The words leaped out of the recesses of his mind, yet another diversion from the path of productivity.
"Mulder, what does 'I'm sorry' have to do with what I just asked you?"
His face was drawn, tired, suffering from our crowded schedule this week. I'd taken some time off after the Philip Padgett case and we were making up for lost time, fifteen-hour work days were obligatory till we caught up with some unfinished paperwork.
"Is there some reason you want to avoid answering my question about the expected length of the summary report?"
God, I sounded like a bitch.
"Then why 'I'm sorry,' out of nowhere, out of the blue, out of that steel-trap mind of yours?" My voice had risen, in volume and pitch, displaying my impatience with this detour from more important items on the agenda.
"I never got to tell you I was sorry."
The sadness in his eyes was evident, tangible. He was going to continue with this madness, whether I liked it or not. I was annoyed that he wanted to interrupt our work session, to force me to listen to another guilt-ridden confession. I had no inkling what was bugging him and I wasn't really sure if I wanted to open myself up to it. Call me cold-hearted, but I was not ready for a serious apology from Mulder.
I'd just rebuilt my defenses in the last few weeks. I'd just become comfortable enough to resume our grueling schedule. The extra hours took my mind off what had happened in this very room two weeks ago. No evidence clung to the newly waxed wooden floor, no trace of blood remained. And in a show of strength, I refused to let it intimidate me.
It would have been unfair to always meet at my apartment, one of us always had to drag ourselves home after these salvage expeditions. Mulder was welcome to crash on my couch, as always, but he had declined lately, symptomatic of the distant civility between us lately.
I blamed myself. I broke down, I bared my feelings to him after I was attacked. When all was said and done, when I had finally fallen asleep in my own bed that night, I felt weak, like I had let both myself and Mulder down. What use was a partner who lost it, became hysterical to the point of sobbing in his arms? Why did I feel so guilty, so useless for having done so?
Mulder accepted it, he gave me comfort without a grumble, he helped me clean up and face curious D.C. detectives. He took me home, made me tea, tucked me into bed. And I still felt remorse for having failed him.
I'd gone to see a counselor. I'd taken some time off. But Mulder and I had avoided confrontation by ignoring what had happened to me, to him, to us. We'd quarreled so much during that case. About Padgett's arrest, about psychic surgery, about the malevolency of the novel itself. Ultimately, we not only agreed to disagree on what had happened, we agreed to file separate reports with Skinner, who accepted them without question.
A conspiracy of silence so Dana could get her shit back together. I did nothing to disabuse them of that notion, distancing myself from the whole terrifying experience. And distancing myself from Mulder, too, who tried so hard, who cared for me so tenderly.
My shields were back up the next day, regretting my emotional outburst. I felt like a fool, maybe not in his eyes, but in my own. I knew he didn't perceive me as weak, but I thought myself so, and that made all the difference in the world.
So why was he apologizing now? And what for? Why was I so damned impatient with him tonight? Damn, Dana. Just let him speak, just let him clear the air between us.
He radiated patience in equal proportion to my earlier irritation. He was unruffled by my sarcasm, my low threshold for anything but our assigned tasks. I put aside the files I'd been balancing in my lap, a clear signal that he could have his say now.
"Go on, Mulder. I didn't mean to interrupt. I'm a little overwrought, I think. It's been a long hard week for both of us."
"I agree. And I don't think things will get any better if I don't apologize for the egregious way I treated you two weeks ago."
He held his hand up, checking any vocal protests from my already open mouth.
"Let me explain. Let me tell you how awful I feel about this now. It's taken me two weeks to tell you, Scully... Because I'm a coward... and I should have told you the night you were attacked. I should have made this one thing right... and I know we both would have felt better... I think this last week would have been easier for us. Even if you never gave another thought to what I said to you at the jail, I should never have said it in the first place."
"What Mulder? What specifically?" I wasn't following him here; we'd said a lot of things in that dismal corridor.
"Scully... when I questioned whether you had slept with Padgett... *that* was unacceptable. It wasn't humorous, it wasn't necessary, and it wasn't the way I should treat the friend that you have always been... and I hope you still are to me. I've been thinking about this a lot, a whole lot, every day since then. I never should have acted like the vicious asshole I know I can be..."
"Mulder, you did no such thing... " I conveyed my disagreement in the furrow of my brow, the tightness of my lips.
"Yes, I did. I questioned your professionalism, your fucking common sense for God's sake! Even when you went to return the Milagro charm, I had no right..."
"No right to what?"
"No right to interfere with your life, Scully. No right to cast aspersions on you. When I asked you if the scene in his bedroom was 'a priori'... I can't tell you how bad I feel about that... And I feel even worse that I've waited to tell you... "
He raised his hand in protest once again.
"No, let me finish... I know how much you hate it when I try to take the blame for everything that's ever gone wrong in your life. I know you won't let me take responsibility for all the shit that's rained down on you. So, I won't. I won't take responsibility for all that. But just let me own up to this, just this. I never should have implied you were a sluttish whore... "
I winced at those harsh words, my body recoiling involuntarily. His eyes averted from mine, concentrating on hands that twisted and turned against one another in his lap.
I shook my head, trying to gather whatever resources I had within. Yes, Mulder had touched on raw feelings that day, he'd hurt me more than I'd ever admit to him or to myself. I'd told him that he knew me better than that, that he should have known I wouldn't sleep with a stranger.
But later, at home, I'd pondered on the source of his anxiety. Not only the Jerse case, not only my nonchalance about Padgett's stalker mentality, but also the thinly concealed envy he'd felt and had become all too obvious to me.
Perfect strangers had insinuated themselves into my life with great ease, endangering my safety. Mulder was threatened by that, either because he felt protective of me, or, as I had long suspected... he was simply in love with me.
How could I tell him that Padgett was right? That Agent Scully was already in love? How could I tell him how I felt about him, without losing my reconstructed self?
I'd been so scared of myself the last two weeks. I wanted to be strong and independent before I commited myself to any man, especially one as needy as Mulder. He thought he didn't deserve me, I knew that instinctively. Well, I didn't deserve him either if it tore our partnership apart.
I had to continue to walk down this narrow balance beam I was on. We had so much work left to do. I was so scared, so scared of crushing all his hopes and dreams. They're my hopes and dreams too, and I couldn't let my emotions get in our way.
I didn't know what to say, I wanted to reveal as little as possible. I wanted to soothe him, I wanted an end to this anguish. Damn! There were tears welling up in his gentle eyes. Say something, do something, Dana. I bridged the gap between us, taking one of his hands in my own.
"Mulder, you never, ever implied that. Not one bit. You have every right to be interested in my life. You're my best friend... I'd never do anything to hurt you... I know you feel the same way... What you said to me that day... just forget about it. Just chalk it up to stress, frustration. I know you didn't mean it. I know you know me better than you think you do. It's not worth the time or effort dwelling on this. I know you, Mulder... Whatever you said that day was out of concern, not ill will. You could never do anything to harm me..."
He listened quietly, restraining small sobs, a picture of misery and relief combined. For his sake, for my own, I drew myself next to him on the couch. I held him close, allowing him to cry, rocking him back and forth like a child fresh from a nightmare. I sat with him until we both regained our composure, wiping our faces with his clean, white handkerchief.
There was nothing more to be said. We just held one another, reaffirming our bond, our close, familiar bond. We knew we loved one another. It would be weeks, maybe months, before we could give that love to one another. But the inevitability of that love was sweet, sweet enough to sustain us till then.
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