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blood on the first four knuckles

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moments on the road are mostly stained glass sharp — the color changing depending on where you choose to let in the light. today the halting lead-up to the thing itself, to the moment she’ll remember later in shards colored red, is mostly storm-seared yellow, august held-breath sky. that’s the tint of it when she lets her voice tilt up high, musical scales scratching backwards in heavy air.

“don’t do this,” she says, or doesn’t, but she means to press language into the curl of her fist, the stiff angle of her wrist bent against the car window. the glass fogs when she breathes, gathers proof of life and greenhouse gasses.

he’s tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, beating out an alternating rhythm. the melody it catches is not a love song. the whole car ride — at least since three miles past their welcome to “ALABAMA, THE BEAUTIFUL” — has been swaying towards some bleeding orange event horizon. this is what they do: push stubbornly towards the ends of the earth in the hope of tipping over the edges. it is yellow in the silences, curved like commas between them, misplaced, middle-sentence dwelling things.

he’s tapping at the wheel, and she’s remembering a thousand similar soundtracks to a thousand blankly familiar roads. miles and miles under their highway burned tires and their tired palms. miles and miles. underneath the dip of her t-shirt is a roadmap; she is marked in dried-blood red and his fingerprints.

“stop,” she says, her words sudden and ramrod straight. “stop.” her voice ricochets back hard and catches her by the throat. the windshield is bulletproof.

he looks sideways at her. “you want me to pull over?”

she could count on one and a half hands the number of questions he’s asked her since they pulled away from bluemont almost a month ago with john and monica and skinner holding a silent court behind them. someone, she’s not sure who (it was dark and the headlights were bright and mulder’s hand was on the back of her neck, quietly desperate), had raised a hand behind them in silent farewell. she’d thought of childhood ministers: one hand on the bible and a palm to the room, amplifying blessings to a crowd of uncertain sinners and unworthy saints. she knows now on which side of the line she and mulder fall.

since bluemont he’d asked her: “here?” (on a gravely side-road an hour since loops of barbed wire like prison fence scripture had faded behind them) and she’d said yes, yes, wrapped her arms around him. inconsistent turns of highway headlights had pulled over them like lighthouse beams, tugging them closer to shore.

he’d asked, “are you sure?” three days later over bad diner coffee and she’d nodded, slipped around to sit beside him on his side of the booth, let him kiss her with maple syrup on his lips.

he’d asked, “are you alright?” with his arms around her on a white tiled floor, with her fingers pressed to his lips, with her head dipped against his shoulder. and she’d lied and lied and lied.

he’d asked, “you love me?” only once, the first night, slipped the question into the space between them like an afterthought. yes, she’d said, yes, yes. the truth had felt sweet, sunday mass benediction on her tongue.

“scully? should i stop the car?”

“no,” she shakes her head, presses her palms to her closed eyes like she could kill sound with sight. she just wants quiet. she forgets easier in blank spaces. she forgets easier when he isn’t a ghost beside her, dragging their pasts into the present. “just stop.”

she’d spent six months just imagining hearing him breathe again.

his fingers go still on the wheel. the sky rips open in a lighting crack smile.

they hold their breath.

___

red is seeping into the wavering cast of them by the time they find a motel. it’s perfect: pressed drunkenly against the side of the highway (so they don’t forget they are running, not resting, never resting), neon lights sending pink pulses of glare into a half-dry swimming pool. the sheets, she knows, will be thin and slick under her fingers. she wonders if he’ll even try to touch her tonight.

the room is not clean, which she likes because even the whole bar of plastic-wrapped soap in the shower can’t scrape the road-dust from her skin. that’s not really the reason. she’d never admit to the silent satisfaction she takes in almost-punishing herself these days. it’s like swiping her finger through a flame, never slow enough to burn, but hesitating a beat too long just to feel the heat.

there is a stain on the carpet, and two years ago she would have wrinkled her nose, maybe slipped through the connecting door and feigned melodrama to spend the night with mulder under clean sheets. there is only one room now. she looks at the spot on the floor, swipes her hand over barely-clean blankets and thinks: good.

mulder drops their bags on the floor. “it’s hot as fucking hell in here.”

this is the first thing he’s said since they crossed the bridge in decatur, where he’d pointed towards the sunset and said look, scully so soft that she’d wanted to drive them both off the bridge just so they couldn’t hurt each other anymore. it wasn’t fair, not when he could say her name like that, not when he could point to the sky and she’d follow his hand without a moment's hesitation. it wasn’t fair, not when they’d loved each other for so long.

truthfully, she hadn’t noticed the heat, or the silence from the metal box under the window. her fingers always seem to remember the feel of antarctic ice, hypothermic memory.

