Her eyes slide over his appointment on the calendar, but she doesn't need to look to know it's approaching. They have missed every other date they might have held significant - birthdays, anniversaries, days of mourning, days of celebration - but they will keep this appointment. Once a year, when she used to speak to him every day. It is not enough. It is too much. She cannot stand it.
To his credit, he did try to give her an out, but she thought of any other physician trying to riddle their way through his medical history and shook her head. Years of only trusting each other have left them in the impossible bind of being incomprehensible to the rest of the world. Try explaining his overactive brain, his exposure to alien artifacts, his resurrection, to say nothing of the scars she's given him. She's exhausted just thinking about it.
She is his keeper and she will be until the end of their lives, whatever else happens. It's a promise she to herself made years ago, perhaps the only promise in her life she will keep to her grave.
He won't go to the doctor if she doesn't do his physical herself. He has been erasing himself for years. A shadow dogged his heels on the day they met, the bright boy exiled from the bright world he'd moved in. The most unwanted, he called himself, drawing the shadow around him. Over the years, she watched it grow to consume him, reaching out long tendrils to drag her thoughts into the darkness. She suggested he see someone, talk to someone. She cajoled. She begged. Mulder has always been possessed of a legendary tenacity; he dug in his heels, his lips drawn in a mutinous line. They had lived with the darkness for so long that it looked like solace to him; the glimmers of light she tried to show him were no more attainable to him than the stars (and the stars held their own terrors, their own shadowy memories).
When she had done all that she could, when she had talked herself hoarse and held him until her bones ached with the effort, she left. She packed a few of her things and went to her mother's house. Her mother asked no questions, just made her a cup of tea and let her sit at the kitchen table in silence. What could she say to encapsulate the transcendence of her connection to Mulder, to encompass her failure to save him? What could she say to her mother, who still looked at her and saw a lost little girl?
In the end, like any other two people, she and Mulder have to bear their own burdens. She had thought they were different, that he would never put barriers between them, but when she looks back on their lives together, all she sees are locked doors and their hands pressed to opposite sides of sealed windows and the tails of his trench coat fluttering as he outpaces her. In the dizzying intoxication of his presence, she had forgotten about all the times she reached out to find he was somewhere else entirely, all the times she used her key when she knocked and found him gone and his apartment empty.
He has always been better at leaving her. She had never managed it before, had never moved to Utah, hadn't been able to stay away from their house in Virginia. This time, she will make it stick, or they will both be lost. If she saves herself, perhaps one day he will accept her hand, reaching down into the hole he has dug for himself, that he calls a shelter.
The depression is not his fault. She would never blame him for the vagaries of his mind, could never blame him. With all that they've been through, she is surprised that either of them are functional from day to day. They carry their traumas inside them, just under the skin, and sometimes the ache surprises her, like discovering a bruise. He flinches at flashes of light sometimes, and so does she. Her body remembers being scraped hollow. His body would shiver and cry out in the night. In the morning, he would tease her as if nothing was wrong, as if she hadn't clutched him to her as he moaned with fear into the curve of her collarbone. Situation normal. Nothing to see here, Scully. What she couldn't live with, in the end, was his insistence that everything was fine as the world burned down around them.
She sees a therapist twice a week. It is a long, slow climb out of sorrow. It is more difficult and wearying than almost anything else she has ever done, including her residencies. It is not more difficult than leaving Mulder. But she looks into the mirror each morning and tells herself that she is someone worth saving too. After months of murmuring to herself, she almost believes it.
Mulder's appointment catches her almost off-guard every time. Three years they've been conducting this ritual. She has seen him in the impersonal exam rooms at the hospital and now in her impersonal office in Quantico. She steels herself for days against the hollow hope in his eyes. She knows (of course she knows) that he wants her to come home. There are days she wants to call him. But then she remembers the way her footsteps echoed in the emptiness of the house. They lived the last year in a museum of curiosities, paper stacked precariously, books collecting dust. The office was the only room in the house that smelled like him. Their new couch would never hold the shape of his body. He closed the door and kept her and the world on the other side, and one day she just couldn't bear it any more. Her constant, her touchstone, locked in an isolation chamber of his own making.
