The evening is late and Mulder cannot help but continuously smile in the company of Scully and their favourite takeaway scattered across their laps. He watches her laugh and roll her eyes and talk in-depth about everything and nothing, sinking into the comfort of the couch and her quick quips alike. He reasons that he hasn't felt this happy in a long time, just counting his lucky stars that he can see her smile again. This time it feels different. The darkness outside brings them closer together, not further apart. The glow from the lamps warms them to one another, and layer by layer they are dropping pretences and formalities, finding the rhythm of an aeon old friendship. It is like relaxing into a mould that only the other could possibly comprehend.
His fingers are sticky from the spring rolls, and with the last of the chow mein devoured, Mulder realises that his sense of fullness can only be partly attributed to the Chinese. He stands, clearing the plates away, insisting Scully let him do all the tidying. He still wants to prove that he can.
"You want another beer?" he calls from the kitchen. The clattering of plates and plastic tubs follows him as he diligently dances from the cupboards to the fridge and the sink in between. Scully, with nothing better to do than pick at her cuticles, watches this display of domesticity with amusement. She seriously considers his offer; how easy it would be to have a couple of drinks, resume their easy conversation, and probably fall asleep with their feet perched on the table. How easy it would be to stay and ignore the inevitability of the complicated morning. However, she has an apartment to get to with all of her things there and work in the morning.
They have only just got back on good ground, she reminds herself, baby steps. "Best not; I've got to drive back yet."
The reminder that her presence is only temporary shatters his little fantasy that everything is back to normal. The consequences of their lives weigh him down no end when their goodbyes are stunted and awkward and he has to wave to her standing on their porch. Until that moment, he can pretend that there are no repercussions; at the end of the night they will climb the stairs together, fall asleep together, and wake, knowing the other is close by.
There is a small part of him that still wants to believe.
"I could always crash on the couch for you– just like old times." He half means it, hidden behind the joke. He wonders, just as he did for seven years, if she suspects as much and will call him out on his poorly disguised sincerity. Whilst their friendship is newly rekindled, fresh, different, some things will always stay the same. Like how he feels he has to restrain his care for her. It could be melancholic but he has to smile at the familiarity of it all: just like old times.
"It is a bit isn't it?" she reminisces. "Chinese and beer. You really know how to treat a lady, Mulder."
He will have to add casual flirting to the list: one of their oldest habits. It's true those ones die the hardest. So badly does he want to rise to her challenge but seven years of abstinence has taught him well. Instead, he stifles a chuckle.
"D'you wanna glass of water then?" he asks, as he pulls the glasses out of the cupboard. It's a perfunctory question, but he doesn't mind that it's semantically hollow.
"Yes, that would be nice," she smiles at him from over the back of the chair.
Mulder likes that he knows her well enough to already know the answer.
With two glasses of water in hand and a smile on his face, he returns to the living room, handing Scully her drink. He sits down with her once more and they both clink a cheers without having to look at the other. Mulder laughs at their uncanny synchronicity as they take a sip of the cool liquid. He tries not to choke, failing utterly, which of course uncorks a barrel of laughs from her.
"I'm glad we can do this," Scully finally says after she manages to put a stopper on her giggling. She dries her eyes, a small fixture of a permanent smile remaining. She radiates contentment in that warm way that draws them closer together.
He is reluctant to break the spell of peace between them but does to concur, "me too."
Mulder wonders how long they could remain quiet for, for once enjoying the lack of chaos that usually exists in his life. He doesn't have to wait long though before she breaks his reverie with a tut. She warmly admonishes him for sacrificing himself a beer, just so she didn't feel left out. It's the sort of thing he always used to do way back when. "Mulder you didn't have to get water, you could have had a beer, I'm not stopping you."
Scully notes the glint in his eye and she purses her lips, ready for another one of his awful jokes, secretly giggling in anticipation.
"I've moved onto the stronger stuff now: this is hooch." He watches the corners of her mouth twitch into a simple smile, a small laugh erupting from her. He continues, determined to eke out a little more of her joy, "an old Mulder family recipe: looks like water, smells like water, even tastes like water, yet a couple of drops of this stuff can knock you sideways."