“yeah,” she says. “i’m going to shower, i guess.”

he nods, sitting down on the edge of the bed. he watches the flowered wallpaper directly in front of him, and she wonders what memories he is replaying. he blinks when he notices she’s staring.

“hey,” she wants to say, touch his hand in that way that used to be so easy. “it’s okay. i do that, too.”

the shower curtain makes a snapping sound when she pulls it shut and puts the water on hot.

___

the sky is violet when she finds him peering over the edge of the cement pool like he’s playing hide and seek at the lip of a cement canyon. there were times she would have been afraid he’d jump, just to test the hard defiance of the ground. her curious, imponderable man.

now she knows he would never fall without taking her with him. she wonders how long they’ve known they were going to die together. they could categorize the past decade by the degrees in which she’d become more certain they’ll be buried side-by-side.

“incredible,” he says when he hears her behind him, gesturing to the hazy horizon. she thinks it looks violent, the colors swirling together into a smudged chaos. he sits, presses a palm to the warm concrete beside him in a half-invitation.

she wants to apologize for snapping at him in the car, wants to sit beside him and rest her head on his shoulder and ask if he remembers the time they played marco polo at midnight in a chlorine drenched montana pool.

she scuffs the ground with a sneaker instead, says, “i’m tired of this.”

she just means whatever it is humming between them like tension wires; she just means she wants to kiss him and not feel a million broken words rise in her throat, not feel the urge to spill them between his teeth.

it comes out sharp instead, slicing the thick air between them. he flinches, grimaces at the empty expanse of space between himself and the other edge of the deck. from their angle, the pit looks bottomless, dropping without measure.

“then leave,” he says, swings a leg against the side of the pool. the sound echoes.

she shivers. her voice comes out like a threat: “i don’t want to.”

she is watching him in profile, but she can still see the pantomime of conflicting emotion that plays out across his features, backlit by the dangerous sky.

he hesitates on grief, on love and sympathy. she doesn’t want those. she drags her fingers through the flames. “mulder, for god’s sake, you could at least say something.”

his features settle on cold, cutting anger. she pricks her palms with needle point fingers when he laughs.

“what do you want, scully?”

it isn’t really a question. he does not ask her for answers anymore.

___

it ends in the bedroom, like most everything does. a bedroom was where she’d first told him she loved him and (how awkward, this parallel of feeling) now it’s where she tells him she hates him when she means she hates herself.

it was where she’d kissed him with their arms closing like parentheses around their son; she should have known from basic grammar that parentheses were rarely the end of anything. their sentence had dragged on long after what she thought was the end.

a bedroom was where she’d packed william’s things into a box so unbearably small it seemed impossible to close up an entire identity inside it. she sliced her hand on a box cutter, smoothed brown tape down and left red smears on the left and right sides. it held a whole world and a small word and a mouthful of meaning. four sides and bloody, it held: dana scully, mother.

what do you want? he’d asked.

my son, she’d wanted to say. my son and you. i want you both. i want a ramshackle time-machine and a stiff drink and a dictionary that will teach me how to tell you i love you without having to say all the words.

their whole existence is an exercise in saying what they do not mean and hoping the other speaks secret languages.

“i want you to stop treating me like i don’t even exist. i’m not your burden to bear.”

he never did that, never. she was the expert in invisibility. if he thought she was gone, it was because she’d wanted it that way.

he slams the door behind him now, trapping them in a suffocating embrace of hot air. she wheels on him. the pool, abandoned as it was, had echoed when she’d raised her voice. she didn’t want to hear the things she said to him whispered back.

she hurls a stockpile of accusations like she’s kept them in clips on her belt. maybe she has.

you left us. i needed you and you left me, you fucking asshole.

she’s an army girl, raised on the picture-book simplicity of the art of war. you fire on the enemy until you’re out of ammunition. there is no grace in allowing them a chance to respond in kind. it’s a shark-like maneuver: stop moving and you die.

when she’s finished her cheeks are flushed a dirty crimson. he sits on the bed, the line of his shoulders going curved and uneven. even hercules would have dropped the weight of this world.

