Summary: This is in response to the challenge set forth by SciNut to continue the conversation that was cut short at the end of "Never Again." It's written from Mulder's perspective. Needless to say, it involves fourth season spoilers.
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F.B.I. Headquarters Thursday, February 6, 1997 8:15 a.m.

    Mulder stared at his reflection in the mirror as he dried the water from his face and hands with several paper towels. Drops of water still clung to the ends of his bangs, and he smoothed them back away from his face. He was feeling so many emotions right now. There was a part of him that had wanted to grab his partner by the arms, shake her like a rag doll and scream at her until she told him what the hell was going on. There was a jealous part of him lurking just beneath his cavalier attitude that did more than just cringe at the thought of Scully being with another man. The fact that the guy turned out to be homicidal as well....

    Mulder leaned weakly against the tile wall next to the sink and closed his eyes, pained at the thought. God, she could have been killed. How many times does that make now? A dozen or more? He should never have let her go off on her own, not in the frame of mind she was in. He knew something was wrong. He *knew* it. Ever since the Leonard Betts case, Scully had become quiet and withdrawn. It had been a tough case, certainly one of the oddest. But Mulder had seen his partner bounce back from worse. Her being attacked by Donnie Pfaster seemed the most shattering. She actually sought out counseling after that one. She told him about it a year later when she was trying to talk him into seeing the same shrink after the infamous "Gargoyles" incident.

   But this time was different. There didn't seem to be any bouncing back in the program. In truth, things seemed to be getting worse. On their way back home from Pittsburgh that night, he could tell Scully was in a faraway place where he was not invited. He asked a couple of times if she was all right and she answered him with, "I'm fine, Mulder. Just tired." He felt that she simply needed time to wrestle with her own emotions and put the demons to bed herself. He offered a reassuring squeeze of her hand and a tender smile that conveyed his willingness to be there for her. She accepted both sedately at the time, but quickly turned inwardly after that, and that's where she's been ever since.

   He had tried the nice approach in the beginning, nearly tiptoeing around her, speaking softly, offering a caring ear and keeping a free shoulder to cry on at the ready, but those tactics didn't work. She withdrew even more. So he tried the business as usual approach, pretending nothing was wrong, hoping that a new case might take her mind off her problems and spark her back to life. He came up with something he felt was relatively simple. Nothing that would put her life in danger, so he thought. He had the wayward idea that if he dropped the whole case in her lap and took a few days vacation, that she would be too busy with work for self-absorption. She would know how much this new alien sighting would mean to him and she would go out of her way to secure all the information he requested.

   He glared up at the discolored ceiling panel and wondered how could someone with his intelligence come up with such a stupid plan? He had been desperate. He had been grasping at straws. When he looked into those lost pools of aquamarine, he had the sinking feeling that he was losing her; that she had finally gotten enough of running behind him like a faithful puppy on a leash. He thought by giving her some time alone, she might be able to get herself back on track. How was he to know that she'd grab the first thing in pants that came along, or that she'd get herself a tattoo to mark the occasion?

   A *tattoo* of all things. He wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes. She briefly let him examine it as part of the investigation on Edward Jerse. When she held opened the back of her hospital gown, he had thought he'd find something delicate like a tiny red rose or a butterfly. What he found instead only further shocked and confused him. After he got a look at her new symbol of individuality, she closed her gown again and with her eyes alone, dared him to pass judgment. He didn't know what to say to her then, and he still didn't know now.

   He began a slow pace from one end of the bathroom to the other. He hadn't meant to be so snippy with her, this being her first day back to work. He was more angry at himself for leaving her on her own when it was obvious that she was emotionally traumatized. But he was angry at her as well for shutting him out of her life. He was angry at her for turning to a total stranger for comforting when she had him ready and waiting. Didn't she know that? Didn't she know that she was the most important person in his life?