She rolls her eyes. "I'll believe that when I see it."
"Always such a skeptic," he teases, playfully elbowing her. "Ooh, I just remembered, I have a couple of popsicles in the freezer for dessert. That's if you want one?"
Her trademark eyebrow of incredulity rises. "Popsicles? What are we, Mulder, five?" she challenges mirthfully.
He pauses, mouth open ready to rebuke her, but comes up blank. "Yes," he finally concedes in a somewhat petulant tone.
She acquiesces with another good-humoured roll of her eyes. "Sure, I'll have a popsicle."
Grinning, he puts down his glass of water on the table– more specifically a pile of books, random pieces of paper, and Lone Gunmen magazines which blanket the table. He jumps up enthusiastically and runs off on yet another quest.
Scully eyes the glass standing askew and picks it up before it can topple over. She was sure there were some coasters around somewhere. As she organises the things into neat stacks, the table begins to reappear from underneath it all. She smirks, thinking it a kind of magic witchcraft of its own. The books go far left, in the corner, the magazines next to them. Everything has its place.
She was unsure what to do with the odd bits of paper, not knowing which ones were important. She sighs holding them, realising how much they truly don't know about each other. It's the small things that remind people how much like strangers they can be when unsuspecting, trivial parts of their private lives surface yet remain private. Maybe it wasn't her place to tidy. She clumps them all together using the bowl full of seeds as a paperweight. Starting to pick things that had been knocked on the floor up, her fingers brush another book under the table. She doesn't think much of it– there are plenty of other books on the table after all– not until she feels the soft leather cover. To say liquid fear doesn't trickle frigidly down her spine would be a lie. All of a sudden her mouth is dry and her hands are clammy, remembering that's where he threw it. She is shocked still whilst her heart panics, thrumming like a hummingbird. She fights to swallow the rising dread as she slowly brings the book out into the light.
It's different, old, used. The corners are fluffed and dog-eared. The spine is supple and creased from an inordinate number of readings. It slowly fades out of sight, replaced by the haze of refracted light through water, like little stars. Her cheeks sting as she closes her eyes and reasons with her tears not to fall. They do not listen.
Her tongue delicately traces up to her lip when she takes and holds her breath. She closes her eyes but her eyebrows remain arched high in concentration. Hysterical is not a state she can afford herself, not in front of Mulder when he is so happy now, not when he is so much better– when they are so much better. She should return the book to under the table where it belongs before Mulder sees it. But her clutch remains on the soft leather, her thumbs gently stroking the cover, the old tan smell bringing home too many memories. She hears Mulder's dull footsteps draw closer. She should put it away. His steps stop close by. But she can't.
Mulder stops in the middle of the room, seeing her softly cry. He immediately wants to weep with her, for her, and take her pain away. Then seeing the trajectory of her tears and the agent of her distress, he can't help but think the worst, that she has read his honest word and wants no more of their friendship. And just when he thought they had something good.
She will have to leave to save herself: forever this time.
It should have been forever last time; he only ever ends up hurting her. The darkness has its way of following him and he will only ever contaminate her.
Pointlessly looking down at popsicles he carries, he thinks of how naive and stupid he looks, how crass and obtuse he is. He thinks he breaks into a thousand unrepairable pieces upon comprehending they can never outrun this heartache however hard they try.
He gingerly approaches, cautious of the touchy subject and she looks up at him only with the grace of compassion.
"You kept it?" Her voice is a hoarse whisper, as broken as he feels.
"I– I don't know." He does know, he just doesn't know what to say, not wanting to endanger their friendship. Perhaps things aren't so different after all.
"But you've read it. And all the terrible things I said. And you kept it."
He quickly sits down next to her. They need to get things straight once and for all, no more mixed messages and hidden signals. Things have to be different this time, they have to be brighter. He still can't look at her in the eye though as he tries to explain himself. "Those things you said, they weren't horrible they were true."
"No, Mulder." She shakes her head tiredly. "I hurt you. I hurt us."
He turns to look at her in full earnest, finally meeting her eyes. "I made you feel like that, Scully." He puts the popsicles down on the table and covers her hands with his, thankful that they weren't ice creams and had wrappers. His thumb gently strokes over the bridge of her knuckles, longing to soothe them both. "Please don't put this on yourself."
