Groggily, she opens her eyes, the television now off, her forehead against his shoulder while they lounge on the couch. Her watch says it's ten in the evening, but her body thinks it's well past midnight; when she remembers her car outside of this unremarkable house, when she remembers the long drive back to her dismal one-bedroom and fully-furnished apartment, she cringes. Though she knows she isn't fully welcome here, that she can't stay, the temptation is all too real, for she can remember times when she fell asleep on this couch under different circumstances, when she nodded off while he massaged her feet after she came home from work achy and exhausted, when he wrapped her in a blanket while she read Edith Wharton on a snowy day, when he held her there for hours after a police officer nearly figured out they were on the run. However, these circumstances are different, and she knows their primary difference is that the romantic love is gone. Though she can still fall asleep here, she can't wake up, kiss him, and ask him to carry her to bed. In fact, she hasn't a clue as to what she can do right now, as to how she can untangle herself from him and excuse herself from the house. She needs to leave, but against her, he's fast asleep, and though her better judgement wishes she didn’t, she wants to stay.
At first, she offered to drive him home from the Hoover building; then, he offered to make her dinner - a small repayment for the carpool, he claimed, and after all, he could never estimate portion sizes properly and tended to make too much anyway - and then, out of a disdain for her commute home and only for that, she asked if he wanted to watch a movie before she left. Now, she's leaning against him and sharing a blanket with him on the couch while the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind tape sits unrewound in the VCR, and all she wants to do is card her fingers through his hair, kiss his forehead, and not get up until morning.
However, such actions would be irresponsible. Recently, she's no longer been a stranger to this house, to him; instead, she's trailed him home a few times, has come out here on Saturdays and made more than just small talk. It's something, she knows, but it's not enough yet. It's enough to let her fall asleep on the couch, but it's not enough to stay over.
But it's tempting, awfully tempting, so she closes her eyes momentarily, takes a deep breath, lets herself mentally leap before she looks. Ghosting her lips over the side of his face, she traces his brow-bone with her thumb, leans down to kiss him but stops as an all-too-familiar pain stirs in her stomach. Of course, she figures; even her body knows that this is a bad idea.
Slowly, she pries herself away from him; thankfully, he doesn't stir, so she heads upstairs to the bathroom, knows that if she's cramping now, it's too late to save her underwear, that she'll need a tampon before she can drive home. For years upon years, she kept a box of rarely-used backup tampons in the cabinet beneath the bathroom sink for times like this; it was just an old box of O.B., an untouched one from 2004 that was still there when she left him. It's bound to be there, so she opens the bathroom's cabinet, the pain in her stomach brewing while she stares down the products in there.
The giant box of epson salts, the stack of Dove soap bars, the bottle of perfume she bought in New York City, they're all gone and have been replaced by Irish Spring and generic lotion. The bathroom cleaner is different as well, this kind biodegradable and lemon-scented. Her decrepit box of tampons is long gone, and as she sits back on the bathroom floor, she wonders why she even expected that box to still be there.
She got to move out, felt his absence because he didn't fit into her new space, but he must've felt her absence as a void, as an emptiness in his home, as broken picture-frames and unused soap and boxes of things he'll never need and....
With a surge of anxiety, she stands up, rushes into the bedroom, and at the sight of the bed, she feels as though she can't breathe, for the comforter is folded over and creased with military precision, the top-sheet's seam perfectly parallel with the headboard, the pillows arranged with the cases' openings facing each other. Whenever he makes the bed, he barely works the fitted sheet and tosses the pillows on as an afterthought; she's the last one who made this bed, and the last time she made this bed was the morning of the day she left him. Though he could've put more effort into making the bed sometime after that, he would have never thought about which way the pillowcases would face, this arrangement marking the bed with her signature. She knows without a doubt that she's the last person who made this bed.
He hasn't slept in this bed in nearly two years, not since she left, and suddenly, she's rushing back to the bathroom, her stomach giving out on her, a combination of hormones and fear pushing her over the edge. With anxious sweat on her forehead, she tries and fails to take deep breaths, the scent of vomit overwhelming. She leans back against the cabinet under the sink, stares down at her pants, eyes the wet red stain between her legs. Putting her head in her hands, she forces herself to breathe.
