The gate representative cannot—or will not—do anything to help them, and for a moment Scully considers flashing her badge and making a federal case of it. But she doesn't. She blinks furiously and shoves the boarding pass into her coat pocket, gritting her back teeth together; if she gets upset now she'll lose it, and that can't happen. Mulder is standing next to her with his back to the check-in counter and the unapologetic woman who has just seated them seven rows away from one another. He glances down at her.
“It's okay,” he says softly, his eyes surveying the nearly deserted rows of seats at Gate 21a. “We'll switch once we're on the plane.”
Which isn't the point. Scully lets out a huffy breath. It isn't the point, because—Jesus Christ—if two people walk up to check into a flight together, is it too fucking much to ask that they get seated together? She swipes an impatient wrist under one eye and walks away from Mulder and the counter. She just wants to go home.
They are among the less than two-dozen people who board the redeye to DC. Mulder charms the flight attendant at the door and gets them two seats together just behind the bulkhead. “Extra leg-room,” he whispers with a wink as he hefts their bags into the overhead compartment. Scully closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and sinks as deeply as she can into her seat by the window, trying to feel the way she should. Trying to feel happy.
She opens her eyes to look at Mulder, who is now leaning forward and rifling through the magazine-pouch snapped to the partition in front of them. His face is composed softly in gentle, unconcerned contemplation as he searches through the jumble of magazines, twisted audio cords, and SkyMall catalogs. He is a different man than he was when they got up that morning, she thinks; different than the man she has been chasing after, walking away from, hurting with for the last several days. Weeks. Months.
She doesn't like the idea that he is, perhaps, a different man than the one she has known for the last seven years—but there are some things she cannot deny even if she does not understand them. Somehow, suddenly, his life—and by tenuous extension, her life—is changed.
He is free now.
And she should feel happy for him—glad that he has finally found relief from the doubt and self-loathing that have haunted him for twenty-five years; glad that he has found closure. Instead, she feels a fear that borders on panic, a frustration like a constant lump in her throat. She knows it is unreasonable—that his peace of mind is more important than her being right, and that she will always sacrifice her doubts for his happiness—but she cannot shake the feeling, this uneasiness with the situation, this sense of being left behind.
Mulder pulls a dog-eared Emergency Instruction card from the magazine-pouch, and she feels the now-familiar ache around her heart as she watches him go through his pre-flight ritual. This, at least, has not changed. He still believes that his own dutiful attention to the cartoon directions and prohibitions—which he certainly knows by heart—will ensure that no disaster befalls them. If only there were emergency instructions for the rest of life, she thinks.
He realizes she is watching, and looks up at her with a sheepish smile, sliding the card back among the torn magazines. He slips his hand under hers as the plane jerks backwards from the gate, and laces their fingers together.
“You gonna try to sleep?” he asks. He looks tired himself, dark circles beneath his eyes, a light scruff of beard on his cheeks. But there is a new energy radiating from him, a new vibration filling the space around his body. Scully feels it and knows that for once in a long, long while, he is happy. She tries to smile at him.
She would be happy too, but she can't seem to remember how.
The plane feels otherworldly, futuristic—a dim and sibilant tube of pressurized air. The ding of the seatbelt lights turning off is swallowed by the enormous silence of the mostly empty cabin.
There are so few passengers that the flight attendants don't bother to bring out the drinks-cart, but take everyone's beverage order individually. Scully stares out the dark window and wants nothing; Mulder asks for club soda. The attendant brings his drink quietly back and leaves it on top of a red cocktail napkin embossed with a winged cherub. Mulder checks his watch.
“It's almost Valentine's Day,” he says.
Scully blinks and tries to remember if she knew that. She has been on and off so many planes in the last two weeks, has traded time zones so often, that she has completely lost track of date and time. Valentine's Day. That means it's less than a two weeks until her birthday. She'll be thirty-six in just a handful of days. She has never given much thought to her birthdays or to her age, but suddenly she feels as though she should have paid more attention. Thirty-six? She was twenty-nine when she met him. Where has all the time gone...?
She looks up and into his eyes. She loves him so much, and she doesn't realize it, but the idea that she might be losing him is about to make her cry—
“What's wrong?” he asks. He picks up his hand and touches his finger lightly to her chin. “What's the matter?”
This time she can't blink the tears away and he can't pretend not to see them. “Hey—” he says, “—hey, hey, hey, now—” ending on a little laugh of surprise and concern. This only makes it worse and she breaks.
“I'm just really—tired—” she sobs. He sits forward and leans across her and brings her face up so that he can kiss away the tears that roll onto her lips. She takes a ragged gasp of breath and grabs the hand that he lifts to her cheek. “Mulder—” she says.
He sits back, biting his lips together as his eyes flit around her face, his brows knitted together. “What?”
She has to take several breaths before she can be sure that she'll be able to talk without bringing on a fresh wave of tears. He watches her, bringing their hands back up to stroke her jaw with his thumb. “What's going on, Scully,” he whispers. Her eyes glitter as they rove his face, taking him in, searching for him, for some sign that it hasn't all changed—
“I don't know,” she breathes finally. “I'm trying to make sense of all of this—of everything that's happened this last few days—”
“Me too,” he says softly. And there is the radiance again, this new light shining behind his eyes that terrifies her and makes her look away. She is losing him, she thinks—she is watching him embrace and redefine himself by a belief she cannot reach, let alone accept and understand. He is going somewhere she cannot follow. She glances up at him, her gut twisting at the sight of his gentle smile, and she lets go of his hand.
