Hard Times, Come Again No More
There's a song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered round my cabin door,
Oh hard times, come again no more.
- Hard Times, Come Again No More, Stephen Foster
She sometimes doesn't have a clue how they got here, how they became these people.
There are no suits or ties hanging in Mulder's side of the closet. He grew a Unabomber beard and learned to cook because the nearest takeout place is 12 miles away and doesn't put enough cheese on the pizza anyway. He watches World's Deadliest Catch, grows tart little cherry tomatoes in a planter by the back door, and doesn't have to replace his fish every three months. Their books mingle companionably on the shelves, The Wings of the Dove nudging up against A Dictionary of Cryptozoology, the Handbook of Neurodevelopmental and Genetic Disorders in Children leaning on the shoulder of Interdimensional Universe: The New Science of UFOs, Paranormal Phenomena and Otherdimensional Beings. He kisses her goodbye every morning before work, like the normal people they've become, and she carries his taste of tart orange juice and acrid coffee under her tongue like a secret, like a key, all the way to the hospital.
Her bones ache now and then with the effort of keeping him safe, keeping him near, keeping him closed inside this skinny, egg-shell peace of theirs. She can mostly kid herself that she has him tamed - Vulpes domesticus - but some days when she steps into his scrappy little nest of cuttings and photos and scrawled notes time seems to slip, like a scratched record, and her heart is in her mouth all over again, a painfully neat, bad-suited, soft-faced girl of 28, walking into the basement hideaway of a strange and fantastical creature.
Occasionally, without warning, even though he is right there, she misses him - when she's brushing her teeth while he hums tunelessly in the shower beside her, when she comes home from work to find him shooting hoops in the back yard, when she gets up to go to the bathroom in the night and comes back to see his sleeping face sliced with light from the hallway. She feels, out of nowhere, deeply and unassuageably homesick for another Mulder, one she knows is a long time dead now: a lean and hungry-eyed white knight in a horrible tie, with much of the wide-open wonder of the boy still clinging to him, who would stick his fingers straight into any unidentified substance but could never just come right out and say what he meant. That Mulder who stood too close to her in morgues; always assumed he was going to drive; raised his hackles every time another man leant in close to talk to her; stood like a gunslinger with his hands on his hips whenever he wanted to argue a point; made her sit through innumerable basement slideshows, and played travel Scrabble with her in hospital rooms for hours on end.
She can never tell him that, but then again she occasionally catches him looking at her with a thousand-yard, ten-year stare, and thinks that every once in a while maybe he's feeling homesick too, for a Scully with sharp, swinging hair and sharper suits, who pursed her lips and arched an eyebrow at his theories but bristled at anyone with the temerity to insult him, who cleaned her gun to relax on a Saturday night, who smelled of formaldehyde and lemon-scented industrial-strength anti-bacterial soap. That Scully who fell asleep and drooled on his shoulder during stakeouts; who flew to Africa and back for him; who ate bad Chinese food sitting on synthetic-fibre comforters with him in cheap motel rooms and argued with him about batraquomancy and left-handed voodoun and the Kenneth Arnold sighting, all the way across America.
She loves living with Mulder, is amazed constantly that after all the fire and death and denial it can have come to this, to two bodies finally at rest, to his toothbrush beside hers in the bathroom and his long body warm against hers every cold night. She pretends not to know what he gets up to in his study all day - she'll happily talk over dinner about his journal articles and the novel he's ceaselessly drafting, a police procedural set in DC that mixes politics and the paranormal. She doesn't have any desire to talk about his other work, though, the work that keeps him online till late into the night. She knows what he's doing, digging around the dark back alleys of the internet, tentatively making contacts, throwing out fishing hooks baited with a date four years from now and seeing who bites. Sometimes he tries to talk to her about it, but she's always been an expert at changing the subject. They maintain the plausible deniability that she will someday sit down and listen to him about what he's found so far - just as soon as she's finished her notes from that afternoon's surgery. Just as soon as the laundry is in off the line. Just as soon as the wolf scratches at the door. Privately, she's resolved that she will never lose him to the monsters in the dark again. To have lost Mulder once may be regarded as misfortune - to lose him a second time would be carelessness indeed, and she would neither know how nor want to live with herself.
