He doesn’t know what he expects, or if he even expects anything at all.
The invitation to dinner had been hers, but he can’t help worrying that she’s changed her mind. He wouldn’t blame her for it. Mulder finds it hard to blame her for anything. He’s been able to understand her bitterness, most of the time. He just hasn’t been able to do much about it.
He hasn’t worn a raincoat. The light drizzle beads on his knitted sweater, his beard, collects on his forehead and begins to drip. Since he has no raincoat, since he’s wet and shivering, at least she probably won’t refuse to let him in.
Scully lives in a nice flat in a nice building in a nice neighbourhood. Nice, nice, nice - the words echo around in his head like stones down a well. He knocks on the side door and waits on the step, hands shoved in his pockets, shoulders hunched. He’s only fifteen minutes late. The rain from the eavestrough falls harder here, splashing his shoes when it hits the cement.
The door opens and then she is there, standing in front of him, looking up at him. Fresh-washed hair, and beautiful as ever in a casual pair of slacks and a navy blue cardigan he doesn’t recognize. It’s been nearly two months since he saw her last.
She has a glass in her hand, half-empty with amber liquid. A lemon slice floats in it, and the ice cubes clink as she moves. Some kind of fortification.
“Hey,” she says, stepping aside to make room for him. And then, softer, “Happy Anniversary.”
“You, too,” he responds, because he can’t think of anything else to say, awkwardly stepping forward and pressing a kiss to her upturned cheek. The rules to this are all tangled up like a ball of yarn, and he can’t extricate a single one from the jumbled mess they’ve made of it.
“Mulder, you’re all wet,” she scolds him quietly, with a concerned furrow of her brow. “Where’s your jacket? Did you take a taxi? Uber?”
He blinks, dripping onto her hardwood floor, looking at her because this is her house now and he doesn’t know what to do with his soaking sweater. He feels his body sagging on his spine, the flesh drooping like warm taffy on a sucker stick. Butterscotch.
“Actually I’m parked just down the street,” finally tells her, gesturing over his shoulder. She freezes, meets his eyes in surprise, and then gives him a smile. He remembers then that he forgot to tell her he got his license back.
She disappears down the hall and returns with a fluffy cream coloured towel from her bathroom, and then tells him to take his socks off. “The floors are heated,” she says.
“Jesus,” he chuffs, shaking his head. “Utilities must be through the roof.”
“It’ll warm your toes.”
In the kitchen, she leans into the fridge and digs him out a beer before setting it on the counter and opening a drawer to get out the bottle opener. A glance at the label tells him she’s bought his favourite brand. Mulder watches her as she moves around her kitchen island, and she is achingly familiar and yet startlingly new all at once.
She seems calmer. Her actions are more fluid, and that rigidity he had come to know in her is gone. It scares him. There is a small voice inside of him that tells him this is who she is without him. The voice tells him that he is part of the grime she’s been trying like hell to wash away.
Scully must sense he is watching her, because as she pops the top off of the beer she looks over her shoulder at him. “How’s your book?”
It’s meant to be a casual question, to break the awkward silence that has settled around them, but he can feel the bottom drop out when she asks it. There is too much to be said. Too many details she doesn’t need - doesn’t want - to know. Mulder presses his lips together even as he forces a smile, and he knows that his eyes have taken on a sheen. He lets out a breath then and shakes his head. “Can we talk about something else?”
Scully stills then, puts his beer down on the counter and lowers her eyes. For a moment she lets all of the apologies become starkly apparent in her expression. “You can be angry with - ”
“No.” He doesn’t want her platitudes. She doesn’t owe him anything for needing some time on her own.
Mulder grabs his beer and turns, walking into the small living room. He sees the touches of her in a few of the furniture pieces, neat and tidy and altogether empty-looking with its crisp whites and cool tones. Mulder stops in the middle of the room, strangling the neck of his beer. He thinks about picking up his socks and shoes and leaving, because he certainly hasn’t come out here to rehash the past. They’ve done that enough recently.
She is still as infuriating as she ever was because he either gets everything about her or nothing at all. He knows he must be equally infuriating, in his own turn. The result is an impasse.
He says nothing.
