It was Friday, and Mulder either had a date with Brandy or Sue or both. His day planner was completely empty except for those two names and a doodle of Kersh in a clown hat.
Not that Scully had been looking at his dayplanner, but it was open, and she was sitting at his desk, and things just sort of happened. She wondered who Sue and Brandy were and where he had met them and if they were actually a package deal.
But it was none of her business, so Scully tried to concentrate on the database, where a lot of lime green letters were trying to tell her something. B-R-A-N-D-Y, they seemed to be saying.
Mulder was on a dating rampage, had been for months now, ever since Diana reappeared and she and Spender were assigned the x-files. He was currently out on one of his two-hour lunches, which was the only reason Scully was able to use his computer. If he had been there, he'd be lounging in his chair, feet kicked up on his desk while he networked with the secretarial pool and snapped his gum.
At her own desk, her computer gave a pained rattle and chewed on the hard drive a little. It had been whimpering to itself all week, and today it'd finally had its breakdown. Right in the middle of the report Scully was compiling.
I.S. had sent up some red-headed kid that looked eighteen and spoke a language Scully didn't understand. He was currently assaulting her keyboard with a variety of voodoo curses, but something growled and the fan cut out with a crunch. Scully winced. That didn't sound like something a reboot would fix.
To her right, Mulder oozed into view, looking smug and invincible.
"Ah, Brandy," sighed Mulder, leaning against the edge of his desk and crossing his arms over his chest. Scully still wasn't used to him with his new haircut. It made him look younger, less tired, like some alternate universe Mulder that drove a BMW instead of a dented Jeep Cherokee.
Scully smiled at him. "Making new friends, Mulder?"
He dropped his head and grinned. "It ain't love, but it ain't bad."
"Kersh might disagree. You know how pleased he was after we ran off to Nevada," Scully reminded him. "If he catches you taking two-hour lunches, he'll never let us out of his sight again."
"Scully, Kersh is a man with no love in his soul," Mulder said solemnly. "Now what are you doing here? Trying to hack into my secret stuff? Or are you planning on selling classified manure information to the Russians?"
"My computer is down," she announced, pointing to her desk where the I.S. guy was stripping her mini-tower of all its cords and plugs.
Mulder shook his head. "Now, Scully, I know you're bored with this assignment, but is that any excuse to break your computer?"
Scully gave him a slight push. "Yeah, Mr. Two-Hour Lunch?"
"That reminds me, I forgot to eat," Mulder said, checking his pockets and leaving again.
At Scully's desk, the techie grabbed the CPU and stuck it under his arm. "Hey, this thing is fried. I'm gonna go get you one that works." Giving her a wink, he left for the elevator. Scully went back to her report.
This one struck him as the early type, so he decided to be on time tonight so she'd have nothing to hold over him. Last Friday he'd gone out with a woman with the unlikely name of Ellery who had been the early type, and forty minutes late he'd pissed her off so royally that she'd spent most of the evening complaining about how hungry and how tired she was until he took her home and refused to come in when she invited him for a nightcap. "You're tired," he'd said, not even getting out of the car.
He was tired of being nice, tired of finding new words to describe hair and shoes and wine, tired of pretending he cared where Meg's brother was chief cardiologist or how long Amber's daily commute was. Tonight, he decided, he was going to be an asshole.
Sue was fifteen minutes late.
He didn't recognize her at first, probably because the first time they'd met -- the only other time they'd met -- she'd been wearing a navy polarfleece turtleneck and she'd had her hair back, chin propped on her elbow and a glint in her eye when she'd asked "can I help you?" and she'd called him "sir."
So when the blonde in the green silk shirtdress approached the table he nearly said "yes, I'd like some water, please," before he realized who she was. He slid out his chair and stood.
"Sorry I'm late," she said breathlessly. "Traffic was an ungodly mess. Of course you probably came here in the same traffic I did. But it took me forever to get out of the house and the second I'm heading for the door my mom calls." She sat down.
Mulder chuckled, sitting back down himself. "No problem," he said.
"Now, you want me to call you by your last name, is that it?" she asked, unfolding her napkin and dropping it unceremoniously into her lap.
"Please," he said. "Wouldn't you, if you were me?"
Sue smiled, scrunching her nose. "My parents named me Susan Anthony," she said. "You do the math."
Mulder tried to flag a waitress who was pointedly ignoring him. Resigning himself to another long dinner full of awkward dating silences, he turned back to Sue and managed a smile. "Cruel parents," he said.
"Tell me about it," she said.
The awkward dating silence commenced, and Mulder wracked his brain for things he wasn't already tired of talking about.
"Have you ever blown glass?" Sue asked.
This was definitely something he wasn't tired of talking about, and Mulder shook his head. "You?"
"Nope," she said. "But I just enrolled in a class that starts tomorrow. I'm a little bit terrified."
"Of glass?" Mulder asked.
"Of all that hot," Sue said. "I hate fire."
"And you're taking this course why?"
"Because it's cheaper than buying Christmas presents?" Sue giggled. "No. Because I figure face my fears, right? Face my fears, make some vases, all in one go."
Mulder thought about saying "I hate fire too," but then he'd have to talk about himself and he didn't want to. He was having too much fun listening to Sue giggle.
"You're very brave," he said with mock gravity.
"Positively knightworthy," Sue mimicked his tone with a solemn nod.
The waitress appeared with two menus and a busboy emerged from the dark side of her orbit to pour water from a stainless steel pitcher and light the candle on the table.
"I'm having steak," Sue said decisively, once they'd left. "Something big and bloody."
After a salad-lunch with Brandy and six years with a yogurt-eating partner, Mulder found himself suspiciously turned on by Sue's carnivorous display. He examined the menu. "There's a nice porterhouse," he said.
She folded her menu and looked at him. "You do this often?"
"Talk girls into eating large slabs of cow? Not as often as I'd like," Mulder smiled. He felt like he was on vacation for the first time in years.
"Date," she said. "You're very good at it. The way you came into the shop, and everything. You operate like you're on a mission."
"You saw my bike," he said. "That thing needs serious help."
"Yes," she nodded. "But that ridiculous conversation we had about hydraulic brakes -- you don't know a thing about hydraulic brakes."
Mulder pretended to be offended by the accusation. "I do so!"
"You haven't been on a bike..." she squinted at him like she was sizing him up. "Since you were twelve, am I right?"
"More like twenty," Mulder said. "I had that bike in college. Flew the damned thing across the ocean and back."
"Magic bike," she said. "Don't see many of those anymore."
"Anyway," she said. "I could tell."
"And how could you tell?"
She threw him a sly look and tapped the menu. "What are you having?"
"Squid-ink linguini with tomatoes and scallops," he read.
The superhuman waitress must have heard, because she materialized at his side and slid the menu from his hands. Mulder ordered a bottle of wine by pointing to a long French name he couldn't read, two thirds of the way up the price list, and with a nod that was practically a curtsey the waitress pivoted on her toes and headed for the kitchen.
"Now tell me how you knew I hadn't ridden in a while," Mulder met Sue's eyes, cocking his head to the side.
"Your thigh muscles are the wrong shape," she said with a smirk.
Mulder just stared at her, the pretty blonde woman with the green eyes who was rubbing her hands together like she knew she'd won, and he couldn't think of a thing to say.
The food was good, and the wine was excellent, but neither of them mentioned it because there wasn't time in between conversations about the Starr Report and swing dancing and whether the dinosaurs were really birds.
When the check came, Sue's gold card hit the table first.
"Oh, come on," Mulder said. "It's on me."
"No," Sue said. "It's on me. And here's why."
Mulder drained the last of his coffee. "Tell me why."
"You're a guy. A guy guy," she began.
"I resent that!" Mulder grinned.
Sue shook her head. "You'd never let a girl buy you dinner. So you'll feel like you owe me. And you'll make sure you get the next one. Which means..." she lowered her eyes, allowing for the dramatic pause, "...there will be a next one."
Mulder slipped his card back into his wallet. "Sneaky," he said.
The busboy refilled their coffees even though it was almost eleven at night and the crowd had thinned and the restaurant was close to closing. Mulder, feeling more relaxed and more wired than he had in weeks, sank back into his chair and sat there, comfortable and sated, until the waitress came and took the check, along with a gold AMEX reading "Susan Anthony."
It was sleeting when they went outside. Sue hopped from foot to foot and Mulder, with gloved hands, pulled her scarf a little more tightly around her neck and stuffed it into the collar of her jacket. He allowed the back of a finger to graze her chin as he pulled away, and, like a cat, she dipped her head toward his hand and rubbed her cheek there.
"Where did you park?" he asked.
"About a block and a half east," she said. "You?"
"I'm in the alley," he said. "How about I walk you to your car and then you drive me back to mine?"
"Sounds fair," she said, and with a shuffling pace they crossed at the crosswalk.
"You grow up here?" Sue peered out from under the hood of her nylon anorak. Mulder shook his head.
"New England," he said.
"You miss it?"
"I get up there a fair amount for work," he said, and then added, "I do miss it."
Sue stopped shuffling, paused under a streetlight and looked at him. "You like your job a lot, don't you," she said.
Without thinking, Mulder said, "Couldn't imagine doing anything else." Then he remembered Kersh, and Diana, and the fact that the X-Files were gone, and he opened his mouth to qualify his statement, but Sue was licking her lips and her eyes sparkled and he forgot what the question was.
"Good to hear," Sue said. "I'm sick of malcontents. They've always got one eye on the door as if there's someplace else they're sure they'd rather be."
Her ears were pink in the cold and Mulder felt cold hard drops of rain on his forehead, his cheek, his neck. Sue was younger than he was, but here she looked golden and radiant and timeless and Mulder just wanted to look at her. He'd been searching for something, all these weeks and months since Diana had betrayed him, had taken his job and his passion and his history and had left him with a bullpen desk and a stapler with his name on it. He'd gone out, gotten around, gotten laid several times a week in varying positions in varying apartments around the city, woken up to wash his face in only-slightly-varying bathrooms that all smelled of the same sort of fruity soap. They'd all offered him wine, whiskey, gin, sat him down on leather couches with acid jazz on the stereo and trotted off to reapply their lipstick while he tried to make sense of their subscriptions to the New Republic and Maxim. But Sue, blinking up at him and walking backwards like a tour guide, had worn a nylon anorak to a four-star restaurant because she'd heard it was going to rain.
"Come here," Mulder said, reaching out an arm and waving at her. "Come here."
Her nose met his chin and he tipped her head up and kissed her, exhaling, enjoying the warm tickle of her breath on his cheek, the taste of coffee and wine on her tongue. Her elbows were close to her chest and her hands were on his shoulders as if she weren't sure whether to pull him closer or push him away.
He brushed her hair off her forehead, tucked it under her hood and kissed her again, gently. "When do I get to see you again?" he asked.
"Tomorrow," she said. "I'd take you biking but it's going to rain again. All weekend, says the Weather Channel. Want to come over? After my class, I mean."
He smiled. "More than anything," he said.
Taking her hand in his, and sliding, finally, out of the glow of the streetlamp, they turned the corner to go find her car.
Scully was not answering her phone.
Listening to it ring, Mulder leaned over his aquarium and fed his fish, watching their round mouths pop open as they sucked down their dinner and then swam away, returning to their fish things.
The phone stopped ringing and clicked over to the static of an open line. "Scully?" he asked, falling back onto the couch so he could watch the fish, their tails swaying back and forth, scales catching the light as they moved through the purple water.
It was Scully, but it sounded like she wasn't even in the same room as the phone.
A crash. A curse. Some crunching. "Fuck!"
"Scully?" He was getting worried, but she laughed wherever she was and said his name a couple of times.
"Mulder," and now she was right up close, right next to him, "this thing is so fucked up."
He grinned. "What is?"
"This answering machine! I swear it's possessed. It keeps turning the intercom on, and the tape won't rewind, and it won't let me answer the phone. Doug left me a message--" More laughing. "He sounded like a Smurf!"
"How is Doug?" Mulder asked, kicking one leg over the arm of the couch and toeing his shoes off.
"He could have been appointed ambassador to Spain as far as this piece of junk is concerned. It might not even have been Doug." She sighed and one last laugh slipped out like a hiccup. "I guess I'm going shopping for an answering machine tomorrow."
"I've got a date," he announced, baiting her a little.
"So what's new there, Fabio?"
If she had been there, he would have stuck his tongue out at her. "I'm going biking with Sue."
"Mulder, you don't bike, and who is Sue?"
"I bike!" he protested. "I own an actual bike. I've ridden it."
"Does it have a banana seat? And streamers from the handlebars?"
"And a white basket with a big daisy on the front," he added.
"I'm sure Sue will be very impressed."
"I like her, Scully. I had dinner with her tonight and she's great. She owns her own bike shop."
"A second date. She must be special then." Scully sounded far away again. After a moment she came back with a laugh. "Plus you remembered her name, which is a good sign."
"Hey, that only happened the once, with--"
"What's-her-name?" Scully suggested.
"Yeah, her," he agreed, wondering what was her name.
"Well, have fun with Sue, Mulder." A long plastic squeal. "Meanwhile, I'll be replacing my answering machine. If you need me, use my cell, otherwise I might mistake you for Doug."
"Scully, you know I'm not worldly enough to be Doug."
She sighed. "Believe me, I know." And she laughed again, and then the usual pause arrived, quiet and awkward, where other people would say "good-bye," but they never did. It passed and he hung up, watching his fish and thinking of Sue.
Mulder was lit up like Christmas and he'd been that way all week.
At her desk, Scully picked up her phone and someone inside it said, "Where are you?" She opened her mouth to say "the office" or even "what?" but an entirely different female voice replied, "I'm downstairs. Give me a minute." The male voice laughed and said, "You've got thirty seconds."
Scully shook the receiver, trying to free the people who were apparently trapped there, but one or both of them had hung up and instead of a dialtone she heard a clicking sound followed by a ringing. "Hello?" the phone said. The same male voice said, "Sarah's on her way up. I'll get those maps to you before we leave."
Scully sighed, hung up and swiveled on her chair to face Mulder's desk.
"Mulder, if I told you Sarah was coming up and some guy was bringing maps, what would you say?"
Mulder was leaning back on his chair, arms stretched out and fingers tapping at his computer keyboard. "Sarah?" he asked. "Is she cute?"
Scully sighed again. "She's a Playboy bunny, Mulder."
