Author’s Notes: Milagro remains one of my favorite episodes; this is my interpretation of what happened after. Huge thanks to ism for the beta, the glowing feedback, and for wrangling my dialogue’s syntax. 🙂
The first thing he sees is the blood.
He doesn’t remember the sound of his own footfall, doesn’t remember kneeling or reaching out, all he can think is that he’s lost her. The thought is cruel and terrible; you lose a bet, you lose your car keys. You don’t misplace your best friend’s life between the cushions, you don’t lose a person.
And yet, she is lost.
Her eyes are closed, her chest is still, her shirt is the color of dirty rubies. The smell in his overheated apartment is heavy with her last breath.
His heart is racing in his chest, but hers has gone missing.
He reaches to check for a pulse, and suddenly he’s staring into eyes of blue crystal, shocked and surprised as his own. She shudders against him, the roar of her breath an echo of reassurance. Her arms are a welcome vise grip, pulling up, clawing at his back, and he holds on for dear life.
That was too close.
When he finally speaks, her sobs have dulled to hiccups, but her fingers are tight through the fabric of his shirt. “Are you bleeding?”
She shakes her head, and he eases back, gently disentangling them. “Did he…”
“Hurts,” she mumbles.
He pulls back. “Just gonna look, ‘k?”
She nods her consent, closes her eyes. His fingers fumble at the buttons at her stomach, swallowing thickly at how soaked her blouse is. His hands are stained by the time they work the last button free.
Shit, it’s deep…
He moves tenderly along the underside of her sternum, surprised to find only bruises, the outlines of someone else’s fingers where they bored under her ribs. She winces when he grazes the skin.
“It’s a contusion,” she whispers, auburn lashes to ivory cheeks, like wildflowers pressed between dusty tomes.
He shakes his head. “Uh uh. Be right back.”
The 9-1-1 operator recognizes his name and address before he can give him the badge number.
He returns with a glass of water to find her struggling to her feet.
“Jesus, Scully, you shouldn’t—“
“I’m fine,” she says. “Just sore.”
He bites the inside of his cheek, hard. “Then let me help.”
He’s careful to avoid her left side, where the bruising is worst. She is warm and solid against him, but he can feel the tremors like tiny earthquakes along his side.
“What happened?” he asks, helping her ease down to the worn leather cushions.
“He came at me after you left,” she says, flat and dry, as if talking about the weather. “I fired…I fired twice? Three times?”
“It was four,” Mulder says, handing her the water. “Checked your clip.”
Her words ring hollow in the glass as she sips. “I must’ve missed.”
“You know you didn’t,” he whispers, leaning over her to grab the blanket from the back of the couch, draping it over her shoulders to quell the trembling. “Called for backup. Paramedics are on their way.”
“I don’t need—“
“Don’t say it,” he threatens gently. She scowls but sinks back and closes her eyes.
The response team is quick this time. The lead EMT, his name tag reads Bernard, makes a feeble joke about putting in a station next door, a private service for the guy whose bad luck always follows him home. Mulder doesn’t laugh.
He leaves her side only to show the investigative unit to the basement. The cops kneel over Padgett’s body, exclaiming and making wisecracks about love stories gone awry, so cavalier it makes Mulder’s stomach turn. Not that he has any sympathy for the dead writer, but he can’t stop imagining Scully with her heart in her hands.
They’re examining her injuries in the living room when he returns, so he takes the phone to the bedroom. Skinner is characteristically gruff, but he softens when Mulder explains.
“You think Padgett’s responsible?”
“Yeah, but he won’t be penning his memoirs anytime soon. They found him in the basement. It’s just like the other victims.”
“Of course,” Skinner sighs. “Alright. I want you in my office first thing tomorrow. And Mulder?”
The other man lowers his voice, a gesture of mutual understanding. “Don’t let Agent Scully out of your sight. If this guy comes back—“
He won’t, Mulder thinks, but he’s distracted. Her voice carries through the plaster; she’s giving the EMTs hell.
