Title: The Beauty of Embers
Author: E. Nairn
Rating: R
Keyword: Angst
Archive: If you liked the story, feel free to archive.
Spoilers: The Truth

Summary: Scully's illness brings Mulder home.

Note: I'm reposting this because a sequel to this story is on the way. Just in case anyone wondered what happened next.

"Only stay quiet while my mind remembers
The beauty of fire from the
beauty of embers."
- John Masefield


She sounded the way she had a hundred times before-- mildly surprised, not displeased at his appearance. It was the voice that greeted unexpected late night visits to her apartment, countless knocks on motel room doors. It wasn't the tone he expected two years after he walked away from her. He chalked it up to force of habit.

The door to her mother's house was barely cracked, keeping her mostly hidden, though he had an impression that something was different with her hair. It wasn't until she pulled the door completely open that he saw the changes the last two years had wrought.

"What are you doing here?" she asked, sounding wary, cold--the way he'd expected her to when he'd pictured this meeting on the long trip to Margaret Scully's home.

"Skinner called me. He said I needed to come here. Now I can see why."

Her hand moved automatically to her head, to hair so short it reminded him of a little boy's first buzz cut of the summer. She looked frail, every bone outlined by tight skin on her neck and face. Her eyes were huge in her face, bright with intensity. The hair was obviously not a fashion statement.

"Can I come in?" he asked.

She shrugged, leading him into the living room. A shapeless sweatshirt and pants overwhelmed her fragile frame. Watching him warily, Scully lowered herself onto the sofa, tucking her stocking feet under her. Mulder sat on the easy chair opposite the couch. The room was warm, but Scully drew a cotton blanket around her legs.

"I asked him not to call you," she said. There was no inflection in her voice now. Both the surprise and anger seemed to have burnt off like morning mist leaving a void behind.

"I'm glad he did. Wh...what happened to you?" he stammered. He felt as if he'd been punched in the gut. It was a wonder he wasn't curled up in a ball on the floor.

"About eighteen months ago, I felt a lump under my arm. I had been tired all the time--completely exhausted after the slightest effort, but I thought it was depression," she answered. She crossed her arms over her chest, obviously unwilling to offer anything more.

"What was it?" he asked. She was quiet long enough for him to wonder if she was going to tell him. Finally, she spoke.

"It turned out to be a very rare cancer--similar to Hodgkin's. Unfortunately, it's been resistant to everything we've tried."

He'd been drifting from town to town in the Southwest while she was going through god knew what. He wished he understood what had kept him away.

They'd been on the run for a few months after his escape from execution. Survival had been the order of each day. They'd traveled at night, slept the days away in a series of dingy motel rooms. They hadn't talked about William or the lives they'd left behind or even the danger they faced. Their concerns were immediate: were they being followed? Did they have enough money to pay for the room and some food?

But Mulder had other questions pricking at him. Why had she decided that some random couple could keep their son safer than a trained federal agent. He wanted to ask her how she could be so sure that beings who could survive bullets fired at point blank range, who were unstoppable and all-knowing wouldn't be able to find one little baby and take him away. But one look at the stunned tragedy in her eyes and he kept his questions to himself.

With their lives in danger, survival superseded every other consideration. He could manage to eat take out food with her and contain his rage. He could drive for miles with Scully at his side, keeping his focus only on the road before him. He could sleep next to her--even make love with her and swallow his anger. As long as they were on the run, he didn't have to think.

One call to Skinner had changed all that. "It's safe. You can come home," the man had said. Mulder had been cleared, the charges against him proven false. The authorities would not prosecute either of them if they went home. The aliens appeared to have receded.

But there was no 'home' anymore. Mulder couldn't go back to Washington with Scully and pretend that everything was fine and their son wasn't out there somewhere.

Scully wanted to go home. She needed to see her mother, needed to be back in familiar surroundings. Mulder had nodded, but said nothing. From his position on the motel room bed, he'd watched her pack.

As she folded each t-shirt into perfect quarters and rolled each pair of jeans before fitting them carefully into her duffel bag, he actually contemplated punching her. Anything to disrupt her methodical, robot-like movements. Every so often, she'd snuck a gaze in his direction but she never asked him why he wasn't gathering his things together.

After she'd fallen asleep, he packed his things, left more than half of their combined funds on the dresser and walked away in the pre-dawn New Mexican darkness.

