Summary: He finally tracks them down in Oxford in mid-October.
Spoilers: (almost) the start of a post-The Truth AU
Thursday 20 October 2005, 5.32 pm. GMT
He finally tracks them down in Oxford in mid-October. Katherine Hale is working as a locum, described to him by the practice receptionist he manages to get hold of as a short blonde with reading glasses, 'those rimless ones, you know, I've never seen her take them off. And I'm sure she dyes...' followed by rambling for an entire minute about the feminine mysteries of hair color. He isn't sure the woman even realises she's on a transatlantic call.
Her partner takes a little longer to figure out. Eventually he finds that one George Williamson is earning a living as a private tutor in psychology, finding his custom entirely through the University website and teaching out of coffee shops. That's when he's really sure he's found them.
"I'm here to see Doctor Hale," he says to the receptionist - not the young girl he spoke to on the telephone, he's certain. This is an older lady, with neatly curled grey hair just past her ears, dressed just as neatly in a pale wool sweater and charcoal grey pants.
"I'm afraid Doctor Hale is just about to leave for the day. I might be able to book you an appointment for tomorrow afternoon-"
"It's all right, Mary." The voice is calm and smooth, instantly familiar even through the veneer of a seemingly natural English accent. He turns around. She looks him squarely in the eye, all genuine care-giver politeness, no hint of recognition giving her away. "I'll see him."
She holds the door open and manages not to turn her back on him as they walk into the consulting room. He watches her reach up and pull the elastic from her hair. There's a tattoo around her wrist, something in dark colors, exposed by the momentary slide of her shirt cuff. He can't tell what it is.
"I'm impressed," she says quietly, and her voice is closer to the warmth he remembers, but held firm by the steel he remembers too, and a strangeness he doesn't. "Although if anyone could find us, I would have imagined it would be you." She pauses. "Sir."
"Walter." It feels awkward to suggest, and will sound awkward between them. "Please."
"Walter," she says. Awkward. She offers him a disjointed smile. "I hope you went to all this trouble and risk for a good reason."
"I did." And then he tells her. He tells her everything.
Somewhere toward the end, she turns away: not enough that she can't track him in a corner of her eye, he's certain, but enough that he can't see her face. She stares out through the window for a full minute before she finds her voice. Old red brick buildings dominate a hillside view down over the city, street lights just beginning to wake as they stand in silence. He finds himself somehow obscurely jealous.
When she does speak, it's faintly hoarse, but she's hiding it well. "All of which means...?"
He tears his eyes away from Oxford under a smoky blue dusk sky. "All of which means it's safe for you to come home."
She turns and looks up at him, as unreadable as she ever could be. "Have you eaten?"
Her car is an unremarkable red Citroen, looking a little lonely at this time of night in the parking lot behind the surgery. She bleeps it unlocked from across the lot with her hands still in her pockets as they walk over. He goes for the wrong side without thinking and nearly bumps into her: she stops sharply, both hands raised, the keys tucked in her palm. He can see the way she's got them thrust between her knuckles.
He tries to think of something innocuous to say. There really isn't anything.
She seems to drive very naturally on the left side of the road. When they hit traffic and slow to a jerky crawl through the city center, he gathers enough presence of mind to clear his throat and ask. "How long have you been here?"
She looks at him slowly for a moment before turning her attention back to the road. A light changes a dozen cars ahead, but he doesn't think they'll reach it. "Eight months."
Eight months out of over three years. It's a long chunk of time, but there's a longer chunk behind it in the silence that's still hanging between them. She scrapes through the light just as it turns amber with some natty driving that has him slightly impressed, despite himself.
"Where are we going?" he finds himself asking. She glances at him again as she indicates, pulling smoothly into another lane.
"Home." She's got one eyebrow arched in a way that makes her look shockingly familiar even beneath the pale hair and glasses. "I'm sorry, am I making you nervous?"
Her voice is beautifully crisp with that accent, which hasn't dropped at all, now they're alone. He clears his throat again, a little louder this time. "No. Of course not."
She smiles, still looking out at the road. "You didn't actually expect to find me back at the surgery, did you."
Perhaps he didn't, at that. He's spent a long time looking, and even longer wondering, waiting, working at whatever he can, which hasn't been nearly enough. He's chased them through so many rumors and half-sightings that he's wondered if he might fail in this, the most important task he's set himself. To make it right, and bring them home.
