A surprise visitor makes the small community
question their commitments and priorities.
SPOILERS: Conduit; S.R. 819; Trust No 1; William; and everything in between
DISCLAIMER: Not mine; they belong to FOX, CC, etc.
Special thanks to Mims for the beta. Any remaining glitches are my own. The pseudo-science is all my own fault.
* * * * *
* * * * *
"Are you sure about this?" Scully asked.
"Just try it on," Frohike said.
She repressed a sigh and fastened the beaded necklace around her neck. This was the fourth one in the last week. As much as she appreciated their efforts to find a portable means of blocking her chip's transmissions so she could leave the cave, she had her doubts this would work.
"So, what do you think?" Langly asked her hopefully.
She hooked a finger around the short chain and pulled it out far enough to get a good look at it. The beads--polished magnetite pebbles, actually--weren't as large and bulky as the third necklace, nor as small as the first one. And they were painted a more convincing shade of turquoise than the last two tries. From a distance, the necklace might pass for a genuine Navajo creation.
Scully turned back to the two expectant faces. "They're nice. Very tasteful." Met with their satisfied grins, she withheld any comment on her real concern--would the magnetite beads actually work?
The gadgetry that Frohike pulled out of his large duffel bag was familiar from the last couple of attempts, but Scully still had no idea exactly what it consisted of or where they got it. But apparently, this weird concoction of cables and antennae was supposed to determine whether any transmissions could be detected from the microchip in her neck.
Familiar with the drill by now, Scully obediently stood at the center of the small cave while Frohike walked in progressively wider circles around her, and Langly did something on their recently procured laptop.
"So far, so good," Frohike proclaimed. But she took that with a grain of salt. They'd had the same success on the third necklace, two days ago. Yet the thing had been ridiculously large and too unsightly for her to wear on a regular basis, which she would have to do--in order to serve its purpose, the necklace could never come off. That included bedtime and showers. While that previous necklace was effective, Scully had to explain gently how uncomfortable it would be, essentially sleeping on a pile of rocks. The question now was whether this smaller, lighter model was too downsized to do the job.
Having reached the limits of the small room, Frohike and Langly took their equipment and started down the tunnel. She waited patiently while they disappeared from sight for a few minutes, no doubt testing out her range.
When they finally returned, she heard Mulder's voice intermingled with their conversation. "So, what do you think?"
"Everything looks good," Frohike answered.
Mulder came into view first, talking over his shoulder to the guys as they filed down the tunnel. "How sure are you? Because we can't afford to take any risks with this."
"I built this equipment myself," Frohike replied. "It tests every frequency known to man--and even a few that aren't. We all know what's at stake here. I wouldn't let her leave if I wasn't sure."
Stepping into the room, Mulder smiled at Scully in greeting. He leaned over and gave her a quick kiss before returning to the conversation.
"What about internally?" Mulder asked. "Do we know that the dampening field won't affect how the chip works?"
This was the dual problem they always encountered: they had to stop the chip from serving as a transmitter and homing device, but they couldn't affect its function inside her body as a suppressant for the tumor.
"No more than the walls of the cave would," Langly said.
Mulder turned to Scully with a look of concern. She knew he wanted assurance of her condition. "I haven't had any nosebleeds in almost a month now. I can't offer a definitive diagnosis without an MRI or x-ray, but I have no reason to believe that the tumor has progressed any further."
He nodded thoughtfully. Now that cancer had reared its ugly head once more, she knew it would be difficult to ever put this beast completely to rest. The fears that had once been assuaged with the illness's long absence were now resurrected and would continually lie close to the surface, for both of them.
Scully looked to the two Gunmen for reassurance of her own. "So, you really think I can leave? There's no chance anyone can detect the chip? Because if there's even a slight possibility, I won't take the risk. I'd rather stay here than put any of you in jeopardy." Actually, she couldn't stand the thought of spending another day in this prison cell, but where her son's safety was in question, there was no sacrifice too great.
Frohike and Langly shared a look, apparently seeking each other's agreement. They turned back to her as one, both radiating confidence.
"As long as you wear that necklace, no one can track your chip," Frohike stated resolutely.
Mulder glanced at Scully, awaiting her decision. She smiled at the Gunmen. "Thanks, guys, for all your hard work."
Frohike turned away with a shy half-smile, while Langly just nodded awkwardly. Thankfully, they accepted her words as dismissal and didn't linger long.
Once the two men left, Mulder untied the curtain over the doorway to drop closed behind them and then returned to stand before Scully. He took her hands in his and looked into her eyes, his gaze questioning. She knew he wanted her real opinion--the truth, and nothing but.
She took a deep breath. "I want to come home, Mulder, but this almost feels too good to be true. I don't know that I'm ready to trust this will work."
Mulder shrugged. "I trust the guys. And you know how much Frohike cares about you--and about William. If he had any doubts, he would've told us."
"So, you're sure about this?" she asked.
He paused for a moment, then stated confidently, "Yeah, I am."
Relief washed over her, triggering her smile, which Mulder reciprocated. "Come on home," he whispered, releasing her hands to hold out his arms slightly in invitation. She gratefully fell into his embrace.
They just stood like that for a moment, rocking slightly. "Do you want me to help you pack?" Mulder asked.
Scully loosened her hold and stepped back. "Yeah, there isn't much, so we might as well get everything in one trip." As Mulder shifted away, her eyes fell on the table behind him. "Oh wait--"
He watched curiously while she crossed to the table and retrieved what she had placed there a short while ago. There was one significant drawback to being permanently sentenced to a necklace made of magnetic material: she couldn't wear any metal jewelry with it.
Scully turned around and held up her cross necklace. She saw the sympathetic apology on Mulder's face as soon as he recognized what she was holding.
"I'd like to give this to William someday," she said, "but he's really too young for it yet." She hesitated, not wanting to force this on Mulder by asking, and still unsure whether he might gracefully object. But it was important to her. She kept her eyes on the necklace, rather than his expression, as she asked, "Will you keep this safe for me, for a while?"
He reached out and lifted the cross with his finger, the chain remaining in her grasp. "I'd be honored," he replied softly.
Scully looked up then to meet his sincere and loving gaze. He let go of the necklace and held down his collar on both sides, baring his neck to her. As she fumbled with the clasp, she was amused that she was suddenly nervous over such a simple action. It felt almost ceremonial, like confirming a covenant. Or maybe it was just an affirmation of a commitment made long ago.
Once the chain was securely fastened around Mulder's neck, Scully tucked the cross away beneath his collar and then rested her hands on either side of his chest. His own hands dropped away to her hips, pulling her slightly closer. He leaned in, his kiss soft but lingering, and she knew it was just a foretaste of the homecoming festivities yet to come.
Scully pulled back with a smile and new eagerness to get out of this place. "Let's go home."
* * *
Mulder cursed silently as the plastic cup slipped from his soapy hands and clattered in the sink. He held his breath and listened for a moment, but the back of the trailer remained quiet. Grateful, he released the breath and made another attempt at rinsing off the cup.
