that are very exciting. If we can't continue with the excavation soon, it could be devastating to our research."
"Could this be a case of professional sabotage?"
Hampton peered over his wireframes, looking very much the disapproving professor prepared to admonish an inattentive student for asking a ridiculous question.
Clare, again, bridged the communication gap between the agent and her ill-tempered husband. "It's not unheard of in our profession, and when we saw the new paintings in the cave, we were almost certain that was what happened. But murder -- I just can't believe anyone would go to that extreme to undermine our work."
"So you think the two incidents may be unrelated?" Mulder directed his attention to the young brunette, interested to hear if she disagreed with the local authorities, who were convinced of a connection between the paintings and the murder.
Vernon Hampton, apparently displeased he was no longer the focus of Mulder's attention, nudged Clare aside before she could answer. "Isn't that what you're supposed to tell us, Agent Mulder?"
Oh yes, Scully would definitely be conducting any and all follow- up interviews with Dr. Vernon Hampton. It was the least she deserved after abandoning him with this jerk. Fortified by thoughts of sweet revenge against his truant partner, Mulder continued to question the archaeologist. "What can you tell me about these new paintings?"
"Just that they started showing up last week alongside the original drawings."
"And you're certain they're hoaxes?"
"For Christ's sake, what else would they be?"
"But Clare said they were indistinguishable from the originals, drawn in the same style and with the same level of erosion."
"Which is why they must have been drawn by someone extremely knowledgeable in the field. I'm a pragmatist, Agent Mulder, unlike my wife."
Mulder watched Clare for a reaction, and was amused when she crossed her arms over her chest and cocked her head to the side. This woman was no shrinking violet, and Mulder felt certain that Dr. Vernon Hampton would be getting an earful from the very pragmatic Mrs. Hampton during the drive home.
"While it makes her more comfortable to believe that no colleague could stoop to such levels to thwart the project and destroy my name, it would be impossible for anyone outside the field to pull off such an impressive forgery. If you and your partner want to spend the night here and hope that a suspect presents himself, that's your prerogative. I won't tell you how to do your job."
Mulder noted the scientist then proceeded to do that very thing. "But if I were you, I'd round up the faculty of the Archaeology Department at the University and question them. That's where you'll find your murderer."
Even if Hampton was right, Mulder wasn't anxious to take another long ride over rough terrain in the bed of a beat-up pickup truck. There were worse ways to waste time than spending a night under the stars with Scully. "If we don't make any progress on the case tonight, we intend to question your associates tomorrow." They were losing daylight quickly, and Mulder glanced back toward the dark entrance to the cave. "Where is Agent Scully, by the way?"
Clare had gone to the front of the truck to secure the sample bags for the trip, but yelled back. "She wanted to stay and look at the paintings some more."
And how convenient, Mulder thought, that her meticulous investigation was preventing her from participating in this interview. She would unquestionably be keeping first watch tonight.
He wasn't the only one perturbed by Scully's absence. Hampton's frown deepened at the news. "Did you tell her not to touch anything?"
"She's not going to touch anything, Vernon. She just wanted to study them a while longer. I thought you were anxious to get back to the lab."
Hampton pulled a small black case out of the back of the truck and handed it to Mulder. "You know how to use the radio?"
"Clare showed me."
"I doubt you'll need it. Whoever is responsible for those forgeries is a genius. They wouldn't be foolish enough to revisit the scene of the crime so soon after the murder was committed."
"All the same, we'd like to stay. If he's the artist you claim he is, he might want to come back to admire his masterpiece."
"Your choice." Hampton settled himself into the driver's seat and started the truck. He shouted over the growl of the muffler- deprived engine. "Call us when you're ready for a ride back to civilization."
Even with a map, the journey through the cave was confusing and hazardous. Loose stones beneath his feet and outcroppings of rock above his head schemed against him; no matter where he pointed the flashlight beam, there was something unrevealed to trip or scrape or snag him. The route to the paintings took him through a twisted maze of paths and passageways. While the trip would have been impossible without the map Clare had given him, he dearly wished the ancients who'd put such effort into their art would have taken time to sketch out some directions on the wall with a big arrow that said "You are here."
At the moment he was standing at the entrance of what could only be "Skeleton's Passage," an aptly-named pass between the walls of the cave. It would be a tight squeeze, even for someone as slender as he. His irritation with his partner ticked up another notch as he sucked in his breath and began to inch his way through the cramped space.
As if being stranded alone with Hampton wasn't enough, Mulder had been saddled with the task of setting up camp. As he'd worked, he'd watched the entrance of the cave, waiting for Scully to emerge, full of contrition, breathless with apology. With every tent stake he drove into the hard, dry ground, he grew more angry.
By the time he set out to find her, he was furious.
He envisioned her sitting comfortably on the cave floor, staring in rapturous awe at the primitive drawings. He imagined how humbled she would be by his upbraiding, although he might censor some of the more colorful phrases he'd been muttering aloud.
He had welcomed the bitter emotions of anger and petty resentment. Had summoned them, in fact, in the hope they would consume all traces of concern for her, and devour the fearful visions that worry had conjured in his mind.
And it worked. He wasn't worried about her at all.
At least not until he heard the gunshot.
It felt like seconds. It seemed like hours. She wasn't sure how long she'd been unconscious, but when she awoke, Mulder was there, bathed in the aura of a flashlight's glow, hovering over her like an angel.
His lips were moving, his hands floated above her, yet she could neither hear nor feel him.
She tried to concentrate on Mulder. If she could hear the gentle cadence of his voice, maybe she could ignore the sound of her own heartbeat as it drummed in her ears. She wanted to look into his eyes and find reassurance, but she couldn't force her gaze beyond the long, rough-hewn shaft of the spear that impaled her shoulder. She wanted to feel the warmth of her partner's hands, not the cold chill that gripped her as her blood raced through her body and poured from her wound.
It was the cold she felt most of all.
Icy air swirled across her blood-soaked arm and chest and she began to shiver. Mulder pulled her to him and she reveled in his warmth. Safe and warm in his arms, she relaxed and the pain began to fade.
Until, with careless disregard for her injury, he knocked his arm into the spear.
If she'd had the energy, she would have screamed with the agony of it, but she used all the strength she had to push him away.
"Scully, what's wrong? Did I hurt you?"
How could he not know what he'd done? "The spear." She grit her teeth to ride out another wave of pain before she could gasp out her next words. "You hit the spear."
Scully looked again at the wound, and the bloody stick that rose from it. Since Mulder had jarred the shaft of the spear, the flow of blood had increased. She fought nausea and the seductive promise of unconsciousness, and turned her head back toward her partner. "In my shoulder. You hit the spear in my shoulder."
She watched as his gaze moved over her, expecting him to react with horror, or at least with deep regret at having made her injury worse. But there was nothing in his eyes but confusion.
"Scully, I don't understand. There isn't any spear in your shoulder."
Sometimes fear was an ally. It gave a man courage, speed, a keen awareness beyond anything he normally possessed, in order to strengthen him for the fight or flight to come.
But not this kind of fear.
This fear was the most heartless of enemies. It grabbed a man in mid-stride and held him immobile, forcing him to stare at his nightmares made real. This fear mocked its helpless captive as precious seconds melted into oblivion.
Cruelest of all, this fear had taken on the disguise of relief. When the gunshot thundered through the cave, Mulder had begun calling for Scully -- shouting her name, pushing forward through the answering silence, then calling her name again. Just as he reached the edge of panic, her voice made its way back to him. He relaxed, abandoning his reckless, frenzied rush through the cave. Lulled into a more cautious pace by the belief that she was all right.
Finding her unconscious on the floor of the cave had staggered him. He'd stood, dazedly looking down on her, until his knees finally recalled how to bend and his lungs remembered to breathe. Something instinctual guided him to check her respiration and pulse; his mind was preoccupied with a litany of self-reproach.
She drifted awake with a soft groan and the sleepy flutter of lashes. Awareness returned to him in the same moment, as if her now-conscious mind had tethered itself to his and dragged him out of his stupor.
Once he'd broken out of his paralysis, he couldn't stop touching her. His hands traced over her legs and across her arms in search of broken bones. His fingers explored her scalp for bumps or cuts. His mind tossed out questions faster than he could ask them. "Scully, are you okay? Are you hurt? Did you hit your head? What happened?"
Her silence was unnerving, as was the fact that her eyes seemed focused to the right of his face. It alarmed him to think that her misdirected vision could be a symptom of a head injury -- something he was powerless to soothe. He was almost grateful when she shivered. At least that was a discomfort he could ease.
He settled down onto the cave floor, stretching out on the dirty ground by her side. Reluctant to move her, but prompted by another of her violent shivers, he slipped his arm behind her back and raised her just slightly until she was tucked against his chest.
Though her trembling eased a little, every tiny vibration that chased across her body rocked him like a shockwave. Pulling her closer still, he brushed his right arm across her chest to her shoulder, ready to wrap himself around her like a quilt.
When he touched her shoulder, she arched in his arms, caught in the throes of some terrible pain, and with adrenaline-laced force, shoved him away. He sat up and looked her over again, to see what he might have done. There was nothing wrong as far as he could ascertain, but her eyes were transfixed on some point just above her left breast.
"Scully, what's wrong? Did I hurt you?"
Hearing her voice should have been a welcome relief after such a long silence, but the pain it bore rasped against his heart. "The spear. You hit the spear."
"The spear?" Mulder had managed to absorb quite a bit of medical jargon during his years with Scully, but this was a term he'd never heard before. A spear was, as far as he knew, a pointy stick and nothing more.
She didn't clarify, just nodded toward her shoulder. Even filtered through pain, the irritation in her voice was unmistakable. "In my shoulder. You hit the spear in my shoulder."
He struggled to make sense of what she was saying. He thought perhaps if he stared at her shoulder long enough, he could make himself see what she wanted him to see -- something besides a dirt-streaked t-shirt pulled tight over skin that appeared neither broken nor swollen. When he looked at her face, her eyes were pleading with him, trying to convey a message he simply couldn't decipher. "Scully, I don't understand. There isn't any spear in your shoulder."
"Whatever it is." She passed off his comment as if he'd been debating semantics, and continued speaking, leaving Mulder stranded in his confusion. "You have to help me --"
With her right hand she reached across her body and grasped at the empty air over her left shoulder. The simple movement seemed to cause an inexplicable amount of pain. Her face became chalky white beneath a sheen of sweat. Her arm trembled, then fell slack at her side. She was fighting just to find breath for a ragged whisper. "You have to help me pull it out so I can get the bleeding stopped."
Her icy cold fingers closed around his hand and dragged it toward her shoulder. "Just take hold of it right here, and when I say it's okay, draw it straight up." She molded his fingers around a circle of nothing -- a ridiculous pantomime that might have been funny if Scully wasn't biting back screams of pain. "It's going to hurt, Mulder, but if I pass out, you've got to keep pulling until the spear is all the way out, and then put pressure on the wound."
He didn't move the hand she had so carefully arranged for him, but swept the other gently across her forehead, wiping away the sweat and surreptitiously checking for fever. "Scully, I can't --"
"You have to. I can't do it by myself. I need you to do this for me."
Trust shone from her eyes, magnified through frightened tears. He'd always thought that if she ever asked, he'd find a way to accomplish the impossible for Scully. It had been an easy promise to make, he realized, since Dana Scully didn't believe in impossible things.
In reality, his devotion to his partner didn't give him any extraordinary power to move heaven and earth, or even invisible spears. It only gave him the empathy to feel the same pain she was feeling when her next word ripped into him like a dagger.
It wasn't a word she used with Mulder very often, even as a social pleasantry. Not for lack of manners, only lack of necessity. If she wanted something, she reached out and took it. Scully chafed at the notion of asking anyone to "please" do anything for her -- not if there was a way to accomplish it herself.
Of course, there had been occasions during her tenure with the X- Files when she'd found herself in more trouble than she could handle alone. Times when the only practical alternative was to ask Mulder for assistance. But even then, the words hadn't been required, because he was already there. Already helping.
He would help her now, as he always had before. Even as she pleaded with him, she was certain of that fact. If he was reluctant, it was understandable. Who wouldn't be reluctant to do what she was asking him to do?
She closed her eyes, dug her fingers into the dirt, and braced herself for the agony to come. "Okay, Mulder. I'm ready."
There was a slight movement against the spear; the accompanying burst of pain seared through her shoulder and down her arm. Shrieked in her ears like a siren.
Lucidity picked a hell of a time to return, and she fought to focus on something besides the pain: on trying to breathe, on trying not to cry. On Mulder.
