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Synesthesia

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If you could hear the bullet that hit you, what color would it be? Electric lime green dazzle? Bristling crimson streaked with black, perhaps. They say you never hear it, but maybe you just forget, distracted by fury-hot metal melting flesh, or maybe you remember only the blur, gratefully sinking into an oyster shroud of pain.

Melanie Zweier heard it coming. Melanie -- melody -- who heard all the colors of the rainbow, like Kandinsky, and Nabokov, too, for whom the French long 'a' was the sound of polished ebony. Did they hear more? Hear differently? Or did they just listen with more care?

"Scully?"

Mulder's voice startles me. I finish drawing the sheet over Melanie's face before I turn, stripping off my gloves as I do and taking a deep breath to ensure that my voice comes out calm, matter of fact. Colorless.

"She died of a stroke."

"Not the gunshot?" Surprise laces his words, and I doubt he's aware that his hand rises to rub the still-fresh scar from the Consortium's brain surgery.

"No. The shot would have paralyzed her, but it wouldn't have killed her. I can't be certain, but I think the synesthesia may have brought on a stroke." I think. I'm not sure. What I wouldn't give to know something was true, anything, and be able to hang onto that, no matter what.

"You're not sure?" His fingers hover near her covered face, but he must change his mind, because his hand dives deep into his pocket instead.

"No, Mulder, I'm not. The stroke definitely killed her. But, no, for the record, I don't know what caused the synesthesia in the first place, and I can't be certain that it caused the stroke."

The granite in my voice makes him stand up straight. I know this case has taken its toll on him, despite his mulish insistence that he didn't need all the medical leave he was granted. I never expected it to set me on edge as well.

His clipped tone carries the antiseptic chill of the autopsy bay. "Are there other tests--"

"Agents." We both turn to watch Detective Lum charge through the door, setting its plastic window blind rattling. As always, he swoops in like a barn owl after a mouse, talons extended. "Why are you down here? Did something go wrong?"

I repeat my findings for him.

"You gotta be kidding me. What kind of friggin' goat rodeo do you think I'm running here?" He points at the body on the gurney. "Five eyewitnesses saw him shoot her."

"Detective, I did not say that he didn't shoot her. I said that the bullet didn't kill her."

"Bullshit. No half-assed defense lawyer is going to get that sick fuck off for this one, even if we can't nail him for the other seven."

Mulder breaks into the detective's rant, leaning towards me slightly as he does. "Lum, he still killed her. Just not the way you think." I squelch my irritation at the way he steps in, because he's right. Lum will be more willing to listen to another male, or at least, to listen to me because Mulder does. Right now, I'm too worn down to care.

Melanie was a synesthete, someone whose senses were inextricably linked, for whom sounds evoked colors. A rare condition, but not an unnatural one, though Melanie's adult-onset was unheard of. Mulder thought she was psychic. So did the Medford police, who used her like a human lie detector test, able to discern truth from lies by the way they shimmered.

"During a synesthesic experience, the blood flow to the cortex plummets," I start to explain, but the detective's slow blink indicates I've already lost him. Or that he's stopped listening. I ignore him and turn towards Mulder. "It's exactly like what happens during a stroke, but the person continues to function normally. Her brain activity was, in fact, the most convincing evidence we had that the colors she heard were biological in origin, and that she wasn't just parroting a learned association of sounds and colors."

The door slams behind Lum, startling us both. Still staring at the door, I add, "I don't know, Mulder. Maybe she could see the difference between truth and lies, even though she wasn't psychic. But she was already weakening when he figured out what she could do and attacked her. My guess is that the flash and the noise of the gun combined with getting shot must have been too much, and her brain couldn't hold up under the strain of so much sensory input."

Had she been a different person, Melanie might have spent her last days listening to the sparkle of the waves at the ocean's edge rather than helping us find a killer. She feared she was hallucinating, sinking unchecked into madness. She wasn't. I like to think she saw the truth in us, and that we were able to reassure her that such things are possible and perhaps even a gift. But I couldn't save her. Once more, my science was not enough, and this time, no treacherous visitor slipped the key under my door while I slept.

I can only hope her last colors were a symphony.

Mulder waits in the hall while I change into my suit. We are silent on the drive back to the hotel. I rest my forehead on the cool window, looking out at the dark night punctuated by the occasional streetlight. I wonder what it would be like to experience the world the way Melanie did. In a peaceful moment, she claimed Mulder's voice was purple, midnight purple, flickering with bittersweet ochre. I changed the subject, afraid to hear that my voice looked like bottle-green glass.

