Summary: Right now, Mulder, I think you could get away with just about anything.
Rating: PG (plus swearing)
Spoilers: CancerArc - Zero Sum, Small Potatoes.
Disclaimers: Not mine.
Author’s Notes: This fic is a Post Ep. for Zero Sum. It's become something of an unintentional exploration - of voice, and of the ambivalence of the M/S dynamic. I've had it shelved for about a year. However, I am of the mind that there are not enough (non-AU) CancerArc fics in the world, so despite the fact that fanfic of mine that is older than a few months generally makes me cringe (and thus gets shelved), this fic has been something of a pet. When I dug it out I had intended to merely hang it over the line and thump the dust out of it. Two thousand+ additional words later, here's what's come of it. *shrugs* tree, your beta was insightful and precise as ever - thank you.
When Scully finds him he's leaning against the vending machine in the hospital waiting room. Which isn't so much a room, Mulder thinks, as a waiting alcove beside a convergence of hallways. It's the kind of place that offers all of two brands of entertainment: literature regarding home decor, or toddler toys. Mulder gets sick of the abacus eventually and goes hunting for snacks. He has one arm propped above the panel of vending machine buttons and he's shuffling quarters in his palm when he sees her in the glass. She is like an apparition, faint and nearly colorless, but the shape of her is unmistakable: hair and suit. Scully has positioned herself off to the side of the room, and is holding her wrist. He assumes she's struggling to put her watch back on. She spots him then, and lowers her hand, caught off guard by his presence. She observes him a moment before crossing past the attendant's station towards him.
“Hi.” She approaches – reproaches – one of those Scully-ish things anyway.
“What do you think, Scully, wanna help me get to the bottom of the Caramilk conspiracy?” He drops his quarters into the slot without turning around. The machine rejects his last quarter, twice, three times.
“What are you doing here, Mulder?”
“Wasting a dollar. A dollar twenty five if I go with the beef jerky.” He gives the machine a persuasive bang and tries his last quarter one more time. He slumps in defeat, but Scully reaches past him and deposits a coin into the machine. He sees the hospital band she's wearing then. Under her skin the tip of her ulna juts prominently from her tapered wrist. He sees that too.
Mulder jabs at a letter and a number and together they watch the coil spin until something clunks down into the bottom. Once he's collected his selection from the slot he finds no alternative but to turn around.
As though he doesn't want to see her. As though he hasn't been waiting here since it was light outside the entrance doors, specifically to see her. It's just that he knows she will be grim, and ashen, and he knows he'll get caught up in some small thing - some grim, ashen corner of her like a thumbnail of the larger whole; a tiny enough corner for him to feel he might be able to save this, just this, just one part. He knows he'll find himself fresh out of things to say, and he feels that if he doesn't hurry up and say something, there is a real danger that he will forget all the things he isn't supposed to say to her, and say them...and all the things he isn't supposed to do...
He looks at her lips. Unpainted, they are not quite symmetrical, and they're paler than he's ever seen them. He's struck by an awful slackness about her: a marionette held a little too close to the ground. He thinks she might turn and walk out of here without a word. She was standing close behind him, and now, to face him, she must look abruptly upwards. She meets his stare directly, and there's only a tiny flicker of dismay in her eyes at being seen this way, by him.
He used to have these moments: the office door like a frame, and her coming through it just as he happened to look up and see her, entering the room, reading from an open file with immaculate focus. Or they'd be at the scene of some big-city crime, early morning, the grates steaming up and down the street, and there she was, cutting a steady line through PD officials and crime tape, holding her umbrella well above the handle. There were moments when his throat and his hands would shut up like traps, helplessly.
Since she's gotten sick, it still happens, but all the time, and worse. She goes to refill her coffee and when she comes back he has to find purchase in her presence all over again; a point of clarity in the dumb silence, when all he can stand to consider is, Here, now, us. We, this, work. He needs a way to think of her that doesn't involve losing her.
From the help desk, the elder of the two attendants- (they've been in and out since Mulder's been here) -announces that doctor A can see patient B now, if patient B would just come along into room C. Scully releases his gaze then, and just like that everything broadens - becomes normal and noisy.