"You forgive me?" she sniffs.
"There's nothing to forgive. People make mistakes and learn from them. We have made mistakes." He searches her eyes for understanding, and despite his words, forgiveness. He needs to know she forgives him, that they will be okay. "We have learnt the hard way and we have worked through this together, but you never did anything wrong."
She nods, unconvinced. Silence speaks for a while, colouring the space between them, painting it in washes of uncertainty. He waits for her to say something, do anything, just to end this hopeless quiet. Mulder thinks he could stomach it if she rained down fire and brimstone and the judgement he deserves. At least if she shouts he will know what she is thinking. Yet Scully's wet eyes glisten hopeful when she looks up to him, though hoping more than believing when she whispers, "is it over then?"
"I don't think it works like that," he says, wishing for all the world that it did.
"I miss you."
Her head is bowed, gaze fixed on her lap. In her head she means I love you, praying that he both hears her and doesn't. Scully isn't sure how such a confession would send the boulder rolling, in what direction they would be taken. Gravity has always had a great effect on them, drawing them closer together, pushing them off cliffs. Gravity will send the boulder hurtling at a great speed neither of them will be able to outrun. Nevertheless, when she stands by her car, waving an awkward, short goodbye, she already misses Mulder more than she can comprehend.
"Every day," he agrees, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. She falls into his chest, gently shuddering as she tries to calm her breathing. Mulder turns to kiss her crown, hesitating, uncertain if the gesture would be appreciated. He presses his nose into her hair instead, noting it was neither the time nor the place to recognise that she had changed her shampoo but noticing it all the same. He notices everything about the moment. She feels so real and tangible. He never wants to let go.
He's vaguely lost in her subtle change in scent, almost missing her second admission as quiet as a breath. "I've missed being home."
He looks down at her, one hand is a clenched fist rubbing at her chest as if to paw its way through, the other lay upon the book in her lap. He's dumbfounded. It's his deceiving ears that tell him she said she wants to come home. Of course, he knows she didn't say it outright, but it had sounded like it. It was the way she said it: remorseful and longing, insinuating homesickness. He feels homesick without her too. But it's only his deceiving ears.
"The house misses you too," he eventual manages. And it does. Nothing has been the same since she left. It's the little, trivial things like pots of organic yoghurt in the fridge, medicines labelled alphabetically in the cabinet, and the way the duvet used to fill out to the corners of the cover that remind you how much you miss people.
Leaning against his shoulder, Scully braves a flick through the pages, coming across an entry she does not recognise. Upside down, she curiously turns it the right way around. The pad of her fingertip traces the flow of the ink pen in Mulder's hand, reliving where each drop had fallen, obstructing the path of his writing.
She glances up at him. "When did you write this?"
"Um, when we first met Tad O'Malley... after all of that... I realised you were trying to help me again, but I was pushing you away..." He closes his eyes. "And I felt like you were gone again."
Scully doesn't reply but allows her eyes to fall across the page, absorbing the honesty of his thought. It's refreshing to hear an unabridged account of what they both experienced, seeing before her how muddled and yet clear their emotions can be. Although that doesn't stop the truth sending sharp flares through her.
Mulder lets her read, flinching whenever she holds her breath, holds herself impeccably still. He doesn't want to be reminded of what he wrote and how he felt, but he is fixated by her expression, impossible to read. It is impossible to discern which part of his pitiful confession she has reached. The words are seared onto his synapses like light on film, each negative flying across the screen in his mind, trying to calculate which declaration of love causes her to stiffen. The seconds pass by, feeling like hours turning into days, as he waits for her response.
"Maslow?" Scully questions him calm and tempered, no sarcastic mocking, no flares of anger, no fatal silences. She even adds a small, encouraging laugh to break the ice, almost but not quite making an easy joke.
"Yeah, I was feeling a bit soppy," he admits as jovially as he can, trying to keep his head above the water and the atmosphere from capsizing. They're in unstable territory and he's hanging onto her waiting response like a lifeline.
