The room is dark. Far too dark to be a laboratory, although it appears to be one at first. I cannot figure out what kind of research they would be doing here. The standard benches that one normally sees in a lab have been replaced with curving half-moon shaped countertops. One wall is covered with the steel doors that house the dead while they await autopsy. The chrome glistens but the air is hazy, almost smoky. I become aware that the room is noisy around me. I turn and the dead are walking again, their desiccated and decaying flesh peeling from livid limbs and torsos. More and more of them arise from the line of crypts on my left, the doors opening and closing as they are disgorged from the wall, as if they are the portals of some underworld elevators.
I try to stifle the moan that arises at the abnormality of this scene. I must be silent and still; I am surrounded by the dead. My eyes rapidly search for the outlets in the room and I find that there are none. This time there is no escape. I grope at my back in desperation, but find that I am unarmed, defenseless. My eyes scan the benches for some sort of weapon that will protect me from the dead.
I realize that the dead take no notice of me, but seem to be engaged in some kind of conversation with each other. The air is festive, if such a scene of surreality could possibly be considered so. The dead linger at the high stools of the counters, drinking liquids out of beakers or crowding around the benches. Their rusty, whispered voices sound like the skittering of dried leaves across the hard ground in a high wind. I cannot understand what they are saying, what they are doing. I move through the room as if I am the ghost. None of them makes a move toward me and when one of them occasionally turns their head in my direction, I catch a faint drawing away from me as if my life, my anima, causes a repulsive reaction.
None of the dead are familiar to me, at least with their opaquely whitened eyes open. They are unconcerned with their nakedness, surgical scars and horrific fatal wounds displayed along with standard Y incisions. I recognize stitches that look like my hand here and there, but I cannot recall just who these dead might be as they migrate to the benches on my left and right. I am too short to see the activity which has drawn their attention so thoroughly. At last, convinced that I am not in imminent danger, I drift to the front of one of the groups, keeping my distance from the dead. A corpse wearing a bow tie stands behind the counter, rattling something in a cup. The other dead are grunting at him, their guttural voices escalating as the rattling continues. He slaps a hand down on the counter, his long black fingernails scratching the surface and the noise from the others ceases. The rattling continues for a second, then he tosses the contents of the cup on the counter with a rigorous flourish. Human bones, the finger bones of a child, tumble out of the cup and form a pattern on the counter top. He grunts something unintelligible and sweeps them back into the cup as one of the dead stiffly sweeps piles of copper pennies and jewelry onto the counter top in front of him in a greedy heap.
I feel the bile rising in my throat as I turn away from the scene, only to be confronted by a roulette wheel with an all too familiar croupier.
"Agent Scully," he says, his voice the sibilant hiss of the snake from the garden, "you know, I think this is the first chance we've ever had to speak." Smoke curls out of his mouth and around his ears as it steams from his malevolent lips.
I say nothing to him, not out of fear, but because the rage which scores through my frame has burned my voice away for the moment.
"Care to make a wager?" He asks the question in his sly voice that is nothing if not reminiscent of the Grinch. He waves to the roulette wheel in front of him, its frame adorned with human bones, teeth and the runes of the ancient Navajo. "Or are you just letting your old bet stand?"
"What old bet?" I demand, my tongue loosened by surprise. "I have made no bet with you." I do not dice with the Devil.
"Nor do you really believe in him, despite what you've seen and the lip service that you pay to your faith." He waves his hand in the air, then makes a falsely servile bow in my direction, "And although it pleases me greatly to be mistaken for him whom I willingly serve, I am still his humble servant." He pauses for a moment and lights a fresh cigarette with a sulfurous glance at its head, then leans far too close to me to whisper, "Of course, I do have aspirations, so I appreciate the vote of confidence."
I can feel the heat of his fetid breath as it fouls the air in front of me. My eyes water, but I do not close them as I meet his burning gaze. "I have made no bet with you," I say again clearly, not willing to engage in any protracted discourse with this fell thing. I cross my arms in front of myself as I say this and widen my stare to encompass his weathered face. I can see how he will rot after death. I find that thought pleases me.
"Ooh," he says in delight, "such evil, nasty thoughts about moi? Mulder would be jealous."
I can feel the fingers on my hand clenching into a fist. How does he know what I'm thinking?
"Oh, please Agent Scully," he says with contempt, "as if your mundane worldly concerns were that difficult to discern. It's not brain surgery, you know," he says, then splutters off into a scratchy cackle. "Eh," he wheezes, "I crack myself up sometimes!"
He spins the wheel suddenly and the familiar Navajo symbols blur in front of my tired eyes. "Oops," he intones gleefully, "you lose!" He nudges the corpse next to him, "What a surprise, huh, Blevie?"
I startle and recognize the bloated, naked corpse of my former Section Chief. Before I can ask what I've lost, Cancerman speaks again.
"And what does she lose for playing, Blevie?" he says in a game show host voice.
Blevins looks mildly interested, his rotted skull turning towards his co-conspirator.