As a doctor, I know what it means to hear someone's voice, how the tiny bones of the ear translate sound waves into electrical impulses for the brain to hear. But I also know that when we listen, we hear not just words, but poetry, the quicksilver inflections that color a phrase. The low undertones that seep up from below to warm the words or weigh them down, tones that resonate not just in our ears but in our hearts, where sometimes we even hear the words that remain unspoken.

If I listened harder, would I hear what Melanie heard? What Mulder heard, overwhelmed by an artifact that did not affect me? I wonder if there is something missing in me, something that makes me deaf to life's more extreme possibilities. Am I destined to see the world only in black and white?

Melanie's ability, like many an inner ear disorder, triggered a kind of vertigo from which she could not recover. I think of Crump, briefly, who heard what others could not. And of Gibson. And of Mulder and me, our balance most certainly affected by the voices he heard in his head.

We are still teetering.

* * *

From the walkway that runs outside the rooms, I look over the motel parking lot just before sunrise, the morning fog golden where it drifts through the pool of light cast by the streetlamp. I can see my breath. It's too early for a run, but the idea of a walk before we spend the entire day cooped up in offices and airplanes appeals to me.

A door opens behind me. I look over my shoulder to find Mulder, also dressed in sweatpants and sneakers, though he can't be serious about running, half-healed as he is. I'm surprised to see him awake. He's been sleeping more since his illness. I wonder if this dawn appearance is a sign of his recovery, a return to his usual insomniac ways, or if Melanie's death haunts his sleep and drives him early out of bed, the way it did me.

"Good morning."

He doesn't answer but joins me at the railing, his eyes focused on the path at the edge of the lot that leads to a raised gravel hill built for the railroad track. I debate whether to ask him if he wants to accompany me on my walk. I was looking forward to the silence, to escape for just a little while the nagging sense that I'm missing something crucial, something that seems to come naturally to the people around me. Mulder stands at the rail quietly. He knows I am watching him. His face is blank, but his alert eyes, studying the path and the trees, give him away. Waiting for me to decide? Testing the waters, I say, "I was thinking of taking a walk along the tracks before we head out."

He nods but doesn't look at me, instead cocking his head slightly as if listening for the invitation missing from my words. A breeze swirls the wispy fog across the parking lot and suddenly, I can taste its iron gray chill on my tongue and can't bear the idea of being alone. "Do you want to come?" I ask.

"Yeah," is all he says, and I lead the way to the path, our sneakers crunching on the half-frozen leaves. I scramble up to the top of the hill, scattering loose gravel behind me, and turn to watch Mulder, who looks more limber today than he has in a while. We set out towards the east where the sun's rays are not yet visible except as an indistinct ivory glow over the trees on the horizon.

The birds are beginning to wake, and their warbles and trills glide in and around the muffled thump of our rubber soles on the wooden railroad ties. It's hypnotic to watch the ties disappear under my feet. I find myself shortening my stride to step on each one. Our slow pace seems not to bother Mulder, who just steps on every other tie. We walk for so long in silence that I am startled when he speaks.

"What's wrong, Scully?"

I look over at him before answering, but he's studiously gazing down the tracks. "Nothing."

He turns his head to squint at me, searching for something in my face, and I finally look away. "You just seem..." he pauses, searching for the word, "distracted."

"I'm fine, Mulder." My answer hangs in the air unchallenged, though a quarter mile later the incomplete silence still lingers. I want to explain, to tell him how I wanted to save her so desperately.

I once thought that in the source of every illness lies its cure; I was in Africa before I figured out this wasn't always true. Yet I reverted again to that way of thinking in this case, not knowing what else to do and having nothing else to offer. And this time, the patient died. The PET scan, my tests, none of it could help her. All I did was establish a biological explanation for the colors she saw.

You've been here before, say the nightmares that drove me out of bed this morning. At night I hear that bastard Kritchgau informing me that sleep is a luxury, Albert telling me to save my partner as if I were too stupid or uncaring to figure that much out, Diana asking me how I could have prevented this. Their voices claw at me. What if they had botched his surgery? All your training, all your prayers, all that you are, was not enough, not enough. What about the next time?

Perhaps the time has come for Mulder to find someone who can help him, the way I cannot, someone who could, like him, hear the promise in the jumble of a kaleidoscope. I start to tell him this but my courage fails me. Instead I say, "I wonder what it would be like to be able to hear the way Melanie did."

"Beautiful, I think," he says calmly, as if my statement resembled something like an answer to his earlier question. I don't know, maybe it did.

"Yes, her beautiful mind," I whisper, lost in a thistle-gray haze of memories until Mulder's voice calls me back. "Sorry, what did you say?"

"I asked what color you thought a train whistle would be."

Oh. "Um... orange, I think."

