“Mulder, what happened?”
“Forget about it, Scully.”
“What did they do to you?” Her voice softens.
“I said, forget about it.” Mulder doesn’t turn his head, just grips the steering wheel tighter and navigates them through the crush of flashing cop cars and barricades around the bank. “You can read the report.” He tosses that last sentence at her like discarded evidence, the sharpness of his tone conveying just how little he wants to discuss the past few days with her.
Scully purses her lips and turns toward the passenger window.
“You should have let me drive,” she counters after a few minutes of silence. “Your hand…”.
Anger and frustration radiate off him in waves, choking the small cabin of the fleet sedan. His hand taps frantically against the wheel at a light that won’t turn. And moments later he smacks his palm violently against the dash.
“Goddammit!” Mulder yells at nothing in particular. “Those bastards! Those smug bastards and their tests. Their lies!”
“Mulder, you have to calm down!” Scully exclaims. “Despite what I said about this toxin coming from our labs, we don’t know anything for sure.”
“Scully, you know this was an inside job! You heard what that man said. They’re cleaning everything up, making everything go away. Sound familiar?”
She swallows slowly, the locus of his anger becoming clearer. They’re here yet again, staring at the mounting evidence of the evils the government is capable of, the level of deception it can achieve.
Her cancer, specifically her recovery, had confirmed for him the falseness of his own memories, about Samantha, about her abduction, about everything -- his worldview left in tatters. This is why the Spartans chose him in the first place, for the doubts he aired in public.
So he has me back, Scully had thought a number of times since her final days in the hospital, but at the cost of his beliefs. Sometimes she catches him looking at her like the exchange has not been worth it.
“We’ll have to prove it,” she ventures quietly.
Mulder snorts in exasperation and rolls his eyes.
“And he’s right,” Scully continues. “What can we do with this information anyway? How does sharing this make anyone safer? How does the truth matter if it’s not going to help bring about justice?”
“Scully, how can you say that?!” Mulder erupts in response, the tires squealing as he jerks the car toward the curb and throws it into park. “And that’s certainly not what you said in front of Skinner!”
“All I mean is,” Scully turns toward him, the seatbelt strap cutting uncomfortably into the side of her neck, “his methods are abhorrent, but he’s not wrong. There are some truths that might do more harm than good. We’re not the ones who get to decide what’s best for the public, are we?”
Mulder’s face reddens and he bites his lip so hard the color drains from it.
“Get out of the car, Scully.” His tone is measured, holding back a torrent.
“What the hell, Mulder!” She exclaims, “I’m just saying…”.
“Get. Out. Of. The. Car.” He breathes through his teeth. “Before I do something I’ll regret.”
Scully stares at him, his widened eyes, the angry set of his jaw, the clench of his fists. Then she reaches beside her and pulls the handle, not moving her gaze from his. As she opens the door, he gives a stiff nod. She pauses, waiting for some sign of de-escalation and then she unbuckles the belt and swings her legs out onto the curb.
“I’ll call you.” She throws the words over her shoulder as the door slams behind her. She thinks she hears him mutter, “don’t bother” as he swings out into traffic to the sound of honking where he’s cut someone off.
Scully is stunned and watches him squeal away, her mouth half open. In the thousand arguments they’ve had over the years, he’s never made her get out of the car before. She thrusts her hands angrily into her coat pockets, searching for her phone to call a cab.
She jabs a few numbers on the keypad, but she’s too distracted to remember who she’s trying to call. The Hoover building isn’t far. She needs to walk. She needs airspace away from Mulder’s anger and frustration.
She doesn’t know at what point the word truth became their weapon. It used to be their mantra, their common cause. But lately they swing it at each other like a bludgeon, daring the other to duck, letting the force of accusations sting.
She wonders how much she even knows him anymore. There had been moments just a few months ago, lying in her hospital bed when she felt every wall between them melting away, when she could just think a thought, let it glimmer in her eyes and he could look at her and know. She remembers the warm scruff of his cheek against her pale skin when he had bent to kiss hers, the warmth of his desperate breaths against her cold hands on nights when he had come to sit with her.
