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all the old familiar places

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She should have worn black less often.

It’s been years since she felt her age in any other color. She liked it, at first—trading the unholy mix of plaid and velvet for streamlined noir. It felt like a life led perpetually undercover. They were Agents; she was Scully. They were a set of clinical facts that humanize a horror, as autopsies do: a careful Y-incision through the surface of the world. In black and white, no one but Mulder could see her. She could slip into her own funeral unnoticed.

But her hands pick at all-black hems and this isn’t her funeral, and she regrets it now—making herself so familiar with the color of mourning. She should be able to mark Mulder’s death as more shattering than a night in a dive bar. She’s worn black to the grocery store. Stupid, she thinks, unraveling a thread on her coat. They say scientists might someday create a shade darker than black, but her mother pulls into the cemetery before it happens.

Later, after, she wipes dirt on her dress, and that feels a little closer to right. 

 

The view from the passenger side window is a flip book of strip malls and pancake joints. The word caught in her head is Goodbye. 

I’m glad you had this chance to say goodbye, people say, We’re here to say goodbye, as if she and Mulder hadn’t ended most of their conversations by just hanging up. And those were really just pauses. They moved on from more cases than they solved; by the time they got together, they’d already been together for years. She always thought they’d die in the way horizons bring roads to a point.

If there is a place to say goodbye to him, it’s the highway, which doesn’t end—you just sort of exit. Her mother exits now, turn signal clicking in time with a flickering HOT NOW donuts sign. Her mouth goes sweet.

“Two cups of coffee,” Mulder tells a waitress in a sky blue scrunchie, “and one order of your Famous Mini Donuts.” He taps the menu emphatically.

“You got it.”

“Mulder. Donuts?” She raises an eyebrow and tilts her head. She’s working on it: the act of disapproval. Her voice goes higher when she speaks to him, giving her away.

“They’re famous, Scully.” Tap, tap. “Best in the state.” His finger almost sticks to the laminated paper. He smiles without showing his teeth and all her arguments get lost in the thickness of artificially heated, syrup-scented air. It’s hard to lie in a roadside diner at 2 a.m.

The donuts, which are mostly hot, are almost hard to find beneath the mound of powdered sugar. She shakes them out, delicately; he dives in. When he pushes a shock of hair back into place he streaks it white.

“I think it looks distinguished,” she laughs.

“I could get your hair, too.” He waves a powdery hand in her direction. “Maybe we could qualify for the senior discount.”

“Pull over.”

Maggie looks surprised.

“Pull over now!”

Her mother steers the car toward the side of the road and Scully lurches out, leaning over a ditch, clammy palms on her knees. The snowbank is mostly dirt and ice. She shuts her eyes until the nausea passes. As the winter air and her flushed cheeks come to some kind of equilibrium, she gets back into the car and thinks, Why can’t he. Why can’t he stretch his arm around her seat again. She’ll let him pick the music. 

Don’t you ever just want to stop? she’d said once. Get out of the damn car?

When her mother pulls up to Mulder’s place, she asks her to take another lap around the block.

 

She still has two toothbrushes on opposite sides of the Potomac; she gets more use lately out of one drawer of clothes than she does out of her full closet. His landlord wants to know what she’s going to do with the place.

“Keep feeding the fish.”

Too many people have died in her apartment. Too many people have died in his, but he was one of them—a chalk outline and a pool of blood at the foot of his couch—and it was all an act. Part of her believes if she waits around long enough, he’ll show up to thank her for selling the illusion. She sleeps with his TV on, volume low. Sometimes she takes the couch.

He was right about that couch; if you don't fall asleep sitting up, it's not a bad night's rest. She's always fighting the expectation that she'll hear him say I told you so.

The FBI therapist wants her to start a journal. Journals, she replies, are started to be stopped. Journals are antiseptic, coarse hospital sheets and dim fluorescent lights, and she hasn't touched one since she went into remission, since she decided to leave her mark in Mulder. (He folded her into his palms like Rorschach's wet inkblots, her Oxford profiler.) But she remembers his glasses in the glow of his monitor, and one night, on impulse, she powers up the computer. She writes to him. It’s not the kind of report Blevins had in mind.

