"Men that hazard all
Do it in hope of fair advantages."
Merchant of Venice (I.vii.18-19)
It is so much hotter outside than in the museum, but it is imperative that I escape from its air-conditioned sanctuary.
I am a pursued woman.
Air-conditioning and Sean Nestor? Or a muggy DC in late June? It's no contest. I wedge my sunglasses onto the top of my head, grab my water bottle and make a run for the dusty gravel of the mall. But before I can reach the street I spot Sean headed my way.
Time for the heavy artillery. I pull a cigarette out of thin air and light it before he can speak a word. That done, I plant it between my fingers and smile apologetically at the pained expression on his face.
I'm a magician, a con artist, and I'm not desperate enough to talk to Sean -- a man who has nothing to say. "Sorry, Sean. Cig break. You know how it is," I say, intentionally waving my cigarette his way.
"No, I do not know how it is, Nerissa," he says stiffly. "You know I'm allergic to tobacco." Sean shuffles his feet and doesn't look me in the eye. He never looks me in the eye. God, how I hate that. I take this opportunity to smack the leg of my jeans. A cloud of antebellum dust rises up.
Sean turns his head away and coughs.
Always the tour guide and never the tour, huh, Sean? I don't say it, but I want to. Not like he'd understand -- he deals with stamps, not metaphors.
"Dust too? That's rough. Gotta go," I call cheerily over my shoulder, waving the hand that holds my cigarette. My smoke cloud. My ink.
I work my way down the mall. I don't want to sit too close to the museum. Sean might become brave and try to sit next to me. I laugh out loud. And the Monkees might fly out of my--
But my usual bench is taken -- by a fed. He doesn't have a flashing neon sign above him, but I can tell. He is a dark spot in the blinding brightness of the mall. Surrounded by ice cream vendors and tables selling six T-shirts for 5 bucks, he is an anomaly. One of the bows in his shoelaces is coming loose. Little do I know it isn't the only thing.
He's wearing a suit. No one in their right mind wears a suit in a DC June. No one in their right mind even leaves the air-conditioned buildings in June. You might figure that there's a lot of crazy people in Washington.
The poor guy must have wandered away from the Hoover Building and gotten lost. He looks more than just a little misplaced, but I figure he's safe enough to sit by. He's good-looking in a morose sort of way. He'd probably look a lot different when he smiled...if he ever smiled.
I walk over and sit down next to him. My smoldering cigarette is forgotten in the sweetness of my escape, and I take a drink of my Evian. Taking the bottle away from my lips, I notice he's staring at me. I look down at myself, do I still have my name tag clipped to my shirt? Is there a label stuck to my arm? What is his problem?
Cautiously I reach a hand up and run it through my short page-boy. My hair is thick and curly, and I am notorious for sticking pens and pencils behind my ears, only to have them disappear into my jungle-like black hair. Nope, no writing utensils, but I dislodge my sunglasses and have to fumble to catch them.
He's still staring. Did he see me on the Most Wanted List or what? I realize maybe he doesn't like my cigarette. Hell, I don't like my cigarette.
"I'm trying to quit," I remark. I shake my head, snuff out the cigarette in the gravel under the bench, and then flick it into a nearby trash can. It would hardly do to be arrested by a federal agent for littering on my coffee break. I'm sure my mother would end up hearing about it somehow. I'd never be able to show my face in Chicago again. Not that it's very welcome there now.
He smiles slightly in mute acknowledgment and looks away.
Ahhh. The silent type. This is good. Chattiness is not something I look for in a bench companion. I settle back against the bench, but sit up again when my back touches the warm wood. I can feel my shirt sticking to my skin.
It's going to be a long, hot summer.
I'm going to have to find a way to get rid of Sean before July hits. I will not be held accountable for my actions if I'm forced to take refuge in the 95% humidity.
A dog with a Frisbee in its mouth runs past. I follow its path, then turn back to find my friend's eyes on me again. "Are you going to take notes, or do you just hope to remember all this?" I ask.
He blinks, startled. I must have interrupted something. I wait a minute for his expression to clear. He looks at me sheepishly. He starts to say something but then appears to change his mind. "I like your nail polish." He smiles slightly.
My nail polish.
Is that what he was meditating on? I take a look at my fingernails. I had almost forgotten I had painted them. No one ever notices so I tend to forget myself. I don't know why I even bother -- the dark glittery-blue is already chipping.
Having been given an excuse to look at me, he still is. His eyes are some amorphous green-brown, and there is something infinitely sad about them.
I nod thoughtfully and decide to pursue this line of conversation. "Hmm, you better. 'Galaxy Blue' -- it cost me a fortune. I don't suppose a man would pay eleven bucks for nail polish?"
"I spent less than that on my tie," he jokes, fingering his silk tie which looked like Monet had had a traumatic run in with Jackson Pollock.
"And it shows," I say, glancing at it.
"Why is everyone so critical of my ties?" he asks, feigning disappointment. There is an almost-smile on his face. It changes him. It makes him look as if he was laughing at himself for reasons the rest of the world could not possibly understand.
If only he'd smile, really smile. He'd be a knock-out. A fall-on-your-ass, honest-to-god handsome man. The kind that can charm mothers and politicians in one fell swoop.
"Apparently they have good taste," I say. Unable to help myself, I grin widely. I take a drink of water to distract myself from his answering smile. It's brilliant, and it transforms him from a sulking lunatic to a smiling lunatic.
I clear my throat. "You're staring again."
"Sorry. I work at the FBI. It's my job to watch people."
I smirk to myself. FBI agents aren't the only ones who watch people. "So you do the tours then?" I joke, knowing how unlikely it is that they give guns to the tour guides. "I work at the Smithsonian, and you don't see me trying to label and date everyone."
He squints a bit, taking in my remark. "How would you date me?" he asks.
He appears to be joking, but his tone is a little too serious for that. I eye him. "Very carefully. You look like trouble." Time to make my escape.
I stand up. "I've gotta go back to work. It was nice talking to you." I back up a few steps, drop my sunglasses back onto the bridge of my nose, give the guy a brief wave and walk off in the direction of the Museum of American History.
This is all too weird. I have to get back to things I understand. Things that stay put when you label them and don't go making passes at you. Of course Sean fits in neither category. What am I going to do about that jerk?
I poke my head around the corner, checking for signs of ambush. It's 8 o'clock and way too early to have to speak to Sean. My eyes flick from side to side. The path to my office is clear.
"Zee Great White Hunter stalks heez prey," I hear in a lousy French accent.
I straighten and try to pretend I'm not acting like a fruit. I look behind me and see the curator of my department standing there. Oh, I guess that had been a real lousy French accent. He's holding a coffee cup and has an amused look on his face.
I get a better grip on my attache case and clear my throat.
Philippe sips at his coffee. "Looking for someone?" he says in his normal voice, which is not so French and more than a little bored.
"No," I say lightly. I can't let it get out. I would be teased without mercy. "Just...checking...to see if the...new, hmmm...."
Philippe finally saves me from the task of stringing together more unrelated words by interrupting me. "Sean's not going to be here today," he tells me.
I try not to sigh audibly.
"He's attending some mock court at Georgetown. It's going to last all day," he tells me joyfully.
Even though Sean works downstairs in stamps, he still finds plenty of reasons to be up here. Apparently it does not go unnoticed.
"He's studying to be a lawyer just like his father...just like my father," I say weakly, reminded that I wasn't fulfilling everyone's expectations of me.
"Oh, so we're not good enough for him then?" Philippe teases, offering his arm, pulling me away from myself. I take it gratefully. He walks me to my office.