"Just orange? C'mon, Scully, you can do better than that." A small smile flickers at his lips, though it never reaches his eyes. "What kind of orange? Rust? Harvest-moon orange? That scary orange in those Halloween candies you like?"

This sounds like one of his psychology quizzes. "No. Something sharper and thicker, like a hazard cone. What about you? What color were you thinking?" What are you asking me, Mulder?

"Blue. Sort of a... lonesome blue," he says, with more ochre than purple. He gives his head a quick shake. "Sorry. Had a Johnny Cash kind of moment there." Shoving his hands in his sweatshirt pockets, he blurts, "I wish this case had ended differently."

"So do I. She shouldn't have died."

"Scully, if I could've written that profile faster I would have."

"That's not what I meant, Mulder. There's no way we could have known he'd go after her. But the way her brain was reacting to the synesthesia, it was only a matter of time before she had a stroke. I wish I had been able to help her."

"You did," he states, his tone rising underneath the emphatic words to let me know he doesn't understand what I'm talking about.

"Mulder, I couldn't even figure out what caused it."

"But your tests convinced her she wasn't crazy. You believed she could see colors and you had proof. You saw how relieved she was. That has to count for something."

It always comes back to belief for him. I think I'd hoped if I could understand what happened to her, it might help me understand what happened to him. And I think a small part of me wished that for once I would hear what they heard.

A glint of copper sunlight catches my eye, and I pick a flattened penny off the rails. I remember carefully balancing coins on the rails in San Diego with Bill and Melissa, riding our bikes out to the tracks where we were forbidden to play. How daring I felt, and so proud they let me tag along. All I wanted then was to be like everyone else, one of the gang. Funny how things change.

"In some ways, Mulder, Melanie reminded me of you."

"You mean you don't think I'm crazy?" When I roll my eyes at him, he gives me a half-smile, puzzled. "I'm color blind."

"No, not like that," I say. "I was thinking about being filled to overflowing with your senses, able to perceive things that the rest of us cannot, and never will."

This quiets him for a while. "Never, Scully? You saw Albert."

"Did I, though?" I aim for a lilting tone, but I think it comes out more of a quaver. I don't want to talk about Albert. My heart still feels he prayed with me in my apartment, even though I know better. I don't think I was so desperate that I conjured up a hallucination. I don't. And I don't want to talk about this, especially not with Mulder, who believes in spirit-walking but not in the hand of God. "Anyway, I suspect that rather than erupting in color and sound, I'm more likely to fade into a ghostly echo."

"Scully?"

I look over my shoulder to discover that I don't need words to tell me when Mulder is disturbed. I sidestep the question in his expression as he catches up to me by asking, "Are you disappointed she wasn't psychic?"

I expect him to override my attempt to change the subject, but he doesn't, though he looks at me long enough to tell me he considered it.

"Well, in a way, she was," he says. "She could still perceive far more than most ordinary people."

Ordinary. Did being psychic change the way you look at ordinary people, Mulder? At me?

"Are you disappointed to be ordinary again?"

"Me? Ordinary?" He laughs, posing with one hand draped over his heart. "Thanks a lot, Scully."

Perhaps my being deaf to extreme possibilities comes with a speech impediment. Or maybe when they were digging around in his cranium, they disconnected the sense he once used to silently communicate with me.

"I hated it," he says, surprising me with a serious answer to my question, "and it hurt like hell." He stares into the distance and my gaze follows his out to the horizon, where the tracks seem to touch just before they fall over the edge. Once again his voice calls me back. "In some ways it was everything I ever wanted, all the answers in my reach.... But it would have killed me long before I could have done anything about it. In the end, yours was the only voice I wanted in my head."

He hasn't talked much about what it was like to hear people, except to say that Krycek has a tight grip around Skinner's throat and that Diana thought she was doing the right thing. I don't know how to ask what he heard from me.

"What did it sound like?" Oh God, that sounded terrible. "Not me, I mean, you know, just in general?"

"It felt like heaven," he says, and his face turns away faster than my eyes can snap up to gauge his expression. "Like I finally knew how y-" He cuts off whatever he was going to say, and mumbles, "knew somebody would finally help me."

Mulder and I have talked about what happened to him, about Africa, Albert. But apart from a brief conversation in his doorway when I came to tell him Diana was dead, we have not talked about what we mean to each other. What he means to me. Even now I am silent on that subject, though I hope he hears me and the words I cannot say.

"Mulder, I would've done anything to help you." I have a sudden vision of him strapped down on that vile table. Red. I still see red when I think of what they did to him. "I just wish I'd been able to help you earlier, instead of running around like a madwoman until you were returned to me."

