For better or worse. They had made that promise and they had broken it. Now it occupied a new meaning in their status: she was gone to him for better or for worse.
All dialogue in italics was written by Chris Carter, from s10e01 My Struggle.
I have skipped description of some scenes partially and others entirely, so may it may seem to jump a lot, but I have tried to smooth the transitions.
It was like old times when Mulder stepped out of the car: there Scully was, heels and a suit, eyeing him with skepticism. The sun was shining down on her red hair like a halo and she was patiently waiting for him. He felt the wind get knocked out of him, missing the innocent cases of their youth.
She smiled and he smiled: a pleasant, courteous exchange. They were old smiles with depth too, a warm reunion matched by the warmth of the morning. Fresh city air awakened Mulder as it flowed through his airways. He happily breathed it in, feeling more alive than he had done since- in a long time.
Scully still worried about him, about how he was doing. She made that abundantly clear: "Uber?"
A look of concern crossed her face. A tiny part at the back of Mulder's mind fought the idea that she looked adorable. He had the urge to hug her and never let go. But on some level it made him squirm, to remember all the things said and done and be selfish for needing her so. Sometimes that's just how they were: wanted and needed, wanting and needing, never admitting it to save the other. He hoped that maybe they had moved past such petty misunderstandings. Maybe this time was different; maybe there was no misunderstanding at all.
"It's good for you to get out of that little house every once in a while."
The first blow to his gut turned his mood sour. She might have meant it for his own good but he could only hear bitterness laced into her tone. Before he knew it, he was serving a backhand of his own, although it hadn't been his intention.
"It certainly was good for you."
She had left for better or for worse. But which one? And for whom?
Mulder was still contemplating these queries when an obnoxiously long, black vehicle sidled up to them, its polished paintwork reflecting the glint of the sun. A clean-shaven man stepped out, slicked-back hair, and pearly-white smile. He was unnervingly neat and reeked of money.
"Fox Mulder." Tad O'Malley addressed them both. "And you must be the former agent, Dana Scully."
He recognised Scully with respect and admiration, leaving Mulder feeling stone-cold stood to the side. Mulder was much a former agent as she was and the special treatment had him fighting back brewing jealousy, exacerbating his sour mood.
Hearing O'Malley drone on was exhausting. He had heard it all before, had grown tired of it, had lost himself and Scully to it. He wasn't sure if there was anything in the wild-goose-chase left for him. Mulder felt himself close off to everything around him, perturbed by the casual offering of champagne and his business-like cordiality, slowly dimming. One thing stuck out to him like a fog light in the darkness.
Hearing O'Malley address her with that kind of unearned familiarity made his skin crawl. Mulder knew he had no right to, but he felt protective over Scully still. He wanted to make him aware that Scully was Scully: the strong, smart, savvy Scully that he knew. His Scully. He had no right to feel possessive and offended, but he did because O'Malley had no right to be so forward. Such a simple word, Dana, but with those two syllables, Mulder was shot with the realisation that O'Malley saw her as more than just Scully, but as a woman as well. He was powerless to the taunt of his failings; where he had forgotten to see her as more.
Dredging up the past next to her, he felt dirty like an oil rig, contaminating everything he came onto contact with. He felt out of place, jacket an jeans in a limousine. He uncomfortably shifted, looking for something, anything to distract him. A breath of fresh air would be nice.
"Those don't roll down."
Of course the windows wouldn't, it was just another way the world was reminding him of the suffocating truth; trapped between two lives, a life of conspiracy and a life with Scully. Once upon a time, he had been blessed to have them both, and in his bitter age, he regretted not taking more time to appreciate what he had. Now, he was stranded between the two, abandoned to know neither, poked and prodded by this man-child to spill secrets he would never want to know the answers to if he knew the truth. The X-Files were closed, they had been for a long time– longer than they had been estranged for– carrying its own blessings and burdens. For better or for worse they had moved on with their lives.
"Yes, we have. For better or for worse."
It still stung to hear it, to confirm it, to be branded and burnt by it. With each passing second, the heat between them seemed to inch another degree higher, smoking both of them in their fortified walls of protection, slowly eroding their sullen barriers of broken silence. They were stretching their limits with each snide quip until they would surely snap.
He felt sorry for Scully though, tangled with him again, cautiously watching the snare tighten its strong hold over him.
Mukder was irate with O'Malley. He was just a small man with illusions of grandeur, and Mulder would know, it was like looking into a mirror. It terrified him that even the tiniest part of him was curious, even excited about what O'Malley was proposing.
