Fox Mulder is immortal.
Maybe even more so than Scully herself is, if you believe in that sort of thing. Fox Mulder is so immortal that even death can't kill him.
It is a fitting and wholly unsurprising realization.
Sometimes she thinks back on the past several months, summarizing them to herself briefly and in as few words as possible, like ripping off a band-aid. Mulder was abducted, he returned, he was cured in the hospital. These are facts. Cold, unemotional, and scientific, which is exactly how Scully likes to make sense of the world.
This is how she prefers to remember Mulder's abduction: he was a bird, once, and he flew back home to her.
And when he did, she'd buried him deep in the ground, six feet down, so he couldn't fly away again.
One time, when she was little, she kept a dead bunny in a lunchbox hidden in the basement. Her lonely little secret to bear, she'd loved the creature and doggedly earned its trust over several weeks the hot, dry summer the Scullys had moved to San Diego. She'd tucked it away, then, on a shelf and in her heart, kept it safe from predators and brothers. It had been alive when she'd first closed it in its coffin, too.
Suffocated, Ahab said. Not enough air to breathe.
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.
Scully drives Mulder to his apartment from the hospital, keeps the car keys in her hand as he surveys the main room. He's still getting used to his brain's new thought processes and his head feels cottony, disjointed. The rest of his body feels too tall, too weak, and hardly tethered down; Mulder can't exactly feel himself in this place anymore.
Dust motes cover everything, even the sunlight, like they did the day in June every year his parents would air out the summer house in Quonochontaug. He and Sam would run through each room seeing who could remove the most sheets from the furniture. They'd make it a game, but inwardly, the blatant non-permanence of the living situation always made him feel a little like a vagrant. He never really felt at home there.
As a kid, he used to have this cheap plastic camera with a shitty viewfinder, and it made all the pictures he took look washed-out and off by an inch. That's how his apartment looks now, he thinks. Like one of those poorly composed photographs. Or maybe it's more like an elaborate Egyptian tomb, with all of the things he loved in his life Before arranged carefully and artfully around him, but by other people. A monument to his death. They'd re-created Martin Luther King's hotel room in a museum after he died, too, right down to his breakfast, half-eaten on a tray. He'd always thought that was kind of weird.
Scully stands very still against the wall. They don't let you touch things in museums.
He can't exactly feel himself in her life anymore, either. It is a strange, unwelcome feeling to be so undefined and awkward around her. People continue living their lives after you die, of course, but no one ever tells them when to pause and wait in case you wake up alive again.
"Who are you?" He'd asked her at the hospital. What he'd meant was, "Who are you now?"
It crosses his mind, bizarrely, that he is a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge and Scully is his Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This is what the world would be like if I stayed dead, he thinks. He's definitely made Scully work on Christmas Eve. The dead molly fish would probably be Tiny Tim.
The deserted air of the apartment is unnerving and Mulder decides at the last minute that he can't stay here any longer. They pack some clothes and shut off the light, and Scully remembers how she was the one who threw the first handful of dirt on his coffin.
Scully is no stranger to compartmentalization. She tries to keep everything in its place: work at work, home at home, corpses in caskets.
For awhile, she separated her life into Before and After, with Mulder's death like a solid weight in the middle. She tried to make some distinct changes in herself to differentiate between them, grew her hair out a little, started dabbling in some fringe science literature. It had felt particularly important then to indicate outwardly that After was different from Before, because it sure felt different. Very different. She wanted everyone to know.
When Mulder was in the hospital, it suddenly became Before and After and After. Now Scully feels caught between two versions of herself.
In reality, she knows this is only the lesser part of the problem. He was miles above them in the Arizona desert, just gone, like the world was too small to contain him; she can't fault him from coming back from the dead, as if it were through his tenacity and sheer will alone. Scully from Before loved him quietly but unwaveringly. Scully from After is afraid to touch him too hard, or even look at him, sometimes, just in case the weight of her still isn't enough to keep him grounded here on earth.
