He hadn't answered his phone in days.
Scully watched his apartment building thoughtfully from her own sedan, as the bright green leaves danced just outside of Mulder's window. She had been sitting there for an hour already, the heat and stickiness of the Northern Virginia summer baking her car as beside her the sandwiches and sodas she had purchased as a peace offering threatened to melt in the humidity. She could have just taken them, gone up to the door and leaned on the buzzer till Mulder, in irritation, finally let her in. Or else she could have waited till any one of the inhabitants of the apartment building was called out into the warmth and sunshine of summer, and opened the door for her to slip inside. But she sat, calling his phone, hoping he would pick up and instead getting his answering machine. She had already left three messages there, two on his cell. She had even tried the office, but had spotted his car parked in its spot even as the office voice mail picked up. He was in there or at least she suspected he was.
Well, she reasoned, he couldn't hide out forever. She had the keys to his apartment.
The bag of sandwiches and soda sat in the very seat where just two weeks before the flask with the strange creature had sat, the very thing that had set all of the events in motion that culminated into the one thing she had worked so hard to avoid. The X-files were closed. She and Mulder were separated. And as of Monday she would begin teaching her first classes at Quantico in over a year. As she sat before the OPR representative, a smiling but hard-faced blonde woman, sandwiched between Assistant Director Skinner and Section Chief Blevins, she had found it difficult not to feel bitter, even angry towards all three of them. Skinner had nearly fallen over himself to try and reassure her that in no way did the events in question reflect poorly on her record as a Field Agent, and that if a new opening should come up anywhere he would be the first to recommend her for the position should she choose to pursue it. By no means, he reiterated, was this a failure in his mind for the work she had done.
Why did it feel like a failure anyway?
She dialed Mulder's number again, her cell phone battery nearly worn out from the repeated calls upstairs. She wiped at her sweating face with the back of one hand, watching Mulder's window as she dialed, expecting the answering machine to pick up once again.
To her surprise it didn't. Mulder's voice was hollow and croaking on the other end of the line.
"Scully, why are you staking out my apartment?"
"How do you know I'm not sitting comfortably in front of my air conditioner with a lemonade, painting my nails?" She replied trying to keep their conversation light hearted. He was silent for several seconds as she heard rustling in the background and ahead she could see something stirring the blinds in his window.
"Because I'm standing here staring at your car as you are staring at me." There was a hint of a smile as he raised the shades fully and she could see him leaning against the glass, phone up to his ear. "Should I do a strip tease now? I don't have the red light out."
"Sorry Mulder, I've already seen you naked, the thrill is gone." It was partially true. She had seen him mostly naked in the hospital as they frantically tried to staunch the blood from his bleeding thigh.
"Since we aren't partners anymore, Scully, you should reciprocate sometime." There was the bitterness she was expecting, just barely contained under the veneer of childish humor. She bit her lip, wondering how to best diffuse the anger now that she didn't have the threat of their working partnership to leverage his temper.
"I brought sandwiches, Mulder. Will you let me up?"
"You got a key," he replied ambivalently. "It's the weekend, the front door's not locked."
She thought, somewhere in the mists of her memory, she knew that. Feeling incredibly stupid, she murmured into the receiver. "Give me a few minutes, I'll be right up."
He clicked off without so much as a goodbye, as she gathered her purse and the bag of sandwiches, stepping lightly out of her car and adjusting her light, cotton summer skirt into something more ladylike, the thin fabric clinging damply to the back of her sweating legs. She had been an idiot, sitting out there, melting while he ignored her. She should have just gone in, tried the door, gone on up and let herself in with the key. But it felt wrong to do that now they were no longer partners. It seemed improper, invading his space for nothing more than just a social visit. That was something the two of them never did for each other. There were the exceptions, of course, when he had been shot in North Carolina, she had of course gone over several times to check in on him and make sure he was comfortable. But under normal circumstances once they were out of the office neither of them ever saw the other socially, even for drinks. Mulder's life or lack thereof was his own as far as Scully was concerned. Their contact beyond the four walls of their tiny, basement office was limited to the random, late night phone calls she would receive from time to time on topics ranging from Carl Sagan to what sort of idiot would buy anything that Ron Popeil had to sell on television. Mulder had wanted to buy a juicer. Never mind the man could only cook soup as far as she could tell. And fruits and vegetables were nasty swear words in his kitchen…well, what passed for a kitchen. The last time she had even looked in his fridge, during his convalescence six months before, he had nothing more than a bottle of sour orange juice, a dubious carton of milk and a pack of Kraft American Cheese slices, no bread, no cold cuts. The man really needed someone in his life, she mused, as she stepped inside his building, and made the terrifying and disturbing journey up the grinding elevator towards Mulder's floor.