Since putting William down for his nap, Mulder had managed to tidy up the mess of toys in the living room and clean up the table, floor, and chair decorated with the remains of William's lunch. It was amazing how someone so small could make such a mess. Although, whenever Mulder commented on that to Scully, she would make some reference to the boy's paternity.
As happy as he was for Scully to be living with them again, Mulder relished these brief moments of solitude. For two people who had lived so independently for so long, they still had problems adjusting to being crammed into a limited space. The winter months were only more confining; at least in the summer, the front "yard" (dirt patch, really) had become their living and dining room, but the winter chill kept them indoors.
A car rumbled up the drive as Mulder set the last dish in the drainer. He figured Scully was back from shopping and would need a hand with the bags. Pulling the plug on the sink, Mulder just then registered that more than one car door had closed, in rapid succession. That wasn't Scully.
Footsteps clomped up the stairs, followed by a knock. Mulder grabbed a towel to dry his hands on his way to the door. He mentally took stock of his gun still strapped to his ankle from when he had gone out earlier, although he didn't anticipate needing it.
Mulder opened the door and grinned. "Joe! We were wondering if you guys were ever coming back. That was a long holiday."
Joe returned the offered handshake, and Mulder stepped back, their hands still clasped, giving Joe a subtle tug inside.
"We had some business to attend to on the ranch, and I wanted to make sure everything was settled so we wouldn't have to rush right back," said Joe. He stepped through the doorway, followed by his wife Pat--and then Mulder realized there was a third person with them. A stranger.
Joe moved to Mulder's side and explained. "We brought someone back with us, an old acquaintance of yours who was eager to see you again."
Mulder scrutinized the young woman standing opposite him, still on the top step. She was in her mid-20s with shoulder-length blonde hair draping the coat, sweater, and turtleneck that she was bundled in. She seemed thin, but not frail. He couldn't place her, but there was something about her eyes that seemed familiar. They were eyes he'd looked into many times, sometimes even in the mirror--the haunted eyes of an abductee.
Then recognition struck. "Ruby? Ruby Morris?"
She smiled a little, obviously relieved that he remembered, then nodded and looked away.
It had been eight years or more since he and Scully had found her returned by Lake Okobogee and then were summarily dismissed by her mother and told to have no further contact with the family.
"It's been a long time," Mulder said. "How are you?" The question seemed trite, but he meant it sincerely.
"I'm okay now. Better than I was a few months ago." She shivered and rubbed her hands on her arms. Only then did Mulder notice he had left her standing on the porch.
He backed out of the way and extended an arm in invitation. "Come in. Have a seat. I'm sure it's been a long drive."
"We stopped off for lunch just before the reservation," Joe said. "But we're all plenty glad to be out of the truck."
"The boys are parking the Winnebago down by the compound," Pat added. Mulder assumed she was referring to Hank and Cody, the two friends who had accompanied the Fuhrmans previously to help with the construction. "But we wanted to stop by and see you first."
Mulder gestured for them all to take a seat around the table. Tucked away in a corner between the cramped kitchen and the front door, it wasn't as comfortable as the living room, but it was farther from the bedroom and would hopefully keep their conversation from waking William prematurely.
Pat and Joe headed around the other side of the table, leaving Ruby the seat at the end. Mulder grabbed the chair closest to the door and waited while they removed coats and gloves to settle in. As everyone stilled, there was an awkward silence. It was clear that Ruby had a story to tell, an explanation for why she was here, but she seemed to need a prompt.
"How's your family?" Mulder finally asked.
Ruby watched her hands fidgeting on the table while she spoke. "Oh, you know. Kevin's in high school now. I haven't seen them in a while, though. Mom and I haven't really talked ever since I moved out. I don't think she cared much for the guy I was living with."
"But you're not living there now?" Mulder prodded.
"No, not since that August. Not since they took me again."
Mulder said gently, "You were abducted, weren't you? By the ship."
She nodded and bit her lip. "I only remember flashes of it. They did things to me, horrible things. I was strapped to this chair, and there were lasers, and saws, and..."
Mulder could feel the searing pain down his chest, a phantom pain that he hadn't felt in so long. He placed a hand over Ruby's. "It's okay. I know. They did it to all of us."
Ruby's sad eyes met his. "They did it to you, too?"
Mulder nodded. He didn't want either of them to relive those memories further. "Do you remember being returned?"
Her hand squirmed beneath his, and Mulder withdrew his palm from her clammy fingers. "Not at first. I just remember waking up a few days later, at the camp."
"The camp?" he asked.
Mulder was surprised at that news and encouraged her to continue.
"Absalom wasn't there anymore--I never met him. But his followers were even more determined after his arrest. They found the ships whenever they could and rounded up the abductees. These healers would come by. They traveled from camp to camp and saved whoever they were able to. But not everyone made it."
"Is that what happened to you?" Mulder asked. "You were healed?"
Ruby nodded. "All I remember was this warm tingling, from my head to my toes. It's the first thing I felt when I woke up. I was afraid I was still on the ship, but somehow I knew I was finally safe. When I opened my eyes, there was this man standing over me. I don't know who he was, and I never saw him again. But by the next morning, I was completely healed. Even the scars I had from when they took me before were gone."
"Jeremiah Smith," Mulder murmured, mostly to himself.
The front door swung open next to Mulder, startling him. Scully struggled through the doorway juggling bags and keys, and he jumped up to help her.
"I couldn't find that beer you wanted. They only had--" Scully stopped short as she saw they weren't alone. Mulder wasn't sure if she'd even noticed Joe and Pat since her gaze was fixed on their unexpected guest.
Mulder lifted two of the plastic bags from her hand and turned to reintroduce her to the young woman.
"Scully, this Ruby Morris. You remember that case? Iowa, about eight years ago?"
Surprised recognition dawned over Scully's face. Her eyes flickered warily to him, but she maintained a mask of courtesy and reached out a free hand to greet Ruby. "Of course. It's good to see you again."
Ruby stood and reached to shake Scully's hand. As they made contact, Ruby went rigid, like she had been shocked. She pulled back from the handshake, looking confused by her own reaction, then quickly sat and covered with a smile. "It's nice to see you again too."
Scully turned to Mulder with a look of uncertainty. The moment was odd, to be sure, but he guessed Ruby was just startled by an electric shock from their contact. It was a common hazard with the dry winter weather.
A grocery bag slipped lower down Scully's arm, reminding them both of the interrupted task. Mulder hurried over to the counter to set down the two bags he had already appropriated. "Do you want me to help you put these away?"
"No, that's okay, I've got it." In the kitchen, only a couple of steps behind their guests, the two of them had a little more privacy--but not enough for a conversation. Scully looked at Mulder intently, clearly communicating that she wanted a further explanation of why they suddenly had this new visitor in their home. But all she said aloud was, "Is William down for his nap?" She turned to the counter and started pulling groceries from a plastic bag.
"Yeah, I put him down in the bedroom. He'll probably be up soon."