'Home' in Oxford appears to be a plain brick semi-detached house on a street crowded with plain brick semi-detached houses. The house she pulls in at is fronted by a low wall and gravelled driveway, a compact, two-door, dirty dark blue Ford already parked up with enough room for her to pull in. The gravel crunches as they come to a stop. She twists the keys out of the ignition and pops the door with a kind of ease that makes him pause, staring, until he realises she's at the front door with it standing open and he's still sitting in the passenger seat of her car.
It's the normalcy that's so striking. He never got the chance to see Dana Scully do domestic.
He notices how she takes off her glasses the minute she's in the house with the door closed. She shrugs off her long coat and hangs it over the end of a pine varnished banister before gesturing for him to walk in ahead. He blinks - something in the curtness of the gesture startles him, and it takes him a moment to process that guarded stance and precede her.
She guides him to a small kitchen, units on all sides, not exactly state of the art but modern and comfortable. Lived in. Immediately she's filling an electric kettle at the sink. "Tea?"
"How very English."
A smile tugs at her lips. She flicks the kettle on. "There's coffee if you'd prefer that. Or I think some juice in the fridge." She gestures behind him.
"Tea's fine. Please," he adds, feeling awkward. He is in her home, standing in her kitchen, accepting tea. It seems so mundane a reunion as to be utterly ridiculous. "You, ah, you mentioned something about food?" That seems awkward and ridiculous as well, but the last time he ate was a hasty chocolate bar as he left the airport, and the aura of a kitchen combined with the smell of tea is reminding his stomach quite strongly of that fact.
"Mm." She pours water and then looks up at him fully for the first time since he stood in that surgery, with what appears to be a rueful smile on her lips. "I, um, I forget how you take your tea. Milk? Sugar? Sweetener?"
"Black is fine." Fine. He needs to find something to say beyond fine. That used to be her word, he thinks, and wonders if she remembers that too.
"Well, I guess, come in and sit down." She leads him, tea in hand, back still not quite turned, through into a sparsely furnished living room. A pair of couches and an overstuffed chair that doesn't match, heavy pine coffee table in the center; matching pine dining table - covered in paperwork and piled high with textbooks - in front of plate glass doors off to one side; TV unit surmounted by a stack of DVDs; thick rugs on the varnished floor. Nothing looks new: perhaps it's all rented. Still it has that same lived in look, and she looks just as comfortable.
"Dinner should be arriving any time. Please," and she gestures to one of the couches. She waits for him to sit before dropping into the chair. He watches her kick off her shoes and curl her feet up beside her thighs, her own mug cupped in both hands.
He sits back, slowly, trying to study her - this familiar, strange, apparently comfortable woman - without seeming rude or ridiculous. "Dinner?"
As if to answer for her, there's a loud rapping on the front door that echoes down the hallway. It's an odd knocking pattern, and he finds it odder still that although she smiles and cranes around to look, she doesn't make a move to get up and get it. A moment later he hears a key in a lock, and that same door opening.
Her smile widens. She leans forward and sets her tea on the coffee table between them. "Excuse me for a minute."
He watches her pad back out to the hallway in stockinged feet while her tea steams silently on the table. It's the first time she's left him alone here. He hears muted voices; hers whispering urgently, an undertone, words he can't make out. He shifts uncomfortably and tries leaning back, balancing the hot mug on his knee. The couch is comfortable, and it shocks him to realise that all this time his subconscious has been holding them in that same unmarked black jeep, in that same moment in time he last saw them, outlaw flies trapped in the amber of memory. That there is a life here somewhere between a comfortable couch and second hand cars is not something he expected to stumble into.
After five minutes when the silence gets too stale he gets up. The hallway is empty, the kitchen light back on. He glances in.
Scully is unpacking what looks and certainly smells like Chinese takeout from a white plastic bag sitting on the counter. She's being helped somewhat by a larger third hand, but hindered by a muscular tattooed arm wrapped around her waist; a tall, casually dressed male body draped against her back and a dark head, face hidden by her hair, lowered to speak directly in her ear. He can only just make out that there are words being exchanged at all from her equally soft laughter, and even that is cut off as she drops the last leaking carton of something and sucks her fingertips - from the heat or the sauce dribbling on her counter he can't tell.
