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throat, eye and knucklebone

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SATURDAY.

In the attic, the house’s exoskeleton bares ribs and beams, insulation and pink, pulpy muscle. It’s cold, early morning frost filigreeing the little port window at the top of the eaves.

She kneels on the uneven floor, between a rocking horse and a vacuum cleaner. The box open in her lap is old cardboard, damp with cold and pliable. The first two had been Halloween decorations. One of them held a plastic skeleton, and it’d rattled when she dug it from the box. She’ll laugh about it with Mulder, later. She won’t tell him that, for a moment, she’d thought it was a body, thought it was bone.

This one is smaller, though, and heavier than the others. She uses her nails to get under the masking tape. The house is quiet below her. She’d left Mulder in bed when it got too bright. There were no curtains, and the light had cut cooly through the full windows she hadn’t noticed the night before. The nightlight’s pink glow had washed away with the coming of morning.

It’s paper. Inside the box. She curls her fingers under the bottom, lifts it a little just to be sure - it is heavy, but its contents ruffle, flutter lightly as she pulls them out in layers. They’re drawings, most of them, and report cards, notebook pages. Done out on wide lines in faded pencil, the careful, stilted verticals of a child’s hand.

Most are folded, and she leaves them if they are, stacking them aside and pinning them with her knee. This is the way she avoids what she might consider a true invasion of privacy. Overstepping. He hadn’t asked her to come up here. In fact, he hadn’t asked her to do anything yet, except in the way that she knew he was always asking something of her, and she was always, somehow, unable to give it. But the dangling cord from the attic had caught against her shoulder as she made her way back to the master bedroom, quiet in the cool hallway, and she knew she wasn’t going to get any more sleep.

Besides, boxes weren’t the worst thing she’d ever opened up for him.

A few of the papers are flat, contents exposed. FOX WILLIAM MULDER, GRADE 6 is written neatly, ruler-straight at the left hand of a notebook sheet. A Wrinkle in Time is not really about time-travel. It is about fate. Smiling, she skims to the bottom of the page where the writing becomes his illegible, familiar scrawl - like he’d begun by trying hard to keep his hand steady and then become either tired or excited. The last line she can make out is: It is free-will that makes the characters happy, but it is fate that brings them all together, even when the space-time continum (spelled wrong) proves to be unreliable. She puts it in the To Keep pile.

The other open sheets are mostly kindergarten scrawls, Samantha’s. She leaves them in the Maybe pile to the right of the rocking horse for Mulder to go through. There are a handful of report cards. Mulder had gotten a B in physics. Figures. A snapshot of him and Samantha, neither older than ten, backs to the camera, on the edge of the front porch. It’s black and white. The sky is gray and the Sound black. Mulder in a white t-shirt and Samantha holding the corner. Her head turned to him as he looks out at the water.

At the bottom of the box is gold. She squints at it, clearing away the last bit of paper. It’s cold to the touch, weighty and curved when she pulls it out. A ring, too small for her to hook more than two fingers through but too big to be worn. Identifiably brass lacquer over iron - a thin layer of corrosion and a metallic smell on her palm. Under the last few pieces of paper, there are at least ten more.

“What’d you win, doc?”

She hadn’t even heard him come up the ladder, and it creaked. The ring stings against the others as it drops into the box and gives off a metal echo. Mulder is bleary from sleep, barefoot and rubbing at his cheek. When she’d left his room, he’d had one arm around her and the other over his eyes.

“You’re up early,” she says.

He tilts his head at her, sitting down on the other side of the box. “So are you.” He rubs his arms. She’s in a UMD sweatshirt that she cuffs up her wrists and old jeans; he’s in a t-shirt and sweats. She can see his breath, just barely, freeze when he talks. “Jesus, it’s cold up here. I forgot we even had an up here.” Grinning, now: “Wanna give me the tour of my own house, Scully?”