Though she doesn't look up, though her eyes are still covered, she can tell that he's in the bathroom's doorway. She wishes that she could shrink down to a sixteenth of her size and then disappear, the whole night just some strange dream that she'll forget seconds upon waking up.
"What happened?" he asks.
In the past, he would've sat down alongside her, coaxed her into his arms, and held her until she felt comfortable enough to talk, but now, he hovers in the doorway, stays back.
Sighing, she says, "I got my period."
She can hear the unspoken question, his surprise that she hasn't passed menopause yet, but she doesn't want to elaborate by saying that this is her first one in five months.
"I should get going," she says, standing up even though she feels dizzy, flushing the toilet without looking at him. "It's late, and-"
He blocks the doorway, their bodies too close as she tries to move around him.
"I'm serious," he says, his voice deep and unwavering.
Uncomfortably, she looks up at him, finally meets his gaze, and in his eyes, she can see that he understands the gravity of such an ask, that the offhandedness of the proposal hardly detracts from his sincerity and understanding of it. Nonetheless, she closes her eyes in annoyance. Right now, all she wants are clean underwear and her own bed even though she can't figure out where her own bed is, whether it's in her apartment or in the next room; regardlessly, the last thing she wants is a drama between them, a chance for tonight to take another wrong turn.
"Mulder," she insists as she tries to walk away, but he won't budge. "Mulder, I just want to go home."
Though that word tastes bloody and metallic in her mouth, he seems unaffected, as though he expected her to throw in a word like that, as though he knew she would remove herself from him and from this place in order to prove her point. In their fights, she tended to say the uglier things, and two years later, it seems that that hasn't changed.
Softly, he reaches for her wrist, and at the contact, she shudders.
"Stay," he repeats, quiet insistence in his voice. "I'll take your car out and pick things up for you. Just stay, Scully. Please."
It's too much, it's not right, and her stomach churns as he runs his thumb across one of her knuckles, and as she brings her free hand to her forehead, she closes her eyes once more, tries to calm the sensory overload she's somehow managed in a dark, near-silent bathroom. Though she needs to say something, she can't bring herself to respond, so he takes back his hand, retreats from the door; if she wants to leave, then he’ll let her go. Frozen in place, she lets her stance decide for her.
Mulder nods to himself, then asks, "Where are your car keys?"
"In the outside pocket of my purse," she sighs.
As he heads downstairs, he calls back, "There’re clean towels where they've always been if you need some."
She takes a deep breath once more as he opens and closes the front door, as he starts her car, as he drives away; once the sounds of him go silent, she walks away from the bathroom, her pants uncomfortably wet. Though she could put on something dry of his, that wouldn't stop the bleeding, and she would rather keep the laundry to a minimum. If she hadn't been so sure that her last period would be, well, her last period, she would've kept something for it in her purse. Momentarily, she wonders how many of her things he's tossed like he did her tampons, so gritting her teeth, she returns to the bedroom, keeps her gaze away from the bed.
Running her fingers over the chest-of-drawers, she picks up a layer of dust, shakes her fingers off with a grimace. She pulls open the top drawer, finds the drawer they put a divider in to separate his underwear from hers, but now, the divider is gone, and his clothes take up the whole space. Quickly, she closes it, goes into the next drawer, and his button-downs are folded there, no spare space for her wrinkle-frees. Of course, his jeans and corduroys take up the whole pants drawer. As she walks toward the bed, she stops quickly when she notices that her bedside-table is gone altogether, his the same as always and occupied with its green-number clock and Goodwill lamp. Gingerly, she sets her hand down on the comforter, presses against that indulgent mattress that they bought right after they handed over the money for this house, right after he said that he refused to carry over the threshold until he knew there was a proper place to put her down. Though there were plenty of new places to explore in their new home, they hid out in the bedroom all evening, their bodies entwined for the night and bruised in the morning. They spent hours with his fingers between her legs and his lips against her ear while he whispered to her welcome home, just the two of them and a mattress occupying this place. In retrospect, it seems to her that such a place would feel empty and lonely, but somehow, they filled the space nonetheless.
Her heart pounds, so she retreats back to the living room, the lamp by the couch still on, their dinner-plates still in the sink. Her favorite blanket is still on the couch, so why is everything else of hers gone? Why wouldn't he toss that blanket too and replace it with a new one, some novelty and un-Scully pattern being slung over the couch instead? Are her spices still in the cabinets, or has he trashed those too? She walks over to the fridge, opens it with a start, and sees that the mustard in there is still the same, the baking soda box being the one she left behind. Where did he draw the line, then? The mustard and the blanket could stay, but the tampons, oh no, those needed to go.