Alien DNA, scoop-mark scars, implanted memories, he'd seen it all before. Sveta he should have remembered. Everything they had ever sought justice for was here, he wanted it to be true for Scully; she deserved it. He was skeptical though, it all seemed too convincing, just handed to them on a plate. Scully had taught him well; her skepticism was rubbing off on him. It was a gift that he had cherished and had saved him a thousand times over.
"Something you can test?" Perhaps he could feel protective, keep her close at his side. And maybe it was possessive, but he had a chance, an opportunity, a reason to see Scully. He had to desperately cling to that. He had to show Tad-man-child-O'Malley everything that Scully still meant to him. He had to implore her. "Dana?"
The day had already been long and Mulder paced nervously back and forth, wearing holes into the floorboards with his energy. What Sveta told him, could that be the truth? What was the truth when it dressed in layers of ruses? Alien conspiracy or human conspiracy? Or both? Human conspiracy it had to be, he was sure of it. Sveta was the key to understanding everything. It all made complete sense... He was shocked to see Scully pull up to their house. He had not been expecting her but it was a welcomed surprise. His heart pounded that familiar roll of the drum caged in his chest, adrenaline and exhilaration coursing through him to the tips of his fingers that thrummed on the handle of the door before he opened it. There was so much he had to tell her.
"All these years we've been deceived."
It had all been futile, they had never come even as close as they had thought they once were. All for nothing. All over again. This faction they had been fighting all their lives were always so many infuriating steps ahead.
"I don't know what you mean."
"I... I couldn't call you because its gonna sound crazy."
But the truth is often crazy, abominable, incredible. The truth is his life's work. The truth was the work that cost him his life. The truth, the answers, everything; his son, his sister, his everything: any chance of reclamation he would seize with a steel hardy grip. Scully should know and understand that; it's been her work too. It's why they are here.
"That's why I'm here Mulder, as somebody who cares about you. As someone who worries about you–"
He needed to speak. The truth will out. The longer he harboured these secrets, the greater strain he could feel above his head, the fine string holding the hammer snapping a single fibre at a time. The longer the truth remained buried, the easier the hammer will fall, silencing it once more. He had to tell: for Samantha, for William, for everything.
"Alright, just listen to me, alright–"
They butted heads like rams.
"No, you listen to me, Mulder–"
Obstinate and crying out frantically to the other.
"Scully you got to trust me on this."
With his large hands on her petite shoulders, they waltzed in a half-circle. It was a strange feeling to touch her and hold on. She was tangible and real and he never wanted to let go. An old, dull memory passed like déjà vu, but the occasion was not to reminisce. They could stop him at any moment. He needed her, he always has and here he is admitting it again. Trust: implicit and earned. It's all he's ever asked of her and it still feels out of reach, untouchable, and too much.
She seemed panicked and desperate. Her eyes were wild with the grief of losing him again.
"I have seen this before. You're on fire, believing that you're onto some truth, that you can save the world."
Fire- and like a trigger, the other words followed.
He blazed on through the painful memories undeterred, determined to be heard.
"This will finally be their undoing."
She still worried about him, but he didn't see how abundantly clear she made that.
"This will be your undoing, Mulder. Listen to me. As your friend and as a physician, you are on dangerous ground here."
This would be his downfall, his fall from grace. Mulder was never graced. He had nowhere to go but trust this truth would lead him to somewhere better, where he could climb up and be in the reach of grace once more. He had already fallen so far, how could there be anywhere he could possibly fall to? Even if an abyss did open up underneath him to swallow him whole, the truth was worth the consequences. It was the only thing keeping is faith afloat and it felt like it was the only thing keeping him afloat.
"I know what I'm doing. She's the key to everything. Sveta... Is the key."
Scully tried to talk him down from his own execution, but the martyr they had made of him was nailing his own wrists and he couldn't see the blood trickle down. Not her, not pain, not anything could make him realise what he was doing. He was dragging his stake through fertile soil, sowing the seeds. She couldn't be the one to reap the consequences. She tried to remind him one last time what this life had led him to lose. He had done it before.
She brought her arms up to sever herself from his hold and what had become his world.
"You know what you're doing."
A chance of redemption, of reclamation, to pass judgement and bring justice: how could he turn away from the truth?
"I would have invited you, Scully, but I didn't think you'd come."
Her face was grave, remorseful even, he could see that much. Her words were a strange texture of both.
"I shouldn't have come."
Every time she chose someone, something, somewhere other than him, a small piece of him numbed and died. A flake of his heart settled in his stomach again, watching her turn away a second time. But she was never truly here this time, he told himself. He wasn't losing her if he never had her.
She joined them anyway, remaining cool and aloof throughout their discussion. However, Scully was right about one thing: he does feel on fire. He feels alive and best of all, he feels good. He had lost sight of himself and the world, but it had been handed back to him and had given him purpose. All the crumbs of jigsaw pieces rapidly settled into a cohesive global conspiracy. Economy, health care and democracy: America's infrastructure and the foundation of their lives. He can see it so clearly from every angle...