Mulder tosses his chocolate bar in the air and catches it by the opposite end, like a cocky drummer. “I thought maybe you could use a lift," he says. "In something that doesn't have a meter, even." Yesterday morning when they spoke she didn’t tell him when she’d be released or whether she’d be able to drive afterward or what was happening. He didn’t ask. In turn she won’t ask how long he’s been waiting out here with his tie hanging loose as his bland expression, shoelaces double knotted out of boredom. "Are you ready to go?" he asks. "If you have anything else you have to take care of, I can just--"
“Thank you, Mulder, but actually, I've already called a cab.”
He shakes his head. "Yeah, but if I drive you won't have to navigate. And anyway, we'd have a chance to catch up on some things."
"Tonight?" She sounds reluctant to ask: "What things?"
"I doubt you caught this evening's news…” he begins. This doesn't pique her curiosity. The nearest exit to the parking area is visible at the end of the hall, and Scully has spotted her cab through the glass.
“More killer bees, Mulder?”
"There was an attack at an elementary school in South Carolina." He follows her down the hall toward the doors. "One fatality – a teacher. It was timed so that the attack would be at lunch hour. The entire playground was swarmed, Scully."
She moves aside to avoid an EMT coming in from outside with a stretcher from an off duty ambulance. Just inside the first set of doors she stops, turning to give him her full attention. “Mulder, I think we should wait until Monday to discuss this. Then we can pursue the answers more fully. Right now I can't--" She sets her jaw, crosses her arms. "I'd just like to wait until Monday."
As though he’s really going to leave her alone before he’s sure she’s... well, that she’s... no.
The suction from the sliding doors has blown her hair askew, and Mulder resists the urge to put it back in place. “But I brought the file with me. It’s out in the car.” He half expects her to throw up her hands at this point, but she's either too demure or too tired. She only turns and walks outside ahead of him, flashing a very quick wave at the sensor to keep the outer set of doors from closing on her.
On the curb she stops and takes a moment, gathering her resolve in that subtle way she does. By the way her arms are composed against her body, and the attitude of her shoes on the rain-grey concrete, he already knows she'll come with him. He hovers a step or two apart and leans against the back end of the idling cab, pretending he has something else to be looking at besides her. She'll come, if only because her sense of responsibility to the work demands it. If that's what it takes for her to let him chaperone a little, fine, he thinks. He'll play on her guilt and live with his own. “Scully, what happened in that school yard could happen again, on a larger scale for all we know. Just let me drive you home and I’ll fill you in on the way."
She balks once more. “What about my cab?” The driver of the cab appears to be combing his hair.
Mulder can still catch the inert, antiseptic smell of the hospital when someone comes in or out behind them. He doesn't much care about dial-and-ditching. The driver can climb out of his vehicle and start yelling every profane thing he can think of at them. Mulder just wants to get out of here, to get Scully out of here, to get her home. He pats the cab's trunk. “Cabbies are a fickle breed, Scully. He’ll find someone to fill your seat.”
She looks at him strangely then, and looks away.
Out in the darkness, the night smells of sod and mulch, and seems to revive Scully greatly. The parking lot has become more empty of cars than full, and she walks nearly ahead of him, moving through the painted lattice of stalls and vehicles. He looks down at her lissome ankles, her strong steps, which always find some ratio that matches up with his own. When she reaches the car Mulder lets her stand while he goes to his side first, getting in and leaning across the front seat to unlock her door. He knows she's no invalid.
He'd left the latest case file lying in the passenger seat, so she holds it in her lap. While she flips open the thin folder, he starts the car and adjusts the heat. By the light of the dashboard he can see her scanning a page, her fingers automatically preparing to turn it over. After a few seconds she pauses and looks up at the overhead light, but she doesn't turn it on. Instead she folds the file closed again. Silently, she tilts her head back against the headrest, elongating her throat to the moon. It's an unexpected concession from his stoic partner and, despising a universe that would exhaust her this way, he nonetheless stares for too long. The engine rumbles, low and monotonous out here in the empty corner of the lot.
