I saw the obit in the paper. Shocked the hell outta me--I didn't even know we lived in the same town anymore. Not to mention I don't think I'd ever realized he could die. Maybe it just seemed like a man who could survive a friggin' alien abduction and being buried alive for three months should be able to defy something as simple and mundane as old age.
Yeah, eventually I did come to believe he'd been abducted. Over the past forty years, I've had to accept a lot of things that I never thought could be real. I guess once your life intersects with the X-Files, they never really leave you. I left the department thirty-eight years ago, but my life never went back to normal. 'Course, after a few years, I stopped expecting it to. Just like I stopped expecting the face that stared back at me in the mirror to look older.
See, there was a side effect to that soul eater that nobody warned me about. Marie Hangemuhl never developed kidney problems again. The kid who'd had his broken arm healed never broke his arm again. And I...I've never died. I've never even aged a goddamned day since that one. I can still get hurt--hell, you shoulda seen the nasty bruise I picked up on our very next case, not to mention a bad case of electromagnetic, microscopic sea critters--but I've had more "miraculous recoveries" than the guy Christopher Lambert played in "Highlander."
So I guess you can imagine why I never let myself believe Mulder could die. If a freak stroke of luck and a gift I never asked for could make me immortal, then how could a man who'd lived his whole life with the paranormal not have run into the same goddamned problem? Hell, for that matter, why didn't he get it instead of me?
Maybe that's also why I made up my mind to go to his funeral. Call it my way of apologizing for taking this away from him. It should've been him. Mulder would've reveled in immortality; me, I'd finally found the one tragedy I couldn't put behind me, because it never ended. I'd gotten too damned tired of having to move every ten years, when people started wondering why I didn't look any different. Of changing my name, my whole life, and leaving everything I cared about behind. Of not knowing how the hell to pass this on to people I've loved and lost.
I know now why the man who saved me wanted so badly to die.
I knew I was taking a risk by showing up at the funeral, a risk that someone would recognize me, but I wasn't too concerned about it. Skinner'd passed on ten years ago, and while I'd never heard anything about Scully, the fact that the obituary listed Mulder's survivors as "his son, William, and daughter, Katherine," made me pretty certain she wouldn't be present. Besides, if she was there, even the Dana Scully I knew, the one who was something of a believer, would probably be more likely to buy that I was my own son. Especially since we'd hardly spoken for thirty-eight years.
His son and his daughter...guess it never really surprised me that they had another kid. Even though I knew Scully was supposed to be infertile...miracles had a way of following those two.
I parked a safe distance from where the pavilion had been set up. It was raining, but I wasn't too concerned. It had snowed for Mulder's first funeral, and even if I developed pneumonia, it wasn't like it could kill me. Studying the assembly as I approached, I realized I was right. There weren't many people in the small group that I recognized from the last time. One white-bearded man in a wheelchair reminded me vaguely of Byers, one of Mulder's three hacker friends, but the coke-bottle glasses sitting on his nose were a pretty good indicator that his eyesight wasn't what it had once been. Langly and Frohike, the other two, were both missing, probably having preceded Mulder on that final quest.
In the front row sat a fortyish man with dark auburn hair and a very prominent, very familiar nose. I stopped walking for a moment, just taking in the sight of him, trying to absorb that this was Mulder and Scully's son whom I hadn't seen since his first birthday. His hair had darkened and he'd grown into the Mulder beak, but there was still a bit of the baby he'd once been in his face. There was also a familiar protectiveness to the way he had his arm draped around the short, red-haired woman beside him--his sister.
God, maybe I shouldn't have come. Seeing that picture brought back too much of the past. I'd never realized before how raw I'd kept the wound of Mulder's return and reclamation of what was his. I'd never begrudged him, as deeply as I'd envied him, but I'd left the X-Files because it just hurt to damned much to watch them together and know she could never be mine. Now she was gone, and taken him with her, and I'd never have another chance unless I believed in reincarnation. And even then, if a hundred years down the road I did run into the soul that had once been Dana Scully, what were the chances the soul of Fox Mulder wouldn't be right there at her side again?