"Tell her I'm spoken for," Mulder said, not looking away from his computer.
Scully reached a hand around and pulled Mulder's monitor to face her. The wrong Tetris shape slid down the screen to balance inappropriately on a growing center tower. "Well, thank god you're taking care of the Tetris portion of our assignment," Scully said, spinning the monitor back toward Mulder. "I was really hoping you'd take it off my hands."
"I aim to please," Mulder said. His computer played a little Russian song.
"I'm using your phone," Scully said, using Mulder's phone. She dialed the bureau operator and tipped the mouthpiece up in the air so she could talk while waiting for the earpiece to stop singing about being on hold. "You're spoken for, are you?"
"I'm a kept man," Mulder said. "I am taken."
"You mean you've been had," Scully said, enjoying his moony expression. "How many times have you gone out with this one?"
"Twice," Mulder said. "No, thrice. No, four times. Five times, including today."
"By my count," Scully said, "we're at more like seven times."
"You're counting?" Mulder turned away from Tetris to raise an eyebrow at Scully.
The phone was playing "Wonderful Tonight" on the marimba and Scully resisted the urge to hum along. "She's really that great?" she asked.
"You'll love her," Mulder said. "She's really that great."
Scully shot him a look. "I'll love her? I get to meet her? The future Mrs. Fox Mulder?"
The marimba stopped, replaced by a bored woman who said, "Front desk."
"When?" Scully asked Mulder.
"Excuse me?" the operator went on, still bored.
"Today. For lunch," Mulder said. "Don't tell me you forgot."
"I forgot," Scully said, not sure if she'd ever known.
"Well, call me back when you remember," the bored woman said, and hung up.
Scully wedged the phone between her ear and her shoulder and leaned in across Mulder's desk. "I'm having lunch with this woman this afternoon?" she asked. For some reason the combination of Mulder's smile, distractibility, and boyish infatuation made her wish she'd worn a less grey suit today.
"It was Sue's idea," Mulder said. "She wants to know all the facets of my life."
Scully rolled her eyes. "All the facets of your life, huh? Did you tell her about Uncle Flukeman and Cousin Goatsucker?"
Mulder returned to his Tetris, still smiling and unfazed. "You'll like her," he said. "You'll see."
"If you'd like to make a call," the phone said, "please hang up and try again. If you need help, hang up and then dial your operator. This is a recording."
"Hmpf," Scully said, and hung up the phone.
Au Bon Pain was busy as usual and Scully stopped in the doorway to get her bearings. Along the front window, a line of government employees sat perched at the counter, dripping soup on their newspapers while they read about Clinton and the increasing possibility of his impeachment. The tables were filled with people eating salads and sandwiches, their coats and hats piled up on extra chairs, their faces red over hot cups of coffee and tea. The area before the cash registers looked like the floor of the New York stock exchange, people calling out orders and prices and extra mustard and then waving their hands and changing their minds and starting all over again.
Mulder was eagerly pushing through the crowd, headed towards a blonde woman wearing a bright yellow and purple polarfleece vest. She called out "Mulder" in a throaty voice and hopped up to hug him, arms around his neck, lips pressed to his. She was just the right height that she could kiss him without having to stretch. He whispered something in her ear and they both turned to look at Scully.
"Scully, get over here," Mulder called, one hand gesturing broadly while the other played with Sue's ponytail. Sue grinned and waved at her.
A cold gust of air and three more people came through the door, forcing Scully to move forward just as Mulder started gesturing again.
"Scuhlee," he whined. Sue giggled. "We haven't got all day."
Dodging elbows and umbrellas and briefcases and chair legs, Scully tucked her gloves in her pocket and unwrapped her scarf from her neck. "Sorry, Mulder, it's just so rare that you let me out of the basement. I'd forgotten what food smells like."
Sue giggled again, and Mulder made the introductions. "Sue Anthony, meet the fabulous Dana Scully."
Scully extended a hand and Sue took it in both of her own, already talking. "Mulder's told me so much about you, oh, your hands are freezing! You need soup. Bring us soup, Mulder." She was smiling and talking and laughing, and these were all good things, things Mulder must have needed in his life, because he was smiling and laughing too.
"No, wait," Sue said, putting one hand up like a traffic cop, still holding on to Scully with the other, "no soup. Maybe--" She tilted her head to the side. "I want, a sandwich, with spinach. And cheese. Oh! One of those spinach croissant things!" She grabbed Mulder's arm. "Can you do that for me, Mulder?"
Mulder was grinning like a fool. Scully just stared at him. He looked back at her and for a moment he didn't seem to recognize her, like he was sure he knew her from somewhere, had maybe worked a case with her once, or gotten introduced to her at a party at a friend of a friend's. He finally asked, "What can I get you, Scully?"
Feeling like the head cheerleader's nerdy best friend, Scully peered over her shoulder at the blackboard menu. She sighed. "Soup does sound good, and they have that bean one I like."
"Ohhh," Mulder groaned, "you always get the bean soup."
"Let her have her bean soup!" Sue campaigned. "It's cold outside and soup's good for you." Her voice turned conspiratorial. "Unlike the things in his refrigerator," she confided to Scully. "It's disgusting in there."
Mulder blinked at them. "You two are going to talk about me, aren't you?" he asked, as if it had just then occurred to him.
"Yes!" Sue answered, shooing him off. "Now go get us lunch." She squeezed Scully's hand and directed her to their table. "Now what do I call you? Scully? Dana? Mulder has that whole Fox thing going on, and my full name is actually Susan Anthony. So as you could imagine, I'm easy on names." She rolled her eyes.
"Um," Scully looked for Mulder. He was actually chatting with someone in line. "Either is good," she said, smiling at Sue. "Scully or Dana."
"Great," Sue enthused. "You know, maybe I should have gotten soup too. Except I was just at the dentist and my mouth's all gritty from that toothpaste stuff and ugh, nothing tastes good after that, and I was thinking spinach is so metallic anyway it might overpower the gritty mint taste." She craned her neck, searching for Mulder. "Do you think it's too late to change my order?"
Mulder was waiting by the pick-up counter. When he saw Sue looking his way, he waved at her.
"He's such a sweetie," Sue sighed.
Scully felt sure this wasn't happening.
Sue turned her startlingly green eyes back to Scully and started off on another story while playing with a straw wrapper. "So I was telling Fitz about Mulder--"
"Fitz?" Scully repeated, thinking it was either her dog or her guru.
"Fitz is my dentist," she explained. "Actually he's Dr. Fitzpatrick, but everyone calls him Fitz. He's really cute." She pretended to swoon.
"Dr. Fitz over on I Street?" Scully asked, something in this conversation finally making sense.
"Yes! Short brown hair, goatee?" Sue leaned in like they were sharing a great secret.
Scully nodded. "I go to him too."
"Neat," Sue said, rearranging herself in her seat, bringing her legs up to sit with one knee under her chin. "Just think, last month we could have been sitting in the waiting room together, and now here I am dating your partner."
"I hear," Mulder said, showing up with their lunch, "that her partner is a great guy."
Scully grabbed her crackers from him. "You'll believe anything, Mulder."
"It's true," Mulder said agreeably.
"Mulder, guess what," Sue quizzed, pulling at the cheese in her sandwich. "Scully and I go to the same dentist. Isn't that cool?"
"Is this the cute guy with the tattoo?" Mulder asked, chewing on his red coffee stirrer and doing something complicated with his ham and Swiss.
This time Scully leaned in. "He's got a tattoo?"
"Yep, on his calf, I made him show me. It's green. He designed it himself." Sue raised her eyebrows.
"Hey now," Mulder said, squeezing Sue, "you two need to remember who's paying for your lunch, and it ain't some tattooed dentist."
"But he plays the double bass in a jazz band on the weekends," Sue said in a rush, dodging away from Mulder and giggling.
"That's it," he said. "You will both need to find a new dentist, an old, unattractive, bald one."
"Poor Mulder," Sue cooed. "Did we forget to mention Fitz is married and has a three-month-old baby? Here, we'll talk about you now. How's your day going?"
Scully finished her bean soup while Mulder and Sue discussed a new bike path they wanted to try. Mulder wasn't looking at anything but Sue. Completely absorbed with her, he was playing with her hair again, pulling it away from the fleece vest and causing little static hisses and pops. When his cell rang, he looked surprised, unable to place the noise.
"You're ringing," Sue pointed out.
Mulder dug his phone out from his pocket and checked the display. "Um, Scully, is there something you need to tell me?"
Scully frowned. "What?"
He tilted his phone so she could read the number of the incoming call. It was hers.
"Because," Mulder went on, "I'm right here, you know, and you can always talk to me, no matter how personal or embarrassing or kinky--"
"Mulder, please shut up," Scully requested, reaching for her coat.
"Who is it?" Sue asked.
Scully pulled her phone out and found it had somehow dialed Mulder while sitting in her coat pocket. "Apparently, it's me," she said, ending the call.
"How adorable!" Sue laughed, hugging Mulder's arm. "Scully's phone called yours. It must have been lonely!"
Sue laughed again and Mulder beamed at her. In seven years, Scully had never seen that look on his face. She thought it must be love.
It only got colder in the days before Thanksgiving, with plenty of excuses to stay in and stay by the fire with Sue who made some mean spiked cider. Because Sue said she liked the smell, Mulder even tried smoking cigars again. She had a box of big fat Cubans her brother had brought back from some trip he'd taken, and she offered Mulder one the first night he spent at her house. "Your brother...David?" he'd tried.
She shook her head. "No, Adam."
"He's the one in France?"
"No, that's John," Sue chuckled. "Adam's out on the West Coast. I don't know if you'll get to meet him."
"Oh, I'll probably meet him someday," Mulder had said with a grin. Sue slipped up behind him and kissed him on the ear.
But her sister Julie was coming for Thanksgiving, all the way down from Providence, and her parents were coming in from Chevy Chase and someone was bringing a turkey.
Thursday morning Sue fed Mulder cranberries in his sleep. Comforter half-off and dozing in her bed he'd heard "taste this" so he opened his mouth without opening his eyes.
"Aaaah! Ptui!" He struggled to his feet and spat into his hand trying to save the juice from dripping onto the white sheets. "Tart!"
"What did you call me?" Sue asked, wryly. Mulder blinked up at her, standing there towering over him with her hands on her hips and an apron that read "Burn Toast, Not Books."
"What time is it?" he asked, lumbering past her to shake the chewed cranbits into the trash can.
"Noon," she said. "Julie will be here in two hours and Mom and Dad will be here before four. You need to come cheer me on while I try and repair that cranberry sauce."
"Okay," Mulder said. "Let me put a shirt on."
Sue shook her head, grinning evilly. "Please don't. It will make for a more pleasant cooking experience for me."
She was wide awake, and Mulder rubbed his eyes to get a better look at her. Her fingers were pink from cranberries, her hair pulled back into a knot stuck through with a plastic chopstick and sticking out in blonde spikes like an exploding star. There was flour on her cheek, and Mulder crossed to her, licked a thumb and wiped it clean.
Sue reached up and took his hand, pulled it to her hip and leaned in to kiss him. "There's coffee," she said after she'd pulled away. "I'll be in the kitchen."
Mulder sank to the bed and watched her leave. Thanksgiving. With Sue's family, just like normal people, having cranberry sauce and turkey and pie. Mulder couldn't remember the last time he'd had Thanksgiving like normal people, much less the last time he'd been introduced as someone's boyfriend to someone's normal parents. But a sister was coming, and normal parents named Marty and Carol, and Mulder was almost positive he'd find himself watching the football game. And Sue was in the kitchen and wanted him there with her, watching her fix normal Thanksgiving food, without a shirt on.
With a smile, he went into the bathroom to brush his teeth.
"So tell me," Mr. Anthony said, toasting Mulder with a forkful of cornbread stuffing. "What is it you do for the FBI, exactly? Sue's implied it's something quite important."
Mulder smiled at Sue's father while he tried to come up with some appropriate words. "I, uh, work for a department that analyzes unexplained phenomena."
This seemed to be enough for him, but Julie asked, "Are they really hiding something at Area 51?" She elbowed Mulder a little too hard in the ribs. "Come on, tell us the truth."
"Oh, that's classified," Mulder chuckled, winking past Julie at Sue, who was too far away for his liking, way down at the head of the table. Sue winked back.
"I knew it!" Julie said, slapping the table so hard the plates clattered. "I knew it."
"Fox," said Sue's mother. "You need to eat more. Have another yam."
For the third time since dinner had started, Mulder shook his head politely. "Thanks, Mrs. Anthony. But I'm stuffed already on your superb cooking."
"Mo-om!" Sue screwed her face into a pout. "He wants to be called 'Mulder.' I told you eight times."
"Don't torture your mother," Mulder said. "Mrs. Anthony, you're welcome to call me whatever you like."
Mrs. Anthony beamed. "Well then!" she said. "You can call me Carol. I insist."
Twenty minutes later the plates were cleared and the Anthonys had all retired to the living room, even when Mulder insisted on helping do the dishes.
"We'll do 'em tomorrow," Sue had whispered. "Or later tonight. I want to show you off to my family some more."
They were all obscenely nice, incredibly pleasant, well-mannered and witty people, but Mulder found himself wishing for those nights he was here alone with Sue, in the quiet, by the fire, without three blonde family members firing questions at him. With no interest in insulting the family of his lovely girlfriend, Mulder sank into the armchair with Sue in his lap.
"You lived up here, right?" Julie asked, rattling ice in a glass that used to contain scotch.
"Up here where? Arlington?" Mulder asked.
Sue leaned back into Mulder's chest and he crossed his arms below her breasts and peered over her shoulder at Julie.
Julie giggled, sounding just like her younger sister. "I'm clearly losing my mind," she said. "Up here Rhode Island, I meant. I forgot I wasn't home." She pointed a bitten fingernail at the framed John Lennon photograph above Sue's couch. "I have that same poster," she said, as if that explained everything.
Sue snickered, and Mulder felt the resonance in his chest. "I know you do, honey," Sue said to her sister. "You gave me this one."
Mulder cut in. "When I was little, we had a summer house in Quonochontaug."
"Mmm," Julie nodded knowingly. "Very swank."
"So your folks are wealthy, then?" Mr. Anthony clucked his tongue.
"Be nice!" Mrs. Anthony hissed, giving her husband a light slap. She turned to Mulder. "I'm sure you had a very nice upbringing," she said, with a vacant nod.