The third hand snags hers at the wrist; the dark head rises, and his first new sighting of Fox Mulder in three years is one in which Scully's slender, dexterous fingers are sliding up to the second knuckle into the man's mouth.
He clears his throat - perhaps too loudly, since he is in fact a guest, but he has no great amount of control over it right at that particular moment, with that particular image front and center in his vision.
Both heads swivel to regard him instantly. There's a moment of silence, broken only by the soft wet sound of Scully's fingers sliding out of Mulder's mouth. Mulder presses a kiss against her fingertips and then lets her hand drop, but he doesn't release her. They seem to turn like one being, Mulder with his arm around her, Scully leaning back against him. Her head is tipped up and back, her hair like tendrils of light caught on his grey t-shirt.
"Skinman." Mulder flashes a shit-eating grin. "I heard," he squeezes Scully against him, and she smiles, "that we had a visitor. How long'd it take you to track us down?"
It took him nearly seven months, and he would never have managed it at all if they had moved on any earlier, but he only says, "Good to see you too, Mulder."
"You've got news?"
"Good enough to earn a share in the best takeout in Oxford, so Scully tells me." He squeezes her again and then lets her go. "Let's eat."
It's late before he considers the fact that he came straight from the airport and he should really think about finding a hotel, a thought that's nixed straight away by one shake of Mulder's head. "You're not likely to get anywhere around here at this time of night. The spare room is pretty much an office, but there's a futon in there. Scully kicks me in there every once in a while when I get too crackpot even for her."
The easy way Mulder says it is as startling as Scully making him tea. "You're welcome to stay the night," she adds, sounding sincere, and he tries but he can't really think of a reason to refuse. Which is how he finds himself staring at a white plaster ceiling in a small back room painted dark blue, a faint glow from the street lights coming through thin curtains, one hand tucked behind his head.
The futon is like everything else in this house: not new, but comfortable. He hears a door shut and guesses it's the master bedroom next door. He closes his eyes and rolls over to settle in.
His mind is spinning slowly, as if trying to rotate to fit into this twist of reality. They'll be in the same bed - he caught a brief glimpse through the open door as Scully passed him clean sheets and a pillow. A small double on a wrought iron frame, a towel thrown over one corner of the foot board. It seems intimate and bizarre and - even after these years have gone by and though there's no reason, personal or professional, that he should object - awkward to think about. Mulder and Scully lying in bed together in the next room. Does Mulder spend the night holding her, or does she, petite enough to do it and not smother the man, use him as a pillow? Do they even touch at all? He has a sudden flash image of them sleeping back to back, paranoid even in unconsciousness. Are there weapons under those pillows, hidden behind the practised face of everyday domesticity? Does Scully steal the covers, or Mulder take up too much room, or has it been so long that -
It strikes him that he doesn't know, doesn't really know and has never really considered, when it first started between them. Suspicions, yes, there were always suspicions, but he can't recall any moment of looking at them and realising without a doubt that those suspicions were right. Did they know from the very beginning? When she was first taken away? When she was returned, so close to death they could have shaken hands? Perhaps when she got shot, or much earlier, when she put her own bullet through his shoulder - he imagines Mulder is twisted enough to take that as a come on. Or, more likely, when her cancer appeared. Mulder went crazed and stayed that way, always on edge, and he'd worried toward the end that he wasn't losing one but two agents, that he'd come into work one day to a report of Mulder with a gunshot through his temple, worried so much that when it happened part of him didn't even question that it wasn't the truth.
Maybe when the cancer was gone - he still remembers them skipping out on the conference he sent them to on her first month back at work. He'd certainly have taken that as a hint to get the hell on with his life, had it been his miracle to come through that ordeal as unscathed as she seemed to.
Voices come through the wall in front of his face, only just loud enough to make out the shape of a few words.
"...need to... Mulder..."
"...should call..." A bed creaking, someone moving around and then, "yeah, I know..."
Antarctica, then, perhaps. He couldn't believe it when he'd gotten that call. Two of his agents with frostbite and hypothermia, battered and bruised, one single set of clothing between them, turning up at McMurdo Station. He's even now not quite able to wrap his head around the fact that Mulder went to Antarctica for her, much less somehow got there from D.C. in less than three days. He never saw the bill for any of it, either. That's a damned x-file all of its own.