She nudges the open box in his direction. For a moment, he seems hesitant to look into it, looks at her instead, at the piles by the rocking horse, for a half-second too long at the vacuum cleaner. When he finally does, frowning at the cardboard, his face lights up so fast she is reminded of the golden glow from the Pulp Fiction suitcase, washing over Travolta like midday reflection. Only you never got to know what was inside.

“No way,” Mulder says. He scoops out a handful of rings, laughs. “I forgot that I kept these.” He looks seriously at her over his hand, like he does before he climbs a fence, lies to Skinner. “You weren’t supposed to keep them, you know.”

Leaning back, her palms scrape at the thin wood of the attic floor. The whole room warms as morning comes in full. “Mulder, I don’t even know what those are. And you really, really don’t want me to guess.”

The intent in the curve of his body towards hers, elbows on knees, is clear and childish. He is going to tell her a story. His smile, as he drops the rings back into the box, has the same effect as the morning. The light is brighter and the shadows darker. She leans towards it, towards him and thinks, Begin .

“They’re carousel rings,” he says. “There’s a carousel in Oak Bluffs. The oldest operating carousel in the country. At least, it was still operating the last time I was out here. It turns - “ he illustrates with a finger on his palm. “You know, in a circle.”

“I’ve heard of that kind of thing, yes.”

He snorts, laughing deep in his chest. “I’m just being thorough. Anyways, it still has brass rings - which is what these are. While the carousel turns, in a circle, you can reach out and grab as many as you can hold. My record was four.” He looks at her, chin up, proud. “My parents used to take me and Sam. There was this one yellow horse, ugliest fucking thing I’ve ever seen, but it was the only thing she would sit on. I think maybe it’s because she was worried no one else would. It had red eyes, Scully. On a carousel. For children .”

She swallows. It’s the same prickling sense of unease from the night before, at the kitchen table. When they used to talk about her, she always felt she should cross herself before and after. It was a careful thing, like stepping lightly in a sleeping house. He has changed the scenery, turned on the lights, gotten everyone out of bed.

“These are both of yours?” She asks. “Yours and - “ It’s not a pause if no one notices but her. Mulder is turning one of the rings over in his hand. “And Samantha’s?”

“No.” He shakes his head. “These are just mine.”

“Was she too little?”

It’s stupid, everything she’s done since this time last Monday has been some variation of latent and utterly complete idiocy, actually, but the image of Samantha, at five or six, tilted half-sideways on the back of a yellow horse, with her skinny arm outstretched, reaching, makes her blink back tears. She thinks of the plastic skeleton in the box. Of the way she’d traced its radius and then packed it away.

Mulder says, “Nah, she could reach pretty far.” Another shake of his head. “You’re just not supposed to keep them. She always gave hers back.” He looks at her for a moment, considering. She blinks faster, so fast she thinks she’ll make herself dizzy. Leans harder back on her hands.

“You know what? We should go. I’ll take you.”

This, for some reason, makes her blush and look away. “Mulder.”

“No, Scully, I want to.” His sincerity is going to kill her some day. She’s sure of it. “I really do. Like I said last night, we should - “

Her head snaps back up. That he even says “last night” is a betrayal, feels like something of Judas and Jesus caliber. Nothing that happened between them at night, as of late, in bedrooms, was supposed to be thrown out like a fishing line, tossed into casual conversation. It had hooks . It didn’t belong here, in a place with so much light and shadow.

She interrupts sharply. “It’ll be closed, Mulder. It’s February.”

“Oh.” The ring in his hand goes back to the box. “Yeah. You’re right.”

God, she’s an asshole. A moment ago, she’d been biting down the urge to tell him exactly where to take his carousel, his sincerity and open hands - and now she wants to touch him. Again. Wants to hold him. Wants to build a fucking carousel, string up rings, let him reach. Wants to find ways to make him answer “are you okay” without ever having to ask it.

Instead, she sits. Silent. She used to know how to do this. Fuck. She takes off her top one time , lets him touch her one time , he kisses her one single time , and suddenly every time she looks at him it’s like not solving an equation, like crushing chalk in her hand. Like holding sea water in her mouth and trying not to let anyone know that it tasted like the things that hadn’t been able to survive in it.