He should be better at this. At talking to her about his feelings and emotions, instead of constantly driving her away. But the truth is that he isn’t sure what to do when he is in a room with her and their work doesn’t sit safely between them. There are no monsters, no cases, no theories to toss back and forth. There are no badges or guns or rental cars. It occurs to him that there are no boundaries right now, and that thought nearly makes him head for the door.
He’s not sure if he is more afraid of nothing happening at all, or of everything bubbling to the surface.
Finally, he walks back to the kitchen and pulls out a chair, sits down at a table set for two. She has lit candles and turned down the overhead lights, and he can barely see her sitting there, across from him. He wonders if she had planned the lighting to be this way, if she had intended romantic effect.
She exhales, in relief or in preparation. He watches silently as she fills another wine glass and takes a thoughtful sip.
“Dinner’s almost ready,” she tells him.
“Smells good,” he offers, some kind of olive branch. She accepts it, sits down across from him and picks up a pistachio from the bowl she’d set out.
He realizes how truly fucked up this is - two people who have barely spoken in months, sitting down together for an anniversary dinner in a house that isn’t home for either of them. He is aware of how unhealthy it must seem. He is sure she is, as well. But he cannot, for the life of him, name one thing they’ve ever done conventionally.
As they eat, she tells him about work. Tells him about her patients, her colleagues, tells him about the research grant she received last month and all the wonderful possibilities. Mulder makes a mental note to do a background check on a Dr. Carl (Karl?) Whiteman, her apparent research partner, co-genuis in this medical affair.
“Congratulations,” he tells her, and means it. They toast, and when their glasses are empty she pours them another.
There is silence then. Silence he knows she wants him to fill. He’s tired - exhausted, really - and the thought of this conversation suddenly makes him want to lie down in his cool bed at home, far away from any responsibility. He imagines himself there, under the blankets, the furnace humming quietly and the crickets chirping outside.
“How’s the house?” she asks. “Did you finish your fence yet?”
He clears his throat. “Yeah,” he answers. “Finished it a couple weeks ago. Hopefully it’ll keep the ‘coons from getting into the garbage.”
She nods, smiles, swallows a lump of food, finishes her drink and reaches to fill it up again. “And did you think about making an appointment for -,”
“You know Scully, a raccoon’s hand looks like a human’s, they have five fingers and use their hands to collect food, open shells, doors, or trash cans -,”
“I’ve been trying to tie the lid down on the compost -,”
“Mulder please,” she implores.
“What?” he asks, suddenly impatient. “What, Scully?”
“I don’t care about the raccoons,” she says, and her voice seems close to breaking. “I care about you.”
He realizes she hadn’t planned the dim lighting for romantic effect after all. Rather, she had been expecting to cry and she hadn’t wanted him to see.
He freezes, fork in one hand, staring at her as two twin tears trickle down her cheeks. She swipes at them angrily, her fork clattering to her plate.
He begins to ease himself forward, out of the kitchen chair. Time to leave. She’ll be on him in a minute, he can sense it, arms winding like vines around his neck, wet face on his chest, pelvis shoved against his groin while he stands there like a withered tree, unable to reciprocate, unable, as always, to give her what she needs. It’s not that he doesn’t want to - it’s the fear of the revulsion he knows she’ll eventually remember she feels.
“Mulder,” she murmurs, her voice thick, hands moving restlessly against the tablecloth. She looks at him, eyes big, blue, like painted saucers.
This was a bad mistake. Pick up shoes from the front hall, pull open the heavy door. He maps the trajectory in his mind, out the door and to the car parked down the street. But he’s drunk too much to drive. Fool. There’s something missing in him that other people have. He can never foresee the future, that’s it, even when it’s crystal clear. His judgement has always been off. It’s a kind of deformity, like being tall. Other people walk through doorways, he hits his head. Once or twice and even a dog would learn to stoop. How many times, how long will it take?
The truth is they both have a penchant for self-destruction. This he knows probably more surely than he knows anything else. Sabotage. Subversion. She takes his hand with a certain unhealthy purpose and in the end he lets her. Their dirty dishes are forgotten as they tread on elephant feet down the hallway to her bedroom, intoxication, trepidation, desperation clinging to their ankles and knocking them over onto the bed in a tangle of limbs.