"Scully." His sigh is almost inaudible, barely louder than the rustling pine trees. He brushes his fingertips across my shoulder. "They left me there to die. You found me, and you saved me. Ultimately, it doesn't matter when or even how."

I wish I could believe that. "What about next time, Mulder? I would never have found you without Diana's help. You don't understand."

"Yes, I do. Remember? I couldn't do things any differently, when it happened to you."

"But you did find me. In Antarctica, of all places."

"Scully, they gave me the coordinates. I never would've thought to look there." He shakes his head. "But that's not what I meant."

I look at him, not understanding.

"Years ago," he says in a voice as soft as milkweed floss, "when you were abducted."

Oh no, Mulder. Don't. I can't get the words out, words that I just know would be prickly yellow, raw chicken-flesh yellow. But he's not looking at me and must not hear my silent plea. Maybe he can't hear it over the white noise hiss of painful memories, because when he does speak, his voice sounds distant and strained.

"I searched forever. Like a madman. And all I found was that a Ph.D and years of investigative training were completely useless. One day you simply reappeared in the hospital. The only thing I could do was sit by your bed and hope beyond reason that you heard me or felt me, and that you would come back to me."

I study a tuft of crabgrass while he kneels on one knee to tie his sneaker.

"I did, you know."

"What?" He brushes gravel and splinters from his sweatpants as he rises.

Come back. To you. "Hear you calling me back."

"And you came anyway," he says with a self-deprecating smile.

"Of course, Mulder," I frown at his joke, though it probably looks like I'm frowning at him. But the wry knife-edge of his smile softens, and I know he heard me.

Despite our slow pace, we have come quite far. The low rolls of clouds like corrugated metal glow tangerine-pink in the rising sun. Beyond the trees somewhere, the occasional car swoops by as the world wakes up. Wordlessly, we turn and head back towards the motel. Mulder leans down to pick up a small branch, which he proceeds to worry with his fingers, snapping bits off the end and peeling back the bark.

"I blamed myself," he finally says in an absent tone. A watery green tone, Melanie might have said. "It took me so long to realize that it was easier to feel guilty than to admit there was nothing I could have done. And it was even longer before I was confident that, as messed up as I am, I could be a good partner for you..." his voice drifts off, and as I watch, his eyes widen slightly. "Ah," he whispers.

He does understand. So why do I feel more exposed than relieved? It's too much to hope that a deer would choose this moment to step out from the trees, giving us something else to talk about, but I look anyway.

His hand on my shoulder stops us both.

"Scully, stop for a second. Listen to me. This is important." His fingers brush down my arm to grasp my hand. "A lot of people knew where I was and could have helped me." His tone darkens and I know he is thinking of Diana. "But no one except you could have brought me back."

I have always made myself a little deaf on purpose, to avoid hearing Mulder's siren call, lashing myself to science's mast. This time I let myself hear his midnight purple velvet against my skin.

"Scully, I heard you. You sat at my bedside and called to me, with words that no one else would understand, words they weren't even listening for." He squeezes my hand for emphasis. "Yes, I was strapped down in that room, and yes, I know you weren't really there, but I heard you. Just as I think you heard me years ago."

He's smiling a little when he reaches up and tucks my hair behind my ear with his other hand. "Of course, I'm still thankful you came in person to help me out of there."

Without thinking, I tilt my head so that his hand cups my cheek. In his warm hazel eyes I can hear everything he isn't saying.

"Scully, you saved me," he murmurs. "Call it what you want, call it trust, or friendship, or faith, but we don't need the words to reach out and bring each other home. You are the only one who can do that. The only one."

"And you are the only one..." I pause and gather my courage, but all I manage is a repetitive whisper. "The only one." I wonder if he hears the iridescent longing twining around my words, or remembers the feel of my fingertips on his lips.

Perhaps he does. His lips turn up in a private smile, and he gives my hand a tug to pull me close. My eyes close as our arms wrap around each other. I feel his heartbeat under my cheek, luminous vermilion, caramel warmth.

So many colors. Melanie must have rubbed off on me. I wonder what color she would have said my voice was, if it was the bottle-green glass I feared. Maybe not -- she said Mulder was purple. I see, or rather, I hear what she saw, but to me he has always shone with a brilliant white light, the color of his passion for the truth and the goodness of his heart.

White light and green glass. Incandescent light, at once both wave and particle, that passes through glass, itself both solid and liquid. Light that ignores the immpermeable surface, saturating it, warming it. And glass like a prism, gathering the light before it burns itself out, bending its path, refracting the waves. Magenta, violet, blue, green, yellow.

Perhaps my world is not black and white after all.