He calls her Sunday morning to let her know he’ll be there to pick her up after lunch. She sighs heavily into the phone, mutters something that sounds suspiciously like, “Sure. Fine. Whatever,” and hangs up without waiting for his reply.
Scully tosses her overnight bag into the boot of his car and throws the trunk closed with more force than is necessary. She slides into the passenger seat of his sedan, slams her door shut with a reverberating bang that leaves his ears ringing, and says nothing. Manhandling the file out of her briefcase Scully steadfastly avoids acknowledging Mulder. Her eyes remain glued to her lap as she reviews her written report, or she turns away from him completely to gaze out the window.
The drive north is interminable. Quiet. And not their usual quiet, which is as comfortable as a worn-in pair of jeans that they slip into and out of when they’re not feeling particularly talkative. This quiet is stifling, itchy; the wool sweater your mother forces you to wear even though the weather is 15 degrees too hot for it. It settles over the car the moment Mulder collects Scully at the curb in front of her apartment building and continues to suffocate them until he pulls up to the quaint red-brick hotel a few blocks from the Criminal Justice Center in downtown Philadelphia.
Mulder isn’t really in the mood to talk either, but he keeps glancing at the folder when she underlines or stars something, hoping she’ll open up and finally tell him what happened. What her theories might be. What the hell she’d been thinking.
Instead, when she hasn’t said a single word to him in almost ninety-eight minutes and he can’t bear the silence anymore, he says stupidly, “You know, I never figured you to be the kind of girl who’d go out and get drunk with some random guy and then go get tatted up together.” And then go home with him and fuck him, he doesn’t say, but the words hang in the air between them as if he’d spoken them aloud.
Mulder’s eyes are trained on the horizon, but he feels when Scully turns to glare at his profile.
The sky overhead darkens and tiny beads of mist start to form on the windshield.
“You obviously don’t know me very well, then,” she says softly. After a beat, she clears her throat and says, a bit louder, “At least when I slept with him he wasn’t a suspect in my investigation.”
She’s turned her head away by the time Mulder regains his composure enough to look at her. He should be impressed at the precision with which she’s dealt this long-anticipated blow, but he’s so stunned that the pain doesn’t register as a hit below the belt. It feels like she’s excised half his still-beating heart instead.
The ugly spitting the sky’s been doing all afternoon turns serious, and Mulder turns on the wipers.
“That was different,” he says quietly.
She says nothing.
“Scully, you’d been gone for almost two months at that point. I-I’d been having a really hard time trying to find a reason to keep living.”
More silence. Just the honk of a horn in the near distance as rain batters the car. His windshield wipers squeak periodically as they skid across the glass.
Mulder keeps his eyes focused on the road so he can’t see her face; if they’re finally going to have this conversation the only way he’s surviving it is by not having to look directly at her. He clears his throat.
“Kristen was...she was looking for an ending, for a way out. And I think she sensed that in me. She seemed to understand that I was drifting, too, that I’d lost my center of gravity. She realized, maybe even before I did, that my priorities had...shifted.”
The car hydroplanes and they both suck in a sharp breath when it fishtails, his grip tightening around the steering wheel as the tires try to find solid ground in the downpour.
Mulder’s blood pressure has barely returned to normal before it picks up again as Scully exhales and finally speaks. He has to strain to hear her. “I don’t care, Mulder.”
Mulder glances up at the rearview mirror and flips on his blinker, preparing to switch lanes. “You don’t care that I didn’t want to live without you, or you don’t care that I slept with a suspect?”
When he checks his passenger side mirror, he sees Scully close her eyes and lean her head back on the headrest. The muscles in her jaw are visibly working.
“I don’t care that you slept with a suspect, Mulder. As much as it may feel as if we’re married to each other or the job some days, you don’t owe me any answers. Of course I care that you were self-destructive enough to want to end your life because you couldn’t save mine.” She turns her butane-blue eyes on him and he feels his core temperature climb a few degrees. “That’s one of the things that worries me most about my cancer. That you won’t be able to keep fighting when I’m gone.”
The distinction is not lost on him.
Rain falls steady enough now that he has to turn the windshield wipers to their highest setting.
“It’s not fair to put that burden on me, Mulder. I’m the one who’s dying, but you can’t seem to stop blaming yourself long enough to realize that I don’t hold you responsible for anything that’s happened to me. That’s what I was trying to tell you that day in your office. Not everything is about you. This is my life. And that necessarily means that it needs to be my death, too. You found me once before, Mulder. But this time, I don’t want you to follow me.”
The rain turns to hail, drowning out any chance of further discussion, and traffic slows to a crawl as they hit the city’s outer limits.
