She’s not sure exactly why she invites him up. Maybe it’s because he’s got that pouty, distraught look that overtakes his face whenever something doesn’t go quite his way. In this case, his mysterious source slash Jedi Master slash pseudo-father figure has betrayed and disillusioned him. What a surprise. It’s curious, really, how Mulder claims to trust no one yet will latch like a giant squid onto any old man who gives him a benevolent glance.
At any rate, the car stops and they sit there and she says, “Do you want some coffee before you drive home?”
He gives her a wry, misshapen grin. “Well, I already know I’m not going to sleep tonight.”
They’re silent in the elevator. She thinks she can feel her neurons thrumming. She picked up an odd buzz partway through their pursuit of the truck, in the middle of one of the false starts that quickly branched into an array of dizzying intellectual switchbacks, and it hasn’t left her since. She caught the errors in the photograph; that was good. That was a point for her. One of her hands seems to be vibrating, and she steadies it against the elevator wall. Adrenaline high? Cortisol levels raised by sleep deprivation? Maybe. In college and med school she used to stay awake for days at a time, fueled only by caffeine and the heady accumulation of being correct about things. Photograph. Fake. Mulder.
He’s staring at her, possibly. She must look funny. God, Mulder, I can’t stop shaking. Why had she bothered to say that? Why hadn’t she just kept silent, or dismissed the dubious evidence? The one time she acknowledged a possible close encounter enough to betray an emotional reaction, and of course this time it was fake. He’d thought to set the stopwatches. One less point for Agent Scully. One more point for the unknown person who’d pitched forward into her partner’s arms in a bathrobe the night of their first case together, terrified of mosquito bites. He’d stumbled back slightly, yielding in surprise. His lips and nose and chin had all made contact with her hair.
Because, of course, this wasn’t the one time. She’s had unreasonable reactions before. It’s just that she prefers not to catalogue these moments, and so they dissolve as soon as Agent Scully picks up her head and sets her jaw and reclaims a hold on her life.
She stands in the kitchen, stirring instant coffee into mugs. She wants Mulder to have half a chance of falling asleep before dawn, and she suspects he won’t be able to tell the difference. Mulder wouldn’t know good coffee if it flew over him in a UFO. She picks up one of the mugs and tilts it just enough to taste it – the weak, bitter flavor. Somehow it’s comforting. She is standing in her kitchen and it’s way past midnight and Mulder is here and they’ve gotten nowhere, less than nowhere, in their investigations the past few days and yet she feels like she knows everything about the world. It’s a strange, heady, inaccurate feeling. I need to sleep. Scully closes her eyes, the spoon spinning to a halt.
“You need any help with that?”
His voice is in her ear and she just barely manages not to yelp, even as her head jerks up and narrowly misses his chin. He dodges to the side, leaning around her to tap the container of Nescafé sitting on the counter. “Hey, Scully, this is the kind of coffee I have at home. I would have expected better from someone whose kitchen looks like it actually gets some use.”
“You couldn’t tell the difference anyway,” she says faintly. She must have fallen asleep because she’s still a bit disoriented and now the fabric of his shirt is rustling against her back and their hands have formed a chiastic pattern on the counter and she can think of about fourteen different situations in which he might say you need any help with that and Jesus. She straightens up, breathes in. “Sorry,” she says. “I think I fell asleep for a moment there.”
Mulder says nothing, but he retreats to lean against the opposite counter, in a movement so swift and smooth that she wonders if she hallucinated his earlier proximity. She hands him his mug and he takes it; their hands don’t touch. She wonders when she started to notice these things, whether potential accidental touches become reality. He draws the mug up to his nose and inhales, a gesture she finds oddly endearing. She likes his nose. God, she really needs to sleep.
They sit on the couch with their coffee. Mulder slumps dramatically, his head barely above the top of the couch, his feet grazing the coffee table’s legs. Scully places herself a foot away, resting forward on her elbows. The thrumming has spread from her brain to her muscles and threatens to break through her skin. Why this, why now? Caffeine; it must be. She glances sideways at Mulder’s profile, the feathery motion of his eyelashes, the grip of his hands around the mug. She wants to trace his outline not with her hands but with some kind of not-yet-invented scanning device. Okay, maybe with her hands. Mulder, I think you have a nice face. That is an objective judgment. You use words well, too, and I think it’s remotely plausible that – Mulder Mulder Mulder –
The thoughts conglomerate in her head at an alarming pace, all of them to do with the man by her side and all of them unwonted. Scully does not voice them because they sound grossly insensitive in context. How would she even phrase this sentiment, anyway? Mulder, I enjoyed chasing after that truck with you, and we should do it again sometime? Completely inappropriate; it doesn’t even make sense.
“Do you think he was telling the truth,” Mulder asks, “about killing that alien?”
Scully tries to remember his monologue from the car on the way here, his fevered retelling of Deep Throat’s story. “I don’t know, Mulder. I’m not inclined to trust anything that man says.”
“He sounded so remorseful,” Mulder says bitterly, running a hand over his eyes. He rubs absently at the bridge of his nose. His expression is defeated. “I guess men like him are experienced at manufacturing remorse.”
Scully makes a sympathetic “hmm” in the back of her throat. “Well, at least now we know he fits into that category of men.”
