Part 9
Of Miracles and Magnetite

A frigid winter wind blows in unexpected news,
both good and bad.

SPOILERS: Season 9
DISCLAIMER: Not mine; they belong to FOX, CC, etc.

Special thanks to Mims for the beta, and to Obfusc8er for keeping me honest with my pseudo-science.

* * * * *
* * * * *

The chilled December air lashed at Scully's face, stinging her cheeks as she biked through the canyon. The wind felt like it promised snow, the first of the season. She was grateful that her ears were at least partially shielded by her baseball cap, even though she had worn it more for disguise than warmth. Her roots were showing again, and she had grown tired of washing in the brown hair dye. Not that any eyes in the sky would be able to identify her by half an inch of red at her crown, but she opted to keep covered in deference to the prevailing paranoia.

Rounding the bend, she could see more evidence of their precautions. Two beige tarps had been set up along the rock wall adjoining the ruins, providing just enough cover for the few vehicles and small staging area that evinced their building activity. Should anyone be spying by satellite or plane, they would only see a couple squares of color that hopefully blended into the background. What work couldn't be concealed by the tarps was left for nighttime, and lighting was kept to a minimum.

Joe Fuhrman, his wife Pat, and a couple of their buddies had been here for a week now, beginning the transformation of the crumbling ruins into a refuge or command post. The exact future of the complex was still a matter of debate--at least, as far as Scully was concerned--but they all agreed enough on the location's value to begin renovations.

Scully parked her bike next to Byers' car, confirming that her trip wasn't in vain. But she didn't see anyone around until she cleared the other side of Joe's truck and found him seated in the front with his door open. He was poring over some papers, blueprints probably. At the crunch of her heels on the gravel, he looked up and greeted her with a smile.

Scully removed her hat and returned the greeting. She glanced around before asking, "Where is everybody?"

"Pat and the boys are over at the Winnebago, having a late lunch."

The "boys" were the friends he'd brought along to help--men that Scully still didn't know well and wasn't yet inclined to trust. Today, the epithet likely included Frohike, Langly, and Skinner, since they weren't back at the trailer with Mulder and Byers. The Winnebago was the base camp they'd set up a couple of ridges over beneath an outcropping. Scully had been relieved their new guests were so self-sufficient since she had no idea where they were supposed to house four more people, and their dog.

"Susanne's up at the lab," Joe continued. "I think she's waiting for you."

"Thanks." Scully turned and headed for the pueblo. "The 'lab,'" she muttered to herself. So, they were already calling it that. Another matter that she didn't consider entirely settled.

Climbing the ladder toward the upper level, Scully noted that from the outside the pueblos still looked the same as the first time she'd seen them. All the better, since that was part of the plan. Inside, they would have comfortable rooms and high-tech equipment, but the exterior should look as if no one had been there since the Anasazi.

Only once she entered the second-story room did Scully notice the first signs of their progress. The style hadn't been modernized, but structural repairs had been made, especially to the roof. A pile of paint cans and drywall in the corner pointed her way toward the real focus of their initial efforts: the cave and tunnels.

As Scully moved from the daylight of the outer room to the dimness of the narrow entrance into the cave, her eyes adjusted to the warm glow of artificial light. Already, the room seemed much brighter than the last time she had seen it. When she emerged into the cavern, she saw why.

The space that had once been a dark, stone cave was now a small, rectangular room of white walls and ceilings. The two lamps were no more than camping lanterns, but the freshly painted drywall reflected the light to all corners, almost making the room feel more spacious than it actually was. Almost.

"So, what do you think?" Susanne asked as Scully walked by her and pivoted in a slow circle to take in the full view.

What did she think? The small hole on the back wall did no more to assure her of another way out than the first time she saw the cave, nor did the ceiling that would barely clear Mulder's head assuage her claustrophobia. After a few unfortunate run-ins with trunks and closets, she wasn't a big fan of confined spaces. This room may be slightly larger, but not by much.

But all she said was, "It's nice. It's hard to believe this is the same place."

Susanne didn't appear any more thrilled than Scully felt, slightly alleviating Scully's anxiety. Susanne took another glance around, probably not realizing that her hand was mechanically smoothing over her belly. "But do you really think we can use this for a lab? There isn't much in the way of ventilation."

Scully nodded her agreement. "It'll be pretty hard to haul equipment up and down, if the only access is those wooden ladders." Susanne turned from perusing the room, and Scully saw in her eyes the other concern: hauling a pregnant woman up and down those rickety ladders.

But instead of voicing that, Susanne said, "I'd really prefer to keep working closer to town. At least, until after the baby's born."

Scully sighed, partly in relief that Susanne agreed with her. "I know the men are only trying to be helpful, but we'll have to convince them there's a better use for this space."

Susanne stepped over to the one chair in the room and took a seat, her hand still absently rubbing her abdomen. "Dana, can I ask you a question?"

Scully sensed that the topic had shifted. "Sure."

Susanne looked down at the hand covering her belly. "How long do you think I should go without getting an ultrasound?"

The two of them hadn't directly discussed this before, but Scully was aware of the issue. The Navajo reservation had a number of decent medical clinics that provided adequate prenatal care, but there were two main problems: First, most procedures, beyond a basic check-up or emergency care, were only available to the Navajo. Second, the small rotation of doctors who came through for more specialized care were white--in other words, outsiders with outside contacts, who couldn't necessarily be trusted with information about an enclave of refugees on the reservation. Together, those problems meant that Susanne hadn't received an ultrasound, even as she neared her fifth month.

"Have you and John discussed going into Farmington?"

Susanne shook her head at the option. "He's worried I'll be recognized. I was thinking we should try a larger city, like Santa Fe or Albuquerque. We could be more anonymous in a busier hospital."