But God, she misses working with him, those years of concentrated intellectual foreplay, the weight of a gun at her hip and his silent, faithful presence just behind her shoulder, the constancy with which he sought to surprise her.
Even if those two fierce, lonesome, angular people are dead, though, he is still her most precious, serendipitous secret. Even now, after moving all those times, after burrowing themselves down into this quiet snow-bound corner where no one could possibly guess or care who he is, she keeps him close to her chest, like an unexpectedly winning hand of cards.
In the beginning, until the money runs out, there is a string of motels even crappier than the ones they'd stayed in on the Bureau's dime, a chair wedged under the doorknob each night, and hours spent scanning CNN before making urgent, famished love.
After that there's a string of cash-in-hand jobs and scrapheap cars, criss-crossing the country on backroads - they pour coffee in Delaware, wash cars in Minnesota, pick blueberries in Oregon and oranges in Florida, gut fish in Maine, clean offices in Arizona. They never stay in one place more than a month; sleep in the car when they have to, which is often; spend more than they can afford on getting new driving licenses forged four times a year. They never take more risks than they have to - never go over the speed limit; never shoplift so much as a Twinkie; never call familiar numbers just to hear a well-loved voice pick up and say 'Hello? Hello? Is there anybody there?'
They dye each other's hair over motel bathtubs, burning the empty packets of Nice'n'Easy in the trashcan afterwards with a Bic. The first time, she looks up from beneath where it falls glossy as a raven's wing over her eye and catches Mulder's gaze in the mirror, the glaze of unspilt tears, although he smiles and makes a La Femme Nikita joke. They never do quite learn the trick of getting her eyebrows to match.
2002 is their Year Zero. Apres ca, le deluge.
For the first year and a half, they seal themselves off hermetically from their old lives. They're in a little backcountry ski town in Idaho - Mulder tending bar at The Rusty Nail, Scully waiting tables at the Silver Creek Cafe - when Mulder first voices the thought that perhaps, after all, no one is looking for them.
"I was behind the bar tonight when a guy walked in who looked exactly like Cassidy from VCU," he whispers that night when he comes home from his shift and slides into bed behind her. Her heart turns over in her chest. His beard is damp where sleet has settled in it, melting now against her neck. "It wasn't him, Scully, but for a second I was looking for the fastest way to get out of there without being seen. And then, when I saw it wasn't him at all, I thought...I just thought, are we being nuts?"
"Mulder, you're a federal fugitive and I'm an accessory to your escape," she mumbles into her pillow, her blood still pounding in her ears. "We agreed..we've been so careful - "
"I know, I know. But what if...what if no one even cares anymore? You think they couldn't have found us a week after New Mexico, if they'd really wanted? We're talking about people who surveilled our every move for years, who were always two steps ahead of us before we even started out. They aren't the Keystone Kops."
A dozen replies are on her lips, but she presses them together and sits up, swinging her feet off the bed and onto the floor. She goes to the window and pulls the slats of the blind apart with a finger. The bare branches of the tree outside are still glazed white from the ice storm that blew into town on Thursday night. She watches a couple of SUVs crawling cautiously along the gritted centre of the road. The power lines sag heavily across the street, coated with glassy weight.
She hears the bed creak and his footsteps before his arms wrap around her from behind. Her chest is tight with fear, as if there are bands of ice pressing down on each rib. He slides his cold hands up under the hem of her pajama top, and his thumbs brush against the undersides of her breasts. The skin around the gunshot scar on her stomach tingles in the crisp air.
"It was just a thought," he says, kissing her earlobe, his voice low and scratchy. "Come back to bed."