Despite the soft murmur of televisions from neighbors enjoying their weekends vegetating in front of bad programming, Mulder's apartment was eerily silent. She knocked quickly on the door, plucking at the tank top that stuck to her, praying to God Mulder had thought to turn on the air if nothing else in his apartment. She could only imagine how stifling the place would get in the thick air of summer and Mulder's lack of anything resembling proper cleanliness would make it all the worse. She wrinkled her nose as she recalled the Lone Gunman's hideaway, how it wreaked of sweaty clothes and used Cheetos wrappers and how she had feared then that this would be Mulder's future should he ever give up the Bureau for full time alien chasing. That possibility seemed sadly more realistic today than it had at the time and the thought depressed her.
Mulder didn't answer the door, and she knocked again. From somewhere inside he bellowed "It's open." She turned the knob and stepped inside cautiously. The air was cool, the hum of the air conditioner in the far window throwing cold air towards her damp skin. The apartment didn't smell of stale food or unwashed body parts. This was a plus. She stepped more fully inside, closing the door behind her and moving in, her sandals tapping on the hardwood of Mulder's home. His television was on, but on so low that she marveled that he could hear the sound at all. It was an old black-and-white film, something involving giant ants in the desert. She glanced at it briefly as her eyes roamed the small area, searching for Mulder. From the bathroom she could hear soft shuffling noises and the sound of the faucet running as a toothbrush scrubbed against teeth.
She set the sandwiches on the coffee table, and glancing at Mulder's leather couch. A blanket and pillow lay tousled together, his basketball caught up in the folds. She separated the mess, placing the ball on his cluttered desk, the pillow in a corner, and folded the blanket neatly to set on the back of his couch. She had just tidied it enough to allow herself to perch gingerly on the leather, her cotton skirt tucked neatly under her, as Mulder entered, still tugging on a white undershirt, his stubbled face looking freshly scrubbed, though his dark hair looked greasy and unwashed. At least he had made something of an effort; she smiled as he avoided her gaze, going straight for the bag of food on the table.
"Where did you go," he asked by way of greeting, his voice flat and indifferent.
"The place a few blocks from here. I thought it might be one you liked." In truth she had no idea what Mulder liked in the way of food with any certainty. He obviously enjoyed pizza and burgers, it was the one thing she saw him eat with any consistency. She had hazarded a guess on the sub shop, stopping to get something that looked appropriately large and manly for him, dripping with meat and dressing, and just disgusting enough to make the doctor in her want to faint.
"Which is mine?" He rooted in the plastic bag, pulling out to soda bottles and eyeing the paper wrapped sandwiches speculatively.
"The big one, the other one is a grilled Portobello sandwich." she held her hand out as he picked it out the much smaller sandwich, frowning at it dubiously, his aquiline nose wrinkling at it as if he had just unearthed a maggot under the stack of paper napkins.
"That's not a sandwich, Scully. That's salad."
"It's a grilled mushroom between two slices of bread, Mulder."
It's not a sandwich without meat on it," he insisted stubbornly, pulling out his own sandwich with much more satisfaction.
"What do you say about peanut butter, then?"
"It's a meat-like substance, a protein that can substitute."
"Have you ever had a Portobello mushroom sandwich?"
"Why on God's earth would I want to?" He snorted as if the idea was as foreign to him as aliens and the paranormal were to her. "Mushrooms belong on pizza and burgers. Occasionally they are appreciated when I want to get in touch with my inner Zen." He flopped inelegantly onto the couch beside her and she noticed he was wearing the same pair of dress slacks he had on when she had last spoken to him two days before.
"Have you eaten anything in the last few days," she asked quietly, watching as he unwrapped his sandwich and swallowed half of it in a single bite.
