Title: Goblin Market
Author: Alice In Wonderland
Disclaimer: Not mine. Got it?
*"Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" by the Eurythmics
This is my effort. Some of the geographical detail may be a little hazy, but hey, I know what I mean. The hot dog vendor is a nod to Arthurod's story, "Dana O'Scully and the Little People", in which he previously trod this faerie ground. The science may be a little off, but hey, it's hardly more off than the actual show, now, is it?
SUMMARY: "Goblin Market" starring Lizzie Mulder and Laura Scully.
CATEGORY: Hmm. Does it count as a crossover? Some M/S UST.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
My relations with him are characterized by closeness and distance, in equal measure. There is a world of white-hot passion there, a passion to see behind the veil of the obvious, to grasp the essential nature of the thing, to know the truth, whatever that may turn out to be.
I was asked once by Skinner if I thought Mulder was crazy. I told him that Mulder was in his right mind. But I am not sure, if I think about it, that Mulder's right mind is sane. In a sense, it hardly matters. Sane is a relative term. Though, as a doctor, if I were asked, "Is Mulder a danger to himself and others?", I'm not entirely sure what my reply would be.
So I let a lot of strange things go. The seizing of weekends off to pursue lights in the sky, the lurking around strange old houses late at night, often with the police called on him by passing neighbors suspecting he is a burglar or squatter, the endless meetings with a series of increasingly suspect witnesses. He knows the world laughs at him - he does not care. I used to suspect he secretly cared, now I am now longer sure. He's seen so much - or thinks he has - that now he seems to be in a position to laugh at the world.
So things had to get quite bad before I noticed anything wrong.
On Monday he came in, enthusiastic but no more so than usual, having had a productive weekend on lights-in-sky chasing front. He'd gone to Varnica Woods, a small forest outside of DC, where the local chapter of UFOlogists had invited him. He had witnessed lights moving about and apparently heard a strange vibration.
I argued, typically perhaps, that the lights in the sky were probably classified aircraft, the vibrations could have been caused by anything. He is looking at me throughout, carefully weighing up these words, fitting them to his own internal version of the facts, and then dismissing them.
"Something was there, Scully." He declares in a tone that will brook no further argument. "I'm going out there tonight, and taking a camera. Wanna come?"
I am smiling at him, and he has already guessed my answer.
"You know, they do a nice hotdog at the stand there."
"I'm still not tempted. So, Varnica Woods does brisk enough business in UFO sightings to warrant a hot dog vendor?"
"So it would appear."
And we said no more about it.
And then, the next morning, Mulder didn't come into work.
Ten days went by. I don't want to dwell on that time. It would be pointless. My sleeplessness, my annoyance turning to bewilderment and finally to terror, the increasingly closed, and then sympathetic faces that loomed all around me. They wanted to send me home. They said I couldn't contain the correct amount of distance, of "objectivity", of all things. I wanted to laugh. Mulder would have.
And then, at 4:15 am, the phone call. I answered it in the office, snatching up the receiver, thinking, it could be him, it could be him…
As I held the phone to my ear, I could hear the crackle of a pure and enormous distance. Distance and intimacy again: I hear breathing, and then the lost, tentative Pakistan accent. She's saying Mulder's name. She's talking about Mulder.
They'd found Mulder. Well… It was Mulder and it wasn't.
I wanted to fly out to Islamabad - I was on the brink of buying the ticket, but Skinner came through for me - for both of us. By the time I had negotiated a ticket Mulder was on an air force personnel plane home. I think I sat in the office and wept with relief.
I drove to the field to wait for the plane. I would like to say that I already had a growing feeling of disquiet, but that's not true. They were saying the usual things about Mulder, and I, in my heart of hearts, was not listening. That was why it was such a terrible shock when they turned out to be true. Frostbite, they said, and hypoxic dementia. A sudden ascent with no acclimatization period.
I stood outside the car, watching the plane approach, landing. His injuries weren't severe. He would tell me the whole story, and then I could get on with being angry at him. And then we could get on.
I watched the plane taxi, roaring, blowing my hair and clothes in a man-made typhoon, and I was striding towards the ramp they now produced, my heart starting to pound, knowing that only when I set eyes on him will I be sure.
But someone is there, preventing me. It's Skinner.
He has hold of my arms. I am so preoccupied, that it honestly takes me a second or two to notice. I stop, confused. Is there something else?
His face is terrible.
There is something else.
I am half asleep, dreaming and dozing, rather like Mulder, my cheap plastic chair creaking as I stir, attempting to get comfortable.
