The quiet buzz of Scully's phone vibrating on her nightstand draws her attention away from the journal she's reading. She swaps out her mug of tea for the phone, heart dropping when she sees the familiar face on the screen. One, it sometimes seems, she knows better than her own. A picture she's seen so many times.
It's been too long since she'd heard his voice, five interminable months of wondering if he's okay—of feeling responsible for the hell she's putting them both through. Intellectually she knows breaking the cycle of codependency is an essential component of Mulder's recovery; emotionally, she's almost desperate to know how he's doing. Even if she won't like the answer.
In a half-second of vulnerability she resolves to pick up, and swipes her phone open before she changes her mind. She becomes aware she's made an unwise decision when she can't speak around the knot of dread lodged in her throat.
"Scully," Mulder says, sounding surprised. "You answered."
"What do you want, Mulder?" She hadn't realized how drained she felt until she heard it in her voice.
"I miss you," he tells her, not quite an answer. His directness surprises Scully. His voice is clear, if forlorn, but she can't help considering the possibility—no, the probability—that he's been drinking.
She longs to say it back, but can't. To let him her hear frailty is to hand him ammunition. But if she can make him understand how this is affecting her… maybe it'll be the impetus he needs to make a positive change. But what if he already has, and she's been ignoring his calls? Can she afford to take that chance? Can she afford not to?
"I'm worried about you," he continues, silencing her inner debate. "Why—?"
"You know why," she interrupts, so quiet she's not even sure he's heard it.
His corresponding silence tells her he has. "Where are you, Scully?"
It's on the tip of her tongue to lie and say she's at work, but she knows that's not what he means. Meaningless runaround is only going to draw out what's sure to be an exhausting conversation. "I'm not so sure that's a good idea."
"Scully, please," he implores. "I haven't heard from you since you left. Your mother wouldn't tell me anything except that you weren't staying with her."
Her temper goes from zero to sixty in the time it takes him to mention her mother. "What did you expect? She goes to visit and—"
"I shouldn't have yelled at her like that," he says, before she can really get started. "I was wrong, and I know that, and I keep trying to apologize but she won't answer her phone."
Scully doesn't mention it's because she blocked his number in her mother's phone. It will hurt him more to know that her mother isn't just screening her calls; hell, it hurts Scully. Cutting Mulder off from someone who loves him almost killed her but she'd be damned if she'd ever allow him to make her mother cry again.
"Scully, I need to know you're okay. Can you imagine for just one second what it's like for me, not knowing where you are? If you're safe? You won't answer your phone, I have no way to find you, you could be dead somewhere and I'd never know."
She knows, without any concrete evidence and without a doubt, that this is the general theme of the voicemails that Skinner screens for her. So far, in his estimation, exactly zero of them have been worth listening to and now she can see why. Especially if Mulder leaves them in that miserable, entreating tone of voice.
He always did know exactly how to push her buttons.
"Don't you think you're being a little dramatic?" she asks, with every ounce of self-possession she can muster.
"Just tell me where you are so I can sleep at night." …without drinking myself half to death, her mind fills in. It's a horrific thought. Mulder's been an insomniac for the entire time she's known him, but his nightmares, starved of fresh fuel, had been gradually improving over the past few years. Could she ever forgive herself if she caused their return?
This is the longest they've ever been apart since they went on the run and the first time since her abduction that he hasn't known how to find her. She's heard stories about what he was like when she was gone, and that was before he self-medicated.
God, what if she's made everything worse by leaving?
She sighs. "I'm with Skinner."
There's a faint clattering in the background, but complete silence otherwise. When Mulder finally speaks, it's with forced calm. "What do you mean, 'with Skinner'?"
"I mean I'm staying with him," she says, not understanding why he's so on-edge and not wanting to scrutinize the possibilities. "It's closer to work than my mother's, and I didn't want to sign a lease somewhere." Because she wants—she yearns—to come home the instant she can. Because she has faith in him that he can do what he has to do to make that happen.
"Staying where?" Mulder accuses. "In his bed? Is that why you left?"
Her lungs constrict. Reminding herself that he's looking for ways to escape blame is not quite enough to dull the sharp pain of his words.
"In his guest room," she emphasizes, when really she wants to scream You know why I left. "How could you think such a thing?"
"Dammit, Scully, what am I supposed to think? You trick me into having lunch with him and then when I get back all your things are gone, there's a Dear John letter on the table and now you tell me you're living with him?"
She can sit her all night denying the charge. She doubts he'll listen. And anyway, it's not his business who she sleeps with now; he gave up the right to care when he drove her out of their home. She doesn't owe him an explanation; she doesn't owe him a damn thing. "I'd expect you to be glad I had a friend like Walter to turn to right now."
"W-Walter?" He sounds like she's punched him in the chest. "Since when are you two on a first name basis?"
"Since you died and left me pregnant and alone," she bites back. Not only is it a low blow, it's a long-held resentment she's never articulated before. It should have stayed buried along with the fury she'd felt at how he couldn't look her in the eye for months after he returned.
"Is that when you started screwing him, or is that just when you decided you were tired of calling him Sir in bed? Go ahead Scully, tell me how long you've been making a fool of me. Better yet, put him on the damn phone so I can ask him myself."
Even if she wanted to, Skinner's not home. He's on a date—the irony is not lost on Scully but she doubts it will have an effect on Mulder. He's not exactly behaving reasonably right now. The better choice is to halt this train of thought before it can leave the station.
"Stop it," she says, firmly. "I have never been unfaithful to you and you know that. As for Walter, he's been a better friend than either of us deserve."
Mulder snorts. "Friend. Are you blind? The man's been in love with you for twenty years!"
"You're imagining things." Projecting, she thinks. Mulder loved her for so long without saying a word; no doubt he saw signs of hidden passion in everyone else around them. Come to think of it, that's probably why he had such an issue with Doggett at first.
"Oh really?" Mulder asks, dragging her back to the present with a tone so triumphant it fills her with dread. "Ask him about the deal he made when you were sick."
"I don't know what you mean by that." But a picture is forming in her mind, and it's not a pretty one.
"Ask him about the fucking deal, Scully. Ask him about the evidence he destroyed to get you a cure!"
But Skinner would never do something like that. She didn't even trust him back then—there's no way he'd have compromised himself for her like that. "Mulder, you're not making any sense."
"And then while you're at it, ask yourself why Skinner's being so helpful."
"I know why he's being helpful, and it's not any of the reasons you're implying."
"Yeah, what do I know, right?" Mulder asks. Gone from his voice is any trace of smugness, replaced only with a bitter sorrow that stings at Scully's eyes. "I'm just the drunk you used to live with."
Somehow, it's the worst thing he's said all night, decimating the last of her defenses. "I can't listen to you talk like this anymore, Mulder," she manages finally, surprised when her voice doesn't break.
"Don't worry, Scully, I won't bother you again."
He hangs up before she can protest. Gone, just like that. Staring at the carpet, she can't help but feel as if she's regressed five months with one phone call—just like her first night here, she's alone in the darkness that always seems to find them. Maybe it's the blur of unshed tears, but right now she can't see a way out through the swirl of guilt and grief trying to consume her.