"Good. I passed Gibson on my way back. He was biking over to see William."
"You didn't offer him a ride?"
She frowned at him before returning to the groceries. "Of course I did, but he said he was fine. The wind isn't as cold today. Besides, there isn't really room for his bike in that car."
Mulder noticed Ruby sitting sideways in her chair to watch them, but she quickly turned away when he looked over. Joe and Pat were quietly talking, and he realized the young woman was probably feeling a little left out. Mulder gestured to Scully that he was going back to their guests, and she nodded.
Returning to his seat, Mulder noted that Ruby seemed a little less at ease. Her eyes shifted around, flitting toward the hallway, the front door, the table--anywhere away from his gaze. He imagined discussing her abduction experience had brought up some long-ingrained anxiety.
"So, Ruby," he ventured, "you haven't explained yet why you wanted to see me. Actually, I'm kind of surprised you knew I was here."
"Well, I didn't know where you were. But the word around the camps was that Joe had been helping you. I figured he'd know where to find you." She leaned forward on the table. "It gives people hope, you know? To see that someone's out there trying to find an answer. For most of us, it's just enough to survive this. But we know you're still looking for a way to fight it."
Mulder hoped he wasn't becoming some kind of hero figure to the abductees. He hadn't given up on looking for answers, it was true, but life circumstances prevented him from looking too hard, and he always came up with more questions than solutions.
"Is that why you wanted to come here?" he asked. "To see the work we're doing?"
Ruby frowned a little and rubbed her forehead. A motion behind her drew Mulder's attention. He glanced up at Scully, who had moved to the cupboards closest to the table. She lingered there, trying to look casual, but he knew she was listening intently for Ruby's answer.
"Yeah, and because, I'd heard they took you too. I thought maybe you'd understand. And maybe you could help me. Things have been so hard, so...confusing. I know you tried to help me before. Mom doesn't want to have anything to do with it. I don't know if she even believes they took me this time. She probably thought I just ran off again."
Something had been nagging at Mulder ever since Scully returned home, and as he listened to Ruby speak, he couldn't help but notice a pattern. Whenever Scully moved farther away, to the fridge or the shelves on the opposite wall, Ruby relaxed a little. But when Scully came closer, Ruby grew more agitated. He had no idea what the connection was, but for some reason, Ruby was having a physical reaction to Scully's proximity.
A piercing wail from the bedroom interrupted his thoughts. William only screamed that loud when he was in pain. For a split second, Mulder and Scully shared a worried look before they both stepped toward the back room. But Mulder's path was suddenly cut off by the front door bursting open.
Gibson rushed into the room. His eyes quickly settled on Ruby. "She's one of them! She's a Super Soldier!"
At the announcement, Ruby stood and began to move away from the table, but Mulder drew his gun and leveled it at her before she could get anywhere. Scully had paused at Gibson's unexpected entrance, but as soon as Ruby moved, Scully ran the rest of the way to the bedroom.
Ruby looked down the barrel of Mulder's gun and laughed coldly, sending a shiver down his spine. He knew as well as she did the limited effect his bullets would have on her, but they could at least buy enough time for Scully to get away safely with the two boys.
"Show me the back of your neck," Mulder demanded, trying to assert his control over the situation. Ruby just stared at him, her eyes still icy but losing their humor. "Do it!" he yelled when she didn't comply.
Ruby's face went impassive, and Mulder remained on his guard for any move she might make. But then she surprised him by doing what he requested. She turned around, lowered her collar, and tipped her head forward. There on her neck were the telltale bumps. What Scully had referred to as a distinctive mutation.
Ruby released her collar and turned, in slow, controlled movements. "You can lower your weapon. There's no need for me to harm you. I only came for the boy."
Mulder's eyes flashed over to the young man standing next to him. "Gibson?"
The chill down Mulder's spine turned to ice. He followed Ruby's gaze down the hallway, where Scully stood clutching their hiccupping son to her chest. They were both watching Ruby with terrified eyes. Mulder knew that emotion well.
William's fist clutched the beads around Scully's throat, pulling so tightly Mulder feared he might hurt her or yank it off. Not that it mattered anymore whether she was wearing the necklace or not. But it suddenly gave him an idea.
Mulder quickly tried to formulate a plan without giving anything away. He hoped that Gibson could read his incoherent thoughts and tried his best to focus them into clear instructions.
Taking a step to the left, Mulder placed himself directly in Ruby's line of sight to draw her attention. "Why don't we have a seat so we can talk about this?"
"There's nothing to talk about. I came for the boy. I will kill you if I have to. You know I'm capable. And you know you can't stop me."
*We'll just see about that,* Mulder thought. "Fine," he said, "but at least you can explain to me why you need to take him." He gestured toward the table, hoping he could keep her occupied for a little longer.
Ruby shrugged, as though the delay was inconsequential to her, and resumed her seat. Mulder glanced over at the Fuhrmans, huddling together scared and bewildered on the other side of the table. They were an unknown variable in all of this, and he hoped they would just stay still and not tip his hand.
Mulder returned to his seat, keeping his gun trained on Ruby but outside of her immediate reach. "So, tell me why you want my son."
Out of his peripheral vision, Mulder saw Gibson slowly back away from them and into the living room. Mulder did his best not to let his eyes wander from Ruby. He wanted to maintain her focus strictly on himself.
"You assume I know things that I don't. Really, we're just wasting time."
"They don't tell you why you should do these things, and yet you simply do them?" Skilled profiler though he may be, Mulder had no experience with the Super Soldier psyche, if there even was such a thing. He didn't know if they had any sense of conscience or individualism to appeal to.
"It's not my place to question, only to obey. They tell me what I need to know. No more."
"And who are 'they,' exactly?" Mulder asked.
Gibson had paused in the living room long enough to retrieve what Mulder directed him to, and now was circling around into the kitchen, behind Ruby. Mulder feared that Ruby's abilities might extend to mind-reading or some kind of clairvoyance, but so far she showed no signs of recognizing their plan.
"My superiors," she replied matter-of-factly.
"The military? The aliens?" Mulder didn't really expect helpful answers; he merely wanted to keep her talking.
"Is there a difference?"
Mulder raised his eyebrows at that curious response. But there was no more time to pursue this line of inquiry. Gibson was in place. He seemed to be hesitating, so Mulder offered a mental push: *Now.*
Gibson darted forward just long enough to drop a string of blue magnetite beads around Ruby's neck. Her eyes went wide and her brow creased in puzzlement. Ruby lifted one hand to her forehead, and the other to the necklace, but she immediately recoiled from it as though she had been burned.
Her eyes met Mulder's for a moment as some sense of understanding began to sink in. The confusion yielded to determination.
Ruby leapt up from her seat and lunged toward the hallway, but Mulder's bullet was faster. He shot for the chest, at close range, dropping her immediately. She convulsed for a moment before falling motionless, her eyes fluttering shut.
The room remained silent in the sudden stillness, the shot hollowly echoing in Mulder's ears.