It is not a bad little room. There is a window with a grille over it, fake pine furniture, the coverlet has little tiny pink flowers on it. If it weren't for the restraining straps on the bed, tying Mulder to it, you might think it was any ordinary hospital room.
He has not spoken, at least not coherently. Occasionally nurses come in, and try not to tsk at me, mouthing platitudes about "Agent Mulder needing his rest." I ignore them. They have given him a huge dose of antipsychotic drugs, and is getting all the rest that he is capable of. I twitch, and murmur, and mop and mow, for both of us now.
I have left the file on the bedside cabinet. It looks odd there, like his bedtime reading. When he wakes up I shall read him a story out of that file.
We know he got to Varnica Wood, and bought a hotdog. The vendor and he struck a brief conversation - business was slow in the week, it seemed, and Mulder commiserated. Then he took his hotdog and vanished off the sliproad and into the darkened woods on foot, munching away.
Hours passed. We have not found anyone who saw him again there.
The story starts in the early hours of Tuesday morning, when this changed Mulder started to once again register in the annals of the ordinary world. This time at the airport, his car abandoned outside the doors in the taxi rank. It was towed away later that afternoon, but due to a series of paperwork errors we were never told about his car. It makes me furious to think of it - a whole week of hopeless waiting, and we could have been on his case the very same afternoon.
The ticket attendant remembered him. Everyone who had dealings with Mulder that week remembered him, he left a powerful impression. He had demanded a ticket to Islamabad, muttering restlessly to himself, checking his watch, tapping his toes, and the attendant at several points had to repeat herself loudly to make sure she was heard over his gabbling internal voices.
She thought about calling security, but then, he seemed to develop a sudden cunning calm, as though he belatedly realized that she might prevent him in his mission. I have seen the CCTV tapes of this interview, and my heart lurches at the memory of them, of his obvious illness and distress.
Then the ticket is handed over, and he shambles through the concourse to the doors, followed by the cameras - the guards have identified him as a suspicious looking person. They track him to the gate, and then he is gone.
An air stewardess on the flight remembered him. He had no hand luggage. His coat was dirty, and she thoughts she could see bits of twigs and bracken gathered in the collar and cuffs. He muttered to himself.
She thought he might be afraid of flying, and engaged him in some stilted conversation. She asked him where he was going. He immediately replied: "K2."
"You're a climber?"
"No. No. Not a climber. No." Delivered in a staccato, preoccupied voice.
"Then why are you going?"
"To see my sister."
He stopped briefly in a village near the foothills surrounding the deadly mountain, about four days outside of Skardu, near Concordia, or "The Throne of the Gods". A local woman served him a Coca-Cola and asked him where his climbing gear was. He brushed her off.
She prepared a bed for him, but by the time she returned to the front room of the hostel, he was already gone.
Night was falling.
To be on the mountain at night is almost certain death. K2 is less forgiving than even Everest. She found he had asked one of the other climbers staying there about the way to Base Camp, and she grew alarmed. He would be dead long before he reached it
God bless her, she and her brother wrapped up and took out their own climbing gear, packing extra clothing and food, and set off out after him. It was still risky - though they knew the way and were accustomed to the altitude, avalanches are endemic, and freezing storms with -100 degree wind chill factor could blow suddenly out of nowhere. Though they were relatively low down, the slumbering mountain was still a threat, and they were within a few minutes of calling it quits after several hours of searching. That was when they found Mulder huddled in a small snowy alcove at the foot of a buttress that was impassable without the proper equipment. He had presumably decided to get some sleep and find a way in the morning, or perhaps, as I believe, he had merely fallen there in an exhausted, oxygen-deprived stupor.
They travoised him down the mountainside, and alerted the rescue authorities. The woman had found his ID on him, and so it was that she was eventually patched through to me.
And in that condition he was returned, though he resisted them so fiercely when they tried to put him on the plane that he knocked a tooth out of one of the orderlies. After that, he existed purely in a sedative trance, topped up every four hours.
And in that condition he remains.
I am leaving for the night. I must sleep. I must change clothes. I must phone my mother and tell her that Mulder is home, safe, and any elaboration after that must wait until I am strong enough to bear it.
I keep seeing his face that Monday, bantering with me about the woods with his usual self-deprecating enthusiasm. There was no shadow then of this.
Whatever happened to Mulder, it happened in Varnica Woods.
I am tired, swayingly tired, and I am having trouble finding the key to the apartment. I am not thinking straight. I am preoccupied and careless. I make it easy for him.
"Don't move, Scully."
There is cold point the size of a nickel pressed against the back of my neck.
I don't speak. I'm not sure I dare breathe.