"I think it might be the kindest thing anyone has ever said to me." Briefly, she cups his cheek and gifts him a sombre smile before retreating her hand, wiggling her fingers free of any inappropriate intimacy. "Thank you for your honesty," she says quickly.
Mulder thinks he lets out an audible sigh of relief. "I don't want to lose you again, Scully. I've already lost you more times than I thought were possible. And I don't want to lose sight of you again." He is sure he is babbling, but for once he doesn't care, a wash of happy giddiness has befallen him. "You're my best friend, keeping me on the straight and narrow."
He offers her a popsicle as a truce. It seems somewhat juvenile to trade acceptance and forgiveness in food, but she takes it willingly, glad of the distraction. Discreetly, Scully dries her eyes.
"Frohike would be rolling in his grave if heard that."
The had mood shifted with the trade, easier and more trusting. The air around them doesn't feel as heavy or taut, so they can breathe as the tide crawls out to a safe distance beyond the horizon.
"Frohike doesn't keep me honest; he's not my touchstone." He chuckles self-consciously, shaking his head. He watches her peal the plastic wrapping carefully, taking the time not to rip it. Never seeing the reason in needless neatness, usually Mulder would tear into the packet without a second thought. However, tonight he follows Scully in this attentive ritual. "And he's not eating popsicles with me."
Scully allows herself a small mischievous grin, biting a mouthful of cool, sticky, slightly melted goodness the way she knows makes Mulder squirm. "I'll always be around to eat popsicles with you, Mulder," she promises, believing that they can make it.
Mulder supposes Scully thinks she was being funny making a pun and so blatantly consuming her dessert the wrong way. He fights back the urge to outwardly cringe. "Until our dying days, Scully," he replies with a purposeful lick.
"Until our dying days," she sighs.
"Let's hope they're not too soon," he mutters half in jest.
"Jeeze, Mulder," she laughs, cursing his name and spluttering on half crunched ice. "Way to lighten the mood."
He laughs too, seeing the red juice of her strawberry popsicle drip from her chin, her hand delicately poised to catch the drops, but hesitant to wipe them away. Her eyes are wide, as they always are, in disbelief at the sticky situation.
"Hey, I'm older than you." He passes her one of the miscellaneous pieces of paper stashed under the bowl, only doing one swift double-take at the state of the table. "Sorry I don't have any tissues. And anyway I'm the one that has to worry."
Although he doesn't realise it, Mulder has just told Scully how important she is to him. She takes the paper knowing that it doesn't matter how important these parts of his life are, she is more important and she no longer feels like a stranger to him.
She grimaces as the paper scratches her chin and does nothing to absorb the syrupy trickles, more smearing them than anything else. Despite the comical look of the affair, she is pensive in her remark. "I won't let them take you. I'll go to Hell to get you back."
He laughs again, certain that she already has. "What if I get into Heaven?"
Poignantly, Scully takes his hand in hers, brushing her thumb over the bridge of his knuckles. The gesture, once reserved for a morbid hospital bed, gives Mulder hope when she speaks of the future, knowing there will be one. "I'll still be right beside you."
With no hospital bed in sight, the morbidity defenestrated, and a return of her kind caress, he makes his promise as if he were immortal. "I'd like you to know I'd do the same."
He picks the book up, and closes it for the final time, laying it to rest on top of the other books in the top left corner of the table, where it belongs. They continue the rest of their dessert in silence. Scully searches wordlessly for his hand again and he holds on, her warmth giving him life. Maybe things can be bright again.
The end of the popsicle stick is approaching and Mulder feels the need to say something, though what, he isn't exactly sure. He wants her to stay. Maybe he can persuade her to stay a little longer. Put on a film? The exorcist? That was always one of her favourites but–
Scully interrupts his train of thought. "Can I crash here tonight?" she asks wearily. "I won't take your bed, I just- I don't think I can drive all the way to my apartment."
It saddens him that she thinks she is still encroaching on his space: it's their space, it always has been, even when she wasn't there to share it. He wants to tell her it's her bed too, that not a spec has changed and she shouldn't have to ask to stay. But they both know she does. He's just happy she's staying at all.
In the morning he will wake, knowing she is close by.
Scully hears the relief in his voice, filling her with a relief of her own. Maybe things can be bright after all.