"Well, some people feel they need real jobs," I say. "You know, the people that want to change the world, the ones who think that's possible," I say lightly, but there's bitterness there too.
"Oh, now," Philippe says, giving my arm a gentle squeeze. "Who wants to change the world? It's a thankless job. By the way, there are fresh croissants by the coffee pot."
We arrive at my office. "Philippe, don't you have something to do? Like solve the energy crisis or find the missing link?"
"I love you too, mon cherie," Philippe says, gliding off. He is fifty-six years old and has not yet succumbed to the tweeds and dumpiness associated with old historians. Philippe is a spirit that will not be constrained. I, on the other hand, had allowed my father to smother my spirit for far too long. I have 32 credits of pre-law to show for it. I stare at the black letters on the opaque glass of my door.
D R. N E R I S S A M A L I N O W S K I -- Assistant Curator.
I tell myself that I am happy with who I am, that I've chosen what to do with my life, and that it was my own decision to make. Some days it doesn't work. Today it does.
I walk into my office, and in honor of today, I decide to leave my door open.
I work without stopping or looking at the time. It's a quarter to eleven when I finally check my wristwatch. Sean must truly be away. It is relaxing to live without the threat of his formless face hovering in my doorway.
I stand up and stretch. My back cracks in three different places. Time for a break. Leaving my pack of cigarettes in my desk drawer, I take the stairs instead of the elevator and burst outside. Hitting the heated air surprises me briefly, but I recover.
There's some sort of festival gunning its engines out on the mall. A couple of booths have sprouted up overnight. Come tomorrow they will be spread all over the lawn like some sort of colorful fungus.
Something's got a hold of me, and I hope it doesn't let go. Is that me practically skipping? In denial, I stumble to a halt in front of the same bench as the day before.
"God, it's a beautiful day. Isn't it a beautiful day?"
Something remarkable has happened to me, and I've become obnoxiously happy. I'm almost embarrassed to find I've spoken these last words out loud.
The G-man from yesterday, who perhaps never even left the bench, doesn't seem to mind the liberties I am taking with my freedom of speech. He's wearing sunglasses and eating sunflower seeds. He purses his lips and spits off to the side.
I get a brief glimpse of him playing baseball. First base. Flexing his glove and squinting at the pitcher. Knocking his bat against his cleats as he practices before he goes up to bat. Sitting sullen in the bullpen because the shortstop caught his pop fly.
I've written a chapter in his life story in the space of a blink and realize he's looking at me. This is not going to do. No, no, not at all. I am plenty hot already today without him looking at me like that.
What about his three kids? His lovely wife? His girlfriend? His dog? His very small dog? His fish?
"Hi," he says, still looking at me.
Before he smiles, I have time to hope his fish aren't the jealous sort. After he smiles, I could no longer care. He could have piranhas in his tap water, and I wouldn't care.
There's no breeze today, but a few phantom fingers ruffle his short brown hair.
"Hi," I say, playing it safe. I don't trust myself to say anything more. I might do something stupid like ask him his batting average or the names of his children...fish? I glance at his hand. No ring. Fish, definitely fish. I hope.
His slender fingers dip into the plastic bag by his thigh. He's not wearing a jacket like he was yesterday, just a long-sleeved white dress shirt. His tie is unabashedly obnoxious in the self-righteous way that only money can buy. The sleeves of his shirt are rolled up, exposing tanned forearms. I try not to stare.
A bimbo on wheels rolls by. Bright neon-green string bikini and short jean cut-offs. She's got bleached blond hair and tanned orange skin. The cheeks of her ass peek out pertly from under her shorts. I hope her Rollerblades give her obscene tan-lines.
My companion gives her his full attention, his tongue maneuvering the sunflower seeds around in his mouth. I concoct a hasty plan to poison his fish then abandon it when he turns back to me. I'm awfully fickle today. I blame the heat.
"Are you going to sit down, or is this just reconnaissance?" he asks, squinting up at me from behind his sunglasses.
"Uh, yeah," I say, showing my cultured side. I realize I'm standing right in front of him and staring. I'm not supposed to be staring. I sit down.
"Seeds?" he offers.
I take a few and consider them. Eating sunflower seeds requires an oral talent akin to tying a cherry stem in a knot with your tongue. Now I'm staring at his mouth.
"So, what's going on with you today?" he asks as if he's known me all his life.
"I was just thinking that I'd like to quit smoking," I find myself saying. "Unfortunately I don't smoke."
"How's that work?" His lips are quirked into a smile.
Staring again! I try to look at a less distracting part of his anatomy. My eyes focus on his knee. "There's this guy at work who's bugging me. He won't come near me if I have a lit cigarette. He's got allergies," I explain. Could it be that even his knees are sexy? I look back up to his face.
"Smoke is a natural insect repellent," he says with a straight face. He's sitting with his elbows behind him on the back of the bench. His shirt is pulled tight against his chest.
My eyes start to water for some reason. I blink and try to remember what I was going to say. "I...don't light them unless he insists on hanging around. I've been using the same pack for three weeks now, but this boy won't go away. I tried to give him a polite brush off--"
"There's such a thing!" I insist, knowing what he must be thinking. "He's just so damn eager."
"I know the type," he offers.
"Oh, so you've got one following you around too?"
"In a way," he says, giving me a squirrelly look. His sunglasses are now stashed in his shirt pocket, and he's watching me.
I am staring...again. He must have noticed. Apparently I can't keep my eyes to myself this afternoon.
"So, if we're going to be sitting here on this bench for the rest of our lives, don't you think we should know each other's names?" the man next to me asks softly.
The rest of our lives.
"Nerissa Malinowski," I say, offering my name and my hand to this beautiful stranger.
We shake hands. I can feel the warm salt on his fingers from the seeds. It rubs against the skin of my palm, imperceptibly gritty.
"Nice to meet you, Fox," I say.
He laughs. "Could you call me Mulder?" he asks.
I glare at him, suddenly remembering he's government issue. "Not unless you want to call me Malinowski."
"You won't call me Mulder?" he asks again, the strangest combination of frustration and pride on his face.
"I'd rather not," I say.
"Okay," he says slowly, as if weighing his options. He suddenly checks his wristwatch in a hasty motion that makes me doubt he actually saw what it said. "Well, it's back to the Batcave for me." He stands.
I feel tipsy, like he had stuck a swizzle stick in my brain and stirred with the practiced flourish of a bartender.
"Bye, Malinowski," he says, looking mischievous.
"Good-bye, Fox," I say.
He smiles, and my drunk mind sends electric thrills through me that settle somewhere in the region of my stomach.
"Nerissa," he says for the first time.
I want to hear him say it again.
His smile tilts then, and I see something very intimate take its place. His gaze is warm and interested, and it hardly matters that we met just yesterday on a bench in the middle of DC because I no longer have any concern at all for my safety.
His smile firmly in place as if it had never left, he puts his sunglasses back on and walks away. I stare after him and sit on the bench for just a little longer. When I get up to go back to work, I find three perfect sunflower seeds clutched in my left hand.
My fingers slip. "What?" I snap. I've spent all morning trying to piece together this photograph and now my angry sigh scatters the torn scraps away. Another day, another frustration stamped with Sean's characteristic whine.
Sean gives me an apologetic look. Not that he has a big range of facial expressions.
"What is it?" I growl, taking my reading glasses off.
"Uh, nothing. Just wondered if you'd like to do something for lunch?"
"I've got plans," I say, refusing to elaborate. I have plans, all right. Plans not to spend any of my time with him. Of course now this means I can't show my face for my entire lunch hour. Maybe I could go visit friends over in the Castle...maybe I could just skip lunch and go home early.