He takes the keys out of my hands and opens the door, thrusting his hated hand through my clothing to find and remove my gun. I am biting my lip in rage. Then he pushes me through, into my own darkened living room.
He switches on the light.
He is framed in the doorway, shutting the door behind him.
"Been on a hospital visit?"
"What do you want?" I growl. I am not in the mood to play games tonight. "What's this about?"
"So nasty to me," he mutters. "And I'm here to help you out some, Scully."
"Do you know what happened to Mulder?" I bark, my anger defeating my fear. "Have you got something to do with this?"
"Yes to the first question, no to the second. But I have a tip or two, if you'd care to listen." He looks about the apartment, and then at me. "Everybody at the office was saying, it's a shame about Mulder. Schizophrenia, huh? It's a bitch. Then someone else said that he'd been clocked at Varnica, and then a few things clicked into place."
"What happened?" I am trying to not scream at him, to rush him, to grab him by the lapels of that leather jacket and shake the rat-faced son-of-a-bitch until his false arm falls off.
"No-one's quite sure what it is. I mean that seriously. But there's something there. Mulder's been poisoned. There's a cure, but I'm not sure how you're going to get it. And Mulder can't help you. He's been promised… his heart's desire." His lips curve into a cruel smile. He probably finds Mulder and I very funny right now. I would love to kill him.
My head is pounding. "What? What are you talking about?"
"We don't understand it. They don't make it… locally."
"It's extraterrestrial?" I can't believe I'm hearing this.
"We don't know what it is."
I throw him a glance of pure cold suspicion. "And why are you volunteering this information?"
"Orders." He shrugged. "The others infected were useful. As an example. They discredit the whole UFO cause. They saw lights in the sky, then they became insane. But back at the office they have bigger plans for Mulder. Who knows? Maybe I do too." He throws me a saturnine smile. "Good luck."
After he has gone, I see my gun is lying on the table near the door. When I pick it up, my hands are shaking.
I am not tired anymore. I am wired.
Frohike answers the door in his pajamas, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes behind his glasses, like a little boy.
"Scully!" He is immediately excited. "How's Mulder?"
"It's bad," I reply shortly. "He's been infected or poisoned with some agent that is making him delusional and manic."
"Again?" offers Byers, who has also appeared, and is putting on the kettle for coffee. Bless him.
"This is worse. He needs a cure, apparently there is one, but no-one is sure what it is."
"Do you have any idea how he picked it up?" asks Langly, also appearing, who has either not slept or simply wears the same clothes to bed. "Have you asked him?"
"No, I can't ask him. He's not lucid. When he's not unconscious with the drugs, he's trying to get me to untie him so he can go back to K2…"
"Whoa…" says Langly. "I mean, Mulder's pretty weird, but he's not really delusional. Maybe there's something in this."
"He was found earlier this week attempting to scale K2. Whilst wearing nothing more substantial than sneakers and jeans. He believes Samantha is waiting for him at the summit. Does that sound rational, even for Mulder?"
They exchange anxious glances.
"The summit of K2? That's no funicular ride," remarks Langly.
"The brother is definitely in trouble," replies Frohike thoughtfully.
"You know," says Byers. "There is a condition called high altitude dementia…"
"I know, climbers get it. But he's back at a reasonable sea level, he should have recovered by now. And he's not showing any other signs of brain damage." I sit down in a chair, sighing. "I have a blood sample of Mulder's I want you guys to look at. Now, I've got this other sample that I'm taking back to the FBI labs. I want you to tell me the minute you have any ideas. Watch out for anything… unusual."
They raise their eyebrows at me, but comply without demur.
And so I leave them.
I work through the night. By five a.m. I can sustain it no longer, and leaving the remaining tests to a trusted lab assistant, I return home.
I shower, and I sleep. I have set the alarm for eight. They will give Mulder his next dose at nine, so perhaps in that hour I will learn a little more. I rest my head on the pillow, and my thoughts are whirling. I will never sleep…
The next thing I know, it is seven-thirty and my cell phone is ringing.
I rub painfully at my eyes. "Who is this?"
"You know I don't like to use my name over the phone. THEY could be listening…"
"Hi, Frohike," I mumble. "Did you find anything?"
"Oh yeah," he answers. "I think you might want to come over."
And I snap fully awake.
When I get there, they are hunched over a microscope, arguing furiously.
"It's a bacterium," Byers is saying. "It's weird, I'll admit, but…"
"You are so screwed! It's a virus!" declares Langly angrily. "It's altering the genetic material of the cells, so it's a virus. It can't replicate without a host. So, virus…"
"You're both talking out of your fundaments, it's not alive! It's like a biological robot, it's artificial life…"
I cough slightly. They notice me.