"You used to work in New Mexico, didn't you?" Scully recalled. "Where did you live before?"

"White Stone, down in the south. I really don't think it's likely I'd know anyone this far north."

Scully nodded, her mind running through the possibilities. A busy hospital or clinic might be the best option, but not so busy that they'd spend hours in the waiting room. As her thoughts churned, she sniffled and swiped at her nose, noting that her face was finally defrosting from the cold wind.

"Oh, Dana..." The concern in Susanne's voice registered at the same moment that Scully caught a glimpse of her hand. It was streaked red.

What blood wasn't seeping from her nose, Scully could feel drain from her face. The chill creeping over her wasn't from the air outside. She quickly crossed the room to the sink in the corner and stared in the mirror mounted above it. Sure enough, her reflection had a smear of blood on her upper lip, and a new trickle was escaping her nostril. She was frozen as fear took hold, and refused to meet her own eyes.

"Here, I've got some tissues." Susanne's voice behind her spurred Scully into action; she turned the handle on the faucet, but nothing came out.

"They haven't fixed up any running water yet," Susanne explained. "All we have for now is this." She bent down and pulled up a jug of water from beneath the sink. Balancing it on the edge, she handed the wad of tissues to Scully and twisted off the cap.

"Thanks," Scully said automatically, going through the habitual motions of trying to stanch the bleeding. But she felt like she was watching the scenario from outside herself. Somewhere in another time and place where she could claim this was simply a bad dream.

"It's probably just from the cold," Susanne said as she poured water onto a cloth she'd gotten from somewhere. "It's so dry here, especially at the higher elevations. I've had a couple of small nosebleeds myself."

*She doesn't know,* Scully realized. She felt a burst of hysterical laughter try to force its way past the lump in her throat, but she tamped it down. *I'm dying, and she doesn't even know.*

Scully closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She had to maintain control. Susanne was right--this could be nothing more than a reaction to the weather. But she had to know for sure.

Opening her eyes again, Scully pulled away the tissues and saw that the bleeding had already stopped. She took the damp cloth that Susanne was holding out and smiled her thanks. It didn't take long to clean up and erase all evidence of what had just happened.

Scully came to a quick decision. "I don't think you should wait any longer to get the ultrasound. In fact, I think you should go as soon as possible." Scully looked at Susanne levelly, trying to persuade her by sheer confidence and determination. "I'll take you. We can leave first thing tomorrow morning. We'll just tell the guys we're heading over to Chinle to do some shopping. They won't know where we've really been, until we get back. Then they can't worry about us being recognized."

Scully inadvertently held her breath while Susanne considered her plan. Finally, Susanne answered, "John will be pissed. So will Mulder."

Scully knew very well that Mulder would be pissed--but not about anything so trivial as a trip to the city hospital. "It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission, right?" she joked, her smile no more than half-hearted.

Susanne's smile was more genuine. "Once John sees the picture of the baby, I'm sure he'll forget he was ever angry."

Scully hoped she wouldn't be bringing back any pictures of her own.

* * *

With her arms wrapped tightly around her middle, Scully stared unseeing out the small window in their bedroom. The envelope containing her x-ray hung loosely from her fingers, dangling against her side.

Laughter drifted down the hallway and filtered through the thin bedroom door. In the living room, her friends and family were passing around Susanne's black-and-white image, teasing the expectant parents about their surprise news. The additional growth on the ultrasound was proof of life, one more blessing than they had anticipated. Not so with the image that Scully brought home.

"You've got two hands, Byers. Don't you think you can learn to diaper two at once?"

Startled by the nearness of Mulder's approaching voice, Scully quickly stepped over to the dresser. She shoved the envelope under a stack of shirts and slammed the drawer shut. Her heart pounded loudly in her ears for several beats as she waited, but the door didn't open.

Scully inhaled deeply and tried to relax. If she didn't emerge soon, someone was sure to come looking for her. She reopened the drawer to make sure the envelope was well-concealed before she headed for the door.

As she returned to the living room, Scully tried her best to put on a smile. They were all pretty much as she'd left them about ten minutes earlier, Susanne and Byers seated at the table, the others gathered around. William was in the arms of his Uncle Walt, trying to wreak havoc with his glasses.

Thankfully, Scully's entrance wasn't much noted--except by Susanne, who met her eyes with a concerned, and perhaps pitying, gaze. Scully looked away and continued swiftly into the kitchen area, thinking that it had been better when Susanne was still in the dark.

Frohike was slapping Byers on the back as Scully passed. "Now Langly and I don't have to fight over who's going to be the godfather."

"If their only notion of a godfather comes from the movie, you might want to reconsider," Skinner returned.

"Susanne and I haven't made any decisions about godparents," Byers answered diplomatically. "I think we'll have enough trouble just trying to come up with names."

"We weren't exactly considering names for twins," Susanne added.

As the conversation continued behind her, Scully busied herself with washing the dishes. There wasn't much in the sink, but she needed something to do.

Scully jumped when she felt a hand on her back. She tried to cover her reaction with a quick movement, reaching for the cupboard. Mulder seemed not to notice, as his soft voice rumbled past her ear.

"You're lucky you two brought home such big news, or you would've been in deep shit. I know why Susanne didn't want to tell Byers about your little excursion, but you at least could've let me in on it. I could've kept my mouth shut until you got back." His tone was good-natured, but she knew it was a cover for his aggravation.

Scully didn't want to turn around, but she had run out of things to wash. Sooner or later, she would have to break her own news, but now didn't seem like the time. This was Susanne and Byers' moment, and she didn't want to ruin it.

