Scully’s fingers flicked through the air just above her head, failing to disperse the smoke billowing around her. The jammed kitchen window hadn’t discouraged either of them from frying a couple of cheap filets on the stove, although she now considered it probably should have.
“We need to fix that damn thing,” she said, flailing her hand again, now just inches from her face. “Maybe we could use some of the insurance money. You know, it might not hurt to look at some new furniture while we’re at it, Mulder.”
The pure mundanity ran a startling chill down his spine, and he spun quickly to look at her. His fingers wavered just enough to brush the lip of the cast iron pan and fire tore through his nerves. He hissed, instinctively sticking his finger into his mouth.
“Mulder?” She came at him fast, like a phantom slipping through the lingering smoke. “Let me look at that.”
He pulled his finger from his mouth with an audible pop. His slick skin hit the air and dried almost instantly, and the lack of soothing moisture made way for prickling agony. “Just burned my finger on the pan.”
She nabbed his hand with an impossibly iron grip for someone he could toss across the room if he tried. But that was Scully, wasn’t it? Objectively small, but nothing tiny about her. She was a force of nature, an immovable object, and he never had the strength to make her budge.
He let her twist his finger between hers, his gaze concentrated on the width of those grey-blue eyes, her worried pupils fixated on the part of his finger that hurt more than it had any right to.
Scully’s lips parted mid-breath and he lingered on her features. Her lips, especially – pale and thin, the light reflected off a gentle gloss left by the sweep of her tongue. The features before him were not the ones he held so tenderly in his mind’s eye; if asked to recall her lips without sight, he’d think of them plump and soft, flush with the same youth that used to pinken his cheeks when he thought of how they might feel against his. They were growing older—he knew that intellectually—but he also wondered if there was something about the human psyche that locked the visage of a person into the space they inhabited when they first became meaningful. Who really notices their parents, friends, siblings, aging and stooping and withering, until you really stop to think about it? She could be old and grey, and he knew, to him, she would always be the same age she was in those more innocent days. Much like how Samantha remained eternally eight years old, hair plaited and eyes bright, there was no real change to Scully, either.
Every time he looked at her, she was standing in that basement doorway all over again, with her oversized suit and twenty-dollar haircut, her mid-twenties pout and searing eyes that bore into him that day and every day after.
I love you, he thought to himself. I have never loved anyone as much as I love you.
It was a thought he had often enough, but rarely ever said.
“Hello? Earth to Mulder.”
“Sorry, what?” He came back to himself, pulled from the depths of his sepia-toned memory and right back into his smokey kitchen.
“Your finger. It’s fine. It’ll probably blister but I think you’re going to live.”
He grinned boyishly. “I thought you’d let me down easy, Scully.”
The corner of her lip turned upwards, and she finally lifted her gaze to his. He fell again but this time into a more recent memory, so recent he could feel it pinprick upon his skin. His forehead pressed against hers, the heat of her breath setting his lips ablaze. That fire left no blisters, except for maybe the ones on his heart.
“Put some ice on it. I’ll finish the steak.”
In no mood to argue, he moved to the freezer to grab an ice pack to press against his finger while she turned off the stove and plated dinner without missing a beat. Once they relocated to the dining room, Mulder remembered what had startled him to begin with, and he cleared his throat awkwardly as he settled into his chair.
“I don’t know if it’s a good idea to use your insurance money to invest in this place.”
“Why not? My house is a loss.”
“You really want to live here?”
She looked up from her plate, her brow furrowed. “Do you want me to live here?”
“I never said I didn’t.”
But he didn’t say anything else, either.