"Scully, give us the call on this damn thing. You've seen some gnarly weird stuff."
I go over to the microscope, and they step back to let me through. I can sense their alarm, and also, their excitement.
"You processed this stuff fast," I remark, vaguely amazed.
"Um, no," Byers sounds apologetic. "We thought it would save time if we just hacked into the FBI mainframe and got it out of your labs."
"But that's not the interesting thing," says Langly, steering me towards the microscope. "We found this in Mulder's blood. The FBI guys haven't identified it yet, but we think it's an engineered bio-weapon. So we ran up our own sample with a little help from some friends."
I gaze down the microscope. "It's big for a virus."
Byers tries not to look smug while Langly scowls. "You know guys, I think Frohike is right… Have you got it to divide in the lab?"
"No," says Frohike. "It doesn't divide. And it doesn't die. It isn't technically alive. But it does some to excrete some kind of toxin into the bloodstream. But that's not the weirdest thing. We looked at its DNA and…"
"It's a fusion of simple DNA and Mulder's own."
"It's mutated with Mulder's cells?"
They look at one another.
"We don't think so," says Byers seriously. "We think…"
"We think that some evil bastard cooked this up for Mulder, using his DNA. This stuff was tailor made," says Langly, looking angry.
I am blinking at them. "Why?"
And then something occurs to me. The nature of Mulder's delusions.
"Would it be possible, perhaps, by using technology like this, to create something that worked specifically on the… I don't know, the dreams, the aspirations, of the infected person?"
"Whoa," says Frohike. "Weirdness… You're really coming along there, Scully."
They are looking at each other. "I don't see why not," says Byers, eventually.
"But why?" I ask. "Any sort of psychosis-inducing hallucinogen might do the same."
"Yeah, but this is also strange because the sample was filled with endorphins. I mean, this stuff is producing the most amazing rush. It's probably ten times more addictive than heroin, anyway, and if it has been made purely for Mulder, then it's probably a highly personalized rush," says Langly, fiddling with the microscope.
"It's a drug?"
"Yeah, but you only ever need one shot of it. Like I say, it doesn't seem to decay in the system, which means that the effects will be ongoing." Says Frohike.
"For how long?"
They look at me, at each other, and then shrug.
"I'm sorry, it's too early to tell," says Byers.
A terrible picture is starting to form. Mulder in his street clothes, not sleeping or stopping after his journey, filled with a terrible, unnatural elation. The perils of cold and hypoxia would seem as insubstantial as ghosts. And even under the mountain, he would be lying there in the snow, dying of happiness. Oh God. It is almost more than I can bear.
"So," I say, trying to detach myself, bring my intellect to bear on the problem. "What's the cure?"
"Well, it's got Mulder's DNA, so his system is having a hard time creating antibodies to it. It's cloaked. If we could get his antibodies to recognize the DNA of the organism that's mixed in with it, then we could inoculate him," says Langly.
What a brilliant idea.
"But we can't culture an inoculant, you say, because we can't get it to divide," I say, starting to wonder.
"Exactly," chimes in Byers.
"We'd need another source. Another source of the organism. Presumably, its toxins, being created for someone else, wouldn't harm Mulder."
"We have no way of knowing that, but my intuition would be that it probably wouldn't do him any good." Replies Byers, looking concerned.
Langly shrugs. "But it wouldn't matter, since his immune system would manufacture antibodies, and once those antibodies recognized the inoculant…"
"They'd start killing off the original infection," muses Frohike.
"Two doses of that stuff wouldn't do Mulder much good," I reflect, my heart already starting to pound as I consider my proposed course of action.
"Yeah, but I don't think we'll find a better suggestion in the time that's left," says Byers.
I glance sharply at him. "What do you mean, 'the time that's left'?"
They share another look at one another, and then cast their eyes to the floor. Finally Frohike speaks. "It seems to be manufacturing the toxin at a faster rate than the toxin decays."
"Mulder is going to become more hallucinatory and manic…" adds Byers.
"And he's going to need more drugs to control it," finishes Langly. "We've already had a peak at his dosage chart. Much more and you're going to be looking at permanent damage."
I can hardly believe it. After the relief of finding him once lost, and now this. But I cannot crumble now. This is the time to get things done.
No matter how insanely dangerous they appear.
"Very well," I say crisply. "I want you to try and isolate the organism from the sample and keep it safe and alive."
"Why?" they ask.
"Because, if worst comes to worst, I might need you to inject into me."
It's time to visit Mulder.
He is awake, murmuring quietly to himself, until he sees me enter.