"She loses..." he draws out the drama excessively. "Everything!" he crows. "Although of course, you never risked everything." He says this to me with contempt. "Not that it matters what you risked, but you should have risked everything. At least then you would have lost something worthwhile."
I suddenly realize that my clenched fist is full of salt. I take it and fling it into his face, but he just laughs at me, as Blevins screams in agony next to him.
"Oh please, Agent Scully! The irony of you employing a magic that you do not believe in is too wicked even for me." He laughs until oily black tears run down his cheeks and he wipes at them weakly as I clench my empty fists in impotent, stifled rage. "The first rule of magic is belief, didn't you know?"
He stops wheezing and draws himself up to his full height, his voice becoming stentorian and darkly threatening. "You shouldn't have bet against the House, Agent Scully," he intones in a paternalistic tone. "The House always wins."
I awoke as he reached across the wheel of bones for me.
I discarded the idea of continuing to sleep as the weak light of the January morning filled my too quiet apartment. Instead, I wandered disconsolately to the window after desultorily washing my face and starting the coffee maker. It was barely six o'clock in the morning, the streetlights still on, casting their odd pink hues unnaturally in the pale light of the brightening day. Winter in D.C. is a depressing time, the grass brown and sere, the frozen earth grey with frosty rime. Stagnant pools of puddles stand at the corners in the morning as the city thaws out in the dim winter sunlight, which is no more than illusion. It casts a light which barely warms and from which nothing will grow.
I turn my back on the window. I dislike the false winter of Washington and find myself longing for the knife-edge of cold and the snow cover of the Northeast. I have dim memories of a snow-filled winter spent at Weymouth Naval Air Station in Massachusetts. Have I ever told Mulder that we passed a childhood winter with only a spit of land and a few miles of water between us? Maybe we crossed paths on a school trip at Plimoth Plantation or the Science Museum in Boston.
I shake myself out of my foolish early morning notion and pass into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. If I linger, I will think. If I sleep, I will dream. So I do not linger and I do not sleep, but pour the coffee and take it into the bathroom where I take a fast shower and get ready for work.
I used to tease Mulder that he was like a little boy putting off going to bed until the last minute. This was in the earlier part of our partnership, before I knew what it meant to be insomniac, before I wearied of the messages my subconscious insisted on sending me. I am silent on that subject now, as I am silent on many others.
"I'll sleep when I'm dead," Mulder used to say flippantly, when I teased him about his bad sleeping habits.
Maybe not, Mulder. Those men that we met a couple of weeks ago belied that idea.
I steer the car with one hand, my thoughts roiling as I think about the events of that night. New Year's Eve. I think about it as 'that night' as if it's embedded into my subconscious in quotation marks. The night Mulder kissed me, his lips warm, his offering sweetly tender. That night.
'You never risked everything...'
What a bitter choice of a critic my subconscious has made in my dreams, a man who sacrificed his wife and, if Mulder is right about Samantha, his children. I don't doubt that he is responsible for the death of Jeffrey Spender, found murdered in our office last winter. I will not allow myself to contemplate the possibility that he is Mulder's father as well. It is too odious a thought. Besides, if he were Mulder's father, Mulder would surely be dead by now. Why would he show consideration for one son and not another? He would have crushed Mulder under his heel the way he has destroyed every other member of his family.
The gloom of the basement suits my mood perfectly. There are no seasons here in the office that I still sometimes refer to as Mulder's, despite my desk that sits under the now inoperative camera in the smoke detector. Mechanically, I move through my morning routine. Rinse the coffeepot in the steel sink under the cabinets, add new grounds, set the pot brewing, check the obvious points of entry for bugs and cameras. Not satisfied that I am not watched, I do not check my private e-mail from my laptop while it is linked to the FBI's T-1 line. I limit my private phone calls. I wouldn't talk to Mulder about anything that I wouldn't want to be public knowledge in this room.
I wonder when the borders between Mulder's behaviours and mine became so blurred. I have become paranoid or excessively cautious, depending upon which way you choose to look at it. The office is quiet, except for the hum of the electric lights and the computer and the occasional turning on and off of the small refrigerator under the counter near the sink.
I wish Mulder were here. I need to hear his voice to replace the creaking voice of death from my dreams.
I've considered going to see Karen Kosseff to talk about this latest challenge to my sanity, to the world order that I believed in, a world defined by the limits of science where the dead are dead and therefore utterly inanimate. But what would I say? Even if I could explain it, I could not prove anything. There were four dead bodies at the end of that case, just as there were at the beginning. The deputy is an explicable inconvenience, killed by the man called the Necromancer at the morgue when he somehow escaped death at his original burial site. Right? Right.
Everything is wrong. I am so tired of up being down and through besides.
I felt something I had forgotten when Mulder touched his lips to mine. I felt a sweetness and a purity that I had begun to believe was a figment of my imagination alone, like the dream Mulder that climbs into my bed and loves me into oblivion. I had that sense of dreaming when he kissed me, of the world slowing down and closing off around us as I closed my eyes so I could feel, just feel, the press of his lips against mine. There was an instant of validation and joy between us, one of the few that I can recall over the long years of our partnership, and then a sharp return to reality with his words.