“You look happy,” she says, trying to keep her voice even, hoping it does not sound like the accusation it is. But Mulder is watching her carefully, and he shakes his head with a low laugh.
“Well, I don't know about that,” he says. His grin softens as he gives it some thought. “I feel a sense of...” He closes his eyes briefly as he seeks the right word. “Of relief, I guess. Like I'm waking up from a very long, bad dream. Happy? I don't know. Maybe. It's been awhile.”
She presses her lips together to keep them from trembling, and turns to stare out the window at the black, starless sky. It's been a very long while. She wonders—when was the last time she was happy? Was it before her abduction? Before the cancer? Before she knew that her hopes for a normal life had been irreversibly torn from her and cast away by forces unknown? Has she been happy since then?
She has. Even from inside the long bad dream, she has been happy, if only for a few stolen moments; as long as he was there—
“I'm glad, Mulder,” she lies. She doesn't dare look him in the eye. “You deserve that.”
She glances up at him. “I'm just tired,” she says.
The lump of frustration in her throat has become a gaping void that aches in her chest.
There is a long silence, filled only by the hum and creak of the plane; another soft ding announces coming turbulence. Scully stares at the emptiness beyond her cold window. Air-pockets ripple and shudder beneath the plane. She feels Mulder shift in his seat next to her.
“Do you know the myth of Cupid and Psyche?” he asks. She turns to see that he is spinning the red napkin around and around against his fold-out tray. “Cupid falls in love with Psyche,” he starts without looking up, “because she possesses the most beautiful soul in the world. His love for her is so all consuming, in fact, that he decides to marry her in secret—but their marriage is forbidden, and he can only come to her in darkness.” He looks up then, and catches her eye. “It's a story about trust,” he says. “And faith in the unseen.”
Scully returns his stare, unsure where he is going with this, what metaphor he is trying to weave. Is he going to throw it up in her face? Can he blame her for looking into the sky and seeing only stars? “I know the story,” she says, and the words taste bitter, metallic in her mouth. “Cupid leaves Psyche because she cannot trust what she cannot see. She proves herself faithless.”
“Faithless? Or curious?” Mulder asks. He has turned in his seat and is looking directly into her eyes. “Psyche only wanted to see him with her own eyes,” he says. “She only wanted proof.”
Scully shakes her head. “But she's punished nonetheless. Cupid still leaves.”
“Cupid had his head up his ass...” He drops his eyes and looks down at the napkin in his hand, his cheek kinking up in a soft smile. “But for some reason,” he says, pulling his eyes back up to hers, “Psyche still loves him. She loves him enough to go all the way into Hell to find him.” He pauses and bites his lower lip, and they both watch his hands as they slowly shred the napkin. He lets out a short breath. “And you know what happens next?”
Scully watches him tear the napkin into small ribbons, laying each one carefully on his fold-out tray. She still isn't sure where his story is going, but she does know what happens next. “Psyche dies,” she says. Mulder frowns.
“Well—technically, yes, she dies. But the point I'm trying to make—”
She lets out a sigh. “Mulder—”
He grabs her hand and squeezes it. “—the point I'm trying to make here is that Cupid doesn't leave her there to die. He goes into Hell to bring her back. So that they can be together. Forever.”
She sits and stares at him for a long moment, feeling the import of what he has said reverberate inside her, knowing how much more there is to this story than mere metaphor. But how long can they live up to this kind of mythology, she wonders? How many times will they be willing to walk into Hell for one another?
She looks up and meets his stare—direct, uncompromising, consuming. A chill runs down her spine and through every nerve, and she shivers.
“So that's how the story ends?” she asks. “Psyche comes back from the dead and they live happily ever after?”
He gives her a smile. “Just another day at the office,” he says. “Give or take a few arrows to the heart.”
His gaze drifts down to their hands, clasped tightly against her hip. Her eyes follow his, and she watches as his thumb brushes across her knuckles.
“I'm sorry if I put you through hell this last week,” he says quietly.
She looks up to see him smiling at her, his eyes shining, and she can't believe he has just compared himself to Cupid. On Valentine's Day. God, how she loves him. It fills the empty space in her chest like a warm flood. She would walk through Hell any day just to see his stupid smile.
“Just another day at the office,” she murmurs.
“C'mere,” he says, lifting the armrest that separates them and pushing it back between their seats so he can pull her to him. He settles his arm around her shoulders, and she lets him draw her against his chest, cradling her, pressing his lips to her forehead, her temple, and when she lifts her face to his, her mouth. “Try to sleep,” he whispers into her hair. She settles her head in the bend of his shoulder, and closes her eyes, with a feeling that resembles happiness welling inside her.
She wakes up for a moment, and the plane is still dark and silent. Mulder is asleep, his head leaning gently against hers. Their hands are still entwined between them.
On Mulder's fold-out tray, his untouched club-soda is going flat, and the shreds of red napkin are gone. In their place are seven twists of red paper, seven tiny paper roses, each no bigger than the end of her finger. They are arranged on the corner of the tray, in a heart that points at her. She puts out her finger and touches one gently. Then she settles back against her partner and closes her eyes. She doesn't need to see to believe.