it’s three minutes. it’s their entire life together, stretched taut in the silence. she sits against the wall, stares at her hands, at the stain on the floor across from her. she wonders if it’s blood, wishes briefly for luminol so she could prove some other kind of violence took place here. out, damned spot, she thinks and spares them both a misplaced smile. it’s dusk light filtering outside the curtains. the next line: hell is murky.

finally: “you’ve never even shown me pictures of him.”

she feels tears and a scream come scrabbling up her throat, each vying for her attention. she feels like she’d been entrusted with a small, fragile thing and has crushed it between her shield palms when she’d just been trying to keep it safe. she swallows. “i don’t have any.”

she’d been wrong to think he was ready to be kind. she’d thrown months and mouthfuls of betrayal and heartache at him; he wraps it all up into another question. he sounds tired, not angry. she doesn’t know which one is worse.

“what kind of mother are you?” he asks. she’s eye-level with his hands and they shake. in the battle beneath her sternum, the tears have won.

she packages her voice into a box smaller than the one where she’d trapped william’s blanket, his pacifier, the doll from mulder with the worn out cheek.

“i’m not.”

___

it would be less pitiful if she could leave, or if he could. this would be less of a disaster if she could pull herself from the wreckage just for a moment, just long enough to look back in and find his hand and drag him out with her. instead, she leaves them both to kiss the flames together. she is terrified to have him out of her sight. she could be argos, a hundred eyes and they’d all be trained on him.

___

they stay and lay claim to the outermost edges of the hotel bed. this is a play at separation and self-determination.

“i’m so sorry,” he says to the silence.

the silence, congruent to its very definition, does not reply.

___

she wakes up cold. instinct is the mother of almost all action, and she reaches for him like a learned survival method only to find empty sheets.

“mulder,” she chokes, quiet.

this is a perfectly set stage for almost every one of her fears, like the moment has read her mind and ticked off a terrifying checklist. he is gone. she has lost him (again, something reminds her. again, again, again.)

night has wrapped up the day in black-out sheets. the room is dark. she sits up fast in the middle of the bed, suddenly nauseous, pulls her knees to her chest and shivers before he answers her.

“i’m here, scully,” he says from the corner of the room. he’s pulling a sweatshirt from a suitcase. it’s his, an old one. he holds it up helplessly. “i didn’t want you to be cold.”

“oh,” she says.

his ability to come out of darkness and materialize in front of her, whole and alive, will never cease to amaze her. he comes towards the bed like he’s come stumbling towards her from so many forests and alleyways and darkened basements before.

she thinks about losing him often, since forever really, but especially since she’d fulfilled her own prophecy, failed him, failed.

“come here,” she says, her thumb on his wrist, pressed against the heat of his pulse. he falls into her, like she’d imagined him falling to the bottom of the empty pool against the summer sky. he lines the almost-ending of things and she meets him at the edge.

she thinks about losing him a lot. he presses his lips to her temple, her cheek, the flutter of her eyelids.

she rarely thinks about how badly he wants to be found.

___

the red-heat of them goes bruised in the center. he touches his fingertips to her heartbeat, treats that ache below her collarbone so gentle that she stifles a sob.

“it’s not your fault,” he says, pulling her against him. “none of this is your fault.”

“that’s the problem,” she chokes against the point where his pulse is the strongest, where he is the most alive. “you’re wrong.”

___

“i do have pictures.”

“yeah?”

“my mom does, but i can — ”

“you don’t have to show me. i shouldn’t have — ”

“no, i want to.”

___

the sistine chapel had wanted blues in the windows to hint at salvation, to hold up hope and promises of heaven. outside, it is egyptian blue in an alabama summer. the air conditioner rattles under the window, protesting its own supposed immortality, having risen from the dead and chilled the air in the middle of the night.

held in the cradle of faux-flowered walls that hint at false spring, mulder practices divination against her cool skin with warm, slow hands. he tries to pull her past and future (and the cold that roots down, trapped in marrow) out of the curved cage of her ribs.

she traces the angles of his face, compiling an artist’s sketch of him in the dim light. there was a michelangelo quote, famous: i saw the angel in the marble and carved until i set him free.

“sleep,” he says, palms still playing at magic against her waist. “it’s alright. we’re gonna be alright.”

she nods, dropping her fingers to press against his chest. she feels a winter she’d kept secret in the dance of veins, hidden between breaks in bone, slip out of her like drawn poison.

she breathes and dreams them endless indigo miles.