I wish I didn't think so much.
I wish I didn't feel so much responsibility for things.
The world did not end with our kiss, or with the Four Horsemen, but will it at the spin of Spender's wheel? I don't want to feel guilt for less than an instant of pleasure, didn't want the peace of that emotion sullied by the real world, but I couldn't hold the real world out. Or the unreal world either.
I am so confused as to what is real. Which world is it? Is it the world of demons and lies, the world of the walking dead, the world of aliens and gestating viruses, the world of my family and their simple concerns, the world of prayer? What of the world of promises I see in Mulder's eyes?
Is it all real?
How many worlds am I expected to hold in my hand, Albert?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The day is long and unrelenting.
Our progress reports for the first half of the budget year were overdue and Skinner is sharp and short with us. Not for the first time, I wonder how Skinner has been compromised. He seems sometimes like an animal caught in a snare, more circumspect than I had ever expected him to be. He seems worn and weary, hardly blinking at the idea of the walking dead. I wonder if being the supervisor of the X-Files has earned him more than ulcers. As I watch him yelling at Mulder about veering from the accepted format for expense reporting, I recall his strong frame strapped to a hospital bed last winter, his veins bulging in horrific bas-relief against his skin.
Mulder looks at me speculatively as we exit Skinner's office and make our way down the corridor. His hand caresses the small of my back as we move around the corner. I could say that it rests there, but even though he doesn't move his hand much beyond placing it just so above my right hip, it is an active presence more than a passive one. His arm has all but healed now. I've caught him itching at the healing skin underneath the protective gauze. When I warn him about scarring, he only smiles and quirks his eyebrow at me in parody of my own expressions.
It is late Friday afternoon and the halls of the FBI are clearing as our colleagues go off to live their lives, go off to their worlds of home and family, of lovers or one night stands. When we get back to the office, Mulder surprises me by going over to the coat rack and pulling on his overcoat. Without pause, he picks up mine and brings it over to me.
"Stand up, Scully," he says in his lazy, warm voice.
He pulls the coat over my arms and smoothes it over my shoulders in a deliberate gesture. His hands linger for longer than necessary and I am aware of the small distance between us as he stands behind me. I close my eyes so that I can feel all the points of his hands on my body, his long middle fingers extending down to just above where my breast begins, his thumbs rubbing on either side of my spine above my shoulder blades.
When he speaks from above my left ear, I can't help the small startled motion that I make. I am hyper-aware of his presence, of the reality of him as a man, not as my partner.
"Quitting time," he says in that sultry voice of his. "Time for all good little agents to go home and laze around for the weekend, catch up on their sleep." He turns me around and winds my scarf protectively around my neck. "Read a good book, go see a movie." He tucks the ends inside my coat and looks at me deliberately. "No doing your taxes allowed, Scully. I saw that expression on your face when you saw your W-2. They aren't due until April."
I feel my face forming a grimace. I had considered doing my taxes. I would consider doing any mind-numbing task that would keep me from thinking or dreaming. I don't want to go home, to my apartment with its ghostly visitations from dead Navajos and dead fathers. I don't want to be alone for days on end with nothing to distract me from myself.
But I don't say any of this, just let Mulder put my purse over my shoulder and pack up my laptop. He walks me to my car and waits while I unlock the door. I turn around and look at him, wishing that I were as brave as he thinks I am. If I were really brave, I would open my mouth and tell him that I don't want to be alone, that I feel the press of his lips against mine in the twilight minutes just before sleep, that I feel lost unless he is nearby. I open my mouth to speak, but the command is lost somewhere between my brain and my lips. They part, but I only sigh impotently, the words caught in my throat.
"Get some rest," Mulder says tenderly. His hand drifts lightly to my face and I feel the press of two fingertips against the flesh under my left eye. "Make a wish," he says, holding up an eyelash for me to blow.
I stare at the small piece of myself I have shed, ready to make some rejoinder about silly superstitions when I just stop and blow it away. 'I want my Happy New Year's promise,' I think and glance up at Mulder. He has a modestly shocked expression on his face, but he smiles at me, his full lips turning up as his eyes crinkle down. The end of his nose is red with cold, as are the tips of his ears. He is beautiful, despite wrinkles and scars and a slowly receding hairline and if I risked just one small step forward, I could press my face into the notch of his throat, the length of my body against his. I know that he would put his arms around me and I would feel safe, if only for an instant.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I am trapped.
Loath as I am to admit to any weakness, here, in the confines of my own mind, I can say that I feel desperate, claustrophobic. I am trapped inside my own body, my curves smoothed and polished but so cold and heavy. The world is below me, the marble floors and the rows of red velvet backed benches a long fall from this pediment where I stand.
I can hear voices filtering through the echoing chambers of the church. It is Mulder, come to save me from this new hellish predicament. It is Mulder and someone else, a voice I recognize but cannot quite place. I can hear the second voice talking excitedly to Mulder but I cannot turn my head to see them as they draw closer to me.
