* * * * *
He never wanted this kind of proof of her belief. Taking a scalpel to the back of her neck, Jesus Christ. He feels sick to his stomach, slightly dizzy.
"I think need to sit down," he says. The sentence is out of his mouth for at least half a minute before he realizes he's already done it. Scully says nothing. After a long, quiet moment she reaches out and blindly grabs for his hand. He laces his fingers through hers, resting them on the edge of his knee, without thinking.
"I had a nightmare the other night, Mulder." His ears perk up. These are the kinds of things she never confides in him. "About Ruskin Dam."
He closes his eyes tightly. He cannot look at her at this particular moment; behind his closed eyelids the images are still fresh, a sickening slide show he can never seem to erase from his mind. Red hair, singed and touched gray with ash, spread carelessly across the ground, the stench of burning flesh. His ears had been ringing like a bomb had gone off too nearby, his steps across the bridge seeming to stretch on before him forever. He won't tell her how many nightmares he's had of the same. He's not sure he knows the final tally, anyway.
"I don't ever want to experience anything like that again, Mulder," she says, her voice fierce and quiet. "Not ever." He knows this, understands this; nods mutely, looks away. She squeezes his hand firmly and lets the silence between them speak for her, as it so often does. Mulder knows, in a detached and strangely proud way, that he will likely never see the true depths of Scully's bravery; the reach of it continues to astound him. And yet, as surely as he knows this, he also knows that she cannot reconcile ̶ of all the violations she has suffered through their years together ̶ this particular grievance, not even nearly two years later. Not so long as the potential for a repeat performance still lies deceptively dormant beneath her delicate skin.
She'd told him once about setting off the metal detector, years before; the poor, unsuspecting Bureau physician who'd removed the chip for her, both of them thinking he'd done her a simple favor. Wounded in the line of duty. Does that phrase even begin to cover the scope of the truth? He still wonders sometimes, even now, how different things might have been if she'd never discovered it.
She opens her mouth to say more, but he stops her with a nod. He knows what it costs her to share her fears; to air them out in the open, make them real. He steels his jaw and squares his shoulders. "Do you have a lighter?"
He knows the answer, but it's the only phrase he could get past the rock that seems to have lodged itself high in his throat. Middle drawer, kitchen; the long-necked kind used to start barbecues and stoves and light her secret little collection of votive candles she keeps stashed under the sink in this very room. She nods and rises, walks through the door without a word.
He tries to stand again on unsteady legs, reminding himself over and over in his head not to lock his knees as she returns with it in hand and sits down cautiously before him on the toilet seat. She looks impossibly small from this angle. He feels awkward and oafish by comparison in the confines of her bathroom, though it's larger than his own. It's as though he's making a mess of it just by occupying it, much in the same way he's made a mess of her career, her ambitions, her life. He appears to loom hugely behind her, the black of his shoes and dark blue of his jeans contrasting starkly with her earthy floor tiles and pale gray sweater. She briskly pulls it over her head and sets it aside, her motions smooth and calculated. He takes a sharp breath in through his nose, lets it out; has to tell himself to continue with the action, again and again.
He had a knife taken to him, against his will, not so long ago. His head still aches at the missing memory, the nerves still healing, the scars slowly fading. The scar on the back of Scully's neck has never been allowed to heal. He touches his fingertips, just barely, to the slightly raised square centimeter of skin just above her vertebrae. Rather than stiffening at his touch, as he'd suspected she might, Scully's shoulders relax and she reaches blindly behind her to close her fingers over his own. He suddenly realizes they are shaking.
"Mulder." It's a plea, an offering, an order and reassurance all in one word. His breaths begin to come more naturally and his fingers slowly become steadier.
"Okay," he says. "I'll be careful."
What a ridiculous thing to say, though Scully doesn't seem to mind. She simply nods, then lets go of his hand to sweep what's left of her hair to one side of her head, waiting, impossibly still.
Thinking back, he can't recall the sensation of cutting into Scully's soft skin, no matter how shallow it had been, or how tiny the incision was. He has a vague visual impression of pinching his fingers together at the edges of the cut, pushing the tiny piece of metal out with the pressure. His most vivid memory remains that of Scully's blood, stark red against her ivory skin, spilling down the perfect slope of her spine in one graceful line; of catching the drop between her sharp shoulder blades with his free fingers, grabbing for the gauze on the sink with his other hand, pressing it hard against her neck.
They are static in the bathroom, Mulder breathing harshly again, his hand fully palming her neck with the gauze trapped beneath it. Scully breathes evenly, still calm, her eyes closed ̶ if he didn't know better, he'd think she were meditating. He watches her eyelashes flutter against her cheek and counts to one hundred, trying to slow his pulse down. He's never been one to grow faint at the sight of blood, but deliberately drawing it from Scully just might do it. He bends his knees a bit more and feels the muscles in his back relax.
He flashes suddenly on a memory of Icy Cape; his big hand cupped against Scully's little neck in almost the exact same manner. All those years ago, before so much had been taken, and here they are, cramped together in another small space, the air between them intimate despite the circumstances, everything in the moment boiling down to a fierce, inexplicable trust that cannot be denied.
Mulder knows this is no small concession on her part; it's a silent yet powerful admission that whatever it was she touched in Africa, caught between sand and the sea between them ̶ no matter where she does or does not believe it originated from ̶ has changed her genetic makeup in some lasting way. He wants to believe what she believes, though he never saw its source, and likely never will; he wants to believe that she is healed and will never have a need for the intrusion of such an inconspicuously small and potentially lethal weapon trapped within her body ever again. For all his usual easy ability for taking things on blind faith, when it comes to Scully and her mortality, he feels at a loss for that strength.
Time blurs again, as do his thoughts, while he cleans and dresses the wound; more gauze, hydrogen peroxide, anti-bacterial ointment (industrial strength, Scully's favorite kind) and a thick butterfly bandage. He'd asked if she wanted him to take her to the hospital; if she'd even want him to attempt a stitch or two himself, but she assured him none were necessary. As an extra precaution, Mulder can't stop himself from placing a larger, square bandage over that, kneeling down behind her, the still-sharp edges of her freshly cut hair tickling his forehead and nose. The latent psychologist in him brings to mind the likely reasons for this particular change, extreme as it is in its own subtle way, though he knows he'll never discuss it with her.
He can't deny the impulse any longer, even though his heart rate has long since slowed again. He reaches out and wraps his arms around her from behind, settles them strongly beneath her breasts, pressing his face into the soft space between her neck and right shoulder. She leans back against him, placing her arms atop his, and still does not speak. What is there left to say? He feels her lungs expand and contract between them, steadies himself by the compass of her stubborn vitality. He turns his head and presses a kiss to the bandage, then another just above it. A small shudder runs through Scully's entire body like little fluttering wings. He breathes as deeply as he can against her skin, with his nose squashed slightly between them, his eyes closed, and imagines the moment might stretch on forever.
Scully's God may have been dethroned for her in some way, but he prays to Him anyway, even if now he still cannot believe. Please God, he thinks, don't let this be a mistake. A tear drops from her cheek to land quietly on the skin of his foreram, and he just squeezes her more tightly to him.
Don't take her from me ever again.
* * * * *