"Haven't felt in the mood to see people," he replied as soon as he was physically able to.
"Not even the pizza guy?"
"He's the most suspicious," he shrugged, swallowing another bite before setting the sandwich back on its paper on the coffee table, leaning back into the couch to regard her for the first time since he stepped into the room. He frowned as he glanced from the top of one bare shoulder to the end of one bare knee.
"Dressed down for you, Scully." He reached a long finger off the back of the couch where he had flung an arm and plucked lightly at the light blue fabric of her top.
"It's Saturday, Mulder." It was the best response she could manage, suddenly disconcerted that he even noticed what she was wearing.
"And I'm not dragging you off to perform alien autopsies in Timbuktu, Idaho." He let go of the fabric between his fingers and pulled his arm back to his side so quickly you would have thought the knit had burned him.
"There is no Timbuktu in Idaho," he tried to tease him.
"There might as well be. That's where they'll stick me if they have any say in it." He rose suddenly, nervous energy exploding into a sudden, swift movement off the couch, his long legs easily rounding the coffee table and moving towards his desk to stare out of the window looking out to the street. The blinds were still open and he jerked them shut angrily.
"Did you find out your permanent assignment?" She had hoped they would stick him back in Behavioral Sciences, having him do what he was best at. She could tell by the way his face-hardened and the tendon just below his jaw worked that she'd thought too highly of the people who had shut down the X-files.
"Since I'm so fond of surveillance work they have me listening in on hours of tape from the Spinoza case." His words were dry and lifeless, despite the smirk that crossed his lips. "Good thing I caught up on all of the Godfather movies recently."
"Organized crime isn't so bad, Mulder." She tried to put a good face on it. It could be so much worse, she realized, thinking of the background checks, calling little old ladies in Delaware regarding people they barely remembered from twenty-five years before.
"I think I already know all the best places to get a blow job between here and Atlantic City, thank you," he grumbled. He turned to lean against his desk, his eyes glittering. "Quantico, right? Back to teaching?"
"And cutting up bodies." It suddenly sounded so very banal to her, she realized. A year ago it was a job she was proud of. Now it was a demotion, something to shuffle her sideways into for a while to see if she could toe the line enough to be trusted as a field agent once again. It was back to endless rounds of paperwork, punctuated by hours of standing in the forensics morgues, slicing through body after body, calculating each and ever aspect, running test after test, for cases and conclusions that weren't her own.
He was silent as he watched her, his face inscrutable, before he looked away. In the year since she had met Mulderm had begun to work with him, to get to know him, she had seen almost every mood she could think of out of him. He had been arrogant and cocky, reveling in his status as a pariah to thumb his nose at the powers that be. She had seen him vulnerable and hurt, a broken child still mourning the loss of a sister decades gone and a family torn from him by suffering. She had seen him at his most charming, with a smile that could melt even her cold heart and reversely utterly terrified of an old flame that had once toyed with his. She had seen the worst side of Mulder, the dark, brooding, angry side that frightened her out of her wits and the possessive, over-protective side that irritated her more than she thought was possible. She had never seen this side of Mulder. It was the look of a man cornered, a man helpless and drowning without a clear sign of what to do and where to go. From the day she had stepped into Fox Mulder's basement office he had been a bright and shining force of nature, blinding in his belief, able to move mountains and turn tides just because he believed he could. She had almost believed he could as well. Till he finally hit a mountain that would not be budged, and he stood in front of it, helpless. And it was breaking her heart to see him like this.
"Mulder," she began, sandwich forgotten on the table.
"Don't think I'm giving up." He shook his head slowly. "I did this work before you even began working with me. I refuse to let them cover it up and hide it because they fear what it will mean." The entire spark that was Mulder hadn't left him, but it was dampened now. There was something there now that hadn't existed before…fear of defeat. "I won't let them take what I know away from me. I just have to work as they do, to operate from the same covert layers that they seem to like to hide under."
"Covert layers," she murmured blankly, frowning at him as the sound of those words frightened her inexplicably. "Mulder, don't do anything foolish here. They've taken away the X-files, yes, but…."