   Perhaps not. He had never told her so, although he had come uncomfortably close to telling her not ten minutes ago back in the office. He'd almost said the words after she told him that this was *her* life, as if her actions or her mere existence didn't affect him deeply. He almost blurted out that her life wasn't just *her* life, but that it was *his* life too. He stopped himself before all the words had been formed, unsure why he felt the need to hold his tongue and shield his true feelings about his partner. He saw the expectant look in her eyes, waiting for him to complete the sentence he had begun. And he had almost done it. Almost. But his own inadequacies and insecurities leapt to the forefront and he chickened out, pure and simple. After a moment of unbearable silence, he quickly excused himself from her presence and bolted for the men's room.

   He had to go back now. He had to face her, to try to come to some understanding once and for all. It wasn't healthy letting this wall continue to build between them. If she wanted out, wanted to get away from him and his basement office with no desk for her, so be it. He wouldn't stand in her way. He'd let her know that there were no hard feelings, that he would still be her friend and he'd always be just a phone call away.

   Mulder stood in front of the mirror once more and straightened his tie. He smoothed back a wayward lock of hair and told himself that he was ready for anything. He stepped out of the men's room and walked briskly down the hall back to his office. With his hand on the doorknob, he paused a few seconds to take in a couple of deep, preparatory breaths. Finally, he threw open the door and strolled casually inside.

   "Good, you're still here," he said upon seeing Scully pretending to read the file he had left on his desk.

   She shrugged lazily. "Where would I go?"

   "I don't know. The local tattoo parlor maybe?" Dammit, he was doing it again. He rebuked himself silently as he stopped in his tracks two feet away from the desk. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "My humor indicator has been seriously out of whack lately."

   With an almost imperceptible nod of her head, she seemed to acknowledge his apology. Mulder abandoned the thought of sitting behind his desk again. Instead, he chose the chair that was adjacent to Scully. Before sitting down, he reached beneath her chair and turned it and her to face him. He sat down directly in front of her, and sandwiched her right hand between both of his.

   "Talk to me, Scully. Tell me what's wrong."

   She shook her head pathetically. "Mulder... I've just got a lot of things on my mind. I appreciate your concern, but there's really nothing that you can do to help."

   "I can listen. I know I don't display that particular skill very often, but give me shot, okay? I bet I'll surprise you."

   He waited a moment, but his partner remained silent, seemingly mesmerized by his hands encasing hers.

   "Scully, if you don't think you can handle working the X-File cases anymore, I'll understand. If you want to leave this crummy basement office and everything that goes with it to go out and get yourself a life, I... I won't stand in your way."

   She laughed. Not a comical, feel good laugh, but an anguished chuckle that was only an eyelash away from tears.

   "What?" Mulder questioned.

   "I'd *love* to get a life, Mulder," she told him quietly. "Preferably someone else's. But this is the one I've been dealt. My life can fit in the back corner of your office, in the outline of your shadow... in a file folder. What does it matter?"

   Mulder searched her eyes for some kind of insight into her thoughts but she had put up a shield against such an intrusion. She was focused inwardly now, her body inches away from him, but her mind in a distant land. 'Please, Scully,' his brain was screaming out, 'tell me what it is so I can help you.'

   He glanced about at their surroundings. The posters, books, photographs, newspaper clippings, souvenirs, toys and whatnots all belonged to him. Four years and Scully had never staked claim to any area in the room and personalized it for herself. A flowery coffee mug with her name on it was her only contribution to the cluttered chaos. Another desk *could* be added if he got rid of some of the useless junk he'd collected over the years. Adding her name on the door would be a nice gesture too. Why hadn't he thought of it before? "What does it matter?" Her final words loomed loudly in his ears.