She does, but three days later, by unspoken agreement, they go to the library before her shift starts, and set up an anonymous Hotmail account. Hunched over the terminal, they compose the message together in whispered conference, Mulder's long fingers flying back and forth over the keys. Nothing too specific. No names. Nothing that couldn't appear to be a casual message from an old schoolfriend, unless you knew which lines to look between. They settle on Reyes as least likely to still be under any kind of surveillance, but her Bureau e-mail address bounces. They try Doggett next, and his e-mail bounces back too.
The day after that, they get an e-mail back from Skinner, sent from a new anonymous web-mail account of his own. Mrs Scully is fine - he checked in on her every once in a while, until she sold her house and moved out to California to be closer to Bill and Tara. Skinner helped her to clear out Scully's apartment, and then took it upon himself to do the same to Mulder's - their things are jumbled together in a storage unit in Alexandria. Reyes left the Bureau about a year after their escape, he tells them, and went back to New Orleans. He thought she was enrolled on a PhD programme at Loyola, but he hadn't heard from her in a while. She'd resigned the week after Doggett was shot and killed in the line during a vice bust in Philly that went badly wrong, leaving three agents dead.
Mulder has to call in sick to work for her - she cries on and off for most of the day, and when he leaves to go to work in the evening she's silently relieved, eager to be alone with her sadness. When he comes back from the bar at 2am, she's still awake, wrapped in blankets on the ratty orange plaid couch, drinking Scotch on the rocks and thinking about how steady Doggett's hands were with the knife when he cut into her neck and saved her life, long before she learnt to trust him. Her head is throbbing as though someone is slowly, meticulously tightening a vice around her temples.
"He was a good guy," he says, sinking down beside her and kicking off his boots. He takes the bottle of J&B from her and pours himself a drink.
"He was one of the best," she whispers into her glass. "A redwood among mere sprouts."
"That's what Frohike said about you after we thought you'd died in that boxcar in New Mexico," she says, looking at her hands. "I never told you...he showed up drunk and maudlin at my place one night. I made him coffee. I thought he might cry right there in my kitchen."
He clinks his glass against hers and let out a long, tired sigh. "Slainte, Scully. Absent friends."
"I threw a cup of water in Doggett's face the first time I met him. I never told him sorry for that." She starts to cry again, to her own disgust, a slow leaking around the edges with no energy to it.
Mulder puts his arm around her and rests his chin on the top of her head. His beard prickles her scalp through her hair. "I'm sure he knew. He knew."
The day Skinner calls in the summer of 2004 to say she may be able to come back from the dead, thunder is rolling bones up at the top of the valley and Mulder keeps pacing down to the road to check how high the river has risen. The store where she sells six packs to local farmers and bottled water to hikers is closed - water in the basement shorted out the power two days ago, and she's been home with Mulder, reading a bad Kathy Reichs novel from the library on the porch while he taps away at his laptop inside, working on an article he wants to submit to the Journal of Parapsychology. It's been Vermont's wettest July in 28 years: on the 4th it rained too hard for fireworks, but they'd lain awake all night while violet lightning crawled across the clouds and cannonades of thunder echoed back and forth, the hillsides talking back to each other in the unquiet dark.
When the phone rings she automatically goes to pick up the landline, wondering if it's Peggy from the Citgo calling to ask them to go next door and move her horses up to the higher pasture. It takes a minute of standing looking blankly at the silent receiver in her hand before she realises it's the other phone, the $15 cell phone with the pre-paid SIM that Mulder refers to as the Bat Phone.
While Skinner talks she walks to stand by the front door. She can see Mulder through the porch screens, plodding back up the long driveway in his blue rain slicker, head bowed, runnels of dirty water racing through the gravel around his feet.
Mulder comes around back and splashes in through the kitchen door, water puddling round his boots on the poured concrete. "The river's gonna burst its banks before dark, Scully, for sure," he tells her, reaching for a dish towel to blot the rain from his face. "There's all kinds of crap washing down from upstream - riding tack, kayaks, lawn chairs..."
He trails off when he sees her face and the phone still in her hand.
