Eventually, Scully manages to shepherd both Piller and Mulder into the car, Mulder moving far more easily than she imagined. She waves at the kindly nurse, still in her doorway, the last to see Samantha Mulder, the last to touch her kindly in this world.
As she drives away, Piller turns his head to look down the road Mulder had traveled that evening, before turning his gaze down into his lap.
Mulder, by contrast, continues to stare up through the windshield at the bright California night, into the stars on this chilly winter night.
Scully keeps her eyes on the road, alert for drunken drivers, stray deer, flicking her eyes from her partner to the rearview mirror focused on Piller. It’s a two-hour drive back to their motel, and they do it in total silence.
They drop Piller off at his end of the motel with a soft farewell. His own is curt, and Scully doubts they’ll see him in the morning, doubts that he’ll wait more than an hour before driving himself back to wherever he calls home.
He pauses in climbing out of the backseat. “You’re wrong,” he repeats stubbornly to Mulder. “I’m going to see my son again someday.”
Mulder sighs, but it’s not a sad sound. Just a slightly resigned one. The peace that enveloped him in the forest still has him in its gentle grasp.
“I hope that’s true, Harold,” he replies, holding the other man’s gaze. Harold drops his gaze at that, and leaves, closing the car door. Scully can see him still standing there, watching them as she slowly guides the car away.
She pulls into a parking space, glancing over at Mulder. Scully doesn’t know exactly what happened to Mulder in the woods by the nurse’s house, and one look at him tells her he may not be able to put it into words. But whatever he saw was enough to rock his world on its axis, to shift parts of himself that he might never have thought could move since childhood.
It’s California, and the earth has moved, but only Mulder has felt it.
She can feel the aftershocks in him.
“Mulder…” she starts. But this is a difficult thing to put into words. When she held him through the night, the night she had to give him his mother’s autopsy results, there was no question of propriety, no thought of whether it was right or wrong for her to hold him through his tears into the small hours of the morning.
A few days’ distance from that shock, back on assignment, and being in a totally different location, it feels a bit different.
“If you’re going to ask whether I’m sure I saw something…” he sounds weary, and she winces.
“No. I know you did,” she says definitively, and his eyes are large and lambent in the starlight. “I don’t think it’s a result of stress or grief, either. I don’t think I’d see what you saw, or what I hope Harold Piller sees one day, because I don’t have the same connection with someone who disappeared like that.”
He nods. “Thank you.”
“I was actually going to ask if you preferred to be alone tonight, or if I could stay with you.” She nearly says 'should' but that has connotations of being reluctant to be there. Could means that she wants to be.
Mulder blinks a little bit. They both know that sleeping is all that will happen in that bed tonight – though they’ve been flirting with the borders and definition of their relationship, this is hardly the moment.
“I’d like that,” he says, in the same choked voice he’d had earlier.
The weight that has been leaning on Mulder for years, siphoning away his sleep, stealing all hopes for a future of his own, has eased from his shoulders with past being laid to rest that night. He finds sleep easily in her arms, muscles relaxed, breathing deep, head tucked into her neck. He is at once heavy and sweet, trusting her to help hold him together as he sorts himself out.
By contrast, sleep is eluding Scully. It should be easy, she thinks. She’s exhausted from the emotional toll of the day, the constant plane travel, the driving, the worry for the man in her arms. But her mind is alive and wandering back in time to the 1970s.
Samantha Mulder had been alive, perhaps not thriving, but not far from Scully herself, undergoing torments that a group of men deemed acceptable, so long as they themselves escaped the coming terrors. Most of them were now dead, burnt to a crisp. Their ends had come horrifically, though perhaps not nearly drawn out enough to match the pain they’d inflicted on a young preteen girl and others like her.
At least one remained. Hopefully sick, and dying painfully.
Justice was an elusive concept.
Her thoughts wandered to Teena Mulder, who could have done her son the kindness of leaving a note explaining her actions.
After a lifetime of half-truths and outright lies, she owed Mulder more than a cryptic message left on his answering machine and a wastebasket full of burnt photographs and ashes. Scully had known some of Mrs. Mulder’s ilk, wanted to know that there was love behind the coldness of the woman, for Mulder’s sake.
After years of emotional neglect, she could have at least let him know that she loved him after letting a match consume every image she had of her two children. She owed her son more than the confusion she’d left him in.
What kind of justice was there for that kind of wrong?