He looks terrible. The marks of frostbite mottle his long fingers and face, and his eyes are bloodshot and haunted. His skin is a sallow pale color, his hair dry and lifeless. He looks half a corpse already.
I go to him, and take the hand lying restlessly on the coverlet.
"Scully," he says. "You're here. I knew you'd come. I have to go somewhere."
"I have to go back to Pakistan… to K2. I have to climb the mountain. I have to see Samantha. She's going to explain everything."
"I know," I say. A single tear, unbidden, rolls down my cheek. I wipe it away, but I seriously doubt he would have noticed it. His world is now without people, without any other consideration but his own insane, impossible quest.
"You're going to get me out of here, aren't you, Scully?"
"I am. Mulder, who told you Samantha was waiting on K2?"
"I knew you would. I have to buy another ticket. How did I get back?" He has not heard me. "Can we go now?"
"Mulder, I won't help unless you tell me who told you."
There, an obstacle to his desires, his desperate, fever-driven desires. He is giving me a cold, dead look, full of the sharp cunning of the mad. There is no friendship there, no gratitude. I do not think he even sees me. He does not see anybody anymore, merely his own mirage. His mind is being indelibly, restlessly sharpened to fine point that recognizes only its own crazy desire.
"The people in Varnica Wood," he says.
"They came with the vibration. I heard it. I was eating a hotdog, and walking. Then I heard it. So I followed it, until it became… it became music, or singing. And they were stood there, in the light. They said they would help me, if I paid them. I said, "Help me what?" And they said, help me find my heart's desire. I asked them what they wanted, and they took my watch. And then… I can't remember it properly, Scully, but they wanted me to stay with them, they were having kind of a party… but it's so hard to remember."
"So you'll help me?"
"Yes. Once the nurse comes in and gives you your injection, we'll go to my place and get ready to go to Pakistan." I am whispering into his ear, gently. This seems to quiet him, his breathing is slowing a little, and despite myself, another tear falls, landing on his cheek. I wipe it away. He turns to look at me. I think he almost sees me.
"I knew you'd come, Scully. But why can't we go now?"
"If we go now, they'll know we're missing straight away. This way, it will take them longer to know you're gone."
He smiles, closing his eyes. "Very clever, Scully." He sighs, approving this plan. "But we can't put off going too long."
"We won't," I murmur into his ear.
I kiss him and step out into the hall.
After I have been to the toilets and had a little cry, I return to see the corpulent little nurse in his room. She is flicking the barrel of the hypodermic. I try to think dry, detached thoughts. Such as, Samantha, yes, the truth yes, but why K2? What resonance does that destination hold in Mulder's mind?
Soon after the shot, she changes his bedclothes and leaves. I am stood outside, hawkishly, in the corridor, waiting for her to go.
He's lying on my bed, too doped to move. The sun is setting.
All day I have been fielding querulous demands, as though from a small child. When can we go, when can we go? At night, dear, at night. My arms hurt from helping his steps, firstly from the hospital, and now from occasional forays to the bathroom. His skin feels hot and alive with fever, slightly damp, his hair wet with it. I smooth it down, trying to soothe him.
I lie endlessly to him, reassuring him, and though I know I have no choice it hurts no less. When I gave him the last shot, that sharp, mad, cold expression was back in his eyes. He doubts me. He knows I'm lying.
I look back at the bed, pulling on my coat. I am ditching him, and even though I have injected him with enough thorazine to knock out a small elephant, I hate the idea of leaving him like this, with no explanation.
And then a few moments later, granting him a final kiss on his sleeping cheek, I go. I am on my way to Varnica Wood.
I follow the signs. Another weeknight, just passing the occasional car, with binocular sporting and often lone inhabitants.
"Why K2?" I say aloud, startling myself.
I have no idea. I have never had a conversation with Mulder about K2. I just know scraps - it is the most dangerous mountain in the world, that it claims a life for every person that reaches the summit, that it is also called "Blood Mountain", or "Death Mountain", or the Wild Mountain. It could have been named for the sort of place Mulder might wish to visit. Though he's never expressed in any interest in mountaineering to me… A mystery, indeed.
I have come to the place. A single lone hot dog van rests on the verge, with one or two cars parked around it. I get out.
"Hi," says the hot dog vendor as I approach. There is a radio playing in the van, a comforting human sound. "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" by the Eurythmics. It has been a long time since my dreams were sweet. I suspect that this is also true of Mulder. This dream, this delusion he labors under, is that sweet to him?
"Hi," I say. I flip out my badge. "I'm Special Agent Dana Scully. Can I speak with you, sir?"
"Sure." He is dressed in white top and trousers and a striped apron. His black hair is thinning and heavy with grease. "Is this about that FBI agent?"