Yet Scully says he is deluded, misguided, that the truth is treasonous. It would be the errand of a fool to state such things publically.
But the public will listen and it would be the errand of a fool not to tell them, not to sway the power back to the masses. Why can't she see that? Why is it so hard to trust and believe in him? Why does she walk away?
The company swiftly left his house, leaving only Sveta sitting quietly and Mulder anxiously pacing. He wandered aimlessly from room to room, a strange, familiar feeling encroaching upon him. He buried his face in his hands, looking for an answer. He thought he had everything, why was this doubt taking possession of him? He came up blank, the only answer he could think of too painful to face.
It was all so dark, outside and in. The incandescent light dwarfed by the world outside and the truth inside. Only minutes ago had things seemed bright– right, even. What had changed? Why was everything so cold?
Sveta watched him back and forth along the length of the living room. He was wild and untamed, fidgety and anxious. She could feel him fracturing from the inside, the cracks running deeper with every thought zipping through his wired mind. She felt his heart too, the pulsing ache that drove him. He was gravitating around an object, subconsciously being pulled closer to it.
Sveta picked up the tarnished leather-bound book from underneath the table, his attraction to it leading her like a hot trail. The journal fell from her grasp immediately, the phantom scorching making her gasp as she let go. Never had she encountered an emotional presence so potent it had burned.
Mulder had stopped at the sound of the book clattering to the floor, looking at Sveta blankly, but she could see his cheeks flush and read his thoughts.
"You still love her," she said plainly.
Mulder looked at Sveta as if she had told him the sky was blue.
"I sort of read minds," she explained. "Your love is still strong for her but you are bitter because you still see her walking away. You cannot let go." She shrugged her shoulders. "That is why your love for your son is also strong yet bitter."
He backed up to the wall, slumping under the weight of the truth. His arms hung limply over his knees, his hands gesticulating to form an answer. Mulder held his breath and exhaled, shaking the false pretences that kept him from speaking for so long.
"I don't blame her for the past. No, that's on me." He sighed, hands returning to hide his burrowed face. "I don't want to let go of William; I don't what to forget a single second, but I'm scared I've already forgotten so much." He shook his head like every emotion was futile, him an unwilling slave to each if their bidding. He tried to reconcile reality to that feeling, but could only feel the memories slip like sand through his fingers. He was scared to remember and he was scared to forget.
He looked up at Sveta with an abrupt newfound clarity, tears flooding his cheeks. "But I don't blame her for what happened. I could never do that to her." He whispered like he was vowing an ancient oath his soul was tethered to.
"Does she know that?" Sveta already knew the answer and she knew how assumptions on both sides had affected them.
"I– I..." Mulder stuttered, then clamped his jaw shut, realising that he didn't know what Scully thought or how she felt. All this time he had been trying to communicate what was important to Scully and he hadn't let her talk. And when she did speak up he hadn't listened. All he remembered was holding onto her and her eyes wildly trying to find him. After all this time, after all he had put her through, she was still trying to connect with him.
"You can still love them without hurting. Sometimes you just have to trust yourself to remember everything, even if you do not think about it all the time." Sveta was speaking softly to him but he didn't hear her, too hung up on the point where he failed again. He hadn't proven an elaborate conspiracy to Scully, he had proven that he falls down the same rabbit holes time again. He hadn't improved at all. He broke from his introspection to hear Sveta say, "you should talk to her."
Fear lodged itself at the back of his throat. He shakily swallowed in an attempt to compose himself. "What if she doesn't want to talk?"
She picked up the book, hastily handing it to him. "Read it, but read what she has written."
He simply held the book still, in place of where she had held it out. He did not retract the item, hold it close to him, acknowledging only that it existed by refusing it to fall. His gaze remained on her, innocent and sorrowed like she was the answer to everything, her words a casket for the truth.
Sveta swayed towards the door. "I should be going."
He didn't want her to leave, he couldn't bear the thought of being alone in a big house again with no one to distract him from the daemons in the shadows. He didn't stop her leaving though, just grudgingly nodded and let her past.
Alone, Mulder sought the company of Scully, turning the pages once more.
Mulder sat on the floor, the fated book in his hand. His finger traced the length of the crumbling spine, softly cracked and weakened form years of reading. He felt the pages crinkle as he turned them again, seeing in his mind's eye the tears fall from her cheeks, captured in the paper sat in her lap.