She’s going to be fine, sir. She’s feeling well enough to fight.
“Agent Mulder,” Skinner barks into his ear. “Did you hear me?”
He clears his throat, looks over his shoulder, drawn to her rising tones. “Got it, sir. I gotta go.” The phone clicks off before Skinner can lay into him. He’ll get his ass handed to him tomorrow, but tonight he has more important things to worry about.
She has her hands on her hips, facing off with the senior paramedic, who looks like he got more than he bargained for.
“I’m a medical doctor, I know the symptoms, and I don’t have them. You said it yourself, my vitals are fine, there’s no swelling.”
“Ma’am, you know very well that a hemorrhage might not present until—”
“It’s Doctor,” she says icily. “And if I have symptoms, I’ll go to the hospital. Until then, I’m refusing medical treatment beyond a cursory physical exam.”
The other guy looks pointedly at the blood smears on the carpet, then toward Mulder, as if to ask for help.
But Scully is looking at him, too, eyes wide, nostrils flaring. Daring him. He opens his mouth to take the dare, to tell her to go to the damned hospital because she would demand the same of him, but something in her eyes holds him back. Her posture is strong, but there’s a subtle tremble in her chin that gives it away.
He, too, softens in the face of her fire.
“It’s uhh, it’s OK guys,” he mutters. “We’ll take it from here.”
Bernard blinks. “Agent Mulder, with all due respect—“
“She said she’s fine,” he says, his tone sharp, though his eyes don’t leave his partner.
The other man presses his lips in a line and begins re-packing his bag, muttering something about the loonies at Hegal Place. Mulder sees the paramedics out, letting the door slam just a little too hard, all the while thinking he is a lunatic for letting them go.
He comes back to find her buttoning up her shirt, reaching for her jacket.
“Do you want to get cleaned up—“
“Home,” she says, frowning at the floor. “I want to go home.”
There’s a pause. She won’t look at him, won’t meet his eye.
“Right,” he swallows, “I, uh…I’ll drive.”
He steals glances at the passenger seat as he maneuvers the car through darkening streets. Scully rolls her head on her neck and stares out the window, diminished in her silence. She’s distant, set apart; something vital inside her has torn but doesn’t bleed. Padgett’s psychic surgeon failed to seize her heart, but he’s taken something else in its stead.
When he reaches over to take her hand, she doesn’t look up, doesn’t acknowledge him, but the bones of her fingers hold fast to his, reflexive in their icy grip.
Her apartment is cool and smells like her; vanilla and cinnamon, familiar and exotic. Her voice is drawn and husky when she speaks.
“I’m going to shower. Help yourself.”
He does. He makes tea because he knows where she keeps it—third cupboard from the left, middle shelf, next to the honey. He finds the kettle, puts the water on to boil, and tries not to think about the blood (her blood) congealing on the floor of his apartment.
He finds a lemon in the back of the fridge, the contents of which are similar to his own—heavy on the condiments, a lone half-gallon of milk, carrots in the crisper whose stalks have wilted to gray-green dust.
When was the last time one of us ate a meal that didn’t come wrapped in foil?
There’s the creak of the floorboards as she moves about on the other side of the kitchen wall, the groan of the building’s pipes as the shower comes on; the bedroom door is ajar, and soon steam wafts from within, fragrant and humid.
They’ve spent the last six years living side by side in adjoined motel rooms, but she never leaves the door open.
He takes a seat on the couch to wait, tipping his head back into the cushions. His mind goes back to Padgett, the last of his fatal novel’s pages curling in the ashes…
…the things he wrote about her.
He rubs at his eyes, exhales sharply.
She’s a grown woman. You’re not her keeper.
The couch is soft, the running water is white noise, and sleep teases the edge of his consciousness.
Keeper. Keep her.