He'd stayed in that darkness, even when dawn came. Skinner accepted the charges when he called collect once every couple of weeks. Mulder never asked about Scully directly. He'd ask "how things were" or "was everything all right" and Skinner always said there was no news and that Mulder should come back if he wanted to know more.

As time went on, Mulder found his anger shifting to the people and circumstances that left a mother with so few options that separation from her child looked like the best bet. That was probably the hardest thing Mulder had ever had to face--the knowledge that anger had sealed the doors he'd closed tighter than an Egyptian tomb.

Anger had ceased to be what kept him out in the cold. Now it was fear. Or maybe inertia. It was hard to tell which was the stronger force and maybe it didn't really matter.

His last call to Skinner had released him from his stasis. "You need to get back here and you better make it fast," was all he said.

Mulder hadn't known what to expect, and maybe he shouldn't have been shocked to find Scully bald and painfully thin. When he thought about Scully, he always pictured her efficiently going about her life, maybe a little haunted, but strong. He'd always thought she was invincible.

"Why didn't...Skinner knew how to reach me, Scully. Why didn't you let me know?"

She laughed, the sound disintegrating into a cough.

"You made your choice, Mulder. I didn't like it, but, damn it, Mulder--I respected it. I certainly wasn't going to beg you to come back and watch me throw up a hundred times a day."

"I'm so sorry," he said, but it sounded as useless and weak as he felt.

"You don't need to be sorry. You didn't cause this," she said, gesturing at her bald head.

"That's not what I meant."

"Then what exactly are you sorry for?" she asked. "For not being able to forgive me, or for walking away?"

"I was angry," he said softly. "And confused and hurt. I couldn't come back and pretend everything was fine."

"And you think that's what I did? You think I came back and resumed my life as if nothing had happened?"

She tossed the covers back, jumping from the sofa with more energy than he'd seen since he'd arrived. She paced a few steps before turning to face him with anger in her eyes.

"I woke up alone in that damn motel room, Mulder. I remember every scrape in the wallpaper of that room, every damn dead bug on the windowsill. I laid on the bed and couldn't move for two days. I don't know if I was praying you'd come back, or wishing I'd just die there, but I couldn't move. All I wanted to do was smell you on the bedsheets and cry. When I finally got the courage to get up and go home, I found my life had been dismantled. Other people lived in my apartment, my job was gone. John and Monica and Skinner were awkward around me and my mother looked at me as if I was a complete stranger to her. And you think I just stepped back into my life as if nothing had happened?"

Her voice has risen and she was trembling all over. The woman she'd been in the past would never have told him these things. She'd have kept them in and shared nothing. She'd have faced him with calm, controlled anger and not this scatter-shot fury. He'd always wanted Scully to tell him what she was feeling, but now, faced with her bitterness, he wasn't so sure.

Her outburst over, Scully seemed to deflate before him. He jumped up and went over to her when it looked as if her knees were going to give out on her.

"I'm all right," she muttered as he helped her back to the sofa.

"Yeah, you look just peachy. Where is your mom?"

"San Diego. She hadn't been out to see Bill since I got sick."

"She left you like this?" he asked, immediately realizing how hypocritical his statement was.

"I told her Monica was going to stay with me," Scully answered.

"And Monica has no idea about that, I'll bet."

"What the hell do you care, Mulder? You come back after no word for two years and suddenly you're passing judgment on my life? Well, fuck you."

"You're right," he said. "I've forfeited any right to an opinion. I just thought your mother wasn't so easy to fool."

"Well, maybe she wanted to be fooled. Sometimes, she looks at me as if I am a complete stranger. She...she never really understood about William. It's funny..."

"What's funny?"

"My mother seemed to think that giving up William was a snap decision--that I rushed into the adoption and didn't think it through. Is that what you believe, too?"

He looked up. Scully had drawn her legs up and wrapped her frail arms around them.

"I don't know. Maybe I thought that in the beginning."

"If you only knew," she said. Her head rested against the back of the sofa. She rolled it to the side so she could watch him through her lashes. "If you only knew how I agonized over what was best for William. The threat to him was incredible. I didn't sleep for days. I'd stand next to his crib, watching him sleep until it got light out. And do you know something?"

"What?" he prompted.