“KitKat Scully?” He takes the bar out of his pocket. Her eyes open at the crinkle of the wrapper. He breaks the confection into pieces inside the plastic and offers it to her with one piece extended, the way one might offer a cigarette to a stranger.
“Thank you, Mulder," she says, without taking a piece. "I must say, this is better than a taxi.”
“Aw, Scully, I’ll be your cabbie any time,” he says, and means ‘friend’.
He doesn’t insist on walking her up to her apartment, he just does it. He talks about bees in the elevator, rambles about bees in the hall, draws on all his knowledge of bees while she unlocks her door, including anything he can remember seeing in the article he read earlier, when he was too distracted to pay much attention. And then he is standing in her living room with all his outerwear still on, watching her step out of her shoes and roll her bare feet on the rug, one at a time. She wobbles a little and has to put a hand on the back of the couch. He doesn't reach out to steady her. "Bet you didn't know bees can sting insects with exoskeletons more than once," he says. "Us mammals and our elasticity on the other hand - we pose a problem."
She blinks slowly. "I'll be back in a moment," she says, before slipping off into another room.
This leaves him to wander around her living area, turning over paperweights and looking in her fridge. He takes his coat off while she's gone, but doesn't want to impose by putting it down anywhere. When he gets tired of carrying it around he puts it back on. She seems to be indifferent to his presence here, which he supposes means she's behaving as usual, while he acts stranger than ever and pushes her to toss around theories with him while her system's probably still off kilter with whatever medical cocktail they dosed her with.
By the time they'd crossed the river into Arlington he'd already glossed over much of the past couple days' events. She hadn't been in the mood to cavil with him about theories, and he had quickly realized how difficult it was to avoid the question of Skinner's involvement. Eventually she'd just promised to go over everything he'd compiled some time tomorrow. Now the file lies closed - the only thing on her coffee table - and he isn't too sure himself why he's still here.
He turns to look when the bathroom door clicks shut, and hears the tap come on. The rush of the water immediately drowns out the pad of her feet on the tile, her hands in the cupboards, all her vital, before-bed sounds, until he stops listening. He's examining a vacant picture frame on her bookshelf when he realizes the white noise of the tap has stopped.
“I’m fine, Mulder,” she says from behind him. It's the second time that night he has seen her first in a pane of glass.
Turning, he finds her clad in lamplight and satin: white pajamas with cuffs she’s never hemmed. He feels as if he should deny touching anything, or even looking. He indicates the pewter frame casually. "No picture." The need to swallow and try that again is difficult to ignore.
“You should go home, get some sleep," she says. "You’ve probably had a longer day than I have.”
He grimaces, feeling somber at the mere thought of his car. It’ll be cold by the time he gets back to it - also entirely lacking in her presence. “And here I thought we’d crack open a six-pack, watch a little ESPN.”
She raises a brow.
“Discovery channel?” he tries.
Still no dice. He sighs dramatically. “I should’ve known I’d never get away with it.”
She has moved up beside him now, and smoothes her fingers along the bookshelf he's been perusing. When she raises them there's dust on her fingers, and she studies them as though fascinated. He senses each of her breaths by the tiny rise and fall of her shoulders. She looks up at him through clean lashes, and he feels drawn by the sumptuous darkness of her pupils. “Right now, Mulder, I think you could get away with just about anything,” she says.
He takes a small, graceless step backwards. Not an invitation, he thinks. Not, not, not an invitation. She looks very small tonight, her eyelids bare, her neck left bare above the V of her pajamas; the exhausted heart they’re both in the habit of pretending she doesn’t have is somewhat bare too.
“Oh, really,” he intones. “Anything?”
"Well--" she smiles a little, a very little. "Murder at least." And then it is time for him to go.
She ushers him to the door, promising once more when he resists, that she will read the file. “Come on, Scully," he chides as she bosses him over the threshold, "what fun is getting away with things if I don’t have an accomplice?"
“Say ‘goodnight’ Mulder,” she says.
Unsentimental, she doesn’t hesitate to shut the door once he’s on the other side.
“Well I never,” he murmurs confidentially to her closed door. And if he searches himself he finds it’s true - he never has; she is the first.