"When we opened the church for morning Mass, she was here, up on this pedestal. The statue that's normally there has been sent out for restoration."
"Which statue is being repaired?" Mulder asks. His tone is bland.
"St. Jude," the second voice answers.
"Patron saint of the impossible," Mulder says with an undercurrent of amusement in his voice.
"Are you Catholic?" the second voice asks.
"No," Mulder answers. I can see him now as he walks down the pew, bumping up against the kneeler that is still in its lowered position. He doesn't know that can just flip it up with his foot, so he maneuvers awkwardly in the cramped space. His expression is puzzled as he stares up at me.
"It's me, Mulder!" I'm shouting it at him, trying to raise my hands, but I am marble, smooth as glass and the words will not come out of my throat.
He shakes his head in wonderment. "Are you sure this is a statue?" Mulder says to the second voice, a much smaller man who has been hidden behind him this whole time.
Mulder steps aside to let him pass out of the pew and Philip Padgett appears, wearing the robes of a penitent friar.
My fear dissolves and is replaced with indignant fury. He did this to me, I don't know how, but he did this to me. I cannot move and I cannot get off this pediment.
"Oh, she's definitely a saint," Padgett answers Mulder, his voice utterly self-confident. "Just look at her. She's so lovely and pure. She's untouched by the world. Made to be venerated and to remain pristine."
"A saint in a pantsuit?" Mulder says sarcastically. "With high heels on?" He circles my pedestal. "Do your saints normally pack heat? She's got a cute little marble holster with a Sig Sauer in it right here."
I can dimly feel his hand on my back and I wait for that touch to release me, wait for him to shove me off my pedestal down onto the hard floor. It will be a relief to move, to be freed. But he does not push, merely circles me and looks up at me with eyes that have become sad.
"She's very beautiful," he says wistfully. "Beautiful but sad. She's all alone up there."
"She's not sad," Padgett contradicts him immediately. "She's adored. That's very fulfilling."
Mulder spares him a contemptuous glance, but Padgett is on a roll now.
"She's self-contained and perfect just as she is now, singular. She's the epitome of womanhood, strong yet feminine, beautiful but severe."
Mulder turns to Padgett with a look of disbelief on his face. "Only a man who's never really known a woman would insist on casting her in those ridiculous terms."
"But she's a saint," Padgett insists. "That's better than a woman."
"Not for a man," Mulder says quietly.
He reaches out his hand to me and touches my hand gently, leaving it there. I can feel the warmth of his hand long before my stone self registers the feel of his skin. The idea of his touch, the remembrance of it, makes me want to weep. I want to be touched.
"She's so sad," Mulder says again.
He is so far away from me and I cannot move my hand to reassure him. I can feel the tears welling up inside me, trapped inside my hard skin, along with the rest of me. He does not know how to release me and I cannot move to save myself.
"Look," Padgett hisses, pointing up at me.
Mulder raises his sorrowful face to look at me and I see the puzzled look that crosses his face.
"It's a miracle!" Padgett cries.
I can hear the sharp crack of his knees against the unyielding floor as he falls and begins to pray aloud.
Mulder reaches up to my face, straining for something I cannot see or feel.
I watch in silence as a single drop of moisture falls from the vicinity of my right eye.
When it lands on Mulder's forehead he gasps sharply, raising his hand to touch it. He puts his hand on his head and scrubs at the spot, his eyes becoming unfocused. He looks at me again with longing in his glance, then his eyes flutter closed.
As his hand drops away from his head, I realize that I can see the pew behind him through the pinprick hole in his head. He hangs there in the air wavering weakly for a tense second, then shudders and disintegrates into a pile of salt on the marble floor.
I sit bolt upright from where I had fallen asleep, on the floor of my living room in front of the fireplace. I am clutching my pounding heart. My chest aches the way it did last spring, the last time I saw Philip Padgett. My heart is hammering wildly under my hand and I cannot catch my breath. I feel like I am being strangled from the inside of my body, my respiration ragged and uneven, my pulse pounding in my head.
I stagger up and into the kitchen and run my hands under the cold water, trying to freeze the pulse points on my wrist. I am having a panic attack or a heart attack, I cannot decide which. My rational side tells me it must be a panic attack, but I cannot exactly hear it over the screaming of my pounding blood. I try to swallow a mouthful of water, but my throat is closed up and I choke on it instead. I battle for self-control as I cough, bent over the kitchen sink. This would be the final ignominy of my life, to be found by Mulder or my poor mother, dead on the kitchen floor in a knee-length flannel nightshirt and wool socks, having choked on a mouthful of water. There are tears streaming down my cheeks and I try, but fail, to convince myself that they are simply a reaction to my coughing fit.
I cannot even lie to myself anymore.
I am gripped by a paralysing fear that Mulder is dead or somehow removed from my life. I keep seeing him dissolving into a pile of salt in front of me and the image is terrifying me, despite the fact that it makes no sense. I grab the gun from my kitchen counter and go into my bedroom, picking up the jeans that are flung on my chair. I stop short as I pull the pants over my bulky socks, asking myself what I am doing. It is three o'clock in the morning and I am dressing haphazardly, clutching my weapon as I try to pull my pants up. Am I really going to Mulder's in the middle of the night because I had a nightmare?
