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Sláinte

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He approaches her on the oblique, scuffing his sole on the floor on purpose. A proximity alert. Early warning that he's about to cross her boundaries again. She startles easier since her sister was murdered, drawn into herself. He knows, if anyone does, the way grief rises and ebbs, an irregular tide leaving behind unexpected pools.

Weeks ago, there were miracles. Jeremiah Smith laid on hands and healed a man and then got Mulder lost in Canada. Somewhere in the endless plains, he met his sister again, or some facsimiles of her, like the articles in his files that have been copied so many times that their print is smudged and nearly illegible. The clones had lost their voices but still had her eyes. Meanwhile, Scully had to see X's blood on the floor in his building, the smear down the hallway where X had tried to drag himself elsewhere, as if anywhere could be safe. His apartment and hers have been haunted since the beginning. Her father's spirit in her armchair, speaking to her. Her sister's blood soaked into the pad under her carpet. She is mourning all of these things: the miracles, the silent toiling children in their hives and fields, the sanctity of their quiet spaces.

He wades into her waters like a penitent waiting for baptism. Silence billows around him, proof of a current in the stillness between them.

She looks up and her eyes are bleak. He can see her surfacing slowly from the dimly-lit depths of her mind. A measured ascent is necessary; grief, permeating the blood, can overwhelm a body that tries to come up too fast. It's a variety of decompression sickness the medical journals rarely cover, but he's been incapacitated before. He knows the symptoms. He felt himself sinking when his mother was in the hospital; despite everything between them, his mother is all he has left, even if somewhere, a hundred sisters with brown braids toil in strange fields with bees sketching paths in the air above them. Scully buoyed him then. He hitches his hip onto the corner of the desk and folds his hands. He waits, letting her breathe. He bows his head.

"Mm?" she says after a moment. It's a weary little noise, a question mark struggling to unfurl at the end.

"The boys in the lab invited us out for drinks after work," he says, his tone light. He's the sound of the ocean, a shell held to her ear. The only call she'll always take. She tips her head to listen. "They have some kind of Thursday night drink specials at their favorite bar. What do you say, partner?"

She starts to shake her head. "I don't think so, Mulder."

"You said that last time," he reminds her. He rounds the words off, offering them to her rather than accusing. A handful of sea glass to pique her curiosity. "And the time before. Danny said he was going to start taking it personally, just in case he ever meets you."

"I haven't met Danny?" Another question uncoiling as deliberately as a fern. She turns toward him just a little, bright head heavy on the stem of her neck.

"I can't believe it either," he says, and shrugs. "But it's been years now, Scully. Nobody can spend that much time cleaning their gun."

"Maybe it's always been a euphemism," Scully says, a glint of humor in her eye flickering and fading.

He huffs, a fragment of a laugh. "Not even I could euphemism that much."

"Hmm," she says. "Maybe you're not open enough to extreme possibilities."

"I'm going to ignore that obvious attempt to distract me and ask you again," he says. He rarely gets to see this side of her, the little sister who must have traded quips in kind with her older, worldly-wiser siblings. With Melissa. Their own banter usually feels rarified, precise, an academic exercise played out in cinderblock halls, all their humor cloaked in some esoteric code. "Come out with us. I'll buy you a drink. You can finish half of it and make your excuses. I'll even hail a cab for you if you need one."

"One drink," she says. He can see her weighing the offer against whatever she's got planned to fill the hours of her Thursday evening. He imagines a stack of books or back issues of medical journals. Maybe she really will clean her gun, or her bathroom, or maybe she'll turn on the tv and gaze mindlessly at it until she falls asleep on the couch.

"I know it's not easy," he says quickly. "When Sam...I didn't go to a baseball game for the next two seasons. And you're not exactly a social butterfly to begin with."

"No," she says. "Not exactly." There's a tiny thoughtful crease between her eyes. He lets the idea sink between them like a penny flipped into a fountain. Despite the occasional passing interest in dating, she passes the majority of her time with him. He's aware that he likes it that way, has been engineering Scully-traps since the slides he showed her the day they met. He baits her with conundrums and impossible questions and then sits smugly, luxuriating in her company. He has let her leave or lose anyone else who mattered to her. Maybe he can offer her the boys from the lab as a stopgap, a seawall built against her loneliness.

"Just come for an hour or so," he says. "Say hello to the boys. Spend a little time outside the morgue and the basement."

"In the land of the living?" she says wryly.

He lifts his shoulders. "If that's what you call it."

She sighs like the sound of sand shifting. "Then I suppose it's time I met Danny."

She drives. "I won't need a cab," she tells him, changing lanes carefully. "I'm only having one drink. I can bring you back to your car afterwards."

He gives her directions to the place. He would have thought that the crew from the lab would have had a local watering hole, something walkable, but apparently it's a place one of them knows from college: cheaper drinks and fewer government types, the right kind of music on the jukebox. It's for the best. Nobody knows better than Mulder how insufferable the field agents can be. He had, at one point, the password to the boys' club. He could again. It's something in his rich boy's grin, or in the lithe way he still moves. Most of them grew up wanting to be him; he could waltz back into the clubhouse and shotgun a Budweiser and they'd worship him again. But Scully is worth more to him than cigar smoke or golden idols to his glory forged of stories refined again and again each time they're told, until he is a god among men. He's tasted that world and choked on it. He'd rather drink with the techies with their minds full of gears, and Scully, wading through the shallows of her grief.

The bar is better than he expected: less sports paraphernalia and more beers. It's dimly lit, but not so dimly that he can't see Scully's eyes, wide and luminous. They are hailed joyously by the boys from the lab, who, judging by the collection of glassware, are at least one round ahead of them. "Everybody, this is Scully," Mulder says, sweeping his arm through the air, unrolling an imaginary red carpet at her feet. He pulls a chair out for her, enthroning her among the jovial crowd. She gazes beatifically at the crowd as they greet her. A queen among her adoring subjects, limned by the glow of the neon in the window.

He leans down to murmur in her ear, boxing off a space with the square of their shoulders, his stubble striking brief sparks off her cheekbone. There's tinder between them, no matter how sodden the atmosphere. He can feel her interest catch. "What's the lady's pleasure?"

"Surprise me," she says. Her voice smolders like a peat fire.

They don't have his favorite Irish whiskey from his Oxford days at this bar, but they have something a little better than Jameson, so he orders that. The bartender has to hunt for it, slipping through a door into a storeroom behind the mirror. Mulder waits, tracing sigils through the dregs on the bartop. He has this idea of how to honor the step that Scully's taken, how to honor the memory of Melissa, taken too soon. An Irish wake of sorts, the two of them united by their purposeful sorrow. He taps the bartop, syncopated impatience. It would be the perfect transposition of their peculiar solitude from their basement to a less isolated locale, if only the bartender would come back with his whiskey.

The bartender emerges finally. "Sorry, man," he says, brushing a hand over his hair. "I found it, but it's on the top shelf in the back. Must have gotten pushed around. I gotta get the stepladder."

"Sure," Mulder says agreeably, because that's all he can do. Scully promised him one drink. She won't leave before they sip this whiskey together, each knowing the other is feeling that slow burn spreading like a fire in a coal mine: lips, tongue, throat, heart, and belly, and the heat of it reflected in their eyes as they watch each other ignite. Whiskey comes the closest to making him feel like Scully does. He returns to his tracing, composing arcane texts with the rings of condensation and drips of the various potions the bar serves. A codex of Cosmopolitans. A grimoire of gin. The bartender shuffles back into the closet, a stepladder slung over his shoulder, and returns after a moment with Mulder's whiskey. He pours two generous measures, the amber liquid clinging to the sides of the glass, and Mulder slides his credit card over the bartop.

"Start a tab," he says, reaching for the glasses. He's feeling optimistic. Maybe the tide is turning for them, after what feels like a dark age.

A laugh rings out like a bell and Mulder jerks around. He knows that sound better than he knows his own name, for all that he's heard it so rarely. Scully is laughing. Her head is tipped back, her hair a russet cloak sliding over her shoulders. There are two empty shot glasses in front of her and Pendrell and Danny are laughing too.