Mulder groans, suddenly, bending forward so that his back is a convex curve and his head is in his hands. “We almost had it, Scully,” he mutters through his fingers, voice barely more than a whisper.
She rests a tentative hand on his spine. “I know, Mulder.”
He turns his head and the misshapen grin is back, his eyes burning ruefully into hers. “It’s always going to be almost, isn’t it?”
She shakes her head. Her fingertips trace the line of his vertebrae. “You know that’s not something we can determine.”
Mulder exhales in a way that is almost a laugh. “Scully,” he says. “Weren’t you aware that I control my own failures? I trust the wrong people on purpose.” He straightens up, his eyes pleading with her to laugh, to rob the situation of its gravity. She hesitates before smiling. Her lips waver. She doesn’t know the art of giving smiles as gifts – it has always seemed a vaguely suspect practice – but for Mulder it is worth trying. I have never met anyone so passionate and dedicated to a belief as you. Scully removes her hand from his back and watches as he sags against the couch again. His eyes linger lazily on hers for a moment, then drift back to gaze ahead of him.
Her entire body is on edge. She doesn’t know how they slipped into this situation, the kind that involves hands on vertebrae – only that they need to exit it as soon as possible, because the longer they sit here, the longer this moment extends, the farther they stray from the official report on this case she plans to file in her head. Scully knows how difficult it is to handle two divergent realities; she likes to keep them as similar as she can.
But she can’t bring herself to move.
They are silent for a long time. Occasionally one or the other will take a sip of coffee, but for the most part the cups remain on their coasters. The gap between them has failed to close, but Scully can sense him, a charged presence along her right side. The air between them is delicate as a strand of silk. She closes her eyes briefly. Mulder, I enjoyed chasing after that truck with you, and we should do it again sometime.
Mulder, you’re the only one I trust.
The table wavers; her field of vision shimmers as though split into individual molecules. She’s going to fall asleep, she knows it, and his shoulder is right there: common sense is just asking to be defied here, the situation is practically daring her to position herself in such a way that she can blame it entirely on gravity and –
She’s surprised when he takes advantage of gravity first, his entire body drooping to one side like a flower exhausted by its own weight. His head lands on her shoulder. “Scully,” he mumbles, and she wonders which “Scully” it is this time: is it a my life is meaningless, Scully or a we almost had it, Scully or possibly a Scully, this is nice, we should have silent off-duty physical contact more often. She drops her head onto his so that the sagittal planes of their faces are roughly perpendicular. His hair is soft against her cheek. She’s always wanted to run her fingers through that hair, rest her thumbs on his forehead. Mulder’s hand twitches on his left knee and she thinks she should reach out and take it. She wants to hold his hand. The thought is six words long and it undoes her. He is so warm and heavy against her, and she wants to stay in this silent moment forever with the gap between them bridged at crucial points – shoulder, head, hand – and God, Mulder, what if we could just lie on this couch and breathe each other’s air, can we –
She’s not sure who bails first, but in the space of five seconds both of them have snapped upright and are carefully avoiding each other’s eyes. Scully bites the inside of her lip, hard. Get out of here, Mulder. Get out of here now.
Mulder stands. “I should go,” he says – apologetic, almost sheepish, though he has nothing to apologize for. “It’s getting late.”
Scully nods, her eyes fixed on the curve between his shoulder blades. Her legs are leaden; she can’t seem to move. “You probably should.” The resigned tone of her voice surprises her. “Can you get home okay?”
“Yeah,” says Mulder, “I’ll be fine.” She watches his back, its subtle shifts beneath the cloth of his shirt. He picks up his suit jacket and swings it over his shoulder, in a movement that apparently has a direct electrical connection to Scully’s spine. She swallows, near-audibly.
Her legs are still pinned to the couch. Mulder moves toward the door and she rises out of rote obligation: you’re supposed to say goodbye, you can’t just let him walk out. The back of his neck is endlessly fascinating. Scully, what are you doing? This is not in the report, none of this is.
She follows him to the door. His hand lands on the doorknob, and for a split second she believes they will accomplish this procedure without further eye contact. But then Mulder turns around to face her, abruptly, too close, and his eyes are a liquid concoction of unidentifiable emotions and she wants to reach out to him again, to comfort him via vertebrae.
“Thanks for the coffee,” Mulder says.
Scully nods. “You’re welcome.” She thinks about placing a hand on his shoulder, or some other perfunctory touch – but she can sense every cell of his skin, and no, Mulder, I can’t touch you, all those intellectual switchbacks and their attendant buzz will condense into my hand and ignite your shoulder and we will both be electrocuted. And besides that I sort of want your hands all over me, and it’s never best to give oneself a fraction of what one wants.
“Goodnight,” she says, and grabs his wrist and squeezes before she can stop herself.
Mulder’s palm curls up; his fingers brush her thumb. “Goodnight, Scully,” he says, his face curious and gentle, and then he has exited her apartment and the door closes definitively behind him. Scully does not sag against the door; she does not press her face to it; she merely locks it with shaking hands and goes to get ready for bed.
Mulder, I enjoyed chasing after that truck with you, and we should do it again sometime.
Later, curled up beneath her covers in a posture she knows is defensive but can’t bother to correct, Scully tries to draw the appropriate lines. She asks herself where her field report ends and this, this forbidden miscellany of her and Mulder, begins. But in the hazy moments just before sleep, she doesn’t really understand the question.