They don’t speak again.
Mulder’s hope that driving them to Philadelphia the night before the hearing would make things easier on Scully dwindles when a traffic accident funnels the highway down to one lane, adding an hour to their commute, and some mishap with the hotel’s booking system leaves them with a reservation for only one room. The manager is appropriately apologetic, typing frantically while water pools at Mulder’s feet in fat drops from his hair and his trenchcoat.
Scully remains in the car, ostensibly to review the casefile but her fingers have been massaging slow circles on her temples for the last ten minutes. As soon as the hotel manager hands him the key, Mulder dodges out to the curb and slides over a patch of melting ice before catching himself on the hood of the car. Scully glances up at him, concerned, and he quirks a tight smile and pops the umbrella open for her.
“So do you want the good news or the bad news?” Mulder asks, offering his hand to help her out of the car. He is mildly surprised when she takes it.
“Good news, please,” she sighs, taking hold of his proffered arm to keep from losing her footing on the slick walkway. She slips her hand into the crook of his elbow and firmly grips his arm, tucking herself into the lee of him.
“The good news is the storm is supposed to break tonight.” He pauses just inside the front door to close his umbrella and lifts his chin towards the back of the lobby. “And they’ve got a great restaurant that supposedly has the best cheesesteaks in town.”
Scully winces dramatically. He nods, and murmurs sympathetically. “I figured you’d say that, so I checked the menu already. They’ve got consomme and salads too. Should be something we can find that’ll agree with your stomach.”
The smile almost reaches her eyes but drops when she looks up at him again.
“Okay...then what’s the bad news?”
Mulder hands her the single keycard as they pause in front of an antique caged elevator. “We’re bunking together tonight. The booking was screwed up when they made the reservation and we got two double beds in one room instead of two kings in two rooms.”
Scully visibly deflates and then sighs like the air is being slowly let out her. Lifting a hand to her forehead, she absently rubs at her left temple.
“I’m sorry, Scully. I know you probably wanted some peace and quiet this evening.”
Scully rolls her head on her shoulders and shrugs.
“I guess it’s not the worst thing that could happen. I just want to change into something more comfortable, and find something in the minibar to wash down my pain meds with. This headache is awful.” She lifts her chin and glances at him sidelong. “Who knows, Mulder? Maybe we’ll wind up with matching tattoos tonight.”
Mulder stares at the back of her head as she steps in front of him and into the elevator.
Thankfully, he’s able to bite back his initial retort that he’d be happy to ply Scully with alcohol and knock her around a bit if that’s what it takes to get her into bed. The thought enters his brain and he smothers it just as quickly. Mulder’s particular brand of sarcasm often masquerades as cruelty; it’s an effective emotional deterrent that serves the dual purpose of keeping outsiders at bay whilst safeguarding his heart. But she’s snuck past his best defenses, and he knows himself well enough to recognize that where she’s concerned, his ire is borne of jealousy and a deep-seated fear of losing her again.
Scully is obviously trying to restore equilibrium, and she has made the first tenuous move towards solid ground to put them on equal footing. He owes it to her to take another step in the right direction and meet her halfway.
“Was that a joke, Scully?” Mulder asks, hoping his attempt at nonchalance doesn’t sound as strained to her as it does to him. “Because I would pay good money to see you get a Yankees tattoo on your bicep.”
Scully just closes her eyes and slumps slightly against the wall, a smile barely tugging at the corners of her lips as she presses the button for the second floor. “Don’t be ridiculous, Mulder. You know I’m an Orioles fan.”
Mulder moves to stand next to her and nudges her shoulder gently with his. She doesn’t shy away from him as he slouches against the wall beside her. The knot that’s been tightening in Mulder’s chest for the past three days loosens enough to let him breathe a bit easier as the elevator judders upwards.
The ghost of a smile still plays on her face.
Maybe bringing her up here a night early wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
The rain has finally slowed to a measly drizzle, and the light reflecting off of the pavement gives the city’s edges the blurred, underwater effect of a watercolor.
Tucked into a booth in the far corner of the hotel’s downstairs restaurant, they stare out the picture window at the surging Schuylkill River for a long moment before their eyes meet across the table and they exchange tentative smiles. Their server brings by menus which Scully studies like there’ll be a final exam.
Mulder takes a moment to scrutinize her while she’s preoccupied. Candlelight deepens the shadows around her and gives her pallid skin a healthy glow; her bright hair is all the more vivid against the dark wood of the booth. The pale ecru sweater she’s wearing stands out in stark chiaroscuro relief against the bruise-black of the storm’s retreating clouds. It hits him sometimes, in certain lighting, at certain angles, how timeless she is.
