Willowy. That’s the first word that pops into Scully’s head. The second thought is that at least the woman isn’t a brunette too. Type, much, Mulder? The third thought is that it’s none of her business what Mulder does these days. None. At all. Unless it’s a health issue, he’s an adult. He’s not her…The mental conversation doesn’t supply a word so her brain leaps to the fourth thought, which is how the fuck could he do that? She stops short of adding ‘to her’, so she pulls herself back to the third thought, repeating like a mantra as she strides out, eyes to the sidewalk, desperate to unsee what she saw.
But now there’s a burning itch in her gut, the kind that used to see her pumping more rounds out at the firing range or sending local law enforcement officers running for cover with her machine-gun observations of their sub-par work. Pity she can’t blow her anger/disappointment/betrayal/jealousy off like that anymore; she’s no longer FBI.
Pity she can’t blow off being Scully.
She takes her writhing anger/disappointment/betrayal/jealousy into the café over the road and orders a large latte and a white chocolate and raspberry muffin. She knows she’ll regret it almost immediately and spend a week denying herself any other treats but she needs the sugar hit. Mulder’s still talking to Willow-Blonde, so while Scully’s waiting, she teases ‘Louis’ the barista with a slow smile, holding the seam of her wallet against her cheek, hugging her waist with the other arm and slowly twisting her torso side to side so that her hair falls over her face, then swings back off it again.
It’s a pointless mating dance. It’s reactive. She’s aware of that, but tries not to fall further down the Mulder-profiling-her rabbit hole. The slow-combustion of what she recognises as a misguided sense of dispossession is still taking place in her veins. She hates herself for this weakness but here she is swaying for a bearded barista. Louis blinks her way, finishing the latte art on her order with a flourish. For him, this ritual is part of his training. Keep the customers happy. Especially the older, professional women. They’re the ones who’ll return to the same café time and again, spending their disposable income on cakes and romantic hopes. She’d fuck him though. He’s pretty enough. She wonders what the male equivalent of willowy is. And then tells her mind to shut the fuck up.
Outside, where people are actually living with purpose, instead of imagining petty sex-revenge scenarios, the street is busy. Through the thrum, she spots Mulder again. His outline, his figure, is imprinted indelibly in her mind’s eye. She believes she could find him anywhere, in a ballgame crowd, in the darkened corner of a jazz club behind drifting dry ice, through the misty rain at the end of the yard, arm raised against the twisted apple tree, raging at the brutal sky above him. There was a time when she so desperately wanted him to return home from her imposed exile that she saw him everywhere: in the parking lot, at the line in the bank, across the street pushing someone else’s baby in a stroller.
“Latte for Day-nah,” Louis sings, and as he hands over the cup his fingers brush hers. They’re thin, girlish, two knuckles decorated with calligraphy tattoos. She doesn’t hold his eye, just whips the coffee and cake bag from his hand and heads outside.
The woman has gone but Mulder’s still there, brown paper cup in hand, sunglasses (those ugly sports ones he got from eBay because they were called SpookMeister, what? they’re so me, Scully) across that familiar, broad nose, hair an inch past unkempt and stubble on his chin that hides that fat bottom lip just a little too much. She dips her face to her own cup and watches a moment longer before a car pulls up and he climbs in.
He calls her later. She doesn’t answer the first time, lets the cell buzz and slide over the table top while his name flashes at her. When she does pick up, she feigns breathlessness and gets the desired response.
“Did I catch you at a bad time, Scully?” There’s disappointment laced through his words.
“No, it’s fine. Just doing a workout.” She wheezes out a cough for extra measure.
“Keeping fit for all those kids, huh? You’re a good doctor, Scully. Always going above and beyond for that place. I hope they know how deep your affections lie. Is there some kind of Olympic Games for paediatricians? The Doctors Games?”
It’s hard not to bite back, but they’ve played this game for so long their dysfunction is beat-perfect. “Keeping fit for one’s own personal health and wellbeing is a key component in living a fulfilling life, Mulder.” If only she could convince herself as easily as the words flow.
There’s a shuffle, a few clicks and bumps. He’s changing channels. “I wanted to let you know that I’ve found a new therapist. One that seems to really get me, you know?”
His tone seems genuine and she softens. “That’s good, Mulder.” Despite their issues, she’s only ever wanted him to be well. “I do want to know these things. As your physician…”
“Not that I didn’t like the other one you recommended, but,” he takes in a sharp breath as if to punctuate his point, “we’d run our course.”
She sinks into the chair, letting her head flop back on the rest. One step forward, two steps back. “How often do you see him?”