Then, she stops short, her eyes casting across the room to a framed picture on a side-table next to the couch. However, the frame's pressed down against the table, the image covered up, and though she believes she knows what picture is in the frame, she prays that it's just a picture of his sister, or of his parents, or of anything other than what she knows must be in that frame. Turning it over, she cringes at the image, one of her wrapping her arms around his waist and staring up at him with a smile, their gazes locked in the purest look of love. Her mother took that photo a few Easters ago. At the time, Mulder loved it so much that he kept a copy of it in his wallet even though he once told her that he found such a practice crass, useless, and stupid.
Going to sit down, she stops herself first, doesn't want to stain the chairs, but she's fuming, and her pants are soaked through, and if her car were still here, she would take one of his - her - dishtowels, shove it onto her driver's seat, and leave without another word. If he wants her gone this badly, then she'll leave. Though she never intended for this to be permanent, it became permanent somewhere along the way, somewhere between the sparse calls and the unannounced appearances and all of the yelling. Naively, she thought there was hope for them, that work and therapy would bring them back together, but clearly, she was wrong. He wants her gone, doesn't keep space for her anymore; she ought to take the hint.
The front door opens, and he's there, a Peoples Drug bag in his hands; he deposits her keys on the hook by the door that once was their typical spot. So the tampons are gone, but the hook remains? She doesn't even want to look at him.
"I got your brand," he says. "I was going to get Advil, but-"
"You got rid of my tampons."
He stands there awkwardly, his brow furrowing in confusion.
"My tampons," she insists with annoyance, aghast that he doesn't know what she's talking about. "My backup tampons, the ancient box in the bathroom. You got rid of them. Why would you get rid of them? The box wasn't even open, Mulder."
"I just don't get it," she says, not looking at him. "You keep the mustard, you keep the blanket, but you get rid of my tampons. They aren't like condoms, Mulder. They don't expire! You didn't need to-"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"My tampons, Mulder! And the picture, that stupid picture, and the mustard, Mulder!"
Bringing her hand to her forehead, she tries to calm down, but her heartbeat won't slow, and her eyes are stinging with tears, and all she wants to know is why. If this is over, if he's removed her entirely from his life, then she deserves to know why. Of course, there's one obvious answer, but the obvious answer would've replaced the picture in that frame instead of just turning the frame down.
He walks toward her in the kitchen, sets the bag down on the table. When he goes to touch her like he always did, like he did before they ever slept together, she steps away from him, her eyes downcast.
"Scully," he says quietly, trying to bring her to look at him, "If you slow down, I'll explain everything, I promise."
She takes a deep breath, meets his eyes.
"You erased me."
"You got rid of me," she presses, "but you didn't get rid of all of me. My tampons, my emergency tampons, they're not in the bathroom anymore, but my favorite blanket is still on the couch. If you want me gone, then get rid of me altogether, Mulder; don’t just go halfway. If you want this to be permanent, if you want to end things, then just tell me. I don't want to be strung along. I don't want to be stuck in-between forever."
Looking down, he nods in silent understanding, then pulls out a chair and motions for her to sit down. At that, she closes her eyes in annoyance.
"I can't sit," she says slowly, trying to keep her cool, "because my pants are soaked."
"Oh," he grimaces. "Right."
"Just..." she tries, then decides to take the bag and head upstairs. "Give me a minute."
As she heads upstairs, he calls to her, "Feel free to borrow any of my clothes."
"Okay," she says, but she was already picturing the soft sweatpants of his that she used to take, pulls them from his full drawer in the bedroom before heading to the bathroom.
In the bathroom, she sheds her pants, sits on the toilet while she rips open the six-pack of Hanes that he bought her, and tugs a pair on. Of course, he bought the same pads and tampons that she always bought. After she dresses, she balls up her pants, heads out of the bathroom and into the hallway, where the washer and dryer are hidden away in a closet. Dumping her clothes into the washer, she puts the water on cold, adds generic detergent that she didn't buy, turns the machine on; if the stains don't come out this way, then she'll just throw those pants away, or maybe she'll leave them behind for him to dispose of. At that, she scoffs at herself, thinks that's simply too petty.