Sighing, Scully tossed down the dish towel and turned to face Mulder. She opened her mouth to change the subject, but before she could speak, she caught the look on his face: absolute terror. His eyes were fixed on her upper lip.

Scully swiped at her nose, and sure enough, her hand came away stained with blood. She pushed past him and all but ran for the bathroom. The room went silent as she made her escape.

Scully shut the bathroom door, but she should have known that wasn't enough to keep Mulder out. He stormed in behind her and crowded next to her in the tight space. She hunched further over the sink, partly to rinse her face, and partly to hide it from his view.

"Scully--" That seemed to be all he could get out. But she could hear the unspoken appeal in his tone: Scully, tell me what's happening. Scully, please say this isn't what I think it is. Scully, please tell me this isn't real.

She had no consolation to offer him, so she didn't speak. The bleeding was lighter than she expected and stopped quickly. She turned off the water and straightened to grab a towel. When she dabbed at her upper lip once more to dry it, the towel came away clean.

His patience apparently worn out, Mulder grabbed her by the shoulders and turned her to face him. "Scully," he said once more, with urgency. But she wasn't ready to say it, and she couldn't meet his eyes. He placed a finger beneath her chin and tilted it up. She realized a split second later that he simply wanted a better look at her nose, but the motion brought their eyes into contact. And in that moment, everything shifted.

She watched as he read her face. The truth she desperately wanted to suppress, but couldn't, was naked to his gaze: where he should have found surprise or concern, instead she wore a mask of guilt. His expression rapidly transformed from fear to stony rage.

"Tell me," he ground out between clenched teeth. The gentle finger on her chin became a tight grip between finger and thumb, holding her in place so she could no longer evade him.

She opened her mouth but couldn't find the words. That only seemed to enrage him further. "Tell me!"

Scully closed her eyes, the only escape she had left, driving the gathering tears past her lids and down her cheeks. "I couldn't risk them using the chip as a tracking device. I had to take it out--it was the only way I could come here."

His hand fell away from her face, and she heard him drop down onto the closed toilet lid. She opened her eyes and, beneath her lowered lashes, saw him seated with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands.

"Well, now you have to put it back in," he said blankly.

Her heart broke all over again, and fresh tears trickled down her face. "I can't. It's gone. I had Skinner distribute it with the ashes."

"Good thing I don't listen when my agents give me orders." She was startled by the sound of Skinner's voice. She looked up to see him leaning in the doorway, his hands propped on either side of the frame. There was no telling how long he had been there, or how much he had heard. Enough, apparently.

He continued, "I have the chip--not with me. I put it somewhere for safe keeping."

Mulder sat up straight. "Would you think me any less of a man if I kissed you right now?"

Skinner held up a hand, as if in self-defense. "I wouldn't want to make your wife jealous. She's a good shot." When he looked to Scully, his teasing air quickly dropped away, replaced by concern. She lowered her gaze, unable to handle the raw emotion in his eyes. After another moment, he turned and disappeared back down the hallway, leaving her alone with Mulder once again.

In the heavy silence, Scully was still trying to process what Skinner had said. She didn't know whether to be elated at the hope he offered or angry that he had put all of them in jeopardy by disregarding her wishes. The choices she had made in order to come here, the extreme measures she had taken, were not done lightly. Having her decision second-guessed wouldn't help her convince Mulder she had no other option.

Scully swiped at her face to dry the remaining tears. The motion drew Mulder's attention, and their eyes met for the first time since he had forced her to look at him earlier. His rage was gone, but the fire was replaced with ice. He said nothing more as he rose and left.

She wasn't sure that she'd ever persuade him to understand, but she wouldn't apologize for the choice she had made in order to protect her family. She was certain that she had made the right decision.

Hadn't she?

* * *

It was clear as Scully emerged from the bathroom that she had already become the group's topic of conversation. Their voices were lowered, but not so quiet that she couldn't hear--it was nearly impossible to keep sound from traveling in the cramped trailer anyway. She could either cower in the bedroom while they talked about her, or go out and show them that she could indeed hear every word.

Scully tried her best to remain stoic and hold her head high as she returned to the living room.

"I don't understand," Susanne was saying. "How is a computer chip supposed to stop a tumor?"

All attention turned to Scully on her entry--all except Mulder's. He was leaning against the wall next to the table, where the rest of them were still assembled, with his back to the hallway. He stiffened as her presence was noted but didn't turn around.

After only a brief pause in the discussion, Mulder answered, "I don't know the science behind it, but the first time she had it removed, it caused cancer. We put another chip in, and the cancer went into remission. Now the chip is out, and the cancer is back."

Scully tried to convince herself that Mulder wasn't speaking of her as if she weren't in the room. Approaching the table, she silently reached out to retrieve William from where he sat on Langly's lap, gnawing on a graham cracker square. She wasn't eager to join the conversation, so she let them continue without her input and retreated to the other side of the room.

"We were able to track the technology to the Japanese," Byers said, "but we never learned much about its specific function or application."

William generously held out his slobbery cracker to Scully as she sat on the couch and settled him in her lap. His offer brought a small smile to her lips, but she turned the cracker back toward his mouth. Cuddling him close, Scully quietly observed the discussion.

"I wonder..." Susanne said.

"Susanne?" Byers prompted when she didn't continue.

"Are you familiar with nano-technology?"

"Intimately," Skinner said gruffly. All eyes turned to him, some with understanding, some with surprise. He mostly addressed Susanne as he explained, "I was infected with some kind of nanites a couple of years back. Damned things are probably still swimming in my blood."

"Magnetite-based?" she asked.

Skinner looked toward Scully, but when she offered no response, he said, "As far as I understand it, they caused some kind of carbon build-up in my arteries."

"Same technology, different material," Susanne said.