And then - she doesn’t have to do anything. Somehow, that makes it worse. He brings his palms to his face, suddenly, as if inspecting them, and breathes in deep. The smile, again, just like that. “Just what I remembered. They always smelled like pennies.”

“It's the iron,” she says. “The perspiration on your skin reduces it into ions and decompose the oil on your skin, giving it a detectable odor.” She scrapes at her left wrist, trying to find her sleeve and pull it down. “It’s easy for us to smell because of our developed, although largely dormant, ability to smell blood.”

He’s looking at her in a way that makes her think about other evolutionary developments. About what keeps people alive, and what kills them. Tilting his head. “I didn’t know that.”

This, at least, this mindless back and forth, this she still knows how to do. She taps her pile of paper. “I know you didn’t. Tenth-grade Physics, Mulder. B minus.” She clucks, shakes her head.

He leans over the box. She seesaws away. “Let me see that.”

“Nope.” She picks the paper up, pretends to study it, frowning.

“I was wronged,” he says. “Mrs. Tillerson had it out for me.”

Oh, ” she sighs. “It was a conspiracy against you. I see.”

“Exactly.” He lunges for her then, primed to snatch the paper out of her hand. His knee catches the box, which catches three other boxes, which sends the rocking horse flying, which desecrates her careful piles and unearths the skeleton.

It knocks her onto her elbows. Mulder catches himself with one hand to the left of her ribs and the other wrapped around his report card. He hovers almost above her, victorious.

“Mulder.” She is laughing. It is a Saturday morning laugh, a baseball laugh, a-your-mother-is-alive-and-your-sister-still-could-be laugh. “You made a mess.” Tilting her head back to point her chin at him. “We’re going to have to reorganize this.”

He’s hovering above her, breathing hard although he hadn’t come that far. His eyes are bright, feverish. He says, “No.”

He says, “I think we should burn it.”

“You’re not serious.”

“Why not?” He smiles at her. She can’t place it, the way it makes her feel. “It’ll be just like summer camp. We could roast marshmallows. Send smoke signals.”

“And who would come looking?” What she means is, Both of us are already here .

“That’s the point, Scully.” He shakes his head, drops the report card. It flutters down somewhere by her right shoulder. He reaches out to touch her cheek and smiles. “No one.”

Mulder, who never let anything die. Who couldn’t ever let go. Who’d kept her here for years. He’s looking at her now, clear-eyed and intentional. He is touching her. He is suggesting they make it all go away. It’s not that she cares about his report cards, his fucking childhood scribbles. They can burn the whole house down if he really wants, it’s just -- Did she do this to him? Last year, about stopping the car and moving on and it all sounded good, sounded like she might finally get a day off for a change. But this was different, this was all new, this was Mulder with an epilogue.

Did she make him want to let things end?

“I’m sorry,” she says, suddenly, jerking back. The way it chokes its way up her throat surprises her. She pushes herself further back on her hands, sits up, further from him. His hand falls away. “I - I’m sorry, Mulder.”

“What?” He scrambles. “Scully - for what?”

She bites her nails into her palm. Isn’t it obvious? It’s not obvious to her, but it should be to him. It always seemed obvious to him. She couldn’t fucking blink without bleeding her cards. “Your mother, and your sister, and the other night.” Shaking her head. “Even last night. I shouldn’t have - it was my mistake, and it wasn’t fair to you. To either of us. I’m here to help you and instead, I’m, I don’t know, I think I’m making things worse.”

“Scully.” He’s looking at her like he did she'd said she had cancer - cancer! - that same flat disbelief, the same horrified confusion. “What are you talking about? What I have of my sister - “

“Your sister is dead!” She slams her palms down on either side of her. The rocking horse bobs. “Your mother - Mulder, when I went to her house, those pictures in the frames? Of you and Samantha? They were burned. She erased it, the two of you. How can you --” She is going to say, Do what she did . But she swallows it. The words tasted like copper in her mouth, like blood, like pennies. She finishes quietly, “How can you want to burn everything.”