She tells him about the kids who play baseball down the street. She tells him about her mother. She tells him how guilty she feels when she catches herself smiling, which is mostly when she thinks about their baby. She’d take pictures if she had someone to hold the camera; she started showing so soon after the funeral that she thinks the only thing hiding her bump before was the blur of her constant motion, like the way it took her so long to memorize his jawline because he was always looking up or looking down. She tries three times to tell him her fears about the pregnancy. Even here, she can’t get it out.

She deletes without saving. 

It's night, or morning, and probably cold out, when Plan 9 from Outer Space makes her cry. "It's an interesting thing when you consider—the Earth people, who can think, are so afraid of those who cannot: the dead.”

He knew who stood to gain from keeping him alive. He still went looking elsewhere, for the ones who didn't care. He found them.

  

It’s the second day of her fourth week back when she finds Skinner waiting in the basement.

 “Agent Scully, you’re looking well.”

 She nods. “I have the numbers you asked for here, sir.” Since her return to work, she’s been A.D. Skinner's appointed left brain, fashioning a safety net out of spreadsheets and the surprising discovery that some facts still fit into them.

 “I’m not here about the shooting statistics.” He puts out a hand to stop her reaching for the papers on her desk. “There’s been a development.”

 She waits. He spins a manila folder between two fingers and clears his throat.

 “If an X-File is the last thing you want right now, Agent Doggett can handle the investigation. You don’t have to have anything to do with it. But if you feel you could use a case, I have one for you. An old friend.”

 “Gibson? Is he all right?”

 “Gibson Praise is fine.” He looks over the rim of his glasses. “You still can’t see him.” Skinner shut down that request weeks ago—something about how driving circles in the desert at night was tantamount to “using the boy as alien bait.” He did, however, agree to stay in communication with the Arizona field office.

“Who is it, sir?”

“Eddie Van Blundht.”

“No.” It’s an expression of disbelief, not a refusal.

“Apparently Mr. Van Blundht managed to switch out his regular medication during a shift change. Once the muscle relaxant left his system, he impersonated a guard and walked out the front door.”

She sighs, but it’s more for the women of West Virginia than for herself, and reaches for the file.

“Agent Doggett and I will head out today.”

It’s something like a legacy.

 

She thinks that grief is an X-File, and wouldn’t Mulder find that fitting. She and Mulder (she and Mulder, she and Mulder) once chased a monster that presented itself as its victims’ worst fears. Grief is that monster without the bare-faced cunning, the obvious motive, the wink at the camera. Grief is that monster in the shadows: a dark kaleidoscopic thing that changes as soon as it’s recognized. It hit her as a whispered “agent” and Skinner’s hand on her shoulder and her feet leaving the floor. It was the vague, throbbing sense that she should fight her way out of Doggett’s arms. It was blades of grass slicing the lifelines on her palms. Wild eyes, denial, a pounding head, everything muffled and blurred and not enough air. The next day, it was forgetting that she’d called her mother already.

After that it was as slick and as tangible as the shirt that she hugged in her sleep. It overflowed from crumpled tissues in the trash; it dripped in the bathroom sink and smeared across her pillow. (It wasn’t lost on her that it went everywhere the blood used to go.) She was, not for the first time, a gun waiting to go off, and her safety was buried under six feet of cold dirt in Raleigh, probably with tissues still in his pocket. Her grief pricked the whole surface of her, in every nerve ending. It hardened as soon as she learned to expect the taste of salt in her coffee.

It burrowed into her then and splintered into fractal patterns like the geodes Melissa collected when they were kids. She would, she thinks once, probably look better split open. But she looks whole, and that might be the worst tragedy: that her badge still gets her into the Hoover and her heels still click right left down the halls and people still ask her things, expect things of her. And she’s capable of delivering. Her terrible ability to soldier on feels like a betrayal—you have always been the strong one, her mother said once, but what good is that if it doesn’t protect him. She didn’t find him in time, and she can’t even do him the courtesy of being late to the office. 

She stands ramrod straight so the crystallized grief in her abdomen doesn’t puncture any vital organs. Sometimes she still says, “I’m fine.” She worries that not enough people are whispering behind her back.

There will be other stages. None of them will be acceptance.