“You’re letting your unconscious bias show, Scully. Her.”
The small word stings like a needle. She refrains from asking him if she has blonde hair and legs like a foal.
“Fortnightly. We’re still at the heady getting to know you stage.” There’s a small silence where she imagines he’s assessing if he’s done enough damage yet. “She’s young enough to understand Instagram but mature enough to get Prince.”
She laughs gently. The tension diffuses again and she feels a rush of emotion. She can’t help herself. He drags her down then lifts her up with a simple switch of tone. “I saw you today. In town.”
“I do go out in the wild without my Ghillie suit sometimes, Scully. Why didn’t you say hello? I don’t bite.”
Not literally, she thinks. Well, not for a long time. She crosses her legs at the unexpected surge of arousal but the image of him kissing another woman creeps behind her eyes again. “It felt…” If he were here with her, in the same room, he’d lean in to her, tilt his head, quirk his lips, draw the truth from her. But there’s a distance more than miles between them and she can’t say the words. “I was running late.”
“That’s unlike you, Dr Punctual. Is everything okay?”
The way he switches from teasing to caring leaves her off-balance. She waits for the world to right itself.
“Can you schedule me in for an appointment, Scully? There’s something I’d like to talk to you about. Not medical. Are you free on the weekend?”
Tightness in her chest makes her breathing hitch. She adjusts the phone in her grip, gives herself time to respond. She’s faced mutants and monsters, her own mortality and his death, the loss of her children. Surely, his confession shouldn’t be elevated to those ranks. Yet her hands tremble and nausea roils in her stomach. Her brain rocks. It’s stupid, dumb to feel like this. She left him. She turned her back one last time and got herself away before the darkness swallowed her whole. The guilt that followed stripped her bare like a never-ending winter but recently she’s begun to feel the warmth of the sun on her skin again.
“Sure. I’ll come over,” she asserts. That way she can simply leave again. Walk the same walk.
“No, let me take you to dinner,” he says, unexpectedly. “That Thai place you like.”
Her sigh is sharp enough to graze her throat. He can’t be that insensitive as to invite her to eat at the same place they celebrated getting the keys to the house or her news about the job at Our Lady of Sorrows.
“Or the Ethiopian restaurant. You loved their shiro wat.”
“We could order pizza and stay home.” Home. She says it without thinking.
He chuckled. “Like the old days?”
“Something like that,” she says, knowing it will be anything but.
In the end, they agreed on a lunch at the vegetarian café and she orders an omelette she knows she won’t eat. He tucks into his feta and pumpkin quiche with salad and tells her he’s trying to eat cleaner. She doesn’t ask what’s brought on the change.
“What was it you wanted to tell me, Mulder? If it’s just to prove you’re finally paying attention to your diet, you’ve demonstrated it adequately. I believe you.” Her fingers clasp around a napkin and she twists it to a sharp point.
His expression is the same one he used for the victims of the most bizarre kind of crimes. She feels panic welling in her throat and crushes the napkin into a tight ball.
“I wanted to tell you that I met someone. I figured I owed you an explanation. Not an explanation, I mean I haven’t done anything wrong…fuck, this is hard,” he rubs the back of his neck. “Jeez. I feel like a teenager. I…I just didn’t want you to find out from someone else.” He pauses and she nods her head at him, encouraging him to finish, not only because he’s clearly still got stuff to get off her chest, but also because she just wants it over. “Not that anyone else knows because I don’t have friends…so, anyway. I…” The noise he makes is a sad laugh. For her or for him? “That’s, that’s my news.”
His fingers have crept across the table and they’re drumming on the surface, disturbing the small jug containing packets of sugar so that it chinks in time with his beat. He adds a low “sorry.”
If she takes a deep breath, what signal will that send? If she speaks too quickly, would that show a callous disinterest? She tries to smile but her lips refuse to co-operate. She’s never been good at hiding negative emotions, despite her tendency to stoicism. “How did you meet her?”
“Online,” he says. “Where else does someone who spends days at a time in his den meet other humans?”
He’s blushing and it’s charming and she hates it. “Is it serious?” The words are dry on her tongue.
He looks away and she tries to interpret the clench of his jaw. A beat. It softens and his mouth changes from grimace to lop-sided grin. “What does it mean if she left a copy of Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps on the coffee table?”
“Well,” she starts, trying to hold his eye despite a rush of conflicting emotions churning through her. “I would jump in the car and take it back to her, but I’m not sure how to get to her place.”
There’s a moment of shocked silence, then his head tips back and he laughs. She sips her tea and enjoys the sound. It always pleases her so profoundly to make him laugh. Not many people could claim to draw out true joy from Fox Mulder.