Verse after verse, stanza after stanza, he read them all for the millionth time, wondering how far back in time the roots of these thoughts were buried. They seemed endless, not bound by time, fitting to every instance of their relationship he could recall, even to a time when they had only been friends. Had she always felt so alone? Is that still how she feels? A dozen and more thoughts and notes littered the pages, some so tightly bound in metaphor, he was hopeless to decipher them. He wondered if she had felt scared to write them at all.
What kind of man must he have been all those years ago? He remembered feeling so alone, pushing her so far to see if she would return for him. He wanted her to return, to save him; he wanted to be wanted. The pattern continued as a routine until he forgot that he was someone who needed saving, who wanted her, instead, pushing the boat farther out to sea. So raptured was he in his own melancholic pattern, he missed her signs of a similar, insufferable illness. Not only did he need and want her; he was needed, wanted and he didn't return for her. Then it became too painful for her to row out after him, where the waves were rolling higher and seas fairing rougher. He had pushed her too far, himself out of reach.
Standing after what felt like hours, aching and stiff, he scouted out a pen of his own. Walking towards his office, so loved and so loathed, he left the little book on a cabinet outside. It felt wrong to take her with him into his hiding place, even as a small symbolic piece of bound paper. He felt embarrassed, guilty, to show her the extent of his tortured mind, worried of what it would do to her a second time. It was a place he had locked up and pushed away. The scattered parchments and clippings were eerily still, like piles of dead bodies, lifeless under three years of dust.
Retreating to the sanctity of the living room with a pen and picking up the book, he sat on the floor with his back to the couch. He turned to the back cover, the very last page and then turned the book upside down. Now facing him was a blank space with so many possibilities, untainted with tears and ink, thoughts scratched through and soaked. The freshness was a novelty he almost didn't want to ruin, but here on the new first page, he wrote:
I think I shall write as if am truly speaking to you. We never really did that, did we? We thought we could understand each other without a single utterance but that has only left me here on this last page.
This last-first page feels fresh even though it is recycled, still carrying old memories I think we'd both rather forget. It still pains me to this day to think that you could not confide in me, that I was even the reason for your solitude so that the only ears that would listen were the deaf ones made of paper.
At the time, when I first read this, I was lost to myself and from you. I hate the man I was, but I hate more that I couldn't see it.
When I first fell in love with you, and I did, let there be no mistake of that, your smile was the only life I needed. It seems rosy when I write it like that, don't you think? You are my oxygen, my water, my food, my shelter. Maslow got it wrong; at the base of his pyramid, there should have been an inscription saying 'Scully'. It hurts to love you because I love you so much, I need you and I can never get enough of you.
He hesitated, unsure if it was too much; if he would push her away further with something she didn't want to hear. Ink splattered the page in tiny forms as he tapped his pen on the paper, thinking. He decided to continue in his honesty– if only to get it off his chest. She didn't have to see it anyway.
As each day passed, we grew as people and as a partnership and I found myself staring over the edge of the cliff, willing to fall over and over again, head over heels, just that little bit further in love with you.
Making you laugh was my favourite thing to do in the world, not only to see you happy but on some selfish level, to know that I did it– I put that grin there. I was of some value in your life, because I made you laugh.
My biggest downfall was trying to protect you. I thought that by not telling you the truth I could save your smile. I am sorry, Scully. I think that was the base of the problem, everything else afterwards is a mess of things that I can't remember because my heart hurts too much and my brain won't give me access to psychoanalyse everything all over again.
He squeezed his eyes shut, holding back the flood, and remembered what Sveta had made him realise: his whole reason for starting this conversation, to tell Scully the truth, especially about the lies.
I do realise now though that you may think I blame you for giving William up for adoption: I don't. I could never.
Writing his name, saying it aloud, felt so alien when his son had only existed in his memories. Painful as it was, William deserved a life not locked in the past never to be uttered, he deserved to be called by name.
I have said things in the past that were blatant lies because I was angry and hurt and I didn't know how to handle it. I regret everything about that night– was instantly regretful of everything at the time– but I was too stubborn to seek you out and tell you so. I hurt you in many ways, all of which make me nauseous and I don't ever expect you to forgive. And I don't think you should.
I have let you believe the worst. I am sorry. But I need to tell you in no way were the things I said ever truthful. Knowing how much he meant to me, I can only imagine the pain you had to endure to keep our child safe. I regret that I wasn't there when you needed it most. Then and now.
I don't know if it is wisdom or tiredness in old age that tells me I don't have the strength to hold on. I feel that to survive I must let go, but I don't want to. Survival is nothing if I forget the life I have lived. I don't want to let go of William, nor of you.
Loving you, it feels like the purest, most saturated thing I have ever known. When I said it hurts me, that's not entirely true. Every moment in your presence, I am alive and in contrast, I think you can work out the rest. But that doesn't mean I stop loving you when you leave. Perhaps it's worse than that. I think I love you more because I am reminded of what I don't have. And maybe I latched onto that strong feeling in my time of darkness. Maybe that's why I pushed you away when we both needed each other.