William shifted in his seat, for a second allowing me a clear view of the woman beside him. Oh God...
I knew I shouldn't have come here. I should've waited to pay my respects until Mulder's body had been long interred and his soul safely at rest. But then, I'd never expected to run into that particular ghost at this funeral.
Katherine was the image of her mother, an image that had never faded from my memory in the forty years since I'd last seen her. Even her hair was cut in the same style.
I wanted to leave, to get the hell outta Dodge and curse myself for foolishly thinking I could confront my past and not get burned by the heat of those memories. But damned if I wasn't frozen like one of those cryogenic corpses that are becoming more and more popular as the years pass. I couldn't stop watching her.
I guess that's why I was still staring when she turned to say something to William, and saw me.
She froze, her fair skin losing the last of its color as she stared at me with the same shock that had paralyzed my body. What the hell?
William instantly picked up on her reaction, probably noticing how she stiffened under his arm. He glanced at me without recognition, looked back at her, and must've asked something, because her lips began to move almost numbly. Whatever she said caught his attention, because he stood.
I didn't wait to hear what he had to say. There was no way in hell I was gonna give Fox Mulder's son a chance to figure out this particular X-File. So, I left. I turned and I walked away, just like I had almost forty years ago.
I never expected the voice that called after me when I'd almost reached my car.
I stopped with my hand on the door. No. It couldn't be. It couldn't be her. It was their daughter, a daughter who'd just had the remarkable fortune to inherit her mother's stunning beauty and radiant soul.
"My God..." her voice whispered again. "It is you."
I knew I shouldn't turn around. I should've gotten in my car and let her go back to her husband's funeral. But I couldn't.
She was still watching me when I turned, her face white with disbelief. I could only imagine how it must reflect my own shock.
"How is this possible?" she asked me.
"I could ask you the same question," I shot back, trying to sublimate forty years of buried feelings into a joke. "Don't take this the wrong way, Agent Scully, but you look pretty damned good for seventy-seven."
She smiled sadly and the wrongness of my presence here hit me all over again. "It's a long story," I admitted more softly. "And this ain't the time or place. You should be over there," I indicated the small but curious crowd of onlookers. "Paying your last respects. Hell, it's your husband's funeral..."
"Then come back with me."
I gave her a look I know she recognized, one of utter disbelief at the very suggestion.
She smiled, a wry little thing that barely used the muscles in her face. "I know you and Mulder were never...friends..."
I resisted the impulse to laugh. Friends. Right. He barely tolerated me on the best of days.
"...but I never would have gotten him back him without you. You have every right to be here. Besides..." Here an incredible sadness came into her eyes. "It would be nice to have someone else there who knows the truth. Besides William."
I have always found it incredibly hard to say no to this woman, even when I didn't know or understand what she wanted. So, I followed her back. Took a seat beside her, on the opposite side from their son. Said goodbye to the man whose absence consumed a year of my life, and cursed me with forever in exchange.
"What name should I call you by? If anyone asks who you are?" she whispered in my ear as we sat down.
It didn't take a minute to answer. I gave her the same name I'd been using for the past ten years. The one I've used twice out of three false lifetimes. "Luke. Luke Doggett."
The name of my son.
Sympathetic blue eyes met mine, and she reached out to squeeze my hand. Her grip loosened after a moment, but the hand didn't move, even as she twined the other one with her son's. His arm snaked around her shoulders once again and her head dropped onto his shoulder. But still, her hand never moved from mine.
Suddenly eternity didn't seem quite so unbearable.
