Newton's First Law of Motion states that objects continue to move in a state of constant velocity unless acted upon by an external net force.
Scully’s first view of London was an endless sea of scattered lights in the pale grey of early dawn. Her left ear popped, her right one stubbornly remaining muffled, as she forced a yawn and shifted in her seat to lean closer towards the window. The Dramamine she’d taken before the plane had even taken off was out of her system now although she still felt the last lingering remnants of its medication-induced drowsiness. The flight had been a smooth one, and she was grateful for it, as minor a blessing as it would seem to most people. She’d never liked flying, even as a child, and liked it less and less as the years had gone by. Give her a car any day…
Even though she’d slept, she still felt exhausted, worn through like the knees on an old pair of jeans. She’d jumped at the chance to get away from D.C. when the departmental reminder email about the British Criminology Society conference had showed up in her inbox a few weeks ago, thinking that some time away might be just what she needed. When she took time off and stayed home, it was always too easy to get pulled back in. If her mind drifted to the details of a case, knowing that the case file was accessible with just a few clicks of a mouse or, worst case, a drive to the office, was far too tempting. And, just as frequently, if not more so, Mulder was likely to show up at her apartment with flights and hotels already booked, eagerly shoving a folder full of notes into her hands for her to read on the way.
Not that any of that was likely to happen at the moment. Now that the basement and its contents, such as they were, had been appropriated by Jeffrey Spender and Diana Fowley, it seemed like Kersh’s primary goal was giving her and Mulder the most mind-numbingly tedious work he could dredge up for them to do. Needless to say, she found it somewhat ironic that the monotony of the work she’d been given wasn’t the driving factor for her desire to get away for a few days. No, that was for an entirely personal reason.
She grimaced like she had just swallowed a live grasshopper.
No, the bitter truth was that it was getting more and more difficult for her to keep her temper under control around Diana. Of course, Mulder was blindingly oblivious to what were patently blatant attempts to manipulate him, to position Scully as a skeptical outsider, to draw him back into a neat little partnership of just the two of them, like they’d been before she’d even known him.
Mulder wasn’t stupid, he could tell how much Scully disliked the other woman, how her hackles went up at the mere mention of her name. But, that didn’t stop him from defending her or from trying to convince Scully that Diana was on their side, that she was trying to help. Scully bit down on the corner of her lip until she could taste the hint of iron on her tongue. Bullshit.
Mulder might be clueless to the way Diana’s touch lingered on his arm or the way she always stood too close behind him when she visited him at his desk in the bullpen, leaning over his shoulder with a falsely careless laugh as she adjusted the knot in his tie, but she wasn’t.
It made Scully volley back and forth between — and on the worst days, experience them all simultaneously — the feelings of nausea, of a fuming sort of fury that was like a simmering pot in her belly with the steam rising up and out the roots of her hair, and of painful stabs of self-doubt that made her feel like she was fourteen again.
So, when the conference invitation had shown up after three completely unnecessary trips to bathroom in the span of an afternoon in order to avoid having to watch Diana simpering all over Mulder, she’d booked her flights without a second thought.
She had almost a week here — two days for the conference and then the rest booked off as vacation time in accordance with the not very subtle memo she’d received from HR explaining that her banked time had exceeded the maximum number of days allowed and suggesting she take some time off, preferably immediately. Didn’t she know that the government had to limit its financial liability to its employees by ensuring that people didn’t store up months of vacation and overtime and then expect to be paid out? Wasn’t it true that their records indicated that it had been over a year since her last vacation day and wasn’t it the recommendation of the FBI’s own psychiatrists that all field agents take a minimum of three days vacation every six months to prevent burnout and fatigue? Perhaps, if she didn’t respond to their memo quickly, they could helpfully speak to A.D. Kersh on her behalf and book some time off for her?
She’d promptly scheduled the extra vacation days and moved her flight home accordingly. It wasn’t worth arguing with them, and maybe it would actually help with the way she had been feeling lately.
Thankfully, she didn’t need to do much at all today. Get checked in at the conference hotel, take a quick walk to stretch her muscles after the long flight and get her bearings… maybe an unhurried soak in the tub. The organizers of the conference had scheduled an informal mixer in the hotel lounge as a come and go type of event that evening, so maybe she would pop down and have a glass of wine or a gin and tonic if she felt like it.
Her list of things she was not going to do today was fairly concise: not talk to Mulder, not think about Mulder… well, specifically not think about him and Diana. Not think about Diana full stop. She was definitely going to need that drink later if she hoped to do that.
With a sigh, she let her head fall against the chill of the window and clutched the arm rest for emotional support as the plane circled lower, preparing for landing.
Scully toyed with the blue plastic straw, disturbing the ice cubes that had settled to the bottom of her drink. Well, she was here. Away from work, away from Mulder, away from the sour taste of Diana and the lingering residue of mistrust and betrayal. If only she could take her thoughts and put them on an airplane and send them halfway around the world while she was at it. She’d had the quiet day she’d planned, but she’d fared rather miserably on her list of things she wasn’t going to do.
