Eli, Eli

Classification: Post-ep for "Amor Fati"
Summary: Healing by the water's edge.

O Lord, my God, I pray that these things never cease:
The sand and the sea,
The rush of the waters,
The lightning from heaven,
The prayer of man.
  --"Eli, Eli," (traditional Hebrew song, attributed to Hanah Senesh)

***

In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.

In the end, no one noticed that Mulder and I disappeared for a week.

Over the years we've danced in and out of Georgetown Memorial Hospital in a strange ritualistic waltz, taking turns wheeling one another as if our partners were not each other but the wheelchair itself. Gene Kelly danced with a mop; Mulder and I dance with medical equipment.

I was not surprised that he did not protest the wheelchair after getting his bandages removed and undergoing the final battery of neurological tests. His legs were as thin and wobbly as a colt's and he had the pinched, starved look I saw in my own face when my cancer was at its worst. Gray, paper-taut skin surrounded his eyes, and his lips were cracked.

So were several of his fingers. He did not remember how they were broken, but the general consensus of the doctors was that he managed to do an unusual amount of damage even against the padded walls. Added to that were the abrasions around his wrists and ankles from the tight restraints, assorted needle punctures, exhaustion from endless sleepless nights, and a strange, dark malevolence that permeated the very air around him.

I helped him into Skinner's car. So thin that his jeans hung loose around his hips, so light that I could guide him with ease, his body met the leather upholstery with scarcely a sound. I wadded up my jacket to use as his pillow, but he clutched at me with his battered hands and I relented, letting him rest his head on my lap. My fingers went into his hair and stroked. The tactile connection to my partner restored my equilibrium as it always did - if we could touch one another, then we were all right.

"I packed some things for him," Skinner said, his baritone as soothing as the sound of the road beneath the wheels. "It's going to be warm during the day but the nights will be cool - do you have any warm clothes for yourself?"

I tried to think of what I'd tossed into my suitcase after dumping my African wardrobe on the floor next to my bed. "To tell the truth, sir, I don't remember. I don't imagine we'll be outside much."

His head tilted forward in what could have been either a nod or a sigh. Skinner had been forced to step away from this crisis in order to live long enough to help us again. I caught a flash of his eyes in the rear view mirror as he watched to see if I'd heard his exhalations. All I could hear was the rush of blood in my own head when I let myself think of what might have happened to Mulder. The danger was past, I had been told, but he would need time to heal and regain his strength.

I know that I've relied on that strength more times than I dare to remember. Seeing him like this, worn and haggard, tore into me so deeply that for a few minutes I was able to forget my own sorrow, or if not to forget, then to push it behind Mulder's welfare in the litany of my woes.

"Where are we going?"

Mulder's voice surprised me, but Skinner's response surprised me more.

"You need to eat and you need fresh air. Agent Scully is taking you on a little trip on the this morning's red-eye. I have friends with property on the Texas Gulf Coast and they're lending me a house in Galveston."

"You're coming with us?"

It was a good question and I waited for Skinner to answer it. The details had been vague at best and I was too drained to question anything that wasn't a dire emergency.

His voice had a trace of wistfulness in it. "No, I'm sending you on this case alone." He must have heard my indignant huff because he continued immediately. "At least, that's how I've filed it. No sense in having you run out of sick leave, Agent Mulder, and this way I can have Agent Scully keep an eye on you on the government's nickel."

"She should get combat pay," Mulder slurred, sleep already lapping at the edge of his voice.

Skinner made a sound I could not remember hearing before, a hearty chuckle. "I'll see what I can do. Meanwhile, hold on until we get to Dulles."

Hold on. Skinner hadn't been there when I made that plea to Mulder, but hearing those words made me shudder. Mulder turned and looked up at me with such gratitude that my eyes started to fill. He touched my cheek with shaking fingers, then burrowed his face into my stomach and dropped off to sleep.

I must have fallen asleep myself, because Skinner's warm hand surprised me when he touched my arm. "Scully, it's time to go. I've already checked your luggage with the skycap and I'll help you get Mulder to the gate."

This time Mulder refused anything but my arm as support. We lurched along gracelessly as his legs got used to gravity once again.

I thought for a few seconds about the new emotional weight I was bearing, but I forced it out of my mind. This was Mulder's time, his crisis. Mine would have to keep.

One look at Mulder convinced the ground crew that we should board the plane first. Mulder leaned on my shoulder as we took carefully measured steps toward the gate. His breath rushed warmly past my ear as he spoke. "He's still here."

I turned around to see Skinner standing with his legs slightly apart and his hands resting on his hips beneath his suit jacket. He was an impressive figure, authoritative enough to warn off all other pre-boarders until Mulder was out of the way of an ill-placed foot or the shove of an impatient businessman.

Mulder looked from Skinner's face to mine and he nodded in Skinner's direction. Go to him.