And on why he wasn't doing what she'd asked.
When she opened her eyes again, she saw his hand was no longer gripping the spear, and he was looking down at her with the most stricken expression she'd ever seen him wear. "Mulder?"
"I'm sorry, Scully."
She raised her hand to stroke his arm, hoping to infuse through her touch all the confidence she had in him. "Mulder, you have to --"
It wasn't what he said so much as the defeated shake of his head that halted her in mid-sentence.
"I don't see it. Whatever it is you want me to see, I don't see it."
"What are you talking about?" She slipped her hand down his arm and linked her fingers through his, hoping, however irrationally, that a solid physical connection might clear up their odd miscommunication.
His apologetic expression warned that what he was about to say would be difficult to hear. It wasn't warning enough. "The spear. I don't see it. Describe it for me."
She didn't dare laugh because it would have hurt too much. If she could have marshaled enough strength for a good punch, she would have snapped his head back with a firm right hook. Instead, she pulled her hand away and let all the incredulity she felt bleed into her voice. "You're kidding."
"I need you to tell me exactly what happened. Describe what you think you're seeing."
She heard condescension in the tone he undoubtedly meant to be soothing, and it grated against her already frazzled nerves. "You think I'm delusional?" Lost in her outburst, she tried to raise herself up, instantly regretting the motion when pain slammed her back to the ground.
Mulder's hands flittered over her like birds looking for a safe place to land. Why, she wondered, was he was being so careful with someone impaled by a hallucination? "I'm sorry, Scully. I didn't mean it that way, but right now I don't understand what's happening here and I need you to explain it to me. Tell me what happened."
Her physical discomfort, her emotional hurt over Mulder's disbelief -- she hid it all from him in the monotone of her answers. "I was looking at the drawings when someone attacked me. I didn't see what he looked like. He knocked my flashlight away when he hit me the first time."
"Hit you with what?"
"The spear, I guess. He swung it at me a couple of times, I shot at him but apparently missed, and then he threw the spear at me."
She let her gaze follow Mulder's flashlight beam as he directed it around the chamber, and over the back wall of the cave. There was no one there. No trace that anyone had been there for a thousand years. Perhaps she should have been relieved to know her attacker had fled, but she grew defensive in the absence of evidence. "I'm not imagining this, Mulder."
"I didn't say you were." He spoke gently, without a hint of accusation, but she heard it all the same.
Blood continued to flow steadily from her shoulder. Her agitation over Mulder's apparent blindness to her peril was sapping her strength. Desperation crept into her voice. "But you can't see it. You don't believe it's real."
"I believe you believe it's real."
"Stop patronizing me, Mulder."
There had been times, lots of times, when she had become so infuriated with Mulder that she'd simply walked away rather than continue with pointless debate. Oh, how she wished she could walk away now. The best she could do was turn her head away from him, and he wouldn't even allow her that. There was no anger in his touch, but a firmness that could not be ignored when he slid his hand against her cheek and forced her to face him again.
"Do you honestly think that I would choose to sit here and argue with you if there was something I could do to help you?" How had that happened? She was the one aching with his betrayal, and yet it was his face that wore the sadness. "You say you have a spear in your shoulder. You say you're bleeding. Now, I can see that you're in a considerable amount of pain, but I can't see the spear and I can't see the blood. You say you want me to help you. Then help *me*, Scully. Help me understand what's going on."
It made no sense. None at all. He should be able to see the spear. But why would he lie and say he couldn't? Why would he choose this moment, of all moments, to bring dishonesty into a relationship built on a foundation of truth?
He wouldn't. It was really that simple. There had to be a explanation for their differences in perception, and it was imperative that they uncover that explanation. But their only chance at accomplishing that was to accept each other's version of the truth.
She believed in him.
She prayed that he believed in her, because if he didn't, she was as good as dead.
He'd never told her. He did have a decent self-preservation instinct, after all, and if Dana Scully knew that he had stolen her secrets, had unlocked all the meanings behind her expressions and vocal nuances, he'd be a dead man. He'd watched her try to force away her disappointment in him, had heard her cloak her panic in carefully modulated tones. But just like always, she forgot to tell her eyes to play the game, and just like always, they gave her away.
He'd seen it all -- the fear, the hurt, and the forgiveness. She'd drawn away and come back to him, all without moving an inch.
He was worried, and more than a little frightened by the fact that Scully was growing more pale by the minute. That despite her ability to engage in coherent conversation, talking seemed to rob her of stamina. He took comfort where he could find it, and right now it was in knowing they were again functioning as partners rather than adversaries. "Did the man say anything?"
"No. Nothing at all."
"Can you tell me anything about him?"
"He smelled bad." She probably didn't even realize she was doing it, but Scully wrinkled her nose to combat the memory of the bad odor. It was a supremely silly gesture, and for a moment it made him forget that she was hurting.
"He smelled? Like what?" He allowed himself a chagrined smile at the thought of tracking their suspect like a bloodhound, but if that was all he had to go on...
"Like he hadn't bathed in this decade." She turned her head toward the arm he had propped nearby, and sniffed. "Only slightly worse than you smell right now."
"You know, Scully, when I heard the gunshot I thought about dashing back for a quick shower so I'd be fresh as a daisy when I got to you."
He'd wanted to make her smile, but instead he'd reminded her of his race to find her. Guilt -- that was the secret her eyes were telling. Well, maybe not so secret. She lifted her hand to his face and ran her fingers across the grime and stubble on his cheek. "I'm sorry."
He brought her hand to his lips and brushed an almost-kiss across her dirty fingertips. "We'll figure this out. It'll be okay. But we need to get you out of here."
"Until I get this spear out of my shoulder, I won't be going anywhere."
"What can I do?"
"Can you find my flashlight? I think it probably fell into one of the cracks in the floor."
If only every search was so easy. He found it almost instantly, wedged against the cave wall, only a few feet from where Scully was lying. It even lived up to its impact-resistant promise by lighting up as soon as he hit the switch.
She patted the ground beside her. "Okay, leave the flashlight on, and hand me my gun. You go radio for help and bring the first aid kit back. Maybe if I can deaden the pain a little, I'll be able to pull the spear out by myself."
While it was the only real option in this surreal situation, he still didn't like it. "You're sure you'll be okay."
"I'll be fine."
He knelt beside her and wrapped her hand around the handle of her gun. "If Stinky comes back, don't hesitate to use this."
"You're on first watch. Don't fall asleep."
Don't fall asleep.
Her mind clung tenaciously to Mulder's admonishment, but her body was so very tired.
Don't fall asleep.
It played in her head in endless repeat, like a chant from an angry mob.
Don't fall asleep.
Like a Psalm recited in Mass.
Don't fall asleep.
Like a lullaby.
She awoke to the same peaceful hush that had enticed her to sleep. Her flashlight continued to cast its warm glow across the walls of the cavern. Mulder had not yet returned.
Everything was just as it had been when she'd fallen asleep.
Everything except for the stench that pervaded the air and filled her with a sickening certainty that she was no longer alone.
Dana Scully wasn't afraid of the dark.
Darkness wasn't death, but only its shroud, cloaking the monsters and murderers, the rapists and demons. Those were the things to be feared -- not that which concealed them.
Darkness was kind. It allowed for self-delusion. Hidden beneath night's blanket, she could explain away every sound, every scent.
No, she wasn't afraid of the dark.
It was light, terrifying and merciless, that ripped away the protective veil and revealed the phantom as something tangible. In a flashlight's beam, her fear took form, and it was worse than anything she had imagined.
He moved impossibly fast to cover the distance between them, agile as a panther and just as feral. Her gun had slipped from her grip while she slept. She stretched her fingers, hoping to find the weapon without drawing his attention to her search, but he countered her subtle movement with a clear warning. His hand closed over the shaft of the spear and nudged it infinitesimally forward.
A cold white shot of pain radiated from her shoulder and swept like an icy tide across her body. She gasped for breath and fought to keep her eyes open; strength deserted her and her hand fell away from the gun.
With a victorious grunt, he reached down and snatched the weapon. Bringing the gun up to his face for a close inspection, he studied it for a moment, then flung it across the cave.
Too bizarre to be real, too painfully real to be a dream, nothing about the situation made sense, no matter how often she shuffled and reassembled the facts. Seeing the face of her adversary only compounded her confusion. True, she and Mulder hadn't really discussed a profile of their suspect, but she had made some assumptions based on the facts they'd been given. This man was nothing like she expected: not a vengeful scientist, not a disgruntled student.
He appeared primitive. Uncivilized. A savage with black hair spilling over his shoulders in filthy tangles, and animal skins wrapped around his waist. Convincing, to be sure, but as easily donned as a child's Halloween costume. An absurd extreme to go to in order to thwart the Los Cazadores project, but the student's death and her own injury were testament to his desperation, or his insanity.
Except his expression was neither desperate nor insane. It was fearful. Dangerously afraid, like a cornered animal, watching her with narrowed, distrustful eyes. His hand hovered near the spear and she didn't doubt he would drive it completely through her shoulder the instant he sensed a threat from her.
She laid utterly still as he crouched over her. His body odor, especially at this close range, was nauseating and she had to hold her breath to keep from choking. It was small consolation that he seemed to find her scent just as distasteful. He sniffed the air above her, then drew back, grimacing in disgust.
For a few minutes he stayed as still as she, never looking away. Studying her, even as she studied him. She was years out of anthropology class, but from her recollection, this man bore all the characteristics of the ancient people the Hamptons were researching. The almond-shaped eyes that peered at her were deep, muddy brown, his nose was broad and flat, his skin darkly tanned. He was a small man, no taller than she, but his limbs were long and rangy.
The little fragments of a theory she'd been trying to paste together splintered apart at his first touch.
Oh, God, he was touching her. Every impulse screamed for her to pull out of reach, to slap him away, but while his left hand was sliding up her arm, his right hand remained only a breath's width from the spear. His touch was tentative, sinister as the tickle of spider legs, as he ran his fingers over her chin and cheeks and forehead. When he reached her hairline, he jerked away as if he'd been burned. He examined his fingers, then touched her again, carefully at first, then with lingering strokes over her hair, again and again, as if petting her.
The gentle caresses would have been soothing if given by a friend or a lover, but not by a spear-wielding lunatic in a loincloth. Her anger sparked and caught fire, consuming all good judgment in its inferno. If he was a frightened animal, she was a wounded one, trying to mask her vulnerability with a growl. "Stop it."
Her voice, or the hateful tone of it, startled him and he pulled his hand from her hair, though scarcely for a moment. It had been a pitiful show of force, considering she couldn't even sit up without passing out, and her impulsive outburst cost her dearly. Once he'd recovered from his surprise, he grabbed a fistful of her hair and yanked her forward. As her head and shoulders left the ground, she felt every cell, every muscle fiber that ripped apart beneath the shifting spear.
Just as suddenly, he released her.
Brilliant, blinding light flooded her vision when her head struck the stone floor of the cave. Her legs wouldn't obey her command to kick, her fingers refused to curl into a fist, even her voice abandoned her when she tried to call for Mulder. She was adrift, lost in the brightness, groping frantically for the control she'd lost.
When darkness came to her, she wasn't afraid. She relaxed as it enfolded her in a sweet embrace, and closed her eyes at its murmured promises of painless sleep.
These were the sounds of a promise breaking: static, electronic squeals, the shattering of plastic against rock.
Leaving her had been necessary, but far from easy. She needed help, and more than he could provide, so he'd given her a flashlight, a gun, and a promise to return quickly.
All during his hike out of the cave he rehearsed what he'd say to the Hamptons, searching for words to describe the indescribable. Seeking a way to reconcile Scully's version of events with his conflicting perception and his hope that, just this once, her account was unreliable.
In the end, none of his careful speech preparation mattered.
He emerged from the cave to find the shredded remains of their tents and sleeping bags, their food and water spilled in the dirt, and a tangled mass of wires that had once been a radio.
Digging through the rubble for Scully's first aid kit stole valuable minutes, as did Mulder's futile attempt to repair the radio. Finally, in rage and defeat, he flung the worthless device against a rock and listened to it hiss and screech as it flew apart.
Scully's attacker was likely responsible for wrecking their camp and had somehow managed to hide from Mulder during the agent's journey through the cave. If he was still in there, with Scully . . .
Bundling the first aid supplies in a blanket that had managed to escape the destruction more-or-less intact, Mulder ran back toward the cave. He'd broken one promise to his partner today when he left her alone much longer than he had intended. But there was another promise, an unspoken vow they'd each made to protect the other. And though he hoped to avoid forever the ultimate test of their covenant, it was a promise he would willingly die to keep.