"Yes sir, it is. Did you see him here on the 29th?"
"I did, I did, but I told the other guys that came everything I know. He bought a SuperDog with extra cheese and onions and then headed off for those woods there. I didn't see him again. Is he going to be okay?"
"I hope so. That direction?" I point down the road.
He nods. I look at the vanishing tarmac, gleaming slightly in the moonlight.
A thought strikes me.
"Can I have one of those?"
"Sure," he says, smiling. "Which one?"
"The junior special."
He turns to the rotating cylinders of meat, selecting a small one, and deftly inserting it into a bun. He turns back to me. "That do ya?"
"Yeah. But can you wrap it up? I don't want to eat it right now."
He looks surprised, as well he might, and like he'd like to argue about it. But then, no, he produces a small paper bag and puts it in. "There you go. A dollar fifty."
"Thanks. Do you get much business here at this time of night?"
"Oh, a few, a few," he says, nodding solemnly.
I am not sure I believe him.
The road is dark, and I'm glad I brought my flashlight. I can hear nothing, just the wind moving the branches of the trees now spreading wide on each side of the road.
Mulder had said he'd heard a vibration… could the toxin have been in the hot dog?
I glance down at the paper packet. Maybe this was all the evidence I need. It is damned strange, anyway, a hot dog man in the middle of nowhere.
I am about to turn back, when suddenly I hear it.
It is a light vibration, a cold glissando, raising the hair on the back of my neck.
I turn again, staring at the road. I can now see that a little path leads off it, into the trees.
Biting my lip, I stalk towards it.
The sound is getting louder, breaking up into more obvious music, but shrill and strange, as though there were two kinds, domestic and wild, and this is wild.
I follow the path, until suddenly I am in a clearing, with the moon above.
"Hello, pretty lady."
I nearly drop the flashlight.
There is a figure, amorphous, insubstantial, waiting on the other side of the clearing. When I concentrate, I see there are more, lurking within the trees, peering out at me. They are small, like children, and pale.
"Hello," I breathe.
It is approaching me, the light shining on its white limbs, its reflecting skin.
"Have you come to visit?"
I can hardly speak. "Yes, yes I have."
It is nearer now. It has black eyes, and fair scanty hair, and cannot be more than four feet tall.
"Sit down then. Eat with us, drink with us. Tell us stories."
It gestures in the gloaming to a large rock in the middle of the clearing.
I am shaking. I am shaking so badly that the flashlight is also shaking and the beam of light trembles amongst the bracken. I sit on the rock.
Just before me, a fire suddenly leaps up. I scream, dropping the flashlight.
"It's only fire."
There is movement, rustling in the bracken. I try to calm my pounding heart, my labored breathing.
"Have you come for your heart's desire?"
I meet its gaze now.
"Yes," I answer truthfully.
It's voice is tiny and tinny, like a child's. "You have to pay us."
"I know," I answer again. "Will you take this?"
I offer a small gold ring that an ex-boyfriend once gave me. Cheap, rather like him. But still gold.
Long, thin fingers brush my own, and the ring is gone.
I am now surrounded by a small crowd.
"Yes. We will. But now you must sit and rest." The music is all around me, it seems to be coming from them. The acceptance of the ring appears to have pleased them, they are more obvious, more animated. They move restlessly about the fire, looking at me, murmuring rapidly and happily amongst themselves.
They are impossible to concentrate on. They are like shapes, but should I fasten on one, try to recognize feature, or expression, or anything that might distinguish one from another, they move, or shift, or seem to flicker where they stand.
"Tell us what your heart's desire is."
Their voices are an eerie sussurus around me.
"My heart's desire is not my own. I want you to give me the cure that will save my partner," I say.
There is a sudden, ominous stilling in the atmosphere.
"That was his bargain."
"And now it's mine."
"We will not."
I take a deep breath. "I think you must. Or give me back my gold."
And I am definitely not imagining it, the atmosphere has changed. The music has become shrill, harsh, menacing.
"You paid for your heart's desire…"
"And you asked me what it was, and I told you," I reply.
They are changing. Their faces are elongating, their mouths growing huge, full of angry teeth, snarling eyes. Small and insubstantial though they are, I do not doubt they could rip me limb from limb should the spirit so move them.
I stand up. "There's no bargain here. You can't or won't deliver."
It feels better to be towering over them again, but not much.
"There is a bargain," hisses the first one. "And you'll accept it and like it."
Tiny hands grab me hard, pulling me down. They are inordinately strong, and there are many of them. I yelp as my head smashes down on the rock, and my vision blurs. Something is being crammed into my mouth, and I spit it out. There is a fleeting scent of something sweet that makes my mouth water, but I turn my head away, despite the urgent, vicious little hands snatching at my hair, the tough little feet kicking into my belly.