She’s dying, but she’s still so incongruously, vibrantly beautiful that his heart hurts looking at her.
When they order their food Mulder also orders a bottle of wine since they’re not technically on the clock, and they both could stand to loosen up a bit. Scully sips in silence, sensing that Mulder is going to let her lead tonight, that he understands any forthcoming conversation needs to be on her terms. For once, he’s not going to pry. Halway through her first glass, a flush blooms in her cheeks and she returns his gaze levelly and finally breaks their silence.
“So, Mulder,” Scully says, setting down her wine glass. “Where did you end up going on your forced sabbatical? You never told me.”
He toys with the tines of his fork. “Nowhere important, Scully.”
She continues to stare at him, not letting him off the hook. “Come on, Mulder. You said were going to discover something about yourself. Something about a spiritual journey. What, did you spend time smoking peyote in the desert at Burning Man?”
Mulder swallows a long draught of his wine and flashes back to the morning he’d thrown this Russian informant assignment in her face. He’d been snide and sarcastic and he’d slammed the drawer to his file cabinet and left in a huff. He almost chokes when his words to her come back to him.
Maybe it’s good that we spend some time apart right now. I hope to discover something about myself. Maybe you should do the same.
God, what an asshole he’d been.
“Graceland,” he murmurs.
Scully’s mouth drops before she chuckles, and a dimple he’s never noticed before appears deep in her right cheek.
“Graceland? Really? Were you hoping to commune with the ghost of Elvis? Did you break into the house and perform a seance after hours?”
Mulder rolls his eyes and his smile comes almost as easy as the way they’ve slip back into their accustomed roles. “You know, visitors to Graceland have reported seeing Elvis peering out of an upstairs window or eating a cheeseburger in his kitchen.”
“Did you see the King noshing on a cheeseburger in his kitchen, Mulder?” Scully asks drily.
He smirks as their server approaches with their food. “No. He was actually eating a ham sandwich.”
She smiles again, an indulgent smile he hasn’t seen in awhile, until a steaming bowl of chicken broth is set in front of her, and she blanches slightly. But she picks up her spoon and tilts it gently against the side of the bowl, puckering her lips into an ‘o’ to blow the steam away.
Mulder pauses with his steak sandwich lifted halfway to his mouth as he tries not to focus on her lips.
He puts his sandwich back down and gulps down the rest of his wine before pouring another glass and clearing his throat.
“How’s your headache?”
She looks up from her soup. “Hm?”
“Your headache. Did it go away?”
Scully nods. “It did, thank you.”
She slowly but surely starts to drain her bowl, one spoonful at a time. It’s an arduous process; Mulder can see her talking herself into swallowing every bite. His sandwich remains untouched.
“How are you really feeling, Scully?” he asks softly. “And if you tell me you’re fine I’m going to flip this table, I swear to God.”
She titters, but puts her spoon down and looks at him. “I’m dying, Mulder. And I have to take an oath tomorrow and testify in open court about one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my life. I’m not talking about going home with a man who found me desirable, I’m talking about the complete lapse of judgment I suffered. The only reason I went home with him was to prove something to you, instead of to myself.”
Mulder’s heart constricts. “You have nothing to prove to me, Scully.”
Scully picks her spoon up and swirls it around in her soup. “Of course I do. You’re yet another strong male influence in my life whose approval I’m always going to seek and whom I am terrified to disappoint. And you know that. Come on, Mulder, you can’t tell me you haven’t put those excellent profiling skills to work on me after all this time.”
“It’s okay, Mulder. I just shouldn’t have let it affect me the way that it did. I was furious that you appeared to be doubting my capability as an agent, that you thought I’d potentially mishandled a case you’d trusted me with, and then after that stupid comment about having to go because I had a date...Mulder, it was like you’d forgotten that my life doesn’t revolve around yours. Hell, it felt like I’d forgotten that. And there was a part of me that wanted to prove you wrong, that I still had some agency over myself. It almost got me killed.” When she looks up at him again, tears are gleaming in her eyes. “I didn’t tell you something that I probably should have told you before.”
Mulder gestures for her to continue, hoping he isn’t about to hear something he won’t be able to forget.
“If it wasn’t for Jerse, I never would have discovered the tumor. The CT scan I got at the hospital after I was attacked to make sure I wasn’t concussed showed something abnormal in my nasal cavity. So I went in for a follow-up MRI, and that’s when I was referred to an oncologist and diagnosed.” She chuckles mirthlessly. “In some bizarre, twisted way, I owe Ed a debt of gratitude.”