Most of all, she treasures the softness of his face on the day she had called him into her room and told him she was cured. His eyes had brimmed with tears, as had hers, and he had rushed to hug her, gathering her against him with a ferocity that had taken her breath away. When he had pulled away, grasping her hands in his, she saw the storm behind his eyes dissipating as if her own life were a burst of sun burning off a bank of cloud.
Everything vibrating between them seemed self-evident by then -- the nurses had long since stopped asking if he was family or bothering about what right he had to visit after hours. Then Father McHugh had arrived with her mother as Mulder sat there on her bed, their expressions making promises that neither of them had since put action to.
But he hasn’t looked at her like that in months.
Whatever emotions he had felt at her recovery, they’ve long since been consumed by his disillusions. Deep down she knows in moments like this one -- when he’s left her standing on a curb, when he has gone behind her back, when he has doubted the memories she uncovered by hypnosis -- it’s not that he is angry at her. He is angry at the larger forces beyond his control. It’s just easier for him to vent at her because she’s right in front of him, countering him, challenging him. She knows this, but today it stings more intensely than it has all year.
How could he possibly have thought I wouldn’t know he was lying? she thinks, angry for not the first time that week that he’d gone along with Skinner’s advice to keep her in the dark about his undercover role. They have been able to read each other, easily, from the very beginning. He knows that. He can’t have imagined she wouldn’t catch on to his bluff. But this is where they are now. He is doing what he can to push her away.
She is walking faster now, the Washington streets a blurry backdrop to her strident gait. She’s walking as if she can out-walk the chasm yawning between them, as if she walks fast enough, she can leap it and find themselves back on the same side. She walks through the front entrance of the Hoover building and winds her way down to their offices, half-expecting him to be there, feet propped up on the desk, chewing a pencil and ready to dive into another case. That’s how it so often is with him -- sharp words one day, and an unquestioning acceptance of her the next.
But the office is dark except for a patch of light cast by her desk lamp. She gathers a few personal things, her car keys and a stack of files about the Pine Bluff labs. There she sees a hastily scrawled post-it stuck to the back of her chair. “S -- I just need some time -- M.”
So in his haste, he had beaten her back to the office, gathered his things and cleared out. She rips the post-it off the chair with more force than necessary and swats at the push-button light switch on the desk lamp. It clicks off and leaves her alone in the dark, the thump of her heartbeat still hurried by the pace of her walk.
She doesn’t see him for 4 days.
He’s allotted a some personal leave due to his involvement in what the report simply lists as “a stressful and traumatic situation.” Then it’s the weekend and her phone still hasn’t rung. Despite saying she’d call him, she hasn’t, taking his post-it non-apology as a request for radio silence. Her fingers have itched constantly with the urge to press speed dial. Calling him is a reflex, one she didn’t know was so potent until going cold turkey.
Skinner has been vague about what happened to Mulder, and she’s not even sure Skinner knows the whole story. The parts of the report detailing his time with the Spartans are almost immediately classified or stricken from record, leaving only her own bare-bones understanding of his involvement. Knowing what they did to his finger, and watching the surveillance tapes of the bank heist, she imagines the worst. Humiliation and hazing rituals and any other number of unsavory details she would rather not know. Her stomach had turned over on itself at the sight of him brandishing a weapon at the civilians in the bank. She imagines things he doesn’t want to tell her. She doesn’t sleep well.
Sunday night she begins to wonder whether she’ll show up Monday morning to a vacant office and a resignation letter. She’s washing up dishes and setting out clothes for the morning when she hears the knock on her door.
In the time it takes her to wipe her dishwater hands on a towel, she feels herself move from relief at the realization he’s come to make amends to a suddenly searing hot anger at the presumption that she’ll just dutifully open the door and let him back in. She’s spent the four days wishing he’d talk to her, and now she is right back on that curb, furious at how he pushed her away.
These de’tentes always come on his terms. Because you let him, her brain taunts her. She makes a determined pace toward the door. He knocks again.