"Skinner called," she says, feeling lightheaded. "He said...he's been working for months to try and rehabilitate our reputations, Mulder. He didn't want to say anything until now - he didn't want to raise false hopes, but he's made some contacts inside the DOD and the NSA as well as putting out feelers inside the Bureau. He's not sure about you yet...he says it's become politically expedient for the Bureau to just go on ignoring you for now, as long as you don't try to come out into the open, but he thinks I - I might be able to come back in from the cold."
Mulder shucks off his raincoat and sinks down on to one of the kitchen chairs. He drums his fingers against the table for a minute, his nails tap-tapping on the scratched wood.
"Not to D.C. though...not back to the Bureau?" he asks.
"No, but if I could be myself again - use my real name, file my taxes - I could go back to medicine. I could work, earn us some real money. We could stay in one place for a while. I could see my mom again, Mulder. Skinner knows a guy - an army medic he knew in the Marines, who's an orthopaedic surgeon now at a Catholic hospital in Virginia. He thinks he might be able to pull some strings with the hospital administration..."
"Well then. You've got to do it, Scully. If you can have a normal life again - that's all I've ever wanted for you. I want you to do it," he says, steepling his fingers and looking over them at the floor.
She hears the rasp of fear in his voice, and suddenly she understands why he won't meet her eyes. She crosses the kitchen and kneels down in front of his chair, cold rainwater soaking through the knees of her jeans. She takes his hands between hers, as if they're praying together.
"I'm not going anywhere without you," she says, kissing his fingertips quickly. "That's not an option. Even if I have to hide you in my basement." Even as she says it, fear tingles through her veins again. She'd put him under lock and key if she could.
Mulder gives her a quick, toothy smile. "Well, I'm pretty good at skulking in basements. I used to be a pro, in fact," he says, reaching for her.
The river does burst its banks that night. They're cut off for two weeks, after the roaring water rushing down from the mountains tears away great chunks of Route 100. By the time the water goes down and the state transportation crews have repaired the road, their meagre belongings are packed up and ready to go. The house and the furniture are all rented, as always: their possessions fit into three suitcases between them. They load them into the back of their beat-up blue station wagon and get on the road at sunrise. All the way down the valley, they pass the detritus of unknown lives lying in the grass at the roadside - a mangled red ten-speed bike, a tennis racquet, a green plastic watering can. Mulder points the car south, and they speed towards Virginia while little white rain-ghosts of cloud wisp overhead like homesick souls.
In the cool, wet spring of 2006, despite her flu shot, she gets sick, picking up a nasty respiratory infection that's tearing through the paeds ward at Our Lady of Sorrows. She stays home from work for a week, achy and weak, hacking and snuffling, and Mulder putters around taking care of her, making chicken noodle soup, bringing her bowls of hot water and draping towels over her head while she breathes deep lungfuls of scorching eucalyptus-scented steam. He makes her a nest of blankets on the couch every day and she lies with her feet in his lap, watching old black and white movies on daytime cable. She slips in and out of medicated sleep and it seems like every time she wakes up Woman of the Year is on and Katharine Hepburn's meeting Spencer Tracy for the first time.
At night, he runs her deep, warm baths and then tucks her up in bed with a wonderful concoction of hot water, lemon juice, cinnamon, honey and rum. She coughs wetly all night, despite being propped up on three pillows, so she insists he sleeps downstairs, although he protests he's willing to take his chances with her germs.
She lies awake for hours, sleeping only fitfully and feverishly, broken sleep fractured with bad dreams and nameless dread. After three nights like that she gets up out of bed around 2 am and hauls herself shakily down the stairs into the living room, where Mulder is sprawled on the couch. She slips under the blanket with him and hears his chuff of surprise.
"Scully? You okay?"
"I...I couldn't sleep."
"Do you need me to get you something? Some more cough syrup? Some tea?"
"No," she mutters into the soft cotton over his sleep-warm sternum. "I just...I can't get to sleep in an empty bed any more, Mulder."