"You never told us Dana was so much fun," Danny says, leaning over the table. His blond hair is ruffled. He's loosened his tie.

"I haven't tasted a Buttery Nipple since college," Scully says, smirking and patting her lips with the back of her index finger. Mulder can see the faintest breath of pink on her knuckle, transferred pigment from her lipstick. Pendrell's cheeks are painted with the same palette, a study in rose. It would mean something, if they were a piece of art: the two of them lily-pale, blush rippling past half-hidden freckles, and Mulder the shadowy figure hovering at her elbow. He didn't imagine this tableau littered with shot glasses filmed with cream.

"The shot?" Danny asks with a wink, and Scully just laughs and shrugs delicately.

"Isn't there some kind of injunction against kissing and telling?" she asks, ducking her head coquettishly.

"You can trust me," Danny teases, leaning forward on his elbows. "I work for the government."

Scully shakes her head, biting her lip. "I told you," Pendrell says. "She's too smart for you. She'll never crack."

"It might take a few more Nipples," Danny says, "but she'll confess." He slides out of his chair. "I'm going to get another round. Don't do anything fun without me."

Mulder sets the whiskeys on the table with deliberate movements. Now he's the one drowning, but it isn't the cold waters of grief that are closing over his head. This sea is hot; it's salty and bitter and filled with clinging green tendrils that wind around him and drag him deeper. He strains against the net of his own jealousy. He brought her here to share a blatantly solitary moment framed by their friends. Instead, she is giggling into Pendrell's shoulder, their ruddy heads together. She is gasping for the air he exhales, supporting herself with a hand on his arm, and he is holding her up.

"I never knew you were so funny," Scully says in a tone touched with wonder.

"You don't stick around long enough after the lab results come in," Pendrell says, and Mulder wishes he could believe that bashful tone was put on, but Pendrell really is that guy around Scully. "I only get funny when the lab door closes."

There's still an empty seat next to Scully. It isn't really empty; when Mulder settles into it, whatever fragment of his soul that's permanently attaches to hers clicks into place. It was his place whether he was there or not. He nudges Scully's whiskey closer to her.

"Here," he says, trying to keep himself from sounding sulky. "One drink."

"Now the party can start," she says. Her body shifts toward his; the fact that her shoulder is nearly touching Pendrell's should mean nothing. She turns her brilliant smile on him, but the part of him that melts is plunged back into the well of jealousy by the fact that the crinkle in her nose was conjured by Pendrell. It sizzles inside him. She picks up her whiskey and touches the lip of her glass to his. They lift in tandem.

"For Melissa," he says quietly, and she echoes, "For Missy." Pendrell picks up one of the shot glasses that has a sip left in it and clinks it against Scully's glass, mumbling something about how sorry he was to hear about her sister, but Mulder doesn't care. Scully's eyes are on his as they taste the amber liquor: sunshine and grain, a breath of peat and oak, the taste of time and history distilled.

She winces as she swallows. "Ah," she says. "I can't argue with you this time, Mulder. This is definitely a one-drink drink."

Mulder huffs at the irony, almost chuckling. "You're Irish and you don't like Irish whiskey?"

"Missy did, but I've never...it's been a few generations," Scully mumbles, the spark in her dimming, and he hates and relishes the sight simultaneously, and then hates himself. Mulder takes another mouthful. He holds the liquor in his mouth until the roof of his mouth stings and a wash of saliva obscures the bitter honeyed flavor of it. His body's defense mechanism against a sophisticated poison. He wishes he had more ways to conquer the toxins his own mind secretes. He swallows at last and doesn't flinch as it burns down his esophagus. There's no more candlelight in his heart tonight. There's only a profound well the whiskey can't fill.

"Can I smell it?" Pendrell reaches over without waiting for permission and wafts the glass under his nose, swirling the whiskey. He tips the glass to his mouth and Mulder bristles. Scully, for all her knowledge of pathogens and every careful inch she's carved out as her personal space over the last few years, seems unfazed. She's smiling at Pendrell, her shoulders loose, the line of her neck soft as she tilts her head towards him. But they worked together, didn't they, unraveling the mystery of the Jeremiahs Smith while he was evading the brutish outlander in the apiary in Alberta and losing his sister all over again. He knows what it's like to work next to Scully, to see close up the sophisticated analytical engine of her mind. Pendrell smacks his lips. "Mm, that's the good stuff. I didn't know they had anything like this here."

"They almost didn't," Mulder says. "I sent the bartender on a treasure hunt. It's literally top-shelf."

"Didn't mean to commandeer your drink," Pendrell says, setting it down in front of Scully, but she waves her hand over it, dismissing it with her blessing. Saint Scully, who doesn't even need touch to impart her holy influence.

"Cheers," she says, and Pendrell reclaims the whiskey. Mulder leans back and toys with his glass. Every time he looks at Scully foregrounded against Pendrell, jealousy heaves in him.

"Sláinte," Pendrell tells her.

"Semester in Dublin?" Mulder snarks. "Let me guess, Temple Bar with the tourists?"

"Summers with my cousins in Galway," Pendrell says easily. "Hey, I guess you're not the only one with an international reputation."

"Jesus," Danny says, coming back with his hands full of shots. "I've never known this place to be so slow. Who's ready for fun?" He offers his handful to Scully and Pendrell. They each take one. Scully is smiling again, the full-on unguarded grin that shows her pink gums. Mulder narrows his eyes and plucks a shot from Danny's palm. He's fun. He's a barrel full of fucking monkeys. He spent fifteen minutes waiting for the bartender to unearth his close-to-perfect whiskey while Pendrell plied Scully with cheap shots, and now he's about to throw a Buttery Nipple down his throat after it.

The rational part of his brain understands the pressure of expectation. He coaxed Scully to come here, so that he could help her dilute her weary sadness with spirits. They are so often alone he forgot that there are other purveyors of leisure. They are not a lion tamer and her half-domesticated beast, united but solitary in the middle of the spectacle. The rational part of his brain is glad that she is enjoying Danny's company, and Pendrell's, and that the rest of the lab techs seem to be having a good time on the side of the table that isn't taking part in this tableau. But the rational part of his brain can't shout over the roar of the forge inside him.

"Let's do this," Danny says, and the four of them toss back the shots. They're sweet and easy, not at all what Mulder wanted. The Irish Cream coats his palate, oleaginous, the flavor enduring. He licks at the top of his mouth and throws back the rest of his whiskey to scour it away. Scully sets her glass down and giggles, tipping against Pendrell. Pendrell smiles down at her, his mouth half open. He clearly can't believe his luck. Scully's the unexpected gold at the end of the rainbow. Mulder wants to snarl. He stands up.

"Mulder?" Scully says, as if she feels the tug of his leaving, though she's still leaning against Pendrell.

"Bathroom," Mulder says shortly. He shoves his way to the restroom even though there's no one he has to push past. It's just the atmosphere of the place that crowds at him. He pisses into the urinal, aiming at a fleck of paint, wishing he could urinate with enough force to scour the porcelain. He washes his hands and dabs at his face with the damp backs of his hands. He needs to cool off. He should have eaten before they started drinking. He should have taken her somewhere they could be alone. Maybe then he wouldn't resent her for taking comfort in the company of others exactly the way a reasonable person would hope that she would. He offered her camaraderie; she accepted.

He steps out of the restroom and into the hall. Over the shoulder of one of the other patrons, he glimpses their table. Pendrell is rubbing Scully's back as she gazes up at him. Something quakes inside him. He feels the drag like the drain in the harbor before a tsunami. It isn't her fault that this experience doesn't align with his vision of it, and goddammit, he knows that, but he resents her all the same.

"I was just telling Sean about my sister," she says. Her eyes are glossy, but she's smiling.

"Sean?" Mulder says.

Pendrell holds out the hand that isn't between Scully's shoulder blades. "Sean Pendrell. Nice to finally meet you. Sometimes it feels like nobody in the Hoover Building has a first name."