There’s a scream, a forlorn wail that wakes him with a start; he’s on his feet before his eyes can adjust to the darkened room, stumbling blindly toward the source.
The forgotten kettle pops and hisses on the stove; he rushes over to shut off the burner. He’s dimly aware the scream came from the kettle, not his partner, but his pulse doesn’t believe it. They live in a world where the sick imaginings of a lonely man can come to life and kill you, after all.
Was she lonely, too?
He leans back against the counter, blinking, trying to ignore the feeling of dread coiled in the pit of his stomach. Something feels off. The refrigerator hums and chuckles at his side, there’s the tick of a clock from across the room, but otherwise, the apartment is quiet…
The shower isn’t running.
His hand goes to his holster on instinct as he makes his way to the bedroom. There’s no sign of her, save for her ruined shirt, a spilled pool of sullied cotton on the floor.
“Scully?” his voice comes out as a whisper. He feels like a trespasser.
The bathroom door is also open, bleeding light onto the plush carpet. He creeps to the threshold, listening for movement. She should be toweling off, maybe brushing her hair, applying one of those god-awful green mask things to her face—anything but heavy silence.
Seconds tick by in an agonizing crawl, but there is only the sound of his breathing. He feels himself raise the gun before he realizes he’s going to do it, and swings his body into the doorway, tasting tin and salt on the back of his tongue.
She’s sitting in the shower stall with her back to the door, so still.
Her hair is a dark brown stain down her back, her skin a shimmering pearl silhouette. He can see the upper half of her tattoo at the base of her spine, a haze of reds and blues through the mottled glass.
So very, very still.
Oh God, not again…
He’ll find her blood on the floor, her still-beating heart in her hand…
Her shoulders shudder and tense, her head tips forward, and he is baptized in relief.
“Scully,” he breathes, lowering the gun.
A thready gasp as her head snaps around, and he glimpses the slope of her nose, the pink in her cheek, the subtle furrow in her brow, delicate as a watercolor portrait. The sight takes his breath.
“Shit, I’m sorry,” he says, “Sorry, I didn’t mean…I thought you were…that he—” he says, tripping over his words as he tries to gather his wits.
“I’m fine, Mulder,” she sighs, her voice as bruised as her ribs. A million sarcastic responses perch on the tip of his tongue, but he swallows them like medicine. She doesn’t stand, doesn’t make an attempt to cover herself.
“I’m fine, I’ll be out in a minute,” she repeats when he doesn’t leave. He’s fixed in place, irrationally terrified she’ll fade away if he can’t see her.
Don’t let her out of your sight.
He recalls the way her fingers wouldn’t let go until they’d parked at the curb, the confusion and fear in her eyes when he’d disentangled them.
Not fine. Not this time.
He turns in a half-circle and lowers himself to the floor with a grunt, his back pressed to the shower. “No can do,” he says. “I’m under strict orders from the boss to keep an eye on you tonight.”
“Oh? I don’t think this is what Skinner had in mind,” she mutters, but she doesn’t ask him to leave.
“You know me, Scully. I follow orders.”
She snorts. He imagines he can feel her shivering through the glass. The tile floor is hard and cold, the warmth from the steam has dissipated, but their silence is comfortable. He thinks of the tea water cooling on the stove, the lemon shrinking in its paper skin, her heart thudding against her ribs like a prisoner seeking escape—
“Do you fear death, Mulder?”
Only when you don’t answer your phone.
He swallows, stalling. “Have we had this conversation?”
“I asked if you’d ever thought about dying, not if you feared it—there’s a difference.”
“If we’re going to argue semantics, you should put some clothes on,” he quips. “We’ll be here all night.”
He hears her shift behind him, imagines he can feel the plane of her back pressed against his own, the steady beat of her heart like a bird fluttering against his right shoulder. She’ll wait; she’s strong enough to wait forever, if that’s what it takes. He sighs in surrender.