It was a soft sweep of a brush against rock that woke her, a gentle noise, but amplified and distorted through a filter of pain until it was as jarring as fingernails scraped over a chalkboard.
He ignored her as he painted, arrogantly keeping his back to her, taunting her with an opportunity to escape or attack, knowing she could do neither. Obviously content to let her bleed to death behind him while he drew on the walls.
It occurred to her that if she could do nothing else, she could still investigate the phenomenon that had drawn them to this case. Mulder, fascinated by the appearance of new, yet seemingly ancient cave paintings, had jumped at the chance to head up the inquiry into the student's death on the Los Cazadores project. Now here she was, with a front row seat to the performance of the great hoax, watching the artist at work.
Despite the fact that he wore authentic-looking clothing and painted with a crude brush, there could be no denying this was a brand new painting. Frankly she was surprised that he'd been able to fool so many people. Surely anyone who studied these things would be able to determine the difference between days-old and centuries-old paintings.
She couldn't see exactly what he was painting, but the black pigment he was using stood out boldly against the stone canvas. In fact, all the paintings looked more vivid than they had before. He must have retraced over the genuine paintings. It was bad enough that he'd marred the cave walls with new paintings, but the damage done to the ancient masterpieces was beyond her comprehension.
"Why are you doing this?" She had no desire for another confrontation with this man. It was curiosity blurting out the question before common sense could intervene.
He turned to look at her, but didn't answer. So she asked again. "Why? To subvert the Hampton's work? I can't believe --"
He set the brush and stone bowl of paint on the ground, then moved toward her, slowly, deliberately. She saw his hand moving toward the spear, felt the slight tremor as his fingers wrapped around it, and wondered why time saw fit to stand still at this particular moment.
"Don't do this." She hated the edge of desperation she heard in her voice. Hated, with a soul-deep loathing, being weak. Despised herself for lacking the strength to fight. Cursed the tear that disobediently escaped when he touched the spear.
That it should be her fragility and not her courage that affected him made the reprieve a bitter one. He looked at her with sad, sympathetic eyes, and let his hand fall away from the spear. The catlike grace she had observed in him earlier was gone, and he dropped rather awkwardly to his knees beside her.
Dirty, calloused fingers swept the tear from her cheek and drifted down to her lips in a hushing gesture. His unsettling fascination with her hair manifested itself again; she shuddered as his fingers slipped through the strands and lifted them, then let them fall, over and over.
Courage hadn't truly forsaken her. It returned the instant she spotted a polished stone blade tucked against his waist. Still enraptured by her hair, he didn't notice as she raised her hand and eased it toward the knife. It would only take one quick movement, one more second of distraction, for her to grab the knife and plunge it into his chest.
Her hand fell to her side, the fingers in her hair pulled away, and the man who had been hovering over her dashed off into the darkness before the echo of Mulder's voice faded.
He listened to her story and tried not to interrupt, but the truth was he didn't care about paintings, or odd clothing, or even the missing gun. What mattered to him, at least right now, was the answer to the question she kept evading. Every time he asked, she brushed him aside with a half-hearted reassurance or jumped to another topic as if she hadn't heard him at all.
She was going to great lengths to infuse her voice with the same power it normally held, but there was a pained edge to it she couldn't conceal. He only had to look at her to see that every breath was a struggle, yet she used every one of those breaths to keep up the charade. "He left his paintbrush and paint over there. Did you think to bring evidence bags with you? Even if he doesn't come back, we could probably lift some prints --"
"That's enough, Scully." He held up a hand to halt her, just in case his aggravated tone wasn't enough. It worked. She was stunned into silence, though he was certain it was only temporary. "I don't need a lesson in evidence collection. What I need to know is whether or not he hurt you."
He could feel the chill in her words. So she was mad. So what. If that's what it took to get the truth out of her, he'd gladly suffer through it. "I think we both know that's not true."
"I'm no worse off now than I was before."
"So he just ignored you."
"For the most part."
That admission signaled his victory in their verbal game, but he didn't feel like celebrating. He slipped his hand over hers and gave a reassuring squeeze. "Then why don't you tell me about the part when he wasn't ignoring you."
She turned her head away in a typical Scully gesture. When forced into uncomfortable conversation, she rarely looked him in the eye. "He, um, seemed most interested in my hair. Kept touching it."
"Your hair?" Instinct led his hand to her head, but he pulled back when she turned to face him. It occurred to him she might not welcome those touches in the wake of recent experiences.
"At first it was like he was afraid of it or something, and then he just seemed fascinated by it."
"But he didn't say anything to you?"
"No. Nothing. He just painted and --"
"-- played with your hair." Mulder had limited patience on the best of days, and absolutely none when someone encroached on his partner. Losing his temper in front of Scully would serve no purpose other than to upset her, so instead he tried to lighten the mood, for both their sakes. "So we're looking for a frustrated artist with a really dated wardrobe and a thing for redheads?"
"Who smells bad," Scully amended.
He nodded with mock-seriousness. "I'll add that to the report."
With his thumb he rubbed away smudges of dirt on Scully's cheek. "You sure you're okay?"
"I've been better, but I'll be okay."
Whether or not she was telling the truth, and he doubted she'd been completely forthcoming about her condition, she was asking him to believe her. She needed him to have enough hope for her to borrow when her supply was depleted. "The Hamptons will be here first thing in the morning, then we'll get you out of here. In the meantime, we should see what we can do about that spear."
"Did you bring the first aid kit?"
Untying the blanket he'd carried back, he spread the medical supplies out for her to see. "It was a mess, but I think I found everything."
"Okay." She closed her eyes and didn't bother trying to fool him with another counterfeit show of strength. "I'm just going to rest for a minute, and then I'll try to pull the spear out."
"Scully." He scooted a little closer and put his hand to her cheek until she opened her eyes again. "I've been thinking about that. Maybe I can do it. Maybe I can pull the spear out."
She shook her head. "You can't even see it."
As much as it bothered him to doubt her, he'd concluded that the spear was either some sort of concussion-induced delusion, or the result of a hypnotic suggestion left by her assailant. If he could attack the problem on her terms, make her believe the spear was gone, perhaps that was all it would take. "But it hurt you when I hit it, right? So regardless of my inability to see, I seem to be able to move the spear. If you could talk me through it... "
The look on her face nearly undid him. The surprise and gratitude there were overwhelming, and he felt like the worst kind of traitor for not trying before. Yet there was no condemnation in her eyes, only an unconditional acceptance of his unspoken apology. "Give me a few minutes to catch my breath, and we'll try. Okay?"
Rarely, but too often to ignore, he found himself drawn to her by something magnetic. There was an intimacy between them that took his breath away and never failed to frighten him. He backed away like a clumsy, lovesick teenager, and chucked a thumb over his shoulder. "Okay. I'll just be over here looking at Tarzan's latest contribution to the art world."
The drawings were simplistic but he wasn't interested in their artistry. He appreciated them only as distractions. Beginning near the back wall, he followed the paintings and the story they told of a long-haired hunter and those who had fallen victim to his spear. A bison in the first picture, a deer in the next, and in the last drawing, a woman with a spear in her shoulder.
"Oh, my God, Scully, did you see --"
"Mulder! Behind you!"
He spun around at her warning, but saw nothing except his partner's terrified eyes staring back. She opened her mouth but he felt the impact before her cry of alarm could reach him. Someone was clinging to his back, his thin, dark arm wrapped around Mulder's neck, holding the sharp edge of a blade against his throat. In front of Mulder's eyes, the world shifted and crumbled. What he'd been blind to before now came into sickening focus and he had to close his eyes to ward off the vision.
The blade dug into Mulder's throat, bidding him to open his eyes. To look at her one last time. To leave this life tortured by the image of his partner, covered in blood, trying desperately to pull a spear from her chest.
There was so much blood.
Her shirt was soaked with it. Her palm so slick with it that every time she tugged on the spear her hand skidded uselessly over the splintered wood. It oozed from her wound, ran in thin streams down her arm. Fell, one slow, sticky drop at a time, onto the dusty ground.
Yet it was the tiny smear of blood on the edge of the blade at Mulder's throat that terrified her.
Whether it was the onset of shock that numbed her, or the rush of panic that gave her strength, she defied pain and prudent thinking and worked relentlessly to remove the spear. She didn't weigh the merits or measure the probable outcomes. She didn't envision herself the martyr, dragging herself through adversity like some selfless hero. Her training, her moral code, her commitment to Mulder merged into blinding instinct to protect him at all costs, and it was that instinct alone that drove her.
The only pain she felt was the deep sting of failure at every slip of her hand, every lost second, every drop of Mulder's blood that fell.
Mulder thought he was prepared for death. Countless times he'd teased it, dared it, cheated it; there had been dark moments in his life when he would have welcomed it.
But not now. Not this way. Not when Scully was in trouble. Not at the hands of a scrawny little man with a sharp rock. If death wanted him, it would have to try harder.
His opponent had the advantage of surprise, but Mulder had advantages of his own: strength, size, and a rabid hatred toward the man who had injured his partner. He grabbed the arm that held the knife and pulled the blade from his throat. The agent poured every ounce of his strength and rage into his grip until the knife fell from his assailant's nerveless fingers.
Though weaponless, the man clung to Mulder's back like a barnacle. As soon as one arm had been dislodged, he countered by tightening his choke-hold around the agent's neck with the other. Mulder tried to throw the man off. Tried to grab him around the shoulders and pitch him forward.
He clawed at the arms squeezing his throat and sucked in gasping half-breaths. He watched as Scully worked at the spear, her movements weaker than before, but no less determined. It was that same kind of stubborn determination and reckless disregard for personal safety that sent Mulder crashing backwards toward the stone wall. The jarring impact was painful, but clearly more so for the man who'd been crushed between the agent and the wall. The man groaned, then released his hold on the agent and slid to the ground.
There was a certain predatory thrill in winning a fight -- a testosterone-enhanced arrogance that came from besting another man in a physical contest -- and Mulder was looking forward to seeing the humiliation and defeat in his adversary's eyes.
He turned to face his fallen opponent, but the man was gone. In less than the time it took for Mulder to draw his gun and turn around, the suspect had vanished. No one could have gotten away that fast, yet there was no proof at all that anyone had been there. There were no footsteps in the dust, no blood on the wall. Mulder brushed his fingers across his throat. No blood there, either. He'd felt the knife pierce his skin, seen the thin, scarred arms of his attacker, experienced it all so vividly. Too vividly for it to have been imagined.
The agent took a startled step back, looked to the right and left, but saw only rock and dirt and empty air. All was quiet except for Scully's labored breathing and his own.
He backed slowly toward his partner, moving his gun in an arc from side to side, peering into the shadows, making it clear to anyone who might be watching that he would not be caught unaware again. When he arrived at her side, he knelt and reached a blind hand toward her, his eyes never abandoning their search for the missing man.
"Mulder, what the hell are you doing?" Her voice was weak, but the admonishment was easily heard.
"I'll look for him in a minute, but first I want to check ..." His voice unraveled when he glanced at her. The shirt that had moments ago been drenched in blood was, except for a smudge or two of dirt, unstained. There was no spear. And yet she was frighteningly pale, her eyes were dilated, beads of sweat shone on her skin. He watched as she fought to focus on something across the room, saw her eyelids droop and knew she was holding onto consciousness through sheer force of will.
"Don't let him get the knife."
He followed her gaze, and though he still saw nothing, he wasn't sure his own vision was trustworthy. Something was happening. Something incomprehensible, at least for the moment. And while his senses had been sending him mixed signals, she had never wavered in her certainty about the existence of the spear or the man who had thrown it. "Scully, I don't... Where is he?"
"Mulder, don't let him get the knife."
She was growing agitated by his lack of reaction. He did all he could think to do, and took aim at the opposite wall of the cave.
"No. To your left."
He chose a new target, a few feet to the left.
"Too far." Impatience was chewing at her, he could tell. "Hand me the flashlight."
"God damn it, Mulder. Hand me the flashlight."
He picked up the flashlight and gave it to her. She bobbled it, nearly dropped it, but managed to get a fragile hold before Mulder could intervene. He had wondered why she didn't take the gun from him, but seeing her struggle with the lightweight flashlight, he understood she wouldn't have been able to hold a gun steady. She might not be able to lift it at all. So she did the next best thing, and guided his aim with the flashlight beam. Her hand was trembling and the light wobbled, but she was giving him a target.
"What's he doing, Scully?"