Pat let loose a choked sob. Mulder looked over to meet Joe's shocked eyes, as he held his wife tight to his chest. "Mulder, we had no idea--we've never seen one of them before--we couldn't have... Oh, God, Mulder, I'm so sorry."
Mulder clenched his jaw and nodded tightly, quickly casting his gaze back to the body at his feet. He didn't look up again as he commanded, "Scully, take William and go to the cave."
"No." His head snapped up to meet her defiant look. Cradling William close, she slowly approached down the hall. "I'm not going anywhere until I get some answers."
Mulder heard footsteps behind him through the doorway. He instinctively swung around with gun raised, lowering it once he saw who had entered. In all the commotion, he had completely forgotten that Skinner said he was going out for a jog and was due back soon.
Lowering his own weapon, Skinner looked from Mulder to the body on the floor. "I heard a gunshot." Skinner's chest was heaving, and he swiped the sleeve of his shirt over his sweaty forehead.
Mulder glanced down at Ruby once more. She had not moved since falling unconscious, but the blood oozing from her wound had slowed. In fact, it almost looked like the blood was now flowing in the opposite direction, retreating back into the wound.
"I'll explain later," Mulder said. "We don't have much time. We need to find some way to secure her before she wakes up." He looked pointedly at Scully. "And we need to get William to safety."
She nodded and shifted her gaze past him to where Joe and Pat sat watching on, eyes full of fear and remorse. Scully straightened her spine and headed toward them. She carefully made a wide circle around Ruby, studiously avoiding looking down at the body and keeping William's head averted. Mulder knew what Scully was about to do, and he admired her strength and courage. He didn't believe that the Fuhrmans had intentionally brought this danger into their home, but he also didn't think he could force out even two civil words to them at the moment.
Mulder only peripherally listened while Scully asked the couple to take William to the pueblo and they solemnly agreed. His mind was preoccupied, making plans, while his eyes were fixed on the bright red spot at Ruby's chest. He couldn't physically see the spot shrinking, but he didn't think it was just his imagination that it looked smaller than a minute ago. Whatever effect the magnetite was having, it clearly wasn't enough to kill her. He just hoped it might allow them an advantage until they could extract some answers.
Looking up at Gibson, Mulder saw the boy nod in agreement before he could even get the full statement out: "Find the other necklaces. We need all the magnetite we can get our hands on."
* * *
Kicking a rock out of his path, Mulder realized it was the same one he had just booted in the opposite direction not thirty seconds before. His shoe prints, distinct and separate a few minutes ago, now overlapped and merged into a continuous line, marking the same path he'd been treading and retreading between the trailer and Skinner's camper. He felt like an expectant father in a waiting room, but quickly shoved that image away when he remembered that he'd never had that privilege.
The sound of two mopeds speeding up the drive drew his attention. He looked up from the dirt to see Frohike pulling up, Langly just behind with Gibson hanging on tight on the rear of the small motorbike. They hastily parked and met Mulder next to the steps of the camper.
"What's the word?" Frohike asked.
Mulder nodded toward the camper. "Skinner agreed to let us use his digs for an impromptu prison infirmary, and he's signed on as the official warden. Scully's inside with him right now, tending to the 'patient.' The bullet wound already healed itself, but she's still out for some reason. We've got her restrained to the bed, and we put those extra magnetite beads to good use, but we won't know how much good it will do until she comes around again."
"What about William?" Langly asked anxiously.
Unsure whether his friend was inquiring after the boy's safety or his role as the bait in this whole plot, Mulder answered the simpler question. "Joe and Pat took him down to the cave. They'll stay there until we know it's safe."
*If it'll ever be safe again,* Mulder thought. With regret, he briefly met Gibson's worried eyes before looking away.
Frohike watched the closed door to the camper. "Do you think we should take it down to the ruins instead?"
A wave of sorrow hit Mulder as he recognized that the young woman he'd reconnected with just a short while ago had now been reduced to something subhuman. Another victim lost to the cause. But the question Frohike asked pushed to the forefront; it was one that had already been tossed around. That day on the train a year ago, Mulder hadn't remained in the rock quarry long enough to witness the fate of the shadowy man who pursued him, but they'd all heard Scully's report of the man's disintegration when he drew too close to a wall of magnetite. It was likely that their hills would have the same effect on Ruby.
"Maybe eventually, but we need to talk to her first, see if we can get some information."
The door to the camper squeaked open, and they looked up to see Scully standing in the doorway. "She's starting to come around."
Mulder nodded and told his friends he'd rejoin them in a minute. Inside the camper, he found Skinner keeping watch at the end of the bed, where their prisoner lay. Besides the string of turquoise beads around her neck, another bound her feet together, and a third was wrapped around her wrist, while the other wrist was handcuffed to a chair next to the bed.
The space was only meant as temporary living quarters for one or two people, so there wasn't much room for four, especially when the fold-up bed was out. Scully took a seat in the chair, and Mulder came to stand behind her.
Ruby shifted on the thin mattress, struggling her way to consciousness. When she opened her eyes, Mulder saw something he wasn't expecting: fear.
"Ruby?" he asked tentatively.
Her haunted eyes shot to him. "Make it stop," she said plaintively.
Scully looked up at him, puzzled, then back to Ruby. "Make what stop?"
"Them. What they're doing to me. What they're making me do."
"What are they making you do, Ruby?" Mulder asked.
She closed her eyes, wincing. "Bad things. Things I don't want to do. But I can't...stop...it." She sounded like she was fighting even against the very words, the surface tremor of a battle waging deep within her.
Mulder said gently, "Why did they send you here? Why do they want William?"
"Because he's...the one."
"The one what?" Scully asked, a hint of impatience to her voice.
"I don't know. The *One.* They don't explain things to me. I'm just supposed to follow orders."
"Like a good foot soldier," Mulder muttered.
"How do you know these things?" Scully asked, her tone softer than before but still anxious. "How do they give you your orders?"
Ruby closed her eyes and furrowed her brow. "I hear it...in my head. But not right now. It's muted, somehow...distant. I can hear my own thoughts again."
Scully stood and drew near to Mulder, a question in her eyes. Quietly, she said, "Do you think the magnetite is suppressing her connection?"
He nodded, thinking out loud. "Like a collective. They seem to transmit thoughts, through some kind of network. We've broken that link, or least scrambled the signal."
Scully glanced down at the young woman. "If this is related to the same technology as my chip, it would make sense. The magnetite breaks the signal." She returned her gaze to Mulder. "But the question is, can we sever it completely?"
"Cut her off from the collective?"
Ruby opened her eyes and looked up at them. "Can you help me?"
Mulder didn't know the answer to that, but he knew they had to try. If there was anything left of the real Ruby beneath the creature she'd become, they had to try to save her. After all, he'd been abducted, like she had. He'd undergone the same tests and procedures--he'd almost become one of these things himself.
With a shudder, Mulder offered as reassuringly as he could, "We'll try, Ruby. I promise you, we'll try."
* * *
Scully waited until they were outside before she commented, "Mulder, I don't want to make her any promises that we can't keep."