Mulder resisted the urge to laugh, and instead kissed Sue between the shoulderblades. "Yes," he said. Sue squeezed his hand.
"And your parents still live up there?" Julie asked.
"My mom lives in Connecticut," Mulder said. "My father passed away a few years ago."
All the Anthonys "mmm"ed and nodded solemnly.
"Cancer?" Mrs. Anthony whispered.
"No, but he was murdered by a renegade operative who might have been working for a guy who's going to die of cancer," Mulder didn't say.
Sue rescued him. "Please, mom!"
Mrs. Anthony held her hands up, palms out, maybe to show she didn't have any small firearms. "I apologize," she said. "We lost my brother to cancer back in '94. It's very hard on a family."
"It is," Mulder said, knowing that, at the very least, that was a true statement. "Very hard."
"Hey Fox!" Mr. Anthony said, as if Mulder were an old friend he hadn't seen in years. "How's about you join me in a cigar? I know Sue has that box Adam sent tucked away somewhere."
Mulder smiled, shifting in his seat to move Sue's weight to his other thigh. "I'll pass," he said. "But thank you. I've had one. It's a very nice smoke."
Mr. Anthony stood up from the couch. He pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose and looked at Sue. "So where do you have those things hidden?"
"I'll show you," Sue said, pulling herself to her feet. Mulder's legs tingled.
They exited the room, leaving Mulder in silence, smiling from Julie to Carol and back again. Carol, on the couch, and Julie, crosslegged on the floor, smiled back. Mulder's chin hurt from all the smiling.
"I think," he said, "I'm going to go out for some air. I'll be...right back." He caught himself before saying "I'll be back in a jif," and winced at the fact that the words had even formed in his brain. He'd definitely spent too long with this strange and happy family.
Outside it was brisk and clear, and Mulder had forgotten his jacket. He sat on the stoop and rubbed his hands together, listening to the horn of a distant car and the howling of wind through the taller trees.
Two weeks of normalcy, even with someone as wonderful as Sue, grated on a man who was more used to half-nights slept on the couch and microwaved dinners that came in little segmented dishes. He wasn't sure if he missed that or not.
He felt the screen door open, the corner of it catching him in the arm, and he looked up to see Sue standing over him, holding his jacket.
"It's freezing out here, Mulder," she said. "Put this on."
He took it from her gratefully and stood up.
"You coming back in?" she asked, nudging at his arm with her head so he'd lift it up and hold her to him, which he did.
The sky was cloudless, unseasonably clear and the stars pocked the black in crystal clarity. Mulder took Sue's hand and used it to point skyward, closing one eye and staring down the length of her arm like a rifle sight. "See that?"
Sue stood on tiptoe, aligning her head with his. "See what?"
"Pisces," Mulder said. "Fairly easy constellation to see this time of year."
"Cool!" Sue said, squinting for a better view. "John's a Pisces. I got him fish for his birthday, once. You know, because, Pisces? Fish? Hey, you have fish! Is someone feeding them? And, do they have names? I meant to ask."
Mulder wrapped his arms around Sue and kissed her on the forehead. "I feed them every day after work before I come over here," he said. "Bet they're hungry tonight, though. And, yes, they do have names."
Sue slipped the tips of her fingers into the waistband of Mulder's pants. "Tell me," she said.
"The big one's Fido, the two with the red heads are Leviathan and Spike, and the little one is Land Shark."
"Land shark!" Sue snorted. "Um...delivery! Candygram!"
"Exactly," Mulder said.
Sue had slid her arms up inside Mulder's jacket and she was tugging at his shirt to free it from under his belt. He raked his fingers through her hair and kissed her again.
"Hey!" Sue said. "Your pocket is vibrating."
Mulder reached down to retrieve his cell phone. "I turned the ringer off," he explained. "I hope someone hasn't been trying to reach me."
"Mulder?" Scully's voice sounded anxious, or maybe eager.
"Yeah," he said. "What's up, Scully?"
"I just got a call from Skinner. He has a case for us."
"He's going behind Kersh's back?" Mulder asked. Sue blew in his ear and he shivered and smiled.
"No, he went through Kersh. We have a briefing first thing in the morning. He tried to call you but he couldn't get through."
"I had the sound off," Mulder said. "I'm still at Thanksgiving dinner."
There was a pause, and something at Scully's end clattered. "Oh," she said. "I got home from Mom's a couple hours ago. I hope I'm not interrupting."
Sue was snuffling at Mulder's ear and had succeeded in pulling his shirt free, so her nails were tracing lines down his bare back. The cold air cut in and Mulder felt gooseflesh rising on his arms.
"No," he said. "No problem. What time tomorrow?"
"You still having phone trouble, Scully?"
"Yeah," she said. "Well, not as much. It's all right. I'll see you at eight in Kersh's office, okay?"
Mulder tipped the phone away from his mouth to kiss Sue, and then freed himself from her embrace. "Yeah, Scully," he said. "Eight o'clock. See you then."
It was possible she had already hung up by the time he said "good night."
Sue tipped her head and peered at him. "Everything all right?" she asked.
Mulder inhaled through his nose and puffed out his chest, feeling the wintry air like ice. "Yup," he said. "I've got a meeting tomorrow. But everything's good."
Tucking his shirt back in with one hand, he pulled Sue close to him with the other and brushed a thumb across her forehead. Her eyes sparkled.
"Everything's great," he said. "Let's get back inside before your parents think I've run off with you."
"Good idea," Sue said, circling him to open the door. "They'll be leaving soon anyway. And then we can..." Over her shoulder, she threw him a conspiratorial smirk.
"And then we can," Mulder said, slipping in after her and letting the door shut behind them.
In the car, warm air blew steadily from the vents, and the windshield wipers squeaked back and forth against the rain like a lullaby. Mulder would have been asleep hours ago if he hadn't been driving. Instead he got New Jersey in the rain, gleaming pavement under his headlights, and Scully sitting next to him in one more car headed somewhere they couldn't see from here.
A sign flew by, said "Cape May 5 Miles" in an undertone, and Scully checked her watch. "It's almost seven. I'm going to call the Fish and Wildlife office and see if anyone's still there."
"Sounds good," Mulder agreed. "Do you know who we're talking to there?"
"Yes," she said, flipping open her phone. Its keypad lit up green like some high-tech phosphorescent beetle. She poked in the number.
"What was his name again?"
"Agent Derek McNamara," Scully reminded him, the phone's glow turning her face an eerie lime green. "I've told you that five times."
"Hmm," Mulder said, taking their exit.
"But you weren't listening, were you?" She appeared to be joking, but it was dark and he couldn't see her eyes.
"Hmm," he said again, not taking any chances.
"Exactly," she said. "And I'm talking now, so behave."
Scully's side of the conversation consisted of several reasonable questions ("What time should we meet you?" "Is there parking?") and then a series of comments that sounded like directions to Wisconsin's red light district.
"...Quickie Mart, right at the intersection, triple-x...Dairy Queen, uh huh, giant inflatable Santa. Okay. We'll find you."
She ended the call, saying, "We're meeting him at a pub. We've got directions."
"Hey, can we stop at the triple-x Dairy Queen, Scully? I'm looking for something...chocolate dipped," he drawled.
Scully turned away to look out her window, but he thought he heard her laugh.
Like an old dog waiting for its master to return, the Albatross crouched before a long, wet dock and looked out onto the bay. Its weathered paint was peeling from the clapboard in faded grey curls, and the rain fell straight off the roof to the muddy ground under the eaves.
Most of Cape May was crammed inside the two-story Colonial that smelled like fish and old beer. The bar was circled with local kids, a few lonely fishermen, and everyone else who didn't have a place to be on a Friday night. Near the door, the wooden floor was stained dark brown from years of work boots and dripping parkas.
Scully leaned one hand against the wall and bent down to wring out the cuff of her slacks. Mulder had parked with one tire in a pothole and another directly under Scully's door. He maintained it wasn't his fault she had stepped in it. She'd maintained he was a heartless bastard.
"These were new," she muttered.
Scully looked up from her shoe and Mulder turned around to find a tall guy smiling at Scully.
"Agent McNamara?" she asked, dropping her loafer to the floor and shoving her foot back into it with a damp squish.
"Please, call me Deek," he insisted, smiling some more and shaking Scully's hand.
"Deek," Scully said, and then as if she wanted to try it again, "Deek, this is my partner, Fox Mulder. You can call him Mulder."
More hand shaking. More smiling.
Deek was wearing boots, jeans and a button-down flannel shirt over a thermal undershirt. He had glasses and looked like a frat boy. "Come on, I got us a booth."
Their table was near the dart boards and Mulder eyed the players warily. As the night went on their aim was only going to get worse.
"So, FBI," Deek said, sliding into the booth. "They tell me you know what my critter is."
"Your critter," Mulder repeated, shrugging off his overcoat and hanging it on a peg at the end of the bench, "is most likely human."
Scully was already sitting, and she looked up to give him a friendly glare. "We don't know that for certain," she said pointedly.
"But?" Mulder prompted.
She shook her head and turned back to Deek. "But it does look like something we've seen before."
"Okay," Deek nodded.
"Five years ago, there were a series of attacks in eastern New Jersey near Atlantic City," Scully explained, slipping her shoe off and wiggling her toes inside her wet sock.
Mulder slid in next to her and interrupted with, "Ever hear of the Jersey Devil, Deek?"
Not even blinking at the change of topic, Deek switched his attention to Mulder. "Sure, once a year or so, some poor hiker will wander off the trail to pee, get lost for a few hours and think he sees the devil in the woods." He shrugged. "A scared mind can create all sorts of things."
Scully was smug and Mulder could have predicted what she said next: "That happens to Mulder all the time." Shifting position, she tucked one leg under her on the bench and her wet toes were suddenly pressing into his thigh.
"It's true. I often get lost when wandering off to pee," Mulder confessed, reaching down to give Scully's ankle a squeeze. Her soggy foot retreated. "But you've got a few dead bodies with the tasty bits chewed off, and we happen to know of someone who lives in the woods and--"
This time it was Scully's turn to interrupt. "In Atlantic City, we found evidence of an adult male and female living in the state park and attacking anyone unlucky enough to run into them. The male was supposedly found dead. We never saw the male's body, but the female was shot and killed by the police."
Deek adjusted his glasses. "Hey, yeah, I read about that. Do you think that's what's going on here?"
Mulder nodded and played with the salt and pepper shakers.
"We'll need more evidence before we can justify making it the focus of our investigation," Scully pointed out, using some of her favorite words.
"What we need," Mulder corrected, "is beer and some sort of deep fried something."
"We can do that," Deek said, signaling the waitress over.
Next to Mulder, Scully rearranged herself on the wooden bench again, finally settling with her elbows on the table and one foot just barely brushing against his knee.
An hour later, in a motel room that smelled like mothballs and wet wool, Mulder kicked one ankle over the other and leaned against the headboard. "Read to me," he said.
"Read to you, Mulder?"
"Yeah," he said. "And do different voices."
"Mmm," she replied. With her shoes off, Scully tucked her legs underneath her and sat at the foot of the bed feeling the cheap springs droop at the corner and threaten to catapult her from the Harvard frame. She shifted her weight, holding the file with one hand and steadying herself with the other.
"On August 4th, Rosemary Tanner called local PD saying that a large wild animal had knocked over her garbage cans. PD dismissed it as most likely a skunk or a raccoon, but in the course of the same evening they received two more calls from people in Tanner's neighborhood reporting similar sightings." Scully looked at Mulder, fishing for some reaction. Mulder nodded encouragingly, and she read on. "Dr. Evan Paine described the creature as - quote - a hairy animal four to four and a half feet tall that was able to stand fully erect and maneuver on its hind legs, which ran into the woods when he shined a flashlight at it."
Mulder clucked his tongue and shook his head.
"Mm-hmm?" Scully asked.
"Evan Paine sounds an awful lot like Rosemary Tanner, Scully. I said do voices!"
She threw the file at him, Frisbee-style. He caught it between two hands like a clam and stuck out his tongue.
He was adorable, here. Adorable in socks with matching holes at the heels and a face that seemed to have fewer laugh lines than before, to the point where she had half a mind to ask him what late-night infomercial youth-replenishing product he was using.
Except that she knew what it was -- or who it was, rather -- that kept Mulder, above all things, both glad and young. She dove toward him, leaning over her crossed legs in some sort of yoga stretch to retrieve the file which she flipped open and began reading again.
"At this point, the local police are not ruling anything out," she went on. Mulder growled.
"Voices!" he commanded. She cleared her throat and glared at him, smirking.
"The department of Fish and Wildlife..." Scully started again, louder, ignoring Mulder's squeaky meows. "Was called in to assist with the investigation on eleven October nineteen-ninety-eight. On twenty October, the case was transferred wholly to the control of Fish and Wildlife under the supervision of Agent Derek McNamara."
Mulder threw up his hands, defeated. Scully continued. "Agent McNamara requested autopsy reports on twenty-one October, see attached."
"You know, Scully," Mulder said, squinting as if he were trying to scrape a particularly brilliant revelation from the roof of his brain, "Deek strikes me as the type of guy who'd..."
The phone rang. Mulder picked it up, and from the light that switched on in his eyes, Scully knew who it was.
"Hey yourself," he said to the phone. "I miss you."
Scully busied herself with the file, studying the badly-drawn autopsy diagrams and not wanting to look up.
"Oh yeah?" Mulder teased. "Well then. I guess I'll just have to solve this case and get home."
Scully furrowed her brow and thought about claw marks and rabies.
"Now that's not fair!" Mulder said, laughing. "I'm totally defenseless. You vile temptress." He shot Scully a grin and wiggled the phone receiver.
With a breath, Scully clapped the file shut, swung her legs off the side of the bed and slipped her feet into her shoes. They could talk about this tomorrow.
"I'm going to bed," she mouthed, and Mulder nodded and got up to see her out. The phone cord wasn't long enough and the phone slipped off the nightstand; he caught it with one hand, wedged the receiver against his shoulder and waved at Scully with the other hand.
"See you tomorrow," he mouthed back, and she was gone.
There was knocking at his door.
Mulder shifted the phone to his other ear and scratched at a hole in his sock. "Uh," he said, forgetting what he'd been saying.
"Mulder?" Sue asked from the other side of the phone.
"Scully's at my door," Mulder explained, heaving himself up from the bed and swinging his feet to the floor, which was cold and unfriendly.