"Susanne, what are you thinking?" Byers asked.

"The Super Soldier program--I only know bits and pieces about it, but I do know it's based on nano-technology. These nanites are the next step in evolution from microscopic computer chips. Dana's chip may be an earlier form of the same technology."

"They wanted to turn Scully into a Super Soldier?" Langly asked incredulously.

"Not exactly." Susanne pivoted in her chair to face Scully. "Dana, when the chip was still present, did you ever feel compelled to do something out of character, like thoughts were being fed to you?"

Scully couldn't bring herself to answer. Images of bright lights and burning flesh involuntarily flashed through her mind. She nodded slightly and wrapped her arms tighter around William.

"It's related to the work I was doing at the Advanced Weapons Facility. The basic idea is mind control." Susanne turned back to address the rest of the group. "In many ways, the human mind functions like a computer. When this chip is placed at the base of the neck, it can essentially plug itself into the central nervous system and use the body's bioelectrical pathways as circuitry, to both receive and send transmissions."

Mulder pushed away from the wall to lean over the table. "The problem is, if it can send transmissions, then what's to stop it from sending Scully's location out? For that matter, how can we even be sure that it hasn't already been located and retrieved?"

Susanne looked between him and Skinner. "Is it in living tissue? Or any kind of biological fluid, or electrolyte solution?"

Skinner frowned, appearing confused by the question. "No, nothing like that. Just a dry vial."

"Then it's not sending a signal." At the puzzled expressions around the table, Susanne explained, "Think of it like a radio. The chip needs a power source in order to transmit or receive. The body's bioelectricity is its power source."

"So, unless the chip is 'plugged in,' it can't be tracked," Mulder said.

Skinner sat back in his chair. "Well, that resolves the issue of storage and transportation, but what about once we've reimplanted the chip? What's to stop them from tracking Dana down?" To his credit, Skinner at least looked in Scully's direction when he was talking about her.

"We have to find some way to block the signal," Susanne replied.

"Wait a minute," Frohike chimed in, "what about the magnetite deposits?"

"Yeah!" Langly said excitedly. "Our cell phones and walkie-talkies get all wiggy every time we go near that cave."

Frohike leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table. "It's probably producing a natural magnetic field, strong enough to interfere with reception of various wavelengths."

Mulder circled around toward Frohike and put a hand on his chair. "If Scully lived in the ruins, you think that would protect her from being detected?"

"It's worth a shot," Frohike answered. "We can take some equipment down there and test the theory. Even if the natural resistance isn't enough on its own, we can use that to help rig some kind of dampening field. I think this should work!"

Scully didn't quite share his enthusiasm. She looked down at William; he was watching her, but his drowsy eyes were losing their battle to stay open. He was sucking his thumb again. They were trying to break him of the habit, but at the moment, she was more inclined to join him. She stroked his head and gently rocked him, soothing them both.

"Hold on," Skinner interjected. "What about the cancer? If the chip is built to transmit and receive, how do we know that blocking the signal won't block access to whatever makes the chip effective?"

Susanne responded, "I can't claim to fully understand the chip's medical applications, but I don't believe that will be an issue. As long as the chip has a power source--the human body--it will function fully as it was designed. Blocking its signal to the outside shouldn't interfere with any internal communication, which seems to be what affects the tumor."

Skinner seemed to weigh her words. "If this is a predecessor to the nanites, do you think it could function biologically in the same way? Whatever's inside me can be controlled by a remote device, to multiply or recede at will. Could her tumor be the same--engineered to grow or shrink based on some mechanism, in this case, the chip?"

Susanne shrugged. "It's possible." She turned slightly to address Scully as well. "You know, magnetite has been found in human cells, and one of the primary locations is the ethmoid cavity--the part of the brain where the nose joins the skull. If this chip is magnetite-based, there could be a connection. This technology we're talking about is light years beyond what's available in medicine or the private sector. There's no telling the things it can accomplish."

Mulder paced around the table. "'Light years' is right--we're talking about alien technology."

"In human hands," Skinner added. "That tells me we can still learn how to control it, and maybe adapt it for our own purposes."

"Well, our purpose right now is to cure cancer." Mulder stopped behind Skinner's chair and gave him a friendly slap on the shoulder. "Let's go get that chip."

Skinner stood to face Mulder. "I'm going alone."

Mulder put his hands on his hips. "This isn't--"

"Mulder, the more of us that travel together, the more likely we'll be recognized," Skinner argued. "I know exactly where the chip is and how to get it. It'll be easiest if I do this alone. You just have to trust me."

There was a silent stand-off for a moment, until Mulder nodded brusquely and looked away.

Scully turned her attention back to William. He had finally drifted to sleep, his thumb slowly slipping from his slack mouth; she gently nudged the digit out completely. Shifting his weight to her shoulder, she stood to carry him back to the bedroom.

She'd heard enough. Their current plan sounded less than ideal, but she didn't have any better suggestions. They were offering her hope, and she had to hold on to that. But she was emotionally and physically exhausted by the events of the day. For the time being, she wanted nothing more than to follow William's example.

Whatever happened now, she just had to remember: the risks she had taken with her own life, her own safety--she had done it all for a few more precious moments with her son. She had to believe it was worth it.

* * *

Scully appraised the red plastic ornament as she laced the hook through the top. It wasn't quite the same as the large glass balls her mother always hung on their tree, but it was a close approximation. She looked for a bare spot on her little tabletop tree to hang the ornament. After placing it on a lower bough, she reconsidered and put it a little higher. She could just see William grabbing for it and pulling the whole tree down.