And then, because she can think why, if she tries, she says, “I’m sorry.” Again.

Mulder is looking right through her. When he stands, he has to kick through discarded paper and the way it cyclones up reminds her of their snowglobe, of the upset little Martian. When he speaks, his voice is flat.

“What’s to be sorry for. You’re a doctor , Scully,” he says. Quiet. “Everything dies.”

 

--

 

She brings down a box of silverware to the kitchen, an armful of things that won’t burn or break. The sink coughs up cold water for a long moment before finally running hot. The idea of cleaning something sounds good, sounds generous, almost. They could leave things here, impersonal and clean enough to see a reflection in, for someone else to find.

Mulder slams the screen door. She keeps her hands in the sink, palms up, and waits for the water to burn. He’s been chopping wood. Something about her reaction in the attic had made him only more determined. That was, at the very least, familiar.

It’s afternoon now, and clouds over the water are smoking out the sun. Where it flashes and drags through the kitchen, it catches dust and old dents. They haven’t spoken since the attic, since almost nine this morning. The house doesn’t seem to mind, supplies its own symphony of creaks and settling groans. It is a place used to silence.

The creak in the threshold behind her is a tell, like someone who scratches their cheek before bluffing at Hold ‘Em, even if she could hear him breathing. If he’s looking for a fight, she’s the only one to have it with.

Whether or not this thing between them was a marriage of convenience used to keep her up at night, but the question had become diluted, dull, the answer too obvious. Of course it was and of course it wasn’t. It didn’t fucking matter anymore, because the fact remained, always, in a hundred settings, a million timelines, that she was the only one here.

“Did it ever occur to you, Scully,” he says, “that I am relieved. That I’m actually fucking glad to know what happened to her, even if it means she’s gone?”

The quiet surety in his voice surprises her. A fight, maybe, but one he’s looking to win. The silence in the house doesn’t dissipate when he talks, just absorbs, wraps it right up in the quiet.

He means Samantha, even though she is not the only one dead. For years, she has been the thing in everything they don’t say. Scully stops up short, ghosting her finger over the sharp edge of a blunted knife before setting it back on the counter.  “No.”

“Well, maybe it should have.” She’s not looking at him, focusing on the rush of water from the spout. She wonders how long that can last, how long the center will hold. He’s angry, his voice hard and scraped raw. “I mean, what did you want, Scully? Be honest with me. Did you think she was alive? That me and Sam would play happy family and you’d, what, take pictures for the photo album? Then vs. Now. We could finish that game of Stratego. ”

She winces. He steps closer and she cranks the water hotter, runs a fork back and forth under the spray so it hits her wrist, her shirt, the counter. He’s quieter now, almost whispering although there is no one else, will never been anyone else.

He says, “Did you ever really think we’d find her?”

Maybe she never really wanted to. Maybe at some point, in between cancer and Emily, she’d begun to accept that this, this endless search, faithful and virtuous, was the only way she’d ever get to love him. Maybe she’d accepted it would go on forever; they’d be canonized, heroic, scrubbed clean. Maybe she’d wanted it. Maybe she doesn’t know what to do with him when they’re standing still.

She shrugs. “I don’t know, Mulder.”

“I thought,” he stammers for a moment. Another step. She presses her pointer finger over the rusted tines of the old fork. The water has left her numb. “Scully, I thought this is what you wanted.”

“What I wanted? ” She turns on him. His helplessness, his defeat has always managed to spark something in her. He is closer than she thought, and she has to look almost straight up to see him. “To find your sister dead ? For you to get closure in California in some fucking graveyard for children? To find out that at fourteen, at fourteen, Mulder, she had been relieved to die. For her to only remember that you had dark hair. And that you teased her.” She sucks in a breath, looks up at him. “No, Mulder. This is not what I wanted.”

If they never know the truth, it can be anything they want it to be. Like the cat, alive and dead all at once. She never wanted to open the box and find it had become a coffin. For someone who has built up all her faith on fact, she had become reliant on intrigue and ambiguities. Endless impossibilities. She turns away, turning off the water with a hard twist that stings in her wrist.