"But what?" he cut in with soft irony, cocking his head as he finally allowed his eyes to meet hers for the first time since she had arrived. "They'll take my job away from me? They don't want that, Scully. They want to beat me, to humiliate me, to shame me so completely that even if I were to find the truth, no one would believe me. I'd forever be Spooky Mulder, howling about the sky falling, my truths buried under a broken career, a forgotten reputation, and the label as the worst failure in FBI history."
He believed himself a failure. She saw that now. Even with all of the belief and truth he clung to still, even after all of that, she saw the despair and loss all of the same. It didn't matter if the FBI took his job, not to him. It mattered that he knew what was happening and no one took him seriously enough to listen. Except one person, she realized…herself. Perhaps she didn't have conclusive evidence that aliens did exist, perhaps she had only dimly seen the edges of a shadowy conspiracy that she could not explain any more now than she could a year ago. But she did believe something was there, that something was going on. She believed because Mulder believed.
"Mulder," she rose, moving slowly towards him as he stood, motionless by his desk, reaching for one arm to force him to regard her, to not close her off. "I can't say I believe every theory or that I stand by every idea that comes through your head." She smiled, softening her words as she thought of some of Mulder's more outlandish hypothesis. "My father used to say that failure in war didn't come from losing the battle. It came from never engaging the enemy to begin with. No matter what anyone tells you, no matter what you come to believe, I will never think of you as a failure."
He was so still beneath her fingers, that she wondered if he had even paid attention to a word that she had said. For several long moments she stood there, staring up at his stoic face, his guarded eyes, before she felt the color rise to her face and she pulled her hand away hastily, wrapping her arm in front of her as suddenly felt painfully exposed and dangerously open.
"I'm just saying," she found herself stammering as looked towards the closed blinds, wishing they were open now so she had something to stare at wordlessly. "You aren't alone in this, Mulder. They may have separated us, but I won't let you do this by yourself." She shrugged, forcing a teasing laugh. "You need me, if nothing else to save your ass when you get it shot."
A soft snort, a gentle exhale of air, something that could be akin to a chuckle, finally escaped Mulder as he nodded quietly. What else was there to say, really? He had his quest. She had her new orders. What could they do now? No longer partners, now just…friends? Scully glanced around Mulder's shabby apartment helplessly, wondering what this meant, where would this go for his work, for his quest, for her investment in it.
"Since we are no longer partners," she cleared, her throat, looking towards the purse she had brought in along with the sandwich bag, carelessly left on the table, her car keys spilling out. She picked them up and found the brass colored one she knew led to Mulder's own apartment. "I probably should give this back to you."
"Keep it," he replied immediately, glancing at the metal in her fingers. "You never know, they may send me out of town for some sort of shit job to get me out of their hair. I'll need someone to feed my fish." He glanced at the tank that sat bubbling quietly just over her shoulder.
"Sure," she nodded, smiling tightly as she glanced backwards to the silent goldfish, swimming oblivious to the troubles of the world outside of their tank. "Keep mine as well." It only seemed fair after all, she reasoned. "You can come in and check in on my rampant dust bunny population under my bed."
"Liar," a ghost of a smile played on his lips as his eidetic memory recalled this conversation from the year before. "Dana Scully doesn't have dust bunnies."
"Perhaps they just hide really well," she offered jokingly.
"They're afraid of the utter neatness of your apartment, it doesn't offer them good grazing lands." He laughed, but just behind the laughter came a moment of piercing sadness. "I'll miss you, Scully."
Tears misted her eyes so quickly she almost didn't have time to stop them. Her nose prickled as she felt the betraying shine form in the corner of her tear ducts, but she nodded and grinned despite herself. "I'll miss you too."
She sniffed loudly, throwing her hands up and laughing in a watery choke as she slipped her keys back into her purse again. "Listen to me! It's not like we won't ever see each other ever again. I mean, seriously, I'll be in the Hoover building often enough and I can swing on by to see you…"
"Scully," Mulder's voice was grave as he stopped her. She turned to look up at him as he shook his dark head. "We can't meet anymore after this."
She paused in mid motion, the strap of her bag hanging loosely in her fingers. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that they are watching us," Mulder jerked his head down towards the telephone port she knew they had found a bug in just months before. "He used to watch us, you know."
She knew he was referring to the now dead Deep Throat, the man whose name and occupation was still as mysterious to her now as it had been a week ago.