Scully looked over at the floor and watched as he continued to stare in fascination at the lights. Even though a shopping trip had just been their cover story to visit the hospital, she and Susanne actually stopped by a couple of stores while they were in the city, to stock up on things they couldn't easily purchase on the reservation. Scully bought this plastic tree and some Christmas decorations, most of them rather inexpensive. Her one indulgence, however, was a string of chaser lights that played Christmas music and pulsed in time with the notes, even though it was really too long for the small tree. Eventually, the lights would go around the window, but while she worked, she stretched them out along the back of the couch and plugged them in. William had been mesmerized ever since.

He sat on the floor and stared at the lights, watching intently as they pulsed up and down the string. In the pause between songs, he would giggle and clap his appreciation. Scully wondered if he thought his clapping was what triggered the next song to start up.

Right now, the mechanical music was pumping out "Let It Snow," and Scully found herself humming along. There was snow in the forecast, but it hadn't arrived yet. All they had gotten so far was a bitter wind from the north.

Just as the song ended, the wind announced its presence, banging the front door open against the side of the trailer and blowing in Mulder. Scully looked back in surprise at the loud noise and the chill washing over her. But as he pulled the door shut and their eyes met briefly, she turned her attention back to the tree.

The music had shifted to "Jingle Bells," and she tried to focus on that rather than the rustling of bags and creaking of cupboards in the kitchen. Scully wanted to ask if he'd picked up the moisturizer she wanted, but she thought better of it. The answer came a moment later when, from across the room, a bottle landed in the open duffel bag near her feet. It was a good thing the bottle was well sealed.

Scully toed the bag out of her way as she walked around the end table to hang some ornaments on the back side of the tree. The living room wasn't really the best place to keep the bag, nor was it necessary for her to pack it yet, but it was a gesture on her part. A gesture that remained unreturned.

Since she and Mulder weren't really speaking these days, they hadn't openly discussed their living arrangements once Skinner returned with the chip. The Gunmen had done some testing and determined that the renovated cave--the "lab"--would sufficiently block out any transmissions from the chip and be a safe place for her to stay, so it was common knowledge that she'd be moving there once the chip was reimplanted. However, nothing had been said about whether Mulder and William would be joining her.

Scully knew that it was a less than ideal place for the three of them to live, and it wasn't really what she wanted for William. But she couldn't help but feel like she and Mulder were officially separating if he didn't come join her. And so, in lieu of an actual conversation on the matter, she had started her packing out in the living room, hoping that sooner or later another bag would appear alongside hers. But it hadn't.

The kitchen had gone quiet. Scully was turned away and couldn't see what Mulder might be doing. The thought that he was watching her made her nervous, so she made an attempt at conversation.

"Any word from Walter?" she asked.

In the pause that followed, she wondered if Mulder was refusing to even talk to her. But eventually he spoke up.

"Not yet. But Frohike's been tracking that credit card we set him up with, and somebody's been using it. So, I guess no news is good news for now."

"He's been gone over a week. I just didn't realize it would take this long."

"Between holiday travel and the storm system hitting the east coast, it's probably taking longer than he expected. I imagine he'll be back well before Christmas."

Christmas. The other subject they hadn't really discussed. This was supposed to be their first Christmas together as a family, but chances were, Scully wouldn't even be here for it. The nosebleeds were coming more frequently than the first time she had cancer, a constant reminder that as soon as the chip arrived, she couldn't waste any time putting it in. Which also meant the beginning of her exile. But Scully was determined to make the holiday as bright and special for William as she could, and so she continued to put up decorations, even if she wouldn't be around much longer to enjoy them.

Finished with the ornaments, Scully walked back to the couch and picked up the box of garland. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Mulder had moved closer and was inspecting her tree. He stepped over and fingered an ornament, probably to read the writing: Baby's First Christmas. Of course, it wasn't William's first Christmas, and this wasn't the same ornament that her mother had bought for him last year--the one left behind in her apartment with all the other detritus of a woman who had supposedly killed herself a few months before.

When Mulder spoke, Scully appreciated the interruption aborting that line of thought.

"I stopped by and saw Michael while I was in town."

"Oh? How's he doing?"

"Fine." Mulder leaned back against the wall next to the end table and crossed his arms. "I'd asked him to talk to the elders for me. He said they're willing to do a Blessing Way ceremony for you."

Scully bent down toward the couch as she untangled the garland of fake cranberries, intentionally letting her hair fall over her shoulder to shield her view of him. "Tell him I appreciate the offer, but I'd rather not."

"It wasn't an offer, Scully. I asked for this, and it's no small favor on their part."

"Well, I wasn't the one who requested it. I'd prefer not to go through the ceremony."

"Why? Because it might actually work? Because it might heal you without having to be enslaved to that chip?"

Scully could feel Mulder looming over her now, and she straightened to meet his heated gaze. "I don't share their beliefs, Mulder, so I don't think it's right for me to go through the ritual."

"You don't have to be Navajo for it to work. The Blessing Way brought me back from the dead. If you need proof, I'm it."

She refused to be bullied by his larger presence and stepped forward to hang the garland on the tree, but Mulder didn't budge, still barring her way. She leaned back on the arm of the couch and dropped the beaded string onto the cushion next to her. "It's also the same ceremony they performed on Albert when he was in end-stage cancer, and it didn't work for him. Look, I'm not disparaging their practices or beliefs. I just don't think it's for me."

Mulder's eyes dropped to Scully's neck, and she realized that she was playing with her cross. Suddenly self-conscious, she pulled her hand away.

"Ah, I see." Mulder placed his hands on his hips and glanced over her Christmas tree and the small nativity scene next to it. "Are you sure you haven't used up your quota of miracles?" he said icily before he turned and stomped over to the kitchen sink.