“I fear dying without knowing the truth…without closure,” he admits, dancing lightly around the whole of it; that she is as much a part of his unfinished business as any conspiracy. What lies between them is a spirit he can only glimpse in his peripheral vision; when he confronts it head on, it disappears.
He’s come too close to meeting her ghost tonight.
There’s a smile in her voice. “Why am I not surprised?”
“You got me. I’m predictable,” he says, casting a glance behind him. He can see the milk-white skin of her back, a dark curl of auburn hair kissing the slope of her neck. He turns away and coughs, unsettled at the intimacy. “Do you? Fear death, I mean.”
“Spiritually, no,” she says softly, “but on an instinctual level, I do. I think what I fear more is the threat, and how the constant threat changes us, more than the act of dying itself.”
He frowns, chews at his lip. “I don’t follow…”
Another pause, longer this time. He bites at the edge of his cuticle until it’s raw.
“I love this job,” she whispers. “We’ve given so much to this…this work, and I accepted the risks. But sometimes…” she pauses, there’s a soft click in her throat when she swallows. The quiet draws itself around them, and he grows still as stone, as if any movement might frighten her back to the hollow place she found in the car. When she finally speaks, her words are curiously detached and small, like a child’s.
“Sometimes I don’t like what it’s made me.”
“And what’s that?” he asks, closing his eyes, unsure if he’s ready to hear it. The irony isn’t lost on him, that for all his seeking, some truths are better left unfound.
“You learn to assume the worst of people. And when you don’t, when you’re foolish enough to let your guard down…” she trails off again with a shaky breath. “…Well. Here I am.”
“You had no way of knowing Padgett was going to end it like this.”
“Didn’t I?” she says, and the bitterness in the question makes him wince. “As investigators, we’re trained to rely on our instincts, yet I ignored everything mine were telling me—everything you were telling me—against good reason.”
“You didn’t know—“
“I did. And why? To become the object of a sad man’s perverted fantasy? As if I were as lonely as he wrote me,” she scoffs, and he hears her nails kiss the shower floor.
He tips his head back, feels the plates of his skull meet the cool glass wall, heavy with the weight of her unrest. In a moment of striking clarity, he understands that this isn’t the first time she’s sat like this, walled in glass and berating herself for some self-perceived failure, but it’s the first time she’s let him bear witness.
He doesn’t know whether to feel touched or guilty, but the guilt is an old friend, so he lets it in. Part of him wants to leave, grab his jacket off the back of the couch and run. Every time she gives a piece of herself, it makes it that much harder to look at her as a friend, and not something more.
But it’s too late; she’s talking, her words gaining momentum. An object in motion stays in motion, and he isn’t strong enough to stop her.
“Do you know what they say about ‘Mrs. Spooky’ when they think I’m not listening? That I bring it on myself,” she says, a grating whisper. “That I must be a masochist to stay, to do what we do…or…” she trails off.
Or you wouldn’t come back to me, he thinks, trying to swallow the lump in his throat.
“I do the job because being an Agent is part of who I am. But it’s also the reason I can’t remember what it’s like to be…to be just…Dana.”
He swallows dust, numbly nods an assent she can’t see, and listens. He remembers as a boy, the pain of a blister under his thumbnail, how his father showed him to use a screw to make a hole and let out the blood. She’s doing it now, her words as honed and meticulous as a drill bit against supple flesh.
“These men, these creatures…they never really die. They follow me home every night, and I can only thank God that I’m strong enough to withstand living with them. I wish I could say the same for their victims.
“But I’ll never have that…that simple, unwavering faith, that at the end of the day, the world is a better place for what we do,” she whispers, her voice low and thready and ready to break. “I just know I have to do it. There’s no other choice.”
He closes his eyes and wonders when she became as brittle as him; if the change happened slowly, over the course of weeks and months, measured over miles and cases, or if this is the definitive moment, and she’ll emerge from her glass chrysalis a new creature, a changed thing.