Without words I asked Mulder if he could stand alone, and with only a simple shift of his eyes he said yes. I walked away from him and went to my boss, my erstwhile adversary, and placed my hands on his forearms. Thank you.

He nodded, trying to be gruff but failing entirely. You're welcome.

I let him shore me up, let him bear the weight for just a moment. All the while I felt Mulder's gaze on me with its ineluctable tidal pull. I looked up at Skinner, hoping he could read my gratitude, and returned to my partner for the short walk to the First Class cabin.

Our first gesture, made as one, was to push away the barrier between our seats. Mulder flashed a wan smile when our fingers brushed. He surveyed my face with those haunted eyes, finding something there that twisted the corners of his mouth downward, as if a smile were too heavy for him.  He wrapped his arms around me and held my head to his shoulder, his lips whispering into my hair.

"It's okay, Scully. God won't let anything happen to us now."

My fingertips went so deeply into his shirt that I could feel the prominent bones of his shoulder blades. In response he cradled me tighter and bent forward to kiss my temple. "I'm not inside your head. I just have some idea of what you must be thinking right now."

It's too soon, I told myself, to have this conversation. I turned my head to speak and found my lips mere centimeters from his neck. "What I'm thinking right now is that I'd like to sleep until we get to Houston. Is that possible?"

"Are you telling me to shut up?" he asked with a hint of the old humor in his voice.

"No, I can fall asleep while you're talking, no problem. I do it..."

"...all the time," we finished together and he chuckled warmly into my ear. We stayed in that position, listening to one another's hearts, until the scent of freshly-brewed coffee lured us away from one another.

I watched him eat his breakfast. He knew I was watching. Every time his fingers trembled or he dropped his napkin he looked at me as if waiting for me to cut up his sausages as I would for a little boy. I ached to do it for him, to do everything for him, but to infantalize him would have been the ultimate act of cruelty. Instead I watched as he laboriously buttered his muffin.

"If you're that hungry, Scully, you can have half."

Busted.

I turned back to my own plate. The fresh eggs were a delicacy after makeshift campfire meals in Africa and drive-throughs at home. Burger Death, I remembered Charlie saying when we were little, and I grinned around the forkful of fluffy omelette. Mulder cut his eyes at me, smirking, and nudged me with his elbow.

God, I'd missed that. I missed YOU.

My heart thumped in my chest. God. God. God. I miss YOU, God.

"Scully? You okay?"

"Yeah," I breathed more than pronounced. "I'm fine."

He lifted his eyebrows and peered down at me. "Really fine, or 'Scully-fine?'"

"Really fine. Just tired of airplanes." I put my tray on the floor and replaced the table in the armrest. "I'm gonna try and get some sleep, Mulder. You should do the same."

"I will." He took a sip of his orange juice, then leaned over and placed his tray atop mine. "Think they'll mate and give us lunch?"

I rolled my eyes at him, but he was already leaning against my shoulder and his breathing was deep and even. I let it be my lullaby, white noise against the questions that tumbled around in my mind.

The plane vibrated beneath us, the engines combining with Mulder's slight snoring to give off a repetitive rhythm: I-will-NOT-think-I-will-NOT-think. Don't think, I reminded myself in order to ward off the nightmares of the last week, the ones where I came face to face with God and looked up into His face, only to find one of Mulder's "grays" staring at me with enormous, empty black eyes.

Instead I concentrated on fluffy white clouds and the gentle puffs of Mulder's breath.

I didn't sleep, but remained in a half-aware state that let me rest contentedly next to my partner. His body, still conserving energy, gave off little heat and he was still and silent except for a few REM-sleep sighs. Nonetheless I was comforted by his presence. I was comforted by the fact that he was still alive.

By the time we landed at Hobby airport, I was refreshed enough to drive. Handed the keys to a silver convertible, I smiled at the mental picture of Skinner specifying that in his reservation. Fresh air, indeed. I looked over my shoulder at Mulder, lounging against the wall with our bags at his feet as if he had carried them for us instead of watching in mortified misery while I shouldered the burden.

The air outside was humid but clean, so I put the top down while Mulder got situated in the passenger seat. He was becoming restless for the first time, a good sign, a relief. Every mile we drove brought more color to his pallid complexion. I watched out of the corner of my eye as he leaned, eyes closed, into the onrushing wind.

"Doesn't that make your ears ring?" I asked.

He turned toward me and opened his eyes. For an instant I could see into him as if his eyes were a translucent jade vessel holding his liquid soul, and the agony I saw there made me want to pull him into my arms and hold him. Mulder smiled ruefully. "I don't think anything will ever make my ears ring again."

I nodded and pursed my lips, thinking of how I should not broach the subject, but my curiosity got the better of me. "What was it like, Mulder?"