"We'll stick to that," Mulder says, grinning in a way he can feel shows his canines. "Just Mulder."

"Just Mulder," Scully giggles. "Short for Justice Mulder." She puts her hand on his lapel. He would swear he feels his heart lurch toward her touch. For a moment, the jealousy within him stops roiling, a gentle simmer of longing.

"Are you sure it isn't short for 'just partners'?" Pendrell jokes, and Mulder grits his teeth. Acid washes through his stomach.

"Just partners?" Danny snorts. "I heard quite a tale about a time when somebody tried to meddle with Mister Spooky over there and she busted him out of a secret government facility. I've never done field work, but I can guarantee I wouldn't stand up to the big guns for anybody the way that she does." He nods at Scully. "Dana, you're basically Wonder Woman as far as I can tell."

"I left my Lasso of Truth at the office," she says, and winks at Danny.

He should be relieved to see her so happy and relaxed when she's been so steeped in misery he's almost caught her hand to check her fingertips for pruning. It's a remarkable transformation and most other days he'd be glad of it. But he wanted to be the catalyst of her sea change.

"You know what we need?" Danny says. "Nachos."

"Yes," Scully says decisively.

"You're a genius," Pendrell tells Danny. "Beers on me."

He goes to the bar and Mulder leans over to Scully. "You ready to get out of here?"

"Mulder, nachos," she says, pouting a little.

"I thought you only wanted one drink," he reminds her.

"I changed my mind," she says, turning away a little. Her hair brushes his lips. "I thought this was what you wanted."

It was. It wasn't. He says nothing to the back of her shoulder.

Nachos arrive in due time, preceded by Pendrell with IPAs all around. Mulder passes on the beer and takes a chip, but the sour cream curdles in his stomach. Scully sips at her beer, claims the one that was intended for him, and eats more nachos than he thinks he's ever seen her eat before. Her lips gleam with grease from the cheese. She licks at them and desire jolts in Mulder's belly, sloshing through the jealousy. Pendrell is watching her lips too. She's all rosy cheeks and blue blue eyes, her head tipping back as she laughs to show the pale slope of her throat. She has rarely looked so lovely.

When the nachos are gone and the IPAs have been drained to the dregs, Scully leans against her chair. She checks her watch with a deliberate gesture that lets Mulder know how tipsy she is. Three shots, two beers, and a swallow of good whiskey on an empty stomach: of course she's headed towards drunk. He goes to the bar and retrieves his credit card. Two expensive imported whiskeys and a proportionally large tip for the bartender who retrieved the bottle. It isn't his fault that the evening exceeded Mulder's expectations. He strides back to the table and stands behind Scully's chair.

"I hate to break up this party," Mulder says, "but we've got an early appointment. Scully?"

"We do," she says, her face lolling toward his. He could bend down and kiss her. He's close enough to catch the piney scent of beer on her breath.

"Too bad," Pendrell says, and then Scully's looking at him instead, listing toward him like she's in the trough of a wave.

"Give me your keys," Mulder says to her. "You're not driving."

She digs in her pocket, swaying gently. The keys clink into Mulder's waiting palm.

"Oh," Pendrell says, fumbling with his wallet. "What do I owe you?"

Mulder waves him off. "When I buy a lady a drink, it's her business what she does with it."

"Thanks," Pendrell says. His smile is genuine. Mulder flinches. "My round next time."

"Good night, Danny," Scully says, sliding out of her chair; the booze has limbered her and she's taken the shape of her container. She braces her hand on Pendrell's shoulder for balance. "Good night, Sean."

"Good night," Pendrell says in a soft voice that has Mulder gritting his teeth. He puts his arm around Scully's shoulders and steers her out of the bar. He has to slide the driver's seat of Scully's car all the way back on its runners. Her fingers fumble with the passenger side seat belt as he starts her car.

"Are you okay to drive?" she mumbles.

"One drink and a shot over two hours is not going to get me drunk," he says, adjusting her mirrors. Angles of refraction. He catches a glimpse of her face in the rearview mirror, washed blue in the underwater light of the street.

"I had...a few more than that," she says, her head sinking into the cup of her hand as she props her elbow against the window.

"You did," he agrees.

"Can we stop and get food?" she asks.

"Nachos weren't enough?" he retorts, but he's already scanning for options. She settles on burgers and orders a meal. The bag emerges from the window, a grease-spotted modern miracle that she's ripping open before he puts the car back in drive. Even drunk, she takes precise little bites of her burger, licking ketchup out of the corners of her mouth after each swallow. He picks at her fries as he navigates the road. It's all he can manage. He should be hungry, but jealousy still fills him up. The taste is bitter in his mouth.

"Thank you," she says when she's finished. She touches the tip of her tongue to the crystals of salt on her fingers.

"It's not hard to find a burger place," he tells her.

"For making me go out," she says, her face patched with wan gold from the streetlights. "I find grieving very difficult. I'm not dealing well with losing my sister. I didn't - I'm not dealing well with losing my father. In this job, sometimes it feels like we just keep losing people. Mister X. Deep Throat. Your father. The clones. You nearly lost your mother."

"She's recovering," he says, staring into the night.

"Maybe I've grown too sensitive," she sighs. "Every life we don't save feels personal. It's like the grief is still there, under my skin, and the slightest scratch has me bleeding. I feel some closure when it comes to the loss of my father, but Missy - she met a violent end in my home and some part of me is still lost without her."

"I didn't know her well," Mulder says, "Or your father. But she seemed like the kind of person who would want you to celebrate instead of mourn."

"You did know her," Scully tells him. "And Ahab - he wouldn't want this to founder me."

She leans against him as they walk into her apartment. He reaches into her cabinet for the ibuprofen and gets her a glass of water as she brushes her teeth. She winces, baring her teeth at the bitterness as she swallows the pills. She's already squinting in the light of the kitchen, ducking her head so that her hair glints. Mulder takes the glass from her again and puts it in the sink.

"Are you staying?" she asks.

"It would be a hell of a cab ride," he says, canting his body in submissive inquisition. "I wasn't expecting to have to drive you home."

She glances at her bedroom door. The look in her half-glazed eyes is either dubious or a drunk person's blurry version of calculating. Carry the one, into her bed. Divide the covers.

"I'll take the couch," he says quickly. "Although I wouldn't say no to an extra pillow."

"Your clothes," she says, narrowing her eyes as if she can conjure them out of whatever drawer or shelf she's assigned him, his corner of her world. "You have clothes."

"I'll be all right," he says. A pillow is not within her capacity at the moment, unless he retrieves it himself, and venturing into her bedroom is beyond the scope of what his mind is currently able to process. There be not monsters, but some edge of the world he can't chance tonight. Charted territory is safe: her living room, her couch, the cozy plane of her kitchen table. She let Frohike drink coffee there, not so long ago, when he himself was a ghost hovering in cedar-scented smoke. She proved him wrong there, peering at a photograph with a magnifying glass like a detective in a film.

She's still looking at him, tipping her head as if he'll get less out-of-focus if only she finds the right angle. Even intoxicated, she sees through him. He puts his hands on her shoulders and guides her to her bedroom door.

"Good night, Scully," he murmurs, putting his face unnecessarily close to her ear. The rising acid of his malaise is diluted in her presence. Scully, his universal solvent, washing away all his sins. She hums in response and goes into her bedroom. He kicks off his shoes and pants and stretches out on her couch, covering himself with the afghan she keeps there. Wherever she's tucked his things away, he has a fresh shirt and boxers. He thinks she might have some of his sweatpants too, a relic of the time his water was dosed with LSD and she had to put a bullet through his shoulder. As long as his suit doesn't smell like cigarettes and hops, he can get another day out of it. It won't be the first time he's shown up to the office in yesterday's suit, trailing an aura of poor decisions.