"What's she want?" Sue asked in a suspicious tone.
"It's Scully!" he said, yanking on the phone until the cord whipped through the air in a silver wave.
"Okay," Sue said, and he could practically hear her dismissive shrug, the one she used when she didn't agree with you but couldn't be bothered to argue.
Growling to himself, Mulder opened the door for Scully.
She was frowning. "You're still on the phone? Deek's been trying to call you."
Mulder shrugged and whipped the phone cord again.
"Mulder? You still there?"
Scully shoved some hair out of her eye. "There's been another attack. We've got a witness to talk to." She put a hand out. "Keys."
Holding the phone to his shoulder with his chin, Mulder reached into his pocket for the keys. "What happened?"
"When?" Sue asked.
"Not you," Mulder said. Scully cocked her head at him. Frustrated, he did a stompy little dance. "Sue, I've got to go. There are FBI things to do."
"Call me tomorrow?"
"Sure," he said, hanging up and starting the search for his shoes. Scully watched him from the doorway.
There were two sets of footprints in the soft ground by Caleb Veigh's garage. One had a distinctive Adidas tread; the other was smaller, with five round toes and a deep impression for the ball of the foot.
Crouched on the sidewalk, Mulder hovered his hand over the prints, trying to get an idea of their size. The smaller one was barely bigger than his palm.
A flash went off in the rainy darkness and Mulder turned away. Someone in a uniform was already preparing the footprints for a plaster cast. Wiping the rain out of his eyes, Mulder stood, climbed the steps of the porch and went inside.
Caleb Veigh was sitting on his couch, holding an icepack to the back of his head while Scully examined his neck. The Adidas belonged to him, and he'd been attacked by something with small muddy feet.
"It was dark, you know?" he was saying. "My glasses were wet from the rain, so I couldn't see very well. She was sort of kneeling near the side of the house."
Scully glanced over her shoulder. Mulder nodded, thinking of the footprint and the way Scully's foot had pressed up against him in the bar. Her feet were about the same size as Caleb's attacker's.
"I thought maybe she was a student of mine, all I could see of her was her hair and her eyes." He winced, pulling away from Scully's probing hand. Scully whispered an apology.
"Well, and then, she--" He broke off and looked around the room. Several more uniformed officers were lined up along the wall next to the TV. Deek was sitting in a recliner, notebook balanced on one knee.
Caleb laughed a sigh and shrugged with one shoulder and a hand. He looked more embarrassed than traumatized. "She rushed me, knocked me to the ground and then jumped on top of me and started slamming my head into the driveway."
"And your neck?" Scully asked, tipping Caleb's chin so that Mulder could see the bite marks there.
Caleb pressed his tongue into his cheek and said, "Yeah, she did that too." With another laugh and a groan, he let the icepack slip down so that it covered his eyes. Scully leaned in and patted Caleb's knee, murmuring reassuring words.
Mulder almost didn't recognize her as Scully, sitting there and smiling at the good-looking high school history teacher. She was just a woman now, and Caleb Veigh was the kind of guy that women liked, a guy with a friendly face and a teasing smile and wiry blond hair and an endless supply of khakis and sweater vests and tennis shoes.
Mulder didn't want to think about Scully and other men. "Did you recognize the girl, Mr. Veigh?"
Caleb shook his head. "No, I don't know who she was."
"Could you describe her?" Scully asked.
"This is going to sound ridiculous," Caleb laughed nervously, "but she didn't seem, uh, human. I mean, she obviously WAS, but she moved like, well, like an animal, in quick darting movements. She ran off when a car drove past."
"Age, height, weight, hair color, any distinguishing marks?" one of the uniforms recited.
"I think she was about twelve or thirteen, maybe a hundred pounds, dark hair and," Caleb wiped one hand across his mouth, "um, naked."
The officers glanced at each other, and Caleb excused himself to the bathroom.
Deek ambled over, reading his notebook and scratching at the back of his neck. "Well, his injuries are in keeping with those of my animal attack victims."
"The bite mark certainly looked human," Scully said, joining them.
"So did the footprints." Mulder knew he was grinning but couldn't stop himself.
"Agent Mulder?" Deek asked.
"Agent Mulder has a theory," Scully translated, clearly trying not to smile.
Mulder held up a hand, feeling like the sleuth at the end of the mystery, the one who gathered everyone in the library and then dramatically named the murderer. "Agent Mulder has more than a theory. He's got evidence," he said with a flourish. "Scully, if you will. Footprints, plus teethprints, plus Veigh's statement equals a human attacker. Ah, but Deek, the method of attack, type of injuries and subsequent nibbling suggest an animal, you say? I think we can all win this one. We're looking for a human who acts like an animal. A little something I like to call Jersey Devil, Jr."
Deek shifted his weight. "Offspring?"
"The autopsy of the female did indicate she gave birth," Scully said.
Putting his notebook away, Deek nodded. "It would appear to be the simplest explanation."
Graciously ignoring all the qualifiers, Mulder put his arms around Deek's and Scully's shoulders for a moment of solidarity. "You know what this means, gang. Tomorrow we're going into the woods to find ourselves a critter."
Scully sighed. "Go team."
Crunching branches and bark under wet leaves with every step, Mulder trudged through the woods and whistled the Colonel Bogie March.
Deek tramped on about two yards ahead, brushing aside peaty undergrowth with one yellow-slickered arm, shining a flashlight into the moss with the other.
"Sorry about the rain," he called over his shoulder, his foggy glasses slipping down his nose in the drizzle. "It's a yucky day to try and find anything out here."
"It's fine," Scully said, coming up beside Mulder and sinking her boots into the mud.
"No, we blame you for the rain, McNamara." Mulder stopped whistling. "Please turn it off."
"I've got some friends in high places," Deek grinned. "I'll call in a few favors."
Deek pushed on and Scully fell in behind him, two teetering silhouettes on the greasy ground. The sky, what Mulder could see of it through the crosshatched branches and drippy leaves, was uniformly grey, darker than it ought to be at just before three p.m. and heavy with clouds that were producing less rain now than they had all morning, but which threatened to start up again any minute. Somewhere, behind the sea spray and the rich earth, Mulder thought he could smell the beginnings of snow.
"Anyway," Deek said, marching on, "looks like it's clearing up. Better than it was when we started, right?"
Mulder shoved his hands into his pockets, thought briefly of Sue's fireplace, and started whistling again.
He caught up with Scully and Deek in a low place. The brush was thick here and Deek hacked at it with a pocketknife. "What kind of habitat you think we're looking for?" he asked.
"Well, without more knowledge of her behavior, I think it would be hard to say," Scully said. "We don't know if she hibernates, or what."
"Well, what about that last one you said you saw? I mean, all accounts suggest she makes her home out here, isn't that right?"
"All accounts," Mulder said, pausing mid-whistling-phrase, "suggest that she's a frightened little girl who grew up in the woods and who's been on her own for the last five years, who would want to make her home wherever she thought she'd be safe from predators. In this case, we're the predators, so, I think looking for her as far away from human settlements as possible is a good start. Not forgetting, of course, that she depends on us for snacks and leftovers, so she needs to be able to take a quick jaunt to the general store when she's out of peanut butter or puppies."
"So what you're saying is we don't really know," Deek said with a chuckle.
Mulder picked up where he'd left off in the whistling. Scully joined in, high and off-key, but resonant. Deek shook his head.
"I'll take what I can get at this point," he said. "I been working on this case a month and I'm no closer than the PD was when they handed it over to me. Your theory's as good as any."
"What we've got to remember is that we're looking for a child," Scully said, grabbing a branch to steady herself as she crawled over a larger downed tree trunk. "So she probably doesn't have the kind of survival skills--"
Some muffled squishing sounds, and Scully was gone.
"Help," came her small voice from somewhere wet and dark. Mulder leaped across the log in a single bound and landed in a squatting position in a heap of wet leaves.
"Scully?" He clawed at the leaves, mud soaking through his jeans as he knelt and scraped at the ground, searching for her. This was absurdly familiar, and his heart pounded.
He heard scraping and struggling and then nothing, silence. "Scully?" he called again.
"No," she said, from somewhere else. "I'm okay. I'm over here."
"That's sort of useless information, Scully," he said, breaking a smile and pulling himself to his feet. "Keep talking."
Silence, again, for a long time. Too long. Seconds. Then whistling, from just to the right of his knee, the faint tinny strains of the Colonel Bogie March.
Deek peered over the tree and shined his flashlight down into the grotto where Scully had slid. It was a narrow, angular sort of space, but the light caught her eyes and her mud-streaked cheeks and her lips, pursed, whistling. Mulder thrust an arm down and she grabbed it, and, digging his heels into the dirt, he pulled her out.
She fell on top of him, mud everywhere, her fingers frozen where they gripped at his shoulders as she tried to regain her balance. He pulled her to her feet and then they all sat on the log and laughed.
"Well, you, uh..." Mulder started.
"Hang on," Deek said, digging in his backpack. "What I have, for you, Agent Scully, is..." He emerged with a red plastic thermos. "Coffee!"
She brushed at her eyes with a thumb, spreading mud around but not really doing anything to lessen it. Mulder tugged the sleeve of his sweatshirt down over his palm and wiped her face, one cheek at a time, tucking the muddy clumps of her hair behind her ears.
"That was definitely it," she said, after a long draw off the little red plastic cup. "That was her burrow, her nest, whatever."
"You find any comic books down there?" Mulder teased, taking Scully's non-coffee hand and rubbing it between two of his.
"Nah, just six or seven My Little Ponys."
Mulder beamed. "Why, Scully, as I live and breathe. Half-drowned in mud and you're making jokes."
"Mulder," Scully said, her eyes widening as she shifted her gaze from Mulder to Deek and back again. "We found her. I mean, we can find her now. Think of everything we can learn about her."
"Nice work, Agent Scully," Deek said. Scully nodded.
"And we didn't even have to shoot her," Scully said, more quietly.
"Nice, isn't it?" Mulder agreed.
The sky offered a grumble of thunder in appreciation.
"Ooh, that's no good." Deek stood up, took the cup back from Scully and screwed it back on the thermos. "Let's get you home and cleaned up. We'll send some people to stake out the area, but I think you're right. We've got her."
Mulder slid off the log, reached up, grabbed Scully by the waist and stood her up on solid ground. "Don't fall," he said, shaking a finger at her.
"Don't whistle," she said.
"Hmpf," Mulder said, and as he led the way back to the truck, he started in on another chorus of the Colonel Bogie March.
Scully was naked and muddy, and the water coming out of the showerhead felt like it'd been refrigerated. The knob was all the way to the left, all the way H, but the water was not H at all and Scully wanted to kick something.
Slapping the shower off, she wrapped herself in a towel, grabbed her key and stormed next door to Mulder's. Knocking with one hand, she clutched her towel with the other. It was possible the entire parking lot was staring at her, but she didn't turn around to look.
Mulder answered the door with the phone pressed to his ear.
"I'm using your shower," she announced, pushing past him. He was bare-chested and only wearing his dirty jeans.
"Nice towel," he said.
"Nice hickey," she smirked.
"Scully!" Mulder clapped a hand over his chest like he was being forced to pledge allegiance.
"Heh." Scully whipped into the bathroom and locked the door behind her.
Mulder's shower had hot water. It had hot water for almost an hour, right up until the time it ran out, at which point Scully was already squeaky clean and realizing she hadn't brought over any clothes with her.
She poked her head out the bathroom door, aware her towel barely covered the important parts. Mulder was stretched out on the bed, TV on, phone still to his ear.
He looked over at her, rolling his head on the pillow and accidentally dislodging the phone.
She hitched her towel up higher, then tugged it down again. "Mulder, could you go next door and get me my bag? I need my clothes."
"Your clothes?" Mulder repeated, tucking the phone under his chin. The phone said something that sounded like "wha-WHA?"
Scully nodded. "My bag's in the closet."
"No, she took a shower," Mulder said to the phone. "I don't know. I'll ask." The receiver back under his chin, he asked, "Why is Scully using my shower?"
"Because Scully's shower is broken," she told him, assuming he was talking to Sue and wondering how she would take the news that Scully was practically naked in his motel room.
Mulder relayed this information to the phone. Scully pulled her towel up again, holding it at the knot between her breasts and shivering. "Mulder," she growled.
"Yes," he said. "I've got to go. I do too, bye." Throwing his arm out to the side, he replaced the phone on the nightstand, then propped his head up on one hand and examined her.
She shivered again. "You can close your mouth, Mulder."
Mulder blinked at her, then cleared his throat. "So, you planning on getting dressed at all this evening? Not that this isn't a good look for you--"
Making sure she had a firm grip on her towel, she chucked her key at him. He ducked, shielding his eyes.
"The things I do for you," he complained, collecting the key and shoving his feet into his running shoes. "Fetch me my underwear, pick out something sexy--" He disappeared out the door, still muttering.
Scully stayed in the bathroom, dancing from foot to foot on the warped linoleum. It danced with her, bubbling up and down and making plasticky noises. She'd used Mulder's shampoo and soap, and in the steamy air of the bathroom, she smelled like him, like his zesty green soap and his surprisingly girly shampoo that was made with honey and oatmeal. It was like he was standing right behind her. She scraped the side of her hand against the mirror and caught a glimpse of her face before the fog crawled in and ate it up again. She smelled like Mulder, but she still looked like herself. Only wet.
There was a knock at Mulder's door and Scully stuck her head out of the bathroom again, skin protesting at the rush of cold air. "Mulder?"
More pounding. "Scully, I forgot my key! Hurry up, it's snowing out here!"
Dripping and shivering, she padded across the room and opened the door, but it wasn't snowing.
Mulder pushed inside, bringing the smell of cold rainy air with him. "Cheer up, Scully, your towel's slipping."
Scully's hand automatically went to the knot of her towel.
"Clothes?" Mulder said, displaying her navy suit and its matching shoes.
She bit back a laugh. He was standing there, half-naked, all cute and cockeyed, with the ridiculous wool suit hanging from his arms, and she loved that he'd done this for her. Suddenly, she wanted nothing more than for Mulder to come inside and shut out the cold. She wanted his smiles and his bad jokes; she wanted him familiar and Mulder and hers.
But he wasn't. He was Sue's, and it was new and different and unpleasant, and she hated it because she'd never had to compete for his attention before. She'd never thought she'd want to.