He stopped, sighing. Wallowing in his own self-pity had not been his intention.
What I am saying is, I have spent years trying to work out what I did wrong and I don't know if it has helped at all. I have read the notes you left for me in here a million times over and I am sorry, truly. I didn't notice the love you wrote about, how desperately you were trying to reach out to me when I pushed you away. I didn't notice that the pages you had written on are the only ones crinkled. I think that is the saddest, deepest truth I have ever known.
And now I am writing a note for you. All I know is that I love you and I will make sure that every day both you and I don't forget that.
Mulder sat still for a while, not wishing to hang up the pen and sign off the conversation. It was cathartic seeing the pen inscribe each letter, each of them crawling across the page like a symbol of progress. But now that it was over and the pen had stopped scribbling, there was something that made his stomach churn. Facing his daemons made his head spin, his guts climb up his throat. He wanted to simultaneously crawl inside himself and hide whilst running away.
He was second-guessing himself, poised to rip out his confession. Wasn't it pathetic to write a message with no intention of sending it? Wouldn't it just sit and fester at the back of the book and in the corner of his mind? Should he even be trying to reach out to Scully? She had left for better or for worse. Wasn't that what she wanted?
Was this how she felt when she wrote these things to him?
A droplet fell onto the page, soaking into its fabric and taking his words with it. The ink bled through, misting the sentiment and letting rivers trickle down the paper.
Mulder turned the crying page, looking back over Scully's written hand, slow drops falling on every other page. He realised the first entry had been amended, written in tears of ink and covered in strokes of biro. He flicked back through, the familiar shapes reappearing with new meaning as the same mistake was not made twice. The warmth of her flowing cursive was offset by the callous nature of hard biro lines, no fluctuation or emotion to the shapes. They are as they are. Nothing special. But they are learned– learned not to spoil meaning with lamenting tears.
He closed the book, sandwiching his thoughts between the pages, and hid it back under the coffee table where it belonged. He sat back against the couch, wondering, as she had done, if there was ever going to be light at the end of the tunnel.
A few months later...
The evening is late and Mulder cannot help but continuously smile in the company of Scully and their favourite takeaway scattered across their laps. He watches her laugh and roll her eyes and talk in-depth about everything and nothing, sinking into the comfort of the couch and her quick quips alike. He reasons that he hasn't felt this happy in a long time, just counting his lucky stars that he can see her smile again. This time it feels different. The darkness outside brings them closer together, not further apart. The glow from the lamps warms them to one another, and layer by layer they are dropping pretences and formalities, finding the rhythm of an aeon old friendship. It is like relaxing into a mould that only the other could possibly comprehend.
His fingers are sticky from the spring rolls, and with the last of the chow mein devoured, Mulder realises that his sense of fullness can only be partly attributed to the Chinese. He stands, clearing the plates away, insisting Scully let him do all the tidying. He still wants to prove that he can.
"You want another beer?" he calls from the kitchen. The clattering of plates and plastic tubs follows him as he diligently dances from the cupboards to the fridge and the sink in between. Scully, with nothing better to do than pick at her cuticles, watches this display of domesticity with amusement. She seriously considers his offer; how easy it would be to have a couple of drinks, resume their easy conversation, and probably fall asleep with their feet perched on the table. How easy it would be to stay and ignore the inevitability of the complicated morning. However, she has an apartment to get to with all of her things there and work in the morning.
They have only just got back on good ground, she reminds herself, baby steps. "Best not; I've got to drive back yet."
The reminder that her presence is only temporary shatters his little fantasy that everything is back to normal. The consequences of their lives weigh him down no end when their goodbyes are stunted and awkward and he has to wave to her standing on their porch. Until that moment, he can pretend that there are no repercussions; at the end of the night they will climb the stairs together, fall asleep together, and wake, knowing the other is close by.
There is a small part of him that still wants to believe.
"I could always crash on the couch for you– just like old times." He half means it, hidden behind the joke. He wonders, just as he did for seven years, if she suspects as much and will call him out on his poorly disguised sincerity. Whilst their friendship is newly rekindled, fresh, different, some things will always stay the same. Like how he feels he has to restrain his care for her. It could be melancholic but he has to smile at the familiarity of it all: just like old times.
"It is a bit isn't it?" she reminisces. "Chinese and beer. You really know how to treat a lady, Mulder."
He will have to add casual flirting to the list: one of their oldest habits. It's true those ones die the hardest. So badly does he want to rise to her challenge but seven years of abstinence has taught him well. Instead, he stifles a chuckle.