"Is there anything else?" I gather my photo fragments back within reach and lean down, putting my wire-rimmed glasses back on.
I stare at him over the tops of my oval glasses. "Bye then."
He stands there for a moment longer then turns to go. I resist the impulse to curl my lip at his slumping figure.
I am halfway down the stairs before I realize I left my sunglasses in my purse. I sigh and turn around to go back for them. Three more minutes I won't be able to spend on the bench with the G-man. That is assuming he's there. He'll be there, right?
The door to my office is slightly open. I know I closed it.
"...Yeah, I did." Someone's talking on the phone. "She said she was busy." A pause. "She already has plans."
Sean. Talking on my phone. In my office. About me. My heart stomps its foot, and my blood starts racing angrily.
"Dad...it's not my fault."
That stamp-licking coward. I'd like to leave, but my heart is thrashing around, and the adrenaline is surging. I have to do something.
"I tried...no, don't do that."
Philippe walks by me. He looks from me to my office door. He looks back at me, shakes his head and keeps walking.
I wait until he turns the corner, then I push open the door a little harder than I needed to. It slams against the bookcase behind it, and the glass in the door rattles.
Sean's head jerks up. He's sitting behind my desk, nervously tugging on the phone cord. He has the doomed look of a jack rabbit meeting a pickup truck on a dark desert highway. He is about to become one with the pavement.
"I th-thought you were on a coffee break," he stutters.
I notice he has a hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. "I forgot my cigarettes," I say loudly. I attack my desk drawer and pull the pack out. I extricate my sunglasses as well.
He still sits there with my phone in his hands.
Say something. Say something. Say something.
I want to pull him up by his wrists and wrench him out of my chair. I want him to know that I know.
I say nothing.
"Get out of my office," I say, turning and leaving before he has a chance to comply.
I fly down the stairs, barely holding onto the handrail. If I slip and die here, at least I'll die angry. At least I'll be feeling something. My shoes hit the marble floors heavily, and I stride outside into the heat. I put my sunglasses on. I light a cigarette, and it's between my lips before I remember I don't smoke. I've never smoked.
Kill me, cigarette, and do it fast.
A stone ricochets off the toe of my shoe and hits a tourist on the lower leg. He whips around and looks down at his calf as if expecting to see some imp with sharp fingers down there, drooling and hopping up and down. I scowl and drop my cigarette to the ground, rubbing it out with my heel without stopping.
The bench is empty, and for a moment I can't figure out why that surprises me. When I finally do remember, I find that I don't care. I want to be alone. There's one cigarette left. I take it out and throw away the pack. One cigarette. Is that like one bullet? Russian roulette of a different sort. I'm very tired all of a sudden, and I sigh in a way that makes me scared I'm going to cry.
I sit down in the middle of the bench, hunched over with my forearms resting on my knees. I stare at the frayed cuffs of my blue jeans and my bony ankles that poke through my thin socks.
I start picking apart the cigarette in my hands. I peel away the white paper and tap out the tobacco. It falls to the dusty ground like a god's ingredient. I start in on the filter, rolling it between my fingers. It expands and grows fluffy.
I rub at my right eye under my sunglasses, and my hair falls forward. Leaving my hair to hide my face from the crowds rushing past, I pull at the cottony material of the filter, ripping the fibers apart. I grind my heels into the dust and gravel at my feet. My eyes are starting to water, and there's a tightness in my chest.
With a stir of gravel, a pair of clean black wingtips comes into view about a foot away from my own dusty black penny loafers. "You know, you can buy those things unfiltered," a dry voice says.
I look up. It's the G-man, Fox.
"I like doing things the hard way," I grumble.
He tries to sit down next to me, but I'm effectively taking up the whole bench. I've gone back to staring at my feet. My left eye starts to twitch. I drop the remains of my disemboweled cigarette, rip off my sunglasses and press the heel of my hand into my eye. I will not cry. I will not.
"Want to move over? Or should I go find another bench?" he says, interrupting my misery again.
I scoot over without looking at him. I put my sunglasses back on and take to picking at the hole in the knee of my jeans. I wrap one of the loose threads around my finger and give it a good yank.
"Is something wrong?" I hear.
I look to my right. He is leaning in close to me. There are those green eyes again.
"Pffft," I scoff. Is something wrong? If that isn't an understatement. "That guy I was talking about yesterday? His name is Sean. He--" I sigh. This is going to sound pathetic. "He just moved up here to go to school a couple of months ago. He's a family friend. I'm supposed to be nice to him. It was more or less a direct order from my father of the 'if you do one thing right in your life' sort. Well, Sean asked me to have lunch with him today, and I told him I had plans. I don't have plans. So now I'm going to have to hide to save face and hope that the subject never gets mentioned again because I will have absolutely nothing to say."
"So make up plans," he suggests.
"You certainly make that sound easy."
"Why can't you make up a date?"
"I've got a lousy imagination. He'd probably drive a Chevette and work in a video store." I cringe. "That wasn't funny. Anyway, it'd get back to my parents sooner or later that I was being rude to him." I roll my watery eyes. I am 32 and still afraid of my parents' disapproval. I had hoped I'd grow out of it. Maybe after I'm dead.
"Then go with me," he suggests calmly, as if he hadn't just given my life a violent rattling.
"With you?" I repeat, incapable of doing anything else.
"That way you won't have to pretend."
This is too easy. I frown. "You're forgetting I don't even know you. You could just be another one of those gun-carrying psychopaths."
"I've got a badge."
"They all do," I mutter, feeling compelled.
He laughs. "You've got me," he admits.
I look away from him. His good mood makes me feel even more foul. I started something today, something I've wanted to do for a long while. I took full ownership of my life, throwing my father and his law firm off my property. But do I have the energy to start whatever Fox is offering as well?
"I'll tell you what," he says.
I look back over at him. He's leaning in so close. He must see through my sunglasses, must see through to my tears.
"You can come pick me up at work -- meet my partner. That way if I act untoward, leer at you, try to kill you, chew with my mouth open, et cetera, et cetera, you'll know where to find me. I'll put your name on the guest list. It'll be fun -- maybe they'll do the full body cavity search. They reserve that for special occasions." He smiles.
"I don't know," I say.
"Yes you do."
It should have sounded arrogant. It sounded honest.
I fight a shiver in the middle of the June heat. The shiver wins.
"Okay," I say.
I've never been in the Hoover building before. I never took the tour or visited the White House. I couldn't tell you how many stairs there are in the Washington Monument. I live here. I don't have time to visit it.
I walk inside, finding it odd that anyone off the street could just walk into the headquarters of the FBI. And the Pentagon has an exit off the freeway. Talk about national security.
The air conditioning hits me with a slap. I can feel my bare arms starting to goosebump. Fox told me to check in at the security desk. This is too weird.
"Can I help you?"
"Hmm." I look around me nervously, half expecting someone in dark glasses and a trench coat to be hovering at my shoulder. "I'm supposed to be on a visitor's list?" I say hesitantly.
"Ah, Fox Mulder?" There's something about a lot of marble and a large number of federal agents that makes me more than a little nervous.
"Ho-oh, Spooky Mulder," the attendant says.
"Oh, sorry. Just a nickname he has. Your name please."
"Can I see some picture ID?"
I pat the back pockets of my jeans. My museum ID is shoved into one of them. I pull it out and hand it to him. He checks it against a ledger and then spins it around for me to sign.
Handing me a visitor's tag to clip to my shirt, he says, "All right, Ms. Malinowski, go through those gates. Along the wall is an elevator, take it all the way down to the basement. There's only one office down there, can't miss it."
"That's Dr. Malinowski," I say, not liking this guy's attitude. "And can you tell me who Agent Mulder's partner is?"