Scully's couch is comfortable, but he hasn't worn hollows into it yet. He turns over, tucking the afghan more securely around him. He wonders if she's tossing in her sleep. He hasn't seen her drunk before. The potential outcomes of his crossing her threshold flip through his mind, a slide show his unconscious mind prepared for him: waking twined together with her, beached on the gritty shore of wakefulness; her fingers working under the hem of his t-shirt in the middle of the night; the two of them on separate edges of the mattress pressed apart by their own magnetism; Scully waking suddenly, startled, her hair messy and her face creased by regret and her pillow.

Tonight isn't the night that will happen. He's too angry at her. He turns over again, onto his face, breathing into her pillows. Angry isn't the right word. He casts about for more precise nomenclature. There isn't a word to encompass the Celtic knot snarl inside him: frustration, envy, disappointment, longing. Tonight was supposed to be something else. Mulder and Scully huddled together, distinct from the others with their squat glasses of liquor, the calm in the eye of the crowd. He's aware that he should be pleased that she had fun instead of resenting that he wasn't the catalyst for it. It doesn't take a psychologist to realize he's gotten himself tangled up in her in a way he can't undo.

It takes him a long time to fall asleep. Insomnia is a circle of hell. Like Tantalus, what he wants is just out of reach. Like Sisyphus, he rolls the memories of the night over and over in his head. Like Prometheus, something vital is clawed out of him. In the daylight, loving her is generally a minor inconvenience, a jab in his heart or a catch in his breath. In the dark, time expands to encompass every sin of omission and commission he's ever even considered when it comes to her. No wonder he has bruisy circles under his eyes. He beats the hell out of himself every night. But her couch is soft as an embrace. It smells like her. Eventually, he drifts off.

+ + + +

Scully crawls into her bed, some part of her mind noting how clumsy and childish her movements are. Well, she's drunk, and she's allowed to shed all her poise in her own bedroom. No one can see her except the secret cameras someone has probably installed in her alarm clock or whatever. She clutches the duvet around her and lets the room wash gently back and forth. She used to be able to let her guard down with Mulder. Mulder, who's on her couch, not so far away. Only a door between them, and what's a door? Doors open. She knocked on his door in Bellefleur, didn't she? And showed herself to him: her sensible undergarments, her body. Her fears. He took care of her then. He's taking care of her now, from arms' length. Maybe if she opened the door, he'd come in and settle next to her and steady the mattress that bobs under her.

Sometimes she wakes up on one side of the bed, her arm flung over the space where she tucked him in after she shot him, a pillow bolstered against her. Her body has a hell of an imagination.

Mulder thinks she's too fragile now. Since her abduction. Since Missy. She has to be impenetrable, untouchably fine to avoid him overriding her better judgment in the name of protecting her. Nevermind that sometimes she'd really, really fucking like to be penetrated, or at least caressed. Nevermind that he's spent close to four goddamn years making eyes at her and all he offers her is a couple of ibuprofen. Fucking Mulder and his fucking knight in shining armor act, like she's in some kind of tower and he's carrying her favor into battle instead of her trotting along right behind him (when he hasn't left her rocking in his wake as he jets ahead to face the peril alone, as if sacrificing himself wouldn't mean taking the greatest part of her too).

Pendrell, though. Sean. He was right there with her all night, his mind and his body attuned to her. He made her smile, just to see her smile, not because he was trying to reestablish the parameters of their quarantine from the rest of the human race (ahem, Mulder). Sean puts her on a pedestal, maybe, but she could climb down and she's pretty sure he'd hold up his arms to help her descend. She wonders, idly, what's underneath the lab coat. If she unbuttoned his shirt, would she find chest hair? Mulder doesn't have much. Sean's should be auburn, a heathery thicket coordinated to his ruddy hair. She could run her fingertips through it, if it exists. She wonders if he's heard as many upholstery comments as she has.

She falls asleep all at once, sinking like a stone under the ballast of grief, of relief.

+ + + +

Scully has a hangover in the morning. He has to knock on her door to rouse her and retrieve his spare clothing. He showers quickly while she's still wallowing in her bed, trying to find her land legs. He drives them through a fast food place for a greasy egg sandwich and bad coffee, which restores her spirits somewhat. There are hash browns too. He pushes his toward her and she eats it with the eager reticence of the nauseated, smearing ketchup over it from the little foil packet. She moans.

"Mulder, you've saved my life," she says.

"I'll add it to the tally," he tells her. "TGIF, huh?"

"Thank you," she says. "As awful as I feel this morning, I think I needed that, or something like it."

"It wasn't exactly what I had planned," he says, eyes fixed on the traffic.

"I can't believe I didn't know Sean's first name," she says to herself. "I can't believe I'd never met Danny."

"We're busy," he offers.

"We're insular," she counters. "Maybe it's time we stopped isolating ourselves like we're rare specimens trapped under a bell jar."

"Next time you want to go to one of the Gunmen's parties, just let me know," he says.

"Maybe I will," she says, and stares out the window.

In the office, she nurses a cup of coffee and sorts through years of newspaper clippings. He leaves her alone. There were times he preferred the dull thud of a headache and the predictable churning of nausea to grief, an unsteady pier built of half-rotten timbers that still provided a few inches of clearance from his emotions. At lunch, she disappears and then returns with a slip of paper.

"What's that?" he asks.

"Sean's number," she says casually.

"Hmm," he says, staring into his screen. At least the light will reflect off the lenses of his glasses so she won't see the creases gathering at the corners of his eyes as he frowns. Silence tightens between them.

"Hmm?" she echoes, when the weft of wordlessness is stretched thin. "Were you going to say something, Mulder?"

He waves his hand in dismissal, brushing her question out of the air. "Just reading this article about crop circles in Kansas," he tells her.

Three years and he can count on one hand the number of occasions she's voluntarily spent time with FBI personnel who aren't him. One was the lunch with Colton that she came back from so irritated that she organized his desk drawers.

"Good night," she says at 4:59, picking up her things.

"Big weekend plans?" he says casually.

She pauses with her hand on the doorknob. "Danny and Sean invited me to try a new cocktail bar with them. I was promised something better than nachos."

"Enjoy," he says, turning back to his computer. It isn't what he means. He's certain that she knows that. He takes off his glasses and digs the heels of his hands into his eyes.

"Cheers," he says to the empty office. It sounds muffled, any sentiment soaked out of the word by the layered files and clippings. He's no better than Tooms, lining a nest to hide away in.

+ + + +

The cocktail bar is much more her style, but somehow, that's less enjoyable. She'd rather be out of her element. Easier to be swept off her feet that way. But it's nice all the same to sip from some elegant coupe scented with elderflower and to let Sean try to win a laugh from her. She makes it easy for him, but God, how sweet it is to do something easy. How nice to pretend for a few hours that she isn't perpetually embroiled in some kind of Kafkaesque imbroglio complete with extraterrestrial interlopers and a steady undercurrent of never-realized erotic tension with her leading actor.

She indulges herself in an idle fantasy of taking Sean home and letting him put all that starry-eyed reverence to practical use, but settles, this time, for kissing him on the cheek as they leave. Danny cheerfully presents his own cheek and she kisses him too, pleased that he's playing along. Danny is deliberate in showing that he's not interested in her, but in a friendly way. She appreciates that, after years of being ignored or leered at by most of the rest of the Bureau's male employees. He's a good wingman, a non-reactive catalyst encouraging and tempering Sean's eagerness. She tells Sean she'll call him. Danny whistles, glancing away.

In her empty apartment, she makes herself a salad and ignores the specter of Mulder stretched out on her couch. Of all the people who haunt her, he's the most accusatory. She eats in the living room, plopping down right in the middle of Mulder's insubstantial torso and turning on the ten o'clock news. She'll be damned if she lets him kill her buzz. She's lost too much already.

Missy would be proud of her.

+ + + +

A group of kids playing pickup baseball discover a newborn in the oozing mud under home plate. They go to Pennsylvania.