Again the gleaming green eyes opened up and he answered with a tremor in his voice. "It was like being trapped inside a bell, only the bell was like those Russian dolls because there was another bell outside the one I was trapped in, and another one outside that, and they all were ringing at once. It got to where I could hear everything, yet couldn't understand any of it. The answers to all the questions in the world were in that tintinnabulation, Scully, and I missed them. I missed them all."

His fingers inched toward mine and he smoothed the skin on my wrist. It was an electric feeling, as if his life force were somehow stronger than normal and was trying to penetrate my skin and enter my body.

It stirred embers better left alone.

I pretended to adjust my sunglasses and Mulder put his hands back into his lap, turning back to the salty breeze as we drove over the causeway that separated the mainland from Galveston Island.

The place had deteriorated from the time I came here with some med school friends to celebrate passing the anatomy class from hell, or else I had been too young and enthusiastic to notice the signs of urban aging and decay. No matter what the condition of the island, however, I was determined to enjoy warm sea air and the splash of waves on the rocks.

I turned up 39th street and looked for the paper with the address Skinner had given us. Mulder peered over my shoulder. "R and a HALF Street?" he queried, eyebrows raised.

"They cut the blocks in half after the 1900 storm and this is the result. I wonder if the locals ever think about how weird it is." I found the correct street and made a left turn. "Here we are. Skinner's friend FedExed a key, so we're all set."

When I parked in front of the tan brick house and got out, it was hard to resist the temptation to open Mulder's door for him. He stayed in his seat for a moment before shifting his long legs over and trying to stand up. I offered my arm and we went up the flagstone stairs as if nothing were out of the ordinary, as if he were lending me a helping hand instead of the other way around.

The one and a half story house was old but immaculate, similar to the one a med school friend had owned. The downstairs bedroom was airy and had a queen sized bed, so I designated it as Mulder's room and took his suitcase in there. Mulder followed a minute later, his footsteps uncertain and slow. He looked through one of the six full-length windows that offered a view of a lush back yard with orange and fig trees in abundance. "It's nice," he said softly. "Peaceful."

"That was the idea." I stood beside him and we stared out of the window at everything and nothing. "I'm going to take the upstairs bedroom, so I'll unpack and be down in a little while. You want to take a nap?"

He nodded. The dappled afternoon sunshine cast dark shadows under his eyes and I was filled with foreboding. Tentatively I reached out and ran my hand over his arm, feeling the wasted muscle beneath his shirt. Mulder looked at me and tried to smile. "I'm okay, Scully. I'll get some sleep and then you can feed me."

"Is that what you want?"

"Isn't that what you need to do for me?"

I couldn't answer the question, so I flashed him what I hoped was a smile and trudged upstairs to the other bedroom. Twin Biedermeyer beds, maidenly in their narrowness, flanked a nightstand, and the matching armoire and dressing table took up either corner. Like Mulder's room, mine had enormous windows overlooking the back yard. There was a sliding door on the far end of the room and I pushed it aside to find a sitting room full of books. My eye went to a plush loveseat in the corner, not only because it was soft and inviting but also because the windows behind it were level with the top of a magnolia tree.

With a heavy sigh I lowered myself onto the loveseat and put my face in my hands. My whole body felt heavy, laden with an emotional and spiritual exhaustion I'd never dreamed possible.

Mulder at the verge of death, dying from too much life.

God in the heavens, sending His word via sleek metal spacecraft.

All that work to uncover the spacecraft, all those painstaking, backbreaking hours of making rubbings and taking photographs, all gone without explanation.

Although I craved the answers that had been denied me, I craved a hot shower more. I wanted to steam my fear and anger out through my pores.

After grabbing a bathrobe from my suitcase, I padded across the hall to the bathroom. The huge porcelain tub was a welcome sight and I turned the old brass handles with reverent affection. The plumbing squealed in protest before water finally started to run, cold and then warmer, warmer, warmer until it was hot enough to suit me.

As the steam rose around me, I realized I was bathing in a metaphor for my relationship with Mulder. I tried desperately not to remember the powerful reaction his touch had on my tired, underloved body. I tried to concentrate on the task ahead, which was getting him back into physical and emotional shape to return with me to what was now not only his life's work but also mine.

I toweled off, slipped into the robe, and ran a comb through my wet hair. Looking at me from the mirror was a frightened woman I scarcely recognized.

Who am I? Who are any of us, really?

Dammit, I thought as I brushed my teeth, I was hoping to wash those thoughts down the drain with the last of the African sand.

I could hear the floorboards creaking downstairs as Mulder inspected his new surroundings. My imagination portrayed him as he was just a few weeks ago, lithe and strong, and I did not want to supplant those visions with the reality of his current condition.

This trip isn't about you, I told myself, so I threw on jeans and a sweater and went to visit my partner.