He blinks. "Uh, Dana Scully. Dr. Dana Scully," he revises.
There is only one door down here. It has a nameplate that reads "Fox Mulder, Special Agent." It is a flimsy door that looks like it could be broken down with a fork and some water. This is not a door to keep people out. It is a door to keep them in.
There is the creak of a desk chair, a low, male chuckle and the click of two high-heeled shoes coming in contact with the concrete floor. A rustling of papers, a low murmur of easy conversation, and finally, "Come in."
I turn the knob and push the door open. And for a frightful moment I'm back in college, opening the door to a professor's office for the first time. The same old feelings of hesitation and panic weigh me down. Will I be smart enough? Will I be listened to? Will I be respected? Will I be liked?
Standing on the threshold, all I can see at first is the looming and overwhelming clutter. The walls are covered with posters, weird pictures, and newspaper articles. Flat surfaces are filled to saturation point with books, files and video tapes.
Only the ubiquitous and tired houseplant is missing from this tableau. I suppose nothing can grow in this basement; there's no natural light.
I take in the mismatched office furniture, the dented desks and tables and the upholstered chairs that are slowly becoming unupholstered through use. Nervous, I wipe my hands on the seat of my jeans and walk into the room to greet the occupants.
Fox is sitting behind his desk, feet up and hands busy with some gizmo. He sets it down, and I see it's a tiny plastic robot. Its red eyes flash at me, and it makes a strained whirring sound.
"Ah, ha! They let you in." He sits up, putting his feet on the floor. "Did they frisk you? Because I insisted."
I'm off-balance and wondering what I'm doing here. I can feel myself starting to get hostile, my patented way of dealing with new situations. Not saying anything, I put my hands on my hips and frown at the wall behind Fox where a blurry poster of a UFO hangs: I want to believe.
"Oh, no. Not that. Anything but that." He shakes his head. "You see that, Scully?" he calls across the room.
The woman who must be Fox's partner is leaning against a table, arms crossed over her chest, one hand holding onto a folder. She smiles at me, shaking her head. "What, Mulder?" she asks, obviously in on the joke but goading him on.
"Her hands on her hips...I've seen that before," he says, getting up from his desk and shaking his head back and forth slowly. "This is not good."
I have no idea what he's getting at, and I'm feeling more and more frustrated. I should have just stayed in my office and hidden like the coward I've always dreamed of being. I cross my arms over my chest, about four seconds away from just scrapping the whole thing.
"Oh, now you've done it, Scully."
As Fox's disgustingly happy mood increases exponentially, I feel mine sinking lower and lower. I am not good in new situations; perhaps this is why I like history so much.
"Fox," I hiss.
He jumps as if I've said the magic word. His grin becomes more manageable, and he comes up to my side, putting a hand on my shoulder. We take a few steps until we're standing in front of the woman he was calling Scully.
"Nerissa, this is my partner Scully," Fox says, gesturing at the petite redhead standing next to him.
"Dana Scully," she says, elaborating and straightening from her slouch against the desk. It only gives her about three more inches. I find I'm a good four inches taller than her, but somehow she doesn't seem short.
"Nice to meet you, Dana," I say.
She blanks out for a moment, as if I'm speaking a foreign language, and she has to translate in her head. The look finally clears, and she smiles. "Nice to meet you, Nerissa," she says, shaking my hand. Her eyes stay on my face. She does not look me over. She has my immediate respect.
"So, Scully, if you'll just be so kind as to tell Nerissa here that I am not a demented psychopath, then we'll be on our way," Fox says, smiling at his partner playfully.
"But, Mulder, I'm a doctor; I can say no such thing. I took an oath," Dana returns, obviously enjoying their game.
"How about you just assure her that I'm not a dangerous psychopath?" he haggles.
"Define dangerous," Dana insists.
"Tell her I won't ditch her on the first date."
Date? I feel that edge of panic slicing along my skin again. This handsome man just used the word date in relation to me?
"He saves that for birthdays," Dana says to me.
"We'd better be going," I urge. Fox and Dana's easy banter is making me feel uncomfortable. "If I take more than an hour for lunch, people start helping themselves to my office."
"My stalling tactics worked!" Fox exclaims cheerfully. "And now you don't have to perjure yourself, Scully."
"Something new," I hear Dana mutter.
"Ready to go, Fox?" I ask. I don't like it here in the basement, and I want to leave. The air is too stale, the subject matter too weird.
"Okay," he answers. He shuffles around the mess on his desk, taking one paper in particular and tucking it into his jacket pocket.
"Why does she get to call you Fox?" Dana asks him, looking a little annoyed.
"Because I refuse to call him Mulder," I say simply.
She frowns a little at this revelation, obviously annoyed that it could be that easy. The man in question smirks. "Well, that and the fact that Malinowski doesn't exactly roll off the tongue."
I glare openly at Fox. If my mother had known he existed, she would have warned me about him. Without looking at Dana I ask her, "Want to borrow my last name, Dana? Fox here seems to have an aversion to it."
For some reason he finds this funny and laughs. Dana doesn't answer.
I sigh. Apparently there is no winning with him. I find my arms are still crossed over my chest. I drop them wearily and turn toward the door. Fox is already standing there. He smiles at me like he's apologizing to me and forgiving me in the same grin.
I don't know what to think. Fox places a gentle hand just below my shoulder blades and guides me out the door. I give up on thinking. All I know is that his hand is on the wrong side of my blouse.
"Don't wait up for me," Fox calls over his shoulder.
Dana shouts back something I don't catch, and Fox laughs.
I remember only a little bit of lunch. Just a shred. We were at the Old Post Office. I remember that much. I remember wondering if this was really me. If I was letting myself get picked up by a strange, beautiful man. If I could be that reckless and brave.
Oh God yes it's me.
I look up from watching my feet walk and realize we're almost back to the museum, and Fox is still walking with me. "Fox, where--" I start.
"Do you have to call me Fox?" he interrupts.
"You do seem to have a problem with it," I admit grumpily, not liking to be interrupted.
"It's a very long story," he tells me.
"If you have such a problem with it, I can call you Reynard instead," I say, looking to start something.
"Reynard?" he repeats, giving me a doubtful look.
"Know your beast fables, Foxy?" I am pushing my luck to see what it yields. He gets a dangerous look on his face. "Reynard was a clever fox who always outwitted the rest of the village. He was sort of a troublemaker -- but he was a favorite with the audience," I explain, working with the remembered scraps of a literature course I took my sophomore year of college.
"So it's sort of a compliment?"
"If you like," I offer with a teasing smile, purposely bumping into him as we walk. "So where are you going?" I ask him. "Hoover's thatta way." I jerk a thumb over my shoulder.
"What? You don't expect me to check up on you? You think you're the only one in danger? You could be some sex-crazed homicidal manic."
"So what if I am?" I tease.
"Well, a guy just likes to know beforehand," he says, giving me the once-over and raising his eyebrows hopefully.
"No such luck," I tell him, smiling in a way that makes me feel like I'm lying.
We trek up the stairs to my office, Fox following closely behind me. The workroom is busy with interns, and we have to squeeze by in order to reach my door. I try the doorknob and find it locked.
"Shit," I mutter, remembering I locked it before I left so Sean couldn't accidentally find his way back in there. I pat my pockets, looking for my key.
"Dr. Malinowski?" Fox asks, reading my door.
"Yeah," I say, not really listening. Instead I'm wondering how a key could disappear so thoroughly in a pair of 5-pocket Levis. I shove my pinky down into the coin pocket. It scrapes against serrated metal. Bingo.
Behind me, Fox appears to be carrying on a conversation without my assistance. "What is it with me and women who have Ph.D.'s?" he asks.