Dinner finished, the dishes done, and the kitchen somewhat aired out via the back door, they continued their subconscious evening ritual settled in front of the TV. Mulder sat with both feet planted firmly on the carpet, flipping through the 13 local antenna channels as he absentmindedly dipped the burned flat of his finger in and out of his mouth. Scully watched him, curled up with her back against the armrest, a book in her lap. She read the same paragraph she had been reading for a good ten minutes over again before her distracted gaze found him once more. The glow of the TV caught his strong features almost elegantly, lighting those thoughtful eyes and eternal pout with a magnificent halo. Her enchanted and effortless stare didn’t waver as she lost herself in his beauty. He paid no mind, enthralled in the spin of the channels as his finger hit the remote repeatedly.
Maybe that was what kept them back so long. She was always looking at him, and he was always looking at something else half as interesting.
“Do you want me to live here?”
He started again, but at least there wasn’t anything to hurt himself on this time. Mulder slowly looked at her, his finger lingering at the corner of his mouth.
“You’re going to pop that blister, Mulder.”
“It’ll be fine.”
“Until you pop it, and you’re far more likely to get an infection if you don’t allow the fluid to—”
“I can’t answer a question if you keep changing the subject, Scully.”
She sucked in a quick breath and stilled, her eyes wandering back down to the book in her lap. Twenty years hadn’t changed much, had it? They still didn’t know how to talk to each other. She could poke and prod, but his stalwart shape too often delimited her attempts—he was solid, an immovable object—so much so that she realized, at some point, she had simply stopped trying.
“We’ve been here before, Mulder. At these very crossroads.” She raised her chin. “You told me at the church that you always wondered how it was going to end.”
He sunk back against the couch, but at least he took his damn finger out of his mouth.
“I did wonder.”
“But you still don’t have an answer.”
He switched off the TV, and she took that as a sign to put her book down. It had been a long time—years, she considered—since they had a heart to heart like this. Not just a few meaningful words slipped in between the barrage of life, but actual moments dedicated to saying what was on their minds.
It made her uncomfortable.
“Honestly, Scully, there were days I didn’t believe we’d make it this far.”
She knew he didn’t just mean in their relationship – or whatever imprecise definition they could place on it. He meant their lives.
He meant he didn’t believe they would be alive this long.
Many times, Scully hadn’t either. That was why, when it was finally making sense, she ran. She convinced herself their differences were irreconcilable, unable to move forward even by the experiences they shared. No matter how deep and desperate and vital their love was for one another, love alone could not sustain them. That reasoning justified her leaving him and it was how she lulled herself into fitful sleep during the years she dreamt without him by her side. It was so much easier to wrap their love into a cliched packaging of tragedy, to weave the narrative of two organisms that couldn’t occupy the same space, two lives that just couldn’t run congruent, rather than confront the truth.
That truth which was, of course, that while he had wondered how it was going to end, she had already determined it would.
“You know, Mulder, sometimes I feel like we’ve spent so long fighting for the future that we forgot to make one.”
She felt the wetness on her cheek and only then realized she had been crying. Mulder let out a breath and moved towards her to wrap his arm around her shoulders and pull her to him. He brushed her hair from her forehead with such tenderness that it made her cry more, even as she felt his lips press against her skin.
“I knew the second you walked into that office you were different.”
She shifted, peering at him through foggy eyes. “Are you serious?”
“No,” he laughed, and Scully pulled away, gently hitting him in the chest with the back of her hand. “I didn’t think you’d last a week.”
“When did you change your mind?”
He tilted his head thoughtfully and tried to stick that damn finger in his mouth again, but she caught his hand before it made it. “Remember that liver guy? Tooms, I think. He crawled through your bathroom vent and tried to kill you, and you came back into the office on Monday ready to take on the world.”
“It wasn’t that simple, Mulder.” She tried to think back on how scared she had been that day, but it was so long ago. Things had still lain beyond her imagination back then – things that were far more frightening, things she would have to confront, things that would still exist on Monday morning.
“It was. Even after everything you went through, you never budged, Scully. You never let anyone push you around. Even me. Look at how many times I tried to push you off the X-Files, to get you to leave.”
“I wanted to be there.”