I found him in the kitchen, frowning as he inspected the pantry shelves. "You planning to make lunch?" I asked softly, not wanting to startle him.

He didn't miss a beat. "There are easier ways to commit suicide than eating my cooking."

The rhythm, the thrust and parry, was the old Mulder, the familiar one. I sidled up to him and examined our choices. The idea of spending more time on my feet held no appeal.

"It's probably not a wonderful idea to let me loose in the kitchen, as tired as I am."

He lowered his eyelids and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry, Scully."

"No, Mulder, that's not what I meant." I tugged at his sleeve. "There's a good place not far from here. We can sit down and eat and not have to fight over who does the dishes or where the spoons go."

His lips quirked upward a little bit. Could he be as uncomfortable and afraid as I was?

"I'll go get ready." As I took my first steps away from him, his hand shot out and caught me by the wrist.

"Don't be long, Scully," he whispered.

I couldn't speak, so I just nodded briefly and took measured steps toward my bedroom. I put on my armor, my makeup, my Dana Scully, M.D. face that no one can get beyond without my express permission.

Denial isn't just for breakfast anymore, I told myself.

When I was presentable I went downstairs and found Mulder standing by the door, tall and lean in black slacks and a black turtleneck that made the pallor of his face all the more noticeable. I slipped my arm through his and we got into our rented car without having to look at one another.

At the corner of 39th street and the Seawall was Gaido's, where we found ourselves seated at a window table. The dining room was almost empty this late in the afternoon. We looked through the glass, slightly fogged from the clinging salt of sea spray that turned the street lights into magic wands with halos around their bright heads.

The waiter lit the candle on our table just as the overhead lights dimmed. I could face Mulder in the golden, flickering light, not just because it hid the shadows on his face but also because my own somber expression would be less noticeable.

He put on his reading glasses before examining the the menu, and for the first time I noticed vertical creases running between his eyebrows. His index finger, still taped to the middle finger, went slowly up and down the beige paper, but his eyes did not seem to follow that path. After a few minutes he put the menu on the tablecloth and rubbed his eyes. "You pick."

"Mulder, if you're not hungry, we can..."

"I'm hungry. I'm starving. I just can't seem to think, that's all."

A shudder started at the base of my spine and traveled up and down the column several times before I could open my mouth without screaming. By that time the waiter had arrived at our table and I had to make a decision.

"Grilled flounder for the gentleman, and I'll have the crabmeat au gratin." So what if I consumed a million calories at one meal? I'd just shiver them off by the time we got back to the house.

"Wine? An appetizer? Oysters Rockefeller, perhaps?"

I was tired, too tired to think. "White wine, and the oysters as well."

"Very good, ma'am," the young man said as he presented us with a basket of bread.

I tore off a slice for Mulder and put it on his plate before serving myself. Apple jelly winked at me in the twinkling candlelight and I spooned some on my bread. Mulder chose butter, using his knife with an air of concentration that made me wonder if going out to dinner had been a good idea or a dreadful one.

Just as I was about to suggest bailing out, Mulder glanced up at me with a wicked glint in his eyes. "Oysters? Scully, what are you suggesting?"

"That you need iron, and there's plenty of spinach in Oysters Rockefeller."

He chuckled, the sound warm and rich. "That's my Scully."

As opposed to someone else's Scully, I wanted to ask, but my retort was cut off by the arrival of our salads, accompanied by the sommelier and an exquisite bottle of Chalk Hill Chardonnay. I gazed at my reflection in the balloon-shaped glass, musing at my face, as upside down as my life, when Mulder's fingers nudged mine.

"Hey."

"Hi, sorry. I was just thinking." I lifted my glass and touched its rim to Mulder's. "What're we drinking to?"

"Excess?"

I laughed for the first time in weeks. "As tired as we are, we'll be lucky to last through one glass apiece."

"Well, then, how about to survival?"

It seemed as good a choice as any, so we clinked glasses and tasted the wine. I felt it travel warmly down my throat. Mulder let out a contented sigh as he leaned back in his chair. "Peace and quiet at last."

"There's nothing like 'resting' in a hospital to remind you of why you never want to get sick in the first place. Speaking of which, how are you feeling?"

"I'm tired, Scully. I feel like I've run six marathons and my body just won't cooperate any more." He picked listlessly at his salad, gave up, and picked up his glass for another sip of wine. "So was this really Skinner's idea?"

"It surprised me as much as it did you, but yes. I was so drained and distracted that for a few minutes I thought I'd imagined the whole thing." I leaned in toward him. "He feels terrible about what happened to you, Mulder."

"That wasn't his fault, any more than what happened to you was his fault. And he's taken that to heart more than you'll ever know."

Just as a question formed in my mind, the appetizers arrived. Half a dozen oysters topped with dark spinach took our attention off of ourselves and placed it where it belonged, on succulent shellfish and excellent wine.