“I’m sorry,” she says, pressing her palms against the counter. She takes a deep breath, then another, then three more and by five has figured out that’s not going to keep her from crying. This has nothing to do with the attic, with setting fires, and it has everything to do with it, all the same. Her voice tilts and breaks on a high point. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

She shoulders past him, more of a duck than a shove, and he lets her go.

The screen door closes behind her with a scrape and a hush. Quiet, quiet, quiet.

 

-

 

She is embarrassed to be crying. When Mulder follows her onto the porch, the sun is streaking the old wood with yellow and gold. Her breath freezes, and her cheeks are hot. He brings her her jacket and sets it gently over her shoulders, careful not to touch her, before sitting down at her side.

“I’m sorry.”

He shakes his head. “Stop saying that. You don’t have to be sorry.”

“Well,” she blinks, swipes under her eyes again. This was supposed to be about him, not in the vague way that everything had been for years, but wholly and directly. He was the one who had lost something. “I am.”

Quiet for long moments, but not the kind inside the house. Bigger, uncontained. Easier and harder to swallow. He knocks his knee off of hers and then leaves it there.

He says, “You know I didn’t learn how to swim until I was ten? I just wouldn’t do it. Samantha could have lapped me by the time she was four.”

She sniffs, sitting up. “Until you were ten? But you lived here - ” she gestures out at the deep basin of the Atlantic, just beyond tress and shore. “You lived right on the water.”

He looks at her. A ghost of a smile, a phantasmal quirk that she recognizes. “You can be close to something and never touch it.”

She thinks of his apartment the other night. Thinks of holding him close, letting him feel her. Thinks of not kissing him. Guilt, up like a gasp in her lungs, makes her chest feel tight. She looks away. Eyes back to the water. Quiet again as the sun bobs between clouds.

Finally: “If we never find her, it never ends, Mulder.”

She means this. She means any of it. She means the two of them, set out in the dark against some unknowable thing.

He reaches out across the porch deck. It is like her dream, with the dust and the cigarette. Except there is nothing to distract her fingers, nothing to burn. She presses her hand over his when he offers it.

“I know,” he says. “I know, Scully.”

 

--

 

The house casts a long shadow as the sun tracks in and out of the clouds, and they stay out of its way. This is generally inefficient as an organizational strategy, and necessary as a preservational one.

At some Main Street restaurant five minutes down the road, the manager recognizes Mulder, calls over his wife and his little granddaughter. He wants to know if he’s married, if they’re married, if they are going to get married. He wants to know why he hasn’t seen him in so many years. The baby swipes a handful of napkins off the table and shrieks when they flutter out of her hand. He calls him Fox, and their meal is on the house.

Scully leans back hard on the vinyl booth as they wander away, an irritating blur of familial content. She wraps her hands around her coffee and closes her eyes. She is metaphysically hungover, scatty and cotton-headed from lack of sleep. Tonight, she’ll take the couch.

“You alright over there?”

Scrubbing at her cheek with a warm palm, she nods. “I should be asking you that.”

He shrugs. “I am if you are.”

She huffs. “I’m fine.”

“I know you are but what am I.”

As a child, she wonders, did Samantha ever wish she were taller so that she could look at him dead on when she stuck out her tongue, shoved a finger in his chest after he’d pulled her pigtails?

Mulder slaps the table and stands, holding out a hand at the open end of her booth. “Come on, I want to take you somewhere.”

Following him has always been the best way to pay her debts. She’s not going to apologize again, but she takes his offered hand. Maybe Samantha had used her height to her advantage, made him lean down and try and catch her.

Outside, the air has gone silver and cold. Their breath freezes and catches, spiderwebbing.

Quietly, she says, “You already have taken me somewhere.”

He nods, lets go of her hand for a moment to lace her cold fingers together with his warm ones. The weft and warp of them, joint and bone. “Somewhere else.”