When he’s collected himself, he rubs his chin. “She took me out last week for coffee, took me out to tell me it was over. At least she did that, I suppose. She…she told me I was too insular. Can you believe that, Scully?” He plays for light. “According to her expert opinion of my psyche, that, I might add, she gleaned from two coffee dates and a meal at some over-priced French place where a dessert the size of a pin cost $50, I was still stuck in the past. With you.” He lowers his eyes and she rolls her lips together to stop herself from adding ‘and your demons and truths’. His shoulders move as he chuckles. “She didn’t really leave me that book, Scully. She didn’t come to the house.”
She’s stupidly relieved to hear that.
“It seemed wrong, somehow,” he says. “And it got me thinking, after her Dear John speech, that maybe this is what we’re…I’m destined for. A kind of relationship limbo. Prevented from going forward because I’m still snagged on a Scully branch. Do you think she’s right? If you…if you met someone, Scully, do you think you could give your whole self to that person?” He blinks slowly. “Or will there always be a small part of you left here?” He pats his chest with the side of his fist.
Her own heart speeds up. She’s had a few dates, a few flings. She hadn’t told him because he wasn’t in the headspace to process her attempts at moving on. And she can see now they were just ‘attempts’. There was an emptiness to the experience. And there’s a grain of truth to his question. It’s exposed just how indelibly tied they are because of their past.
She doesn’t answer him and he plays with the lollo rosso on his plate. “I like the weight of you in here.” He looks down to his heart. “It keeps me balanced.” A waiter retrieves their plates and Mulder watches her for the entire time he’s cleaning the table.
Her chest constricts, burns with such intensity that she’s certain her face is aflame. His fingers meet hers, mid-table, and she lets him squeeze them, such tenderness, such affection, so far removed from the angry, impotent man she’d left.
“Have we fucked each other up entirely, Scully?”
“Is that how she put it, your mystery woman?”
He grins. “I told her I liked being fucked up. It’s the only life I’ve ever known. That’s when she threw in the towel.”
“I don’t blame her,” she says, rubbing his knuckles. “Imagine meeting Spooky Mulder all grown up. At least back in the day your paranoia was justified. Government conspiracies and all.”
“If Dr Dana Scully had met me now, she wouldn’t have lasted one date with Ole Spook, would she?”
She lowers her head as she giggles. “You showed me many things, Mulder. Opened my eyes to wonders and closed them to the black and white life I’d known. I’m a better person because of you. I wouldn’t change a day.”
“You told me that once before.”
“And I still mean it.”
Outside, the day is cooling, sun leaching away behind thickening cloud. They walk in amiable silence down the street. There’s a bookshop she loves and he nods as she lingers at the door. Inside, the comforting smell of words on pages wafts over her and she browses the dark-shadowed shelves.
Mulder emerges with an armful of books from Squatchin’ for Novices to Meals for One. She swallows at the sight of that one. She’s picked up a mystery thriller, and couple of romances that he side-eyes. She bats him over the arm with one. Then she spies the main prize. She picks out two copies. A his and her pair. The teller scans them through and she hands one to Mulder.
He’s still laughing as they walk to their cars. He puts the other books on the passenger seat of his car and clasps his copy of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck to his chest.
“Shit is fucked,” she says, reading from the blurb.
“And we just have to live with it.” He drops a kiss on her head and smiles a full-wattage beam. “You’re still a good date, Scully.”
“You too,” she says. “And I’m glad you told me about…your…”
“Tiffany. That was her name.”
She can’t help the sharp burst of laughter that comes out. “I’m sorry,” she says. “That…was unexpected.”
He snugs a hand in his jeans pocket. “I know. It should have been a warning.”
“Well, unfortunate name aside, it’s good that you’re getting out there.”
“Out there. Where the truth is? I don’t think I’ll be doing it again in a hurry.”
She pulls a sympathetic face, reaches out to touch his arm. “I don’t want to be your snag, Mulder. I thought I was setting you free.”
“We’ll never be free of each other, Scully. And I don’t want to be free in that sense, not if it means never having days like this. I…miss you.” He bounces his toe off the ground and the lump in her throat wedges itself firm.
“I’d better be going,” she whispers. Turns to leave.
“Maybe we can make this a weekly thing,” he says after her. “Just two fuck-ups having lunch, you know?”
She stops, turns back around, smiling through her tears. “Maybe.” And she watches him in the rear-view mirror. Objects in the mirror may appear closer than they are, she thinks as she drives away, and sometimes, they actually are.