I drop the gun onto the bed and sit down on the undisturbed covers. My heart is still pounding too hard and I hunch over, protecting it as I rock back and forth slightly. How have I come to this point in my life? Another pretty picture I am making, I think self-deprecatingly. Here I sit with my pants pulled up only halfway, wild-eyed and in imagined pain, wondering what the hell is wrong with me. Post-traumatic stress, I self-diagnose, the ultimate consequence of holding too much in, trying to balance too many worlds.
This answer brings me no consolation. Nothing will bring me any consolation until I see that Mulder is alive, well and has not left me here alone. I consider calling him and discard that notion. He could be made to say that everything is fine even if he were in trouble. Besides, if I'm lucky I can slip in and out of his apartment without him being any the wiser. I do it all the time when we're on the road, going into his room to turn down the TV set when he rolls over on the remote and raises the volume. He never wakes up then, despite the cacophony he has created.
This will be no different, I rationalize. I stand and pull my pants up, run a comb through my hair, shove my feet into boots and pick up my gun, keys and an overcoat. I only stop to make sure that the fire is out before I leave.
I do not allow myself to think about the irrationality of what I am doing, as I make the drive over to Alexandria. I convince myself that I will be able to sleep when I go home, pressing the heel of my hand over my aching heart. It is beating more slowly now, no longer seeming to want to burst out of the confines of my body.
I have to circle the block twice before I can find a parking space. The second time I pass by the building, I notice that the lights in Mulder's apartment are off, not even the lightning flashing of the TV reflecting off his living room window. My heart begins to triphammer again as I wedge my car into a space with only three inches to spare. I dash out of the car, my overcoat flapping around me and sharply reminding me that I am naked under the nightshirt. I close the coat around me as I run, trying to look like less of a crazy person than I really am.
Mulder's building is quiet at this time of night. The elevator is right there on the first floor, as if the last person to use it was exiting the building at this hour.
My trepidation rises at this fact and I draw my gun, scanning the floor for evidence of any ill doing as the elevator lurches to the fourth floor. I don't spare a glance at the door of Padgett's old apartment. I know he is dead and likely to stay that way. And if he did rise, I would not hesitate to shoot him right between the eyes. I move quietly down the hall, glad that I wore my rubber-soled boots.
I pause to listen outside the door of Mulder's apartment, but hear a distressing lack of sound. I slide the key into the lock soundlessly, my shaking hands managing to maintain some semblance of control. The door swings open and I come in low. The apartment is utterly still, except for the burble of the oxygenator in the fish tank. Mulder's couch is empty, the TV set and the computer off. With only the fish tank's eerie light to mark my way, I creep across the floor, trying to remember where the elderly floorboards creak. I am unsuccessful at avoiding all of them and pause whenever I hit one, my gun at the ready, my heart in my throat. It is far too quiet here.
At last, I have made my way to the door of Mulder's bedroom. I nudge it open and it swings slowly, hinges squeaking faintly.
Mulder is asleep on his back, one hand thrown out to the side where the night stand is. He has knocked the shade of the lamp askew so that the light is concentrated into a tiny circle on the wall.
I re-holster my gun, feeling sheepish and relieved in the same instant.
Mulder's mouth is hanging open gently. His other arm is flung across his eyes, a reaction to falling asleep with the lights on for so many years, I imagine. He is wearing a dark t-shirt and he is actually under the covers, a hardback book splayed open on his chest.
I can feel myself smiling at the normalcy of this scene. It doesn't necessarily mitigate the foolishness that I feel over my capitulation to my fear, but there is something so appealing in the artless manner in which Mulder sleeps that I cannot help myself.
I move quietly across the room and carefully right the shade on the lamp. He seems to have fallen asleep in mid-gesture, taking off his glasses but only halfway completing his mission of dropping them on the night stand. Guns, Germs and Steel, the cover of the book reads. Anthropological theory, Mulder? I shake my head in bemusement. The voraciousness of Mulder's appetite for knowledge is wonderful to behold, especially when I consider the recent attempt to destroy his intellect by our nemesis.
Carefully, I maneuver the glasses out of his light grasp and lay them against the base of the lamp. I turn to contemplate the book on his chest, wondering if I can lift it without waking him when I realize that it is too late for that. One sleepy green eye is blinking at me from under his sheltering forearm.
"Hey Scully," he says quietly. "My TV couldn't have woken you tonight." His voice is softly ironic, but not as flippant as it could be considering the ridiculous circumstance.
I know that I am blushing, the hand that I had tentatively extended out to remove the book just hanging there in the open air. It appears that my nocturnal wanderings have not been unobserved after all. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I'm not sure how I feel about much of anything these days. I don't even register surprise at the remark.
Moving slowly, Mulder shifts over in the bed and catches my hand, just tugging on the fingers, not trapping my whole hand in his. He's urging me to sit down on the bed and I do, without having answered him.