"Me too," he tells the top of her head, tightening his arms around her ribs. "Come on." The dark world tilts and shifts, and then Mulder is carrying her slowly up the stairs and nestling down next to her under the comforter. According to him, she still coughs throughout the night, but she must also somehow manage to sleep, because she dreams a real dream, a peaceful one, one she's had before. In this recurrent dream Mulder - as he was years ago, beardless, taut, tan - is barefoot on a beach. He's building a giant spaceship out of sand, crouched and laughing with a little boy, a boy with fine brown hair and big green eyes. She knows, somehow, that this child is their son, not as he was, not as he will be now, coming up on his fifth birthday, but as he has yet to become.
She never tells Mulder about the dream, but she finds it, as ever, inexplicably comforting. Perhaps it's the universe telling her the answer to a question she hasn't the courage to ask yet. Perhaps they will yet see William again. When she swims up through the morning light Mulder is asleep on his stomach beside her, and she nuzzles up against him, hiding a tiny smile in his minky brown hair where the silver is starting to show through.
Of course he comes down with her cough a few days later, and lies around the house limp and glossy-eyed with fever. Still wobbly and pale herself, she takes her turn at making hot toddies and soup while Mulder makes weak cracks about wanting to play doctor and she's amazed all over again - he doesn't have a gunshot wound. He isn't recovering from botched impromptu brain surgery. His lungs haven't been shredded by genetically modified beetle larvae. He isn't back, barely, from the dead. He's just sick, and this is what normal people do, and this, this scuzzy domestic scene of used Kleenex and empty Theraflu bottles, this is what love is.
In the car on the way home from the hospital after her little visit from Agent Drummy, she grips the wheel carefully, her gloved hands at ten and two, and tries to concentrate on breathing slowly, metronomically, in through the nose, out through the mouth. One, two. One, two.
Despite her best efforts, her thoughts keep slewing around, like a car spinning balletically on black ice. They slide through Christian's inactive hexosaminidase enzymes, progressive ataxia and pallid, froggy skin; slip briefly from there, as ever, to memories of William's velveteen skullcap cupped in her palm and his baby lashes like fine-point paint brushes on his cheeks as he slept, and come to rest over and over in the remembered stifling blackness of car trunks and closets, duct tape or cotton close against her mouth and her wrists. The closet in Pfaster's mother's house. Gerry Schnautz's tin-sided trailer. The trunk of Duane's Barry's car. Her tongue had been dry and thick against the cotton gag, her hands behind her back tingling bloodlessly, and his panicky, tuneless humming had been loud enough to hear over the engine's thrum as they wound their way up, up, up and away into the dark.
She flicks the radio on to catch the tail end of All Things Considered, but really what she keeps coming back to is this missing agent. What her partner must be feeling. Her mother. Whoever will have to order the headstone if her body turns up three days or weeks or months from now.
When she became a mother, she hadn't been in the slightest bit surprised by the fiercely possessive, wolverine ardor she felt for William. After all, she'd felt the same way about his father for years. Since she gave their son into the hands of strangers, she's had nothing to focus that tight blue flame of protective feeling on but Mulder, and its intensity hasn't diminished even one degree - a white noise hum of ceaseless quiet, background terror will do that for love. The thought of him walking back into the Bureau's spotlight, the thought of guns, of hospital vigils, is making something small and clawed start to uncurl in her stomach, and yet. And yet.
Monica Bannan may still be alive. She looks out at the banked, silent snow as she turns off the main road, and knows you can't have too much life, not in a frozen season.
She breathes slowly, carefully, on her way up the porch steps. One, two. One, two. She opens the front door and steps into their battered chamber of wonders, leaving two heartbeats for the night to follow after.
Author's note: flying without beta and for the first time since 2001. Any mistakes, continuity errors and movie misrememberings are all my own fault.
'Hard Times, Come Again No More' is an American folk song from the mid-1800s. The version by James Taylor, Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor on 'Appalachian Journey' comes highly recommended.
For iamsab, who planted the seeds and took me to 'Hamlet'.