"You taking me out to dinner, Mulder?" she asked, almost hoping he would.
He blinked. "What? No!" he denied, sounding offended.
She forced a smile. "Because it's almost eight, and the only way I'm putting on pantyhose at this hour is if I get to eat somewhere that has fancy napkins," she said, trying to forget about Sue and Sue's Mulder.
Weaving in around her and letting the door slam shut, he grinned and laid her suit over the back of a chair. "Feh, then you're on your own. Forage in my suitcase if you want. I'm taking a shower." He tweaked her towel on his way past.
"We're eating from the phone book tonight, aren't we?" she called after him, trying to gauge his mood.
"Only the best for you, Gypsy Rose." His voice echoed off the motel tiles, and the bathroom door swung shut.
Feeling strangely defeated, Scully went over to inspect the suit he'd brought her. He'd managed to reproduce one of her favorite work outfits: navy jacket and skirt, cream blouse, navy heels. Some pantyhose were wrapped around the hanger and a pair of cotton underwear was tucked in the pocket of the blazer. She pulled the underwear on and stared at her suit, wanting its complete opposite. In the bathroom, the shower came on.
Mulder's suitcase was on the floor near the closet. She edged closer and peered down into the tossed salad of boxers and socks and t-shirts. Poking through his clothes, she found soft flannel pajama pants she'd never seen him wear. She wondered if Sue had.
Scully had never been good at sharing. As a child she'd hid her crayons because Melissa broke them and Charlie ate them. In second grade, she'd hated show and tell because the teacher made them pass around whatever it was, and she'd have to sit there and watch while everyone touched her things. She'd never grown out of it. There was still a bratty little kid inside Scully that wanted to stamp her feet and cry "mine mine mine" anytime something of hers was out of her hands.
She wanted to be a grownup about Mulder and Sue, but her inner two-year-old had woken up and was throwing a world-class tantrum. "Mine mine mine," she was chanting.
Scully gave up and put Mulder's pajamas on. He'd offered, and even if she wasn't good at sharing, Mulder was.
The pants were too long, and she had to fold the waistband over several times before they'd stay up. She knew there was no excuse for this, no reason why she couldn't just go back to her room wearing her towel or her suit, but she didn't want to leave for fear she'd come back to find Mulder on the phone with Sue again.
The television said, "Meet the world's fastest insect."
Scully hopped a little, adjusting the pajamas on her hips as the British-accented voice introduced itself. A rhino beetle trooped across the screen. An ant wrestled with a potato chip.
Dropping her towel, Scully grabbed one of Mulder's t-shirts and pulled it over her head. Guilty and satisfied, she found the remote and went to sit on the bed so she could learn about bugs. The narrator talked about parasitoid broods, and Scully fidgeted against the scratchy coverlet, trying to get comfortable on a bed not worthy of the softness of Mulder's pajamas. Finally she got up, tore the first several layers of sheets off, tugged out the nice fuzzy blanket from the middle of them and then collapsed again in a messy pile of soft.
Halfway into her insect show, the shower shut off. A few minutes later, Mulder came out of the bathroom and took a running leap at the bed, landing on his stomach and sliding up against her like a luge champion. His boxers were spattered with pumpkins and a few suspiciously happy turkeys. He was warm and smiling and smelled just like her.
"You really do watch the Discovery Channel."
"It's actually public television," she corrected, retrieving the remote from under his arm.
He looked at the TV. "What is it?"
"It's like insect greatest hits. The biggest, the ugliest, the most blood-thirsty..." She pinched him.
"Ugh, you know I hate bugs," he said, burrowing into the blankets at her hip like a boll weevil.
"But this is interesting, Mulder. Did you know that the goliath beetle is the world's heaviest insect? It can weigh up to 100 grams, which is almost as much as a quarter-pounder with cheese," she explained, looking down at him. His hair was wet and spiky and she wanted to touch it.
Mulder wiggled. "Mmm, cheeseburger."
"Once again, your selective hearing comes into play."
"I'm hungry," he insisted, rooting around under the pillows, like he might find a stray grub or candy bar there.
"Why don't you use those fine hunter-gatherer skills of yours to hunt and/or gather us some food."
"If I had a dollar, I could slay the vending machine," he offered, flipping over and looking up at her.
She frowned. "I want real food, Mulder."
"Hmm," Mulder said, tugging at her blanket until he exposed the plaid flannel of her hijacked pajamas. Fighting him for it, she pulled the blanket back up, embarrassed.
"Ah, Scully," he chided. "All this time, I had no idea you wanted in my pants."
"You clearly weren't paying attention," she said, forcing a smile.
"Mmm," Mulder said, rolling off the bed and to his feet. "Just say the word, Scully."
Watching him bounce around in search of the phone book, she wondered if "please" would work.
They were in the woods again. It was still raining.
Mulder had spent the last four hours trying not to move because it just reminded him how wet he was.
Deek had brought them official Fish & Wildlife ponchos, and all three agents were sitting under a tree, looking perfectly natural in the bright yellow nylon that was doing little to keep them dry. They'd been there since noon, waiting to see if Deek's critter would return to her burrow. It was now four o'clock and Mulder was suffering from a variety of problems, including wetness, boredom and the need to pee.
Next to him, Scully put down her binoculars. "I know that look, Mulder."
"So I drank too much coffee at lunch." Mulder shrugged, causing a stream of water to run down his neck. His shoulders came up to meet his ears.
"I told you--"
"What's that, Scully?" Mulder faked having something in his ear.
Scully gave him a disgusted look from under the bill of her borrowed baseball cap. Deek had given it to her to help keep the rain out of her eyes, and with her oversized poncho and wet, curly hair, she looked like the bratty little sister who'd tagged along simply because she'd been told she couldn't. He smiled at her.
"What? What!" she asked defensively.
"Agent Mulder, Agent Scully," Deek broke in calmly, "you two really don't need to be out here in the rain. I've got people posted in the area, and Sergeant Harwood has some officers watching the trails. Why don't you go back to your motel? I can call you if we have a sighting."
"I want to be here for dusk," Mulder explained. "I've got a feeling--"
Scully smirked. "You sure that isn't the coffee?"
Mulder pretended to laugh. "You're real cute. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've gotta take a leak."
"Stay within our line of sight," Deek cautioned.
"Hear that, Scully? No peeking." Mulder stood and his knees and back reminded him he'd been sitting on the cold ground for four hours too many.
Scouting out a likely tree, Mulder walked far enough back that Deek and Scully were just yellow blurs. His own poncho seemed to be working against him, but by holding the yellow plastic between his teeth, he finally managed to reach his zipper.
A twig snapped behind him, and Mulder only had time to hope there weren't bears in New Jersey before he hit the ground.
Whatever it was, it was smelly and snarling and weighed less than Scully on a fat day. Probably not a bear then.
"Scully," Mulder called out conversationally, stretching her name so that it sounded like he was calling a lost dog.
The thing on his back didn't like that. It growled and spat and bounced on his ribs.
"Scuhleeee," Mulder yelled. As a reward, he got a jab in the kidney and his head bashed into the ground.
Throwing his arm back, he felt his elbow connect with something solid and the weight disappeared. Getting to his knees, he reached for his gun but got nothing except slippery wet plastic.
Twisting around to look behind him, he saw matted hair and dark brown eyes. Using both hands, he pulled up his poncho, but the tiny beast knocked him to his back before he could free his gun from its holster. Perched on his chest, she grinned at him in the way baboons do, and then lunged, grabbing his head and knocking it against the ground while she bit into the meat of his neck. Mulder howled and tried to push her away, but she clung to him, worrying his skin between her teeth and trying to open a vein.
Something red whizzed over his head. He heard Scully shout, then the explosion of her gun discharging. The beast disappeared into the woods screaming.
Flat on his back, Mulder reached for his neck, but Scully was already there, examining the wound and using a handkerchief to apply pressure.
"Zat clean?" he asked her, taking deep breaths, but still not finding enough air.
"I just can't let you out of my sight, can I?" she said, touching his forehead and running her fingers back through his hair. He winced when she hit a sore spot.
"Guess who gets to go to the hospital?" she whispered.
"All...because...I had...to pee." He decided to stop talking, it just made him dizzier.
"I told you not to drink all that coffee," she said, hovering over him with a smile.
Three more words wouldn't kill him. "Shut up, Scully."
Mulder was a couple steps ahead of her but he turned around and backed into the curb, nearly falling on his ass.
"If anyone asks--" he clapped a hand over the four-inch square of gauze on his neck, "I cut myself shaving. I had to use a machete, because of my iron-like manly stubble."
She widened her eyes and nodded slowly, catching up to him. "Sure, Mulder. If anyone asks, that's exactly what I'll tell them."
Mulder stood on the curb, his neck-gauze glowing an inhuman white under the purple neon sign that read "Cheese Lounge." The music coming from inside -- both cheesy and loungy, no surprise -- seemed oddly appropriate for the dismal night and Scully's escapist mood, and she exhaled, her breath a grey cloud.
Sergeant Harwood had called when they were at the hospital to give them next to no information, saying that the creature hadn't been located but there was no reason to expect the worst.
"The worst being what?" Scully had asked.
"Everything will be fine, Agent Scully," Harwood had said, and hung up.
She'd done what any other partner would have done in her place, Scully knew, climbing the concrete steps into the Cheese Lounge. Mulder could have been killed. She had to shoot the thing.
In the bar, a Barry Manilow wannabe belted out a karaoke version of "Danke Schoen," and Scully prayed silently that they'd find a table as far away from his polyester as possible.
Mulder pushed through red canvas curtains like he'd been here before, crossed to an empty booth and lit the citronella candle before Scully even sat down. He made a show of brushing off the tabletop in front of her, using her napkin for it and then sliding his under the aluminum fork and knife at her placesetting. Scully smiled and wanted pizza. She was tired, tired and cold, and under normal circumstances would be begging Mulder to take her home and let local PD deal with what was left of the Jersey Devil situation, but these weren't normal circumstances. Now home meant Sue, and here, at least, she had Mulder, just for a little while, and the two of them could eat pizza together and Scully could even have a beer and try and forget about the thing she'd shot, the thing that had left her teethmarks in Mulder's neck. She wondered if Sue had ever left teethmarks in Mulder's neck. She figured she'd have noticed.
Mulder flipped open a greasy menu and slid it perpendicular so Scully could look at it too. She tried to focus on the six or seven American-style entrees: chicken fingers, spaghetti and meatballs, lasagne, 16 oz New York Strip Steak, pork chop.
"I wanted a pizza," Mulder said. "Deek promised me there was killer pizza to be had here."
"Flip it--" Scully turned the menu over, and sure enough, pizza was to be had, in all its many splendid iterations. She blinked and read the word "spinach" a couple of times.
"You decide," she said, finally, and with a sigh. Leaning back on the marbleized leather she allowed herself to close her eyes for a moment, allowed the image she'd been fighting to swim into view behind her eyelids.
The thing -- the girl, Scully thought, the Jersey Devil Daughter -- had her arms wrapped around Mulder but she didn't look violent, somehow, she didn't look threatening. She looked afraid. Lonely. She looked like she needed something to cling to.
Scully had her gun cocked before the thing bit Mulder. She didn't let herself wonder if she was just looking for an excuse to shoot.
"Mulder," Scully said, opening her eyes. There was a waitress above her.
"How do you feel about garlic?" Mulder asked.
"It's very good for you," Scully said.
"I think that's a myth," Mulder said. "I'm going to order it anyway. Garlic, mushrooms, pepperoni?"
"Sounds good," Scully said, without enthusiasm. "Thanks."
"Anything to drink, for you?" the waitress asked.
"I'll have a Coke," Mulder said.
"I'll have an Amstel Light," Scully said, actively not meeting Mulder's eye. He made an oooing sound anyway.
And then the waitress was gone and it was just Mulder again, grinning out of the side of his mouth and peering at Scully, his face twisted into a suspicious smirk over the gauze.
"Mulder?" Scully tried again.
"Are we going home tomorrow like Kersh asked us to?"
"Yeah, I think we are," he said, and for some reason she wanted to pick a fight. Mulder didn't follow rules so easily, and she knew it wasn't Kersh he was going home for.
"You looking forward to it?" she asked, tauntingly.
"Well, I think we've still got some work to do up here." He played with a fork. "But of course I am."
"Looking forward to getting back to Sue?" She wasn't letting him off that easy.
Mulder brightened. "Very much," he said sincerely, nodding a little. "I miss her."
"She really makes you happy." It wasn't a question, but he answered it anyway.
"I think so."
Scully tipped her head and watched him a little, the edges of his nose and mouth twitching with a smile. She tried to smile back. "That's terrific," she said. "You're very lucky."
"You'll--" Mulder began, and Scully's stomach curdled. If he finished the sentence, if he actually said "you'll find someone," she would have to politely excuse herself, up from the table, through the canvas curtains, out into the cold, away into New Jersey where the bikers were. Instead he said, "Thank you, Scully. I'm so glad you like Sue. It really means a lot to me."
"I never said I liked her," Scully thought, but didn't say. And really there was nothing about Sue not to like, nothing not to like and a whole lot to like, most especially the effect she'd had on Mulder. Effect she was having on Mulder, present, progressive. Sue was playful, friendly, outgoing, the kind of woman who talked to strangers and played rec basketball and knew that Dr. Fitzgerald had a green tattoo. Scully felt shrewish, suddenly, reclusive and woefully inadequate compared to this woman who made Mulder smile. A year ago, Mulder stayed home on Saturdays, too. But these days he called Scully "dear" and ordered pizza with garlic because he knew they wouldn't be kissing, just talking.
Of course, that was why he'd had to ask. He'd asked because they'd never ordered garlic together before. At least, Mulder had never ordered garlic in front of Scully. She let herself wonder if it was because he'd always thought that somewhere, someday, some night, maybe, kissing would be an option and he didn't want to screw it up? Either way, there was garlic now, and those days were gone. Her Mulder, the one who made jokes for her benefit only, the one who opened car doors for only Scully, was gone, replaced by a smiling man playing with a fork and thinking about a blonde woman in Arlington. Scully sighed and took a drink from the beer that had somehow materialized in front of her.
The pizza was only fair but it was hot and spicy and evoked some sort of sensory reaction, which was all Scully wanted, anyway. She ordered another beer and listened to Mulder talk about the best bathroom in Madison Square Garden and a story Langly had told him about peanut brittle. She ordered a third beer, or maybe it was a fourth.