"I don't know, what is it?" I'm never going to be able to get this key out without taking off my pants. It was easy enough to get in, and now will be all but impossible to extract.
"I'm drawn to them."
I stop digging at my key and wait, turning around to look at him over my shoulder.
"My partner's a doctor," he explains.
"And you're drawn to her?" I ask slowly, wondering where this is leading.
He shrugs, his shoulders rising and falling under his jacket. "She's my partner."
"And you're drawn to her?" I repeat.
"I'm drawn to you," he says.
My mind blanks out from the shock. "Well aren't you smooth?" I say faintly, turning back to the door and rattling the knob. Maybe Philippe has an extra key.
"Nerissa?" It's not Fox's deep voice, but one slightly high-pitched and warbly. Sean. Dammit. Suddenly I remember everything that led up to my lunch with Fox. The law office of Malinowski, Nestor and Prelusky is certainly going to hear all about this.
I turn around to find Sean and Fox staring at each other. "What do you want, Sean?" I snap. Sean drops his eyes to the floor. Fox glances at me quickly, already understanding.
"About earlier..." Sean trails off, shifting nervously, looking from me to Fox.
"What?" I ask, clenching my jaw and trying not to grind my teeth together. Next to me, Fox is leaning casually against the wall. His jacket has fallen open to revel his trim waist and the holster at his hip. I just ate lunch with a man carrying a gun. I blink in surprise.
"I'm, uh..." Sean says, staring at a spot on the wall between Fox and me.
Fox clears his throat and puts his hands in his pockets, drawing attention to himself. Sean finally looks over at him. His eyes widen when he sees Fox has a gun.
I'm smiling. I can't help it. The lawyers are going to flip when they hear about this. I'm going to be the hot topic for the Fourth of July barbecue. I'm going to be famous...infamous even.
Sean takes a step backwards. He's swallowing convulsively. He backs up some more.
"Was there something you wanted to tell me, Sean?" I ask. I'm so bad.
He shakes his head mutely, turns and takes off.
I'm so happy to see him go I feel like crying. I smile warmly at Fox instead. He's straightened up and pulled his jacket back in place, concealing his gun again.
"Thank you," I say, in what comes out as a whisper.
He shrugs, looking slightly embarrassed. "How old is he?" he asks, diverting my attention.
I frown a little. "Twenty-something?" I offer. "Early twenties? He had a crush on my younger sister, Molly, when they were both in high school--" I don't like the look on Fox's face. "What? You think I'm just a replacement Malinowski sister? The older woman? What?" I demand angrily, one second away from stomping my foot and poking a finger into his chest.
Fox doesn't answer. His tongue escapes his mouth, darts against the corner of his lips and disappears again. He leans in and whispers next to my ear, "He wouldn't have the first clue what to do with you."
I can't seem to keep my eyes open all the way.
"Dinner?" he whispers.
"Hmm," I hum.
"I'll call you," he says, leaving me leaning against the wall. I don't remember moving there, but lucky I had. I don't think I could stand on my own. I'm filled with a sleepy warmth that has nothing to do with the heat outside.
"What you two were doing in this hallway should be illegal," Oliver says as he skims past me on his way to Philippe's office.
"You're just jealous," I say, but I don't try to deny it. I eye my office door resentfully. If only it had been unlocked....
Sean just called, so when the phone rings again, I am less than enthusiastic about answering it. I pick up the receiver. "What?"
"What's on second," a dry voice tells me.
He would like Abbott and Costello. "I'm not asking you who's on second."
He laughs. "Who's on first."
This could easily go on forever. "I never gave you my number," I say.
"What kind of an FBI agent would I be if--" He breaks off, and there's a soft murmuring in the background followed by a smacking sound. "Shut up, Scully," I hear him demand, but I can tell he doesn't mean it. "Uh, if I couldn't find a phone number?" he finishes.
"Did you pay my parking tickets while you were at it?" I question, leaning back in my chair, suddenly in a good mood.
"Parking tickets!" he exclaims. "You underestimate my position in the chain of command." A muffled laugh. A warning: "Scully, I told you--"
"So, what? Am I in the criminal database?"
"No, the phone book."
"Oh," I say.
"Totally kills the magic, doesn't it?" This time the laugh is much louder. "Scully, get outta here. Can't I have some privacy? At least have the courtesy to pretend you're not listening." I hear a door slam and something fall. Fox mutters something that I can't make out.
"Are you two okay?" I ask, concerned and wondering if I'm about to bring down the entire US legal system just by talking to Fox on the phone. The lawyers would love me then. My father would excommunicate me from the family.
"Uh, I don't know," he says. "She's probably fine. We start out joking, but it turns mean and neither one of us realizes it until it's too late, and by then we don't want to admit we're wrong."
"Sounds like you're married," I remark.
"In a way..." he says, sighing. "We're just lucky we can leave each other's side at the end of the day, otherwise our boss would have two dead FBI agents on his hands," he says in a light tone, clearly attempting to move the conversation back to more comfortable ground. I force a laugh for his benefit.
"So what put you in such a cheery mood?"
"When?" I ask, confused.
"Unless my phone etiquette is outdated, I'm pretty sure 'what?' isn't an accepted form of greeting."
"Caught me at a bad time."
"Is it better now?" he asks.
Damn he's sneaky. And full of himself. And totally right. I smile because I know he can't see me. "It's improving," I allow.
"Know anyone that might be interested in dinner tonight?"
It's not fair that he can make my stomach drop floors in that rushing elevator sort of way with just a few words. "Maybe Oliver would. I saw you caught his eye the other day," I say.
I hear a choked laughing from the other end. "Perhaps I should have been more specific. Would you be interested?"
I notice the way he's dropped part of the original question. I'm not going to be able to answer this one without getting less than waist-high in innuendo.
"Are you offering?" I venture.
"Would you accept?"
At this point, our conversation is getting so abstract Picasso could have painted it. I glance at my watch and find it's almost quitting time. "Dinner sounds great," I say, chickening out. "Do you have a car?"
"Sorta," he hedges.
"Why don't we eat in town? I live in Alexandria, and it's quite a ride. Unless that's not good for you?"
"No, that's fine. If your car of questionable existence won't do, we can use mine. I just live a few minutes away in Georgetown."
"Georgetown?" he repeats.
"My father's a senior partner in a law firm," I say. "I come from--" I clear my throat and say pompously, "A-hem...money."
"Good, you can pay then," he jokes. "I barely have enough to pay off my medical insurance." There's a comment in the background about Italian leather and Armani suits. "Scully's back!" he tells me. "Scully, I missed you!" he calls out. A low grumble. "Aw, you say the nicest things." A clink.
"Ow," Fox says.
I find myself laughing.
"Laughing at my pain are you?"
"At least she'll never be wanting for laughs." For once Dana's voice comes through loud and clear.
"So how are we going to do this?" he asks, shushing his partner.
"I have to go home and change. I was working closely with some 200 year-old dust today."
"Meet you there?" Fox asks. "Six?"
"Phone book again?" I wonder aloud, not remembering if my address is in there or not.
"Frohike," Fox answers mysteriously, hanging up and leaving me to wonder what the hell a frohike is.
I'm fifteen minutes late when I finally park my car in front of my townhouse. Fox is sitting on the steps of my porch, covered in afternoon sunlight. My upstairs neighbors have their windows open and Enya playing.
I slam my car door, wondering how much of an apology is necessary. I notice Fox has a dewy glass of lemonade sitting next to him.
Sharon pokes her head out the window after shoving her cat out of the way. "Nerissa! It's about time you got home. Justine and I were just about ready to go down there and entertain your guest."