I shove my hands into my pockets, perhaps to save myself from the temptation of touching him. There is something sinuous and feline about Mulder, and although I have never really been overtly attracted to cats, his posture on the bed seems an invitation to stroke him, to watch his heavy lidded green eyes close in sensual appreciation. I look down at where his arm is resting across my lap, lying atop the coat.
He is observing me carefully, waiting for me to speak.
I have no idea what I could or should say.
His finger plucks at the flannel where it peeks out from beneath my coat. "Nice outfit," he says, after clearing his throat. His voice is no longer sleepy and I can hear the sharp edge of his amusement. It cuts me a little. "Travels well."
I feel my face resolving itself into a frown, the beginning of a reaction to this ridiculous position I have placed myself in. Of course, it is anger. I almost want him to tease me more and briefly consider snapping back at him to goad him into banter. After all, if he continues to make fun of me, I'll have my anger to put my back up against. It's so much easier for me to be angry than it is for me to admit that I am afraid. But I am so tired. I just can't do it. This was all a terrible mistake.
"I should be going," I say suddenly, my voice sounding sharp and querulous to my own ears. I move to stand, but Mulder doesn't lift his arm from where it rests across my lap.
"Have you been crying, Scully?" He asks me in a quiet voice.
I close my eyes against the gentle quality of his tone. He unmasks me when he speaks to me that way.
Tears have sprung to my eyes just as they did the last time he spoke to me like this, when I came to tell him that Diana was dead. It seems that Mulder's brief experience with omniscience has taught him a few things about me. I cannot ignore him when he whispers. The tears spill out from under my lids, hot and wet against my still cold face. I raise my hands hurriedly to wipe them away, as I feel Mulder begin to move. I don't want him to touch my tears.
"I'm just being foolish, Mulder," I whisper back. I do not look up at him, but hunch over, sheltering myself against this intrusion, this acute observation when I feel so vulnerable and out of control.
His voice is whispering secrets beyond the simple words, telling me that nothing I say now will be used against me later. I can be safe here, if I choose it.
I tremble with the effort to speak and not to reveal myself, the tremors probably only palpable to me. I cannot seem to think of how to begin to explain that, evidently I harbor secret fears of driving him away by revealing my emotions. Or maybe I just fear being abandoned on some level. I had always considered myself well-adjusted and stoic about my father's long absences during my childhood. Clearly, that point of view about myself needs to be altered. So many of my accepted points of view, ideas that I considered fixed in reality and therefore non-debatable, have turned out to be unreal. I hardly know where to begin.
Mulder's expression is kind and curious when I glance at him.
I'm afraid he is psychoanalysing me and it disturbs me more than I can say. Like most doctors, like most people who think they know it all, I have never been a good patient.
"Have you been dreaming?" His voice is still quiet. I wonder how it is that his quiet voice inflames my senses rather than calms them, provoking just the kind of emotional response that I am afraid of giving.
I nod miserably in lieu of speaking, my eyes returning to my lap. I watch the lamplight making the hairs on Mulder's forearm gleam golden and want to smooth them against his skin. I do nothing.
"For how long?" He asks.
I bite my lip, wondering how much I will reveal by my answer, if I will hurt him by telling what I dream. I don't like to hurt him and these are my problems, not his. I don't want him to blame himself, the way he always does. "Since Tallahassee," I say. I sigh. "Really, since the end of that case."
I can feel him thinking and I look up at him.
His face does not wear the carefully disguised bland expression it does when I have hurt him.
I look away when I see a hint of the concern that he bears for me revealing itself. I have clasped my hands in my lap. They are quite near where Mulder's arm still rests, but we are not touching. The veins in his arms are blue and if I hold still enough, I can see the pulse that shivers reassuringly there.
"Is it the same dream?"
I am shaking my head 'no' before he even finishes the sentence.
He pauses again, considering, before he asks the next question. "Are there any elements that are the same in every dream?"
This is an unexpected question. Every dream has been different.
"Salt." I have responded without thought. It makes no sense, but it is true.
"Salt," Mulder repeats slowly. "Tell me about the salt, Scully."
A tear slips out of my eye again without my permission. I shrug listlessly, feeling depressed and exposed even before I begin to speak. How am I to account for my subconscious to you when I cannot fathom it, Mulder?
"Please, Scully," he implores simply, his voice dropping back to that just barely above a whisper level. His hand comes to rest on the hand I am not using to wipe ineffectually at my face. My tears have been silently flowing, as if they had been collecting somewhere inside me and just overflowed their container.
I watch in horror as one of my tears escapes my wet fingers and falls onto Mulder's hand. I gasp and for the first time, a small sob escapes me. I hurry to wipe the tear off Mulder's hand. I can feel his curiousity has been piqued as he observes my actions.
I regain my composure as Mulder sits up in the bed. He does not move to embrace me, but bends to retrieve a box of tissue from the floor. He hands it to me, then leans back against the pillows. He waits until I have blown my nose and wiped my face.
I issue a shuddering breath and wait for him to speak, resisting the urge to touch his hand and verify its solidity.
He has returned it to my lap.