After dinner, and back in coats and scarves, they were outside and it wasn't snowing. It wasn't even raining anymore, just cold and crisp and clear with everything smelling like winter as they headed down the sidewalk to the car. The sky was a suburban coastal black, with the stars shining crystal-clear against the backdrop in a way Scully rarely got to see through urban haze. Feeling frivolous, she grabbed Mulder's elbow and pointed to the sky.
"Look, it's Pisces, can you see it?"
Mulder gave her a look she couldn't quite decipher before following the line of her arm and staring up. "I can indeed," he said. "What do you know about Pisces?"
"I'm a Pisces. I know everything there is to know about Pisces."
"Why, Scully," Mulder nudged her with the side of his arm. "I had no idea you bought into that business."
"I don't know if I buy into it, necessarily, but it all made for good reading when I was sixteen and had crushes on high school boys."
"So?" Mulder said, gesturing at the sky.
"Well, we're generally emotional people, introverted, don't like attention. You know, we write in our journals and weep."
Mulder squinted. "Are you sure you're a Pisces?"
Scully pursed her lips and squinted back. "Are you saying I'm not gentle and emotional?"
Mulder threw up his hands. "I plead the fifth," he said.
"You, on the other hand, are a fine Libra."
"I always thought so," Mulder grinned.
"Libras like to be in relationships," Scully said. "They make good lovers. And partners."
"I didn't make it up," she shrugged. "You're the scales, you know, everything in balance; you're lawmakers. You're also highly intelligent, charming, influential...you know, seductive."
Mulder looked back up at the sky, but he'd turned away too fast and Scully wondered if he'd wanted to say something.
Instead, his phone rang, and he reached for his pocket, slapping first the outside of his coat and then the inside, finally finding his cellular tucked in the lining of his sport jacket. He flipped open the phone with a thumb, looked at it, and then threw a glance at Scully, sidelong.
She raised her eyebrows.
"It was you, the call was," he said, clapping the phone shut and returning it to his pocket.
"Me, huh?" Scully withdrew her own phone from her pocket and read the display: CURRENT CALL: 0:21. "How about that."
"Your technical difficulties seem to have followed you across state lines," Mulder nodded.
Scully felt her fingers close around the phone, felt the alcohol pulsing in her veins, looked up at Mulder, and behind him Pisces. "Maybe it's trying to tell me something about Pisces and Libras."
Mulder made a spooky sound. "Ooh, a voice from beyond."
"Pisces and Libras make good friends," she continued, the words spilling out. "Good lovers, too, if I recall my Big Book of Astrology." She didn't know what she was saying anymore, but it was too late to back out now.
"Good partners," Mulder said, winking at her.
He was circling the car to unlock her door before she had a chance to wonder if she'd been complimented or blown off.
In the morning, she still didn't have hot water, so they shared his sink, standing next to each other and carefully not touching. Mulder was warm beside her, leaning in towards the dimpled mirror as he tilted his chin and pulled his razor across the skin of his neck. She brushed her teeth and watched him, the way his chest expanded as he breathed, the way his eyes closed while the razor moved. He'd taken the gauze off at some point, and she could see the messy red edges of his wound.
She didn't want anything to break this moment, this tiny universe they'd created here, her, him, the bathroom with its small window open, the chipped sink, his bare feet, the fact that he'd forgotten his toothpaste and had to use hers. Forever was a long time, but she wanted it.
Drying her face with a handtowel, she met Mulder's gaze in the silvery mirror. He looked away and reached for his own towel.
Last night she had wanted too much. This morning she just wanted another silent minute with him next to her. She wasn't going to get it.
His phone rang and he slipped past her and out the door. Scully looked into the mirror and thought, Sue. She could hear the plastic creak as he cracked open the clamshell of his cell phone, its digital beep as he accepted the call. Her mirror self gazed at her sadly, pulling her lips into a flat smile.
"It's you," he called, sounding disappointed.
It's me, she thought.
Sue's porch light was on, and for some reason that annoyed him. He'd told her he might stop by after work if he wasn't too tired. It hadn't been a definite thing, but he was there, tired and angry and probably not a person Sue would want in her house.
Before they'd left for Cape May, Kersh had made it clear he wanted them back in the office by Monday, and they were, mostly. After driving most of the morning, they'd snuck in after lunch, hoping Kersh wouldn't notice they were late. It was too much to hope for. Scully hadn't even gotten her coat off before they were summoned to the AD's office. The next hour was spent with Kersh glaring at them while he spelled out exactly how displeased he was.
Scully had taken it like a good soldier, but Mulder was getting tired of dealing with other people's disappointment in him. He'd debated whether or not to just go straight home and sulk, but he hadn't seen Sue in days and thought maybe she could cheer him up.
Ringing her doorbell, he noticed there was new pine wreath hanging on her door. He checked the date on his watch: November 30th. Apparently Sue was getting a jump on the holidays. Not even Scully put out her Christmas decorations this early.
The door opened with a whoosh and Sue threw herself into his arms. "Fox!"
For a moment, Mulder was worried he'd gotten the wrong half of Sue's duplex. That maybe the Sue that lived on this side called him by his first name and always made him pay for dinner.
"I'm so glad you're back!" Sue giggled, giving him a noisy kiss. "Look," she tugged on his hand, "I went Christmas shopping after I closed the shop today. I found the perfect thing for Adam!"
Mulder let himself be yanked inside and deposited on the couch while Sue chattered about all the stores she'd gone in. Dragging a huge white bag in front of the coffee table, she pulled out enough merchandise to put on a production of Titanic, giving him the full story and sale price of each gift. He tried to assume an audience-like demeanor, but got a headache instead.
"He'll love it," Sue was saying. "He spends most of his day at a computer, so--" She collapsed next to him on the couch. "Hey, how was your trip? Didja have fun?"
Sitting in his car, parked in front of her house, he'd wanted to come in here and tell her about his day. He'd wanted her to say "poor baby." He'd wanted the snuggling on the couch and the kissing on the ears and everything he'd been missing after coming home from one disappointing case after another and having no one to turn to. Now he just wanted to be alone. Sue was nibbling on his neck, and it only reminded him he had a matching nibble on the other side.
"Sue." He tried to push her away gently, but she clung to him, throwing a leg over his lap and pulling at his shirt collar. "Sue!"
She drew away, a hurt look in her eyes, her lip pouting just a little too much to be real. He was tired of her games, but mostly he was just tired, so he gave her a reassuring smile and turned his head to show her the bite mark on his neck.
"Oh, poor baby," she crooned. "Let me kiss it better." She moved to sit on his lap, but he scooted sideways and stood up before she could.
"I should probably be going," he said.
She pouted again, but this time it wasn't as pretty because she was frowning too and looked almost angry. "Mulder?"
"I'm just tired. I had a long nasty day." He put his hand out to her and wiggled his fingers. "Here, see me to the door."
Her pout increased. "I thought you were going to stay here tonight."
He knew just by looking at her that she wouldn't be impressed with rational things like laundry and fish-feeding and the fact he just wanted to be by himself and not be nibbled on. He sighed.
Sue made a frustrated sound. "I don't see why you can't just stay here."
Mulder scrubbed his face with his hands, really not in the mood for relationship maintenance tonight. "Sue--"
"I haven't seen you for days, and now you're leaving again," she accused.
"I'm just tired, okay?" He was using the same soothing voice he used on victims, children, and people with guns. It didn't appear to be working.
"Did I do something wrong?" she demanded.
"No." He shook his head. "I just need to go home."
"Fine," Sue sniffed.
"I'm going to go," he told her, leaning down to kiss her cheek. "I'll talk to you later."
Crossing her arms over her chest, Sue just shrugged and gave him an angry look. Mulder let himself out.
Someone had stuck a band sticker on Mulder's door months ago; Scully had noticed it for weeks before she'd asked Mulder's permission to peel the damned thing off, but there was still a sticky grey oval where it used to be, and four skinny strips of white paper that ran the length of the oval like claw marks. Scully scritched at one of them with a thumbnail, staring at the 42 and not knocking.
Because it was a Friday night and Sue could be in there. But more likely she wasn't, and Mulder wasn't either, he was off somewhere with her, and Scully should just slip this report under the door and go home and be done with it. She squished down the brad wings against the flap of the envelope, bending the file against her palm to get it as flat as possible.
Squatting, she poked a corner of the manila envelope under the door and let go, sliding the file under the door with a scratchy whoosh. Then she teetered on a heel getting up and grabbed for the doorknob, which turned of its own accord and slipped out of her hand as the door opened in. She fell back, sat on the ground and blinked up at Mulder's crotch.
He extended an arm down to her and she gripped her fingers around his forearm like a trapeze artist and struggled to her feet. Her stockings had caught on the floor and now had a run in them and her skirt was bunchy and had rotated several degrees west. She straightened herself out as well as she could, looked at Mulder and sighed.
"We got a fax."
Mulder picked up the envelope and opened it. "I see that," he said.
"I wasn't sure if you'd be home, but I wanted you to look at this."
"Did you knock?" he asked. "I was in the bathroom."
She swallowed. "Yeah," she said. "I figured you were out."
"Nope, not out," he smiled. "Are you coming in?"
She peered past him but his apartment just looked like his apartment, with the TV flickering and muted and two pieces of toast sweating on the coffee table. "Yeah, for a minute," she said. "Can I wash my hands?"
"No," Mulder joked, shutting the door, but she'd already walked past him and into the bathroom where he'd left the water running and the light on and there was hair in the sink.
"When did you get this?" Mulder called.
"It came about an hour ago." Scully scrubbed her hands like a surgeon, deliberately cleaning between each finger and pushing up her sleeves so she could get her forearms too. "You see what that says, there?" she called over the sound of running water. "Look at the thing at the top of that middle section. You can skip the first part."
It had come from the Jersey field office, the results of their investigation and the blood test from the creature that had attacked Mulder. Scully took a deep breath and dried her hands carefully before switching off the light, leaving the bathroom and shutting the door behind her.
When she came out Mulder was on the couch, eating a piece of toast and reading the report. She watched his face.
"So she was looking for a mate?" Mulder flipped back to the first page of the file and Scully thought for a second that he was avoiding looking at her.
"Likely that that's why she attacked you," Scully said.
"Everybody wants a piece of me these days," he muttered. She wondered if he included her in that everyone.
He finished his toast and looked up. "Thanks for saving me back then," he said. "Partner."
What he was really saying, she knew, was that it was okay that she'd shot the girl, that she shouldn't feel bad about it, that that's what any good G-woman would have done. She figured he didn't really think it would help any. "Sure," she said, trying to be cooperative and also wanting to sit down or go home or cry in the bath like a lady with bon-bons and candles and a small dog.
Mulder pursed his lips. "You want anything to drink?"
Scully stood up. "No, I'm okay," she said. "I should probably go."
"I've been catching up on all the scandal we missed," Mulder said, gesturing with his head at Chris Matthews on Hardball.
Scully sat down again and pushed her hands between her knees, warming the tips of her fingers. "My cable's out, actually. I haven't heard anything. What's happening?"
Mulder flipped channels, still muted. Bernard Shaw showed up on CNN with a monitor of Hillary Clinton giving a lecture to a room full of college girls. "She's talking about Eleanor Roosevelt," Mulder said. "And Bill passed a new standard for drinking water safety. That's the big news for today."
"Nothing on impeachment?" Scully asked.
"The hearings don't start until next week," Mulder said. "Just the same far-righters whining about the same things. Remember when this was about Whitewater and not about blowjobs?"
"Vaguely," Scully said, smiling. "Ken Starr is a lunatic."
"Want to watch?" Mulder asked, flipping back to CNBC.
Scully groaned. "No, but I will. I can at least take some comfort in the fact that I didn't follow the OJ thing."
"Give it up," Mulder said, unmuting the television, getting up and heading for the kitchen. "You're a rubbernecker like the rest of the country. I'm bringing you some coffee."
Coffee and toast at nine at night, Scully thought with a grin, listening to Chris Matthews interrogate a White House press corps member. Only Mulder. She caught herself looking down the hall where his bedroom was, and wondering if there was a bed in there now, if he'd started sleeping in there because this couch wasn't big enough for Sue too. She realized she was sick with jealousy that Sue had beaten her to it, to Mulder's couch or Mulder's bed or wherever it was where she got to sleep wrapped up in his arms. Instead of thinking about it, Scully swallowed hard and watched TV.
He came back with coffee, cocked his head toward CNBC for a minute, and said, "This is a rerun. I saw this yesterday."
A little mousy-haired woman was saying "Family Values" and Scully shushed Mulder. Chris Matthews shook his head and interrupted the mousy woman and a bald black man interrupted Chris. Somewhere in the world, the phone rang.
Mulder picked it up from the coffee table. "Yeah?" he said into the receiver.
Scully tried to listen to the overlapping voices on television but Mulder was saying "What, now?" and then sighing and sitting down on the arm of the couch. His hip was inches from Scully's ear and his pants squeaked against the leather.
She picked up the file and read the letterhead again. Mulder said, "Of course I do" and Scully didn't want to believe he did. She took a sip of coffee.
She felt something warm and heavy on the top of her head and it took a while to realize it was Mulder's hand, his weight balanced there as he tried to brace himself from slipping off the cushion. He flipped up the phone receiver and leaned in to Scully's ear, too close. "I'll be off in a minute," he said. He fell down into the couch, his back against Scully's shoulder and his knees hooked over the armrest.
She patted him on the back with her fingertips, gingerly, as if he were some strange animal she was trying to coerce into not killing her. He swung his legs around and sat on the couch, elbows on his knees and the phone pressed against his ear. "Of course I do," he said again, more convincingly this time and with a little laugh, but Scully thought he sounded tired. She got up.
"I'm gonna go home," she said, speaking low like someone might be sleeping.
"That's great," Mulder said. Scully wasn't sure if it was meant for her, but she nodded anyway and slid the fax back into its manila envelope.
"That's great, really," Mulder said again, but this time it was definitely to the phone. Scully slipped her shoes back on and looked for her bag. "I'm proud of you, Sue," Mulder said. "And impressed, too. Really."
"I'm gonna go home," Scully said again, louder. Mulder clapped a hand over the mouthpiece and looked up at Scully.
"You leaving?" he asked.
She was tired. "I'm tired," she said.