Before she enters the room, she takes a deep breath, and another. She is stalling and she knows it. Her eyes only slide over him as she walks in; like the sun, he is too brilliant to look at directly, or she risks tears in her eyes, and afterimages wherever she looks. She puts on gloves before she touches him, but she can still feel the warmth of his skin. She is conducting the autopsy of their relationship. It is unbearable. She begins by taking his pulse and his temperature.
Mulder sits docile on the table she's cleared for him. She mistrusts his stillness. There is something more to it, always. Mulder fidgets by nature, his body channeling the energy his thoughts can't contain. But this quiet makes her task easier. She doesn't have to take his hand to quell the movement of his fingers or brush her hand over his hair to bring him back to earth. She takes his blood pressure and his blood, checks his heart and his lungs. He is healthy and she thanks God for it, silent and automatic. She asks questions and he deflects. That's automatic too, one more ritual they can't discard.
"We should catch up some time," he says. "Go for coffee. My treat."
"I'm a little busy, Mulder," she says, gazing at her tablet. She can't imagine sitting down with him in public, making small talk, sipping overpriced shade-grown fair trade cold brew. They drank thin, burned coffee from gas stations and from the bullpen coffee machine that hadn't been cleaned since the seventies. She can't transpose them in her mind into this updated world. Perhaps that's the problem. "I've got to get recertified in a number of areas. I'm sure you understand."
"Sure," he says.
"Any other developments in your life?" she asks, her stylus poised to take notes. Professional interest, that's all.
"I'm seeing a therapist," he offers.
"Good," she says. "I'm glad you have someone to talk to."
Some tendril of hope sprouts within her, and she cannot bear to crush it. She thinks, absurdly, of The Little Prince, which she read as a child curled into her father's side as they looked at the illustrations together. The prince had a rose, and he kept it under a glass dome to protect it from the wildness, the wideness of the universe. She will do the same. When she looks up, Mulder is waiting, for her praise or her dismissal.
She wets her lips with the tip of her tongue, composing herself. "You've been through a lot, Mulder. It's good that you'll have someone who has the right training to help you." Someone who isn't me, she thinks. Someone with the strength to help him hold a mirror up to his anguish, someone who could show him that the shadow wasn't inherent to him.
"I hope so," he says and she cannot identify his tone. She is out of practice. It is an unexpected thought.
They're silent for a moment. She peels off her gloves. Her skin never touched his. There are cells of him, atoms of him on the nitrile of the gloves, and she almost hesitates before she throws them into the trash. An old habit, an old fear. No one goes through her trash or bugs her rooms now. He rolls down his shirt and rebuttons the cuff. She scribbles on her screen, categorizing him, coding him, as if he could be captured in a series of data points.
"I'll walk you out," she says.
"I think I know the way," he tells her.
"Protocol," she tells him, and she cannot stop her lips from curving up a little at the corners. Sometimes, when they speak, it feels like old times.
She is steady on her heels, though they are higher than they were in the nineties. She walks tall and he trails along beside her. People nod at her. She remembers when they would have shaken their heads instead, glancing sly and sidelong at Mister and Mrs. Spooky. But no one says a word to Mulder, as if his "visitor" badge has rendered him invisible.
"Don't forget to schedule your colorectal cancer screening," she says. One more reminder that they're getting older. But it comforts her in some way, the mundanity of their medical rituals these days. "I'll have the hospital email you. And I'll call you when my schedule frees up."
She won't. She can see that he knows it.
"It was good to see you, Mulder." Good is not the word she'd use, if there were any other that suited, but she will not reach out to him. She can't. She created the divide between them, but neither of them is whole enough to bridge it.
"You too," he says, his eyes already miles away, his busy fingers already peeling off his badge.