"I knew exactly what I was risking by giving him up. I knew my mother wouldn't understand. I knew you might hate me for it. And I did it anyway. After all I've lost--three months of my life, my health, my fertility, my sister--after all that, I risked losing the two most important people in my life. Why would I take that chance if I didn't think giving him up was the only way to keep my child safe?"

"If I'd been here..." he started.

"What? If you'd been here it would have all been different? Maybe. But maybe you'd have had to make the same choice. And then who would you have to blame?"

"I didn't blame you," he said. "I mean that. But knowing I would never see him again... I only had a couple of days with him."

"I know," she whispered. Tears had begun to roll down her cheeks. "I know."

"I saw him," he said quietly. He watched Scully stiffen as if an electric current coursed through her.

"You saw William?"

"Yeah. I still have some resources at my disposal and I found out where he was. His...mother...had taken him to a small park near where they live. I watched him play from a distance."

"Oh god," she whispered.

"He's beautiful. Looks like you around the mouth, but I think he has my eyes."

"Did he seem...happy?" she asked in an incredibly small voice.

"Yeah. He seemed happy. And inquisitive. He examined everything--the grains of sand in the sandbox, a bug he found in the grass. In some ways, it was like watching a tiny, little Agent Scully."

She laughed. This time, there was no bitterness in it, no anger. He realized it had been years and years since he had heard that sound. How had he lived without that? The sound of Scully laughing should be as essential to his survival as breathing or air.

"I've thought about contacting the parents," he said. "They seem like decent people who might be willing to allow visitation."

"Be careful, Mulder..."

"I know. There is great potential for hurt on all sides and I wouldn't push for too much. Would...I was wondering if you would come with me if I could arrange something."

The blood seemed to drain from her face and she looked at him in shock.

"No," she whispered. "I couldn't...I wouldn't do that to him. I don't want him to see me like this."

"Then we'll wait," Mulder said, taking her icy cold hand. "Until you're better."

Scully turned her face away from him and shook her head. She pulled her hands out of his, though gently, and pushed herself to her feet.

"Where are you going?" he asked, watching her slowly leave the room.

"I'll be right back. I have something I want to give you," she called back.

She was gone long enough that he began to worry. He heard an occasional soft thump, but nothing that sounded like a body hitting the floor, so he was reasonably certain Scully hadn't collapsed.

Finally, she returned, her face streaked with tears and maybe a little dust. She carried a white box.

"I want you to have this," she said, handing him the box. He looked at her, but couldn't read the expression on her face.

"I don't understand," he said, removing the lid.

Inside he found a white baby shirt with a yellow duck on it, a little plastic identification wristband from the hospital in Georgia and a tiny envelope. An inch long strand of silky light-brown hair curled in the envelope.

"You think you're dying," he said as he raised his eyes to look at her through tears. "Damn it, you think you're going to die."

"We're all going to die, Mulder. It's just a matter of when," she answered. "Actually, I wanted you to have this because you had so little time with him. If you'd told me you were leaving two years ago, I'd have given it to you then."

"I'm so sorry," he said. "You must hate me."

"No," she replied. "Never that. I understand something of how you feel. I wouldn't blame you if you hated me for giving him up. I'd understand if you could never forgive me. I don't know if I've ever forgiven myself, really."

Scully covered her face with her hands, silently sobbing. Mulder moved next to her, his arms going around her to pull her close. She was stiff in his arms, but as he rubbed her back, she relaxed against him.

"You're going to beat this," Mulder said softly as he held her close. "You have to."

"Mulder...it doesn't look good."

"What do you mean?" he asked, shifting them so he could see her face.

"The treatments I've received haven't been working. In fact, they've been pretty brutal. We're still not sure how effective this last round was, but..."

"But what?"

"I'm done. I can't go through any more. I don't want to."

"You can't give up. You have to keep fighting."

She shook her head, looking into his eyes with infinite sadness. "It's too late. I...I'm tired, Mulder. I think you should go."

"Why don't you rest," he said, helping her to stretch out on the sofa. "You're just tired. You'll feel better after you sleep."

He covered her with the blanket, watching her eyes as they slipped shut. Her features relaxed and he could almost make out the Scully he'd known for so many years.

"Lock the door behind you, okay?" she mumbled. Her breathing began to even out as sleep overtook her.

"Sure," he said, quietly as he sat crosslegged next to the sofa. "Sure. When I'm ready to go."

The End.

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