He stopped next to their waiting friends and turned to respond. "I only promised that we'd make an effort. We can do that much, can't we?"
She looked at the anxious faces watching their exchange. "If they already know where we are, helping Ruby may be the least of our concerns. They could have a whole army of those things on the way here as we speak."
Mulder shrugged. "We could ask Ruby. She might know."
"She hasn't been very helpful so far. And if it requires reopening her line of communication, I'm not sure it's worth taking the risk."
Mulder glanced over at Gibson with raised brows. Scully assumed Mulder was asking a question. She appreciated that these two had formed a certain bond in the months they lived here together, just the two of them, but she really wished Mulder would express himself aloud in the presence of other people.
Gibson watched the camper for a moment, and then spoke. "She doesn't know much about them, just that she wants them out of her head. She's fighting against the voices. She's afraid that she'll get lost in them and won't be able to find herself again. She'd rather die than let them have her."
They all remained quiet for a moment at that pronouncement.
Finally, Frohike ventured, "So, what if they are on the way? The pueblo isn't ready to house all of us, and we certainly can't withstand a military attack."
Mulder shifted his feet and put his hands on his hips. "It's enough to house William, and someone to take care of him. That's all I'm worried about, especially since he's the reason she was sent here."
"Did she tell you why they want William?" Frohike asked.
Scully shook her head. "No, she says she doesn't know. All I can guess is that they knew whatever Jeffrey Spender understood about William, but they didn't know about the injection."
"Or the injection didn't undo everything we thought it did," said Langly, earning him a glare from Frohike.
Turning to Scully, Mulder launched in with an enthusiasm that she immediately recognized: he was presenting his latest theory. "If these things are connected as a collective, maybe they function like the Borg." He apparently took her raised eyebrow as a question, and clarified, "You know, Star Trek? The collective ignores you until you're a real nuisance. We could be no more than a fly that needs swatting."
She rolled her eyes. "Mulder, this is reality, not science fiction."
"There's a difference?" he asked, faux innocent.
Scully ignored him and asked the guys, "Do you know where Susanne is?"
"Back at the hogan," Frohike answered. "Byers is with her. He didn't want her anywhere near that thing." He tilted his head toward the camper.
Scully nodded and said, "I'm going to go talk to Susanne. We'll need to set up the lab and work on a way to administer the magnetite internally. Hopefully, we can create some kind of antidote, or at least a weapon." She looked at Mulder. "You might want to see if there's any way for us to manufacture magnetite bullets. I don't know how much good they'll do, but it's better than nothing."
She turned then and set off toward the trailer. The chatter continued behind her, but she tuned it out. Once again they found themselves in a dangerous situation with too many unanswered questions. But her son was at the center of it, a scenario she'd already been through and didn't care to relive again. She had thought the last time would be the *last* time. But even for the heart-wrenching decision she had made, he was still in danger. Was it her fault for coming here, or for replacing the chip? As long as he was with her, would he ever truly be safe?
* * *
A gust of wind whistled through a crack somewhere, like a ghostly cry. Scully instinctively pulled her jacket tighter around her. The small space heater, powered by the generator, helped to fend off the January chill, but far more cold seemed to be seeping through the walls and doorway. Insulation would be her next request for their makeshift lab facility, but she knew that Joe and his crew had more pressing things on their agenda.
They had stepped up the renovations on the complex, now working 24-7 with every able-bodied male of their small community. The room designated as the lab was one of the few largely intact dwellings on the ground level of the pueblo. They had managed to put on a roof and make the inside clean and workable, but Scully didn't consider it a finished product. The draftiness, however, did mean they had good ventilation, which was essential to their current project.
Glancing over her shoulder, Scully verified that Susanne was preoccupied before she reached inside her pocket to retrieve a vial. Wearing a bulky coat while she worked provided at least that one benefit of easy concealment. Scully deposited the small vial of blood in the rack next to the other vials, but at the opposite end so she wouldn't get them mixed up.
She tried to keep her hands steady and look nonchalant as she extracted a drop of the blood sample and placed it on a slide. Taking a deep breath, she set the slide on the microscope. The moment of truth had arrived. She feared what she might find, but she had to know.
Scully jolted and spun around at the sound of Byers' voice behind her. Oblivious to her reaction, he continued, "Frohike said you wanted these right away."
"Thank you, John." Susanne reached out to take the bucket of rocks from his hand, but he bypassed her to set it on the floor next to her work table. Joe had tasked Frohike and Langly with slowly digging out the passage to the water source, which would double as an escape route. The rock they removed provided an essential supply of magnetite, but the fine particles needed to be extracted from the rock before it could be used for their current purposes.
"How are things going?" Byers asked, leaning against the adobe doorframe that was covered only by a Navajo blanket. Scully wasn't sure which part of the construction project he'd been assigned to, but he looked more weary than she'd ever seen him. She fought back a smile as she took in the dusty coveralls he wore, a far cry from his usually pristine and professional attire. She amusedly wondered whether he was wearing a three-piece suit beneath the work clothes.
Susanne removed her protective goggles and settled her awkward weight back on her stool. She still had over three months left to go in her pregnancy, but with two babies to haul around, her middle was rapidly expanding.
"Dana's been working on the blood samples, but I'm afraid things aren't progressing quite as we had hoped."
Byers turned to Scully. "Oh? How so?"
Scully took off her latex gloves, happy to give her hands a chance to breathe. "Well, we started with the blood we had taken from Ruby and Walter. If our theory is correct, then the carbon-based nanites in his blood should be the perfect vehicle for an antidote to Ruby's magnetite-based nanites."
At Byers' confused expression, Susanne jumped in. "My assumption that the technology behind the Super Soldiers is the same as the nanites used on Walter was correct. When we examined Ruby's blood, we found it teeming with nanites, a far higher concentration than in Walter's blood. But Ruby's nanites are composed of magnetite."
"So, same technology, but different composition," Byers summarized. When both women nodded, he asked, "Then how would one be an antidote for the other?"
Susanne explained, "Think of the magnetite nanites as tiny magnets. In order to neutralize them, each one needs to be paired with something magnetic--such as a metal or other substance that would attract and hold the magnet. Under the right conditions, carbon can be used for this purpose. I believe that was the original intent for creating the carbon-based nanites. With their ability to rapidly multiply, only nanites would be able to reproduce as needed to match the quantity and abilities of the magnetite nanotechnology."
"But you're saying this isn't working?" Byers asked.
"Not like we'd hoped," Scully said. "We tested a sample of Walter's blood with Ruby's, and while the carbon nanites did show a slight attraction to the magnetite, it was in no way strong enough to bond with and disable them."
"In the long run," Susanne said, "I really do believe this is the best solution to countering the Super Soldier biology. However, we need to be able to reprogram the carbon nanites, and we simply don't have that kind of knowledge or technology at this point."
Byers frowned at this news. "So, where does that leave us?"