When she comes back downstairs, he's sitting at the kitchen table, the picture frame in his hands, her favorite hot pack sitting on the table. At the sight of the pack, she sighs internally; she bought that pack, a reusable cloth one filled with rice, after her hot water bottle broke in 2008, and each time her back's ached, each time her shoulders have felt sore, she's missed the pack deeply, missed the relief it provides. As she goes to put the pack into the microwave and heat it up, she stills, smiles to herself. It's already warm.
Sitting down across from him at the table, she presses the pack against her lap, watches as he sets the frame down on the table, face-up.
"I didn't erase you."
At that, she rolls her eyes, glances over at her car keys on that damn hook.
"I didn't want to erase you," he insists. "I...I didn't want you gone. I never did, but we reached one year apart, and my therapist said that keeping your things around wasn't healthy."
"So you threw away my tampons," she says in understanding even though her words sound cutting.
He shakes his head, says, "They're in a box in the attic. I didn't remember there was a box of tampons in there, though. If I had, I would've just brought you those instead."
"So you put me in a box."
"If we weren't living together anymore, then there was no reason to leave room for your things," he says. "If there were things you left behind that I had no use for, they went into that box, and the rest stayed out."
"Which is why my blanket is still on the couch."
"Who ever said it was your blanket?"
"Anyway," he continues, "it wasn't healthy to act as though you would be back any minute now. If I wanted to move on, I needed to stop waiting for you to come home."
Looking down, she tries not to fixate on two certain words.
"Not move on," he corrects. "Something different from that. Move forward."
She nods in understanding, tucks a lock of hair behind her ear.
"Why was the picture still out?" she asks.
"Because I never want to move on," he says. "You're a part of me whether or not you're here. You'll always be a part of me, and I'm happy about that. The picture is a reminder of that, of all we've been through together. However, there are times when I miss you more than I can say, and during those times, I can't look at the picture, so I turn the picture down. I must've just forgotten to put it back up."
Uneasily, she thinks of her apartment, of how it lacks any picture frames, let alone anything to remind her of their life together. She never felt his absence as an empty home, she reminds herself; of course he had to box her away if he wanted to learn to stop missing her.
"Did it work?" she asks.
"Did what work?"
"The boxing," she says. "The turned-down picture."
"It made me feel more whole, but it didn't make me stop missing you."
She nods to herself, the oncoming silence uncomfortable and hard to break. Though she wants to say something, she doesn't know what she could say that wouldn't change everything. She could tell him that instead of packing him away, she bought an electric blanket to use while she wore one of his old shirts each time she missed him, but she doesn't want him to know that side of her. Though she can't say it out loud, she wants to tell him that she still loves him, that she felt warm and safe when he mentioned his therapist comfortably, offhandedly, and without embarrassment. She wishes she could reach out, hold his hand, and ask for reassurance that their separation won't last forever, but he can’t offer that support. Of course, she could lean over, kiss him, and end the separation in a single moment, most all of her worries fading away in mere seconds, but she knows that she needs to be mature about their relationship. They'll come back together when they work healthfully together and no moment sooner, but temptation makes her wish to change that.
"I still love you."
With adrenaline, she closes her eyes, his words making her mind go blank. Not now, please. Not now.
"I need you to know that."
She cowers back in her chair while his gaze sears through her.
"I just..." he trails off. "I can put your things in a box and keep that box out of sight, but I'll never stop loving you. I think it's important that you know that."
"Yes," is all she can manage.
She focuses on her breathing, her eyes at her lap. Tracing the hot pack with her gaze, she stares down the intricate stitching, the soft navy fabric, the little silver embroidered moons. For your moon cycle, he quipped once when he heated it up for her while she had period cramps.
She pauses, finally looks up at him. Though she tended to dominate their talks of this variety, the long and measured ones that were about serious topics and that usually ended with one of them cowering away to another room and holding back stubborn tears, he's the stoic one now while she can feel her hands shaking.
"I don't know what your intentions are," she admits.
"I don't know what yours are either."
But I said we should watch a movie tonight, she thinks, then remembers how many years it took him to first kiss her.
Leaning her elbows on the table and folding her hands, she says, "I miss you."
"I miss you too."