--

 

It’s a seven minute drive to what Mulder cryptically refers to as “the pond.” Still, she likes to hear it in the singular. It settles her to think there is only one version of wherever he is going to take her, only one body of water like this, only one choice and he’s already made it. How Soon is Now plays on a spotty radio signal as they drive until they’re catching some post-modern version, hearing only every other word and vinyl-scratch catching - the son, be loved, criminally, the heir , human, human . Mulder switches it off when it slices into straight static as the pond gasps and levels before them like the Atlantic’s open mouth, its cupped palm.

“We’re here.”

The car had rumbled over wet sand, snow and hard gravel into a makeshift parking lot. A gentle incline tilts them gently towards dunes and water. In the bleached light, she can make out a white sign, tilting heavily: SQUIBNOCKET POND.

It’s far too cold to sit outside. To be on the water like this, crouching over it, exposed. Mulder leads her over frozen sand and melting ice in boots and a dark jacket. Far too cold. Still, when he finds a place on the dark, jagged beach, silver with winter light, he pats the ground beside him. And she doesn’t hesitate to take her customary place.  

He points out the water in front of them, quieter than the Atlantic. “That’s the pond,” he says, and twists around, still pointing, to look out behind them at the high cliffs of sand. “And over there, somewhere, is the ocean.”

“A barrier beach.”

She’d seen a few in California, lagoons of water that the ocean couldn’t feed off of. Places it teased but never reached. Great arches of sand and brine. Still, her father told her that the ocean always won out, eventually. The human body was seventy percent water, there was nothing the sea could not touch.

“Yeah.” Mulder nods. “In the winter, especially if it storms, water will come up over the lower points here, but the beach hasn’t been breached in a hundred years. It’s the only one on the Vineyard like that.”

Wind pushes only gently at the water. The sun ducks and lowers under clouds. At their backs, the dunes block the gusts off the ocean. A hundred improbable years it had kept the ocean out. She shivers, from either cold or dissatisfaction. For a natural place, it felt sufficiently unbelievable.

Mulder is looking at her. They’re sitting close, tited on the cold, wet sand. His breath is warm. “Do you like it?”

She turns her head sharply, her hair catching against her cheek. He’s watching her levelly, eyes crinkling with something that might be nervousness, a twitchy little vulnerability. She swallows. He showed her things like this all the time. Improbable things, challenging, unprecedented things, things that made her squint or close her eyes or swallow hard or follow his hand. Looking wherever he led her was the very crux of this, them. She had always thought all she had to do was see . She never thought it mattered if she liked it.

“I don’t know,” she says finally. It pleases her to realize it’s true. “I don’t know how I feel about places the ocean has tried to touch, but can’t.”

Mulder nods, and she worries for a moment she’s answered incorrectly, disappointed him. But he’s still watching her.

“I like it,” he says after a moment, looking back out at the water. “It makes me feel safe.”

She blinks, then smiles, pressing her lips together so she can feel it in the cold. If that’s the case, they can sit here until they freeze and sink. Until a winter storm curls itself up over the Atlantic and drags the tide over the low beach, and they drown. And the whole time, as they’re being dragged out to sea, she’ll be wondering at what it is to be safe with the most unavoidably, incidentally, heartbreakingly dangerous person she’s ever known. That they’ll be dead won’t change any part of it.

He gestures out at the water. “This is where I finally learned to swim.”

Her smile grows. “Oh?”

“Yeah,” his voice reflects his grin, refracting the sound. “You can see the other side. Not now, because it’s dark, but in the summer. With the ocean, you never know where it ends.” He shrugs.

“I would think you’d like that. Not knowing where the end of it is.” She leans against him, teasing. “It’s mysterious .”

He’s serious. “It’s terrifying.”

Scully sits up a little. Feels the cold sand with her fingertips until she can’t feel anything with them at all. “Still?”

“Always.”

She leans back against him again, her shoulder brushing his. It’s too cold not to touch. “I used to think that the ocean just tipped over the side of the world. Like if you spilled water on a table.”