Six years have graced him with a multitude of useless facts about his partner. He knows how she takes her coffee, her favorite shade of lipstick, and that she eats the yogurt with the pollen so she can justify the extra doughnut he’ll buy at lunch.
He knows that when they’re on a case and she can’t sleep, she’ll visit his motel room to share leftover pizza and watch noir films, and she cries at the sad parts when she thinks he’s not looking.
He knows she colors her hair, because her natural strawberry blonde waves are beautiful, and beauty doesn’t intimidate the good ol’ boys at the Bureau the way a glossy burnt auburn can.
But he’ll never know the person she was before she met him, before their truths became irrevocably entangled. Their physical losses were great, but the scars they can’t see are the ones that linger, and she is marked by him—partners until the very end.
He wants to know when she realized she couldn’t turn back.
As the silence draws itself around them, he knows there is nothing he can offer. She’s drawn her line in the sand and crossed it every time. All he can do is wait for her on the other side.
She has faith and science; he has her.
“Scully?” he says softly, when enough time has passed, when his legs are pins and needles, and the thought of her naked on the cold tile is hurting his sense of New-England-bred chivalry.
“My ass hurts.”
She barks a laugh into the narrow stall, but it works. He hears her movement, the door sliding open behind him with a metallic groan. He gets up, careful to keep his back to the shower, even though they’re past any pretense of modesty.
He coughs, rubbing at his thighs to wake them from their prickly sleep. “I made some tea, we could order pizza and watch one of those romantic comedy things you—“
The sob is barely there. He turns without thinking, searching her face, glancing over her nakedness to see through it. She’s standing on the bathmat, eyes downcast, water and salt mixing on the linoleum. The bruise along her side blossoms under her ribs like a black peony.
He reaches for a towel and wraps it around her shoulders, interrupting their careful, sympathetic orbits in an embrace. Her skin is ice, but she doesn’t seem to notice. Another sob, but this one catches in the fabric of his shirt as he pulls her close. Soon his nose damp with the scent of her shampoo.
“You have every right to be angry, Scully,” he soothes at her temple, with a protective ferocity that surprises them both. “But only with them. Not yourself. Never yourself.”
Her breath is sharp, shuddering, and he wonders if he’s said the wrong thing. He doesn’t know if “them” refers to the suits at the Bureau or their indomitable superiors or the citizens of Reticula or God himself. He breathes against her, tightens his grip, decides, fuck ‘em all.
She sniffs, and he can feel the heat of her pressed to him, bare, little more than a damp t-shirt between them. It takes all his effort to let go when she pulls away, and he averts his eyes as she wraps herself in the towel.
She tucks a lock of red-burned hair behind her ear, a nervous habit. “I’m sorry, I, um—”
“If I were a lesser man, Scully,” he whispers drily, and her sudden laughter is bubbling and warm, a salve to their shared wounds.
She tips her face to his, one eyebrow in a slender arc, her eyes damp and wry. “A lesser man, Mulder? What are you implying?”
Her closeness, coupled with the subtle innuendo, catches him off guard. He’s suddenly terrified she might kiss him, more terrified because he would let it happen, a wonderful and dangerous thought.
Something ethereal whispers at the edge of his mind’s eye, and he resists the urge to check the back of her neck for bees.
Instead, he takes a step backwards, toward the door. “I’ll, uh, wait outside. Pizza?”
“No peppers this time,” she agrees, turning away, showing him the line of her back, her shoulders squared. He watches a drop of water roll down the gentle arch of her spine, absorbed by the edge of the towel. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
He makes it to the threshold, but can’t resist; has her pull always been this strong? He turns, watches her reflection, a ghost coming to life in the mirror.
For coming back. For staying.
He opens his mouth to say it, but in the end, what he wants to say and what he’ll allow himself to say are two different things.
He shrugs. “For…leaving the door open, I guess.”
Her smile is faint, but genuine; enough for now.
The spirit catches his eye and fades away.