Mulder drives her to a hotel after the funeral. He even calls Bill’s house to let him know that they won’t be coming back to the house. She can’t face her family right now. She holds the cross in her closed fist, tight enough to leave an imprint on her sweaty palm, closes her eyes and rolls the window down to let the California breeze blow across her wet face.
Mulder reaches across the console to take her spare hand, but she moves it away, balling it up in her lap.
It’s happened a few times now - the first time in Florida, after he’d come back from the Asekoff’s house and found her asleep across his bed. He’d gone to cover her with a blanket and she’d woken up and, in a deadpan, offered him some cheese. He’d apologized for leaving, and then they’d ended up talking - about what, she can’t remember, it runs together as a wine-soaked montage in her head - and she’d kissed him on an impulse across the hotel comforter. Nothing had happened that night aside from both of them falling asleep on top of the comforter, their hands pointed towards each other like arrows. She’d held him in the forest, later, cradling him in her lap and counting his breaths. It had felt like the start of something. In Georgetown, Mulder kissed her against the doorjamb and she’d tugged him inside by his tie. Since then, they’ve been something of a couple, guest starring in each other’s bedrooms or living rooms or hotel rooms. In Indiana, he’d asked her to dance.
(She’d looked at him kneeling beside her daughter on the ground and pictured them raising her together. Now he leaves a sharp, painful tug in her chest when she looks at him, then looks away. Between the grief and guilt crowding her head, there seems to be no room for him.)
“Are you okay? Do you want anything to eat?” Mulder asks softly.
She opens her eyes. They’re passing a blur of brightly-colored fast food restaurants. She hadn’t eaten any breakfast, and the food at the memorial service hadn’t stayed down well. “No, I’m fine,” she says softly, watching the colorful blur of lights.
The gold chain trails from her fingers. She swallows hard, pulling her knees up to her chest.
When they get to the hotel, Mulder gets two adjoining rooms because she says, “Please, Mulder, I need to be alone,” in a wavering voice and he clenches his jaw and nods. He offers to carry her bags, but her things are still at Bill’s. She just wants to be alone, take a sleeping pill and fall asleep. If Mulder is with her, he’ll offer to hold her and comfort her, but she’s never been someone who likes to be around other people when she’s upset. She’s always been the type to shoulder her own sorrows.
Mulder walks her to her room, and reaches out to touch her shoulder gently. “Are you sure you’re okay, Scully?”
No, she thinks. I’m fine, she plans to say, but if she talks, she’ll sob. The weight of incoming tears has been steadily building the entire ride here. She opens her mouth to tell him she’s fine, but the tears start falling before she can help it.
“Scully,” he murmurs softly, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and drawing her into an embrace. She sniffles against his chest. He doesn’t tell her it’s okay, which is what she was expecting; instead, he just kisses the top of her head, rocking her back and forth slightly. She doesn’t move to hug him back. She doesn’t feel like she’s able to do much of anything at the moment. She stands still while he kisses her temple, her forehead, her nose. And then she steps away.
“Mulder, I can’t… I can’t do this anymore,” she says.
He looks at her, briefly confused. And then he nods like he understands. “It’s okay, it’s been a long day, I’ll just…”
“No,” she says, her voice drawn out and hollow. She can’t remember where she decided this - somewhere, maybe, between Emily’s hospital bed and Emily’s empty coffin. “I mean… I want to go back to just being partners.”
(She needs him but she can’t have him, it’s too hard right now. She needs him to take a step back, back to the way they were before she got sick, until things make sense again. She needs to work through this alone.)
He blinks with surprise, maybe even something like hurt, and then he nods, looking at the ground. Whatever he’s feeling, he’s trying to hide it; she knows the technique well. “Okay,” he mumbles.
“I… I just can’t deal with this,” Scully says. Goddammit, it is late and she is exhausted and she doesn’t want to have to explain herself. Not tonight. She just wants to sleep. “Right now. With everything. And I…”
“I understand, Scully.” His words come out jagged and sharp, so he backtracks, softening the next thing he says. “I do.” He reaches out like he’s going to touch her cheek, but moves his hand away at the last minute, lowering it to his side. “I… whatever you need.”
“I-I’m sorry,” Scully says, and she is. Fuck, she’s crying again. “I don’t… I’ll see you in the morning, Mulder. Thank you for bringing me to the hotel.” She turns and unlocks her door, closing it softly behind her. Inside, she sags against the door, pressing both hands to her mouth and shutting her eyes.
There’s a soft thump on the other side - Mulder’s hand, she thinks, pressed up against the door. And then, so soft she barely hears it: “I love you.” He sounds defeated. Done. Scully presses her hands harder against her mouth to muffle the soft sounds she’s making. Mulder’s hand lingers for a second before moving away. She can hear his door open and shut next to her room.
She can’t remember how she got to bed, but she wakes up the next evening still feeling exhausted. She thinks she had nightmares. She knows, judging from the darkness in the room, that she’s slept all day. Flicking on the lamp by her bed, she finds a plastic container of soup waiting for her. Mulder, she thinks - he asked for a second key to both their rooms and had handed her his. He used to do things like this for her when she was sick - usually with some kind of note attached. There is no note today.
Scully climbs out of bed and goes to heat the soup in the microwave. The light is on in Mulder’s room - she can see the soft yellow peeking out from the crack under the door between their rooms.
She can’t leave things like this, not between them. She isn’t in a place where she’s ready to have a relationship, true, but the least she can do is try to mend the rip, fill in the cracks. He’s her best friend, and when she moves all of the fucked-up things out of her head, she might be a little in love with him. She grabs the hotel pad and tries to write a note to him.
I love you, too, but
I can’t do this right now
You’re always going to be my best friend
Chewing her lip hard, she throws the piece of paper away and takes her soup out of the microwave. She heated it up too much, she burns her mouth as soon as she takes a bite. She sits at the little table and stares at the hotel logo.
How can she tell him what she’s really feeling? That even though she doesn’t blame him for any of it (she went down the rabbit hole, she was warned), she can disassociate him with the pileup of tragedy in her life? That grief is crushing her and she has to be able to move past it before she can be in a relationship? That she loves him, but she needs time? That all she could think about when he carried Emily in his arms was them raising her together and she can’t handle it, now that she’s gone?
She takes another bite of soup and scribbles out a short message in a shaking hand.
I’m sorry for last night. I just need some time to deal with things, and I need to deal with them on my own. I hope you understand. I don’t want to stop working together. We’re friends, Mulder, and I hope we always will be. - S
She slides the tiny piece of paper under the door and waits, eating her too-hot soup until the roof of her mouth aches. He slides the note back with a messy reply: I understand, Scully. I’m here for you if you need me.
She thinks about replying, something like I want to try again when I’m in a better place, but it feels wrong to ask him to wait for her. And after all this time, she thinks that they are a given, the two of them. It’ll work out in the end.
She folds the small piece of paper and sets it next to her cross before crawling into bed and turning the light back off.