"With Plan B," Scully said. "To return to the analogy of tiny magnets, if we can still introduce a magnetic or paramagnetic element to attract the magnetite, we think we'll be able to neutralize them. To that end, we're working to create an effective ferrofluid--basically, a liquid delivery system for magnetite particles. These particles are the equivalent of finely ground iron filings, so they behave like a metal would to attract the magnetic nanites. We can inject this fluid directly into Ruby's bloodstream, and hopefully it can bond with the nanites to render them ineffective."
Byers looked over at the bucket he had brought in. "That's what the rocks are for?"
Susanne nodded and gestured to her work station. "I'm using a solution on the rocks to extract the magnetite. Only fine particles will be useful for the ferrofluid. Then we coat the particles with a surfactant, so they don't stick to each other, and use some kind of oil as the carrier fluid. That's what Dana's working on right now, testing different oils with the blood samples to see which will work the best."
Scully smiled tightly as they both looked over at her. She self-consciously took half a step to the left so that she stood directly in front of the microscope.
Beyond the doorway, a distant voice called out over the construction din, "Anybody seen Byers?"
Pulling aside the blanket that draped the opening, Byers leaned out the doorway and yelled, "I'll be there in a minute!" Returning inside, he smiled and looked to each of them in turn. "I need to get back out there." He walked over to Susanne and kissed her on the cheek, briefly stroking her distended belly.
Before he left, Scully asked him, "How's the work progressing?" She'd been in the lab most of the day and hadn't seen much of what was going on, but the noises of hammers and drills had echoed around them nonstop for hours.
"At least one more of the units is nearly livable. But we've got a long way to go before turning this place into a self-sufficient compound to house a dozen or more people." He darted a look at Susanne, and she quickly dropped her eyes. "Joe has plans, though, and things are moving along."
"Hey, Byers!" the voice called out again.
"Sorry, but I need to go. I'll check on you later, Suze."
At his exit, Susanne's smile quickly faded. She turned back to her table, replacing the goggles and recommencing her work.
Scully stood for a moment, contemplating the brief exchange she had just witnessed. The entire group was on edge with recent developments, and they each had their own opinions on how to deal with the situation. For the two scientists among them, it meant looking for a scientific solution. For the men, it meant focusing on ways to protect or fight. But Scully wondered if maybe Susanne or Byers felt they should be pursuing another option.
She was about to return to the microscope when Susanne abruptly stopped and looked up. "Dana, do you think..." she hesitated, then forged ahead. "Do you think we'll really be safe here?"
Scully wasn't sure how best to respond. She had her own doubts, but she wasn't ready to express them to anyone but Mulder.
"We don't know enough about how Ruby found us, or how much they know of our whereabouts." She touched the turquoise beads hanging from her neck and worried them with her fingers. "We also don't know if the magnetite necklace was effective enough at breaking the signal." For Ruby, or for me, she thought.
"Maybe we never should've gone into town to get the ultrasound. If someone there recognized me and knew I was back in New Mexico--"
"We can't all second-guess ourselves. The fact is, we don't really know how it happened. And unless Ruby can tell us, we may never know. But as for whether we're safe here...time will only tell. If we run, I'm not sure where to, or for how long. We simply don't have a lot of choices."
Scully wondered what choices Susanne and Byers had been considering, but Susanne fell silent as she caressed her belly and stared down at the beaker in front of her.
Compelled to offer some reassurance, Scully added, "At least there's strength in numbers. We're not alone here, and we're not exactly helpless. Personally, I put more faith in what we can accomplish scientifically than in the defense of these walls."
Susanne smiled a little. The two women had that one thing in common--they both understood the language of science, and that this war would be fought as much under the microscope as with weapons and might.
Susanne nodded and resumed her work, not looking up from it again. Scully tried to draw strength from her own words and turned to face her interrupted task. The slide sat waiting on the microscope. She had only to look at it.
Besides the blood drawn from Ruby and from Walter, Scully had quietly drawn another sample, hidden away in her pocket until now. She felt guilty for seeking some time alone with her son as a ruse for this deception, and even more guilty for the question in his eyes when she pricked his skin with the needle, all the while whispering her apologies. His face had scrunched up with the pain, but she was the one who shed tears.
Now, his blood awaited her verdict. She had spent ample time examining the nanites from both Ruby and Walter, so she knew exactly what to look for and at what magnification. She had been told that William was normal, that whatever had caused him to control mobiles and spaceships was long gone, but she needed to know for sure.
Drawing a deep breath, Scully leaned forward and looked through the microscope. After a long, tense moment, she sat back on her stool, closed her eyes--and smiled.
* * *
Squelching a yawn, Mulder knocked on the door to the small camper. The sun was setting over the mountains, and he struggled to remember what day it was. None of them had rested much since the Fuhrmans returned with a guest in tow and turned their world upside down. He thought about looking back to ask Scully, but before he could, the door opened. Skinner greeted him and stepped aside, allowing the two of them to enter.
On the bed, Ruby lay motionless with her eyes closed. She appeared to be sleeping, but not peacefully; her brow remained tense even in slumber. The handcuffs had been removed, replaced by another string of magnetite stones that had been hastily assembled, but not painted like the others.
"How's she doing?" Mulder asked quietly.
"She's been restless all day." Skinner looked at Scully. "I don't think the sedatives you gave her earlier helped much. But exhaustion finally won out, and she was able to sleep."
"I wasn't sure whether the medication would have any effect," Scully responded. "There's still too much we don't know about her physiology."
"Is it ready?" Skinner inquired.
Scully nodded and reached into her bag, retrieving a large syringe filled with a thick black substance. Mulder was hesitant to wake Ruby, but waiting would only extend her anguish. He brushed a gentle hand over her brow, which was fevered to his touch despite the lack of proper heating in the camper.
"Ruby?" he called softly.
She shifted a little, his hand slipping away as her head turned to the side. Her expression was pinched as she slowly opened her eyes.
"Agent Mulder?" Ruby caught sight of Scully standing behind him. Returning her gaze to him, she asked, "Is it time?"
Mulder nodded and stepped back to give Scully room to work. She immediately slipped into professional mode, projecting a confidence he knew she didn't quite feel.
"Ruby, we've prepared what we hope will be an antidote to the technology that has invaded your body. However, I need you to understand the risks. We've only been able to test this on a small blood sample, so we can't be sure of the dosage or the exact side effects. At best, there could be no reaction at all. At worst, this could cause you more pain, or you could die."
Ruby shook her head. "I can't live like this any longer. I do horrible things, and I can't stop myself. All I can do is watch, trapped from the inside. I'm not me anymore. If we can't stop this--it's worse than being dead."
Laying a hand on Ruby's shoulder, Scully nodded. Mulder wondered if Scully was recalling her own experience of helplessness at the hands of alien technology. He himself was accosted by a vision of being strapped to a chair naked while the sound of drills descended, but he shoved it away. And to think: he was one of the lucky ones.