"Nothing. He stopped moving when the light hit him."
Mulder stood and began to walk toward the illuminated area. "Just keep the light pointed on him."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm not sure, but I think if I can touch him -- "
"Mulder!" The flashlight beam bounced across the cave and stopped several yards to Mulder's right. "He's got the knife."
"It's okay, Scully." He kept his voice calm for her benefit, despite the chilling news that his invisible foe was again armed. "Show me exactly where he's standing."
She adjusted the light slightly. "The edge of the beam is touching his feet." Mulder took careful aim at the border between light and the darkness. "Now, I want you to move the beam up his body until you get to his chest."
The light began a slow ascent. Mulder followed in the well-choreographed dance between flashlight and gun. When the light held still, his finger tightened on the trigger. "Federal Agent. Drop the knife or I'll fire."
"Mulder, I don't think... Damn! He's running away."
The light ricocheted wildly as Scully tried to follow their suspect's escape. At this point, it was a literal shot in the dark, but Mulder took it. The gunshot boomed through the cavern and rang in his ears long after the echoes had faded. If Scully said anything, he didn't hear, but he knew when she laid the flashlight down that he'd missed.
He'd had a revelation, he told her. She already knew that. She'd seen the horror cloud his eyes the instant he first saw the spear.
And he was so very sorry he hadn't believed her. She knew that too. He'd been driving her crazy with his overly-solicitous behavior ever since their suspect had fled.
"Is this all right?" He adjusted the blanket and tucked it around her legs. Again.
"It's fine, Mulder."
"Are you too cold?"
She patted the ground next to her. "Mulder. Sit."
"Shouldn't your feet be propped up?"
"I'll be okay. Really. You don't..."
He sprinted off while she was still speaking and returned dragging a huge rock. Lifting her legs gently with one arm, he wrestled the rock into place with the other. When he was satisfied that the impromptu footstool was a comfortable height for her, he rearranged and re-tucked the blanket.
"Please, Mulder. You're making me tired." She was beyond tired. She was utterly exhausted, and she was in shock. Her partner had done all the right things to treat her symptoms, but his fussing was starting to wear on her nerves.
"Is there something else I can do? Something I can get for you?"
He finally did as she asked, but instead of turning toward her, he hunched over the medical supplies and began reading labels and tearing open packages.
"What are you doing now?" The words spilled out on a sigh.
"Getting the bandages and tape ready so I can dress your wound once the spear is out. This stuff here." He held a bottle of pills up for her to see. "Is this a painkiller? Maybe you should--"
"--take one of these first. It might take the edge off."
"Now, just show me where--"
She reached up and took hold of the hand that was hovering over her. "Stop. Mulder, please stop for a second."
He looked her in the eye for the first time since he'd made his apology, and she could tell by his expression he was all set to apologize again. She spoke before he had the chance. "You can't pull the spear out."
"No, I think I can, Scully." He linked his fingers with hers and brought his other hand up to caress her face. "We talked about it, remember?"
Did he actually think she was so far gone she didn't remember? "That was before."
"Before your encounter with our smelly friend."
"Why does that matter?" There was a forced nonchalance in his tone that betrayed his claim of ignorance. He knew, damn him, and he was trying to pretend that the thought had never occurred to him.
"Let's not play this game, Mulder." She paused to draw another breath, frustrated that speaking had become a strenuous activity. "For some reason, I can see this guy and you can't. I think the spear has something to do with that. And so do you."
He jumped to his feet and began pacing. "It doesn't matter, Scully. I saw the spear. I saw the blood." He whirled on her and gestured, almost angrily, at her face. "I just have to look at you now to see that it's killing you."
"And if you get the spear out, what's to stop him from killing me anyway? Or you?" He didn't have an answer, or didn't like the one he found, so he looked away as she continued. "Right now the only advantage we have is the spear."
"I won't let you do this." It was a demand, whispered as a plea.
She waited until he made eye contact before she responded, "You don't get to decide."
He sank to the ground again and studied her for a moment. He looked from her face to her shoulder, then shook his head. "Scully --"
"If you have a better idea, let me know." She took another ragged breath, and admitted, "Because I'm not any happier about this than you are."
"And what am I supposed to do while you're keeping vigil?" His gentle inquiry became increasingly more belligerent. "Take a nap? Look at all the pretty drawings on the wall? He waved his arm toward the paintings, then stabbed a finger toward her injured shoulder. "Watch while you bleed to death?"
She caught his hand and held it still in her weak grasp. "That's not going to happen. The bleeding has slowed down. I think if we leave the spear alone... I'll get through the night just fine." And if she could get through a sentence without gasping for air or slurring the words, she might even be able to convince herself. "When the Hamptons arrive in the morning... maybe we can chance it. Or maybe they'll have some insight we're missing."
She was beginning to wonder if he was punishing her with his silence, though his thumb was rubbing the back of her hand in an unconsciously affectionate gesture. When at last he relented, she could hear how it hurt him. "I don't like it."
"I don't expect you to."
Mulder pushed some of the medical supplies aside and settled more comfortably beside her, unholstered his gun and laid it in his lap, then reclaimed her hand. "Do you think he'll come back tonight?"
"I don't know." Their conversation was tiring her, but it was the only thing keeping her awake, and so she baited him to keep him talking. "Maybe you scared him away for good."
"I can be pretty intimidating." He straightened his shoulders in mock manly pride.
It seemed wonderfully funny to her, that silly display, and she continued to play along. "You don't scare me."
"Nothing scares you."
"That's not true." It wasn't true at all, and suddenly, with their eyes locked in a moment of naked honesty, their exchange didn't seem so humorous. There were lots of things that scared her. Treacherous, vulnerable moments like this most of all.
When he leaned forward and brought his face close to hers, she couldn't recall ever being more frightened. "Want to hear something really scary?" The tone of his voice wrapped around her like an extra blanket.
He sat up again and smiled, then continued with his teasing as if the previous few seconds had never happened. "I have a theory."
"That's it? That's your theory?"
Okay, so maybe it was a little rough around the edges, but it went a long way toward explaining their situation. It was reasonable. Plausible. Logical. Or so he'd thought until she'd summarily dismissed it with nothing more than the tone of her voice.
Disagreement was hardly a rarity for them, and normally he enjoyed the challenge of debating her, but normally she wasn't stealing breaths between every other word, and normally he wasn't mopping perspiration off her face with a torn-off piece of his sleeve. He had hoped, if only for this one time, to avoid the verbal sparring. "You have to admit it would explain everything that's happened."
"But what you're suggesting -- it's impossible. No one can be in two places at one time."
"Actually, it might be more accurate to say you're in two times at one place."
"Whatever." She raised her hand to wave the suggestion away, then let her arm fall limply to her side. "Not possible." And as if that should end the argument, she closed her eyes and visibly relaxed.
More than anything, he wanted her to rest, and if it had just been his well-being at stake, he might have taken the chance. But she was at risk from both the shock and the man who'd attacked them. The only way to keep her safe was to keep her awake. He slapped her lightly on the cheek to rouse her. "Who says it's not possible, Scully?"
She blinked a few times, then looked at him in confusion. Clearly, she'd lost her place in the conversation.
"My 'wrinkle in time' theory." Until they had another theory, he was going to stick with this one: that somehow Scully had been caught between present and past. That the spear and the man who'd thrown it belonged to that past world. "Who says it's not possible?"
He was pleased to see cognizance return to her eyes. Even more pleased with the familiar, intelligent sound of her rebuttal.
"Science, physics, the laws of nature."
"So how do you account for what's happening?" Mulder watched as she formulated her answer. It was taking much longer than usual. The rational arguments that came so easily to her analytical mind were elusive tonight. He saw in her eyes, even before she spoke, when she finally snagged a sensible explanation.
"I don't know. Maybe one of Hampton's rivals. Maybe rigged the cave with projection equipment. To create the illusion --"
"Of a spear in your shoulder?" To his credit, he didn't laugh, though he found her theory absurdly flawed.
"Go look around, Mulder." She gestured vaguely at the cave walls and ceiling. "There are probably some things... some gizmos . . ."
"Oh, the *gizmo* theory." This time he did chuckle, and was immediately punished with his partner's ice-cold defense.
"It makes as much sense as time travel."
"No, it doesn't." His heart wasn't in it, but he continued to defend his theory. "It doesn't explain why you can see him all the time, but I can only see him when I have physical contact with him. It doesn't explain your medical condition. Trust me, Scully, you're not all that easy to mislead. I can't see you falling into shock over the suggestion of an injury."
"There are studies equating mental state with physical trauma that --"
"Humor me." He dabbed at the fresh sweat on her forehead with the torn cotton scrap. "Let's go with my theory for the time being, and then tomorrow morning, once the Hamptons get here, I'll snoop around for gizmos. Deal?"
Her focus shifted from his face to the walls around them. She was quiet for a moment, and Mulder feared she was drifting back to sleep. It was needless worry because when she spoke, it was clear she'd only been resting up for another argument. "The Hamptons have been working on this project for two years, Mulder. If there was some sort of... vortex, or whatever you're suggesting, wouldn't they have stumbled upon it by now?"
They could volley "who" and "why" questions around until sunrise. It was exactly the sort of thing they both needed to get through the next few hours. "See how much more fun my theory is than yours?"
It would never be mistaken for angel song, but the gravely voice of Vernon Hampton sounded as sweet to Mulder.
The night had been difficult. Mercilessly long. For a time they'd discussed his theory, but eventually it became challenge enough to keep Scully awake. It had been too painful to watch her puzzle through his explanations of overlapping time, to listen to her stumbling speech and faltering logic as she questioned him. At some point, they'd tacitly agreed he would talk while she listened, and for the last hour he'd entertained her with wildly exaggerated stories of college escapades and heroic Bureau deeds. She believed none of it, he knew, but her eyes were open and her hand still clung fiercely to his.
They were accustomed to comfortable silences between them, content to say nothing if there was nothing to say. It was something Mulder hadn't fully appreciated until now, when circumstances forced him to entertain her with idle chatter.
She was a fighter, but she wasn't invincible. Slowly, relentlessly, one heartbeat at a time, the battle was claiming her. Mulder had been about to insist they remove the spear and take their chances, when he heard the archaeologist's voice drift through the cave.
"We're back here!"
In his relief, he yelled too loudly and startled his partner. She flinched, then gasped at the discomfort the movement caused.
"Damn it, Scully. I'm sorry." He soothed her with a hushed apology, and despite her attempt to bat his hand away, pressed his fingers to her neck to check her pulse. She hated being coddled, but was too weak to argue and he wasn't above taking advantage of that. He was leaning over her, straightening her blanket, when the Hamptons found them.
"What the hell are you two doing in here?"
Rather than being incensed over finding two FBI agents in a compromising position, Mulder thought Vernon Hampton was perhaps most alarmed that unsupervised amateurs had spent the night in the middle of his precious research site. "Agent Scully wanted to carve our initials on the walls before we left."
Hampton scowled his disapproval of the joke, which made it all the more satisfying for Mulder.
Clare Hampton, who had been trailing behind her husband, moved around him and approached the agents. "What happened?"
Scully's hand held him anchored, but Mulder made room for Clare to kneel beside him. Deciding it wise to omit details for the time-being, Mulder only told them, "She was attacked."
"By whom?" Clare and Vernon both asked the question, her concern drowned out by his demanding tone.
Mulder directed his answer toward the scientist most likely to give him a fair hearing, though he knew Vernon was hanging on every word being said to Clare. "We're not sure, but I think it was one of the Indians who used to inhabit this cave."
Clare looked baffled, then nodded as she made sense of what he'd said. "You mean a descendent? I'm sure a lot of the Native Americans in the area could make a claim of --"
"No, not a descendent."
"What are you talking about, Agent Mulder?" Evidently, Vernon Hampton wasn't accustomed to being anywhere beyond the center of attention. He stalked past them to lean against the cave wall on the other side of Scully, placing himself directly in Mulder's line of sight.
He'd been trying to think of a way to convey his theory to the Hamptons, but when the moment arrived, it was more difficult than Mulder had anticipated. There was no time to expound on the evidence or ease through it with gentle segues; he just had to say it and hope Vernon Hampton was more open-minded than he seemed. Because as much as it displeased Mulder to think it, this unpleasant man, this world-renowned expert on ancient Indian culture, was Scully's best hope for survival. "I know this sounds odd, but from Scully's descriptions of the man and his weapons, and from what I saw myself, I think he's someone who found a bridge from the past. He's attacking anyone he sees as a threat to his territory. We have to figure out why this is happening, and how to stop it."