She gave the ice another morose jab with the straw and then took a sip of her drink. She hadn’t even been here for a full twenty-fours yet. Maybe her head just needed longer to catch up with her body. The condensation from her glass had pooled into a ring of water on the surface of the wood, and she traced around it with her finger to wipe it away before setting her glass down again. It made her think of another bar, another time. A jeweled ouroboros eating its own tail as it went around and around again.
“Have you ever felt like getting in the car and just driving? Leaving everything behind. Just driving, until there’s no more petrol, in the hopes that you’ve ended up somewhere you ought to be – anywhere – just to not be where you are right now?”
Scully glanced up at the woman who was now standing next to her at the bar. She wasn’t sure what had caught her off guard more — the fact that she hadn’t noticed her approach or that her comment was remarkably close to the truth. She spent a moment to take in her immaculate appearance, her poise, her confidence. Used to being in charge. Decisive. Organized. Comfortable being in control. She noted that the woman appeared to be taking her in in much the same way.
“That’s an odd way to greet a stranger.”
The woman tilted her head slightly in acknowledgement. “Perhaps. May I join you?”
Scully shrugged her shoulders and gestured and the empty chair beside her. “Sure.”
The woman slid into the chair and signalled to the bartender. “Single malt scotch. Neat.” She then angled her body towards Scully and extended a hand. “Stella Gibson.”
Her fingers were cool as she squeezed them briefly. “Dana Scully.”
“American? Are you here for the BSC conference as well?” The bartender set a tumbler down next to her and Stella gave a brief nod of thanks without taking her eyes from Scully’s face.
“Yes, to both questions. I’m a field agent with the FBI, but my background is in forensic pathology.”
Stella brought the glass to her lips and took a slow sip. “I’m with the Metropolitan Police. Detective Chief Inspector.”
They sat in silence for a moment, the drone of chattered conversation around them filling the brief lull. Stella drank again, Scully mirroring her a moment later.
“Is this your first time to London?”
“Yes.” Scully nodded, rolling the top of her straw between the tips of her fingers. “The conference was a good excuse to finally get to come here. I’ve always wanted to.”
“Are you here just for the conference days?”
“No, I’m staying a few extra days afterward as well. Mandatory vacation.” She couldn’t help the wry upturn at the corner of her lips as she raised her eyebrows at Stella. “Well, not really, but it might as well be. Figured I might as well spend them here as opposed to at home.”
Stella swirled the amber liquid in her own glass before draining the last of it and signalling to the bartender for another. “And where is home?”
“Washington, D.C. now, although I grew up all over the place. Navy brat. What about you?”
“Been here my whole life. Never wanted to go elsewhere.” She slid the empty tumbler across the bar and pulled the newly filled one over to occupy its place. “So, if you don’t mind me asking, what had you staring into your glass as though you hoped it held all the answers if you merely looked hard enough?”
Scully couldn’t help the snort of laughter that escaped. “If only it was that easy.”
Stella leaned back in her chair, crossing her legs and smoothing her black pencil skirt over her thighs. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Scully shook her head. “No, I’m fine. It’s fine.” She tucked a few strands of loose hair back behind her ear. “Just work stuff. I’m hoping that this time away will give me a chance to clear my head a little.”
“It will consume you if you let it. The work,” she clarified at Scully’s expression. “I think anyone in law enforcement knows that feeling. How the things you see, the things you’ve experienced, linger at the edges of your dreams until one day they start to seep into the everyday.” Scully felt like Stella was looking right into her, through her, with a careful control that reminded her of lioness, although she didn’t feel threatened by it. Stella leaned forward slightly, her voice growing quieter. “There’s a danger there, when it becomes too big to lock it up in your office at the end of the day and then, eventually, it starts to follow you home.” She blinked slowly and sat up straight once more before taking a sip of scotch. “I’m on mandatory leave at the moment as well.”
“Are you married? Family?” Scully asked, even though she was quite sure of the answer already.
“No. I’ve no interest. My work is enough. How about you?”
Scully was quite sure that Stella knew her answer already as well. “No. Between work and my partner there isn’t any time or energy left for that.”
“Work partner?” Stella inquired, and Scully nodded affirmatively. “Have you been together long?”
“Almost seven years now.” She straightened the straw and drained the watery remains of her gin and tonic. “Feels like a lifetime.”
“I’d imagine. I’ve worked mainly in teams, and you often work with the same people at one point or another depending on the case, the specialities needed, and who’s available. I don’t know that I’d much like working with the same person so intimately for such a long time.” She paused as Scully tried to catch the bartender’s eye, but he was busy with a noisy group at the end of the bar that had just come in. “I would think that you would start to lose perspective after a while.”
Scully gave up on trying to get the bartender to notice her and sighed. “You have no idea.”
“What’s your partner like? Are you close?”