"D'you wanna glass of water then?" he asks, as he pulls the glasses out of the cupboard. It's a perfunctory question, but he doesn't mind that it's semantically hollow.
"Yes, that would be nice," she smiles at him from over the back of the chair.
Mulder likes that he knows her well enough to already know the answer.
With two glasses of water in hand and a smile on his face, he returns to the living room, handing Scully her drink. He sits down with her once more and they both clink a cheers without having to look at the other. Mulder laughs at their uncanny synchronicity as they take a sip of the cool liquid. He tries not to choke, failing utterly, which of course uncorks a barrel of laughs from her.
"I'm glad we can do this," Scully finally says after she manages to put a stopper on her giggling. She dries her eyes, a small fixture of a permanent smile remaining. She radiates contentment in that warm way that draws them closer together.
He is reluctant to break the spell of peace between them but does to concur, "me too."
Mulder wonders how long they could remain quiet for, for once enjoying the lack of chaos that usually exists in his life. He doesn't have to wait long though before she breaks his reverie with a tut. She warmly admonishes him for sacrificing himself a beer, just so she didn't feel left out. It's the sort of thing he always used to do way back when. "Mulder you didn't have to get water, you could have had a beer, I'm not stopping you."
Scully notes the glint in his eye and she purses her lips, ready for another one of his awful jokes, secretly giggling in anticipation.
"I've moved onto the stronger stuff now: this is hooch." He watches the corners of her mouth twitch into a simple smile, a small laugh erupting from her. He continues, determined to eke out a little more of her joy, "an old Mulder family recipe: looks like water, smells like water, even tastes like water, yet a couple of drops of this stuff can knock you sideways."
She rolls her eyes. "I'll believe that when I see it."
"Always such a skeptic," he teases, playfully elbowing her. "Ooh, I just remembered, I have a couple of popsicles in the freezer for dessert. That's if you want one?"
Her trademark eyebrow of incredulity rises. "Popsicles? What are we, Mulder, five?" she challenges mirthfully.
He pauses, mouth open ready to rebuke her, but comes up blank. "Yes," he finally concedes in a somewhat petulant tone.
She acquiesces with another good-humoured roll of her eyes. "Sure, I'll have a popsicle."
Grinning, he puts down his glass of water on the table– more specifically a pile of books, random pieces of paper, and Lone Gunmen magazines which blanket the table. He jumps up enthusiastically and runs off on yet another quest.
Scully eyes the glass standing askew and picks it up before it can topple over. She was sure there were some coasters around somewhere. As she organises the things into neat stacks, the table begins to reappear from underneath it all. She smirks, thinking it a kind of magic witchcraft of its own. The books go far left, in the corner, the magazines next to them. Everything has its place.
She was unsure what to do with the odd bits of paper, not knowing which ones were important. She sighs holding them, realising how much they truly don't know about each other. It's the small things that remind people how much like strangers they can be when unsuspecting, trivial parts of their private lives surface yet remain private. Maybe it wasn't her place to tidy. She clumps them all together using the bowl full of seeds as a paperweight. Starting to pick things that had been knocked on the floor up, her fingers brush another book under the table. She doesn't think much of it– there are plenty of other books on the table after all– not until she feels the soft leather cover. To say liquid fear doesn't trickle frigidly down her spine would be a lie. All of a sudden her mouth is dry and her hands are clammy, remembering that's where he threw it. She is shocked still whilst her heart panics, thrumming like a hummingbird. She fights to swallow the rising dread as she slowly brings the book out into the light.
It's different, old, used. The corners are fluffed and dog-eared. The spine is supple and creased from an inordinate number of readings. It slowly fades out of sight, replaced by the haze of refracted light through water, like little stars. Her cheeks sting as she closes her eyes and reasons with her tears not to fall. They do not listen.
Her tongue delicately traces up to her lip when she takes and holds her breath. She closes her eyes but her eyebrows remain arched high in concentration. Hysterical is not a state she can afford herself, not in front of Mulder when he is so happy now, not when he is so much better– when they are so much better. She should return the book to under the table where it belongs before Mulder sees it. But her clutch remains on the soft leather, her thumbs gently stroking the cover, the old tan smell bringing home too many memories. She hears Mulder's dull footsteps draw closer. She should put it away. His steps stop close by. But she can't.
Mulder stops in the middle of the room, seeing her softly cry. He immediately wants to weep with her, for her, and take her pain away. Then seeing the trajectory of her tears and the agent of her distress, he can't help but think the worst, that she has read his honest word and wants no more of their friendship. And just when he thought they had something good.
She will have to leave to save herself: forever this time.
It should have been forever last time; he only ever ends up hurting her. The darkness has its way of following him and he will only ever contaminate her.