The view of the Gulf of Mexico was less enthralling than seeing Mulder tip back his head and swallow his oyster. My current doubts about the existence of a Supreme Being dissipated at the sight of his throat muscles working.

Aware that an unfortunate amount of blood was on its way to my face, I got to work on my own portion, savoring the richness of the treat.

"Jesus, Scully, that ought to be a crime."

He was gaping at me with an oyster shell in his hand, juice trickling down toward his wrist. I cut a glance at him and he wiped the trail away with his napkin. The next bite I took of my oyster was with a tiny fork. Mulder pouted slightly but his eyes were glittering with mirth.

Before I could think of anything to say, our lunch arrived. I watched Mulder take a forkful of flounder. He sighed deeply and took a long sip of wine before speaking. "You have to try this. Taste."

Mulder speared a piece of fish with his fork and held it to my lips. When I steadied his aim with my hand, I felt a tremor go through his arm. Somehow the morsel got to my mouth, but we did not move for  moments afterwards and I could feel his breath as he asked, "Is it to die for?"

To die for. I blinked rapidly, fanning my mouth as if to imply that the heat of the fish was responsible for the stinging tears. Mulder winced and mouthed the word 'sorry.'

"It's okay, Mulder, it's okay." I grabbed his hand and squeezed it gently, mindful of his injured fingers. "Do you want some crab meat?"

He cleared his throat before he spoke. "I never turn down crab meat, Scully. Bring it on."

Just like that the mood lightened, and we found ourselves smiling as we shared food and glances, not needing to speak because we could see each other, could reach out and touch a wrist or a finger and prove that we had survived.

When we had eaten our fill, I gathered up my partner, the wine bottle, and my equilibrium and we went back to the house. Mulder watched me. I watched the road.

When we arrived, Mulder wandered through the living room and out onto the flagstone terrace. I brought the wine and two glasses, taking a seat on a low bench next to a planter full of mint and thyme. The magnolia tree I had seen from my window was just behind us, the waxing moon scarcely visible through its leaves.

Mulder took his wine and perched on a chair next to me, then took the cushion off and set it down at my feet. His eyes never left mine as he took a seat in front of me. Finally I touched his cheek and guided his head to my lap, where he rested it with a weary sigh.

As he wrapped his hand around mine, he murmured, "What happened in Africa, Scully?"

"You know what happened. I worked on the artifact, gathering data from the rubbings, and then I realized I had to get back to you. Sometime in the next day, the craft disappeared."

"No, I know about all that." He shifted so that he could look up into my eyes. "What happened to YOU?"

I stalled by taking a deliberately slow sip of wine. The soothing warmth pried something loose from me and I began to speak.

"It was so beautiful, Mulder. All the things I'd ever wondered about were right there in front of me, waiting to be understood. And then I realized something." It took an effort for me to meet his penetrating gaze. "I realized that wanting something is more gratifying than getting it."

"Be careful what you wish for," Mulder drawled, but his expression was serious and concerned.

"More than that. It was too much of what I'd wanted, more than I needed to know or could assimilate." A gust of wind ruffled Mulder's spiky hair and I smoothed the cowlick down, then let my fingers stroke along the curve of his head. "We both had that - you heard more than you could bear, and I saw..."

"More than you could bear? Scully?" His face, expressive even in the fading light of evening, registered so much compassion that my throat tightened.

"Mulder, I..."

He pulled up onto his knees and tugged at my elbows. "C'mere," he whispered and I obeyed, sliding from the bench until I was half on the cushion and half on his lap and we were wrapped up in one another physically and psychically. His palms were cool against my face, his eyes a soothing gray-green as they examined my own teary eyes.

My chest seemed too small to contain my lungs and my heart at the same time.

We met in the middle, Mulder and I, and let tender kisses say what words could not.

His lips were warm and soft, as soft as our kisses - not tentative, but careful. I gasped in pure pleasure and he took advantage of the opportunity to slip his tongue just inside my mouth, tasting me and the golden wine we had just consumed.

I moved just enough to break the kiss and rubbed my cheek across his. The stubble rasped, but not loudly enough to cover my rapid breathing. Once more Mulder took my face in his hands and studied me. I could see my shy smile reflected in the widened pupils of his eyes. As if reading my mind, he leaned forward and kissed me once more.

"I would sell my soul," he murmured low in his throat, "to make love to you."

"I know, Mulder," I said against his upper lip. "I know."

His hands roved from my face down to my neck and behind it, running his ring finger over the scar at my nape as his thumbs traced my jawline. He placed a lingering kiss on the corner of my mouth and pulled back. Those beautiful, enormous eyes continued to focus on me, only on me, their expression regretful and forlorn. All at once his shoulders hunched over and he sighed in exhaustion.

"This isn't fair," he groaned, dropping his forehead to my shoulder.