"You girls are so noble," I call up to her. "Did you put a Roofie in his lemonade?"
Sharon's head withdraws from the window. I can hear her shouting at her roommate. "Justine, I told you we were forgetting something!"
"At this rate, you girls are NEVER going to catch a man," I tease.
"Justine's jurisprudence prof is pretty darned hot," Sharon says, fanning herself.
"You tell her to stay away from her professors," I advise.
"You're no FUN, Nissa!"
"I'm totally serious. That's bad--"
"Are you totally and completely serious?"
"I'll tell her. You tell Mulder that after he gets bored with you he can come up and visit us."
"Yeah," I shout, "I'll be sure to tell Mulder that." I wave good-bye to her, and she disappears from the window.
"So, Mulder, ingratiating yourself to the neighbors I see."
"What could I do? They offered me lemonade." He stands, brushing off his pants.
"My, you're easy."
"Don't tell my mom."
I roll my eyes at him and unlock the front door.
"You've got mail!"
Fox jumps a little.
"Did I mention I have a parrot?" I ask with a smile.
"No," Fox says.
"Smarter than a dog," my parrot says.
"Hey, General, we've got a visitor," I say to him. The General looks over my shoulder at Fox with one shining eye. I block his view. He scoots over on his perch to look past me again. I turn to look as well. Fox is at my elbow, standing very close.
I open the cage door and offer the General my hand. "Delighted," he says to himself, stepping forward. I carefully maneuver him out of the doorway and present him to Fox. "General Lee, this is Fox Mulder. Fox, this is the General," I say, bowing slightly at the waist.
"You named your parrot after Robert E. Lee?" Fox asks, giving me an incredulous look.
"Don't mind him," I whisper to the General, "he's just jealous."
"Jealous of my beauty," the General announces in a perky voice. It's one of his favorite things to say. I honestly don't know where he picked it up. His previous owner would have never taught him something so vain.
"I didn't name him that," I say to Fox. "I inherited him from a history professor at Georgetown. Sometimes Felix would bring General Lee into his office, and, as a result, this parrot knows some pretty big words -- and some four-letter ones too."
I realize I'm spending a lot of time talking about the General, but for some unknown reason, I'm nervous about having Fox in my home. I find I can't shut up, and talking about my parrot is a comfortable and familiar subject.
"He's not shy around strangers, either. He's very social. African Greys usually aren't this outgoing. I had to read up on parroting after Felix died in a car accident," I explain, stopping to swallow, but finding it difficult. "Poor General was pulling out his feathers and yelling up a storm. We eventually worked things out though. Didn't we, General?"
"Doctor," he says in a prim voice.
"Awfully formal around here, aren't you?" Fox jokes. I look up at him. He's not saying much either. Maybe he's nervous too. But nervous about what? We're only going out to dinner.
"Fox is a special agent," I tell the General carefully. He has an annoying habit of picking up only the words you aren't trying to teach him. "Special agent," I repeat.
"I don't think he believes you," Fox whispers in my ear. I jump slightly. The General tightens his grip on my hand.
"I'm going to go change," I say, wondering why my heartbeat is thundering in my ears. Surely it can't be that loud? "Want to stand on the back of this chair, General Lee? You can keep an eye on Fox here. Make sure he doesn't steal the good silver."
"Do I need to do anything?" Fox asks me, clearly uncomfortable with the idea of being alone in the room with the General.
"Oh, no." I shake my head. "The General is one well-behaved bird. Felix took good care of him. He should be fine."
I go into my bedroom and close the door behind me. Yes, but will I be fine? I wash my face and change into a linen skirt and a white blouse. As I'm trying to do something with my hair, I hear two voices coming from the living room. One is slightly cajoling, the other a little hoarse.
Styling my hair becomes an Olympic event once summer hits because there's really no way to subdue my curls. Giving up and simply putting on a thin black headband, I leave my bedroom to find Fox and the General staring at each other.
General Lee is still standing on the back of my desk chair where I left him, but Fox has moved until he is standing only about a foot away. They've both got their heads cocked to one side. Fox has his hands in his pockets. The General shifts from one foot to the other. They regard each other silently.
"What are you doing to my bird?" I question, putting my hands on my hips.
"Trying to figure out his angle," he tells me seriously, not turning around to look at me.
I lean down to slip my sandals on. "What do you mean?"
"Everyone's got an angle," he says.
I straighten to find him staring at me. The lamp in the corner is throwing shadows across one side of his face. His dark brown hair is sticking up a little in the front.
To distract him I say, "Tell General Lee where we're going."
"He'll worry," I insist.
Fox gives me a look that indicates he is more worried about me.
"Honest," I say. I have the parrot books. They're up on my shelves next to _Roll, Jordan, Roll_ and _The Souls of Black Folk_. I'm sure W.E.B. Du Bois would be flattered.
Fox turns to look back at the parrot. "All right, bird--"
"Hey!" I interrupt him. "Be nice."
In a totally different voice he says, "General Lee, I am requesting the company of the good doctor for the evening." It sounds like he's addressing my father. I realize he's doing this on purpose.
"We shall dine at--" he stops and looks over at me.
"Somewhere," I supply.
"We will eat somewhere and then perhaps do something," he says, catching on. "We will be back later, I promise."
The General is uncharacteristically silent as I put him back in his cage and pull the blanket over it. I stand there a while, listening to his shuffling and shifting, and then, unable to resist, I pull up a corner of the blanket and peer in at him. "'Sal'right?"
I drop the blanket. "What a grump," I say good-naturedly, but not loud enough for the General to hear. He doesn't need to add to his vocabulary of derogatory terms. I have only just gotten used to being called a batty old hag, but admittedly it was one of Felix's less colorful phrases.
Fox is messing with the seat, trying to adjust it to give his long legs more room. I hear him say something uncomplimentary about the lever.
"Are you cursing my car?" I ask, glancing over at him while I wait for the red light to change.
"Of course not. I like having my knees under my chin. I often sit like this. It's good for the circulation."
"I'm sure," I say with heavy sarcasm. I glance up at the rearview mirror. There's no one behind me. I make a hasty decision and put the car in park. Releasing my seat belt, I lean over Fox's lap and grab the lever under his seat. I push it in and down and his seat slides back almost an extra foot.
"Better?" I ask, putting my seat belt back on. Fox has a stunned look on his face. I can almost read his thoughts. I laugh.
"What?" he asks, trying to look innocent. I shake my head and turn the corner when the light changes.
Fox appears to be calculating the advantages of pursuing this line of thought. "You sounded like you were speaking from experience earlier when you warned Justine away from her professor," he says instead, stretching his legs out.
The question catches me off guard. "What makes you think that?"
"You said you'd gotten General Lee from a professor," he explains, watching me drive.
"Felix," I say, thinking of him, of the way he used to close his office door and hang a tie on the doorknob to scare away his students. "Felix was a professor but not my professor. We were...friends," I finish, unable to find an adequate word to describe our relationship.
"Not more than friends?" Fox pushes, being annoyingly perceptive and hearing the part I didn't say.
"Friends...almost more than friends, but in the end...just friends. We ran out of time for it to be more," I say, wondering why we had waited so long.
"How long...when did he die?"
"Last fall," I say imprecisely -- even though I can remember the exact date and what time it was when his sister called me. I can remember the drive to the hospital and how the wet leaves were slippery under my feet as I ran up the walkway to the emergency room. I will never forget unlocking the door to his dark and empty apartment to collect General Lee. The VCR was blinking 12:00, and a milky cereal bowl was still on the table. I can remember it all quite clearly. It's the weeks afterward I have trouble remembering.