Mulder furrowed his brow. "Okay," he said. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Tomorrow was Saturday and he probably wouldn't, but he was back on the phone now and his fingertips pressed valleys into his forehead. He looked old, and brown, and worried like leather. Scully fought the urge to kiss him on the head.
On TV, Chris Matthews said, "Are you serious?"
Scully looked at Mulder again. "Yeah," she said, and left.
She looked exactly the same as she had the first day he'd met her, standing there behind the counter with the phone wedged between her shoulder and her ear and hair falling in her eyes. He could have sworn she was having the same conversation -- "Sure, Mr. Eaker, we've got chains for that, just bring it on by" -- and it so spooked him that he checked his watch to make sure it wasn't November again and he hadn't been abducted by aliens and thrown back in time.
He half-expected her to say, "Can I help you, sir?" when she hung up the phone, but she saw him and she beamed and blew him a kiss and wrote something down on a memo pad and he knew he was indeed, really here, and this was really happening.
"So, what time do you get off, baby?" he drawled, sidling up to the counter and leaning across so she could kiss him.
"What time you wanna get me off?" she asked coyly, and from the corner of the shop a woman knocked a bike into another bike and dove at them to stop the whole row from collapsing in a domino-chain of pedals and spokes.
"I thought maybe we'd have lunch," Mulder said, watching the customer brace a twelve-speed against her hip so she could steady the row of beach cruisers lined up in the rack. He raised his eyebrows and smiled, amused.
"Really?" Sue said, as if lunch was something phenomenal and unfathomable she never thought she'd really get to do, like her mother had told her she could finally pierce her ears or wear eyeshadow or whatever it was girls got excited for and then tried to play cool about.
"Really," Mulder said. "With forks and napkins and everything. I'll even pay."
Sue blinked at her notepad like she'd forgotten what she was doing. She looked back at Mulder. "That's a great idea!" she said. Mulder nodded.
"I've got to get these invoices to corporate headquarters, but if it's okay can we stop at a post office? I'll be real quick, just in and out..." She trailed off and Mulder tried not to laugh.
"Sure," Mulder said.
"Actually, it's no big deal. I can do it later. If you want to go now, we can go."
Mulder sighed. The customer in the back of the store left, and the bells above the door chimed her exit. "There's a post office two blocks away, Sue. Relax."
She gave him a funny look. "I'm relaxed," she said. "I just thought you seemed a little bit impatient."
Mulder coughed. "I seemed nothing of the sort," he said, a little defensively.
"Whatever," Sue said, holding her hands up in surrender. "You don't have to make a big deal about it. I know you need to get back to work soon anyway. I can just hang my 'gone riding' sign up and be out of here all day."
Mulder sighed again. "Bring the invoices," he said. "We'll stop at the post office. We can take as long a lunch as you like."
"Well, we can't, really," Sue sounded annoyed. "I've got stacks of paperwork to do. I mean, it's not FBI work but it's important to me."
"Tell you what," Mulder said, giving up. "You just tell me where you want to go, and how long you want to stay there. I'm totally wide open."
Sue sat down hard on the stool behind the counter. "Please don't patronize me," she said.
Mulder laid a hand over hers. "I'm sorry if it sounded like I was patronizing you," he said, slowly. "Let's just go have lunch."
Sue let out a long exhale. "It's just that..." she started, and Mulder thought he heard a lump in her voice. He stroked her hand. "I hate coming in second to your job," she said.
"I told you, the afternoon is all yours," Mulder said. "I can even call Scully and have her cover for me. Don't be upset."
"I'm not upset!" Sue snapped. She looked like a ten-year-old, almost beautiful, but Mulder wanted to send her to her room anyway. Her face was screwed into a pout and Mulder couldn't believe this was his life, and his little girl to take care of.
"It's okay, honey," he said, nearly choking on the epithet.
"Oh!" Sue said, her mind immediately somewhere else entirely. "I was reading about this bike tour they have in Tanzania in the summer. I was thinking we should go."
"This summer?" Mulder asked. It seemed a million years away. The thought that he could still be with Sue then made him shudder.
"It's expensive. We can talk about it," Sue said. "No pressure or anything. I just thought it would be fun."
"We can talk about it," Mulder said, looking at the door.
"Okay," Sue said. "Then let me just assemble all these silly scraps of paper and we're out of here."
"Great," Mulder said. "I'm starved."
At the very least, that part was true.
The first thing he saw when he pulled into the parking lot was Sue sitting on her car with her arms crossed over her chest. On the radio, the DJ was telling him to expect temperatures in the low thirties with a chance of snow later in the evening. Sue must have been told the same thing. Between the fleece of her hat and scarf, only her nose showed, and it seemed to be scowling.
Parking a few spaces away from her, he sat and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. He'd been looking forward to their bike ride, thinking the exercise would feel good after having been stuck in the office all week. But now, looking at Sue's face, he got the feeling this trip was going to be anything but enjoyable.
Pulling his own hat on, he jumped out of his battered Cherokee and slammed the door shut. Something underneath gave a metallic tinkle, and Mulder kicked the tire in punishment on his way past. The Jeep was already missing its rear bumper from the last time someone tried to run him off the road. It was getting to the point where his next car would be a tank.
Probably dissatisfied with how slow he was moving, Sue hopped off her bubbly little Neon and strode toward him, her arms still crossed over her chest. "You're late."
He was only a few minutes late. Mulder shook his head. "Er, sorry?" he tried.
Like a princess in training, Sue shrugged expansively, pardoning him for the trivial mistake. "It's okay. Make it up to me?" she asked, tilting her head and pursing her lips.
He kissed her, her cold lips and her sassy nose. Her blonde hair was hidden under her fleecy cap and he wanted to tug it loose so he could play with it while he kissed her.
Sue hummed. "Did you get my messages?"
Mulder could remember having conversations like this with past girlfriends. Pushing his nose into her neck, he said, "I just talked to you Tuesday." This was not, he knew, the right answer.
"I've been calling you all week," Sue prompted, taking a step back and pulling at her scarf. "I left messages nearly every day. Didn't you get them?"
He nodded, resigned. He'd gotten them, daily recordings of Sue asking if he was there, wondering where he was, what was he doing, would he be back later, would he call her when he got home? Her persistence had settled on him like a lead cape, making him avoid the phone, unwilling to get trapped into making small talk about Christmas or family or bike tours in Tanzania.
"Why didn't you call me?" Sue asked, her breath coming out in a white cloud.
"I was busy," he said, lying.
Sue looked at him as if measuring him for a coffin. "Mulder," she said, stepping close again and smoothing a crease out of his jacket. "I thought we'd agreed that I'd have more of your time than this. You told me I wouldn't be coming second to your job anymore."
"What?" he yelped, feeling like she'd slapped him. "I never said that."
Sue stopped smiling. "You told me I wouldn't be second anymore!"
"I didn't," he said again, knowing how bad it made him look, but it was important she understand. "I can't promise you that, Sue."
She stared at him. "Fine," she said, walking away. He watched her open her trunk and pull out a square thing that looked like a chunk of pink ice. She shoved it against his chest, making him catch it. "Here, it's an ashtray. I made it."
"Can I--" he said, staring at the ashtray. It was cold and wrinkly and looked like something that had collapsed.
"Don't bother," she huffed.
And then she was gone, tearing out of the parking lot in her little white Neon.
It started to snow.
Sighing, Mulder got in his Jeep and set the ashtray on the dashboard, where it slid forward and hit the windshield with a clink.
He felt useless and a little confused. It had been such a long time since someone had broken up with him that he'd forgotten what was next. At some point in his life, crying and drinking had usually figured in, but he was too old for that now, so he called Scully instead and said, "I think I just broke up with Sue."
Scully looked at the room, saw her bills in a neat stack and the case file laying open on the coffee table and it all looked like a picture in "FBI House and Garden." She squinted at the carpet.
The problem arose when she realized she'd never cleaned up for Mulder before, and there was no reason to do so now. But she'd already started cleaning up, so the process of re-messing only served to create a kind of stage-set disarray: a pair of shoes lying carelessly by the door where she'd put them, a cabinet door open for no good reason, the damned case file strewn out across the coffee table like she just couldn't be bothered. She put her shoes back on, walked them into the bedroom, and kicked them off again in front of the full-length mirror.
She was wearing a sweater in some noncommittal Banana Republic steel blue, with absurd buttons, four, going up the side of her neck. Black slacks. The slacks were too long and trailed on the ground behind her heels and she thought a moment about changing but that made her embarrassed and she played with the absurd buttons and tried to scrutinize her reflection without looking herself in the eye.
When he knocked, she was still looking in the mirror, and the first thing she did was look for an excuse to send him home. It wasn't fair, she knew, not after the way she'd been treating him, pursuing him, letting out the reins on all her pent-up desire, but as she went to open the door she caught herself wondering if this was really what she wanted, really what she'd bargained for.
She opened the door, trying to fix the ridiculously broad, fake smile she knew was plastered across her face. She wasn't sure what was the appropriate expression for a time like this, but she looked for compassion, sympathy, something close to friendly pity over his loss. He squinted at her and she figured she hadn't succeeded, quite, but then he was pushing past her and setting down something pink and clunky on the speaker of her stereo.
"How are you, Mulder?" she asked. She sounded like a schoolteacher.
"Eh," he said.
"You want anything?" she asked, following him to the couch where he sat down and put his head in his hands. "Tea, or something?"
"No, thanks," Mulder said, laughing weakly. "I don't know why people think tea is such a cure-all."
"Don't knock it till you've tried it," Scully said, and, eager to not have to look at him anymore, crossed to the kitchen and put the kettle on. "Do you want to talk about it?" she called.
"Eh," Mulder said.
She came back, but stood near the doorway, waiting for the teapot to whistle. "What happened?" she asked.
"You know I'm a total fuckup, right?" he asked, looking up at her. "I mean, that's not news to anyone, right?"
She grinned. "It's not news to me."
Mulder found a weak smile. "Well, you know what they say," he said. "You wanna make an eggroll, you gotta break a few eggs."
Scully snickered. "Who says that? They don't say that."
"Well, it's true, isn't it?"
Scully thought a little about how eggrolls worked, and then the teakettle whistled. "I'm getting you tea," she said.
The good mug, the one with the geese in flight, was in the sink, and Scully decided to give it a thorough washing rather than serving Mulder in one of her mother's old teacups. She turned on the sink and waited for it to run warm.
"I didn't love her," Mulder said from the other room, and then coughed.
Scully put soap on a sponge.
"I just, I don't know what I did. She has a great smile."
"Yeah, she had a nice smile," Scully said, remembering. She plunged her fist into a mug full of lather and scrubbed. Outside the window, a streetlight cut the night to illuminate a stripe of snowfall.
Mulder was still talking. "She was very easy, which was probably bad for me. She gave me so much, and she didn't ask for anything. Except to ask how she could give me more." Scully could hear him cough again. "It got really tiresome."
She looked out at the snow and couldn't think of a thing to say. This was a very new and peculiar Mulder, sitting there, spilling his guts all over her carefully arranged coffee table. "Okay," she called back, rinsing the suds away and letting the warm water roll down her wrists and forearms.
"I'm not cut out for a sustained relationship," Mulder said, sounding very close. Scully looked up to see him standing in the doorway. She wiped a soapy hand across her chin and reached for the dishtowel, turning her back on him again. "I'm a fuckup."
"I thought you were an eggroll," Scully said, crossing to the cabinet and pulling down four rectangular cardboard boxes of tea. "Earl Grey, Darjeeling, English Breakfast or Red Zinger?"
"I don't want tea," Mulder said. Scully didn't answer. "English Breakfast," Mulder said.
Scully dug out a little blue bag and tore the paper wrapping off. She found a spoon in the drainer.
"You think I'm awful?" Mulder was asking, as she poured hot water into the mug and pressed against the teabag with the back of her spoon. She shook her head.
"I think you decided this wasn't right for you," she said. "There's nothing wrong with that."
Mulder sighed. "I'm a fuckup," he said again. "An emotional fuckup. You're the only person I've never gotten tired of. That's pathetic."
Scully didn't know what to make of that, and she figured it was a good thing even though he phrased it like an insult and either way it made her a little nervous and queasy for the responsibility. "Sugar?" she asked. "Or milk, like the Brits?"
"I didn't like tea when I lived in England either," Mulder said, and then, "sure, both."
Scully opened the cabinet again and found a pink box of Domino sugar. She dug some out with the wet spoon, watching it crystallize over the metal like barnacles clinging to a derelict ship. Something warm was happening near her ear, and she realized with a catch in her stomach that it was Mulder's breath. He rested his chin on her shoulder and wrapped an arm around her waist, his nose in her hair. She shuddered.
"I feel like shit," he said.
"I'm making you tea," she said, because it was the only thing she could think of.
He was pressing against her ribs, pulling her toward him, pulling her around. She dropped the spoon on the counter and turned to face him.
He was trying to kiss her.
She swallowed hard and closed her eyes, concentrating on the sharp formica counter edge digging into her spine. He kissed her. Her thoughts raced. She remembered phone calls she had to make; she remembered there was dirty laundry waiting on her bed. She wanted him to leave. But instead, she kissed him back.
He made a soft squeaking sound when he pulled away, and he looked down at her with heavy, sad eyes.
"You look tired," she said, though that wasn't exactly accurate.
"Yeah," he said.
"You should go home and get some sleep."
Mulder gestured at the counter with his chin. "What about the tea?" he asked.
"Caffeine will just keep you up," Scully said, turning away from him to pick up the mug and spill it out in the sink. "You should probably get a good night's sleep."
Mulder gave her a weird look, but nodded. "I'm beat," he said.
"I am too," she said, more boldly. "We'll talk tomorrow."
"Call me," Mulder said. "I've got some things to do in the morning, but I'll have my cell and you have the number..." he trailed off, because it was a ridiculous thing to say. Scully smiled.
"I think I have the number somewhere," she said, trying to make light of it, but Mulder looked strange and sick. "Go home," she said, gently.
"Yeah," he said.
She walked him to the door, and locked it behind him when he left.
Then, in a kind of a daze, she turned around to inspect the glass thing he'd deposited on her speaker, which turned out to be an ashtray. She scowled at it, picked it up and flipped it over, looking for a tag or a signature or a note or something. There was nothing there to find.
Scully carried it into the kitchen, turned on the sink, and scrubbed at the ashtray with her soapy sponge, tired and uncomfortable and trying not to think about the fact that Mulder had come over here and kissed her.
She hadn't asked him where he'd gotten the ashtray, but it was a hulking, ugly, pink thing, and Scully had to assume he wouldn't be wanting it back. At least, she hoped he wouldn't, hoped he hadn't left it here as an excuse to come back over and kiss her again. She put it away, standing on tiptoe to slide it into the dusty depths of the top cabinet shelf she couldn't really reach.
If Mulder came back for it -- if Mulder came back -- she'd turn him away, this time, tell him she wasn't just sitting around waiting for him to break up with his girlfriend and come to her for a pity kiss.
She didn't let herself think it might mean something more.
When she opened her door three hours later, Mulder was saying, "The thing is, I didn't want to go home. Which is why I came here in the first place and why I'm back now." He nodded. She wondered if he was drunk.
"We need to talk, I think. I think we need to talk. I've been driving," he explained, pushing his way inside.
"Mulder," she muttered, staring out at the worn carpet of the hallway. She could hear him pacing behind her. At some point he would expect her to say something.
She locked the door and turned to face him. He'd shrugged his jacket off and thrown it over a chair, and she wanted to pick it up and hand it back to him, unlock the door and force him into the hallway backwards.
Mulder scowled. "Stop looking at me like that, Scully. I'm not drunk."
Searching for something harmless to say, she almost offered him tea, but remembered that wasn't a good idea, that was what got her kissed in the first place, or what lead to the kissing, or at least that's what she had been doing when he kissed her, whatever it'd meant.
Mulder stopped pacing. "We need to talk," he announced.
Scully realized she was in the middle of a six-year relationship with this man and she was suddenly terrified she'd somehow ruined them in her kitchen over a kiss and a cup of tea no one ever got to drink.
"I'm sorry," she blurted, desperate for a fail-safe, a backup plan, a rope to tie around her waist in case it turned out she'd done something terrible by expecting the worst of him.
Mulder blinked at her, and a drop of water fell from the melting snow in his hair to crawl down his cheek. "Sorry? No, it's--" It wasn't a smile, but it was close. "I just needed to kiss you."
Suddenly shy, Scully stared at the floor. She'd been flirting with him in Jersey because she didn't think she had a chance. He'd been happy, and with Sue, happily with Sue, and Scully had been jealous. She'd been teasing him, and herself, but now he was here, saying he'd just needed to kiss her.
"I've missed you, Scully." He took a step closer, looking uncertain. "Sue wanted more of my time, but--"
"But what?" Scully insisted, feeling prickly at the sound of Sue's name.
The corner of Mulder's mouth curled up in a smirky little smile and he looked like the Grinch with a particularly evil plan. Easing forward a few smug steps, he smiled down at her.
"But I told her," he said, smiling his curly smile, "that I couldn't possibly spend any more time with her, that if I was going to be harassed, it would be by someone who understands me, someone who gives me space and only pushes me when I need to be pushed."
Somehow, he had backed her up against the counter, in roughly the same spot as the last time they were in the kitchen. Deja vu was starting to feel like claustrophobia, but in a good way, with tingling.
He was still smiling. "And I realized I already have a person like that, a wonderful, bossy, beautiful, opinionated, brilliant--"
Scully was starting to feel warm.
"Partner," Mulder finished, having cornered her next to the refrigerator. "So, I've got it all figured out now. I mean, it took a while, starting with the Jedi mind games Sue was playing, and then I came here, and you saw how that went, but then I was driving...but now, Scully," he said, looming, "now I have it all figured out, and you were jealous and flirty--"
"That was wrong of me," Scully muttered, trying to sneak in an apology because she felt guilty or at least understood she should feel that way.
"And flirty," Mulder repeated, tormenting her with his knowing grin. "And I figured there had to be something here. Something between us. So that's why I'm here now. That's why I was here before, except I didn't know it then. I just knew that I needed to kiss you."
"Okay," Scully said, attempting to sound rational but having trouble remembering where to start.
"And I'd like to do it again," he said in a low voice. "That is, if you would be agreeable to such a thing."
Scully wanted to do something with her head, like shake it or nod it or move it closer to Mulder and his sulky lips, Mulder with his scruffy hair and strong arms. She was getting Mulder, and that no longer scared her because now she knew what she wanted to do with him.
Except she was frowning, which meant she might cry, so she leaned into him, hiding her face in his sweater and sighing his name. "Okay," she said again, her heart pounding in what was either fear or greed.
Mulder chuckled and rubbed her back. "Okay," he said.
Scully didn't believe it could be that simple. "I probably need some time to think about this," she told Mulder's sweater.
He squeezed her. "Scully, you get all the time you need. Do you want me to go?"
She wasn't sure what she wanted, but she nodded anyway.
"Okay then, let's walk me out," he said, grabbing her hand and smiling down at her as they bumped through the doorway that was too narrow for both a Mulder and a Scully.
At the front door, Scully went to find Mulder's coat while Mulder lingered against the doorjamb. He'd worn his leather jacket, and picking it up from where it had fallen to the floor, she noticed its smell again, a brown scent that always reminded her of new shoes and Mulder.
Handing the jacket to him, she watched him put it on and then resume his lazy pose against the doorframe. He was stubbly and rumpled and supposed to be leaving, but leaning there in her doorway, he looked like a Calvin Klein ad for something expensive and fantastic and she wanted to try him on.
"Mulder," she said, reaching up to test his damp hair.
Grinning, he put his hands on her hips and pulled her closer. "Yes, Scully?"
It was something she couldn't put into words yet, how this felt endless and impossible. It must have been love.
Smiling, she kissed him, one hand in his hair, the other at his shoulder, her thumb brushing along his jaw and down his neck, careful of the barely healed wound there. Mulder sighed, and when his eyes opened, they didn't know what color they were.
"We can have breakfast tomorrow," Scully suggested, fascinated by how close they were standing, how easy and new it was.
Mulder nodded. "I'd like that."
"Okay," she said, almost overwhelmed by it all. She didn't have to share him anymore. He was hers.
"Night, Scully." Kissing her on the cheek, he gave her one last smile and then left.
Leaning against the doorjamb, she crossed her arms over her chest and watched him saunter down the hallway. He was hers.
Mulder's phone was ringing, but he was eating his sandwich and couldn't answer. He grunted.
At her desk, Scully turned around to look at him.
"It's Tuesday," he told her, nodding at the phone while trying to keep his sandwich from sliding apart.
She squinted at him. "You're right, Mulder, it is Tuesday."
"Deek's supposed to call!" Mulder gestured at the phone with an elbow and his sandwich took the opportunity to eject a tomato onto his tie. "Fabulous," he mumbled, dropping his lunch back into its sytrofoam corral.
Scully wheeled closer in her chair and grabbed a clean napkin from his desk. "You're a mess," she whispered to him.
"Fix me," he whispered back. The phone rang again and Mulder waved his mayonnaisey hands. "And answer the phone!"
"Mulder," she said in her new way, the way that seemed to say he was crazy and obnoxious and she couldn't help loving him. She was beautiful, and he wanted to touch her, but there was mayonnaise on his hands and he didn't think she'd appreciate it.
Shaking her head, she plucked the tomato from his tie, tossed it in with the rest of his sandwich, then licked her fingers and leaned over to get the phone.
"Scully," she said. "Hi, Deek." Trapping the receiver between her ear and shoulder, she shoved a napkin into Mulder's hands. "No, he's here, covered in mayonnaise, but here."
"Kinky," Mulder grumbled, not having much success with the pulpy napkin and starting to feel like a doomed toddler.
"He had some trouble with his sandwich," Scully explained, dabbing at his tie with another napkin. Done, she balled it up, threw it at him, and wheeled away again.
Mulder pressed his hands together, enjoying that they were not only greasy, but had now achieved a wonderful grittiness too, with bits of cheap napkin sticking to his skin like papier-mache.
"I'm going to wash my hands," he told Scully, who waved at him, then pried a pickle loose from the ruins of his sandwich.
When he got back from the bathroom, Scully was off the phone, sitting with her elbows on her desk and her chin propped up on one hand.
"So?" Mulder collapsed into his chair and gave his sandwich a dirty look. Pushing it away, he discovered a small bag of potato chips hiding behind the carton.
"They found the body," she said, turning to face him across his desk. "Autopsy showed abnormalities in many of the major organ systems. It's not likely she would have been able to produce offspring or even live past twenty." She grabbed the bag of Lay's. "Probably a result of generations of inbreeding."
Mulder crunched on a chip. "Small gene pool."
"Yes." Scully nodded. "Deek had them run her DNA against the adult female that was shot in Atlantic City. There's about a seventy percent chance they're related. He's faxing us the report and all the lab work."
Checking his watch, Mulder leaned back in his chair and groaned. "Oh Scully, what are we doing here?"
Scully ate another of his potato chips. "Working?"
"To the naked eye, perhaps, but on the cellular level, I'm deeply deeply bored." He sat up. "Isn't there some bomb threat in a supply closet that we could be checking out?"
"I doubt it," Scully said, stretching one leg under Mulder's desk so that her foot hooked behind his ankle.
He couldn't believe she was flirting with him at work. "Just a small threat?"
"Where's the fun in that?" And now she leaned forward, resting her elbow on his desk, running her hand into her hair and leaving it there like she was some sort of FBI pin-up girl.
To the rest of the bullpen, it might have looked like they were having a serious discussion about a case, arguing over a turnip farmer's annual manure consumption, or conspiring to sneak off and hunt aliens after dark. But the truth was that Scully was wearing a tight sweater and Mulder didn't feel like thinking about work. He knew they were going to be good together because this was already the best relationship of his life. It had always been good. It could only get better.
Mulder mirrored Scully's pose and gave her a lazy smile. "Mmm, Scully," he drawled, kicking his shoe off so he could run his toes up her ankle. "I feel a two-hour lunch coming on."
Scully, in a wool coat that was meant to stop at the knees of a taller woman but instead slapped around her calves, edged down the sidewalk, staying close to the buildings and out of the snow. Her strides were long, timed to the rattling bells of a Salvation Army Santa who was sitting on an upturned metal garbage can and smiling over his ratty fake beard. Scully smiled back as she passed him but there wasn't any change in her pockets.
Pulling her scarf up over her chin with her teeth, she poked a gloved hand around in her bag, looking for her phone. The Santa shot her a hopeful look, but when she emerged with the Nokia he turned away again, blowing into his hands and rattling his bell.
Scully shuffled her feet in the snow and dialed her phone. Then she moved away from the laundromat storefront in front of her, tucked herself behind the brick and peered through the glass around the corner at Mulder, who was setting down a laundry basket in order to answer his ringing phone.
"Mulder," he said.
"It's me," she said, smiling under her scarf. Mulder wedged the phone against his shoulder and picked up the laundry basket again. He was beautiful. She leaned against the brick and watched.
"Hey, Scully," he said. "What are you up to?"
"Not much," she said. "You doing your laundry?"
The phone was slipping from Mulder's shoulder and he caught it with a hand, bracing the laundry basket between his thigh and the washer and loading clothes in the machine one at a time. "I told you I would be," he said. "I was about a day away from having nothing to wear but my tux."
"I'd have taken you to the opera, then," she said, rubbing at the window to clear the fog which she learned was on the inside of the glass.
"Hmpf," said Mulder. She watched him fight with a change machine that kept returning his dollar. He was wearing a t-shirt with at least two visible stains and a pair of jeans that had seen better years.
"Hey, Mulder, you washing those old Levis of yours? Last time I saw them they could stand up by themselves." She shivered a little, remembering the last time she'd seen those jeans, two nights before when she'd woken up in Mulder's bed and gone looking for another blanket. It was bitterly cold and at some point during the night it had started snowing. When she crawled back into bed, she'd found that Mulder had shifted over in his sleep, leaving a warm patch of sheet just in front of his chest for her to snuggle into. In his sleep, he'd wrapped an arm across her chest and he'd kissed her shoulder.
"Of course I'm washing them," Mulder said. The machine took his dollar and spit out a handful of quarters. There was no one else in the laundromat. "Hang on one sec?"
Scully pressed her face to the glass and watched as Mulder set his phone down on the ironing table so he could kick off his shoes, take off his jeans and throw them in the machine with the rest of the laundry. His legs looked skinny in plaid silk boxers, hairy and wiry and muscular. Scully felt tingly and embarrassed and she held her breath. Mulder tossed in a cup of detergent, shut the machine, inserted a handful of quarters and started it, and then picked up his trench coat and put it on, his bare legs sticking out the bottom giving him the look of a kid in a big beach towel. Scully bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud.
Mulder raked his fingers through his hair and picked up the phone again. He sat up on the table, swinging his legs and watching his laundry. "You still there?"
"Yeah, Mulder," Scully said. "I'm still here."
"Stay that way," he said.
"Planning on it," Scully said. The Santa was watching her with amusement, now, and she felt around in her bag for her wallet and took out a five dollar bill, which she pushed into the slot at the top of his collection jar.
"Merry Christmas," he said to her.
Scully clapped her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and said, "Merry Christmas" back.
It was snowing harder now, the flakes big and thick and slow like old dogs. There were very few cars on the roads, and the snow piled up, slushy and brown. Every shop had lights up, and a string of almost-life-sized plastic reindeer hung from the telephone cables that crossed the street where the traffic light was. Even at just past noon it was dusky, the sky a wooly slate of grey with snow drifting like feathers. "Hey Mulder," Scully said. "When you going to be done with your laundry?"
"Oh, maybe forty minutes?"
"Good," Scully said. "I wanted to take you to lunch. It's like a ghost town today because of the snow. Let's go somewhere and have burgers and coffee."
Mulder clapped a hand to his cheek even though he thought she couldn't see him. "Dana Katherine Scully craving hamburgers! How could I say no?"
"Don't," Scully said, but her phone sounded empty. She shook it. "Mulder?"
Mulder was looking at the viewscreen of his phone. The line had obviously closed; Scully's phone had cut out.
She started to dial his number again, but changed her mind. Grinning at the Santa, she crossed to the door of the laundromat. Inside, Mulder was dialing, and Scully's phone rang from her pocket, but she didn't answer it. She didn't need to, anymore, didn't need to stare through foggy glass at the wonderful man with no pants who was her best friend for life. She was right here. And she wasn't going anywhere.
Taking a deep breath, freezing her lungs, tasting snow and smiling, she reached up and opened the door.