 

Mulder’s photographic memory was, like too much of his life, out of his hands: a genetic gift and curse. But Doggett’s steel-trap brain is the intentional kind, the “old-fashioned police work” kind that comes from reading the same file over and over again. He remembers studying Eddie Van Blundht.

“Didn’t he pretend to be Mulder?” 

She runs her tongue along her upper lip. “It’s a seamless impersonation, Agent Doggett. With his muscular tissue, Van Blundht can look like anyone, down to the last detail.”

“So where do we start?”

They start the usual way, talking to the staff at Cumberland Reformatory and the guard whose clothes Eddie stole. Did he say anything that might indicate where he was headed? Did he have any regular visitors? (He did not.) He has no more immediate family. Amanda Nelligan, who now interrupts Star Wars for Blue’s Clues, is raising her daughter with the help of her girlfriend, but they promise to let the FBI know if Luke Skywalker calls again.

The local PD stations officers outside the houses of staff members who came in repeated contact with Van Blundht. He isn’t the type to go far from home. In a briefing, Scully instructs the staff to set up code words with family, friends, significant others. She doesn’t know what theirs would have been; they were never good at fitting whatever they were into a questionnaire.

 

She rests one toothbrush in the corner of the motel sink. She tucks her socks between starched motel sheets and watches the door. She dials.

“Mom?”

“Dana? Is everything all right?”

“Turn to channel 7.”

Her mother laughs, just a little, when she realizes. "Honey."

Scully smiles into the phone. "Did you know we left the premiere early?"

She tells her mother about the lights on the beach in Santa Monica, the late night when she fixed his fingers in the glow of a street lamp, the way Mulder started taking his coffee sweeter after Antarctica. The things he said in his sleep as she drove him across the country with a bullet hole in his shoulder. The present he got her last Christmas. The Dick Clark impression he'd been testing. Everything, everything.

She falls asleep as Téa Leoni confesses her love for Walter Skinner.

 

A Cumberland doctor calls the police when her husband doesn’t know his half of their code phrase. He gives himself away as soon as he sees her, grousing "Agent Scully?" through the mouth of a man she's never met. And this man, this one, is the one who's still alive.

She and Doggett ride with Van Blundht to the station. While Doggett gets started on the paperwork (“Don’t forget the silent H!”), she walks the prisoner back to be processed.

“Hey, where’s Mulder? He busy buying more cheap posters or something?”

“I’ve read you your rights, Eddie. You might want to stop talking.”

“It's just, I thought you two only worked cases together. And with you lookin’ like that—”

“Let’s go.” She holds his shoulder tighter and picks up the pace, breathing in time with the click of her heels on linoleum tile.

Eddie gets a good look at her as he's booked. He should be whining, he always is, but he rolls his thumbs in the ink and studies her without a word. She shifts closer to the wall. As they shut him behind bars she recalls seeing his face like this once before, on a monitor at Cumberland. I just think it’s funny

She’s leaving.

“I can let you talk to him.”

The linoleum goes rubbery, absorbs all the sound in the room, gives beneath her feet. But this is never a choice. Scully, finally, looks him in the eye.

“No, you can’t.” 

It’s the closest she’s come to a goodbye she can live with.

 

She’s filing the last paperwork on the Van Blundht case when she hears someone on the stairs and realizes she doesn't expect it to be Mulder.

“Good morning, Agent Scully. How’re you feeling today?”

“I’m fine.” There it is again, the lie. “How are you feeling?” Pointed eyebrow, footnote 1: No special treatment. There has only ever been one exception; his attention was like being laid bare on a warm microscope slide or divvied up into a humming projector. Mulder was curious. But he was incapable of giving special treatment for the sake of it—his care for her was artless. The acts of care all came from the caring, not the other way around. 

“Me?” Doggett doesn’t entirely catch the hint. “Good. But then, I don’t got a little J. Edgar to lug around.”

He likes her too much. She tells him to get out while he still can. She tells him it’s too late for her, but she’s speaking over an echo.

You’re going to be head of the Bureau by then.

It’s too late for her.

Her dogged partner studies his computer and she watches the walls shrink around him. He could do so much good in an upstairs office. Head of the Bureau, someone had once dreamed for her, and she’d given it up for him. In the elevator, she closes her eyes to images of Mulder’s restless face and the even, matter-of-fact way he’d said it.

 

Her phone rings at 11:22 p.m.