Scully uncapped the syringe and guided Ruby to lie on her side, her back facing them. At Scully's glance, Mulder realized that she would need help holding Ruby's hair and collar out of the way to access her neck. Trying not to get in the way, he reached an arm across to push back Ruby's hair. Scully pulled down the edge of the turtleneck, revealing the characteristic ridges protruding beneath the skin. With a steady hand, she inserted the long needle between the ridges and pushed the plunger.
When the syringe was emptied, they settled Ruby onto her back again, and then moved aside to wait.
But nothing happened. Ruby's eyes were slightly glassy, as they had been when she first awoke, and her gaze seemed to be turned inward to gauge her body's reaction.
After a few minutes had passed silently, Mulder asked his partner, "How long do you think it will take before we
see--" But he was brought up short as Ruby's eyes suddenly became alert and shot to his. "Ruby?"
Her face registered alarm and confusion. Her lips parted as if to speak, but all that emerged was a gasp as she suddenly spasmed.
"Oh, my God," Scully said. And then he saw it--Ruby's veins had grown dark and were bulging beneath her skin. The black strands pulsed grotesquely, struggling to break the surface. Then the coloring seemed to seep from the veins into her pores as her skin grew ashen--literally. The outer layer began to crumble away like fine sand which, devoid of moisture, could no longer hold its shape.
As the effect rapidly spread, he drew his horrified gaze back to Ruby's eyes. She watched him with a mixture of surprise and despair. He wanted to apologize to her, but the words stuck in his throat. He was afraid that if he let them loose, he might gag instead. Resignation settled over her face as the desiccation crept over her body and turned her golden hair to gray. Her eyes held him fixed until the darkness overtook them; the ashen orbs crumbled into their sockets, followed by what remained of her face. And suddenly all that lay before them on the bed was a pile of sooty dust.
Still in shock, Mulder turned, catching Skinner's impassive expression. But he saw the flicker of emotion that lay behind that finely honed Marine control. Looking down at his partner, Mulder found her watching the bed with watery eyes and a trembling hand pressed to her lips. When her stunned gaze met his, he instinctively pulled her into his embrace. Whether it was more for her comfort or for his, he wasn't sure.
They held each other tight as the camper remained quiet. After a long moment, Skinner said softly, "She's at peace now. That's what she wanted."
But as Mulder rested his head against Scully's and shifted to glance once more at the blackened outline against the white sheets, he wondered if that small comfort would ever be enough to mitigate his remorse.
* * *
Skinner tossed the last shovelful of dirt onto the small grave while the group watched on silently, standing in a half circle at the base of the hillside. With his boot, Mulder packed the dirt firm, flattening the mound, and smoothed it around the white cross. A light snow had begun to fall as they worked, dusting them with fine flakes that quickly faded away.
The only identification on the marker was the "R.M." carved at the junction of the crossbars. The grave held merely a box of ashes, but a box tightly sealed. They remembered well enough the mysterious resurrection of Billy Miles after his encounter with a garbage truck. There was too much at stake for them to take any chances. Whatever the box might not be able to hold back, they hoped that the magnetite in the adjacent wall of rock could.
Finished with their work, the two men stepped back from the grave and joined the onlookers. Mulder came alongside Scully and asked her solemnly, "Would you like to say a prayer?"
She felt herself blush as all eyes turned to her. Beyond "Hail Mary" and "Our Father," she didn't really know any prayers, especially one appropriate for the occasion. The best she could think of was to recite Psalm 23, although she felt that choice was more influenced by a movie cliche than personal experience.
Shifting the drowsy William in her arms, she started in on the psalm. She hoped that it would flow automatically from her tongue, a latent memory from childhood. "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul..."
Scully flushed even more as she realized that she couldn't remember the next words. The uncomfortable pause was filled when Skinner took up in her place.
"He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over."
As the words once again became familiar, Scully joined him to finish the psalm. "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever."
A soft chorus of "Amen"s sounded out. After a long moment, Mulder took the initiative to step away, and the group began to walk back toward their camp in silence.
The grave lay in the same valley as the ruins, but a short distance away. The pounding of hammers rebounded off the high walls, a reminder of the work left to be done. Only Hank and Cody had politely demurred from attending the funeral and stayed behind to make the most of the remaining daylight.
Now that efficiency and safety had taken precedence over secrecy, the group of refugees no longer tried to hide their presence in the valley. Just beyond the ruins, they had circled their wagons--or, rather, their motorhome, camper, and trailer. The latter was the least mobile of the three, but it was small enough that Joe's truck had been able to haul it over for them. With two of the rooms at the pueblo essentially habitable, Frohike and Langly had moved out of the boarding house, adding to the number at their impromptu campsite.
The lingering issue was water and a septic system, moving these basic needs up the list of priorities. The hillsides could provide a certain amount of protection, but beyond that, the small community was still too dependent on outside resources.
As they approached the trailer, the group slowed and stopped, ready to say their goodbyes for the night. Some of the men would return to the construction for the evening shift, but it was time to put William to bed.
Scully looked over to Susanne and Byers, who stood facing where their car was parked. There was something in Susanne's expression that compelled Scully to say, "We can make room for you in the trailer if you'd rather not return to town tonight."
Byers and Susanne shared a look, and as Byers turned back toward them, he seemed to have reached some kind of decision. "Actually, we've been wondering, if perhaps...staying in this area is really the best idea. With the babies coming, it might be preferable for us to be...closer to medical facilities."
Scully knew what he was actually saying, and as she glanced at Mulder, she saw that he understood as well. The doubts they all had were finally being voiced.
Mulder pivoted and looked at the pueblo, cast in shadows by the fading light beyond the ridge. All eyes followed his, and the group stood quietly looking toward their hope and refuge, while they awaited Mulder's response.
Turning to Byers, Mulder spoke softly. "I can't put it into words exactly, but I need you to trust me on this, John. We're safe here. Safer than we'll be anywhere else." Mulder tilted his head back and looked up to the indigo sky. "We're not alone in this place. There's...a presence watching over us."
He brought his head back down and perused the circle of faces. "We're here for a reason. I understand if any of you want to go. And I'll respect that decision. But as a friend, I ask you to stay." As he finished, his eyes landed on Byers once more.
Without breaking Mulder's compassionate gaze, Byers took Susanne's hand in his. "What about the town? Do you think we'll be safe there?"
Mulder nodded. "As long as you're with the Hosteens, you and Gibson, I think you'll be safe. Albert's spirit is with them."
Byers looked down at Susanne then, and they held another silent conversation with their eyes. Finally they turned back to Mulder as one, and Byers nodded his affirmation.
A throat cleared behind Mulder, and Joe stepped closer. "I appreciate that you've all been so gracious to us, but I think we've overstayed our welcome. As soon as the construction is done, me and Pat and the boys will clear out of here. And I think we all know it's best if we never returned again."
Scully hastened to speak the words that she knew Mulder still had difficulty voicing. But they needed to be said. "No one blames you for what happened. You have to understand that. And I think we would all feel it was a great loss if you left us now."
Joe dropped his head and nodded, acknowledging her words if not fully accepting them. Pat drew closer and stroked a hand over his back.