Scully just laughed. “I don’t even know how to answer that. It’s like an arranged marriage in a way, I suppose. He permeates every area of my life, whether I want him there or not. We’ve had our ups and downs, like any partnership, but we work well together for the most part. He’s dedicated, passionate, about the work we do.” She hesitated as she searched for more adjectives, attempting to banish the hint of pink rising in her cheeks by sheer will alone. “Very intense. Driven. He can make leaps of logic that would make your head spin, and he’s right often enough to be a little cocky about it. Maybe more than a little, but he doesn’t let it get to his head. He’s harder on himself than anyone I know.”
She knew that Stella hadn’t missed the blush from the way she was studying her, but she didn’t comment and deflected her gaze toward the bartender, catching his attention with minimal effort and indicating Scully’s empty glass with a tilt of her head toward it and a nod. Scully had a fresh drink at her elbow a minute later and then Stella spoke again.
“Are you personally involved with him?”
The choice of words made her wish she’d ordered something stronger, like the scotch Stella was drinking, wanting something that would burn all the way down if she took a huge swallow.
‘You’re making this personal,’ he’d said. Words that still stung, despite it all. She’d thought it was.
“I’m sorry,” Stella said smoothly. “You don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to.”
“No. It’s fine.” She stirred her fresh drink, realizing that she was, in fact, staring into as though the clarity she sought was buried beneath the cracking cubes of ice, just waiting to be brought to the surface. “It’s… complicated. He’s my best friend, I’d do anything for him and I know he’d do the same for me.”
“I’m sensing there’s a ‘but’ that follows that statement.” Stella reached out and lightly touched the back of her hand; the briefest caress of acknowledgement. Scully glanced up to meet her eyes, seeing compassion there, and gave a tiny grin.
“That’s the worst part about people like us who profile for a living. They pick up on everything.”
Stella cracked a wide smile, and Scully couldn’t help but join her. “You know as well as I do, I’m sure, that it’s impossible to turn off… except when it comes to our own lives and behaviours, of course. We’re as capable of self-delusion as anyone else. Perhaps more so…”
Scully felt her smile fade. Wasn’t that the truth… “I’ll drink to that,” she said softly, and the pair of them raised their glasses, touched them lightly together, and then drank.
They chatted for another hour or so about nothing in particular, and Scully caught herself starting to hold back yawns. Aside from her medication-induced sleep on the plane, she hadn’t had a proper sleep in close to forty-eight hours.
“Well, I should probably get going before I fall asleep right here.” Scully laughed as she stifled another yawn. “I’ve really enjoyed talking to you though, so I promise, it’s not you!”
Stella smiled, putting her hand over top of Scully’s where it rested on the bar. “Don’t apologize. I should be heading home as well.” She gave Scully’s hand a light squeeze, her fingers trailing away as she reached for her small black purse that was looped around the back of her chair. She unclasped it and reached inside, pulling out a business card and a pen.
“Here.” Stella flipped the card over and scrawled two phone numbers on the back of it before handing it to Scully. “My mobile and my home number, if you want to meet up for dinner or drinks before you head home.”
Scully took the card, glancing down at it briefly before tucking it away in her own purse. “That would be great. I’d like that. Were you planning on coming to the breakfast tomorrow?” It was the usual conference fare — an opening address and welcome speech for all the attendees and a key note speaker from Interpol.
“Yes, hopefully I’ll see you there.” Stella stood up, smoothing out her skirt, although her calm blue eyes lingered on Scully’s face. “It was nice to meet you, Dana.”
Scully watched her as she gracefully maneuvered through the people at the bar, noting the number of heads that turned to watch her go. The bartender seemed to be hanging off her every word as she paid her tab. She leaned in close to speak directly into his ear, and whatever she said evidently shocked him as he turned a bright shade of scarlet before sputtering a reply back to her. Stella merely shrugged, saying something else that Scully couldn’t hear, and then tucked her purse strap neatly over her shoulder as she left. Stella exuded a kind of confidence that Scully envied. Sure, she thought she was able to project the same thing, but she’d always felt a bit like an imposter. For Stella, it just seemed like a natural state of being.
Scully blotted up the moisture that her glass had left on the bar top with the corner of a napkin, and then rose wearily to pay for her own drinks so she could head upstairs and collapse into bed. If she had enough energy, maybe she would shower first, but she was leaning towards leaving it until morning.
The colour had mostly faded from the bartender’s face, although he still looked a bit blotchy. The curse of the pale complexion, she thought ruefully with personal understanding. “I’d like to settle my tab, please,” she said as she reached into her purse for her wallet.
“It’s, uh, all paid up.”
She looked up from rifling through the unfamiliar bills. “I’m sorry?”
The bartender was definitely still flustered. “The woman…” He gestured towards the exit Stella had taken moments before. “The one you were talking to, she paid for both your drinks.”
“Oh!” Scully blinked once. “Well… thanks.” She slipped her wallet back into her purse. She hadn’t expected that. “Have a good night, then.”
She would have to try to find Stella at breakfast and thank her. But, for now, all she could think about was how good it was going to feel to crawl into bed.