He imagines the two of them in a place like this forever: Mulder and Scully, gentled into quaintness, ordering pizza every Friday from the same place for the next ten years. Mulder and Scully, leaving the doors of their hundred-year-old farmhouse unlocked, tending a garden in the sun, greeting the grocer and the mailman by name, watching the fireworks in a field just outside of town on the Fourth of July. Mulder and Scully, brutally dismembered. He knocks the pig shit off his shoes and remembers that pigs will eat anything, including human remains. But then again, so did Queequeg. The anonymity of the city seems preferable; to be known and still lost is beyond his capacity to bear.

He had forgotten that the price of living close to the land is confronting the barely-latent savagery of humankind, the instinct to protect one's clan at all costs. The Peacocks might be an extreme example, but he isn't immune to the territorial instinct. Deep down, he knows that if he could rub his jaw on Scully's shoulder to mark her with his scent, he would. They have found subtler ways to demarcate themselves as separate from the others: his palm at her back, her fingertips pressed to his chest, the protective coloring of their dark suits. He's seen her eyes narrow to viper slits as she defends him. They've pledged their troth to each other in a thousand wordless ways, keeping vigil in a world that their watchfire can't illuminate.

He had thought that extended to all areas of their life together. At least, he'd never imagined she could be wooed with Buttery Nipples.

She calls Sean as they collect their luggage from the baggage claim. "I could use a drink," she sighs into the phone. "This case we just wrapped up. I'll tell you about it when we get there."

He would let himself be taken to pieces if it would save her. He wouldn't do the same for himself. For one illicit moment, he allows himself to imagine their clannishness extending to children. Scully, soft and round with the next Mulder scion. Home brought out the nesting urge in both of them, despite or because of the dark secrets stashed in the Peacock house. Something about the horror of it plants the seed of the idea of doing better, of passing genetic muster and passing on something more.

"Mulder?" she says, his name a gentle interrogative. "I'm going to get a drink with Sean and the lab techs. Coming with?"

"I'm tired," he says. A non-answer. He can't imagine her carrying his child and watch her smile at Pendrell. Even a masochist finds his limits.

She lifts one shoulder. "Suit yourself."

+ + + +

There's so much about this job that she loves, and so much more that she wishes she could forget. And she can, for a little while, at the bar with a beer in her hand. Enough booze in her belly and the froth of carbonation creates sufficient pressure in her system to push her concerns away like a pot bubbling over. Maybe she overindulges, but the burdens she carries are heavy. It takes a substantial heave to heft them overboard. She's been too tired lately to do it on her own. She needs the chemical crutch, just for now.

Sean, meanwhile, is openly flirting with her tonight, leaning closer and closer. He uses the noise of the bar as an excuse. She won't tell him he doesn't need one. Not yet, anyway - it's fun to watch him work to woo her. The thrill of being pursued by someone whose purposes are so transparent and benign is something she doesn't want to give up. Sean sees her as a woman, not just as a female body, a trauma site marked off with crime tape. There's no DO NOT ENTER when he looks at her.

She presses her knee against his under the table. For a moment, he gapes at her, astonishment overriding his composure. The next time he goes to the bathroom, she saunters into the hallway and flattens him against the wall with a kiss. She feels powerful; after having been flung around by so many unsubs and cryptids, it doesn't even take all her weight to sway Sean. He nearly swoons at her touch, putting his arms around her to steady himself.

"Wow," he says, dazed. She smirks at him and pushes open the door of the women's room.

She kisses him again when he walks her to her car, dragging him carefully down by his tie. It's something she's often been tempted to do to Mulder, some impulse driven by the electricity between them and the urge to shut him the hell up once in a while, but they resist each other at the most inopportune moments, their unwelcome better angels delivering them from whatever comfort they might take in each other. Sean doesn't resist at all. She arches up against the bulwark of his body and anchors herself to him. Her fist is clutched between their chests, still wrapped in his tie. The cautious way he holds her gets bolder; her pulse quickens. She's grateful, on some level, to know that people who aren't Mulder can still have this effect on her. It's been more than a while.

Sean kisses her fairly chastely, but the way he gathers her into him suggests he's got more to offer. She smirks against his lips and pulls away a fraction of an inch. He drifts after her, mesmerized, and then steps back. Mannerly. She appreciates that. Mulder likes to step into her space and she likes that even better, but that's strictly situational. She opens the door and gets into her car, rolling down her window.

"Maybe next time, you could invite me up to see your etchings," she says, and instantly regrets it. It's the kind of comment that's calibrated to Mulder's tastes, his love for the eccentric and the out-of-fashion. Mulder's a cabinet of curiosities; he probably does have etchings stashed away somewhere, and he'd explain them to her in excruciating detail, his face a breath away from hers, before finally, finally tearing all her clothes off.

"My...oh," Sean says. "Um, yes, definitely. Uh, any time you want to look at them."

She smiles at him and drives away. She's sober enough to drive, barely, navigating the streets in a dreamy invincible drift. She's really got to start taking taxis. There's already a headache pounding just behind her eyes.

When she gets back to her apartment, she runs a bath even though it's late, and slides into the hot water, letting herself dissolve. This too too solid flesh, she thinks. Her body already tells too many stories: scars and stretchmarks, earned and unearned. The knot at the nape of her neck where someone put a computer chip of unknown provenance. There's grief etched into her bones. It wouldn't show in the results of an autopsy, but it's there. Maybe it's the additional invisible weight of it that's made her so tired lately. The smell of witch hazel makes her want to cry. Missy used to use it on her face, especially in the summer. Scully bought some and she can't bear to use it. Where is that recorded in her body?

When she gets out of the bath, she's lightheaded from the heat. She drinks two glasses of water rattling with ice, her chest constricting painfully as the chill trickles down her throat. It won't help. Anything more than one drink leaves her with a sense of mal de mer the next day. She drinks the water anyway, rinsing down a multivitamin with it, and topples into bed. She has faith in science, or at least in the placebo effect. She wants to believe that this capsule will make up for the deficiencies in her life, and that gives it a stronger chance of doing so. Maybe that's Mulder's secret. He needs to live in a world where the shadows hold something besides horrors. The secret of the deep woods is Bigfoot instead of a grave full of the corpses of young women, culled while they were hiking and camping. The dead become benevolent spirits. Tape an X on the window and a messenger arrives with some part of an answer.

She's still afraid of the dark, but she takes her vitamins.

She puts on her old-fashioned, unsexy pajamas (another reason to avoid having sex at her own apartment) and watches the clock count up until the red numbers blur into black.

+ + + +

It happens again after Philadelphia. The bleached corpses of young black men rattled them both. Mulder goes with her this time. He was, during the case, acutely aware of his relative whiteness and the safety that came with it, but imagining what it was like to be hunted for some essential characteristic rattles him all the same. Aboah's need seems more personal than Tooms' or the lipophage poet; everyone has a liver and some proportion of body fat. Scully's quiet too on their way home, touching his neck with fingers as cool and brief as raindrops, checking the puncture in his skin. He's half-convinced that she's a haruspex, reading his entrails through the veil of his skin.

"This time I could use a drink," he murmurs to her.

"I'll call Sean," she says and he surrenders to the inevitable. The crowd is a comfort that night. He nearly feels unruffled watching Scully's shoulders settle as she curls into the corner of the booth. They're safe. He sips at his beer, wondering if it's contraindicated by the toxin on the dart, but Scully would have told him. He rolls up his shirt cuffs and she slouches against him, her hand on Pendrell's arm as she imparts some morsel of Scully wisdom. His jealousy stays sheathed, its edges blunted by her touch.

After that, it becomes a regular thing. It's only on Thursdays at first - the drink specials are irresistible tradition. He goes with them, usually at Danny's invitation. But he feels like a chaperone, scowling while Scully and Pendrell giggle into their glasses. The way they interact seems so simple; meanwhile he's doing calculus to determine whether he can bring Scully a cup of coffee without it having seventeen layers of indecipherable nuance. Pendrell likes Scully. Even a person who didn't make a career out of profiling human behavior could tell that. His gaze follows her like he's magnetized and she's true north. It's equally clear that she enjoys his company, though the exact parameters of that enjoyment have yet to be determined. And Mulder sulks in the corner of the booth, trying not to resent the hell out of both of them and their blithe joie de vivre.