"No, Mulder," she insists with exhaustion, for it can't possibly feel the same to him, "I miss you. I miss you more often than I ever imagined I would, and I miss being here with you, and I miss having my things in the drawers, and I miss being able to fall asleep on the couch with you and have you carry me up to bed. God, Mulder, I miss that bed, and I know you haven't slept in it since."
She averts her gaze from him, doesn't want to know if that comment hurt.
"I wasn't looking to do more than drive you home, but once we got here, I wanted more," she admits, "and when you asked me to stay for dinner, I felt so relieved, as if I'd waited the whole ride to see if you would ask that. After dinner, I wanted to stay because it feels like home here. It feels like home when I'm with you, and I miss you, and I miss being here. I don't want to have to be apart anymore, Mulder, but I need to know that coming back won't hurt either of us."
Sitting taller, she lets her words stew; there's nothing more she can say. While she takes a deep breath, he stands, walks slowly toward where she sits, then offers her his hand. Looking up, she meets his gaze, sees the softness and silent promise in his eyes.
I never want to hurt you again.
"It's late," he says as he helps her up. "I want to talk through this, I really do, but I'm exhausted, and I know you are too. How about we work this out in the morning? I’ll make you breakfast."
"What if we're late for work?" she asks even though she doesn't care if they're late for work, not if it means she'll come home soon.
"Then we're late to work, and that's all."
His hand in hers, he tugs her closer, surprises her by kissing her cheek, his lips softer than she remembers. A few years ago, she kept leaving Chapsticks around the house in hope that he would take the hint, and apparently, he has. Though she wants to pull him closer, though she wants to give him a real, wholehearted kiss, she leans away instead but keeps his hand close.
"There's a spare toothbrush in the shopping bag," he says, absent-mindedly running his thumb along hers, "but I'd imagine you already know that."
"Yeah," she gives as he leads her upstairs.
Once they reach the bathroom, he lets go of her hand, and immediately, she feels the absence of it.
"I’ll be downstairs if you need me," he says, then turns away from her.
He nearly reaches the bottom of the staircase before she gains the courage to call, "Mulder?"
Turning around, he looks up at her from the bottom step, so she stands tall, speaks with a confidence she's fabricating.
"Don't act as though I'm sleeping alone tonight."
Though he only smiles for a moment, she notices nonetheless. Softening, she watches as he comes back to her. They'll always come back to each other, she figures; there's something inevitable about it, and for the first time in the past two years, she's fond of that inevitability.
And everything feels normal despite the strains; even though she's using his toothpaste, the cinnamon kind because he's tired of mint, brushing her teeth alongside him feels cosmically right. As he passes her a washcloth, she feels at ease, her nighttime tension fading away. She borrows one of his shirts, an aging red tee that's fraying at the edges and clashing with her hair. When they climb into bed, she hesitates before pulling the covers back, but then, she breaks that seal that the comforter has created, puts an end to the bed's emptiness. As always, they stay to their own sides, and as he turns off the lamp on his nightstand, she turns onto her side, faces away from him. In the dark, she takes a deep breath, the comforter just as soft as she remembers it being, his warmth alongside her bringing her closer and closer to sleep. This, she knows, is the way a night should feel.
When she climbs into bed at her apartment, she never feels this instant relaxation; instead, she tosses and turns, her pillows either too thick or too thin, the comforter too warm or too cold, everything feeling artificial and wrong. When she wakes for work, the alarm clock at her apartment sounds wrong, the ring too shrill. She rarely eats breakfast anymore because she knows her attempts at the meal will never outdo his. However, as she closes her eyes now, she feels warm and comfortable, sleep coming easily. This is right, she knows, and whatever she needs to do in order to return, she'll do it.
On a whim - a daring, spontaneous, anxious whim - she speaks.
"Mulder?" she whispers back to him.
He hums a response, shifts toward her in bed.
"I still love you too."
One breath, two breaths, she waits for a response, a sound, a movement, anything, but he's silent, so she shifts awkwardly, feels embarrassed though she knows she has nothing to feel embarrassed about. Then, he moves toward her, so she sighs a breath of relief; to her surprise, he wraps an arm around her waist, cozies up against her back in the way he always did, and softly, he brings a warm kiss to the nape of her neck, leans his forehead against her hair, and she wants to cry, to weep in his arms because she missed him and because she never wants to miss him like this again.
"Goodnight, Scully," he whispers.
Yes, she thinks. This is a good night indeed