“Scully, it’s me. Open up.”
The way he’s demanding stokes her resolve. She cracks the door, the security chain hanging between them as if demarking a military no-fly zone.
“What is it, Mulder?” She answers, letting her annoyance coat every word.
“Scully, let me in.” He pushes against the door with his shoulder, oblivious to the chain in the lock.
“Mulder, it’s late. I’ll see you at work tomorrow.” She moves to shut him out, both wanting to wound him and wanting him to try harder, but he wedges his heel between the door and the doorframe.
“Scully, don’t be ridiculous.” He sighs exasperated, pushing further into the sliver of apartment his toe can access. “We need to talk.”
“I’m not the ridiculous one, Mulder!” She exclaims. “I’m not the one who made you get out of a car on the side of some random road! I’m not the one who left some stupid post-it note on your chair and didn’t call for four days! I’m not the one who took an undercover assignment and didn’t tell you about it, who made you look stupid in front of a joint task force, who…”.
“You’re right.” He cuts her off just as her momentum gets going, as she begins to dig deeper into the deep well of slights and injuries built up over the past few months. “You’re right,” he says again with a sigh, “that was me.”
She looks at him, her mouth still open with all the things she wants to throw back in his face, but she hadn’t expected him to cave so quickly.
“I’m sorry.” He can’t quite look at her. “Please just let me in?”
She steps back from the door and slides the chain from its groove and he quickly angles his way in before she can change her mind. Scully doesn’t move toward the couch or even the kitchen. She stands still in the entryway, her arms crossed, waiting.
Mulder opens his mouth and swallows a few times, trying to figure out where to start, what the best way of disarming might be. He looks at her slowly, catching the combination of worry and anger in her eyes.
“You asked me what happened,” he begins.
“I had a gun to the back of my neck.” He tries to control his breathing, but the memory of that moment, his hands helpless behind him, raises his blood pressure and his words come out quickly. “They took me out behind this tattered warehouse and forced me down into the dirt.”
Scully’s eyes flare in concern, but her arms stay crossed.
“They had proof I was crossing them.” Mulder gulps. “A recording from my apartment the night you were there. They had me under surveillance. They heard everything.”
“How - ?” Scully reaches a hand toward him.
“How did I get away?” Mulder finishes her thought for her. “Bremer let me go. I don’t know why. I think he’s deep cover or something.” Mulder shakes his head, the adrenaline from the memory still flooding him. “I thought for sure that was it. That after all this time, everything I’ve done, some stupid thug would put a bullet through my head.”
Scully nods, her features softened now by the distress in his voice.
“The worst part was, I wasn’t even surprised. It felt fitting.” He is rambling now and she loosens, moving toward the kitchen, letting him talk as he follows her in. “It was so depressing. If I’d have had to guess what my last thoughts would be, I would have guessed them to be much more poignant than they were, you know.”
Scully fills a kettle with water and turns on the gas flame, pulling mugs off their hooks over the stove. “You think it’s going to be all regrets or worries about the chances you didn’t take or your failures.” Mulder paces a little around her table, pausing to grip the top of her chairs as he shifts into stream-of-consciousness, the way he sometimes does when he’s unspooling the evidence for one of his cases. “In reality, it’s much simpler. More selfish.” He grimaces. “All I could think about was, how much will this hurt? Will I know I’m dead before I die? Will my last image be of this shit-pile? I was too terrified to even get angry.” He stops moving and takes a long breath.
“Do you know what it’s like to know for certain you’re going to die?” He looks at her with a deep gravity in his eyes.
Scully nods slightly, and says in a low voice, “Yes.” She pauses, fixing him in her gaze. “I do.”
Mulder’s eyes flutter closed and he shakes his head. “Shit. Of course you do. God…” he trails off. She can see the self-loathing settling over him as he realizes she had been right where he had, staring not down the barrel of a gun, but the long march of incurable cancer. “God, Scully, I’m sorry. I never even asked you…”.