Some sort of fluid is now dribbling, warm, sticky, and wet, down my face, light feathery fingers are prying at my mouth. I would dearly love to bite them but this would mean opening my lips, and at last, I think, I have identified where the peril lies.
I swing with my fist, catching one across the jaw. They feel light and brittle against the force of the blow, flying backwards with a small scream. I jerk my head up, away from their clinging fingers, feeling some of my hair go with them. With a massive kick I send the one standing over me flying, and get up after him, or it, or whatever. I am covered with a sticky, sweet scent, some fluid. I push the one behind me out of the way and start to run, the flashlight forgotten, the paper bag with the hot dog, of all things, still crushed within my grasp. I feel light-headed and clumsy, and I know they are behind me, faster than me, better adapted to the dark.
I am out of the clearing, and the shrill noise of their presence surrounds me, buzzing in my ears like a swarm of hornets, furious and vindictive. I am pounding through the trees, but there is no sign of the path, even in the little moonlight that can penetrate this far into the forest.
They are with me, surrounding me, but I keep going, I keep going, until finally a tree root, that feels suspiciously like one of their feet, trips me up and…
"AAAHHHHH!" I scream.
I am being supported in the arms of the hot dog salesman. I leap out his grip like a scalded cat.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you…"
"What the HELL are you doing here?" I demand, over my labored breathing. Around me, the woods are now silent and empty. I see he is holding a gun.
He looks down at it, following my gaze.
"Oh, don't mind this. I just saw you walking in here, and then… I got a bad feeling. I brought this with me…" He looks almost apologetic. "They're partial to gold, but they don't like iron."
I am merely staring at him, stupefied. The thick, sticky substance is all over me. I am tempted to lick my lips, but then, just at the last minute, remember not to.
"Kept hold of your Junior Special, I see," he remarks, noticing the crushed and greasy paper bag in my grip. In his other hand he carries a flashlight. "Come on. I'll walk you back to the car."
I stagger through my door. Were Krycek lurking in the shadows for another impromptu visitation, I would make easy prey. I'm not sure that I would care if he did.
I drop the keys on the counter. "Mulder?"
There is no sound.
I move towards the bedroom, terrified that he will be gone, but no, he is still lying there, breathing in a fast, shallow rhythm.
He opens his eyes. I sit next to him on the bed, reaching out to stroke his cheek. It is hot beneath my touch, limed in sweat. "Scully? Are you ready to go yet?"
I cannot speak. I am so tired, I am beyond tears.
He is squinting at me. "Scully?" he breathes. "What's this?"
His own hand is reaching unsteadily towards my face. I close my eyes as his fingers trail across my cheek, my chin. "This stuff…"
He smells his fingers, tentatively at first, then deeply. Before I can stop him, they vanish into his mouth.
He is sucking deeply on his fingers, frantically, like a hungry baby with a bottle, or a parched man sucking water from roots in the desert. "This is it," he murmurs. "It tasted like this…"
"Mulder, it's poison, it's…"
And then he suddenly doubles up on the bed with a sharp cry, kicking off the blanket, his face buried in the pillow. His throat works furiously, and he is in agony.
I push him over onto his back, leaning over him. In the dim light I can see he has gone ghastly pale, his skin hectic with red swatches.
"It's burning!" he shouts.
"Mulder!" I cry again, transfixed with horror.
I rush out to the kitchen, getting out the salt, pouring a jug of water, to make an emetic. When I run back in, he is lying absolutely still.
A terror steals over me, worse than any I have ever known.
I reach over and touch his chest. It rises and falls, but shallowly, quickly, barely perceptible. I do not know how I can get him to drink the emetic, so I set it on the bedside table and lean over him once more. His face is turned away, his eyes a mere glimmer beneath his eyelashes. I stroke his cheek and feel the heat there, the wetness.
I do not know what else to do.
I rest my head on his chest, listening to him breathe. And breathe he does. Perhaps, I fondly imagine, a little easier than he was breathing when I arise.
And in that position, listening, I fall asleep, my sticky hair and skin glued to him, too exhausted, finally, to do anything else.
A couple of hours before dawn, I wake up. He has stirred in his sleep.
In the thin dawn light I examine him once more, and I am not imagining it. His breathing is calm, slow, and regular. He is a little warm, like a man recovering from a fever.
I get up, slowly, the stuff congealed into my hair and skin. It smells sickly and faintly spicy, like some aromatherapy massage oil Melissa once bought me. I don't know who she imagined I would be massaging it into. But it does smell good.