The low blow left Scully at a loss for words. Other than the cupboard squealing open and slamming shut, then water filling his glass, the trailer was suddenly silent. When "O Christmas Tree" started up, she realized that William was no longer clapping. She and Mulder hadn't resorted to yelling at each other, and she was grateful that William was too young to understand the things they were saying. But the tension in the room was too palpable for William not to pick up on it. She turned her head enough to see that he was still seated by the couch and hadn't gotten into anything he shouldn't, but she wasn't ready to meet his eyes.

Leaning against the counter, Mulder said, "You know, not too long ago, someone fed me a line about not going it alone, that this relationship was built on honesty and trust."

So, they were finally going to have this conversation. This is what it really came down to.

She addressed his unspoken question. "What good would it have done to tell you?" she argued wearily. "No matter when you found out, your reaction would've been the same--you would've been angry that I did it, and worried about my health."

"For good reason, apparently. Don't you think I had a right to know?"

She was tired of going on the defensive and stood up from her perch on the arm of the couch. "What about all the times you've kept things from me, facts about my own body and my own health, all because you were trying to protect me? How is it that you have a right to do that, and yet I'm in the wrong for not telling you something that would only bring you pain and worry?"

He pushed away from the counter and stepped toward her. "We're not talking about the distant past. We're talking about our future. I thought things were different between us now. No more secrets."

"I did what I had to do, Mulder. I won't apologize for that. If I hadn't removed the chip, I wouldn't even be here right now."

He opened his mouth, but she saw him bite back his words. She knew it wasn't a concession to her point--he was trying not to say something even more hurtful.

Finally he said bitterly, "This isn't about the chip. It's about the fact that you felt the need to hide the truth. It makes me wonder what else you haven't told me."

Before she could summon a reply, Mulder grabbed his jacket and stormed out the front door. As the door slammed shut, she realized that a couple of snowflakes had drifted in.

Scully took a deep breath and turned around to face William. He was watching her attentively, sucking his thumb. She tried to blink back the tears that were stinging her eyes and walked over to pick him up. Cradling him to her, she kissed his forehead and gently pulled his thumb from his mouth. She stepped over to the window above the couch and pulled the blinds up.

"Look, William, it's snowing." She tried to sound cheery, but her voice was clogged with suppressed sobs. William seemed more interested in watching her than the white flakes carried by on the wind.

She tucked his head next to hers and cradled him closer, swaying from side to side. "Don't worry, Daddy doesn't hate me. He's just scared." Closing her eyes, she exhaled in a whisper, "We both are."

* * *

Scully set aside her book and sighed. She really felt like chucking the volume against the wall, but Charlotte Bronte hadn't done anything to deserve that. Scully was just bored, and slowly going out of her mind. Even though she wasn't much of a TV watcher, she would've given anything to listen to even the mindless drone of an infomercial. But the same walls that were cocooning her also kept all external signals out. No TV, no radio, no phones. This room was supposed to be her safe haven, but it felt more like solitary confinement. She figured that, in some cosmic way, this virtual imprisonment must be her penance for not telling Mulder the truth.

Scully was quickly losing track of the days, redundant as they seemed, but she guessed it had been about a week since she moved into the ruins. Once Skinner returned, they immediately settled her into her new home and reimplanted the chip. Since she couldn't travel to a hospital for testing without removing the chip again, only time would tell whether or not it was really effective.

Glancing at her watch, Scully calculated that dinner would probably arrive soon. Frohike had rigged up a wire with a bell so she could alert whoever was on duty outside if she needed anything, but it was meant for emergencies; she wasn't going to resort to ringing it just for company.

The entire group had gone to great lengths to make the small room as homey as possible before Scully moved in, and she had since added a few touches of her own. The bed was no more than a twin mattress on a simple frame, since nothing larger could easily fit or be maneuvered in. There was a small dresser, a desk, and a set of chairs, all freshly painted in a nice blue. A colorful Navajo blanket hung on the wall, chasing away the clinical feel of the plain white behind it. The size of the room was the one thing they couldn't change, so she tried to keep the claustrophobia at bay by staying busy. Books and research held her attention for extended periods, but they could only occupy her for so long.

Despite the slowly accumulating snow outside, the room stayed warmer than Scully had expected, the thick walls providing good insulation. The space was too enclosed to use any kerosene lamps or heaters, for fear of carbon monoxide poisoning, but she had plenty of candles and battery operated lights. Joe was also working on hooking her up to a generator outside so that she could have access to actual electricity.

But the most rustic quality, the one they hadn't found a good solution to yet, was the plumbing--or, more importantly, the lack thereof. The sink in the corner was connected to the spring behind the cave, so she was able to access fresh drinking water. But, for now, it only came out cold, so it wasn't practical for much else. And there was no bathroom. Which left Scully, quite embarrassingly, dependent on others. They had set up a small camping toilet, and whoever was tending to her for the day would come by to dispose of the contents. Baths were just as inconvenient and old-fashioned, in a small metal tub. The water was heated elsewhere and brought to her by the bucketful, leaving it no better than tepid by the time the tub was filled.

The whole scenario might have been slightly less humiliating had the main person tending to her needs been the one she knew most intimately--her husband. But Mulder had been scarce since she arrived. Sure, he brought William by every day to visit, but Mulder didn't stay and never said more than a few words to her. The worst thing was, his presence made her feel even more lonely than when she was by herself.

Scully heard the shuffle of feet down the corridor leading to her cell, preceding the light knock on the other side of the curtain. "Dana?" It was Pat, Joe's wife. Apparently she was the attendant for the evening.

"Come in," Scully called, hauling herself up from her seat on the bed to seem more hospitable.

Pat smiled as she entered with a tray and set it on the table that served as both desk and dining table. "I'm afraid it's chili again tonight. I made a double batch and ended up with more left over than I expected."