The man's craggy features remained unmoved as he mulled what he'd been told. That he was considering it at all was an encouraging sign. "It doesn't sound odd, Agent Mulder." Contempt slithered through his words. "It sounds insane." Hampton motioned toward Scully. "Your partner is obviously ill. Delusional perhaps. Maybe she really believes she saw a Paleo-Indian, but I assure you --"
The men's voices merged in an angry duet as Mulder rallied to Scully's defense. "She's not delusional. We both saw --"
"Did he take her gun?"
Clare's question brought both men up short. Vernon, who bristled at the interruption, and Mulder, whose curiosity warred with suspicion. "How did you know that?"
Mulder recognized the look in Clare's eyes. He'd felt the same heady thrill as an investigator on the threshold of solving a mystery. "Vernon? What about the gun we found? Maybe he's right."
Hampton's disappointment was palpable. "Please, Clare. Don't feed this man's time warp fantasy."
"If you weren't so inflexible, you'd at least consider it."
Mulder felt no remorse about intruding on their marital power struggle. He was far more interested in the implications of what Clare had suggested. "You found her gun?"
Though she was right next to him, Mulder had been acutely aware of Scully's absence in the conversation. When she turned her head toward Clare, as eager as Mulder for the answer to his question, he realized his partner had not abandoned him. In her role as passive observer, she was probably dissecting every detail and nuance of the discussion, compiling it all in orderly columns of useful facts and unsupported nonsense. He wondered if Scully realized, as they listened to Clare's explanation, that he was watching her face and hearing her opinion even though she'd not spoken for hours.
"A few weeks ago, during one of our excavations of the site, we found the rusted remains of what looked like a modern firearm. Sometimes that sort of thing happens. Rodents burrow in the ground and carry down all sorts of junk. Vernon thinks that's how the gun got there."
When she paused, Mulder prompted her to continue. "But you don't agree."
He was silent, yet Vernon broadcast his annoyance as plainly as if he'd yelled into a microphone.
Clare sensed it, and seemed to shrink a bit in his overpowering presence. Still, she continued. "The, um, strata where we found the gun was undisturbed as far as I could tell. We carbon dated some of the artifacts we found in the same place and they all dated somewhere around 2000 B.C."
"Seriously?" It was fascinating, and Mulder was anxious to hear more.
Vernon, however, had heard enough. "As I've pointed out, repeatedly, to Clare, she was careless in her observations. I was working on another part of the excavation, and wasn't there to supervise. I'm sure a more astute scientist would have noticed subtle disturbances in the soil deposition pattern."
Mulder shared a look with his partner. He and Scully had mastered the art of public disagreement through years of trial and error. Vernon still had much to learn, including the critical lesson about questioning your partner's competence in front of others. That sort of respect surely took on more importance when that partner was your spouse. The man's thoughtless words had hurt his wife, and there was nothing Mulder could do to salve the wound. He could only ignore Vernon and hope Clare could do the same. "Did you find anything else in the artifacts? Anything that seemed out of place?"
Carefully avoiding eye contact, Clare picked up the long braid that fell over her shoulder and made a meticulous study of the rubber band. Mulder couldn't see her tears, but he heard them in her voice. "No, not really. Nothing out of the ordinary. Stone tools and weapons, some crude pots, that sort of thing. We haven't started studying any of the skeletal remains yet, but --"
"I can't believe you're wasting time on this!" The short fuse of Vernon Hampton's temper burned away, and his frustration exploded in a flurry of gesticulations and pacing and hateful words. "You're all out there in la-la land, trying to figure out how some disintegrated chunk of metal got into our excavation site. I'm a hell of a lot more concerned about the lunatic running around in this cave with Agent Scully's gun."
When he became stationary again, Vernon was standing beside Scully, staring down at Mulder and Clare in red-eyed fury. "There is no such thing as time travel, Mr. Mulder. If there was, I'd be on the first bus so I could study these people in person, rather than try to unlock their cultural secrets with broken bits of stone and pottery and some paintings in a God-forsaken cave." Mulder saw what was about to happen, lunged forward to stop it, but couldn't keep pace with reality as it accelerated and spun out of control. Hampton's arm swept to the right in a gesture toward the walls. The voice of reason would have told Mulder it was an accident, but all he heard was Scully's scream.
All he knew was that Vernon Hampton had hurt her.
Mulder didn't recall moving. One instant he'd been beside his partner, and the next he was behind Vernon Hampton, crushing the older man against the cave wall. Ethics, professionalism, compassion as the man pleaded to be released -- those things were eclipsed by the black shadow of his rage. "Don't touch her! Just stay the hell away from her!"
As suddenly as he'd grabbed the man, he let him go. Vernon Hampton turned around and began to edge warily from the agent. "You really are insane." There was none of the usual conceit, only a frightened quaver in his voice as he continued to move away. "I wasn't anywhere near her."
Mulder ignored the excuses, and the man, and returned to Scully. Clare, too, had backed off and was walking a wide circle around both agents to reach her husband.
"Scully? Mulder dropped to his knees beside his partner. The pallor of her skin, the tears and moans that slipped unchecked, all frightened him. But nothing so much as her answer to the question, "Are you going to be okay?"
God punishes little girls who lie.
The stern warning from a parish priest had frightened young Dana Scully, but as an adult she had come to question a God who could be so heartless. Was it wrong to lie when the truth was no one's business but hers? Wasn't a lie preferable to a truth that needlessly hurt someone else? She saw now, through tears and over-bright vision, that the truth had only hastened her arrival into Hell.
God forgive her, she should have lied.
Mulder was blindly grabbing for medical supplies; his anguished eyes were fixed to her gaze, begging for the lie. She wanted to tell him she was fine, that in a moment of mindless agony she'd made a faulty diagnosis. She wanted to convince him, and while she was at it, convince herself. But the truth stood like a demon between them and the refuge they had found in deceit.
Her prognosis had gone from serious to dire when Vernon Hampton knocked his arm against the spear. The jagged stone that lay imbedded in her shoulder twisted and cut its way through fresh territory. The bleeding that had nearly subsided, resumed with a vengeance. Time they thought they had to find an answer, had been stolen.
An air of desperate urgency was swirling around them. Reassurances, even if she could think of something consoling to say, seemed out of place amidst the sounds of ripping paper, Mulder's heavy breaths, and a hushed argument between an ego- bruised Vernon and his peacemaker wife.
When Mulder grabbed her hand and pulled it toward her shoulder, she could feel his fear arcing through the connection. "That's it, Scully. The spear comes out now, and we're getting you to a hospital."
"No. I think... I don't think..." She knew what she wanted to say, but the part of her brain that was preparing speeches wasn't connecting to the part forming the words. And frankly, it didn't seem worth the struggle just to tell him things were hopeless.
"Help me here, Scully."
His hand tightened on hers, though it was a different kind of pull, something more spiritual than physical, that kept her in his hold. She'd always found strength to escape before he could claim more of her than he already owned. With strength in such short supply, she closed her eyes to ward him away. She felt his breath on her face and his anger reaching into the very core of her. "God damn it, Scully! Help me!"
Help him? How? To do what? She was grateful, in a way, that he couldn't see the reality of her condition, but his sightlessness gave him the false impression she *could* be helped. She offered her diagnosis like an apology. "Too much blood. Lost ...too much."
She felt his fingers caressing her cheek, drifting upward to brush a lock of hair from her forehead, and her eyes fluttered open. Now he was the one in hiding, focusing on the work of his hand rather than on her eyes as he spoke. "I know. But we'll dress the wound just as soon --"
"It's too late. It won't make any difference, Mulder."
He recoiled as if she'd punched him, then instinctively fought back with verbal blows. "So that's it? You're quitting? I expected more from you, Scully, but if that's what you want, fine. Before you go, be sure to tell me what kind of flowers you'd like me to send to your funeral."
The words didn't hurt her, not underlined as they were with his grief. Why couldn't he just let her say goodbye? She raised her hand to touch the small cut on his neck, a souvenir of his battle with a man only she could see. Her fingers danced like the softest of kisses over his throat before she surrendered to the heavy drag of fatigue. Her arm dropped limply to the ground. "So tired."
Sleep swept her up like a long-absent lover, but Mulder jealously yanked her from the arms of darkness. "Don't you dare, Scully. You're not going to give up. You have to promise me you won't give up." She felt his hands on her face. The touch was too firm, too insistent to be considered a caress. He was going to drag her, by force apparently, back to the land of the living.
All the evidence to the contrary, Mulder was still putting his faith in a lie. With nothing to give him in exchange, it seemed too cruel to take that faith away. She looked at her partner, sucked in a deep breath of musty air, and said exactly what he wanted to hear. "I'll be fine, Mulder."
"Yes, you will."
He sounded so certain, she almost believed it herself.
He had no right to extort promises from her, yet he felt no remorse. To Dana Scully, honor was everything; she would keep her promise to him. She would.
Cross her heart and hope to... .
"I have to talk to the Hamptons for a minute. Can you stay awake?"
When she'd nodded in the affirmative she was answering another question entirely. The one Mulder didn't dare articulate because to say it would be to contemplate it, and he simply couldn't do that. With that tentative nod, she'd forged a pact with him: he would get help, and in the meantime she would stay alive. Just lie there, relax, keep her feet up, and stay alive.
As long as he avoided looking at her chalky complexion or listening to her rattling breaths, he could cling to that promise.
He walked away from her without a touch or a kiss or any gesture that could be construed as goodbye.
The Hamptons were in mid-argument, pointing at the cave paintings, when Mulder stole up behind them.
"It doesn't mean anything, Clare. Let it go." From the way Vernon bit down on the words, Mulder knew it was neither the first time the man had said them, nor the first time Clare had ignored them.
"Maybe not, but I think we should tell him."
"Tell me what?" When Mulder took his cue, only Vernon flinched. He suspected Clare had known he was nearby, and was taking the opportunity to involve him in their discussion.
Vernon Hampton rounded on the agent, and for a moment Mulder thought the old man might try pummeling him with his scrawny little fists. Instead he slapped the agent with the cold rancor of his voice. "Nothing, Agent Mulder. Clare and I are leaving." The man wrapped one hand around his wife's arm and waved the other toward Scully. "We'll call for a medical rescue team, but after that, our involvement with your investigation is finished. If I have so much as a hangnail as a result of your mistreatment, my attorney will be in touch with the FBI about reparations." Hampton stalked past the agent, his reluctant wife in tow.
Desperation propelled Mulder around the couple to block their exit. "No, wait. A rescue team won't be able to help until we can figure out what's going on. Agent Scully can't be moved."
"I'm no body builder, Agent Mulder, but even I could pick her up and carry her out of here." Having dismissed Mulder's concern, the man attempted to shove his way past the agent.
Mulder already knew how the next bit of news would be received by Vernon. His only hope for an ally was Clare; he put all his energies into convincing her. "There's a spear in Scully's shoulder, thrown by the man I believe came from the past." Both scientists stared at his partner with narrowed eyes, trying to visualize what he was describing. "I know you can't see it, but it's there." The agent resisted to urge to jab his finger into Hampton's chest as he recalled the man's unforgivable offense. "You hit it when you were flailing around. You nearly killed her."
Vernon Hampton was wholly unimpressed. "A spear." "Yes."
"Come on, Clare." Again, Hampton took hold of his wife and tried to maneuver around the agent.
Mulder snagged Clare's other arm, and pulled her back in a gentle tug-of-war. "You've got to help my partner."
He didn't actually say the word, though it rang in the air all the same.
If the circumstances had been different, Mulder never would have put Clare Hampton in such a position. She was caught, literally and figuratively, between the two men. It wasn't fair, and Mulder was sorry, but he had no choice but to turn the screws of persuasion. "She needs your help, Clare."
A sarcastic response, courtesy of Vernon, drowned out her attempt at a reply. "We'll call the hospital and tell them your partner got impaled on a figment of her imagination. They'll send someone right out."
When Hampton yanked on her arm, Clare pulled away from him. "Agent Mulder, we've found something that might be important."
"Clare." One word from Vernon Hampton, but it was full of warning. His reputation, his research, their marriage were all on the line she was threatening to step over.
She didn't take time to ponder the consequences, just leaped over the line, turning away from her husband and guiding Mulder to the paintings. "There's something else about the drawings. I think it could be significant."
Vernon raged impotently, like an angry hornet caught in a jar. "It's not. It's just more vandalism. Let's go."
Mulder watched Clare's hand brush over the painted walls and stop on a small blank area in one of the drawings. He was at a loss. "What is it?"