"These people we are dealing with, the men that killed him, they will stop at nothing, including separating the two of us."
Immediately the questions rose in her, unbidden. "Why do they care?"
"That's what you and I have to find out." He replied ambiguously. "The danger doesn't go away just because they have separated u, no more than separating us will top the work. Frankly, I'd keep you happily in Quantico without involving you, but I know you'd just chew your way out just to spite me."
She chuckled guiltily.
"I can't stop you from doing what you are going to do." Mulder became serious once more. "All I can ask is that you be careful. Don't come to me unless you have solid evidence. And under no circumstances let them see the two of us together. They will only use that against us."
She wanted to ask him why? What purpose did it serve? Without the X-files, without the FBI backing, what harm were they creating? Perhaps now, yes, there was a danger, but really in the grand scheme of things how much damage could the pair of them do? She almost said no, she almost told him that this spy game was ridiculous, serving them no more purpose than it did Deep Throat. She remembered that man's dying words to her as he lay in her arms. Trust no one. That included the invisible enemy that Mulder was convinced was watching their every move.
"All right," she nodded, reluctantly. "No where in public. I'll send you smoke signals when we want to talk."
"Smoke signals are a bit obvious, don't you think?"
"Got another idea then, secret agent man?"
"I'll let you know when I come up with one. Till then, you can always give the Lone Gunmen a call. They know how to reach me."
"No way am I letting Frohike have my home phone number."
"Call from a payphone. Probably safer that way."
"From what, these men, or your friends."
"Frohike's harmless," Mulder shrugged. "Most of the time."
Scully wasn't exactly convinced.
"Will you agree to it, Scully?" His face pleaded with her to do so. What other choice did she have?
"Yes," she nodded. "I'll do it. But on one condition."
Mulder looked reluctant to agree to anything. "Depends on what it is."
"Don't do anything stupid. Don't take off anywhere without letting me know first where you are going."
"Scully," he groaned, shaking his head, already hating where she was going with this.
"Damn it, I'm serious. I won't be able to depend on Skinner or anyone else to let me know when you turn up missing. Just have the Gunmen tell me you are out of town. If at the very least so I can feed your fish." She jerked her hand back to his fish tank.
"If I can," he began.
"No, Mulder, every time. Just let me know if I have to be the one covering for you, that's all I ask."
"You don't need to cover for me anymore. You're not my partner."
"No," she acknowledged sadly. "But I am your friend."
He wasn't going to be able to wiggle out of it, she knew that. He finally nodded his head in agreement.
"Fine. But don't take any unnecessary risks."
"Look who's talking," she snorted, eyebrows raised.
He didn't deign to give her skepticism an answer.
This was as good as she was going to get and she knew it. Silently, she grabbed her purse and reached down for the unopened and uneaten Portobello mushroom sandwich.
"I suppose I won't be able to convince you of eating this yourself." She waggled it playfully in front of his nose.
"Leave it. I might get desperate enough."
She tossed it back on the table, imagining it sitting in his refrigerator six months from then, moldering and forgotten behind some stale carton of ancient Chinese take out and covered over by a plastic baggie filled with what had been, at one point in time in its history, pizza.
"What will you do without me to try and ply you with healthy, tasty food, Mulder?" She sighed, shaking her head.
"I don't know," he said simply. He looked lost and forlorn.
"I better getting going, then." She nodded to his half-eaten sandwich. "Finish that up. Take a shower. I'll see you around the office, then?"
He nodded in affirmation, standing up straight to see her to the door.
"Seriously, you promise, Frohike won't get my number?" She murmured as she moved the short distance to the front, turning to face him as she opened the front door.
"I can't promise such things with him. I hear not even restraining orders can stop him when he gets that urge."
"You are frightening, Mulder."
"Oh, not so much." The slow, charming smile she had seen him pull on many a case to get his own way returned, if for the briefest of seconds. "I seemed to have kept you around for a year despite myself."
"Maybe I'm just a particularly stubborn woman, Mulder."
"Nope. Just a very brave one." He grabbed the door as she slipped out. "Be careful, Scully."
"I will." She waved briefly as she turned from him, wondering if she'd even have a reason to visit is cramped, lonely apartment ever again.