"Chili's fine." It wasn't, really, because it reminded her too much of Mulder and his "secret recipe" that he loved to joke about. But Pat probably didn't know anything about that, and Scully didn't feel the need to explain.

"I brought some homemade bread, though, so hopefully that will make up for the leftovers." Pat smiled warmly.

In that moment, Scully was struck by how much this woman reminded her of Aunt Mary. Pat was younger by about a decade, closer to Scully's age, but the short, dark hair, the height matching her own, the kindness in her eyes--these all brought to mind her mother's side of the family, especially Maggie's youngest sister.

"Thank you," Scully said. It was an automatic response, but she suddenly meant it for much more than just an offer of fresh bread. Scully had been so busy maintaining her suspicion of the newcomers in their midst that she had forgotten the role Pat and Joe had played in the "adoption" of her son. It was their participation that had brought William safely to Mulder. "I never actually thanked you for helping Frohike set up the false adoption. You put yourselves on the line for my family, when you didn't even know us. I can't tell you how much that means to me."

Pat blushed and looked away. "We all do what we can to help out. And he's such a sweet little boy. I can't believe how much he'd grown in the few months since I'd seen him."

Scully remembered having the same reaction herself, when she'd finally come to join Mulder and William, but she didn't want to dwell on those lost weeks.

"Would you like to stay for a few minutes, while I eat?" Scully asked, trying not to sound desperate for company. "It will save you from having to make another trip up here."

Pat smiled again. "Sure."

Scully gestured for Pat to have a seat in one of the chairs next to the desk and sat herself in the other, pulling the tray over in front of her.

For a moment, they remained quiet, while Scully sipped at the cooling chili. She wasn't very good at small talk, but she couldn't think of a better conversation topic.

"Are you coming to our Christmas Eve party?" Scully ventured.

"No, I'm afraid not. The four of us are headed back to Montana in a couple of days, for the holiday."

That made sense, of course, but Scully was surprised this was the first she'd heard of it. "Do you have a lot of family there?"

"Not really. Joe's the only one left on his side, and my family's scattered all over the Dakotas. But the ranch hands have become our family. And we have a few of the recovered abductees still living there. It will be nice to get back and see everyone."

"Do you know when you'll be coming back here?" Scully tore off a chunk of bread and popped it in her mouth. It really was quite good, especially for being baked in a motor home.

"Sometime after the new year, I imagine. Now that we're mostly done with this room, Joe's eager to start one of the pueblos on the lower level."

"Really? I thought those were mostly collapsed."

"They are, but there's one, at least, he thinks we can build up the interior enough without disturbing the outside too much. You know these guys--they love a challenge."

Scully attempted a smile but didn't reply. She knew all about men who loved a challenge, and who loved to BE the challenge sometimes. She released a large sigh, then realized what she had just done; she felt exposed by showing her emotion that way and sought refuge in her meal.

After an extended silence, Pat offered, "You know, about ten years ago, there was this summer when Joe hardly spoke a word to me."

With chagrin, Scully could tell where this story was headed. No one had been able to miss the tension between her and Mulder over the past couple of weeks. Most of them had been polite enough to stay out of it, but Pat clearly felt this was her opportunity to share some advice. Scully shoved in a mouthful of bread to keep from saying something less than courteous.

"I'd been in a serious car accident," Pat continued, drawing Scully's attention by this curious turn in the story. "All I remember was waking up in the hospital--I didn't know until later just how touch and go it was at the beginning. When I went home to recover, it wasn't that Joe wasn't attentive. He was at my elbow whenever I needed him. But he couldn't string two words together. I thought he was angry with me, and I couldn't understand why."

Scully reached for her glass of water. The thing was, Mulder *was* angry with her, and she knew he had every right to be. The truth was so important to him, and his sense of betrayal ran deep. It was nice to think there was another explanation for his behavior, but she knew Mulder. There was no mystery about the source of his hurt.

"It took me nearly three months and a stack of self-help books to finally figure it out." Pat paused and leaned in slightly. "Joe wasn't avoiding me; he was avoiding himself. When I was in surgery, they were talking to him about signing organ donation forms. For a while there, he honestly thought he'd lost me. He wasn't ready to deal with the terror and grief he felt. Confronting me meant confronting his own fear."

Scully considered her words. Could Mulder really be hiding from himself? As well as she and Mulder understood each other, they certainly had their problems with communication. Maybe it was easier for both to them to analyze the other's feelings than their own.

Finally, Scully asked, "So, you're telling me to be patient, and Mulder will come around when he's ready to deal with it?"

Pat nodded. A beat later, she added, "But, if that doesn't work, a swift kick in the ass usually helps."

Scully chuckled, a welcome release to her anxiety. Pat may look like Aunt Mary, but she seemed to have Aunt Olive's feisty streak--and maybe a little of her well-intended meddling, too.

* * *

Absently pushing a strand of hair behind her ear, Scully looked around the room again to see if there was anything more to move out of the way. She had already tidied and put away the few things she had, and the table top was cleared off. There was really nothing more for her to do but await her guests.

As if on cue, the scuffles outside her door heralded their arrival. She rushed over to the curtain and pulled it aside. Her face quickly fell, and she tried to hide her disappointment, but apparently didn't succeed.

"Not who you were expecting, huh?" Langly said with a rueful grin.

Scully stepped aside to let him enter. "Of course I was expecting you. I just thought that maybe..."

Langly set down a grocery bag next to the desk. "Don't worry, Mulder will get here soon. At least, he better--he signed up to bring the eggnog."

Scully tied the curtain back against the wall just in time for Frohike to make his entrance. "Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas! Have you been good this year, little girl?"