Against my better judgment, I followed them to the reception after the service. As I pulled up before the house they'd shared, the doubts kicked in again, and with them an old, irrational fear. I didn't want to know how they spent the last forty years. Even in retrospect. But the same curiosity that made me a good cop in four different lifetimes drove me forward up the stoop. I couldn't leave without at least knowing one thing. How did she survive the past forty years, unchanged? Was there another soul eater all those years ago? And if so, how could Mulder not have known in Pennsylvania that the only way to kill one was to feed him someone else's death?
The house was clean and bright, just like the apartment she had when I knew her. Her touch was on every piece of decor, except for the coat-rack just inside the door. Although half covered with rain slickers, I could still recognize the black contraption--there were billiard balls at the end of all those hooks. God only knew how Mulder had persuaded her to keep it.
I followed the rest of the small party into the house. Somehow I wasn't really surprised that Mulder didn't have a lot of friends. I read his profile. I met the man. I attended his funeral once before, thirty-nine and a half years ago. I knew he pretty much kept to himself, that there were only a few individuals in his life that he trusted, and even fewer that he called friends. I'd never made it that far, maybe because Mulder sensed how much I cared for our mutual partner. In his insecurity, he'd seen me as a threat I could never be, because even though he knew Scully inside and out, even though he believed in things that would've made most men laugh--me included--he was never quite able to believe in her devotion to him. He knew he didn't deserve it; what he didn't realize was that no man did.
Pictures covered one wall, and again in spite of myself I wandered over to study them. The first few were familiar, taken after Will was born and before I excised myself from their lives. The expression of awed wonder on Mulder's face in those photos could still inspire that old envy. Because it was then, just before I left, that he was finally coming to realize what a gift he had.
The pictures continued for a few years, leaving behind the familiar and following William as he grew. Then, at about the age of three, they stopped. When they resumed, the pose was the same, but only two of the faces had changed. Instead of Fox, Dana, and their son, William, the family portrait became Fox and his two children, William and Katherine. I knew what had happened. One day they realized that Dana wasn't aging. That three or four or five years had passed and not one new line had appeared on her face, not one strand of silver in her copper mane. And they panicked, knowing if her secret came out, their peaceful lives would end forever. So, they picked up shop and moved. Every ten years, coming up with a new story. When she could no longer pass for William's mother, she became the young second wife. And when even that became too shocking for the general public to accept, Mulder returned to Washington and introduced old friends to the daughter they'd only heard about in letters, now grown into the spitting image of her "dead" mother. Katherine.
I knew because I'd done the same. Only before today, I'd never really come back.
"It's been a long time, hasn't it?" Scully's voice intruded once again on my thoughts, snapping me back out of the past into the unbelievable reality of the present. I could tell no one else was around without even looking--she wouldn't have spoken so freely if there were anyone close enough to hear.
This time I didn't fight the laughter that rumbled up through me at the irony of her words. "Yeah. Not that you could tell to look at us."
I turned to face her again, away from the wall of photographs, and my heart almost stopped at the sight of the expression on her face. She was smiling, genuinely smiling.
Hell, maybe my heart did stop. It's happened before, and it always started up again. One of the advantages of immortality, I guess. Something made me take her hand. It might have been an attempt to comfort her, but even after she gratefully returned my initial squeeze, neither of us let go. I knew what she was feeling--I felt it too. It was a gut-level need to hang on to something familiar, something that hadn't changed with the rest of the world and left us behind.
"Let's go somewhere we can talk," she suggested softly.
I don't think we'd ever talked as long or as intimately as we did that day, with Mulder's death hanging over both of us for the second time. We had a lot to talk about.
She started first, taking me back in time more than forty years, to a hotel room where a man was being kept under protective custody, a man named Clyde Bruckman. A man who had the mixed gift of being able to see into the future...to see how everyone around him would die. She recalled in vivid word pictures her own doubts about his gift, and the curiosity that had overcome them and driven her to ask how she would die. And she made me see the smile that crossed his face when he told her, "You don't."