Mulder pulls away from her, suddenly delighted. “Are you telling me you, Dr. Dana Katherine Scully, physicist extraordinaire, were a Flat-Earther in your rebellious youth?He claps his hand over his chest, falls back on his elbows in the sand. “You’ve been holding out on me. You’re clearly a natural. Maybe a little undiscerning about which theories you buy, but we’ll work on it.”

She resists the parallel urges to both shove and kiss him. Shakes her head and laughs instead. “I was four.”

Tilting his head, he looks up at her. “Somehow,” he says. “I can’t imagine you ever being a child.”

He, who could imagine anything. Who had imagined her right into the thirty-sixth year of her life without coming up for air, he couldn’t imagine her as a child. It pricks at her for no discernable reason. Just a pinch, like having blood drawn. She blinks and looks away, crossing her arms over her chest and curling tighter in on herself. “When you met me Mulder, I was a child.”

She hears him sit up but doesn’t look over to check. Her hair is too short for him to tuck behind her ear. Good. It had always made her feel cherished and untouchable. Made her feel, ironically, like a child. He brushes it away from her temple anyways, pulling it away from her eyes. His fingers are gritty with sand. She blinks the grains away from her eyelashes, tastes the salty sting of them on her lips and blows a breath out. He thumbs her cheek. “No, you weren’t. You’ve always been older than me, Scully.”

It’s funny. She’s always thought he thought the opposite. She cuts a glance his direction, turning her head, and his hand falls away. “You know I’m the same age as Samantha would have been?”

He blinks. For the hundredth time today, she feels invariably disgusted with herself. “What?”

“Nevermind.”

Mulder puts space between them. She feels the hurt from him like a skinned knee, a no-contact sting. “I didn’t ever think of you like that,” he bites out. “You weren’t important to me by proxy .”

She’s exhausted by them. The careful aporia of their ability to know each other best and not at all. “I don’t think that.” She does, kind of, but it isn’t worth it. Samantha is dead; she is alive. She is thirty-six years old. Her bones no longer grow the way they once did. She’s what he still has. “I’m sorry.”

He shakes his head, a sharp, tense little arc. “It’s alright.”

For one second, she thinks, she would just like to be one thing. To stop having to cleave to proper nouns from his mouth or someone else’s. Starbuck, Dana, Agent, Doctor, Scully. Would like to not be monolithic, not be a martyr, not be slowly and surely made up to be either.

She takes a deep breath, feeling suspiciously like she used to before confessing.

“You know, I had braces for a year when I was fifteen,” she starts. She's not sure where it comes from. She's trying to compress definitions. Trying to explain. Mulder turns suddenly towards her. Looks with wide eyes. She stares out over his head to the edges of the still pond. “Melissa was prettier and more popular, and she got me drunk for the first time in the back of her boyfriend’s sedan when I was seventeen. When I was three, Bill accidentally broke my arm when we got into a shoving match in a treehouse. He’s been protective of me ever since. My favorite book was never Moby Dick growing up. I liked Little House on the Prairie , Nancy Drew , but I loved it because my dad did.”

She bites at her lip, combing for more memories. It’s disturbing how much she cannot remember. “In the seventh grade," she says, "I punched a girl in the mouth because she said that my favorite movie was stupid. When I was really little, and waiting for my dad to get back after shipping out, I would sit on the dock and count the waves. The first thing I ever killed was a rabbit. It was an accident, but I didn’t cry. The first thing I ever cut open was a bird, a sparrow that Bill had hit with his BB gun. I wanted to scare Charlie. He threw up. He loved birds. In a way, I think I was trying to love it with him. By learning it, seeing what made it tick. I thought the best way to do that would be from the inside out.”

When she looks back at Mulder, she’s breathing hard. “I kept the wishbone.”

The way he’s looking at her now is dazed, gentle. She used to think her affinity for death - if that’s what you could call it - kept him at a distance. But maybe she is his memento mori. He keeps her close to know he has not died, but could, still.

He’s not saying anything. She blushes, the warmest she’s felt since they came out here. She had meant it as an apology and an exposition, affirmative evidence. Something like the other night, but with all of her clothes still on.