They stay at Scully's apartment that night.
It's difficult to sleep. Mulder lays on his back for hours and finds little things to do with his hands, scratching his arm or picking a lip. The room is completely, utterly dark, but he keeps his eyes open. Scully is asleep beside him.
Restless, he sits on the side of the bed, elbows on his knees. He sees some motion peripherally and realizes that maggots, fat with his own decay, have started to drip to the floor from his hair, his ears, his nose. Slugs leave greasy trails on his bare, moldy legs where the muscle has separated from the bone. He tries to brush them off but his hands are too pulpy under the skin to be useful, and what's left of the rest of his body feels cold and stiff. He touches his hair. It is matted with mud and brains.
The earthy scent is everywhere on him.
The skin on his cheeks sloughs off in gelatinous globules at his touch and leaves mushy holes where his scars used to be. He is rotting, he realizes, lungs filling steadily with soil every time he breathes in. It is so blindingly dark.
The t-shirt is so heavy it is crushing him, but his bloated, grey fingers are clumsy and can't seem to grip the hem. "Scully, help me." Cold, wet clumps of soil spill from his mouth. His voice sounds tinny and far away, his breath shallow and fast through all the dirt in his lungs. Scully stands before him, bare-legged and round-bellied, and removes the shirt in one smooth motion.
He is only sinew and bones, and soon he will disappear.
"Deep breaths, Mulder. In for five and out for two." She is calm and quiet, clicks the bedside light on and kneels in front of him. "Look at me. Deep breaths."
She breathes with him. They are breathing together.
Later, when he is calm and corporeal, they lay in bed and Scully distracts him with conversation until the sun comes up. She asks him silly, unimportant questions, the kind she regrets never asking him Before: who was your first kiss? What's your favorite Easter candy?
What do you think of the name William?
They sleep late the next morning, sharing a pillow.
Scully makes breakfast, but eating is strange, too mundane, for Mulder since his return. He picks at things, takes unsure bites and generally wishes normal things could just feel normal. He likes ketchup. He didn't before.
In the afternoon, Scully drives Mulder home.
The weight of existing in his apartment is less cumbersome today, and with Skinner's briefing on Kersh's underhanded attempts to infiltrate the X-Files, it feels almost overwhelmingly like Before. Scully opened a window earlier so there's less dust floating around, too, which helps. He can breathe a little better.
They warn him to stay out of Kersh's way. He wants to tell them, flippantly, how easy that will be now that he's so good at playing dead.
When Skinner leaves, they are very much alone. Truthfully, it has always been just the two of them, him and Scully, together, but never once has he felt it as acutely as he does now.
Scully was abducted, once, too, but never by choice.
The thought has been on the cusp of her consciousness for days, begging her to think it. Now that he is out of the hospital, very much alive, she can't help but give in.
You abandoned me.
When she had returned from her abduction, Mulder had given her the gold cross he'd worn in vigil and a VHS tape of a sport she doesn't watch, simply because she'd chosen to live.
He'd abandoned her, but he never buried her. She'd abandoned him, too.
Mulder's apartment is slightly less disconcerting at night, weirdly, but he thinks it might be because the darkness allows him to see it in pieces, only as the small areas he chooses to illuminate, rather than the overwhelming entirety of it.
Scully crosses to sit in one of the lit areas, the glow of the fish tank casting small blue shadows that move in a lovely way over her face sometimes. It felt good to work today, even if she wouldn't let him do much more than desk work, and not even for very long at that. His mind feels a little clearer, sharper, less like the atrophied, virus-infected mass he keeps imagining. He hangs their jackets on the coat rack. "I'd offer you something to drink, but I've been dead for three months so I haven't had time to go to the store."
"Mulder…" Scully doesn't even acknowledge the remark, doesn't look up to see the corner of his mouth quirk. In fact, she does not move at all. She looks very small in this room.