He shouldn't have waited. Obviously, he shouldn't have waited, he thinks, standing in her hallway, waiting. Obviously, he is an idiot for standing here in his partner's hallway - right in front of the spyhole for god's sake - waiting for her to put the chain on her door. She isn't going to do it. He's been here, what, three minutes? OBVIOUSLY, she isn't going to do it.
The trouble, he considers, is sedatives- yes, surely some kind of sedatives. She just isn't paying attention. She didn't case the waiting room at the hospital. She put the seatbelt under her arm on the ride home, even though she's told him several times what kinds of unpleasant things can happen to your internal organs should you crash. He's thought before that it must get awfully heavy, keeping her guard so high all the time, and of course she's going to let it down every so often.
He's just not all right with it. He relies on that guard to keep them safe. He wants her to PUT THE CHAIN on her DAMN DOOR.
He'd only intended to hold off a moment – just until he heard the click-click-plink of the bolt. It's not that he feels he has to protect her, either, because he's proven himself pretty poor at that. But he needs her to protect herself - he needs it - because it's been one spook after another, after another with them - for years - and he doesn't think anyone had ever tried to kill her before she met him, and he doesn't think he'd ever been adequately scared of death until he met her, and fuck.
Her new door lock is for crap (he’s examined it himself in case he ever needs to shoulder his way in again) and besides that, it makes the drive home more comfortable is all, knowing that a forced lock is one thing, but a forced lock and chain will take a second run at it, and what with her being such a quick draw and all, well…
Mulder envisions her sighted along her arm, diminutive and sleepy. He pictures the recoil of her 1056, feels the wretched thrill of it, the loudness of gunfire that afterward seems almost imagined. Her narrow wrists are cross-braced, and her gun is the single black axis of her white body. Then she’s barking down a phone line, her voice in his ear as clear and strong as carbon, Mulder, it’s me, letting him know she’s standing over some inbred, alien, cigarette-smoking mutant. Looks like I beat the authorities, he notes when he gets to her apartment. She is still standing over something’s body, blowback of gunpowder airbrushed onto her white pajamas but it doesn’t matter because she’s safe. On the street the PD is arriving. We are the authorities, Mulder, she says, contrite, and he thinks, okay, so that’s probably not something Scully would ever say to him ever, but it doesn’t really matter because She’s Safe.
So Mulder waits in the hall outside of her apartment. The seconds tick by, and he dawdles as though in another five minutes she's going to wake up - Rip van Winkle only prettier - and come put the chain on her door. And when she does, and when she happens to catch him standing like a deranged sentry out here, she won't question his sanity at all. She'll open the door and say, Thanks, Mulder, I'm fine now. Well, okay, the 'fine' part-- she might do that. Of course, if he’d thought of it a while ago he could have just knocked to remind her, but it’s been several minutes already and what the hell would he say? I think something happened to me on the way to your elevator, Scully, I’m missing time, and by the way, lock up, okay? He should really just forget it and scram, before the neighbors call him in on reports of suspicious activity. Nothing's going to happen. She probably neglects to put the chain on her door all the time. Why bother? When psychopaths take an interest in Dana Scully they come through the window, or the ducting, or they invite themselves in with a bottle of fucking Cabernet Sauvignon.
He feels like laughing. No, he does not feel the least bit like laughing. How can she not put the chain back on? He has to make sure she’s taking precautions like these, Jesus.
A neighbor - someone Mulder's never seen - comes out of the apartment down the hall, whistling as he lugs a sagging garbage bag towards the elevator. He has a Walkman clipped to his sweat pants, turned up loud enough for Mulder to hear Joshua Tree blaring faintly from the headphones around his neck. Mulder feels caught - doing what, he couldn’t say. He crosses his arms and leans against the wall opposite Scully's door like he has a purpose for being there. He and the neighbor exchange nods in passing.
"Hey," says the neighbor.
Mulder nods again.
"You waiting for someone?"
He acknowledges this with a noncommittal gesture.
"Well-- have a good one."
Once the elevator doors shut on the guy, the impulse to move becomes too great and Mulder heads for the stairs on a whim, giving the exit door a shove. His shoes are loud as he descends. It gives him the impression he is the noisiest thing in her building. After a flight and a half he stops. Standing in the abandoned stairwell, he refuses to think about spending the rest of his night with his mind a crime scene database of liver eaters and death fetishists and the look of fortitude in Scully’s eyes when she isn’t the least bit fine.