I scrape a little off and put it on the bathroom sink, and then head into the shower, carefully washing every last trace of it away.
When I come out, I go back into the bedroom, after putting the kettle on. Mulder is still lying there. But the hotdog is gone - it has clearly been eaten, cold or not. I raise my eyebrows in surprise.
It is only when he speaks, that I realize he is awake.
"Scully…" His darkened eyes are roaming the room. "This is your bedroom, right?"
"We must have had the office party of all time then, because I have NO idea of what I'm doing here." He rubs at his eyes with one fist. The coverlet, kicked off, is lying on the floor near the window, and he is clad only in his shorts and a thin T-shirt.
"Mulder, you've been sick, you need to keep warm." I go and fetch the coverlet, throwing it over him.
"Thanks, Mom," he says weakly. He is looking at me, trying to gauge some clue as to how he ought to proceed. And in his gaze I see the real Mulder staring back out of me, visible even in the half light. I am so pleased to see him I could throw my arms around him.
"How do you feel?"
"Like someone emptied a twelve bore shotgun into my head."
"You've been very ill."
He raises his eyebrows, slowly. "I have? I don't remember anything…"
There is a long pause. He is looking at me, frowning. His attention appears to drift elsewhere.
"Well," he says. His gaze turns back to me. "Last night I had the strangest dream. I dreamt I was in this wood, first of all, and some people told me that I had to go up some mountain to find my sister. So then I was at this mountain, trying to get up, and these other people were all trying to stop me. It was very…" he searches for the correct word, "Frustrating. And then, I was in this room, this little prison room, and… and YOU were there, Scully, and you said you'd help me get up the mountain. Which I thought at the time was kind of unlike you. I thought that you'd've said something about it being too dangerous. So then, I was in your house, saying, "When can we go? When can we go?" And then you ditched me. And then you came back, and you smelled… You smelled unbelievably good. Like I could just eat you. And then I woke up."
I come and sit next to him on the bed, touching his forehead. The skin feels cooler still. His eyes track me. "It was the weirdest dream. I was so… happy."
"Mulder," I ask after a long minute. "Why K2?"
"The mountain you wanted to meet your sister on. K2. Why that one?"
He is silent for a long minute, his face lost and sad.
I do not think he is going to answer me, but then he speaks.
"K2… It's the second highest mountain in the world. It's the hardest to climb. I remember I saw a TV show on it, not long after my Dad… and your sister Melissa died."
I nod at him.
He licks his dry lips. "They said on it, that they had to leave the dead up there. You know, the people who died climbing it. Because, it was too dangerous to bring the bodies back down, or even stay up there long enough to give them a burial. The air's so thin, the environment so inimical to human life that no-one can be brought back, or rescued if they get in trouble."
He pauses, looking at me.
"But people still climb it, or try to. And they still die. And I just remember them saying, some of the ones that did reach the summit, that got there in the end, that they'd had to step over the bodies of the fallen to get to the top."
I nod. I understand, at last.
"Step over the bodies of the fallen," he repeats. "And it occurs to me, Scully, that that's just what I've been doing, for all of these years. Just to reach those Olympian heights, to learn the truth." He sighs. "Stepping over bodies."
An article about K2… I think from the Washington Post.
In May, Hargreaves reached the top of the 29,026-foot Mount Everest alone, without oxygen tanks. The 33-year-old mother of two was trying to become the first woman to climb the world's three highest peaks -- Everest, K2 and India's Kanchenjunga.
Sabir said the climbers were caught in an avalanche on K2 somewhere above the 26,400-foot mark of the 28,251-foot peak. Sabir, who has climbed the west face of K2, said the final 600 yards of the ascent are brutal.
"You have to push through chest-high snow, climb over a 300-meter (990-foot) ridge," he said. The final hurdle before the summit is an ice barrier known as "death throat," he said.
In a British Broadcasting Corp. interview shortly before she left, Hargreaves said K2 is known as "killer mountain" because of its bad storms.
Another British woman, Julie Tullis, reached the summit of K2 in 1986 but did not survive the descent. Her body remains on the mountain.
K2 is so named because it was the second highest peak measured in an 1856 survey of the Karakorum Range. It was first scaled by an Italian team in 1954.
In a letter to her family soon after arriving at K2 at the end of June, Hargreaves told her two small children to "be good for Daddy, have a lovely summer and enjoy your holiday. With lots and lots of love from Mum."
Jim Ballard, her husband, told reporters Thursday that Hargreaves thrived on excitement. He quoted her favorite Tibetan saying: "It is better to have lived one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep."