"But Tonight... Strength"
by Christina M. Simmons
Illustrated by Erin Livingstone

**Standard Disclaimer: Not my show, not my characters, not my script from whence this story springs. No copyright infringement intended, no income derived from this story, 20th-Century Fox, 1013 Productions, Chris Carter, and all own everything... but if you didn't know that, you wouldn't be reading this, now, would you? **

Author's Note: I tried to make this a relationshipper story... really, I did. I love the idea of Mulder and Scully being in love... being a couple... though I don't believe that the television series should explore that option. Still, there's a depth to the relationship that reached a new point with "Mementos Mori" — an honesty, in coming to terms with their feelings, one for the other. I did like that... and this story is the result.

It was the sound of sobbing that woke her... muffled, though not by fabric, nor by an intent to hide. Soft, inconsistant... but enough to rouse Scully to blinking, confused wakefulness. It took her a moment to accept her surroundings... not the vague dream-place that had plagued her so often of late... nor yet the hospital room... home, she was home. The dampness of her own cheeks was fading, as were the shadows of the dreams she'd come to accept, much as the paranoiac accepts the unseen watcher, but — for once, these past few days — it had not been her own cries that had awakened her.

She sat up, turning her head this way and that in the blue-shaded darkness... the paling shadows that indicated that while midnight had passed, dawn was still a long time coming. She did not reach for the light. The sound had faded... no, it had stopped, as though her waking had dispelled it. The fear settled in her chest, sinking coldly into her stomach... the night-fears she'd thought she'd shed years before, along with teddy bears and night lights.

Right now, I think I'd trade my gun for either... Her service piece was in its nightstand drawer by the bed... right where it always was... but somehow, she was loathe to reach for it. What was she remembering? What was she forgetting? A fit of coughing seized her, a painful spasm, but this time short-lived... the chemotherapy hadn't helped that, nor the radiation treatments, but brain cancer didn't cause coughing fits... only added its distinctive dressing of pain to them, and she was glad the cold was passing. She winced as the fit passed... then froze, as the sound was echoed from without the bedroom.

Something... someone... was coughing. Out there.

She held her breath, drawing the covers up to her chin... Take the gun. Go see what it is. You've faced everything... what's a prowler, over what you've seen, Dana? She sank lower against her pillows. But you also know that the cancer treatments wore you through... a strong wind could blow you away. What now? Wait? Hide? Hope it goes away... or that it's not there at all? Another cough... deep, rattling, it sounded every bit as painful as her own... this time ending in what could have been a sob, or a whimper... but, fully awake now, she could identify it as male.


Out there. In her living room.

She almost sobbed in relief, feeling herself trembling. Mulder.

It's Mulder... just Mulder, out there. Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all. But then she paused, all traces of sleep leaving her as she sat up, pushing the covers back. Mulder, sounding like that? She slid her feet into her house slippers... shrugged on the terry robe, not the hospital robe. Not bothering to turn on the light, she moved hesitantly to her door, gripped the frame to steady herself, and moved slowly into the hallway. For the moment, her own pain and fear was something at the back of her mind... something was wrong with Mulder.

They hadn't spoked much, driving back to DC from Pennsylvania. There hadn't been much to say... or they hadn't had the words to say it in. Mulder, driving, seemed lost in thought... and she herself was as happy to keep the silence wrapped around her like a quilt. She felt the nausea in the core of her bones... felt the chill, despite her own coat, and Mulder's, and the heat in the car. She'd caught her partner glancing at her, every now and again, when he didn't think she was looking. Once or twice he'd seemed about to speak... but had apparantly thought better of it.

He'd walked her to her door, as he always did, out of habit... carrying her overnight bag, one hand on her back, the intimation of support. At any other time, being as tired as she was, she'd have snapped at him... told him not to hover so, not to handle her as though she'd break. This time, however... this time, she'd felt as though she would. She was as dry as an old, dead leaf... and she'd crumble into wind-carried bits at the slightest pressure. It was the therapy, she knew, and the lack of sleep, and the emotional strain... and she hadn't had the strength to protest when Mulder had stepped inside, rather than leaving her at the door.

"I'm staying here tonight." he'd said simply, moving past her into the living room. There was no query in his voice, no offer of permission being begged... but no challenge, either, and she'd found herself grateful for that. Somehow, she hadn't wanted to face the inevitable darkess alone. Tomorrow, it would all be right again... but tonight...

They'd sat up together for some time, Mulder on the couch, she on the chair, Mulder's quiet voice recounting what he'd learned during the time she'd been in the hospital. The clones... the ova bank... the doctors. His theories... his remaining questions. She'd accepted them mutely, her mind unable to form even clarifying questions... accepting his words even as she accepted that a vial of her own ovum was packed in the coldest recesses of her freezer. There was more that Mulder was not telling her, she was certain of that... he'd handed the vial over to her, trying to make it sound like biodegradable evidence, nothing more. But she knew her partner... and Mulder had never been good at hiding anything from her. There was something behind his eyes... a deep sadness, a worry unvoiced... but tonight, she hadn't the strength to draw it out of him.

He'd been the one to insist that she go to bed... drawing down the covers for her, then back over her knee-tucked frame, smoothing the covers around her before kissing her once more on the forehead, stroking her hair back, and telling her that he'd be right outside if she needed him... for any reason. It felt odd, hearing him say that. For the longest time she hadn't wanted him to... she'd fought against his almost brotherly attentions, his support. But tonight... she wanted, more than needed, to know he was there.

He'd said one last thing to her, before closing her door.

"Your journal." And his voice had been soft, hesitant. "I'd like to read it... if that's okay."

"Mulder..." She'd shifted, half-raised herself, her tone protesting as he'd known she would. She'd told him that she hadn't intended for him to read it at all... that he had glimpsed it was purely accidental. Yes, she'd written it to him... but...

"I understand... if you don't want me to." There was hurt there. He was assuming rejection, and rightly so. "But... Scully... if you needed to say it... even if you've changed your mind, even if you don't think it's true, or valid... if you needed to say it... I need to know." He paused, on hand on the doorknob, one on the door, silhouetted against the hallway light. "Please."

Damn you, Mulder... She'd stared at him for a long moment, unable to muster the energy to explain exactly why he shouldn't, why he couldn't... but then, even in the dark, she could see the soft glint of his eyes on her. Damn you, Mulder, you know I can't tell you no when you look at me like that... She'd sighed, and sank back into the pillow, nodding acquiescence. It would have to be said again, someday... though perhaps in different words. If he was so hell-bent on starting that goodbye now... who was she to stop him?

"Thank you." And he'd gone, with the soft hiss of the door over the carpeting, leaving it just ajar. Scully had stared at the bright crack for a long while... had watched it dim, and fade into the dreams she'd known would come.

Now she stood at the end of her hallway, leaning heavily against the wall. Even the short walk had tired her... and she was grateful that only one reading lamp shone, for even that filtered light hurt her eyes. On the couch, head lolling in sleep and unquiet dreams, was her partner. She drew up her strength, padding over to the sofa, surprised at her own quietness... then paused, looking down at Mulder, feeling her facial expression shift.

He'd been crying.

She could see that the tear-tracks were fresh, and that he'd been crying in his sleep... they were not smudged, brushed away, blotted. His forehead was creased with the worry-lines she knew so well; he was a book to her, and she could read him from ten paces off by the set of his shoulders, the pace of his walk, as any good partner could. Even as she gazed at him, Mulder's cheek twitched, his brow furrowed, and a single tear escaped, trickling to his chin, then to drop. He whimpered softly, head turning to catch a dream sound... but entirely unaware of her presence.

"Ssss..." Mulder's lips parted, his speech slurred. He talked in his sleep... she'd learned that on a particularly long stakeout, much to her amusement... but there was no laughter tonight. "Ssssssss.... Sssam...." It was a ghost-voice, and lost in its own dream. "No... Samantha..." Then, more coherent and accompanied by a shaking of his head... "Scully? No... don't... Scully..."

Scully blinked, unable to look away. He dreamed of Samantha frequently... that much he'd told her, upon a time. But... she'd thought the nightmares had passed some time ago. And... well, she'd no idea of what dreams plagued him, but her own name, mentioned so closely to his lost sister's... poor Mulder. Something inside her shifted, strengthened. He looked so lost... so vulnerable in his sleep. That sad, little-boy pout... the softness of his face, it moved her, made her want to touch him, stroke his hair, offer a consoling caress. He'd been trying to be so strong for her... trying so hard, and she knew it.

Oh, Mulder... she thought, biting softly at her lower lip, but holding back from him. I never should have told you..

"You've always been the strong one, Dana." She heard her mother's voice again, repeating itself. "You've always been the strong one." She'd been angry, her mother had been, that she hadn't come to her about the cancer. But she'd needed to be strong, then... needed to be strong, until suddenly, her own strength had not been enough... and she'd called Mulder.

But her mother had been right. She'd always been the strong one... with her mother... with Mulder, too. He needed her... and, in the times that most frustrated her, she wondered if she was his partner, or his mother-surrogate, calming and soothing, bringing reason to his irrationality, forcing him to stop, and think. Had she allowed him to become too dependant on her? She sagged slightly... the thought was exhausting.

He was no good without her, one of their colleagues had said once... trying to make her feel better, a misguided effort. When she was gone... he was lost. Mulder never spoke to her of their separations... of his feelings at those times, parted first by their own superiors, then by her abductors. She'd been told, briefed as any partner was required to be, on Mulder's psychological state following her return... he'd been sufficiently distraught to merit official observation, but her return had forstalled any official action. But still Mulder had held silent, never speaking out to her. It had suited both of them well. She'd thought him strong enough, all things considered. It was the strength of his beliefs, almost tangible to her, that had drawn her back to him, after all.

But Mulder was not so strong as he would seem...

Watching him now, her mind flashed back to a case not so many months before... or had it been weeks? Alice in Wonderland, and fabric hearts, and lost little bodies, buried without the comfort of their loved ones... Mulder had gone deep into that, and now, all she could think of was how he'd turned to her in the end, reaching for her as simply as a child... his arms snaking around her waist, his face burying itself in her strength and softness. Mulder was strong within the safety of his own convictions... within his abduction and conspiriacy theories, within his realms of the vague and untenable. The world's opposition had strengthened him that way. But tonight...

She frowned, half turning away. She'd been wrong to bring him into her pain... though at the time, it had seemed to be the only logical thing to do. And he'd tried so hard, her partner had... to match her strength, to give her what she'd needed, to be there for her. But he'd always been victim of his emotions, Mulder had been. And his feelings ran deep in even casual things Knowing that she was dying... knowing that he was powerless against it... she'd seen the pain and denial in his eyes, forced back by his need to meet her own expectations of him. But when he'd held her in the hospital hallway, crushed her close to him, supporting her and caressing her... she'd felt him trembling, even then.

Unbidden, the thought came to her... If I'd died... if I do die... oh, Mulder... what will happen to you then?

She turned sharply no, to block the thoughts even as she began to tremble. The anger came, too... anger born out of emptiness, and exhausted frustration. Dammit, I don't need this right now... I don't WANT to be the strong one, this time! Mulder, I'm so sorry... but I'm so tired... I can't carry the both of us. Not now...

But, with the weight of resignation, she knew that she had no choice. She turned back, eyes running over his face, one hand reaching out to caress the dream-tears away... then froze as Mulder shifted, muttering again in his sleep. A soft clatter... more of a whisper... as his hand dropped. One hand still held her journal over his heart... he'd been reading it when he'd fallen asleep, then. The other, dropped to the floor... and inches from it, a ballpoint pen.

A pen?

Scully moved around the sofa now, crouching. What would Mulder need with a pen? Slowly, carefully, she reached for his hand... slipped the journal away, all the while watching her partner's face. It betrayed no hint of waking, even when she settled on the far end of the sofa, and opened to the page Mulder had been reading.

It was her last entry to him... she read it over to herself. But there... two lines below, the ink a different shade, the handwriting Mulder's distinctive scrawl of a mind that outraced his fingers... Mulder had added his response.

The briefest feeling of violation... of anger with him for his audacity... touched her, bracing her. But... hadn't he the right? It had been written to him, after all... words she couldn't say. On the page, Mulder's words spoke back. In her mind, she could hear Mulder's voice speaking them to her... speaking in that soft, tender almost-whisper that she knew he reserved for her alone.

"Dana..." And her mind heard him chuckle at that, unused to her name as he was. "You may not appreciate my addition here... but just as you felt moved to write... so I feel moved to reply. I cannot be sure why. Even now, with the reality of our situation come upon me, I cannot accept your death. I refuse to accept that, Dana... and hearing you renew your conviction to fight this dark enemy, hearing you say those words aloud only just today... that raised a weight from my shoulders that I can only hope you do not understand. You have always forged ahead, determined to prove yourself not only to your family but to me. I did notice. You have been strong... until now, and the thought of losing that strength very nearly destroyed you. I fear for that, Dana... and I will not add to your burden... but I feel I must speak now, or write what I cannot say, so that we may return, together, to the path we share.

"For over three years now we have walked together as partners... not always willingly, nor happily, nor yet side by side... but always together. In reading these letters that you've written me, I can only feel blessed that I've come to deserve your respect, your trust... your friendship. You asked me to forgive you for not finishing with me the path that we've walked together. How can I not forgive you, Dana, when you've always been the truest ally I could even have imagined or hoped for? The partner I never wanted... the partner I did not deserve... the partner who has become something more, deeper, truer. And that, I am very much aware, as you sleep not yards from where I write this... that, I know I do not deserve. I do not deserve your friendship, Dana... but still you give it to me, for all my faults, which you also accept so readily.

"Like yourself, I find it difficult to speak of my feelings for you... we are so clever, we two, at finding passion and feeling and words for science and parascience, for investigation and hypothesis, for every manner of human emotion to type into black and white confinement on a page. You have never before this time spoken of your feelings for me. If I had not pressed you... you would have taken this journal and hidden it away from me... and left me unaware, pehaps until you'd gone. I could be angry at you for that, Dana... if I were not every bit as guilty as you. Perhaps it has been my intractable nature that had given you the strength to become the same... but it ends here, Dana. It stops now. These past few days have given me to the knowlege that our time together is fleeting... and I will not squander what time I've been given with you further. Your presence in my life is a gift... a gift, as I've said before, that I do not deserve. But you... you deserve more.!

"Dana Katherine Scully, you came into my life unbidden, and I did not welcome you, for I did not want you in it. In fact, my every intention was to drive you away... force you back, and remain safely secluded. I did not want your partnership... I did not want your friendship, your trust. I say that because each of those things requires the taker to return something of himself... and I have always been selfish... and still am. I did not want any of what you came to offer me... but I needed it, as a tree needs rain, as the sea needs the shore, as the shadow needs the light. Given that, even against my will, I accepted it greedily... and drank it in, the essence of what you gave... and found that, in too short a time, that need overpowered my resistance, and that you had become a part of me. You say that it was my strength that called you back, once before... but it was your strength that called me back from a place darker and colder than the grave, bringing me into the light, and setting me on the path once more... and holding me there.

"In our brief time together... too brief, now, I know that... you have been many things to me, Dana. Partner, friend, sister... yes, sister, heart-deep, as dear as Samantha ever was or ever will be. I learned to live without Samantha... I fear that I cannot learn to live with losing you a second time. Confidante, comforter, champion, spouse... yes, I knew that they called you Mrs. Spooky. If I thought you'd have thanked me for it, I'd have wrapped the speaker around a copy machine. But still, something deep in me warmed at that name,t hat implied intimacy. I hope you can forgive me that. But when it comes down to it, Dana... all I can say to you, taking all that in, is ..."

The last line was a bare scribble... trailing down the page. Scully stared at it for a long moment, then felt the smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. So like Mulder, that was... to leave the last question unanswered. His words rang true. Partner, friend, brother... yes, he was all that, and proudly... she'd warmed, too, that day so long ago now that she'd realized that she'd won his trust... his respect. Confidante, comforter... he'd tried, even before she had. It was the role instinctive to Mulder... Mulder, the feeling one, the heart to balance her mind. But...spouse?

She looked at him now, feelings roiling... Mulder, her spouse? She'd always ignored the juvenille taunt with her coldest shields... Mrs. Spooky. But... Mulder had found good in that? As a husband, even in analogy, he left a hell of a lot to be desired... she'd be up the rest of the night, counting his faults. Not the least of which was that he'd never asked, and she'd never accepted, nor considered accepting.

She'd known that partnership was like a marriage... that much was drilled into every cadet at the Academy, and the techniques for cementing and preserving a partnership were often the same as bound a husband to a wife. Trust, support, honesty... that was all part of the ineffable, unshakable bond. But... what of the glue that cemeted a true marriage? She'd never before considered that love could have any part in a working partnership. And it couldn't....

Could it?

Her finger traced the trailing scribble, pursuing it as though it led to an answer, before she glanced at Mulder once more. She jumped a bit, jarred, to find his eyes open, and her partner regarding her softly.

"I didn't mean for you to read that." he said quietly... but there was laughter in that soft, caressing tone. He was teasing her, mirroring her own words, and she knew it.

"We're even, then." They sat in silence for a moment, breaking eye contact. Mulder reached for the journal, and she let him take it, felt him stir to make more room for her on the cushions... she was perched precariously on the cushion's edge. She did not move.

"I didn't finish." he said.

"Neither did I..." she answered, offering a faint smile.

"I'm glad for that." He set the book aside, resting his hand on it for a moment, as though testing its warmth. Then he reached for her, holding out a hand... an offer, not a request. She looked at the hand... then at him... then pushed the hand away, towards the back of the couch.

Before Mulder's expression could shift, or respond, she slid into the gap he'd made for her, then followed his still-extended arm until she nestled into his side, drawing her knees up, allowing his arm to fall around her shoulders. Sitting there, she could look him in the eye... angling herself to face him, she did just that.

"I meant what I said..." Mulder's voice broke on that softly, eyes playing across her face, head tilting slightly to the side. "Scully... I..." He dropped his chin, and his tone. "I don't want to lose you. Not again. But if it has to happen... I just wanted..." He faltered, broke off.

Scully dropped her eyes for a moment. The urge to comfort him, nurture him, was almost overwhelming... it strengthened her, pushing back the pain, the sleeplessness. But, looking at him, something else welled up... and she could not put a name to it. Not now... not if she'd wanted to. She put her hand out, fingers coming softly against his lips.

"Don't, Mulder." And her whisper trembled. She tucked her head, and angled herself until her body molded itself against his side, his warmth seeping and blending with her own. She snaked her arms around him, burying her face in the crook of his neck, feeling his cheek nestle against her forehead as her hand reached behind to stroke his hair. His arms came around her, soft, strong. He did have strong arms... and tonight, she needed that. "Don't say... anything. Just hold me, Mulder.... for a little while... and let me hold you. Like this. Please."

His silence, like an unfinished sentence, scrawled across the invisible page. Scully felt her breath catch, then fall in with her partner's, matching its depth and rhythm. In her chest, her heart beat evenly... and she wondered if heartbeats, too, could match the time.

She didn't ask. Like the unfinished sentence, she didn't need Mulder's words to finish his thoughts, to give her strength. With her own words, her own plea, she was giving that strength to him... just as he'd given it to her, all unwitting. It suited her well.

Tonight, right now... she didn't feel much like being the only strong one, anyway.

— finis —