"I'm sorry," Fox says, brushing his fingers against my cheek.
I press my lips together. It still hurts. I wonder why I'm telling him these things. But he asked...and maybe that's all the reason I needed. I nod.
We could have done quiet and tasteful -- the exact opposite of Fox's ties -- but I've always objected to linen napkins and the waiters who insist on putting them in your lap. I prefer the places where the floor is tacky with beer and the jukebox always plays good music. So we go for beer and neon, but even pizza in Georgetown is a big production. I pay too much for a spot in a parking garage, and we walk to Uno's.
"Ever been here?" I ask Fox, who somehow doesn't look as out of place as he might have.
"No," he says, looking around at the walls covered in posters, neon signs and clippings of reviews from newspapers and magazines.
"They have these back in Chicago, my home town," I tell him.
And then, as if the CD changer has a sense of humor, Frank Sinatra comes on singing, "Chicago, Chicago...." Fox and I grin at each other.
The layout of the restaurant is reminiscent of an M.C. Escher sketch: platforms, stairs, mirrors, secluded booths and railings to keep everyone in their place. We wander around until we find an empty booth and then sit down across from each other.
"So," Fox says, opening his menu. His eyes turn round and a frown appears between his eyebrows.
"Thought this would be easy, did you?"
"Shrimp?" Fox asks, incredulous.
"You probably won't want to ask what's on tap then."
"Whatever happened to normal pizza?" he asks wistfully. "With pepperoni and tomato sauce and cheese...." I watch as a dreamy look creeps over his face. "Pesto. Garlic sauce." He shakes his head and rattles the menu at me. "This is absurd."
"I'd hate to see you with something you really cared about," I say, only half joking. "Calm down, they have normal pizza," I assure him.
I pick at a lone string of cheese that clings stubbornly to my napkin. The pizza is gone, although Fox had more to do with that than I did. I look at him across the table. His lips are slightly shiny from the grease, and I watch as he licks at them. Lucky for me the idea of using a napkin for the job never occurred to him. He picks up a few loose red pepper seeds and puts them in his mouth.
"Are you insane?" I demand.
"Try it," he insists, pointing an index finger at me -- there's a small red dot at the end.
His finger in my mouth. I think my mind shorts out.
"No," I say finally, shaking my head and wrinkling my nose, having found some remnant of my good sense tucked away. "I hate hot peppers."
"Come on, it's an acquired taste. Acquire it."
I'll give in. I know I will. His jacket rings. I'm not sure if this is disappointment or relief that I'm feeling.
Fox's face shifts almost invisibly. He flicks off the red pepper seed and reaches into his inside pocket. "I could have sworn I turned this off," he says, staring at his phone as if it were pulling a fast one on him. He yanks out the antenna and turns it on. "Mulder." And Fox disappears, swallowed by the man who carries a gun and works in the basement.
"At what time?"
I push at my empty pint glass. Felix and I spent more than our fair share of time drinking up and down the taps here, but this beer was his favorite. I find I'm still clinging to him in small ways, drinking his beer, going to his restaurants, seeing things through his eyes.
"Cause of death? ... I know it's too soon. ... Humor me, Scully."
Felix wouldn't like this.
"Like the others? ... Not like the others. Check her ankles."
But Felix is dead.
"Spooky, isn't it?"
I look up to find Fox's eyes on me. "I'll be there," he says, hanging up. I turn my head away.
"Why do they call you Spooky?" I ask, scratching at a groove in the wooden table.
"Where'd you hear that?"
I shrug, not looking at him. "The other day...."
He nods. "I'm good at my job. Some people are uncomfortable with that."
"What do you do?" I turn back to see him rubbing his eyes. He drops his hand.
"I catch killers," he says, watching my reaction carefully. "And now I've got to leave so that I can do that."
"Okay," I say, not because it seems to be expected of me, but because I'm trying to understand. A quick squeeze to my hand, 30 dollars thrown to the table, and he's gone.
I sit there for a while longer, thinking of my older sister who married an OB/GYN who is never home, who is always getting called away. She spends too much time in her big, empty house. It's all she knows.
That will never be me. I get up from the booth and move to the bar. I sit down, hooking the heels of my sandals over the brass pole at the bottom.
"Been ditched, hon?"
"She promised me he wouldn't ditch me on the first date," I say, looking up to see who is talking to me.
Beautiful cocoa skin, short pebbly black hair, delicate cheekbones, nose ring, and a tribal band tattoo around an upper arm.
"Hit me, Sammy!" I say, slapping the bar.
"You don't want me to hit you, sugar."
"Seriously, fill'er up."
Sammy ignores me. "How you doing, Nissa?"
"Fine," I say, resenting the remark. "I was here with someone."
"Oh yeah?" Sammy makes a show of looking around over my head.
"He left to go fight crime," I complain.
"You're dating a cop?"
"FBI?" Sammy says a little too loudly. A couple of nearby bar-huggers turn to stare at us with wide, blurry eyes.
"Shh, Sammy, you'll scare all your customers away."
"Less work for me," she says. "So, what's he like?"
"Sammy," I moan.
"Smarter than Nathaniel--"
"God, I should hope so."
"Shut up. Taller than Steve. Prettier than--"
"Chaz," we say simultaneously, grinning.
"And more jaded than Felix," I say before I can stop myself. We lose our grins, our hands come together on the bar.
"How's school?" I ask.
"Tolerable. Not nearly as interesting since Felix left."
Left, not dead. It's such a hard word to say. I think we'd all rather believe that Felix had just taken off for parts unknown without telling us; of course, in a way, that's exactly what he did do.
We share each other's strength for a moment.
"I miss him, Sammy."
"He loved you, Nerissa."
"He never told me," I say, shaking my head.
"Did you tell him?"
"Oh, was that his excuse?"
"What was yours?"
"The time was never right," I say stubbornly, pulling my hand away from hers.
She shrugs. "Do yourself a favor -- next time, just say it."
"It will get easier."
It's my turn to shrug.
"You want that drink now?"
"No," I say, angry she somehow talked me out of it.
"Hey, you coming to my oral defense?"
I wince. "If you pay me. Those things make me nervous."
"I'll call you," she promises.
"Take care of yourself. Enjoy your special agent."
"Oh, I will," I say.
"Of that I have no doubt."
When I get home there's a message on my machine. The General is scraping around saying, "Nevermore. Nevermore."
"Quoth the General," I say, humoring him. I press the play button.
"Hey, it's Mulder--er, Fox. Foxsh Muldah," he says in a passable Sean Connery. "Thought you'd be home by now," he mumbles.
"I'll bet you did," I say, pointing at the answering machine, feeling slightly drunk.
"We're going to be in court for the next couple of days. So I won't be around, but I'll give you a call. We'll do lunch, dahling. Oh, and Scully says hi." "I do not." "Sorry, I take that back. Scully definitely does not say hi." "Mulder." "Well make up your mind, Scully. Are you for or against saying hi? Okay, Scully says hi and also says that I am a childish--oooo. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth, Agent Scully?"
"Get to the point!" I demand of a message that was left hours ago.
"Scully, Detective Hobbes wants you...in a purely professional sense. Ouch! If looks could kill...all right, we're alone. Just you, me, your parrot, the guy stealing your computer, and anyone out there with a half-decent scanner." A sigh. "This will never be easy, Nerissa. I have other commitments. But we can give it a try. I have a feeling this, too, is an acquired taste. I'll talk to you later. Nerissa."
And that is my good-bye. My name, said simply with all the colors of tomorrow.
I'm meeting Fox for lunch today. I haven't seen him in days. I've started to wonder if I hadn't hallucinated him in the heat. During the days he was in court, I went to sit at that bench of ours and tried to conjure him up to prove he was only a mirage. He refused to accommodate me.