The hornet buzzed again. "I'll leave without you, Clare."
"These original drawings, not the ones that just started appearing," she motioned toward the new paintings, "depicted a man *and* a woman. That's unusual. Women weren't often shown in cave art of this period, probably due to their subservient role. The men were responsible for heroic tasks like hunting and fighting. Women gathered plants, cooked, took care of children -- tasks considered pretty dull in comparison, and evidently not worth illustrating in a painting. But in these drawings, the woman was depicted alongside the man as he hunted."
"But, I don't see a woman in these pictures."
"Exactly." She pointed again to the bare patch of wall. "She's disappeared."
Quieter now, but no less patronizing, Vernon made another attempt to enter the discussion. "Obviously there was more damage than we initially thought. Not only did someone paint new pictures, they also destroyed the older works as well."
Clare didn't bother turning or favoring him with eye contact, though she did finally acknowledge she'd heard him. "I saw the paintings yesterday, Vernon."
"Then you either overlooked the vandalism or someone managed to scour parts of the drawings from the wall without being observed by these crack detectives. I'd say either is a distinct possibility."
Clare braced her hands against the cave wall, fighting for control over her hurt or her anger -- Mulder wasn't sure which. "You have to admit, Vernon, it lends some credence to Agent Mulder's idea."
"I don't have to admit any such thing. You're the one making a mockery out of your science with some fairy tale notion." He continued his ranting, unfazed by being forced to address his wife's back.
In spite of Vernon's incessant protests, Clare resumed her quiet conversation with Mulder. "We removed some human remains from the cave recently. The day before Patrick Lloyd was killed, actually. We haven't determined much about the bones, but we do know they are the remains of an adult female."
She stopped, waiting for Mulder to catch up with her logic. He was, in fact, already there. "You think he's avenging the loss of his mate."
"Possibly. I know it sounds --"
"Asinine, Clare." Vernon surprised no one with his outburst. "It's a ridiculous piece of madness, and I'm embarrassed you would propose such a thing."
Clare at last, resignedly, turned to face her husband. "But it might explain a lot of what's happened."
Mulder nodded his approval. "I think she may be right."
"Now there's a ringing endorsement for your theory. You've got an unstable FBI agent in your corner." Hampton gestured toward Mulder's injured partner. "Run it past Agent Scully, too. Looks like she might be incoherent enough to buy it."
Mulder was relieved to see Scully turn her head and look at Vernon when her name was mentioned. She was still awake and paying attention. And mildly insulted, if her expression was any indication.
"That's enough, Vernon." Clare stepped forward, right into her husband's personal space. Mulder could have sworn he heard the loud snap of her patience breaking beneath the strain.
If Vernon possessed half the intelligence he claimed, he would have retreated honorably. He didn't. "There's no proof for your conjecture. Not one iota. It's a romantic fantasy, the whole love transcending time thing. Love is nothing but companionship with extra hormones."
Clare staggered backwards, obviously caught off-guard by her spouse's indifference to the concept of love.
"An emotion cannot disrupt the time-space continuum -- any twelve-year-old could tell you that. Yet here you are, a 35-year-old woman with a Ph.D., suggesting that any man with a broken heart can defy the laws of physics and go traipsing through time in search of lost love." Hampton spun on his heel and trudged toward the exit. "I'm leaving, Clare. You can stay if you like."
She spoke in calm counterpoint to his blustering, but the words stopped him cold. "I'm bringing the remains back to the cave."
"You're not serious." Mulder had to give Clare credit. Her husband had maintained the same clenched-teeth expression throughout this entire ordeal, until now. When Vernon Hampton whirled around, astonishment had jarred loose his inflexible jaw.
"Maybe we could put a stop to it. Maybe we could help Agent Scully. What would it hurt to try?"
Clare's thoughtful, compassionate approach was doomed from the start. Vernon only proved, again, his unwillingness to listen to her opinion.
"I can't believe you. What would it hurt? It would disturb the excavation site for starters. No telling what kind of damage it would do to the remains. You can believe whatever fiction you choose as long as you don't screw around with my research."
And again, she was forced to bear the hurt. "I thought it was *our* research."
"Are you coming or not?"
She couldn't follow. No matter how she tried to string together the pieces of conversation she'd overheard, nothing made sense. Her inability to participate, or even mentally fill in the blanks in the discussion, was infuriating to Dana Scully.
Hangnails and hospitals, missing women and love. Words skittered through her mind in a disjointed frenzy, out of context and meaningless. The more she concentrated, the more abstract it all seemed.
It was easier to understand the emotions at play. In the midst of the babble she could identify frustration, anger, sadness, fear -- all building by degrees.
Vernon was yelling at his wife. Forbidding her to do... something. And Mulder, he was next to Clare, his voice mixed with the woman's. Pleading one instant. Insisting the next.
Scully wanted to sleep.
She had promised she wouldn't.
Maybe just for a minute.
A movement behind Vernon Hampton caught her attention before she could close her eyes.
A man, an ancient man according to Mulder, threw himself into Vernon Hampton. Tackled Mulder around the knees and brought him to the ground. Drove his stone blade into Clare Hampton's thigh.
There were shouts and screams and frightened sobs.
Clare, huddled on the ground, her hand pressed to a bleeding wound on her leg.
The angry expletives of an old man whose body protested the abuse.
Mulder, calling her name. Asking, "Where is he?" over and over and over.
"He's behind you, Mulder."
She thought the words. Her mouth moved. But the sound was reed thin, indecipherable even to her own ears, lost in the cacophony of wails and screeching.
Her hand skidded across the ground beside her, searching for the flashlight, finding the handle of Mulder's gun instead. If there was a way to save her partner and the Hamptons, she had a responsibility to try. If duty exacted a price, she was prepared to pay it.
Her arm trembled as she hefted the gun, her finger shook as she squeezed the trigger, and as the recoil carried away the last of her strength, she wondered if Mulder would forgive her for breaking her promise.
Though her body has perished, her soul lives on.
Her spirit will walk beside you.
Hold her in your memory and she'll be with you always.
Perhaps a stronger man would find a haven in the familiar rhetoric of funerals and sympathy cards. But such expressions were hollow to a man who needed more than a memory to catch him when he stumbled, who found his only comfort in her soothing words and furtive touches.
Flesh and bone and blood and breath -- he needed her in that form.
"Agent Mulder? Is she all right?"
Vernon Hampton was uncharacteristically respectful in his interruption, but Mulder couldn't reply. Until he found the pulse he was so desperately seeking, there was nothing to say.
"Here. Let me."
The territorial fury that sparked in the agent when Hampton pressed his withered fingers against Scully's neck was extinguished by gratitude when the old man reported, "There's a pulse. She's just unconscious."
The archaeologist moved aside and let Mulder check again for himself. His shaking hand had steadied at Vernon's reassurance, and this time he was able to feel her heartbeat against his fingertips.
The concerned, soft-spoken persona of Vernon Hampton that had so recently emerged was trampled beneath the rush of his impatience. "What just happened here?"
"Vernon." Clare quietly summoned her husband, chiding him for his intrusive question during a difficult moment.
Intrusive or not, it was only one of many questions Mulder had been wanting to ask since a shot rang out and he'd watched his partner's arm fall to her side, carried down by the weight of the gun in her lifeless hand.
What happened, Scully?
Did your shot find its target?
Are we still being stalked by this madman, or can I scoop you up and carry you out of here?
His wish for answers wouldn't be granted by the woman who lay before him, silent and deathly pale. The practical thing, the approach Scully would take if their positions were reversed, would be to leave his partner's side and interview the Hamptons. Piece together an account based on what the three of them had experienced individually. Use that information to devise a solution. Except he'd never been a terribly practical man, so when the time came for him to walk away from her, he found his legs reluctant to cooperate.
"It's okay. We need to talk about what happened." He spoke loudly for the benefit of the Hamptons, but within the words was another message, a reminder of promises made, meant only for his sleeping partner to hear. "She'll be fine." He made one last check of her pulse and forced himself to stand.
And was seized, mid-stride, by an ominous feeling of deja-vu.
Clare was sitting up, her hands pressed tightly against her thigh, grimacing from the pain of a wound he couldn't detect. "Clare? Are you hurt?"
"The bastard stabbed me. Hurts like hell, but I think it'll be okay once the bleeding stops."
He crouched beside her and looked more closely for any sign of injury. Just like with Scully, there was no trace of blood, no visible rip in the cloth. "Can you see the wound?"
"What do you mean, can I see it? Of course I can." She lifted her hands slightly, giving both Mulder and Vernon a clear view of the wound site, then shoved her fist back down to staunch the invisible flow of blood. Mulder saw the first suspicion flicker in her eyes when neither man made the appropriate sympathetic noises. She looked from Vernon to Mulder, back to her husband. "You can't see it, can you?"
"What wound? What are you talking about?" Vernon's brusqueness had been tempered somewhat, but Mulder still flinched at the man's lack of compassion. It bothered him, not just because it obviously hurt Clare, but because it was a bitter reminder of his own disbelief when Scully first tried to explain her condition.
The fact that he believed now didn't absolve him of past mistakes, but at least Clare seemed grateful when he took her revelation in stride. "Did you see the man who attacked you?"
"Yes, and I have to admit, he looked exactly like you described. A very convincing representation of Paleo-Indian."
"Dr. Hampton, did you see him?" Mulder wondered at his compulsion to engage Vernon in conversation, but like most bad habits, he found himself doing it before he could stop.
Hampton made sure he immediately regretted the slip.
"My wife was crying, Agent Mulder. I was a little more concerned about her than about getting a description of our attacker, especially since someone supposedly trained in that kind of observation was standing three feet away. If I had known the kind of FBI agents they were sending --"
As Vernon droned on about incompetence and lawsuits, Mulder turned his attention back to Clare. "This is very important, Clare. Could you still see him even after you lost physical contact with him?"
"I never got a good look at his face. I mean, if you wanted me to identify him from a picture or something, I'm not sure I could do that."
"No, that's okay. But you could see him as he moved away from you."
"By the time I looked up, he was standing behind you. Then Agent Scully fired her warning shot and he ran away."
"That's what I'm guessing. With him standing behind you like that, she probably couldn't have shot him without shooting you. But whether she missed on purpose or not, it was enough to scare him off."
He wasn't sure what bothered him more: the fact that they were all still in jeopardy, or the knowledge that Scully had risked her life for a *warning* shot. If she'd waited, she might have made the shot that would have ended her ordeal. Wagering her life against the value of his had been a foolish proposition. Every agent was prepared to give his life to save his partner's. Mulder had found that to be a perfectly acceptable expectation, but only as long as he was the one doing the giving.
Then there was the small matter of the erroneous assumption both he and Scully had made: that the spear was what had given her the ability to see what he couldn't. The hours they'd spent held prisoner by their faulty logic, the long night of watching her suffer -- it had been for nothing. It was clear from the way Clare was crushing her hands against her leg that no blade had been left embedded in her body, yet she was endowed with that same extraordinary vision.
"Is something wrong?"
Still lost in thought, he continued aloud the argument running through his head. "It doesn't fit, though. I had physical contact with him, but couldn't see him afterward."
Subconsciously, Mulder expected Scully to pick up the thread of debate and continue it, but it was Vernon Hampton's grating voice that came crashing through his concentration. "Would someone care to enlighten me?"
Mulder explained in flat, emotionless recitation. Vernon had been clear in his refusal to believe; to expend additional energy trying to convince him would be a waste. "I had concluded from my first encounter with the suspect that a person had to have physical contact with him in order to see him. Up until now, Agent Scully has been the only one who could see him without that contact, and we thought the spear somehow gave her that ability. But it doesn't explain why Clare could see him. Apparently it's a gender thing, but -"
Clare gasped in startled realization. "I think the point of the knife broke off in my leg when he stabbed me. Do you that little fragment might --"
Rather than alarm, Vernon Hampton reacted with dismay, and pinned the agent with accusing eyes. "Though my wife seems endlessly fascinated with your time travel mumbo jumbo, I think we should save all this until later." In tones insultingly indulgent, Vernon coaxed his wife. "Clare, I'm sure you only pulled a muscle or something. You'll walk it off. Right now, I would like nothing more than to get out of this cave."
"I think that's a very good idea." Both Vernon and Clare appeared taken aback by Mulder's easy agreement. "If Clare can keep watch for us, maybe we can all get out of here." He gestured toward Scully and Clare's gaze followed. "I assume you can see the spear now?"
"My God, yes."