Scully starts to say more, then stops, mouth open as if she hopes the words will just fall out so she doesn't have to say them. Mulder watches her fingers turn her car keys over and over, slowly. She is more emotional now than he remembers, or is at least not as good at burying them. She tucks her chin into her chest and avoids meeting his eyes. "Mulder, when you were… when you were dead, was there… anything?"
Mulder is suddenly uncomfortable in a way he hasn't been in a long time.
They'd had a cat, once, him and Sam, just for a couple years until it got cancer and had to be put down because his parents couldn't see paying for treatment for an animal. He'd gone with his dad to the vet's office because he wanted to be a man; instead, he'd thrown up in the parking lot. His dad said it was compassionate, that they were doing the humane thing by getting it over quickly instead of allowing the poor beast to suffer. But Mulder, at ten years old, only felt gutted and sick with too much responsibility over the cat's fate.
So he doesn't answer Scully, exactly. Instead, he sits down softly next to her and to cut the tension he makes a few half-hearted, inappropriate jokes, too soon for Scully's taste, about how Jesus was only down for the count for three days and he'd had three lousy months to sit and fester, but he has also broken most of the Ten Commandments and never cured anyone of leprosy, either, so the exchange rate is probably fair. "That was the best sleep I've ever had," he announces. "Slept like the dead but without the commitment. Death with benefits." She smiles a little at that. "What do you think, Scully? Maybe next weekend we can move the couch out and put in the casket?"
Scully disagrees, says it wouldn't match any of his other furniture. She seems to understand his non-answer.
He nods sagely, a little sadly for the both of them, watching her for a quiet minute. Everything about them is raw and new again and suddenly he feels very homesick and doesn't have the energy for banter. His voice is low and flat, unemotional. "I thought about you a lot. Samantha, too."
He sighs and rests his head on the back of the couch, as if the simple task of remembering has made it too weighty. "There was a drill. And some kind of saw...they bolted my wrists down. I remember it in pieces." He blinks. "I was sure I wasn't coming back."
"You almost didn't."
His smile is small and self-deprecating. "Did I ever thank you for not having me cremated?"
Scully laughs once, humorlessly. "It was the least I could do." Her voice is thin and watery; she wants so badly to touch him but doesn't, yet, because it still feels a little awkward. She smooths the metal of her car keys instead. "I'm so sorry, Mulder, for everything. I-"
He is slouched low, still and languid like he was in the hospital, but his eyes are serious and alert. He rolls his head on the back of the couch to look at the ceiling, the wall, her belly. Anywhere but directly at her. "Scully… Can we trust him?"
She knows, without being informed, exactly who he means. "I told you, he's being maneuvered. The sole reason he was even assigned to the X-Files was to act as Kersh's pawn."
He shakes his head slowly. "I know. That's not what I asked."
"Mulder, I…" Scully stops and swallows thickly. She understands then the weight of the question, the significance of its phrasing after so many months of each of them fighting alone and in immensely different ways. She is suddenly reminded of the very beginning stages of their partnership, when they were both in a claustrophobic metal bunker in Icy Cape, Alaska, cold and adrenaline making Scully's fingers stiff like whiskey on the trigger of her gun and the barely-contained hurt in Mulder's voice when he wanted so much to be able to trust anybody at all, but especially her.
There are a thousand unspoken questions hanging in the air. Scully hears them all. There is one question, though, that is buried deep beneath the others, wrapped tightly in Mulder's lifelong fear of being cast aside, unneeded: is it still you and me, Watson, against the world? Scully has a sudden rush of tenderness for this man who so often wears his heart on one sleeve and his self-doubt on the other. She grazes his arm with her fingertips, fleetingly. "I think so. As much as we can ever really trust anybody, I guess."
"Okay." He is quiet for a long time. He turns to look at her, then, all alone in this abandoned apartment with him, and nods once, briefly. "Okay."