He stops going after a few weeks. "Polishing your gun?" Scully says, the irony in her voice thick enough to spread on toast.

"Might be," he says with a wink, just to watch her roll her eyes. "I'm a man of mystery, Scully. I could be doing anything."

"Basketball, 1-900 numbers, and videos that aren't yours," she says, studying their latest casefile. "I think that about covers it."

After the Gerry Schnauz case, she comes in squinting with circles under her eyes and a brown paper bag in her hand, the cheery logo splotched with grease. She's replaced one kind of unruhe with another, but at least it isn't because Schnauz managed to slip the ice pick behind her eye. He wonders if the hangover is as painful as the raw edges on her wrists from the adhesive of the duct tape. He lifts his eyebrows at her, but she just mumbles and bends her head to her work.

+ + + +

She wonders if Mulder can tell that she went home with Sean. She had enough time to dash home for a shower and a change of clothes, but not enough time for breakfast. Eating fast food makes her feel like she's on the road. Maybe it's a way to distance herself from last night. Out of town in her own life.

Not that last night was bad. Sean does, as it turns out, have somewhere between a dusting and a pelt of rust-colored curls on his chest. He's extremely willing to take direction, and she's willing, at this point, to give it. He lit a fire for her and they sat in front of it, letting the heat bathe each new section of bare skin. He offered her wine, he offered her water, he had a ready stash of in-date condoms and a bottle of quality lube. He kissed her on the forehead afterward and didn't tell her he loved her. He didn't ask her to talk about the marks where Schnauz's bonds stripped off her skin. She appreciated all of it.

Mulder looks at her, a question in his eyes, and she schools her face into careful indifference. It's her default expression these days. She hopes it hides the ache behind her eyes. NSAIDs don't put a dent in it anymore, but the back of her neck is rebar-rigid. She'd schedule a massage if she thought she could keep an appointment. The job has gotten in the way of the dentist, the optometrist, and the gynecologist, to say nothing of the rest of her life. It isn't a surprise that her body is manifesting signs of being under stress.

Maybe the sex will drain some of the tension out of her. She can fuck her way back to health. It sounds more appealing than running.

+ + + +

After their failure with the Ephesians, Mulder expects it: the fast food, the squint of her eyes against the sifted light of the basement and the fluorescence of the tiled hallways. Through the ages, he thinks, wondering if they've gone through this before. But he can't talk to her about it, despite her assertion that she'd go through the motions all over again, ever moment except the Flukeman. He saw the look in her eyes as she watched him with Melissa. She mentions nothing about his weakness for brunettes with tragic pasts, offers no analysis. It's more than he deserves, but he feels the distance between them increase incrementally. More than his sergeant, less than his lover. She builds a wall of pint glasses between them, transparent and impenetrable.

From then on she wanders in just the wrong side of on time with bullpen coffee steaming in her hand once a week, when they're in town, usually on Thursdays. There's a trivia night on Wednesdays that's apparently superior to even the drink specials. He didn't even know she was interested in trivia. He tries not to interrogate her, but any question is beyond her capacity to tolerate, apparently.

"You can't give me a curfew, Mulder," she snaps when he asks if she had fun (in fairness, he heard the judgment in his voice even as the words left his lips, the astringent edge to them). "Yes, I had fun. I have fun when I'm with Sean. It's something of a novel experience for me after the last few years, as you might imagine. And let the record state that that you" - she stabs at his chest with one accusatory finger - "were the one who tried to get me to go out in the first place."

He holds up his hands. You wouldn't shoot an unarmed man, would you, copper? He isn't innocent, but he isn't culpable.

They barely speak for the rest of the day. He feels loss wash in, frothing around his feet, although she's sitting fifteen feet away.

+ + + +

Sean is very sweet. He fills a vase with flowers at his place, fresh every time she comes over, but doesn't offer them to her. He pulls out his records. "La Vie En Rose" plays, Piaf's voice raspy and poignant, while his lips work his way down her throat. Once a week seems to be enough for him. If it isn't, he doesn't tell her. He lets her wordlessly work through her frustrations, exhausting herself against his body reaching for the moments of relief that release brings.

She isn't in love with him, but she could be. Though she can sense the longing in him, he offers her only as much as she can bear. They can talk about things that aren't work. He's interested in art and music for their own sakes. Mulder's seen the Mona Lisa, but he's more interested in the conspiracy theories that frame it. Bach fascinates him most when it's scrawled in binary by a child watching tv static. Sean listens to her without focusing his entire existence on the conversation.

Sean is fun. He makes her laugh. He makes her come. He makes her breakfast, when she stays. He understands when she slips away in the morning or in the middle of the night, seeking her own bed. Sean doesn't make her confront the mysteries of the universe or her own heart. Oh yes, she could fall in love. She holds onto the idea, mulling it over, a grain of a thought lacquered with potential. If it were a pearl, she would rub it against her teeth, testing its authenticity. Instead, she tucks it away without examining it. Some gifts are worth more than their value.

+ + + +

They're on an out-of-town case. Illinois. Witchcraft in a hospital. Pentagrams drawn in blood. She doesn't outright accuse him of picking it to drag her away from her standing hangover (he doesn't think she has a drinking problem yet, but exhaustion is intoxicating in its own right), but she does settle herself in the window seat of the plane and pretend to sleep so she doesn't have to talk to him. He sighs.

They follow the thread. The culprit slips through their fingers, but they save a life. They file the appropriate reports. Mulder wonders, on the plane home, how much of the labyrinth they build for themselves.

"Daedalus," he says out loud as the name rises to the tip of his tongue.

"This plane better not have wax wings," Scully mumbles, her face turned into the side of the plane.

"I was just thinking of how we ensnare ourselves," Mulder says cautiously. "Our habits. Our ways of thinking. Who has the patience to navigate our mazes. Who has a magic thread that marks the path we take trying to find the hearts of ourselves and how we get back out again, if we even want to."

She sighs. Her breath puffs white against the plastic window. "Do you know why I go out, Mulder?"

He lets the thin recycled airplane air fill his cheeks. "Your competitive side craves the victory you can only find in pub trivia?"

"It's easy," she says, her eyes closed. "Danny and Sean and their friends, they're easy. They're smart and they respect me and I don't have to know about the goddamn hero's journey to have a conversation with them."

He bites his lip. "I hope you know that I respect you."

She snorts. "Another masterful misinterpretation."

"Scully, I..." he begins and lapses into silence. Don't know where this is coming from? A lie. Don't deserve this? Another. Don't understand why this is happening right now in this enclosed space surrounded by strangers? Technically accurate, but not what she wants to hear.

"He likes me," she says softly. "Sean. I know that. But it's easy, Mulder, and it hasn't been easy in a long time. When you mention Melissa, I remember talking to her about you. I remember hoping the two of you would hit it off, and Mom had her half-convinced you should come for the holidays. But there's no history with Sean. He never met Missy. When he says he's sorry, it doesn't mean the same thing as it does when you say it. You knew her. I don't have any memories of waking up in a hospital bed having lost months of my life and seeing his face next to hers. She never told me that Sean wouldn't give up on me or the stupid things Sean almost did to protect me. I can just tell him the easy parts. I can tell him about the peasant skirt we shared until it ripped down the back or the cake we tried to bake for Ahab one Father's Day or the summer she decided she was a witch and mistook poison ivy for a rare and magical herb. I don't get an hour long lecture on herblore or have to see that face you make when you think something is your fault. It's simple, Mulder, and I like that." She lets the space between them hollow into silence. He tries not to make the face, even though this, and most things wrong in her life, are almost entirely his fault. She sighs. He drops his eyes, acknowledging his failure.

"Nothing between us has ever been simple," she says, and every word resonates.

Hundreds of years of complications, he thinks, if Melissa Riedal-Ephesian and his own deep memories are to be trusted. There's a snarl of wire in his chest, cutting through his ribs. It pulls tighter every time he glances sidelong at her, her profile stark against the backdrop of sky.