Mulder tried to ignore the painful twist in his gut at Clare's horrified reaction. He knew what she was seeing. The image he'd seen of his wounded and bloody partner was etched in his memory; he didn't want to see it again through someone else's eyes. He banished the vision, and focused on Clare. "If you can help me, we can remove the spear and dress Agent Scully's wound."
A skinny, wrinkled arm snaked between Mulder and Clare and rested itself on the woman's shoulder. "You don't have to keep humoring him, honey."
Clare continued speaking to Mulder, despite the physical obstacle her husband had placed between her and the agent. "Of course, I'll do what I can." She patted her injured leg, "But I might need a little assistance here."
Mulder reached toward her, but jerked his hand back when he caught sight of Vernon's disapproving scowl. He had enough problems with the man without adding jealousy, no matter how unfounded, to the mix. He rocked back on his heels to wait while Vernon helped Clare to her feet. She swayed unsteadily for a moment, then gained enough equilibrium for a tentative step.
Instantly, the color drained from her face. Her arms pinwheeled as she reversed herself. Mulder launched to his feet to help, Vernon attempted to pull her forward into his arms, but her shrill scream drove both men backwards a few steps. "No! Don't!"
Her body persisted in its mutiny and began to shake. Shivers evolved into violent trembling that threatened her precarious balance. Vernon moved toward her again, cautious of her fragile state, but ready to break her inevitable fall. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and didn't resist as he lowered her carefully to the ground. Mulder stayed clear and let husband comfort wife as she regained control over her sobs and panting breaths. When she had calmed, she nodded and relaxed her clutching hold on Vernon. He stayed close, though, stroking her arm in a gesture that was shocking in its tenderness.
Everything about the man -- his rigid posture, his deeply-lined face, his chains-over-gravel voice -- seemed softer as he consoled his wife. "What's wrong? Are you okay, sweetheart?"
"I don't know. Everything got... so strange when I stood up."
"Just sit for a second. It'll be all right."
Mulder never suspected such intimacy could exist between the Hamptons, and was loath to intrude upon it. Only his fear of missing valuable information during their murmured conversation persuaded him to trespass. He cleared his throat to remind the couple of his presence, then asked Clare, "Do you think it was the blood loss?"
"What blood loss?" Mr. Tenderness vanished and the cold son-of- a-bitch Mulder had come to know reemerged as the old man barked the question then immediately turned away with blatant disinterest in the agent's response.
Though tremors ran through her voice and her husband was shaking his head in protest, Clare answered Mulder's question. "No. No, I haven't really lost all that much blood. This was something else. Like vertigo, only a thousand times worse."
Hampton swept an arm around his wife and attempted to pull her to her feet. "I'll help you, then. You can lean on me."
She was adamant in her refusal to move. "Vernon, I don't think I can. I don't think I can leave this spot."
"Because I think if I move, I'll die."
Like a weary father on a mission to convince his recalcitrant child, Vernon knelt in front of Clare and held her face in his hands. "Clare, sweetheart, this man has you believing his crazy stories, but you're smarter than that. Don't be silly, now. Let's go."
She plucked her husband's hands from her face, and opened her mouth to argue.
Mulder stepped in to save her the effort. "She's caught, just like my partner. Somehow their assailant managed to poke a hole through the fabric of time and they're stuck in the rip, right on the spot where the attack occurred. I hadn't considered the consequences of moving Agent Scully." He stole a glance at his still-unconscious partner. "It was impossible anyway because of her injury. But I suspect Clare is correct: if we try to move them, it'll kill them."
"You're completely nuts, you know that? This is your fault." Had Vernon Hampton been a younger, more agile man, Mulder suspected he would have been fending off more than a verbal assault. Even so, the man appeared ready to leap at the agent before his wife tugged on his arm and forced him to sit again.
"It's not his fault, Vernon." Clare was making a valiant effort to recapture the warmth she had shared with her husband only moments before. With voice and hands, she touched him softly. "Now, please, I need you to do something for me."
The chill refused to thaw. "We're leaving, Clare. Once we get out of here, we can call for the EMTs from the truck."
"You're not listening at all, are you?" She slapped her hand on the ground to punctuate every word. "I can't move. If I take one step --"
"Then I'll carry you."
"Vernon." She took a deep breath, blew it out slowly, and tried again. "Please. Go get the remains and bring them back. Do that for me."
"We've already discussed that. There's no point in wasting time and jeopardizing the validity of the research over nothing." The words weren't much different from before. Vernon Hampton was still averse to the notion of returning the remains, but there was a noticeable weakening of his resolve. Mulder recognized it immediately, and Clare capitalized on it.
"It's not for nothing. It's a chance to save Agent Scully's life."
Hampton turned his head and looked at Scully until Clare's hand against his cheek turned him back toward her. "And if you won't do it for her, then do it for me."
"You're that convinced? You're willing to risk everything we've worked for?"
"I've never asked you for anything, Vernon, but I'm asking you to do this for me."
It took an eternity of waiting for an answer, but Vernon finally nodded. He agreed, but not without one last face-saving statement. "You owe me." He stabbed a finger toward Mulder to include him in the contract. "Both of you."
For every time he'd wished her to drop an argument, he apologized. For every time he had tuned out during her rationalizations, he apologized. For every phone call he'd ended abruptly, every cue he'd missed, he apologized. If she wanted, he'd let her berate him and his theories until the end of infinity. He would let her talk on forever without interruption, if only she would wake up and talk to him now.
"How is she?"
Mulder startled at the sound of Clare's voice. The only conversations he'd heard in the past few hours were the old discussions and disputes with Scully that replayed in his memory. He hadn't purposely ignored Clare, but she'd seemed content to keep silent watch while he attended to his partner.
The glow from the flashlights threw spatters of light on the dark walls, but the woman across the cave was painted in shadows. He would have asked if she wanted more light thrown in her direction, but Clare Hampton seemed the type to speak up if she had a complaint.
He slid his grip from Scully's hand to her wrist and felt again the slow, steady throb of blood through her veins. "I don't know. The same. I don't know if that's good or bad."
"Vernon should be back soon."
While he appreciated Clare's faith in her husband, he didn't share it. "Do you think he'll really bring the remains with him?"
It was difficult to measure the conviction behind the words without seeing her eyes. Mulder nudged one of the flashlights until light bathed her face. She blinked, then continued as though she understood why she was on display. "Vernon has his faults, but he does keep his word."
She wasn't angry or defensive, only firm in her trust. Nevertheless, Mulder felt he might have overstepped. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply --"
Clare deflected his apology with a wave of her hand. "Don't worry about it, Agent Mulder. I'm well aware of my husband's shortcomings."
It had crossed his mind more than once since meeting the Hamptons that they were a mismatched couple. Mulder didn't automatically discount May-December romances, but he simply couldn't fathom what this attractive, intelligent, courageous woman saw in a cantankerous old coot like Vernon Hampton. The question nearly slipped out, but he decided it should probably be edited before asked.
"You were going to ask me why I married him, weren't you?" Her smile told him that she'd encountered the question often -- that maybe she even enjoyed watching people try to unravel that particular little mystery.
"It's really none of my business."
"It's natural to be curious. My mother calls me at least once a week to ask that question. She still openly weeps when I show up with Vernon at family gatherings."
"As long as you're happy, it really doesn't matter what anyone else thinks." He tried to sound sincere and give her an exit from the topic, all the while desperately wanting her to share the secret of Vernon Hampton's appeal.
He was beginning to think she had dropped the subject. Her gaze was far away, and when it came back it fell on his hand -- the one joined to his partner's. "There was a time when I believed in 'happily ever after.' I was so sure that was what marriage was all about."
"Do you know what first attracted me to my husband?"
He didn't have the vaguest idea, and she knew it. That's why she had asked the question.
"His winning smile?"
She laughed. The sound was infectious and beautiful, as out-of- place as it was welcome. "I've always had a soft spot for creatures no one else wanted. When I was a kid, my mom took me to the pound to pick out a dog and I chose the ugliest, dirtiest, most frightened puppy there. I knew if I didn't adopt him, no one else would."
"So the man with the most fleas won your heart."
"Not exactly," she shrugged. "But close. I was in graduate school when I met Vernon. The other students hated him. Hated his attitude and his arrogance. But beneath all those defense mechanisms was a vulnerable, lonely man who desperately needed someone to need him. I made it my mission to be that someone."
Maybe this was the "wrongness" he had sensed in their union. "Isn't that carrying self-sacrifice a bit far? I mean, to marry a man because you feel sorry for him?"
She shook her head in emphatic denial. "Make no mistake, I was hopelessly in love with him. And after five years, I still am. I'm not some timid little girl who's been victimized by a controlling husband -- no matter what my mother thinks. I *know* Vernon can be an ass, and he hurts my feelings sometimes, but he can also be very tender, very loving. He doesn't let people see that side of him too often, but every once in awhile I get a glimpse of that gentle man. I find my happiness in those moments."
He'd spent too much time lately pondering missed opportunities and lost moments to avoid the ache her statement caused. "And that's enough for you? A lifetime of waiting for the happy moments?"
Before pity could take hold, she continued with an answer of a woman in love. "A lifetime isn't enough. But that's all we get."
As if conjured by his wife's musings, Vernon came bursting into the small cavern like the most unlikely of Prince Charmings -- a box under one arm, dragging a shovel behind him, sporting a ridiculous-looking spelunking helmet. "Okay, Clare, I've got the goddamned remains. Now what?"
"It's not going to work."
Damn. He hadn't meant to say that out loud. Neither Clare, nor Scully, if she could hear him, needed doomsday prophesies.
"Give it a few minutes, Agent Mulder. The burial site is quite a hike from here in another part of the cave. I'm sure Vernon is working as quickly as he can."
It wasn't quick enough for Mulder. Vernon Hampton had done everything he should have done. He'd retrieved the remains. He'd put the medical rescue team on alert but warned them to stay away until they received his all-clear: an infuriating but prudent course of action that could save the lives of the EMTs if this plan failed. It was risky enough to send Vernon through the cave alone, but they'd had no choice in the matter since their look-out was pinned like an insect to the place she'd fallen. Yet the risks Vernon had taken, the choices and sacrifices he'd made went unappreciated by the agent studying his partner so closely for any sign of change. The archaeologist could have wings on his feet and Mulder would still curse him for every second it took until Scully was safe.
Mulder was anxious for the remains to be re-buried in their proper place, expecting that when the lost mate was returned to her companion, Scully would awaken, whole and healed.
He'd assumed when the wall between present and past was restored, he and Scully would be on the same side of it.
Never in the darkest of his imaginings had he thought she would fade away before his eyes like a mirage in the heat.
If she was drowning, he could save her. He could dive beneath the surface, find her, drag her back to shore, force breaths into her mouth, tease her later about stolen kisses.
Water, though deadly, would have surrendered its victim.
Time was greedy.
The past had caught her in its undertow and was pulling her away, allowing her to surface for gasping breaths of the present before carrying her below the black waves of oblivion. Every time she reappeared Mulder grabbed for her, held her until she faded into nothing more substantial than air. The sharp stone at the end of an invisible spear had become an anchor, dragging her downward, backward through the ages.
And each time Scully disappeared, so did the panicked cries of the woman across the cave. Mulder glanced behind him, but he knew what he would see. Nothing. Clare was gone. Buffeted by the same unforgiving seas of time and space as Scully. Her voice, crying urgently for her husband, always preceded the appearance of the women, always lingered in echoes after they'd gone.
When Clare went silent, Mulder took up the cause, screaming for Vernon to stop the labor that was threatening to upend their world. He knew it was futile; the man was too far away to hear. But Mulder was desperate beyond reason to make Hampton aware that with every shovelful of dirt he lofted over the ancient bones, he was digging his own wife's grave. And Scully's.
As Mulder saw it, he'd been given two equally-damning choices. He could leave the women, search through the cave, and if he somehow found Vernon in the maze of passages, managed to persuade the archaeologist to halt the burial, clawed through the dirt for the bones, stole them anew from their resting place, rent the fabric of history that had just been sewn, he would, in all likelihood, still be too late to save Scully or Clare.
Or he could stay here and listen to Clare's terrified pleas. He could remain and bear witness as the physical essence of Dana Scully disappeared without a trace.
Clare's weeping filtered across the cavern and, as before, the sound brought Scully with it. Only this time something had changed.
This time, she was awake.
Afraid she might die. Afraid she might not.
Was she dying now? If so, fine. Let it happen. But did death have to further abuse her with images and sensations?
Mulder kneeling over her, begging her to come back to him.