She hadn't believed him at first--who could? And then brain cancer had come and gone, and she'd thought she understood his cryptic words. It was a promise she'd never recognized until after it was fulfilled, a promise that the cancer would not claim her.
Then another man had come into her life, a crime scene photographer who was a little too punctual at any scene. So much so that it'd raised suspicions, and Kersh had sent her off with another agent, not Mulder--I winced at that--to find out what the man knew.
What he knew was just as unbelievable as what Clyde Bruckman had told her all those years ago. This man could see death, because he'd been denied it. Someone had taken his place, years ago, and taken with it his ability to die. And he'd been following death, trying to claim it for himself. A quest that ended when her temporary "partner" accidentally shot her in the stomach, and the man who couldn't die gave his life in exchange for hers.
I wondered if this man, this photographer, was a soul eater too, only of a different kind.
It wasn't until years later, though, that she realized the consequences of his last act, or the true meaning of Bruckman's words. Years in which she, like me, had dismissed one close call after another as luck, chance, maybe even a miracle or two. But she'd never understood until she realized she looked the same at forty-five as she had at thirty-five, except for a different haircut.
And then she told me about Mulder's last days. How the brain fever that had seemed cured forty years ago had flared up again. It struck him like Alzheimer's, only beyond the help of even the treatments for that which forty years of progress had brought. She told me how, in one last desperate moment, she had offered to pass on the gift that she had been given. To take his death so he could live. As he had with the soul eater, Mulder refused. He told her he'd rather die than be eighty forever.
She knew, though, just as I do, that he couldn't face the thought of life without her. And in that love that is both infinitely selfless and infinitely selfish, he didn't see he was asking her to bear that burden instead.
The first time she cried in my presence, I held her. I took her into my arms and cradled her there while I screamed for help and she hid her face from me. The second time, I knew better than to try that again. I knew she didn't want my comfort. This time, I took the chance again. Letting go of her hand for the first time since I'd taken it, I put my arm around her and pulled her to me. She buried her head in my chest and I closed my eyes, focusing on the feel of her hot tears soaking through my shirt. This was different from those other times. This time, she didn't hide her face. This time, she didn't turn away. This time, the man whose arms she might have really wanted around her wasn't coming back. But I didn't care why she let me hold her, only that she did.
While she cried, I tried to figure out how the hell to tell her my story. I'd kept the case a secret from her forty years ago, not willing to risk hurting the trust she shared with Mulder. Now he was gone, but the potential for hurt was still there, and I had no friggin' idea if he'd ever told her about that case.
I still didn't want to be the one to tell her.
As she started to calm, I decided to just use the approach that had always gotten me farthest with this woman--the honest one. Before she could ask me how I had survived, I spoke.
"Please," she interrupted me, her voice strong again. "It's been thirty-eight years, and I haven't been an Agent for most of them. Just Dana is fine."
Dana. God, here was another gift I'd only dreamed of but never expected to receive. The gift of her name.
"Dana..." I began again. "How much did Mulder tell you about his illness?"
She looked at me frankly. "You mean, once he told me about it at all?" I didn't have to answer that, so I didn't. She sighed. "Eventually, he told me everything."
God, I hoped she was right about that. Because now if he didn't tell her about this, it was only going to cut even deeper.
"Did he mention something called a 'soul eater'?"
For a moment she was thoughtfully silent, searching through her memories. Then, slowly, she nodded her head. "Yes. He said it was some sort of Shaman, that had the power to heal. He went to it looking for a cure, but realized it needed relief more than he did. That it assumed everything it healed. So, he...killed it." She took a deep, trembling breath. "I hope to God he was right about what it was, and what it was suffering. The way Mulder rushed to judgment--"
"Actually..." my voice sounded soft even to my own ears. "He thought he'd killed him. As it turned out, he was wrong. But he was right about what the guy could do." Even now I can't think of my savior as an "it," as the creature the town reduced him to.