They don't speak again until the airport. He pulls her suitcase off the conveyor belt. She thanks him. He tells her she's welcome. They go their separate ways.

Mulder is reminded of how impossible it is to see the depth of the water until it swallows you. He drives home and lays on his couch staring blindly at his fish tank. The diver rises and falls, never out of his depth. Mulder, sinking, can't breathe.

+ + + +

She goes home after the airport and putters around her empty apartment for an hour picking things up and putting them down in almost the exact same place before she calls Sean.

"Of course you can come over," he says, his voice puzzled.

She's never gone home with him except after the bar. Keeping things simple has meant having certain rules outlined in her own mind, but her argument with Mulder prickles along every familiar circuit in her brain. She can't get out of her head on her own.

Sean is as tender as ever but she's not in the mood for sweets. She rakes her nails down his back and he gasps. There are livid marks on his pale skin after they're finished.

"Sorry," she says as she's getting dressed. "I don't know what got into me."

"It's okay," he says, propping himself up on one elbow. "It was kind of hot."

She smiles, but it feels lopsided and heavy. She kisses him to make up for it. He strokes her arm as she leans over him. There are stars in his eyes.

"You don't have to go," he says, quiet hope warming his words.

"I have some things to take care of," she says, and it's not exactly a lie. "I just missed you." That's not exactly a lie either, but it isn't exactly the truth. What she wants is to sink her teeth into Mulder's skin, to scratch him until he's branded with her mark. He's the bull and she's the china shop and once, just once, she wants to be the one crashing through his barriers. Sean doesn't deserve to be a proxy fuck.

She wishes she could just stop, smile, let her clothes fall to the floor, and climb back into bed. Sean is a ready harbor, if only she could drop anchor. Maybe there's something wrong with her. Maybe she came back different. She and Mulder have been holding themselves apart from the rest of humanity for so long that it's a habit now, to exclude herself from narratives like love and family. They're the matador's cape, flaunting themselves at a horned monster made of shadows. Falling in love doesn't make any sense when she's silhouetted against the ridgeline, a victim and a target of the Syndicate's schemes. Oh, yes, she could fall in love with Sean, but one way or another, he'd lose her, and she knows what that's like. Some strange wind is always howling through the empty places in her life. She will spare him that, if she can.

She's just so goddamn tired. The headache, so much a presence in her life that she considers naming it, throbs a gentle warning. Maybe she should call it Mulder. She kisses Sean again and goes home and falls asleep with her clothes on.

+ + + +

The next time she comes in with bloodshot eyes, he says nothing. Instead, he goes to Russia, dragging Krycek. The gulag is preferable to Scully's bad graces. At least she's relieved to see him when he strides into the courtroom, still astounded that he's in one piece. He has to go out after that. Danny insists.

"What are you drinking?" Danny asks. Mulder has to lean close to listen. His ears are still ringing from the explosion.

"Anything but vodka," Mulder tells him.

Scully and Pendrell are talking in low voices, laughing quietly. There's a knowing quality to the geometry of their bodies, the angles and curves between them. Tinnitus screeches in his brain, a death metal thrash. A premonition of the worst hangover of his life, maybe, or the newest symptom of his particular allergy to Scully's friendship with Pendrell. But she catches his eye and just the corner of her mouth quirks, just the slant of her eyebrow changes, and the howl inside him subsides.

The bartender delivers a glass of scotch, the scent of peat rising off it like mist. Scully's nose wrinkles delicately as he sits down. She's tipsy, just loose enough to be luminous. Pendrell basks in the glow of her; Mulder sees it reflected in his eyes. Scully has always underestimated her effect on people, some syndrome of middle-child-hood. He can't tell her that without situating her in a lineup that will always have an empty space now, but he can appreciate the nimbus of her attention as it brushes over him.

"I'm so fucking glad you didn't die in Russia," she tells him and he blinks, startled and a little intrigued by her expletive. She keeps herself under such tight rein normally, aside from the occasional blasphemy, as if swearing is too imprecise to encompass her thoughts. Good to know he can still bring it out in her: the mess, the yearning, the humanity.

"I'm glad too," he says, clinking his scotch against her daiquiri. She looks at him askance. Simple isn't always what works. Both of them know that. Pendrell leans in to ask her something. She gives him nearly all of her attention, but Mulder can still feel the last of her focus knotted around him, a filament like a spider's web that will twang if he tugs at it. He relaxes fractionally and feels her tension ease in proportion. He sips at his scotch. Pendrell may liberate some instinct toward giddiness tucked deep inside her, but Pendrell hasn't woven himself deliberately into her life. He and Scully are twined together as surely as if Clotho's bony fingers had done the work, no matter how much distance spins and strains out between them.

The rift between them can be bridged. Maybe the black oil, seeping out of his system, took some other poison with it. Even later, when she laughs at something Pendrell says, it only sets off a tintinnabulation inside him, where the warmth of the whiskey has opened him up like a cathedral and turned the snarl of wires into a nest of scaffolding.

It helps, too, that she doesn't go out that week, or he missed it, the days blurring in the air as he sat in the jets that ferried him across the curve of the sky from one land to another. He outpaced Apollo's chariot; his sense of time has never been reliable. He keeps losing it, minutes or months at a time. There's still a hollow in his memories from the span that Scullly was gone, an uncovered grave with nothing in it. But when he looks up, she's there, and that's what matters. Scully is the meridian, perfectly calibrated. Scully always knows what day it is. She winds him back to Eastern Standard and he feels the mechanism inside him click back into place.

But then there's Roche, and oh, he's always been susceptible, and everyone around him knows it. Sometimes he thinks the wound in him goes all the way through, and everyone can see the red throb of his pulse as light lances through his ribs. Scully leaves him in the office and he spends hours staring at the hearts. When she comes in the next morning, he's dozing in his chair. He startles awake at the touch of her hand, her fingers raking softly through his hair. She offers him a half-smile full of rue and ruth.

"I slept," he says muzzily.

"You didn't rest," she says. Reproach filtered through concern, aged in the oaky barrel of her chest: her voice is a rare elixir.

He shrugs, struggling up in the chair. "You know what they say about the wicked."

"Mulder."

"I'm fine," he insists, and she subsides, withdrawing by inches like the tide. He drags himself to the bathroom, misting himself with deodorant and dabbing at his face with a wet paper towel that leaves brown fibers in his stubble. He isn't even close to presentable. He's barely human. In the old mirror, he's phantasmal, his edges blurred. But he sits at his desk and he lets his mind sieve morsels of interest from the files he reads. A sandwich appears on his desk. Obediently, he eats it without tasting it. When he's finished, he doesn't even remember what it was. A Reuben? Turkey on wheat? His body grumbles appreciatively, turning the food into so many more potential mistakes. At the end of the day, there she is again, sidling slantwise into his field of vision. He recognizes the approach. What fragile creatures they are in each other's hands.

"Come on," she says, tipping her head.

"Where." The word comes out flat, a fragment of a thought.

"Out," she says. "One drink."

"I don't think..." he mumbles, and trails off.

She smooths his hair. "Come on," she repeats. "I'll drive."

At the bar, he's a promontory the conversation breaks around. Single words drift past, so much spume on the wind. He takes bitter breaths of a beer. Not even sips, just vapor that ghosts over his tongue. Scully doesn't take her hand off his knee, though she's talking animatedly with Pendrell. She has been buffered from the misery of the case, he thinks, her friendship with them like electrolytes in her system, cushioning the blow. Scully's always been smarter than he is. Mulder lets his hand drift under the table to find Scully's where it still rests on his knee. A featherweight anchor, her spread fingers a net to hold him in place. She turns her palm up under his, not weaving their fingers together, but he can feel the delicate pressure, the whorls of her fingertips catching on his.

"Tough week?" Danny asks, sympathy in his tone.

Mulder closes his eyes and opens them again, red light still etched in his vision. "Yeah."

"Sorry to hear it," Danny says.