Mulder reaches for her across the table. “Scully, he assaulted you and was about to throw your body into an incinerator. He tried to kill you.”
Her fingers tighten around his before she pulls away. “I wouldn’t be getting treatment right now if it weren’t for him, Mulder. That tumor would still be tunneling its way into my brain unimpeded. Ironically, whatever borrowed time I’m living on, it’s because he tried to kill me.”
Guilt twists inside him, and quickly distills into white hot anger. He’s suddenly furious at how much she’s suffered because of him. “You know, you keep telling me that not everything is about me. That this is your life. And you’re right, Scully. But what about everything that’s been done to you? You wouldn’t have been abducted in the first place if it weren’t for me. Your sister would still be alive if she hadn’t been mistaken for you, because they wanted to kill my partner. You wouldn’t have even gone out with Jerse that night I wasn’t being such an exceptional asshole. Scully, are you noticing a common denominator here? All the bad shit that happens in your life is a direct result of your involvement with me.”
She searches his face, unblinking. “And yet,” she says quietly, “I’m still here.”
Mulder stares into her fathomless eyes and wants to kiss her and thank her and shield her in equal measure. He wants to tell her that he’s ready to love her, if she’ll have him, has been ready for a long time. And that he’ll take care of her for as long as she has left. He needs to tell her, now, before he has a chance to think about the consequences. “Scully, I-”
Her spoon clatters into her bowl. In the space of a few seconds, she turns two shades paler, and one shade greener.
It’s only then that Mulder notices two quarter-sized drops of blood that stain the pristine white tablecloth a deep crimson just to the left of her bowl. His eyes dart back to her face just in time to watch the stream of blood pour out of her right nostril, staining scarlet all down the front of her white sweater. She visibly sways in her seat and her eyelids flutter. He pulls out a couple of tissues from his pocket and hands them to her across the table. For a moment he’s terrified that she’s going to faint.
“Jesus, are you okay?”
She shakes her head no and tilts her head back, reaching out blindly to take the tissue from his hand. Clutching the tissue to her nose, Scully pinches hard to staunch the flow. Almost immediately she lets out a strangled cough, and blood spatters into the tissue she’s holding over her nose and mouth. She starts to gag and stumbles out of the booth, run-walking to the restroom in the corner.
Mulder watches the bathroom door ease closed behind her and squeezes his eyes shut. Opening them again a half second later, he signals their server and practically throws his credit card at her, asking for their food to be wrapped to go.
By the time Scully reappears ten minutes later, some color has returned to her cheeks but her face is dewy with sweat.
She heads back towards their table but looks around, confused, when she finds it’s already been cleared.
“Over here, Scully,” Mulder calls softly, and she banks right towards the sound of his voice. He has their food in styrofoam containers tucked under his arm and her purse clutched in his hand. He’s holding her jacket out for her, which she hurriedly shrugs into before zipping it closed to hide the bright red stain marring the front of her sweater.
“Let’s just head back up to the room?” he suggests.
Scully barely nods but she takes her purse from him and digs for the keycard as they stride towards the elevator.
Mulder doesn’t bother to ask her if she’s okay.
She doesn’t tell him that she’s fine, either.
Scully doesn’t ask him to, but as she toes her heels off and sinks down onto her bed, facing the wall, he ditches their food containers on the table, then crosses to the bathroom and starts filling the small jacuzzi tub. As steam fogs the mirror, he fills a glass with some water from the tap and digs through her toiletry bag until he finds her anti-nausea prescription.
He pads back into the room and wordlessly hands them to her, then flips on the television and finds Sportscenter, muting the sound. “Bath’ll be ready in another couple minutes.” He throws himself down onto his bed and pivots horizontally, crooking his arm underneath his head so that he can still see the slump of her shoulders out of the corner of his eye.
She must have peeled off her jacket at some point, but she hasn’t moved since she sat down on her bed, except to hold her hands out for the water and the pills.
“You didn’t have to draw me a bath, Mulder.”
He shrugs at her back. “I’ll hop in if you’re not going to, Scully.”
She sighs and angles her torso towards him, looking at him over her left shoulder and drawing one knee up onto the bed. They stare at one another for what feels like hours.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbles, her voice barely audible above the thundering of the water filling the tub. “What I meant to say was, thank you.”
Mulder shrugs again, and his eyes flick back towards the tv.
“I just turned the knob for the hot water, Scully.”
“No. I meant...thank you for coming with me. You didn’t have to drive me all the way up here. Thank you for being here. For taking care of me.”