Mimicking the gesture, Scully touched a hand to Mulder's back, but communicating something entirely different. She knew the words of forgiveness would not be effective until spoken by Mulder himself. He had become a leader to them, and his words carried weight.
Mulder didn't turn to look at her, but she knew he understood as she felt his shoulders heave with a sigh. He took a step forward, and her hand slipped from his back.
"If anyone should leave, Joe, it's Scully and I. We're the reason Ruby came here in the first place. It doesn't matter how she found us. It was her mission, and she would've accomplished it one way or another. But we're the ones who have really put the rest of you in danger."
Scully recognized what Mulder was doing, the psychology of his tactic. Still, she couldn't help but smart at the truth he spoke, and the one word he had purposely omitted--the name of the person whom Ruby had truly come to find.
It was Byers who answered. "No. We all go, or we all stay. We're in this together now. All of us."
Mulder rested a hand on Byers' shoulder, a show of appreciation for his solidarity and trust. Then Mulder extended a hand to Joe. "What do you say? Will you join us?"
After a moment of hesitation, Joe reached out and returned Mulder's clasp. "You and Pat, and Cody and Hank--you're all welcome here," Mulder said. "But you need to understand what we're up against. You've seen it now, firsthand."
"I've seen it," Joe said. "And if I didn't believe it before, I believe it now. I promise you--all of you--that I'll never let myself be used like that again."
The men dropped their handshake, and there was an awkward lull. Finally, Skinner came over to genially slap Joe on the back. "Well, it looks like we've still got some work to do. Who's ready to join me?"
The two men headed off toward the ruins, then Frohike and Langly waved their goodnight to the rest of the crowd and followed the pair.
Scully shared a reassuring smile with Susanne and mounted the steps to the trailer. As she held William tight, his warm puffs of breath struggled to fend off the icy breeze tickling the nape of her neck.
* * *
He was immobilized. The pain searing his chest, throbbing through every nerve in his body, was so constant that he had almost grown accustomed to it. At least the pain reminded him he was still alive.
A new sound emerged. A whirring--a buzzing. Out of the brightness above him, the metallic drill descended, poised over his face. He was powerless to stop it. He wanted to scream, but he knew the futility. No one could hear but his captors, the shadowy beings that skirted his vision and hid in the light. He felt helpless, trapped, and utterly alone.
With a start, Mulder woke from the nightmare. His entire body was chilled, from the inside out, and he immediately sought out Scully's warmth in the bed. His questing hand returned empty, as it had for too many nights. He thought of her sleeping by herself in the cold, dark cave, and shivered.
Drawing the covers closer, Mulder rolled over onto his back and cocooned himself in the blanket. Something tickled his neck. As he automatically reached up to scratch it, his hand encountered a chain and a pendant--Scully's cross.
His eyes flew open as his mind caught up with reality. Scully wasn't living in the ruins anymore. She should be in bed next to him, but she wasn't. The room was dark and still. He listened carefully for sounds down the hall, but his ears roared with deafening silence.
Taking no chances, Mulder quietly retrieved his gun from the nightstand as he slipped out of bed. He bypassed his shoes and padded to the door in his socks. It was slightly ajar and opened without a sound.
The soft light emanating from the living room soothed his anxiety a little, and Mulder held his gun arm slack at his side while he noiselessly approached. At the end of the short hallway, he stopped, finally catching sight of Scully. She sat in the rocking chair in the corner, holding a sleeping William to her chest. One of her feet was planted on the floor, steadily rocking them, but her eyelids were heavy. Her head jerked up suddenly as she came fully awake, and she looked over at Mulder.
"I didn't hear him cry," Mulder said softly.
"He wasn't crying," she replied, barely above a whisper.
Mulder set his gun on top of the bookshelf next to him--well above William's reach--and slowly crossed to her side. "Were you?" he asked, keeping his tone gentle.
She lowered her eyes to their sleeping son. After a long pause, she answered, "Only in my heart."
Mulder's arms felt empty as his soul ached. He would have crawled onto the rocker with them, had there been room. Instead, he held out his hand. Scully stopped rocking. Her melancholy eyes held his for a moment, and then she adjusted William more firmly in her grasp and reached for Mulder's hand.
Pulling her gently, he lifted her weight from the chair and led her the two steps over to the couch. He settled along the length of the cushions and then guided her to sit between the vee of his legs and lean back against his chest. He grabbed the Navajo blanket off the back of the couch and draped it over their entangled legs. Once they were positioned comfortably, he wrapped his arms around hers, which were tightly wrapped around their son.
Scully snuggled closer and let loose a weak chuckle.
"What?" Mulder asked, bending his head forward to see her face.
"We might as well go back to bed. I don't think this couch was made to sleep three."
He chided good-naturedly, "You're the one who didn't want to make a habit of him sleeping in our bed."
"That was before I realized I couldn't fit into his."
She was joking, he knew, but he recognized the gravity behind her words. His only reply was to kiss her brow.
William let out a little mewl and shifted in her arms, then he settled back into his peaceful slumber. Mulder gave into his impulse and stroked a hand through the boy's wispy strawberry blond curls.
Scully lay still in his arms for so long that Mulder thought she had fallen asleep. He was starting to drift there himself, until her whisper brought him fully alert. "Why do you think Ruby came for William? What do they want with him?"
Mulder had no simple answer for that, and too many horrifying suggestions that he didn't want to share.
Offering a momentary reprieve, Scully continued, "After what happened at his birth... They could have taken him so easily. But they let us keep him. I don't understand why--why not then? Why take him now?"
"I don't know. Maybe they think he's more than he really is--which is just a normal little boy," he was quick to add.
"But what if...they know something we don't, about what he is?"
"Do you really believe that's true?"
"No," she said firmly. "I know that he's normal, and healthy. But how can we give him a normal life? Living here, always looking over our shoulders for the next threat? That's no way to raise a child."
She was right, he knew. They couldn't hide their son away in a cave for the rest of his life. But it wouldn't be forever. He had to believe that, in spite of the fear gripping his heart.
"I don't have all the answers, Scully. I wish to God I did. But I do know we'll do everything in our power to keep him safe."
Mulder ran a finger down William's soft, chubby cheek. The boy lay there so trustingly in their entwined arms. If there was one thing Mulder knew, especially with Scully by his side, it was to never give up despite the odds. Whatever the outcome, that was the legacy he would leave for his son.
"I told you once there was nothing more important to me than finding my sister," Mulder said quietly into Scully's ear. "But I know now there is something so much more important. I promise you, as long as I have breath, I will never stop fighting for our son. For his future."
Scully sniffled and slid a hand down his forearm to link her fingers through his. Grasping his hand tightly, she lifted it to her lips and kissed the back of the knuckles. Then she settled their joined fists against her chest, right above her heart and next to their son.
Mulder heard her take a deep breath, but no words followed. He knew what she wanted to say. In answer, he pulled his other arm more tightly around her, cuddling his family close.
No one would ever take this away from him. Never again.
End part 10
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