He turns around and makes his way back up to her floor.
By the time he is standing in front of her door again he is slightly winded, as though he has actually gone and then hurried back. He knocks loudly. It is barely a moment before a shadow covers the cyclops observatory of the peephole. She is soft on her feet even at this hour, too quiet for him to hear her on the other side of the door.
“Scully, it's me,” he says, loud.
“Mulder? What are you-- uh-- yeah, just-- just a minute.” And then, very clearly, he hears her fumble the chain against the lock--
“Is everything all right?” she demands, almost before the door is open. She did that to deceive him, he thinks. She is standing there right now, impassive in knowing that she can deceive him about her wellbeing. Either that or he is losing his mind. “Mulder, are you all right? Did you forget something?”
He swallows hard. For a moment all he sees is her drowsy eyes, opened wide, barbiturate blue in the narrow crevice of doorway. This is ridiculous.
Suddenly he finds himself forcing his way past her into the room. He hits the wall switch on his way by and the ceiling light goes on. “After rehashing it, I started thinking you were right about that case-file. Unless there's another swarming there's no reason it can't wait the weekend. I should probably just take it with me.” The file is still on the coffee table where she put it, but it's open and the pages are spread out. Her laptop is also open on the table, and her glasses lie folded atop of a couple of stapled pages. He could mention that she's reading in the dark but apparently her eyesight is another area of well being that doesn’t hold the importance it used to. There is also a box of Kleenex on the coffee table.
Scully stands in the center of the room, managing to look annoyed while she blinks in the bright light. “'Unless there's another swarming'? Mulder, I thought-- I thought the entire point was for me to get caught up quickly on the attacks that have occurred, in case more attacks occur.”
Mulder disregards her confusion. He gathers the pages on the table into a stack, shuffling them haphazardly together before closing them into their folder. Scully comes over and picks up a Payson newspaper clipping he missed. He keeps himself from grabbing it. “Besides that, Mulder," she says in a lowered voice. "I forgot to ask you earlier: whatever came of Skinner’s involvement in this? Your suspicion yesterday morning seemed to be that his role was pivotal, and I would have to agree--”
“See, that’s why I need to look closer at this thing," he says, wielding the file. His latest suspicions are all too well founded, but he refuses to share those with her: the AD cozied up in bed with the Cancerman on her behalf. In the face of her fierce morality it seems horribly ironic. "Besides the fact that someone tried to cover it up, we don’t know much about what happened to Jane Brody in the bathroom of that routing center two nights ago.”
Two nights. He reels at the memory of these past days – marauding days without her. She gives him the loose clipping and he shoves it in with the others. The folder he’s holding has been tossed into passenger seats, leafed through one handed at stoplights, and generally abused. It was on his coffee table last night while he rummaged pages aside looking for the VCR remote. As for him, he's eaten a KitKat bar and a complementary hunk of biscotti from Starbucks in the past 24 hours, and slept less than he's eaten. In a bathroom at the hospital he'd washed his face, and his hands to the elbows, and unbuttoned his shirt to sponge down his neck with antibacterial hand soap until he felt somewhat better.
“So you don’t believe that Skinner has a stake in all this?” she wonders. "As of yesterday, he seemed to be as suspect as anyone - did you speak with him?"
“However Skinner’s involved, it still doesn’t explain what happened at that elementary school in Payson,” he says.
Scully nods, clearly tracking what he’s saying with what she’s so far managed to glean of the case. “No. Nor does it explain what happened to Dr. Valedespino, really. Aggressive breeds of bees can be incited to swarm if they perceive a threat to their hive and can even remain in a state of heightened aggression for up to a day after the threat has subsided, but Mulder, there’s no precident in bee husbandry of bees victimizing a target without provocation. Even under conditions of highly concentrated iso-pentyl acetate, they’re-- ”
“Wait, iso…” He taps one antsy foot on the leg of her coffee table.