He falls asleep thinking of ice sheets and snow and charter planes and mismatched rental furniture in an English house, trying to put it all together around these two people in a way that still makes some sort of sense. Whether they've fallen asleep or just fallen quiet, he doesn't hear anything else through the wall.
Antarctica to Oxford. Jesus Christ.
At twelve minutes past three he's standing in Mulder and Scully's kitchen, making a cup of tea he doesn't really want and trying his best to banish the renewed sounds of two people, late at night, in a bedroom, from his mind. He could make out nothing clear this time when he woke, twenty minutes previous, hearing muffled voices and urgent, definitely wordless sounds through the thin plaster of the wall behind his head.
"I thought I heard someone moving around down here."
He actually starts - Mulder's footsteps are softer than a cat's. He's made it right into the doorway of the kitchen without making a sound, on bare feet, wearing only a pair of low-slung green pyjama pants and his hair is mussed wildly, but his eyes are dark and sharp and keenly awake. Around his neck is a thin gold chain, and in his hand is a slender diving knife: not particularly large or long or threatening, but held with a careful, easy competence that makes the heart go cold just looking at it.
As he watches, Mulder tucks the knife into a sheath strapped around his upper arm and snaps it closed. "Just a precaution," he says simply. There's no hint of apology or embarrassment in it.
"You sleep wearing that?"
Mulder shrugs. Looks over at the kettle, steam wafting from the spout, and tips his chin in question. "Couldn't sleep either, huh?"
He clears his throat. "I, uh, had a little trouble, yes."
Mulder blinks. "You thought we were..." He trails off, suddenly grinning. It's a peculiarly familiar Mulder grin - one that doesn't seem to have altered at all, and yet seems utterly out of place on a man barely dressed and bearing sharp weapons in a cramped suburban kitchen in the middle of the night. "Sorry to disappoint you. Erotic as it is to have one's ex-boss listening in next door, we do both possess a modicum of self-restraint." He gives no other explanation, but he's matter-of-fact enough that it leaves no doubt he's telling it like it is.
Then Mulder turns - not completely, not a bare back presented in trust, but far enough that he can satisfy an earlier curiosity. The tattoos begin behind Mulder's left shoulder, slicing lines of black ink across his shoulder blade; a solid block of pattern covering his upper arm, becoming a bold, complex spiral from above his elbow to halfway down his forearm. A thin, long-healed scar slices through the pattern just below his shoulder joint: a totemic eagle, angular and fierce, stares out from between the angular lines high on his bicep.
"That looks like it must've hurt," he says.
It seems to take Mulder a moment to realise what he means, but he gets a chuckle when it clicks. "You think that, you should take a look at Scully's."
As if on cue, a floorboard creaks somewhere above his head, and the sound of footfalls follows a moment later. In the stark light of the kitchen Scully seems slightly unreal, her strikingly pale hair a colorless frame around her familiar face as she walks in. Her shoulders are bare above a black camisole: there's something written in curling Latin along her collarbone, something else spiralling around her arm. The band around her wrist has a snake's head, tail caught between its jaws. She leans up against Mulder's back where he stands, easy and comfortable, her hand going to his hip.
"Everything okay down here?" Her voice is smooth and has slipped back into the accent he remembers, all-American, softened around the words.
"All good," Mulder says, exact tonal match. She puts her temple against his bare arm; her fingers rub at his hip bone through thin cotton. No way for Mulder to get an arm around her in return without contorting a few joints, but he can see the way the man leans into her instead, as if something physical is holding them together.
He sleeps late. Their futon is far more comfortable than an airplane seat, and the jet lag is finally catching up with him. He feels startlingly awkward again when he finds himself hesitating at their single squeaking stair, barefoot, and catching them mid-morning-goodbye at the front door.
Scully is dressed to go out, hair loosely pulled back and slipping out of a ponytail, her slim shoulders wrapped in the dark brown coat he last saw hanging over the banister. He wonders if she's lost weight - he can barely see her, hidden against Mulder's height and bulk. Her voice is now crisp English all over again.