Pointlessly looking down at popsicles he carries, he thinks of how naive and stupid he looks, how crass and obtuse he is. He thinks he breaks into a thousand unrepairable pieces upon comprehending they can never outrun this heartache however hard they try.
He gingerly approaches, cautious of the touchy subject and she looks up at him only with the grace of compassion.
"You kept it?" Her voice is a hoarse whisper, as broken as he feels.
"I– I don't know." He does know, he just doesn't know what to say, not wanting to endanger their friendship. Perhaps things aren't so different after all.
"But you've read it. And all the terrible things I said. And you kept it."
He quickly sits down next to her. They need to get things straight once and for all, no more mixed messages and hidden signals. Things have to be different this time, they have to be brighter. He still can't look at her in the eye though as he tries to explain himself. "Those things you said, they weren't horrible they were true."
"No, Mulder." She shakes her head tiredly. "I hurt you. I hurt us."
He turns to look at her in full earnest, finally meeting her eyes. "I made you feel like that, Scully." He puts the popsicles down on the table and covers her hands with his, thankful that they weren't ice creams and had wrappers. His thumb gently strokes over the bridge of her knuckles, longing to soothe them both. "Please don't put this on yourself."
"You forgive me?" she sniffs.
"There's nothing to forgive. People make mistakes and learn from them. We have made mistakes." He searches her eyes for understanding, and despite his words, forgiveness. He needs to know she forgives him, that they will be okay. "We have learnt the hard way and we have worked through this together, but you never did anything wrong."
She nods, unconvinced. Silence speaks for a while, colouring the space between them, painting it in washes of uncertainty. He waits for her to say something, do anything, just to end this hopeless quiet. Mulder thinks he could stomach it if she rained down fire and brimstone and the judgement he deserves. At least if she shouts he will know what she is thinking. Yet Scully's wet eyes glisten hopeful when she looks up to him, though hoping more than believing when she whispers, "is it over then?"
"I don't think it works like that," he says, wishing for all the world that it did.
"I miss you."
Her head is bowed, gaze fixed on her lap. In her head she means I love you, praying that he both hears her and doesn't. Scully isn't sure how such a confession would send the boulder rolling, in what direction they would be taken. Gravity has always had a great effect on them, drawing them closer together, pushing them off cliffs. Gravity will send the boulder hurtling at a great speed neither of them will be able to outrun. Nevertheless, when she stands by her car, waving an awkward, short goodbye, she already misses Mulder more than she can comprehend.
"Every day," he agrees, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. She falls into his chest, gently shuddering as she tries to calm her breathing. Mulder turns to kiss her crown, hesitating, uncertain if the gesture would be appreciated. He presses his nose into her hair instead, noting it was neither the time nor the place to recognise that she had changed her shampoo but noticing it all the same. He notices everything about the moment. She feels so real and tangible. He never wants to let go.
He's vaguely lost in her subtle change in scent, almost missing her second admission as quiet as a breath. "I've missed being home."
He looks down at her, one hand is a clenched fist rubbing at her chest as if to paw its way through, the other lay upon the book in her lap. He's dumbfounded. It's his deceiving ears that tell him she said she wants to come home. Of course, he knows she didn't say it outright, but it had sounded like it. It was the way she said it: remorseful and longing, insinuating homesickness. He feels homesick without her too. But it's only his deceiving ears.
"The house misses you too," he eventual manages. And it does. Nothing has been the same since she left. It's the little, trivial things like pots of organic yoghurt in the fridge, medicines labelled alphabetically in the cabinet, and the way the duvet used to fill out to the corners of the cover that remind you how much you miss people.
Leaning against his shoulder, Scully braves a flick through the pages, coming across an entry she does not recognise. Upside down, she curiously turns it the right way around. The pad of her fingertip traces the flow of the ink pen in Mulder's hand, reliving where each drop had fallen, obstructing the path of his writing.
She glances up at him. "When did you write this?"
"Um, when we first met Tad O'Malley... after all of that... I realised you were trying to help me again, but I was pushing you away..." He closes his eyes. "And I felt like you were gone again."
Scully doesn't reply but allows her eyes to fall across the page, absorbing the honesty of his thought. It's refreshing to hear an unabridged account of what they both experienced, seeing before her how muddled and yet clear their emotions can be. Although that doesn't stop the truth sending sharp flares through her.
Mulder lets her read, flinching whenever she holds her breath, holds herself impeccably still. He doesn't want to be reminded of what he wrote and how he felt, but he is fixated by her expression, impossible to read. It is impossible to discern which part of his pitiful confession she has reached. The words are seared onto his synapses like light on film, each negative flying across the screen in his mind, trying to calculate which declaration of love causes her to stiffen. The seconds pass by, feeling like hours turning into days, as he waits for her response.