She took the candy cane Frohike offered and tried to stifle her laugh at his crooked Santa hat. She was very glad that he hadn't gone any further with the costume.

"Look what else I brought." Frohike extended his other arm to show her what he had been hiding behind his back: a small Christmas tree. It was slightly smaller than the one she had decorated at the trailer, and when he flipped a switch, the needles lit up and progressively changed in a kaleidoscope of colors.

"Thank you, Santa," Scully said with a smile and took the tree to place on her table.

One by one, the rest of the gang arrived. Since Scully's room was too small to accommodate many of them at once, the party spilled over into the pueblo at the end of her hallway, and as the evening carried on, the guests rotated through her chamber a few at a time. Someone set up a CD player, which cycled through Christmas songs as the group mixed and mingled. Plastic cups full of sparkling cider and spiked punch were handed out--but no eggnog.

Scully was trying not to look at her watch as Walter chatted away at her, recounting some Skinner family tradition they did every Christmas Eve when he was a kid. The party had been in full swing for almost an hour, and Mulder had yet to arrive.

"Dana," Walter said gently with a hand on her arm. She looked up and realized that she hadn't really been paying attention to what he was saying.

"I'm sorry, it's just--"

"Mulder will be here. I don't know what's holding him up, but I'm sure he's coming. He wouldn't let William miss spending Christmas Eve with you."

She took another sip of her cider to avoid speaking any of the thoughts that were swirling through her head. But, not five minutes later, Walter's prediction proved true, and the small crowd parted to admit Mulder and William.

"Sorry we're so late." Mulder handed William over to Scully and then unwound his own scarf. Breathlessly, he explained to the room, "I was behind on laundry and didn't realize until we were supposed to leave that we were out of clean diapers. I thought I'd just swing by the store to get some disposable ones, but they closed down early for Christmas. So I had to go track down Larry Thomas and beg him to open up for me, and--well, anyway, we're here."

Scully distantly listened to Mulder's tale, but her focus was on William. They shared smiles and kisses, and she prattled to him in a one-sided mother-son conversation. "Are you having a good Christmas? I bet Santa brought you lots of presents. But you know what? You're my present. You're the best present I could've asked for."

Scully set William on her bed and sat down next to him to start divesting him of his outerwear. Underneath, he wore the cute little red sweater over a white turtleneck that she had bought on her shopping trip in the city. She was pleased, and relieved, that Mulder had remembered to dress William in this. She looked over to smile her thanks, but he was engrossed in conversation with Byers.

The party continued to buzz around her, but Scully spent the rest of the evening with William, on or around her bed. Most everyone had brought him presents, and he sat like a king receiving his subjects while they paraded by to deliver his tribute. He enjoyed ripping the paper apart on each gift, leaving him with quite a stash of booty. Like a typical toddler, however, he was more fascinated with the shiny bows and wrapping than the toys.

Mulder stayed nearby to watch the festivities, but only from across the room. Scully avoided looking over at him, not wanting to deal with the detachment she'd seen on his face lately. She was determined to milk every ounce of joy out of the evening that she could.

Eventually, things began to wind down. William was dozing in Scully's arms when Gibson came by to take his leave. Everyone else seemed to consider that their cue, and Walter started picking up around the room as the others gathered their belongings and trickled through to say "Goodnight" and "Merry Christmas."

When Susanne and Byers came by, he reached out and offered to take William. Scully was a bit surprised but figured that maybe this arrangement was easier than an awkward parting with Mulder, who was nowhere to be seen. She kissed her sleeping boy on his brow, whispered, "Merry Christmas, my love," and handed him over to Byers. Scully looked around to pick up William's gifts but realized that someone had already taken care of it. Her arms were empty, and she desperately needed to put them to use.

At the doorway, Byers and Susanne stopped to let Mulder step back inside. He leaned over to kiss William on the forehead, then the couple left with the sleeping toddler. Scully watched Mulder curiously as he detoured around Walter, who was stuffing the last pieces of wrapping paper into a garbage bag. Mulder didn't meet her eyes until he came to stand in front of her and deposited his backpack near her feet.

"What's that?" she asked, looking from the bag up to him. But any reply was inconsequential, after what she saw in his eyes: Contrition. Humility. Love.

"My overnight bag--if you'll have me."

She could do no more than nod, too choked up by the tears already tracking down her face.

In an instant, the walls between them came crashing down. Mulder took a step forward and wrapped her up in his tight embrace. He bowed his head to her shoulder, and after a long moment, she heard him whisper next to her ear, "I'm so sorry."

"Me too," she sighed, hugging him impossibly closer.

"I just get a little crazy when I think about losing you."

She loosened her hold and pulled back slightly so he could see the truth in her eyes. "I haven't had any more nosebleeds this week."

His melancholy yielded to a small smile of relief. She felt his thumb rub over the healing incision at the base of her neck, and he leaned forward to press a kiss to the bridge of her nose. His hand moved forward to stroke her cheek, and he leaned in again, this time meeting her lips.

Their first kiss was a gentle reacquaintance. The second, an apology and a promise. The third, a little warmer and wetter, and a lot more friendly. Scully suddenly remembered their surroundings and broke the kiss.

"Mulder, we've got"--she stood on her toes and looked over his shoulder to indicate Skinner, but realized the room was empty and the curtain closed--"company."

Mulder followed her gaze to the doorway then looked back to her. "It's about time he left. So, now that that we're alone, want to unwrap my package?" He waggled his eyebrows.

Any other occasion, Scully would've rolled her eyes at his lame joke, but this time, she laughed. It was so very Mulder, and she'd missed him, bad innuendo and all. But as much as she missed the sound of his voice, at the moment she could think of better uses for his tongue.

And so she kissed him.


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Part 10