They are adults, they can make these kinds of decisions. And in the grand scheme of decisions, they’ve made worse ones. This is what he tells himself.
In the foreign territory of her new bedroom, she glimmers like a thin white moon for him alone. She is so beautiful, and he loves her, he does. The small voice inside of him remains terrified. What if she discovers the truth? That he’s a patchwork, a tin man, his heart stuffed with sawdust. Undeserving. He tries to push it aside. She whispers things he can’t quite make out past the hum of traffic outside, curling close to him atop the thick duvet and touching him with gentle, searching fingers.
He swallows hard. He knows he has not been expressing himself properly, but how can he articulate something that doesn’t even make sense in his own brain? That he feels constantly tested, and feels he is constantly failing? He hasn’t made love to her in months.
She pushes up on her elbows, reaches out and cups her palms around his shaking hands. “Mulder,” she murmurs, rubbing her thumb along the inside of his wrist. “It’s okay. Be here with me.”
He has to try. He has to try for her. He leans forward, presses his mouth against hers and winds his fingers in her hair. She seems to come alive beneath him, her knees falling open to bracket his hips. His heart beats faster and faster as she shimmies out of her cardigan and the camisole underneath and helps him with his own shirt.
She pushes her hips flush against his and then reaches down with a warm hand to help him along, stroking him through the denim of his jeans. Button undone, and then he can feel her skin, hot and soft as silk as she palms him. He feels himself start to respond, the first time in weeks. You can do this, he coaches himself, eyes wide open and palm sweaty as he lifts it to her cotton-covered breast. Her eyes are closed and she’s breathing hard, concentrating, her eyebrows creased in the middle.
“I think -,” she whispers, trying to sit up. “I think I’m going to -,” and suddenly she pushes him away, frantic, and stumbles to the adjoining bathroom, smacking to her knees just in time to vomit dinner and several drinks into the porcelain toilet.
He closes his eyes, rubs his hands roughly over his face. His head is spinning too - and she’s had just as much, if not more, than he has.
He fastens his pants and then bends to his knees beside her, his joints popping. “Hey, it’s okay,” he whispers as another tremor wracks her abdomen. He places a hand on her back and rubs softly.
“I drank too much,” she says, much too loudly in the echoey room, stating the obvious in that way only the inebriated can.
“Me too,” he sighs. “It’s okay,” he repeats, and gently pulls her hair back into a ponytail in his fist.
“I’m sorry,” she tells him, and leans her body weight to the side, into him.
“I’m sorry, Mulder,” she says again, more urgent, and sniffs loudly. “I’m so sorry.” He rolls some toilet paper into a wad and hands it to her, holds her against him.
He is suddenly aware that they are no longer talking about the alcohol.
“Stop apologizing,” he says gently, dropping his cheek to the top of her head and moving his mouth against the silk of her hair. “It’s not your fault.”
“It is,” she argues. “I shouldn’t have -,” her voice breaks on a sob.
“Shhh,” he murmurs. “No, Scully.”
It takes some time for them both to sober. They sit at the kitchen table again, drinking water this time. After a while, Scully slowly gets up and loads the dishwasher, and he blows out the candles, turns off the music, and puts his socks - now dry - back on.
There is a quiet stillness, but it’s different this time. It’s calmer, placid, halcyon. Whatever storm was going to happen has passed. The fever has broken. There is nothing left but utter exhaustion.
They go back to her rumpled bed and lie side by side, on top of the thick blanket. Two starch pillows each, her hand folded around his. The room is so dark it’s nearly black, and the only sound is the tick of a clock from another room.
“I feel…so bad…all the time,” he says, slowly, his eyes closed. He doesn’t want to cry, but can feel the liquid gathering beneath his lower lids.
Scully turns slowly, carefully, and wraps her arms around him, pulling his head against her chest. Her fingers stroke absently through his hair. The cotton of her pyjamas feels soft and familiar against his cheek.
“Mulder, you need to get help,” she murmurs, her mouth against his forehead.
He nods, once, and knows she can feel the motion against her breastbone.
“I love you,” she tells him, fingers warm against his scalp. “I love you so much. You know that.”
He exhales shakily. “Yeah.”
He falls asleep with her heart beating under his ear and her arms wrapped around his shoulders. For the first time in a long time, he rests.