   No, it wasn't the job, he decided, nor the lack of personal space that was affecting her. The only thing he knew for sure now was that she wasn't simply going to tell him what was wrong. She was waiting for him to figure it out on his own. The problem was that he was too close to her. He couldn't see the forest for all the trees in his line of view. He stared down towards the floor, noticing his right, black loafer dwarfing her left, navy pump. In his mind, he took a step back, thinking of Scully as an impartial file case; a tough, unflappable woman who became noticeably unnerved after subduing a murderer. Granted, Leonard Betts wasn't your average felon, and at the time of his demise -- hopefully his last -- he looked like he had just stepped out of an acid bath. He wasn't necessarily an evil man, merely an individual desperate to survive, and the only way he could survive....

   Mulder's breath caught in his throat as a new theory to Scully's depression suddenly bolted to the surface. His head jerked upwards as he looked at her. She caught the movement and sat there in a nearly calm state watching him as the little hamster was spinning out of control in his brain.

   "Scully... Leonard Betts... did... the reason he attacked you... was it because... you have something he needed?

   Her eyes closed slowly in relief as if a great burden had just been lifted from her shoulders. Moisture flowed from beneath her lids and trailed down her cheeks.

   "Oh, God, Scully, why the hell didn't you tell me?"

   She used her free hand to wipe away the tears, and sniffled as she offered him a smug reply. "That's why they put the "I" in FBI, isn't it?"

   "How... how bad is it?"

   "I still have to undergo some more tests. But... I'm already showing symptoms."

   His eyes grew wide with disbelief. "Why... why didn't you want to tell me?"

   Scully shrugged and shook her head. "I wanted to wait until I knew for sure."

   Mulder silently dropped to one knee as he moved to embrace her. Her arms slid easily about his torso and her cheek rested wearily upon his shoulder. He squeezed his eyes shut to keep droplets from escaping, managing some degree of success. He knew that the threat of her developing cancer had remained in the back of her mind ever since she met that group of MUFON women in Allentown. They had all been abducted at one time, all had implants placed in the back of their necks, and one by one had become ill. Mulder had wanted to ignore all the similarities between those women and his Scully, because there was only one final conclusion to draw in the end, and he flatly refused to even consider that deathly possibility.

   "I'm so afraid, Mulder," she whimpered in his ear.

   He drew her in tighter and whispered back. "Don't be. We're going to beat this, Scully. We're going to beat it." He held her close for a few moments more until her sobs faded and her breathing leveled out. Gradually, he pulled away but didn't stray too far.

   Scully drew in a deep, settling breath, then sat up a little straighter in her chair. As she looked at her partner kneeling before her and holding her left hand, a tiny smile played across her lips. "If you've got a diamond ring in your pocket, Mulder, this could be love."

   Mulder was momentarily confused by the comment until he became aware of his Prince Charming-like pose. He pulled his hands away from hers to search through all his pockets. His face lit up blissfully when he came across something in the roomy pocket of his trousers. He grasped her left hand with his right as he prepared to present her with what he had found.

   "Must be fate. Scully, would you... like an "Elvis in Las Vegas" nail clipper?"

   He placed it in her opened palm and watched as the tiny smile stretched and grew wider.

   Mulder raised up from the floor and slid back into the chair across from her. Leaning forward, his voice returned to a more serious tone. "I want to go with you when you go for your tests," he told her.

   "That's not necessary," she replied, shaking her head lightly.

   "I *want* to be there for you, Scully. I don't want you going through this alone."

   "I uh... I have an appointment tomorrow at ten-thirty for a M.R.I. brain scan."

   She saw an ocean of fear flicker across his face, but for her benefit, he kept his verbal apprehensions to himself. "Would you like to take today off?"

   "No, I'm... I'm feeling better now. I'd rather work."

   Mulder had no intentions of trying further to talk her into leaving. He wanted her where he could keep an eye on her. He gave her one reassuring pat on the shoulder as he stood up and headed back for his chair behind the desk. This time when she picked up the file folder for their new case, she actually showed some interest in it. 'Please let her be all right,' he sent out a silent prayer to any divine entity with the power to answer it.

THE END