She blinked and Mulder was gone. Replaced with the man who had thrown the spear. Even here in this purgatory, she could smell his stench.
She watched as his hand moved toward the spear. If the victory mattered that much to him, she was more than ready to forfeit. "Go ahead. Kill me."
"Scully." The world spun and everything changed again. The small, dark hand of the spear-thrower was replaced by Mulder's, reaching for the shaft of the spear. "It's okay. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm trying to help you, Scully. Show me where the spear is." His voice was hoarse, choked, but his eyes were his champion, begging her to believe. "It's the damned spear pulling you back in time. We've got to get it out. Now."
"Now! Scully. Help me. Where's the spear?"
There were a thousand things her memory was trying to tell her, about the spear, about why she was here, but the only thing that made sense was Mulder's insistent demand. She lifted her hand to guide his to the spear, and found it caught in the grasp of another man.
The dark man studied the pale hand he'd captured. She tried to pull away, but he held on tight.
"Scully. What are you doing? I can't do this without your help."
She stopped struggling when the picture she was seeing burst into collage. Images were bleeding over each other now -- two lifetimes, two worlds, two men, each trying to claim her for his own. One hand, caught in two others. Held by one like a prize. Held by another like a lifeline.
But both followed willingly as she brought their hands to the spear.
She wrapped her fingers around the rough wood, the men wrapped their hands around hers, and together they pulled.
Pain she thought she was beyond feeling shook her in its fist. Her eyes slammed shut, and when she found strength to open them again...
She was home.
Back in her proper time. With him. Where she belonged.
He was almost afraid to believe it for fear she would vanish again, but when he'd joined hands with Scully and the ancient hunter across the widening chasm of time, he had seen the spear slide from her body. He had felt an indescribable change take place and knew with a certainty he couldn't explain that the breach between the ages had been sealed.
They proved they had a firm grasp of each other's name. To say anything beyond that seemed clumsy and unnecessary after what they'd experienced. They spent a few wordless seconds just looking at each other, savoring their reunion, until the time came to assess the damages.
"Scully, are you...?"
She brought her right hand to her left shoulder and ran it over the site of the spear wound. "I'm fine." She was as awestruck when she said it as he was when he heard it.
"Yeah, I think so. A little weak, but otherwise, I don't think I'm hurt." To prove her point, she pushed herself up to a sitting position.
He brought his arms around her, ostensibly to assist, the ruse becoming clear when he pulled her into his embrace. "It's good to have you back, Scully."
Her contented little sigh sang in his ears. "It's good to be back."
They held each other just a heartbeat longer than comfort allowed. As he released her he tried to deflect the unsettling closeness they'd shared. "You would've been miserable there. I know how you feel about wearing real fur."
She smiled, almost as if she were ashamed of smiling. "Oh, I don't know..." Her voice trailed away and she looked around the cave.
"Mulder? Where are the Hamptons?"
Mulder insisted he should break the news of Clare's disappearance to Dr. Hampton, and he told her to sit and wait until he returned.
Hadn't he figured out by now that she wasn't good at sitting and waiting?
He was barely out of sight before she was on her feet, following in awkward, weaving, far-from-fleet pursuit. Fortunately, a few wrong turns on his part worked to her benefit; by the time he reached the passage leading to the burial site, she was well within shouting distance. She didn't give her presence away, though, preferring to defer the unavoidable lecture until later.
In this wider passage, he was able to stretch the distance between them. She was afraid she'd lost him until Vernon Hampton's angry voice pierced through the dark cave like a homing beacon.
"Disappeared to where? You said she couldn't go anywhere at all. Kept babbling on and on about her being stuck in time or some such nonsense. So now you say she just got up and walked --"
"No. I know this is difficult to understand, Dr. Hampton, and I'm terribly sorry for your loss, but Clare is gone. When you buried the remains, she was pulled back in time."
"I don't like you, Agent Mulder. You don't like me. But that's no reason to make up such an abominable lie." When Scully arrived in the small burial chamber, Hampton was standing toe-to- toe with Mulder, poking at her partner's chest with a gnarled finger. "Now tell me where my wife is."
"Dr. Hampton --"
At the sound of her voice, Mulder abandoned Vernon and began scolding her. "Scully. Damn it, I told you to wait."
"I thought --"
Then Vernon took his turn, sidling up to her, using his somewhat limited reserve of charm to win her as an ally. "Agent Scully, I'm so glad to see you're feeling better. Perhaps you could tell me what is going on here."
Trying to make Vernon accept what even she didn't fully believe was going to be difficult. "I'm not sure I understand it myself but, ..." Dark shapes on the wall behind Vernon intercepted her attention. She brought her flashlight up and in the light found that someone else had already done the explaining. "Maybe Clare can tell you."
She nodded toward the wall, heard Mulder gasp behind her, but Vernon ignored her gesture and persisted in his misunderstanding. "Finally. So where is she?"
Both agents stood dumbfounded by their discovery, mesmerized by what they'd found.
Hampton continued his frustrated tirade. "How long are we going to have to continue with the guessing games? Where is my wife?"
Scully put her hand on the old man's shoulder and prodded him to turn toward the wall so he could see. "She left you a note."
From ceiling to floor, one end of the wall to the other, faded words covered the rock. In the precise penmanship of a woman who had been alive this morning, who had died millennia ago, was a message for a grieving husband.
When I first arrived here, I didn't want to accept it. As confusing as this all must seem to you, it was worse for me. I was a foreigner here, relying on people I neither trusted nor understood for my survival. The only thing that sustained me was my hope that one day I would find my way back to you. A part of me still wishes for that miracle, but I know it won't happen. I know, because I've seen to it that it can't.
Something remarkable happened to me, Vernon. I found a home here, made friends, and became an accepted part of a community. I've been careful not to corrupt their culture with any modern influences. I've learned to speak to them using their simplistic language. As crude as their communication would seem in the 20th century, I've learned more about them than any textbook or lecture could have taught me.
These are noble people who are proud of their culture and achievements. They laugh when I try to throw a spear, they cry when a friend dies, they love their families with a devotion I've never seen. The man we encountered in the cave is their leader. He's a charismatic man, fair with the others, and the best hunter in the tribe. It took me a long time to forgive him for attacking us and causing the wound that brought me here, but now I understand. His wife is one of the most intelligent, resourceful, compassionate people I've had the pleasure to meet. If ever there was a love to transcend time, it exists between these two people and there is nothing one wouldn't do to ensure a place in eternity with the other.
I've taken steps to protect my friends. Their burial site has been moved to a place you will not find. Hopefully, in this way, your future and theirs will be safe. I've asked the tribe to bury me right here when I die, along with some artifacts that should further your research. I've also left you some notes about my life with the tribe. It is a manuscript a lifetime in the writing. I hope you approve of my work, Professor Hampton.
You described love as nothing but companionship with more hormones. You were wrong about that, Vernon. I've been without your companionship for thirty years, and it's been as many years since those hormones have had much effect on me. And I still love you. I'll love you for the rest of my life. I'll love you for the rest of yours.
Yours for ever after,
Mulder and Scully stood silently to one side as Vernon dug through the loose dirt in search of the remains. It was only when the body was uncovered that the reality began to sink in for any of them. The bones were as aged and dry as the ones Vernon had so recently placed in the grave, but this body was slightly larger. And this body wore a ring on its left hand.
The artifacts were there as well: dozens of pots, arrowheads, tools. But the man to whom they'd been a gift was beyond seeing them. Beyond seeing anything except for a gold wedding ring and the tears in his eyes.
"How? Why wasn't this body here before if she died so long ago." Vernon Hampton's voice fell apart as he spoke, until it was a nothing but a hint of a whisper.
When he silently questioned her, Scully gave Mulder the go-ahead to speak. She didn't have an answer to offer -- at least not one that would reconcile with the science she cherished. Vernon Hampton deserved an explanation. If Mulder could give the man a measure of peace, perhaps it was worth bending the laws of physics.
She stepped back as Mulder knelt a respectful distance from the body and Vernon. He was an amazing man, Mulder. He could be infuriating, rude, insensitive, self-absorbed, and it was all erased by moments like this, when his gentle empathy reached through all barriers to touch the most damaged of souls.
"I think the two overlapping time lines split apart when you re- buried the original body and Clare disappeared. From that point on, everything changed. Clare's note appeared. And her body. Your life together, your marriage, the past you knew with her -- that didn't change. She kept that memory with her, just as you have."
Vernon laid his hand on the bones as if by touch alone he could resurrect his wife. "She lived the rest of her life with them? She won't ever come back?"
"No. I'm sorry."
"Would you mind? I'd like to be alone for a while."
Mulder looked over his shoulder at Scully, and she nodded for him to do as the man asked. Privacy was all they could offer a man who had lost so much today. More, she suspected, than he realized.
"This is amazing, Scully."
When they had emerged into the main part of the cave, he'd been astounded by the sight. Every wall, in every direction, for as far as the light would reach, was filled with writing. Hundreds of thousands of words detailing all aspects of life among the Paleo-Indians: diet, clothing, child-rearing, burial ceremonies, a phonetic guide to their language. It would take years to fully comprehend all the information contained in the writings Clare Hampton had left for posterity.
Mulder couldn't begin to fathom the impact such information would have on the study of anthropology. Yet for a scientist, Scully seemed oddly subdued over the find.
"Is something wrong?" He slipped up behind where she stood reading a meandering account of an inter-tribal dispute. He put his hand against her back and she swayed toward him. She'd been obstinate in her refusal of his physical support as they'd walked through the cave, but her body was betraying its weakness. "Are you feeling okay?"
"I'm fine, Mulder."
He chose to ignore her stock dismissal of his concern. "You sure?"
She waved at the walls in a kind of all-encompassing gesture. "I wish she hadn't done this."
"Why not?" He was astonished that Scully couldn't see the value in the kind of research Clare, in her unique position, had accomplished. "It answers every question that could possibly be asked about these people. It's a gold mine, and Vernon Hampton will have the answers he's been looking for all his life."
"Yes, he will." She took in the archeological masterpiece in front of her, and shrugged. "And if knowing the answers matters more to him than his career, he'll be content with this."
He'd never known her to be so obtuse. "But the insights he'll be able to present --"
She turned around to face him and was almost angry in her refutation. "He can't share any of this with the world, Mulder. Clare was so excited by the culture in which she was living, I think she forgot the rules of this one. No funding agency is going to support Vernon's research based on writing on the wall -- regardless of the circumstances under which that writing appeared. The artifacts he found, all carefully gathered in one place for him to find -- that's just as unlikely. If he tried to take this information and present it to the scientific community, he'd be laughed out of every professional society in the country."
As reasonable as her observation seemed, to deny the existence of Clare's research seemed inconceivable. "But what will happen to all this?"
The implications of the loss saddened her, too. "I don't know, Mulder. That will be up to Vernon, I guess."
Mulder wandered away to read more of the writings, to try to imprint as much as possible into memory in case the information here was never shared. At least he would know and he would remember.
Scully called to him from the cavern that had so recently been her prison. He wasn't surprised that she'd made her way back to that dreadful place. It was her way of showing him she wasn't intimidated by the memories. It cost him nothing to let her pretend.
Mulder blithely ignored her personal space as he stood behind her, going so far as to put his arm around her waist as she pointed to a figure in the paintings. The easy giving and receiving of touches was becoming habitual, dangerously so. They'd have to stop that. Soon.
Tomorrow should be soon enough.
"Look, Mulder. She's back." In the picture a woman stood beside the hunter: the lost mate returned to her rightful place at her lover's side.
A union restored.
A union destroyed.
The Lord giveth.
The Lord taketh away.
Some cosmic requirement for balance meant all good gifts came with a price. The brightness of day for the bleakness of night. The beauty of birth for the despair of death. Even now, as she sought and found her comfort in her partner's embrace, fate was collecting its due from Vernon Hampton.
Mulder's breath tickled her ear, his voice, so close it sounded like a part of her, alternately warmed her and made her shiver. "You ready to go home?"
"In a minute."
"Take all the time you want, Scully."
If they could always stay like this, she'd take forever.
Heartfelt thanks to Carrie and Jo-Ann for their editorial assistance, and to Lisa and Shari for editing, cajoling, nagging, encouraging, sending chocolate -- the list goes on and on.
I'm particularly grateful to everyone who took the time to send feedback as this story progressed. Some of you said you didn't realize how much feedback meant to an author. I hope I've adequately expressed my appreciation.
Thanks most of all to Marty for lending his anthropological expertise, sharing plot ideas, and for showing me that there really is such a thing as "happily ever after." I love you.