"The salt, Scully. Is the salt a bad thing?"
"No," I whisper, my voice strained and low. "The salt is just always in the dream." I look at him and he nods, his eyes green and speckled with gold in the lamplight. His terrible haircut is mussed. It looks better that way. I focus on his chin because his eyes are too mesmerizing and continue. "Once I was lost, but I found my way out by following a path of salt. And once, I was working in the lab on the virus," I look up at him and he nods, "and the answer was salt. The other night, the salt was my only weapon in the dream." I drop my head. "But it wasn't enough."
"Are you alone in your dreams?" Mulder asks calmly.
I am surprised by his demeanour in some ways. Mulder would make a good therapist.
"No, there are lots of people there." I answer.
He is waiting for more of an explanation. "Are the Horsemen in your dreams?" He asks when I do not enlarge upon that answer.
"No, not exactly," I answer, slowly. "Although there were a lot of walking dead in one of my dreams. They could have been there. Spender's been in my dreams and other…" I drift off, "monsters." I look up at him. "They're all monsters from our cases."
He nods. "Am I in your dreams, Scully?"
I try to hide the bitter smile that twists my mouth at that question. I've been waiting for that question. "Not until tonight," I whisper.
He is watching me, encouraging me to speak by not saying a word.
"Padgett was there." My voice is barely loud enough for me to hear. “I was trapped and you came, but you couldn't hear me." I stop and think. "You could see me, but you couldn't reach me. You were trying to help me, but then I…" I stop. How can I say this out loud?
"What, Scully?" Mulder reaches over and picks up my hand. He holds it lightly in his palm, not closing his fingers around it, just running his thumb up and down the skin of my index finger. The feeling is intoxicating, the movement hypnotising.
I realise that I have begun to lean toward Mulder and that he is curving over me in a protective pose. For once in my life, I just speak, answering him with my eyes closed. "I wept," I say in a rush, "and my tears fell on you and dissolved you into salt."
There is absolute silence above me.
I look up and Mulder's eyes are wide open, his face completely still. I can almost hear his brain making all sorts of leaps and associations based on the limited information I have given him. I have no idea what they are.
He looks down at me, but he's not really seeing me and then he blinks, so slowly that I can see the golden roots of his eyelashes. When he opens his eyes, his expression is completely clear and very calm.
It strikes me that I've never seen this particular expression on his face before. He is looking at me and his eyes are as dark green as his shirt. He covers my hand with his free hand.
"Well?" I demand.
What has he decided?
Mulder looks at me and smiles. He touches my face, smoothing the vestiges of any tears away. "Come to bed, Scully," he says simply, in that quiet voice.
"What?" I answer, after his request hangs there in the air for a minute. One of his hands is still on my face and the other is holding my hand.
"Come to bed, Scully," he says slowly, as if this were a request he makes of me every night. His hand has dried the rest of my tears and he moves it away from my cheek.
"For what?" I ask.
He shrugs. "To rest," he answers succinctly.
I am the one who is blinking now. "To rest?" I echo.
He nods. He lets go of my hand and pulls the covers back on the other side of the bed.
I stand and briefly consider just walking out the door. He wouldn't stop me, I know. The choice has to be mine. I am confused and exhausted, weary of being alone. I stand and undo my boots, trying to ignore the voice in my head that says I should yell at Mulder and make him tell me what he wants. Instead I toe my boots off and turn my back to him while I undo my jeans. I shed them and my overcoat, then walk across Mulder's cluttered carpet, making a path through the books and running shoes that are scattered in piles. I hesitate when I get to what seems to be my side of his bed and look over at him.
He has rolled over onto his left side and is facing me. His expression is neutral and still very calm.
I have no idea what I am doing.
I sit down on the bed, then slide my feet under the covers. I lie down so that I am facing the same way he is, presenting him with my apprehensive back.
He pulls the covers up over me, their warmth and weight a barrier between me and the chill air outside this bed I am now sharing with him.
I hear the click of the lamp behind me and then the room is dark between us. I shiver.
The pillow ripples below my head and I realise that Mulder's arm is underneath it, just as I feel him moving toward me in the bed. He wraps his other arm around my waist and molds himself to my back. His nose is resting against my neck and I feel the tears rising inside me again, this time from the sweetness of it. His hand spreads out across my stomach, gently holding me against him.
My rigid muscles begin to soften, responding to his warmth and the promise of a long-denied peaceful rest.
"Are you going to tell me what's going on, Mulder?" I ask. My mind craves answers before it will surrender to exhaustion.
"Are you still reading those fairy tales, Scully?" he asks eventually. He has been adjusting himself infinitesimally until he is pressed up against me completely, making a sheltering cocoon of warmth around me.
I wonder what possible relevance this can have to the topic at hand.
In the weeks after Christmas, Mulder was fascinated to find me reading old anthologies of fairy and folk tales. It's true, I'm not the fairy tale type, but these stories were ones my mother had read to all of us when we were little. When I had unearthed these books in the attic before Christmas, it had been my intention to give them to my brothers to continue the traditions of our childhood. It was a Scully family rule that our mother would only read one story at night, so anyone who wanted to hear the story had to pile into the littlest one's room at his bedtime. For the story to hold the attention of four disparately aged children, it had to meet certain requirements: adventure for my brothers and me, and magic and mystery for Missy.