“Until you didn’t,” he murmured. Mulder shifted again and draped his arm around her so he could tuck her safely into the crook of his arm. Her eyes fluttered shut and she drew in a deep breath of his aftershave and the slightest hint of lingering smoke.
“God,” she breathed. “We wasted so much time.”
“Some might say our best years.” Mulder ran his fingers gently over her shoulder, and she felt a crackle of electricity down her spine.
“I couldn’t figure out how to do it.”
She wet her lips with her tongue. “How to pick out Ikea furniture with you in between exposing intergalactic conspiracies.”
“We don’t have to do it in person, you know. You can shop on the website now.”
“That’s not what I mean, Mulder.”
She looked up at him and he dipped his head to meet her, and silence fell for some time. The light from the dining room cast into shadow the way his hands moved over the angles of her body, her hands cupping the back of his neck as his mouth dipped lower and lower still, and their rhythmic breaths were lost somewhere in the shadows. Eventually, they surfaced again, sprawled on the couch, his head resting against her breasts as she brushed her fingers through his hair.
He wasn’t sure when he started to love her, but he was sure he couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t.
Mulder pushed himself up to hover over her. Her red hair sprawled like a halo around her face. The shadows, he realized, made her age more prominent. Darkness did no favors in hiding her paler flesh, the angular stretch of her jaw unhindered by the baby fat she still wore when he first met her, when she was still so young, so whole. Even her hair seemed thinner, more fragile, the vibrant luster dulled by the dye she used to cover threatening gray strands. Perhaps they may have never foreseen growing old and yet there they were, staring down that precipice together, just as fearful of what it meant as anyone who may have lived a life that was non-descript, simple, compared to theirs.
Scully looked up at him, a sleepy smile curling across her lips, her more prominent wrinkles crinkling around them, and Mulder had never seen anything more beautiful.
“You can’t keep leaving.”
Her look of trembling confusion dampened the afterglow.
“I don’t exactly have anywhere else to go right now, Mulder. My house blew up.”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
She sat up and he pulled away to reposition himself. There they sat, naked, truly vulnerable in body and soul, gazes locked in the muted darkness.
“Fox,” she whispered and was relieved when the use of his first name somehow softened him further. “You have to tell me what you want from me.”
“What good will that do? You’ve always been my rock, Dana. My touchstone. That also means it’s never been in my power to move you. I thought I made it clear enough when I stopped asking you to leave.”
“But you never asked me to stay.”
He watched her eyes brim, his heart pounding in his chest. What she had whispered to him in the church had been a conversation, not a promise. And it wasn’t a conversation he had been ready to finish until now. He knew what he needed to say, but what she would decide was what worried him.
“I should have.” He took hold of her hand, winding his fingers through hers to pull it from his cheek, only to press his mouth hotly against her inner wrist. She hissed a sigh somewhere between surprise and arousal. “I know what my life looks like without you. And I like it a hell of a lot more with you around. So, I’m asking you to stay this time.” He felt his voice waver, but he fought through. “Pick out Ikea furniture with me. Save the world with me. Use your insurance money to fix the window. Hell, marry me, or don’t. But… stay.”
She pulled him to her and kissed his forehead, her thumb passing gently over his soft lips, and he felt his heart stall in his chest. He didn’t breathe again until he heard her finally speak.
“I was afraid, Mulder. I feared what a future with you looked like.” Scully closed her eyes, desperate to push back the pressure she felt building there. “But I’m not afraid anymore.”
He descended on her again, with a youthful fervor he hadn’t quite captured since the first time he had truly held her in his arms. This time the darkness didn’t mute her cries and when he looked at her, he saw Dana Scully as he always had – full and young, eyes alight with humor and innocence, and the greatest hope. Two immovable objects that may never budge but, somehow, could still make space for the other.
He loved her deeply, desperately, vitally, until they quaked in each other’s arms, ready to equally embrace the ending they were finally ready to write for themselves.
And she stayed.