"Yeah."

Scully takes him home. His beer is still half-full when they leave, but the rime of foam has dried, trapped bubbles prickling open. She sits and waits while he takes a shower and microwaves chicken soup in a mug, the noodles slipping unchewed down his throat. He lies down on the couch in the warmth she has bequeathed him and she tugs the blanket over his hip as she leaves.

"Scully," he says.

She waits. The negative space of his doorway frames her: she is the focus of everything, the vanishing point of his universe. All roads lead to Scully. All lines pass through her.

"Sorry," he says at last.

She comes back in, closing the door. She kneels beside the couch, her skin phosphorescing neon in the light from the fishtank.

"Mulder," she says, "it wasn't your fault. Roche was a monster. He was a fiend. The fact that he played on your sympathies, your fears and memories, says more about how kind you are than anything else. You did your best. You laid their memories to rest, as many as you could."

He cries anyway, and she cradles his head in her strong small arms and lets him.

+ + + +

The next case they take is a tangle of barbed wire: immigrants, alien fungus, racist bureaucracy, love triangles. They're two steps behind, stumbling through the mud. It's almost a relief to investigate something they have so little personal investment in. There are no sisters here. Mulder can unleash the frustration of the past months in service of a righteous cause. The subaltern in their rickety slum, simultaneously rejected and demanded by society, transformed by an unknown force into an unknown form. Shunned and doubly shunned, a monstrosity among the invisible. It would make a hell of a metaphor if it wasn't reality.

Scully drags into the office the morning they head to Pittsburgh to find a locomotory corpse. There are hollows under her eyes, a sepulchral cast to her skin.

"I didn't go out last night," she says without prelude. Her voice rasps lightly.

"And good morning to you, Agent Scully," he tells her.

She presses her fingertips to the exquisite camber of her eyebrows. "Just don't, Mulder. It's not a hangover."

"Is it my business if it were?" he asks evenly.

"You make it your business," she says with a sigh. "You make everything your business."

"You're my partner," he reminds her.

"When it's convenient, I am," she says.

"What does that mean?" he asks, although he could recite a litany of his sins. Bless me, Scully; it's been more than four years since my last confession. Even as recently as Roche, he has forsaken her, haring off into the wilds alone.

"Nothing," she says, her eyes sliding to the door. "Let's go."

She's disquieted on the way home too, the timbre of her silence dull, dampening the air between them. He opens his mouth to say something and the cottony hush swallows the words unsaid. She had to kill a man - a murderer, a parasite, another fluke of evolution feeding on his own parent species - with an AED. It was up close and brutal; Mulder still has the slightly rancid cooked-meat reek of Betts' corpse in his scent memory when he breathes too deeply. But Scully was the one canting her body to absorb the shock of the paddles' jolt, the one keeping Betts at arms' length as she stressed his unlikely body beyond the point of no return. She takes her vows seriously, his partner, but the honor demanded by Asclepius and Hippocrates is frequently at odds with her mandate to serve and protect and her basic instinct to survive.

Everything that rises must converge. He touches his knee to hers and feels the pressure inside her, the eggshell of her composure fractured but intact.

She goes to the bar that night, and he goes with her, and watches from across the table as she picks up the thread of some ongoing conversation with Pendrell, her shoulders lowering as she relaxes. Simple, he thinks, while covetousness rises in him like bile. He loves her more than he has ever loved anything in this world, including the memory of his sister; his envy battles with a genuine contentment that there is some comfort for her here, in this place he disdains, with this man he resents. He has spent decades analyzing the complex entanglements that support people, most often to understand the load-bearing beam he can use to dismantle them, the fulcrum from which he can shift their world. It isn't healthy or wise to lean entirely on one person; support works best distributed more evenly, a burden shared and divided according to the strength of each part. Gestalt. They aren't two vast and trunkless legs of stone, braced apart, the desert sand scouring them down to nothingness. Something should be easy for her. Something should ease her burdens. Despite all they share, it isn't him. He might, at the outside, through some miracle, be everything she wants, but he will never be everything she needs.

He loathes that, against all logic, and loathes Pendrell gently by association despite his best efforts. Well. He never claimed to be a good man or a well-adjusted one.

He sits and dissects sports with Danny. A show of normalcy, for her. A pretty mask of social graces, the one he used to wear before Diana left, before he met Scully. Once, she glances across the table and catches his eye, and the smile she offers him is so radiant, and so sad.

+ + + +

She goes to Philadelphia without him while he is in exile in some approximation of paradise. Mulder, riding the elevator at the hospital, reflects on her instincts: she solved the case, but fucked a person of interest. She turns away when he comes into the hospital room. The desire to comfort her, to wrap her in his arms and shield her from regret, tussles with his envy, his desire for her, the instinct to punish her for touching someone else, to remind her how unprofessional her conduct was. Every word he says is a lit cigarette pressing into her skin. He's no better than Jerse, trying to singe her clean. He wants to shake her until her teeth rattle. He wants to kiss her until she forgets her own name, to pass his hands and mouth over her body until he's rubbed away any trace of any other man. He wants to take the nape of her neck between his teeth, the agitated heat of her tattoo against his bare skin. He wants to examine her in minute detail until he is certain that she is whole and hale.

They leave Pennsylvania. They've spent a lot of time in Pennsylvania lately. He hasn't enjoyed any of it. He wants to take her somewhere else, with wild wide open spaces and room for the kind of mysteries that leave them awestruck and wondering. Somewhere with mountains as jagged and lofty as his love for her. Somewhere the wind can blow through them and scour their souls clean.

This time the silence between them crackles. Neither of them says a word.

Something is altered in her.

She goes out the night she comes back to work. That's what he assumes. At 5:00, she evaporates like so much mist, vanishing from the office before he can even look for her, and calls in sick the next day. When he stops by her place to check on her, her face is wan under the bruises. There's a delicate crust of blood under one nostril. She smells stale, a hint of acid on her breath.

"Go home," she tells him.

"I just wanted to see if you were all right," he says. His hands open and close on nothing.

"I'm fine," she says, and shuts the door.

+ + + +

She hasn't slept with Sean in a few weeks. Not since Betts. She hasn't confirmed Betts' diagnosis, but she can't offer herself to Sean when her life is on a short fuse. She won't detonate anybody else's happiness. Mulder, she knows, is a lost cause, but he's lost her before. He understands how to grieve her loss. The way they're intertwined is inextricable. In Sean's life, she'll be an empty space. She can't stomach that, not when she's already nauseous from the ache in her head, so she's stayed away: from the bar, from his apartment, from the lab. She flung herself into a dangerous case alone and fucked Jerse instead; he felt more like someone she could rasp herself against, all rough edges. She got an ill-advised tattoo and a collection of bruises.

But she isn't dead. Yet.

+ + + +

But she isn't fine. When he hangs up, he's numb all over, queasy. The world shifts under him, a following sea, and he's never found his sea legs.

All these months in and out of the bar and he never thought to question the change in her. Exhaustion has always been a consequence of their work. So has grief. So has death. Did she know, on some molecular level? Did discontent seed itself in her blood as the cancer grew? Maybe the Syndicate did this to her somehow, orchestrating the slow-motion denouement to her abduction. Sowing disease on a time delay. Removing the evidence.

Does she blame him?

He stops to buy flowers. He has to buy flowers; ritual is his only recourse, a ward to set between her and the susurration of fear in her breath over the phone as she gathered her words. A sacrifice in her name. The clerk beams at him. "That's a popular arrangement. We do a lot of them for weddings, actually. Are they for your wife? Do you want a card to go with them?"

All these months in and out of the bar, trying to help her say goodbye to her sister, letting go of her by inches: he's only been preparing to mourn her. His heart clutches. He braces his knee against the front of the counter to keep from sagging to the floor.

"No," he says. There's a hollow finality in his refusal. The clerk glances at him. He clears his throat. "No card. She, uh, she knows."

+ + +

He walks down the bleak hall, grim in his dark coat, carrying a wedding bouquet to the prelude to her funeral.