And me, I suppose. I had secretly enjoyed those tales of mythical beasts and monsters. These were no Grimm's Fairy Tales with their edited out horrors, moral lessons and good conquering evil every time. The original fairy tales were full of death and horror, quite without a guarantee of a happily-ever-after ending. Instead of packing them up to ship to my brothers, I had kept the books to read again, re-visiting a time in my life that sometime seemed as mythological as some of the tales in their pages.
"You think I'm dreaming the fairy tales?" I ask Mulder.
He nods against me, rubbing his thumb against my stomach and pulling me closer.
"And what is the salt?" I ask, in an exasperated whisper.
"You didn't find all the books, did you Scully?"
I hate it when he answers my questions with a question.
"No," I say impatiently, "I told you that the Navy always lost stuff when we moved. We lost a whole bunch of our books somewhere along the way."
"But you remembered all the stories one way or another, here in your subconscious." The hand under my pillow caresses my temple.
"And?" I demand.
"Once upon a time," he says, "there lived a man who had three lovely daughters, but no sons. He was an old man, having been married late in life to a wife who had died years before. One day, he realised that he would feel the hand of death upon him sooner rather than later and he began to think on what he would leave behind. He had amassed a lifetime of riches that needed to be distributed and as he ruminated on how he would disburse his treasures, he concocted a plan that appealed to his excessive vanity and pride. And so he called his daughters to his side, and told them that he would distribute to each of them a share of the estate that would be based on their answer to one question."
"Oh," I say, remembering the tale now that the beginning is told. "It's the story that King Lear is based on. He asks them to tell him how much they love him,” I remember. I try to grasp a fleeting memory. "The eldest one tells him she loves him more than gold, which he treasures very highly."
I can feel Mulder nodding behind me.
"And the second?" he prompts.
"Umm … loves him more than rubies, which are his favorite gem, I think."
He nods again. "And the last?" he whispers.
I don't say anything and he answers himself after a minute.
"The last of his daughters is the one he has always considered his favourite. t is she who worries about him sitting in drafts, she who sees that the cook makes the dishes he enjoys. He waits expectantly, knowing that her answer will eclipse that of her sisters, because she has always been truthful and eloquent in a simple manner. This last daughter wrestles with her answer for long minutes, trying to decide what she will say. Finally, she tells her father in her quiet and thoughtful manner, that she loves him more than salt."
"Then what happens?" I whisper, although I know the tale now.
"Her father is struck dumb at her answer. Her sisters, who are venal and greedy, see an opportunity to separate their sister from their father's favour. They ridicule her speech and the commonality of her choice. They convince their father that her plain-spoken answer proves that she does not love him. And, because he is a fool whose pride is more prominent than his wit, he disowns her and banishes her into the cold, cruel winter. She leaves, but not before sneaking into the pantry and stealing all the salt, replacing it with something that looks similar but has none of its effect."
"You know," I interrupt, "I’ve always wondered what on earth that could be."
"Shhh…" he admonishes, squeezing me to make the point. "I'm telling a story. The winter is miserable and long, and the old fool misses his youngest daughter bitterly. He has been trapped in the house with the older two who are fractious and stupid besides. Their conversation is frivolous and self-seeking and neither of them will read him stories to keep him occupied through the long days. They do not look after his needs the way his youngest daughter did. Worst of all, none of his food tastes right as it did when his youngest daughter lived at home. There is something essential lacking from his life."
"The salt," I whisper.
Mulder stops talking.
We both know how the story ends.
I wish I were as brave as he thinks I am. It takes all of my courage to roll over and face him.
When I do, he is smiling at me softly, his face full of feeling.
I can no longer resist the pull of gravity that urges me to him. I reach over and rest my hand on his beautiful face, stroking the cheek of my necessity.
"That is the nicest thing anyone has ever thought about me," he says. There may be tears in his eyes or that may just be a trick of the streetlight's glow.
"That you are the salt?" I say softly, trying to lighten the moment.
He shrugs, still smiling. "Call me Essential Spice," he whispers, then bends slowly toward me, moving in so carefully that I could stop him at any moment, if I wished it.
His lips are as warm and soft as I remembered them, but this time they brush my own with more purpose. His kiss is less of a question and more of an affirmation. Mulder is saying hello to my soul. He kisses me again and again, slow, gentle kisses that make me glow all over until I can feel the fissures in the hard surface that has covered me for too long now, until I can feel the remembered promise of spring after this too long winter has ended. He does not escalate our connection, keeping our kisses introductory and light.
When we part, I press my face into the notch of his throat and the length of my body against his. Mulder's arms are tight around me, but not so tight that I cannot breathe.
I feel the measured rise and fall of his chest against mine, assured of his reality, assured of our safety in our uncertain world even if only for this instant, and I sleep.
And I do not dream.
I have what I need.