"Mulder, I have to go." Despite the protest he can hear her smiling, almost laughing. "Stop it, I'm late already. I'm going to hit traffic as it is."
"Yeah, sure, leave me with the boss man." Mulder's head is ducked low. He sounds like he's giving in, but years of experience with that tone says something entirely different. "I'm booked up at three, remember. You'll be back by then?"
"I'll say it's a family emergency."
Scully tips her head back, far enough that he can see the look on her face as she tugs Mulder's head down for a deep, tender kiss. It's more than a brush of lips goodbye: it's a moment in reverse, a sudden memory of the first time he saw them kiss - in the shadows of a jail cell of all places, and in daylight he still can't work out where he should look.
He feels his way carefully back up the stairs and listens for the sound of the door closing before he even thinks about heading back down.
The paperwork strewn across Mulder's dining table is less UFO-related and more classic academia than he ever would have imagined. The British Journal of Psychology shares table space with American Psychologist, both of them overshadowed by a stack of thick hardbacks the like of which he hasn't seen since his own college days. The innocuous leather-bound diary he expected to see filled with arcane secrets turns out to contain only scribbled appointments, mundane notes like B. Tucker, 1st yr, CB theory - Starbucks (High St) and Andrea M. @ Queen's Lane (remember mock papers!), Mulder's heavy-handed 'at' sign an untidy spiral on the page.
Mulder pushes a cup-stained issue of New Scientist aside to reveal actual place mats and sets a plate in front of him.
"At least my cooking skills have improved," he says, seeming to ignore the fact that between them they have no basis for real comparison. The bacon, eggs and fried tomato are still surprisingly edible. Mulder in front of his laptop is picking through a paper bag of leftover battered chicken, dipping pieces into reheated sweet-and-sour sauce in a polystyrene cup. The coffee is sharper than Scully's, bitter and thick, served black without question.
He swallows a mouthful of coffee and clears his throat. "So?"
"How long are you here?"
The question is polite, but plain. He realises only then that he's not really thought that far, and that Scully was right - he didn't really expect to find them here after all the searching, not like this. He didn't expect this. The feeling as if he's almost doing something wrong to even suggest that what they've left behind is better than this life they've carved out with each other. The feeling that he's passing judgement he has no right to, just by being here.
He hasn't said a word, but Mulder nods, stuffing the last piece of chicken into his mouth and screwing the bag up in one hand.
"I've got a standing appointment at three, but Scully should be back by then." He looks up over the screen. "We'd appreciate it if you didn't call anyone from here," and his voice is lower by increments and brings to mind the sharp point of a diving knife.
This time he's the one who nods. "Of course."
"We're gonna need some time," Mulder says. Polite, but plain. No wasted words.
"Of course." He slices through the bacon on his fork by rote.
Scully drives him to an internet cafe near the University in Mulder's scratched blue Ford, Mulder having already taken her car with the promise of buying dinner supplies on his way home. The cafe is small enough that he feels conspicuous with his height, his business suit, boxer's broad shoulders and out of place accent. Students crowd him on all sides, chatter and disposable coffee cups around every desk. A group younger than some Marines he's seen die are playing a card game across one of the few tables that doesn't hold a computer of some kind.
"I think about him here sometimes," she says quietly. Partway through a credit card transaction, he blinks.
"He studied here." Mulder, he realises. Of course. Mulder studied here.
"That would have been a long time ago," he says, for something to say. She nods.
"Twenty years, give or take." It doesn't surprise him that she would know that without thinking. She gets up and picks his booking confirmation from the cafe's printer, handing over a few pence to the barista on her way back. "We're going to need a little time," she says quietly, as she hands it over. He takes the paper from her.
He manages to pull a cancellation on a United flight from Heathrow, paying over the odds for another ticket that isn't going to go on any expense report. It's an early morning flight, very early, and he's surprised when Mulder offers to make the hour's drive. It's a Friday, Scully says by way of explanation, as she slides into the back seat of the Citroen. He guesses neither of them work weekends any more.
The weather is miserable for the entire hour, all drizzling rain and unpleasantly damp chill. The heating in the car is stifling and still can't hold back the damp: he ends up cracking open a window, just a little, to circulate some air they haven't breathed. He wonders if it ever snows in Oxford, or if all they get is rain.