Perhaps, though, at the end of all this, there was some kind of justice in Mulder’s lax body, his demons quieted at last. She slides an idle hand down his spine, and smiles as she feels his big nose nuzzle against her neck.
The blinds in the motel are closed, but around the edges, the night is alive with starlight, the floodlights dimmed, but the stars still going strong.
Gently, so gently, she slips out of bed, and Mulder seems not to wake.
She throws on the motel robe, stiff with industrial bleach, and doesn’t bother with shoes, using one of them instead to prop open the door, unable to find Mulder’s room key.
Scully pads barefoot across the concrete, then steps quickly over the gravel to a patch of grass at the side of the motel, making little grunts of pain with each rocky step. It’s dark over here, and warm. February in this part of California is mercurial, and this could pass for warm in DC.
The only real source of light comes from the stars above, pulsating with old light, and perhaps more. The sky is shockingly clear – “severe clear,” she remembers an Air Force pilot calling it, where the lack of clouds felt as intense as a thunderstorm.
She kneels in the grass, but does not pray. She addresses someone with a bit less power in the cosmos, staring out into the black forest down the hill.
“Mrs. Mulder,” she begins. “You know me. Not well, but enough to know that I didn’t like you. I’ve got my reasons, and they begin and end with your son. You had your reasons, you and William Mulder. But that doesn’t excuse the wreckage you left him in, either when you were mother to a teenage boy or a grown man.”
Her nails are digging into her thighs, but she needs to say it to this woman once, even if Teena Mulder is no longer around to hear it.
“You could have left him with a little more explanation. You could have given him some answers, eased his pain. You could have told him you love him. How could you not? He’s so easy to love.” She’s starting to cry, both in anger and sadness for Mulder, for the pain he’s been living in for so long. “I don’t know your life, I don’t know the choices you had to make. But I could hear the love in your voice, and I hope he did, too.”
She bows her head a moment, then looks up into the stars.
“Samantha.” Scully starts, but breaks for a moment. She gathers herself, wiping at her cheeks.
“I never knew you. But your big brother told me all about you. Everything he could remember. We read your diary from when you lived here, and it breaks my heart that those men put you through so much, that they took you away from your family. I don’t think there’s been a day since they took you that he hasn’t thought about you. Thank you for seeing your brother tonight - he needed to know that you were okay. He's needed that for so long.”
“I’m so sorry for your pain, but I’m so happy that your brother’s love was one of the things that remained with you. He teases me, too. I pretend not to like it.”
She smiles, then steadies herself for her promise. Dana Scully does not make promises lightly, and when she makes them, she means them.
“I don’t want you to worry about him. You’re at peace, happy, in the starlight. He’s not my brother, but he’s my family. And if there’s breath in my body I’ll use it to defend him, to shelter him, to comfort him. You’ve got my word.”
There are tears leaking down her face, but as she gets up and brushes the grass and dew from her knees, she feels a little more settled, having said what she wanted to the women of the Mulder family.
A swish of grass behind her, and she whirls to see Mulder casually stepping across the grass towards her, and realizes with mortification that he must have listened to at least part of that.
“Hey. You stole all my warm away.” He’s got his overcoat on over his gray shirt and boxers, feet jammed into his shoes. Scully suddenly realizes how that must have looked, to find her gone and the door partially open.
“Sorry. I just needed to get outside a moment and I couldn’t find your room key.” She’s blushing, and praying that it isn’t visible in the pale light of the stars. “My mind was buzzing.”
He grins a little. “Suppose I just transferred my insomnia to you?”
“Nah, you’re off the hook on that one. I flip-flop between the two.”
“Mmmm.” He looks her up and down, not missing her red eyes or the tear stains on her face, reaching out a hand and wiping the tears away with a thumb. “Unbuzzed?”
“Back to bed?”
“I think so.”
And they walk back together to the motel, him kicking a slightly less stony path for her across the drive. She brushes the dust off her feet outside and follows him in.
Once in, he locks the door and shucks his coat, and she does the same with her robe. They climb under the covers from opposite sides of the bed, and she slides easily into his embrace.
Only it’s tighter this time, and she feels him inhale from atop her scalp, does the same at his neck, taking in a deep lungful of his masculine self.
“You’re my family, too,” he whispers into her hair. “If I’m your family, than you are mine, and I’m not letting you go.”
She holds him tightly in return, then presses a kiss to his neck.