She pulled away from me then, turning to look at me with eyes that were wide with surprise. "How do you know that?"
I met her eyes, hoping she could see in mine that I was telling the truth. And hoping that she would forgive me for not telling it long ago. "Because I found that same man, Dana. I found phone charges, made by Mulder from that town. I followed that lead. And I...I saw what the guy could do first hand." Hell, closer than first hand.
Dana frowned. "Tell me everything."
So, I told her. I told her about the bullet holes in the Hangemuhl's wall. I told her about the three rounds missing from Mulder's gun. I told her about the falsified reports. I told her about going to Skinner, asking him to help me find some other explanation for what I had than the damning one I saw at first glance. About finding Marie Hangemuhl. Asking the Gunmen about the medicine wheel. Realizing Mulder had placed the soul eater's need above his own and tried to meet that need, not knowing the man couldn't die. Meeting the soul eater myself, seeing his suffering, and knowing I had to take him away from this place where he would always be asked to suffer again to relieve someone else. I told her about the confrontation with the sheriff and the townsfolk...
"I made a fatal mistake, Dana," I admitted to her. "I underestimated their desperation to hang on to the guy. But when I turned around to get in the car and just get the hell outta there, the damned bastard of a sheriff shot me." I brought a hand down to my chest, touching the place that had once exploded inside me. "He shot me in the back. Through the heart. I felt it stop...and then I died."
Her face was pale, probably remembering the shot that had almost taken her own life, but had instead taken her ability to die. God, it was strange how many parallels our stories had. We had both been given life by men who couldn't die until they took our place.
"I woke up in the same place I'd found Marie Hangemuhl, covered in his spit. The woman who cared for him...she told me he took my death. And just like everything else he'd taken, he kept it."
"He died," she realized quietly.
I nodded. "I just wish...hell, I never woulda asked for that. As glad as I was that he finally found peace, I--" I wish I'd been as strong as Mulder.
Her next words amazed me all over again. "I wish Mulder could have heard this. You gave this man what he couldn't. He would've been grateful for that."
"So why do I feel like I cheated him?" I finally confessed in a raw voice. "Like it should be him sitting here having this conversation with you, not me?" He came back from the dead--so to speak--after three months. I was only gone for an hour or two at the most. How the hell was that fair?
"Because you're a good man," was the quiet response. "A good man who doesn't realize he's already sacrificed enough for Mulder."
I felt suddenly cold. What sacrifice? God, all this time had she known how I felt about her?
"When did you first realize?" she asked instead. "That you weren't...changing?"
"Later than you'd think," I admitted. "Because I left when I did...where I ended up, no one knew me before. So it took them a couple more years to start noticing than people in DC would've. And I guess it's harder to see the changes in your own face. It wasn't until someone told me I looked awfully young for fifty-three that I looked in the mirror and realized they were right. I went back to that town, then. Scared the hell out of a few people, since they'd last seen me dead and buried--"
Something between a chuckle and a snort escaped her.
"--but I found out what I needed to. Nobody the guy healed ever developed the same problem again. That's when I knew."
"When I realized..." she offered softly in exchange. "I asked Mulder why I hadn't also caught the ability to 'see' death. He told me as long as I didn't go looking for it, I wouldn't find it."
I hoped she would never look for it. Because if she did, I knew now I'd be right behind her. I'd almost been there once already--to find her like this, only to lose her again, would be too much.
"We should probably go back in," I forced myself to say. "Your guests are gonna start wondering where you took off to. Not to mention your son."
Dana nodded. "Thank you, John. I needed this...needed to talk to someone who was there."
I tried to smile. But now she had to get back to her own life.
"You'll come around again, won't you?" she asked as she stood. There was hope in her eyes.
"Yeah, I will." Of course I would. If I'd ever been drawn to her before, I was pulled irresistibly now. We were the only two people we knew--maybe the only two people in the world--who faced this endless future. Sooner or later, we would need each other to survive.