"Once when I was in second year," Mulder says, when he asks the question - more for something to say than real curiosity, when the silence and the glances exchanged in the rear view mirror finally reach critical awkwardness. He's glad to be their ally, but three years have let him forget he was never really their friend.
"It must have been pretty," Scully says from the back seat. She sounds American again - Mulder's presence, he thinks, is what seems to do it. The ties between them are almost visible in the cold air.
"Yeah, all that slush and mud and stopped traffic, very picturesque. England comes to a damn standstill when it snows." Mulder's lips quirk. "You'd think by now they'd stop being surprised when white stuff starts falling from the sky."
In the dark behind him, Scully laughs. It's the softest sound he's heard from her yet. Beside him, Mulder smiles and swings them out into the fading traffic.
At almost one, the motorway is clear enough that Mulder not only keeps his foot down but stays in the right-hand lane most of the way. He at least must have driven the route before, since he doesn't seem to need directions, aside from the few times Scully leans forward to murmur a suggestion that they discuss in low, light tones: once he takes her advice, twice he doesn't.
He can't help but wonder what they were like on the road together before this, before England, before that house and this car, before this odd, distant unknown life. He can't help but wonder if they ever, even sometimes, think the same thing.
The flight is on time, and there's no one waiting at the United gate. Mulder actually offers a parting handshake; the firm grip startles him. Scully's is awkward, and she ducks her head when he clasps both hands around hers, even if only for a moment.
He turns just before he goes into the departure lounge. It's only when they're still standing there that it hits him how he expected them to already be gone, faded away like an old picture. But they're there - hardly waving him off, it's true, but still, watching him leave. Mulder's hands are gently resting just above her elbows and Scully has one hand of her own wrapped around his wrist. Mulder's lips are moving, but Scully is looking right at him, and he doesn't break her gaze at all as he turns the corner.
Whoever cancelled on his seat likes to fly in style: he's in first class, barely has to wait more than half an hour to board. There's a prim, pretty flight attendant already making the rounds as he settles in. Her reddish-brown hair is cut into a loose bob, the curled ends like soft fingers around her face. She looks barely twenty-five in her tight blue suit, polite smile that makes his head and heart ache, both.
"Would you like a drink, sir? Tea or coffee?"
"No, thank you." He turns to the window and looks out. Rain is trickling down the outside of the glass the way it did on the windshield of the old blue Ford, what Mulder probably thinks of as a typical English winter night. It's probably his imagination that he can make them out walking through that thin crowd of people backlit by the harsh terminal lights, Mulder's body shadowing Scully's smaller frame.
His imagination, it must be. He settles back into the seat, and it's only then that he notices the attendant is still standing there, looking at him. He scowls.
"Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to turn off your phone."
He looks down. His cell phone is bright against the table to his right, a number he doesn't recognise scrolling across the screen as it vibrates.
"Sir?" She's frowning now. He ignores her and picks up the phone.
"*Scully says she hopes you have a good flight.*" A pause, then, far more laconic; "*Okay, okay. An uneventful flight.*"
He digs his badge out and flashes it at the hovering stewardess, who thankfully seems to have heard of the FBI if not the virtue of patience. "Tell her thank you," he says slowly, into the phone. For some reason the memory of Scully, long pale hair and inked skin, flashes into his head.
"*You can reach us on this number,*" Mulder says. "*If you need to.*"
He isn't sure where to go with that. "And you can obviously reach me on this one," he counters, tries to sound somewhere between concerned friend and aloof ex-boss, though he's aware that he's probably failing completely on both counts.
"*We will.*" He blinks: somewhere in a moment they've switched and that's Scully's voice in his ear. "*Sir... Walter, I...*" He hears Mulder's laughed 'Walter?' somewhere in the background, hears Scully ignoring it. He takes a deep breath.
"*Thank you.*" And the line clicks off into static.
He stares at his phone for a long minute. When he finally does look up the attendant is still glaring at him from further down the aisle, where she's already taking a dark-haired businessman's order for inferior airline coffee. He nods to her as he switches the phone off and tucks it into the inside pocket of his jacket.
"You're welcome," he murmurs, to himself. The plane rumbles to life and starts its taxi down the rain-slicked runway, heading for Washington.