“Iso-pentyl acetate – it’s an alarm pheromone. Bees are typically sedate by nature, and from what I can recall, excluding several suborders of 'stingless bees' they're almost universal pollen eaters.”
“See, Scully, it’s a good thing I came back for this file or you’d have really looked like a know-it-all on Monday.” He puts a hand on her shoulder and feels her sink under the small weight. He notices fully how incongruous his weather-battered outerwear is against her satin shoulders. Her pajamas are so smooth that he's actually pulled the neck of her top askew accidentally. Her clavicle is a shadowed line. If he moved her top a little more he could study the bone all the way to where it meets her shoulder. If he moved his thumb he could touch the base of her throat; her veins under there, blood.
"Scully..." His voice is gravel. He should leave, he thinks. He has what he didn't come for - he should leave. She doesn't move or speak. "How'd it go at the hospital?"
She stiffens in an instant.
He takes his hand off her shoulder but it's too late, he can still feel it, that stiffness. The way she responds at times like this, he feels it in himself, a transmundane shift that jars. It's like dropping something. There's a kind of anger that comes with it, a kind of 'Oh no' frustration that it should happen this way, again. It doesn't seem she's going to answer, at first, but then she says, "It went fine."
"Fine," he states.
"It was primarily the usual checkup procedure. There were a few additional tests to do with immune function, HLAs, T cell efficiency. And they thought it a good idea to do some imaging scans - to clarify some previous test results. I agreed." Her head is turned so that she's looking slightly away, expressionless, the way a blind person might hold herself. "There wasn’t any imminent danger. It wasn't invasive."
Nothing dangerous. Nothing invasive.
It's his turn to be silent. He can feel his jaw working, grinding dull sparks into his teeth. Perhaps she can see it from the outside. "Mulder..." she begins. Wordlessly, he moves past her, heading for the front door. It is definitely time for him to go. He finds the door still slightly ajar from his abrupt entrance, but she reaches it as he does and takes hold of the outside handle, holding it nearly closed. "Mulder," she says curtly.
His abrupt laugh is unintentional as it barks out of him. He takes hold of the door, up, above her head. He realizes the armoire is behind her, and it may as well be a wall it's so effectively boxing her in. Suddenly he's leaning over her, into her space. It's hardly even a thought in his head as he does it. "Yeah," he says, "I guess when you're used to working on dead people nothing is invasive." Her imperial eyes flash over him. He feels riveted to her with a kind of tyrannical focus. "But those things sound pretty invasive to me, Scully."
The door stands beside them, between them, imposing. He swears he can feel his pulse in his hand, gripped against the grain of the wood. Very slowly he lets go - lowers his fingers to the empty bolt-lock - traces the metal. “I’d better get out of here. You need to sleep.” He swallows. "Just do me a favor and put the chain on the damn door."
She blinks in surprise. Her hand slips off the doorknob and she crosses her arms in front of her defensively. “Of course.”
“See you on Monday, then.”
“Monday," she confirms. "Goodnight, Mulder.”
He reaches past her to swipe off the wall switch, to leave things how he found them. It leaves them standing in a shared cone-angle of hallway light. Mulder peers into her apartment another moment, studying it in the dark, then looks back at her. In this light, with her pallor, Scully could be a reflection - something diaphanous and fleeting that he will fail to catch or prove.
She shifts and absentmindedly rubs her arm. Mulder looks down and sees the hospital tag, still there. “Oh. Hey." Before she knows it he’s taken the keys from his pocket and is holding her by the wrist, pulling her hand up between them.
Carefully he cuts her free of her paper bracelet. It slips loose and he tucks it away. “Hospital jewelry,” he says. They stare at her bare wrist together.
“Forgot about that.”
She makes little of it, excusing it as though he expects her too. He doesn’t expect one damn thing where she’s concerned, not one thing, not even that she’s ever going to die. He touches her wrist and he’s thinking about what she said, about getting away with murder. Her hand drops limply between them. For you, Scully, he thinks, I’ll sure try.
I wanted to give reasons why I tried to love you
more each day, but it all sounded
so ordinary, like taking a piece of bread
and cutting it. Even this simple act
brings a knife into play.
-- Susan Musgrave