I smoothed his hair and gave him a light kiss on the temple. "There is a certain element of bad karma involved here."

He chuckled, which turned into a cough. "I always thought that we'd end up ravishing each other up against a wall."

"I did, too."

"Scully!" He tilted his head up and gaped at me in mock astonishment. I laughed and ruffled his hair.

"Something to dream about. Come on, Mulder, let's put you to bed."

"Mo-om, do I have to?" he whined.

I rolled my eyes and helped him to his feet so we could get into the house before he fell asleep on the patio. "Careful about your Oedipal remarks, Mulder. I might take you seriously."

"Hey." He stopped in front of his door and leaned on the jamb. "When have you ever taken me seriously?"

"When have you ever said that you wanted to make love to me?"

He kissed me thoroughly, leaving us both breathless. "Point taken."

"Good. Now, go to bed and get your strength up."

"Don't say get and up in the same sentence, Scully."

I turned and delivered the coup de grace over my shoulder as I departed. "A girl can dream, can't she?"

As Mulder's groans faded into laughter, I went up the staircase to my bedroom. The twin bed's curved headboard seemed to be smiling mockingly at me.

"Shut up," I snapped at the upholstered grin.

I took off my clothes, changed into pajamas, and padded into the bathroom to scrub the makeup off my face. As my armor of foundation and blush went down the drain in a beige tornado, I realized that no amount of soap would be able to wash away the look of disappointment from my features. There was only one cure, and it was one floor below me.

Mulder was asleep, lying sprawled beneath the duvet, when I opened the door to his room. From the arms and legs that poked out from beneath the covers, I could tell that he was still dressed except for his shoes.

I tripped over them on the way to his bedside. So much for stealth.

He startled awake, squinting at me in the moonlight that streamed in from his window. "Scully?" he slurred.

"Ssh. Go back to sleep." I crawled in behind him and wrapped my arms around his waist. He arched his back against my chest, sighing in pleasure or sleep or both. All I felt was pleasure. Sleep was a long time coming that night.

The scent of magnolia blossoms mixed with sea air was the first thing my senses could comprehend the next morning. Mulder was up and showered already, dressed in shorts and a sweater, leaning out the open window. It was a beautiful sight.

"You're an early riser," I said as I sat up and pulled the duvet up to my chin.

He turned around and looked at me with an affectionate smile. "It damn near killed me to get out of that bed, I hope you know that."

I patted the empty place beside me, which was already cold. "You can get back in."

His mouth worked for a moment, as if he were unsure of how to deal with this version of Dana Scully. "Can I take a rain check?"

"Sure." My disappointment must have been apparent in my voice, because he came over and sat on the side of the bed, taking my hand.

"I want you to know what strength of will it's taking for me to stay OUT of bed this morning. But there's something we need to do first."

"Okay. Shoot."

He rubbed his thumb along my knuckles, watching the movement with veiled eyes. "I know I've been...ambivalent...about this in the past, but I want you to go to church this morning, Scully. It's Sunday and I know you never miss it."

I swallowed hard. "Mulder, I...what I saw in Africa..."

"Please." He leaned close and put his arms around me. "Just go. You don't have to say anything or do anything, but I want you to go. Will you do that?"

I nodded, rubbing my cheek against the soft fleece of his sweater. "Give me twenty minutes. Okay?"

"Okay." He sounded so relieved that I almost forgot that I was now allowed to kiss him.

Almost.

I brushed my lips over his, pulling his hair a little as I dragged his head closer to mine. The reward was instantaneous, in the form of his ragged breathing and the way his fingers closed over my shoulders. By the time I pulled back from the kiss, he was breathless and flushed, his heavy-lidded eyes glazed.

"You're driving me crazy."

I snickered and dragged myself out of bed. Mulder placed a kiss on the nape of my neck, then pushed me gently toward the door. For someone who is not by nature an early riser, I was in an unusually good mood. The sound of Mulder puttering around in the kitchen and the aroma of brewing coffee put me in a peaceful state of mind.

"So there," I said to the bed, whose leather-clad smirk seemed less mocking than it had last night. I rummaged around in my suitcase and came up with a dark green knit dress and a pair of medium heeled pumps, good enough for church in a tourist town. It took only a few minutes to shower, dress, and apply a light facade of makeup.

Mulder rocked from foot to foot as he watched me descend the stairs. He had changed into other clothes, dark blue instead of yesterday's funereal black, and was holding out a coffee cup and a paper bag. "I found these in the pantry and wasn't sure if I should offer you any - are you going to confession?"

When I took the bag, the incredible scent of chocolate insinuated itself into my brain. "I wasn't planning on it. I don't have anything to confess." I looked up at him with a grin. "Yet."

He grinned back, pleased with himself.

"But after tonight, maybe?"