“Mulder.”

“What.” He talks like he’s swallowed syrup. Slow, slow and sweet.

“Say something.”

“I just did.”

She sighs, huffy and frustrated. She digs her fingers into cold sand. “Say what you’re thinking.”

“I’m thinking,” he swallows. “I’m thinking that I wish I knew you when I was a kid.”

The blush spreads down her chest, pooling into her joints and extremities. Suddenly, she can feel her fingers, and they prick and burn. The corner of her mouth tightens into a swallowed up little smile.

“Why,” she asks, her voice carefully steadied. “So I could help you study for physics?”

It’s different, the expressed wish to spend your past with someone instead of your future. Or maybe in addition to. It is scrappy and uncomfortable. He’d been a fundamentally unhappy child, and she would have never understood him.

Still, she thinks, he would have tugged the other end of the sparrow’s wishbone with her. Instead of leaving her with the whole thing, like Charlie did. It was thin, size of her father’s thumbnail. It might not have broken in half. It might have fallen apart entirely. She worries for a moment that he’s going to press it  -- I wish I’d known you --  and then she’ll have to say this out loud, watch him figure out what it means for her.

He laughs. “I’ve explained this, Scully. Mrs. Tillerson hated me. I am not to blame.”

Relieved, grateful he’s slid her gently off the hook, she moves closer. “Why?”

His arm unthinkingly around her waist. It’s dark. She wonders if the beach closes. If they’re the only ones out here, in the world. “Why what?”

“Mrs. Tillerson, why did she hate you.”

“Oh,” he rubs his eyes with his free hand. “I don’t know. I was a shit. She said I was too much in my own head and that it was giving her migraines.”

She laughs. “I’d have liked her.”

“Mmm.” He is younger when he smiles, even when it’s just a passing thing. “You’d have liked Samantha.”

The tightness in her chest is symptomatic of tears, but she doesn’t cry. She ducks her head, swallowing. “Would she have liked me, do you think?” She’d had no idea it mattered to her.

He answers fast and certain. This is, she realizes, something he has thought about before. It makes her choke, not uncomfortably, just like something sweet has gone down wrong. She has always thought Mulder mildly disappointed in his dead. It is maybe what has kept her alive for so long.

She has never considered that he is instead worshipful. That he doesn’t pray, but that he would want to know what their blessing would feel like if they would give it, if he could accept it.

“She’d have loved you,” he says. She sniffs. The cold is making both their noses run red. “She’d have thought you were the most incredible person in the world.”

She roughly palms at her cheek. He sounds like a child, short on object permanence and full of genuine hyperbole. She says, “Come here.”

The irony of this while they’re so close that every outer edge of the outline of their bodies - at rest, in parallel - is touching, is not lost on her. Still, she tugs at the back of his neck, drawing him down until his head is against her shoulder. It can’t be comfortable, but that’s not the point.

“What are you doing?” His voice muffled against her jacket. She palms the back of his head, gently.

“Learning,” she says.

Behind them, the dunes of the breach rise like shell-shocked, blasted buildings. Carved out, roadkill rotted, eaten by the sea. They face the dark, quiet water of the pond while the ocean snarls somewhere beyond the crested hills. Her hands come to his forehead, his temple, and he leans into her hard. It is a gentle, unrelenting vivisection.

Passing headlights from some far off causeway silhouette them against dark water. After long minutes, she stops touching him. He doesn’t move. For some reason, when she speaks, she whispers. “You ever think about the ships that have wrecked here? Coming into port, but never quite making it home? All the people waiting here, looking, and having no idea.” She remembers counting waves on a dock.

Mulder shakes his head, echoes her voice. “A ship hasn’t wrecked here in two hundred years, Scully,” he says. “No one is looking anymore.”

He says it like a comfort, sitting up then to wrap an arm around her shoulders. Sheltered from the wind and the water here, looking out at this empty lagoon, she supposes that it is.

Behind them, waves test and snap at the barrier. They never, never break through.







end part 2.