Mulder turns to stare up at her and lets the silence stretch while he formulates what he hopes she’ll understand to be an apology, an explanation, and a promise.
“I’m your partner, Scully.”
Nodding, she makes her way to the bathroom, crossing her arms in front of her to pull off her sweater and letting it drop just outside the door, which she leaves propped open.
Scully slides her jeans off and stands motionless for a moment in the bathroom in her bra and underwear. Mulder watches steam wrap itself around the curves of her ribcage and melt over the sharp juts of her hip-bones. When she turns to dip a hand in the water and twist the faucet off, that’s when he sees it.
The bright red serpent circling back on itself, devouring its own tail. Mulder can barely make it out because the mirror is so fogged up, but the sight of it stirs something shockingly territorial within him. The tattoo sits just to the right of her spine, tucked low in the sway of her back. With a pang of fury he realizes that’s the very same place he usually anchors his hand back when opening a door for her or trying to get her attention.
She reaches behind herself and unhooks her bra, sliding the straps down her slender arms. Mulder knows he should look away but the sight of her war-torn body captivates him. She’s thin. She’s much too thin. And while he’d only seen photos of the dark violet bruises on her arms and chest, now he’s treated firsthand to the damage wrought by Jerse. The bruises have brightened from a deep purple to a livid peuce, and he can just make out the faint crescent of bite marks on her left collarbone.
As Scully turns to close the door, her reflection catches his watching her in the mirror and she freezes. She blinks and straightens, unashamed to let him see her body, as broken and beautiful as it’s ever been. Then she lifts her chin defiantly, narrows her eyes, and shuts the door firmly.
Mulder waits a full five minutes before getting up, listening for the water to stop sloshing in the tub. He crosses the room and stoops to pick up the sweater she was wearing. Such a pretty shade of white. Like the driven snow.
He dials the number for the front desk and his eyes lose focus on the closed door of the bathroom as it rings. “Yes, can you send housekeeping to room 214 right away please?” he asks the hotelier. “I need something laundered before the stain sets.”
It’s close to 10 when Mulder finally climbs into his bed after his shower. Scully has left only his bedside lamp on. She’s turned away from him once again, facing the wall and bundled under the covers of her own bed.
Mulder sets the alarm and turns off the light. He lies on his back with his fingers interlaced, resting them on his chest. It’s early for him; he doesn’t usually fall asleep until well after midnight, and sometimes not even then.
“You can turn the tv back on if you want.”
Scully’s voice almost startles him.
“Thought you were asleep already. It’s okay, Scully, I know you usually don’t sleep with the tv on. Whatever’s going to be easiest for you.”
“My anti-nausea medicine makes me really drowsy. Go ahead and turn it back on. I’ll be asleep in no time. ”
Mulder grabs for the remote and the blue-white glow of the television suddenly banishes the darkness, making shadows flicker on the walls. He props a pillow behind his head and sits up enough that his back is resting on the headboard.
A few more minutes go by before Mulder finally speaks.
“You know what surprised me most, Scully?”
He hears the whisper of bedsheets as she turns onto her back as well.
Mulder figures this is the only encouragement he’s going to get to keep talking. So he does.
“All I discovered when I left was that I’ve gotten so used to having you around, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I don’t know how to be anymore without you.” He swallows. “And you...you discovered that you have a penchant for pain and dangerous men.”
When she answers a few seconds later, there’s a hard edge to her voice that hasn’t been there since he’d first told her she was being subpoenaed for this hearing. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“You know exactly what it means.”
There’s movement from her bed as she props herself up on one elbow to glare at him. He continues to feign interest in the Dragnet rerun on television.
“Why don’t you just ask me what you’ve been dying to ask me all night, Mulder?”
Mulder turns towards her, crooking his arm and mirroring her position. Scully’s eyes are bright enough in the darkness that he can see the challenge shining in them.
“Did you sleep with him?”
Scully stares at him for a long moment and then rolls over, giving him her back once more. When she sighs, it’s a heavy sound, tinged with a distinct but familiar note that Mulder immediately recognizes. He’s heard it from nearly every person he’s ever loved: Disappointment.
He’s managed to disappoint her.
When she finally answers him, her voice is raspy with sleep and hurt.
“Does it matter?”
On the tv, Dragnet gives way to a Twilight Zone marathon. Mulder waits until her deep, even breaths signal that she’s dropped off to sleep before he eventually turns the tv off and flips over onto his side to face the window, pulling the covers up around his own neck.
Through the curtains, the cloud cover has cleared enough that a few pinpricks of starlight wink at him.
“No,” he whispers, finally. “It doesn’t.”