"Maslow?" Scully questions him calm and tempered, no sarcastic mocking, no flares of anger, no fatal silences. She even adds a small, encouraging laugh to break the ice, almost but not quite making an easy joke.
"Yeah, I was feeling a bit soppy," he admits as jovially as he can, trying to keep his head above the water and the atmosphere from capsizing. They're in unstable territory and he's hanging onto her waiting response like a lifeline.
"I think it might be the kindest thing anyone has ever said to me." Briefly, she cups his cheek and gifts him a sombre smile before retreating her hand, wiggling her fingers free of any inappropriate intimacy. "Thank you for your honesty," she says quickly.
Mulder thinks he lets out an audible sigh of relief. "I don't want to lose you again, Scully. I've already lost you more times than I thought were possible. And I don't want to lose sight of you again." He is sure he is babbling, but for once he doesn't care, a wash of happy giddiness has befallen him. "You're my best friend, keeping me on the straight and narrow."
He offers her a popsicle as a truce. It seems somewhat juvenile to trade acceptance and forgiveness in food, but she takes it willingly, glad of the distraction. Discreetly, Scully dries her eyes.
"Frohike would be rolling in his grave if heard that."
The had mood shifted with the trade, easier and more trusting. The air around them doesn't feel as heavy or taut, so they can breathe as the tide crawls out to a safe distance beyond the horizon.
"Frohike doesn't keep me honest; he's not my touchstone." He chuckles self-consciously, shaking his head. He watches her peal the plastic wrapping carefully, taking the time not to rip it. Never seeing the reason in needless neatness, usually Mulder would tear into the packet without a second thought. However, tonight he follows Scully in this attentive ritual. "And he's not eating popsicles with me."
Scully allows herself a small mischievous grin, biting a mouthful of cool, sticky, slightly melted goodness the way she knows makes Mulder squirm. "I'll always be around to eat popsicles with you, Mulder," she promises, believing that they can make it.
Mulder supposes Scully thinks she was being funny making a pun and so blatantly consuming her dessert the wrong way. He fights back the urge to outwardly cringe. "Until our dying days, Scully," he replies with a purposeful lick.
"Until our dying days," she sighs.
"Let's hope they're not too soon," he mutters half in jest.
"Jeeze, Mulder," she laughs, cursing his name and spluttering on half crunched ice. "Way to lighten the mood."
He laughs too, seeing the red juice of her strawberry popsicle drip from her chin, her hand delicately poised to catch the drops, but hesitant to wipe them away. Her eyes are wide, as they always are, in disbelief at the sticky situation.
"Hey, I'm older than you." He passes her one of the miscellaneous pieces of paper stashed under the bowl, only doing one swift double-take at the state of the table. "Sorry I don't have any tissues. And anyway I'm the one that has to worry."
Although he doesn't realise it, Mulder has just told Scully how important she is to him. She takes the paper knowing that it doesn't matter how important these parts of his life are, she is more important and she no longer feels like a stranger to him.
She grimaces as the paper scratches her chin and does nothing to absorb the syrupy trickles, more smearing them than anything else. Despite the comical look of the affair, she is pensive in her remark. "I won't let them take you. I'll go to Hell to get you back."
He laughs again, certain that she already has. "What if I get into Heaven?"
Poignantly, Scully takes his hand in hers, brushing her thumb over the bridge of his knuckles. The gesture, once reserved for a morbid hospital bed, gives Mulder hope when she speaks of the future, knowing there will be one. "I'll still be right beside you."
With no hospital bed in sight, the morbidity defenestrated, and a return of her kind caress, he makes his promise as if he were immortal. "I'd like you to know I'd do the same."
He picks the book up, and closes it for the final time, laying it to rest on top of the other books in the top left corner of the table, where it belongs. They continue the rest of their dessert in silence. Scully searches wordlessly for his hand again and he holds on, her warmth giving him life. Maybe things can be bright again.
The end of the popsicle stick is approaching and Mulder feels the need to say something, though what, he isn't exactly sure. He wants her to stay. Maybe he can persuade her to stay a little longer. Put on a film? The exorcist? That was always one of her favourites but–
Scully interrupts his train of thought. "Can I crash here tonight?" she asks wearily. "I won't take your bed, I just- I don't think I can drive all the way to my apartment."
It saddens him that she thinks she is still encroaching on his space: it's their space, it always has been, even when she wasn't there to share it. He wants to tell her it's her bed too, that not a spec has changed and she shouldn't have to ask to stay. But they both know she does. He's just happy she's staying at all.
In the morning he will wake, knowing she is close by.
Scully hears the relief in his voice, filling her with a relief of her own. Maybe things can be bright after all.