"Mulder, I meant the cookies." I took a bite of the chocolate chip shortbread and opened my eyes wide. "You might have to fight these for my attention."

"Maybe. Maybe not." He stole a cookie from the bag and munched it while I picked up my purse and the car keys. His step was quicker and more certain than it had been the day before, so I was surprised when he took my arm as we went down the front steps.

Suddenly I realized that he was offering me not support but company, or balance. It was a warm feeling, as welcome as the sunshine that poured down on us.

I went back up 39th street and turned right on Broadway. We commented on the oleanders and the pigeons, staying away from the real question of why he wanted to see me go to church this morning. When we finally saw the glistening white Moorish dome of Sacred Heart Church, Mulder tugged at my arm and pointed. "There," was all he said.

I rounded the corner at 14th street and eased the convertible into an open parking space. The Bishop's Palace across the street set a cooling shadow on us as we stepped into the vestibule of the church.

A service had just ended and another one was scheduled later, according to the sign on the wall. The jewel-toned darkness took only moments to adjust to, then I found myself dipping my fingers into the holy water and crossing myself.

The last time I prayed had been with Albert Hosteen. Or had it?

My head started to pound. I went into the nearest pew and landed hard on the kneeler, my head bowed over my clasped hands.

What to believe? What to think?

I felt Mulder's familiar warmth next to me, but we did not touch. I began to whisper a Hail Mary, but words would not come. A picture of the Annunciation formed in my mind, the famous Van Eyck painting with the happy angel's words shown in gold, but the angel morphed into a gray alien and I gasped aloud.

"Scully?" Mulder whispered.

A couple of matronly women turned to look at me, not in censure but in concern. I lifted my head and smiled weakly at them, then stared sightlessly at the altar as I whispered back.

"I thought I finally had it all figured out, Mulder. I believed that God led me through the cancer to show that faith could be rewarded. I believed that Emily came and went because I needed to understand motherhood and compassion more personally. I left the church because I couldn't grasp the link between God and science, but in the last two years I felt them join together as an indivisible whole."

I paused for breath, feeling Mulder's gaze on me. "But what I saw in Africa turned it all upside down. All those truths I'd held so constant, that God presented us only with as much knowledge as we could endure, disappeared when the rubbings were put together. It was all there, Mulder, all of it. Everyone's belief systems, all the makings of the human race, everything. And it didn't come from God, it came from...from..." I gestured at the ceiling. "If I didn't know that I had to get back to you and help you, I honestly think I'd have lost my mind."

At that, Mulder wrapped his arm around me and tucked my head into the curve where neck meets shoulder, where I could feel his reassuringly normal heartbeat. "How do you know it didn't come from God, Scully?"

"Mulder, it was an alien spacecraft. This was no suspicious meteor fragment or tiny particle of tin foil from a kid's kite. It was huge and it was exactly what you'd been looking for all along." I felt tears starting to well up and I lacked the strength to hold them in. "Everything you and I have been through these last seven years, all the humiliation and career-plummeting moves, that's nothing. But losing those months of my life, losing my health to the cancer and my hopes of ever being a mother because of those sick experiments, Mulder, what the hell were they FOR? Why did this have to happen to me? What purpose...?"

"Scully, ssh, ssh." He ran his fingers across my mouth, gently, and I heard vague whispers from the other worshipers in the church.

"I don't know what to believe anymore, Mulder, and I'm so tired..."

I felt another hand on my shoulder and looked up to see a young priest watching us with a face full of concern. "May I help you?"

"I'm sorry," I whispered through a throat full of tears. "I didn't mean..."

"Would you like to talk? Whatever is bothering you, I'd be glad to help."

"No, Father, but thank you." I straightened my spine and disentangled myself from Mulder's embrace. "I don't think I'm ready for that kind of help. Not yet."

"But you will be. I can see it in your eyes." He touched my cheek.

"I hope so..." I choked on the words and buried my face in Mulder's shoulder. I felt his hands, strong and warm, rubbing circles on my back.

"We've had a series of crises lately, Father," Mulder told him quietly.

"Everyone goes through periods of doubt. The important thing is to know that you're always welcome here. The arms of the Church are always open." He pointed to the cross at my throat. "Keep us near to your heart."

I swiped at my tear-streaked face with the back of my hand as Mulder helped me to stand. I managed to smile wanly at the priest. "Thank you for your time."

"God be with you, my children," he told us, patting Mulder on the arm as if to offer him strength.

I let Mulder take the lead back into the sunshine, back to our car. He held out his hand.

"Keys, Scully."

"Mulder, I know my way around here and you don't..."

"I can find the beach. Come on, let's go. You have to let me drive this car at least once."

Reluctantly I handed over the keys, their jingling mixing with the church bells as they pealed the noon hour. Mulder made a big show of scooting the driver's seat backward before getting in. His big hands gripped the leather steering wheel and his face took on a blissful expression.