“It’s okay, Mulder.” She shakes her head. “It’s okay. I don’t think I would have known how to talk about it anyway.”
“But I should have asked,” he says. “I should have at least tried to listen.”
“You’re right though.” She doesn’t look at him as she rips open the tea bags and drops them into the cups. “At the end, there wasn’t much more than the pain. And fear.”
Mulder moves toward her and leans against the counter across from the stove.
“I remember wishing I were a better person. That my faith would have been stronger than my animal brain, that it would have steadied me more.” She pours the steaming water over the tea bags. “But underneath, that’s who we all are, you know?” She looks up at him and hands him a cup. “We’re bodies clawing for self-preservation. Everything else falls by the wayside.”
Mulder nods again and blows ripples across the surface of his tea. “I remember the strangest things,” he says. “Like, they walked me through these sheets of torn plastic. I remember thinking, they look like long flapping angel wings.”
Scully curves her hands around her mug and stares at a spot somewhere behind him. “I remember the color of my hospital gown. It reminded me of this old plastic nativity set we had growing up. The Mary doll wore this robe, it was the exact same color, aquamarine or something.” Mulder nods. “It was the strangest thing to remember. Like, why would my mind make that connection then?”
She looks up at Mulder who has grown quiet. “Mulder, why are you here?”
“I’m sorry, Scully,” he begins. “I’m sorry I made you get out of the car.”
“Okay,” she says lowly.
“I wasn’t ready to talk. I was angry at all of it, the way we’d been played, the way they’d treated those lives -- my life -- like collateral. It was just a reminder…”.
“A reminder that we still don’t know who’s behind all this,” Scully finishes for him.
“I was going to say, a reminder that I don’t know what I believe anymore.” He looks away, slumping into a familiar posture of defeat.
Scully reaches out a hand and smoothes her palm back and forth over his forearm. “We’ll figure it out. I believe we will.” She tries to sound reassuring, but it comes out flat.
Mulder sighs and settles a hand on top of hers. “Scully, your belief in me is all I have left.” He looks at her with pain in his eyes. “But I confided in you so easily, it almost got me killed.”
Scully nods, comprehending a little more now what is bothering him. This thing between them is a liability. Whatever it means or doesn’t, their entanglement put him at risk.
“But I need you.” He squeezes her hand and then reaches to brush a tendril of hair behind her left ear, letting his warm hand linger against her neck. She sets down her tea and leans into him, wrapping her arms beneath the coat he’s still wearing, pressing her cheek against his chest. She lets out a long breath.
“I know.” She whispers.
Mulder rests his chin on the top of her head and runs his hands along her hair before tightening their embrace. Neither of them say anything for long minutes until Scully feels lulled by the steady rhythm of his pulse in her ear. She pulls back and looks up at him.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?” She questions with a slight smile.
“Wouldn’t miss it.” Mulder smiles back.
“What’ll it be this time,” she teases. “Bigfoot? Nessie? Or some other monster of the deep?”
“I guess you’ll just have to find out, won’t you?” he grins, their equilibrium reestablishing itself in their banter. “Thanks for the tea.” He knows their familiar dance and moves toward the door to make his exit.
When he’s gone and Scully turns back to her empty apartment, she feels the chasm between them receding. She thinks about what she didn’t tell him of her thoughts those last days in the hospital, the thoughts she had time to ponder in those moments before she was discharged, after her mother and Father McHugh had left her and the memory of Mulder’s weight titling the side of her bed brought a flush to her face. She didn’t tell him about how, once the fear settles down and the animal brain is quiet, what you’re left with is a visceral clarity. She had known she’d have died loving him, known it would have been his face she would see her last moments, known without a doubt that he felt the same.
Out in his car on the drive home, Mulder thinks too. He hadn’t told her everything either. He hadn’t told her how it’s not until after you get away, the gun smoke clearing from the chill air, the blood in your chest propelling you over the ridge and into the getaway car, that your mind catches up with your body. How it’s afterwards you think the thoughts you thought you would, the ones about devotion and regret, the ones about apology. The ones about love.