We drove up to the seawall, following the boulevard to a series of rock piers not far from where we had eaten lunch yesterday. Mulder made a highly illegal U-turn and parked, then got out of the car and pointed to the concrete staircase that went down to the beach.

"This is a good spot, Scully."

I joined him at the top of the stairs, peering down at the strip of beach and the large rocks that protruded everywhere. The wind was picking up, lifting my hair if not my spirits. Waves splashed against the sand, leaving pockets of white froth in their wake. Mulder's footsteps startled a family of sandpipers and they scurried off.

We sat down on a pair of boulders at the edge of the jetty. The smell of salty sea air brought back memories of the places where I'd waved farewell to my father over the years. I took in deep lungfuls of the briny mist and signed contentedly.

Mulder stole glances at me while he took off his shoes and dabbled his toes in the shallow water. "Sometimes I used to think that my work was a lot like this beach, like picking up a handful of wet sand and having it slip out of my fingers no matter what I did."

"I know the feeling." I scooted closer to him and nudged his arm with mine. "Sorry about the meltdown back there."

"That was hardly a meltdown, Scully. You just had to blow off some steam and now you'll be okay. Right?"

I couldn't answer at first. The salt in the atmosphere was warring with the salt threatening to brim over in my eyes. Finally I turned toward him and said, "Everything I've ever believed in has been turned upside down. It's going to take time, Mulder."

His downturned mouth and sad eyes betrayed his disappointment. "I just don't know what I'll do if you don't believe."

"But you don't believe in God, Mulder, you never did. It was the one thing I believed in that you..." I stopped, my heart skipping a beat. "Your touchstone?"

Nodding, he gave me a little smile. "You fill in all the missing parts of me. I need your spirituality to balance my...my...whatever the hell it is that I have." We both laughed, joining hands as we sat and watched the incoming waves. "Just look at the tide, Scully. It never stops. It's forever. I think it's like your faith - coming and going but always returning to shore. Always coming home."

I took his face in my hands, tasting sweet and salt all at once when I kissed him.  I stood up, brushed the sand off of my clothes, and pulled Mulder to his feet. He surrendered the car keys without any discussion and walked barefoot back up the steps, shoes and socks in hand.

We held hands all the way back to the house, as we climbed the front stoop, and as he led me toward the sun drenched bedroom. After all the years of fantasy and frustration, the reality stuck me as delightfully incongrous.

There was no frantic coupling, no groping in the dark as we feared for our lives, no ripping of clothes nor feeling of urgency. His mouth teased mine, his hands roamed leisurely over my overheating skin, and we found ourselves fitting together as if we had been made for that express purpose.

We had all the time in the world, yet I still felt the need to lead Mulder to the bed quickly. He complied with a sweetly sexy smile I'd never seen before, taking advantage of my open-mouthed amazement to kiss me thoroughly breathless.

"So," I managed to exhale, "this is the proverbial It."

"So it is. Any last requests?"

"Yes. Don't stop."

His laughter spilled out of him, washing all of our nervousness away, removing the discomfort of discarding clothing and being physically and spiritually nude in front of one another. We laughed through our kisses, sparkling laughter that felt like champagne in our hearts. From deep inside my memory came images of Mulder in a hundred loving and protective recollections, but nothing could live up to the man who held me and spent so much time devoting himself to my pleasure.

I loved having him inside me, loved the sensation of fullness after so many empty years. He moved with exquisite, cat-like grace. The sinews of his arms leapt back to life as he rocked gently above me and called my name over and over.

Soon I started to shiver uncontrollably, making Mulder's face light up like a kid's on Christmas morning. He crooned encouragingly to me as he brought me to climax, and I responded by crying his name as the waves broke over me.

Mulder moaned, a deeply erotic sound. I felt his body stiffen and heard his inarticulate cry of release. His weight fell on his forearms, suspending his body an inch above mine, and he kissed me with trembling lips.

"Don't go," I whispered as he began to pull out of me. "Don't leave me."

"Never," he answered in a drowsy voice. "Can't. You're everything...love you..."

This time I didn't hide, didn't walk away with a retort. I let the tide come in. I took Mulder in my arms, kissed him, and said, "I love you, too."

Before I slipped under the silent water, I offered up a prayer of thanksgiving, a prayer of the heart.
 

END

Author's Notes: Many thanks to the indefatigable beta team of Jordan, Barbara D., and Justin Glasser.  I love you guys more than I could ever express.

I grew up in Galveston. The house that Mulder and Scully have borrowed is based on the one I grew up in and wish I could buy back. Sacred Heart Cathedral, Gaido's, and the Bishop's Palace are all real places.

This story is for Dasha and Shari - happy birthday to two wonderful ladies!

If you're inclined to send feedback, I'd be thrilled! My address is marguerite@swbell.net.
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