The morning passes without issue, and the afternoon finds me waiting on a call from the University of South Carolina. It's been a slow day, so the phone doesn't have a chance to do much more than clear its throat before I grab up the receiver.
"Nerissa?" an unrecognizable voice responds.
"This is your father," says the voice.
Of course it is, I think numbly.
"Dad," I say, unable to force welcome into the word. I can feel his disappointment and authority as if it was just yesterday I sat at his dinner table and told him I wasn't going to be a lawyer.
Damn you, Daddy.
Ever since I was able to tie my own shoes, my father had told me I was going to be a lawyer. I believed him. I believed him in the unquestioning way a daughter believes her father. Years passed that way until I started wondering why this was to be my future, and then I realized it was his dream, not mine.
My father saw this as a betrayal. His other children did not have the drive, the commitment, the determination. They would become other things, but I, I, was going to be the lawyer. I was going to work at his side, junior partner to his senior. One more Malinowski in the pot.
I was going to be the one people talked about at Christmas and Thanksgiving, but now everyone knows better than to mention me in front of my father, whose voice I don't remember because it's been close to six years since I last talked to him.
"Nerissa," he says, and although the voice itself is unfamiliar -- I finally recognize it. I am about to be found guilty of the most heinous crime of them all: treason.
"We asked you to look out for Sean because we thought it would be nice if you could help him get settled in his new environment. We wanted him to have a friend in the city. It sounded simple enough, but apparently it was too hard for you. Apparently you are too selfish to think of people besides yourself.
"Law school is a trying time for a young man. It can make him question himself. We were simply hoping that you could provide Sean with some support. I know you're jealous of him because he is doing what you could not, but that is no excuse for your poor behavior."
I hold the phone tightly against my ear. It is the only part of my body that I can feel, which is odd because I feel miles away from the receiver. I'm fifteen years old again and quaking from my father's disapproval. My father -- a proud man, never proud of me --always asking for what I couldn't give.
I can't be here, 32, and in my own office, afraid of my own father's unfamiliar voice. How old do I have to be to outgrow such shame? Which year will make me immune?
I realize my father has stopped talking. I am expected to apologize, reform and comply.
I've done enough of that for one lifetime. I finally do what I want to. I hang up, and it puts a dull feeling in the pit of my stomach. My father is wrong, and I will be the one who is punished.
I'm glad my office door is closed. I'm crying. Angry tears, but tears all the same. Errant, ungrateful daughter. A 32 year-old daughter. Not fair. I swipe at my face angrily, rubbing at my eyes, punishing them for betraying me. I can't cry. Not here.
I get up from my desk and stand in front of it, staring at the wall. I don't have a window in my office, but I don't need one. I can see DC in my mind. It will always be there.
The city is lit with the bright afternoon sun. In the streets, ant-like people, content in their minuscule universes, pass so close to each other, so close, but they do not touch, do not connect -- far too intent on the task at hand.
I cross my arms over my chest. I can hear my father's voice from my childhood.
Life is a series of tasks.
Life was not a journey. Life was not a learning experience. Life wasn't even trial and error. To my father, life was a check-list, and I'd faltered halfway down at "Become A Lawyer." But that was always his list. His list, my life. I push the heels of my hands into my eyes until I see smears of light. No crying. He can't win this one.
The door opens. There is no knock. I spin, my hands dropping away from my eyes.
A pale face pokes its way between the door and its jamb.
"Sean," I say, "come in. Close the door behind you."
Sean's smart enough to realize this isn't going to be good. He steps in and shuts the door as I ask. His back is pressed up against the wall as if he were planning on passing directly through it at the slightest hint of danger.
"My father called. What did you tell them?"
"Our fathers," I say tersely.
"Just that you didn't have that much time for me. You're always busy when I try to talk to you."
I want to shake him, but don't want to get close enough to do so. "Not at work," I grind out. "This is my job, Sean, and no matter how trivial it may seem to the lawyers, I have a responsibility toward it. More than that -- I enjoy it. You may be afraid of your father, but I'm not going to let anyone get me involved in this again. Stay away, Sean. Fight your own fights. Go."
He opens the door a crack and flows through it like a ghost.
I drop down in my desk chair like my strings have been cut. I'm free...and so terribly sick. My phone rings again. I'm afraid to answer it.
"Keep them guessing," my father would say of examining a witness. He meant keep them scared. My father thought the whole world was hiding things from him, and so, for all practical purposes it was.
I clear my throat. It feels thick. "Hello," I say, my voice strangely low. I don't feel like identifying myself. I could always say Nerissa was out. It wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration.
Background static. Music. "Hi. Nerissa? It's Mulder."
Mulder? Fox. Lunch. I was supposed to meet him for lunch, I look at my watch, 10 minutes ago. I can't. I can't share this with him. "Fox," I say, "something's come up. I can't have lunch with you today."
"All right," he says slowly, still in the process of understanding.
I can't wait for him. "Sorry. Talk to you later." I manage to say good-bye and then hang up. I clear a space on my desk and then rest my cheek against the leather desk blotter. It's cool. I wrap my arms over my head and give into the hurt.
It's late. I've usually left by now, packed away my work, locked my door -- gone home. Today I sit.
DC is outside, stretched out across what used to be a swamp. The murkiness of the dusk is settling over the city -- the spike of the Washington Monument, the lighted dome of the Capitol Building, the columned facade of the Natural History Museum. The city is ready to surrender to the turn of the globe. It goes with a strange tread -- soft, reverent.
There is a gentle knock at my door.
"Come in," I say softly, confident that it will never again be Sean Nestor's timid plea for attention. But still, I did not burn any bridges today -- I just gave them a good shaking. Soon I will feel the repercussions.
There are footsteps. I swivel in my chair to see who my visitor is. Fox, looking vaguely haunted. "Hi, Nerissa. I thought that because you missed lunch you hadn't eaten. I was thinking we could go have dinner."
"I don't really want to be around people," I tell him and watch as his friendly face slips a notch. I'm not doing anything right today.
"Take-out then?" he suggests, like he really doesn't expect me to agree.
"I'm not really hungry," I say.
"Is something wrong?" he asks, stepping into my office, pushing the door almost closed, though there couldn't possibly be anyone else out there in the dark. I am the last one here.
I don't think I can tell him. I've only known him a few days, a few hours -- only a minute or two. But he's asking.
"Nothing is wrong really," I say.
"Are you sure?"
"Nothing new at least," I revise, telling half the truth.
"Those things are often the worst," he says quietly.
I shrug. I feel like I've been doing that too much lately.
"We need to get you out of here...sitting in the dark never fixes anything."
"This can't be fixed," I say morbidly.
"An even better reason not to sit in the dark."
At this it finally sinks in that my office is lit only by my desk lamp. "I didn't realize..." I say, looking around me, my eyes settling on Fox. He's perched on the edge of my desk, his hands clasped together in his lap. Inexplicably he's wearing a trenchcoat. Droplets of water are beaded on his shoulders.
"It's raining outside," he says gently, as if this might set me off.
"Are you hungry?" I ask.
"Yeah," he says, smiling at me in the dark. The lamp light glints off the water in his hair.
"Then we'll eat," I decide, standing up and getting my purse from the bottom drawer of my desk.
"Are you sure?" he inquires, trying to look at me. I'm glad the pale light doesn't reach my face.
"There's a great deli around here. It's open late," I tempt, checking my watch. I realize it's much later than I thought.
"See what happens when you sit around in the dark? You lose touch," Fox says, looking up at me. He's still sitting on my desk. He seems to be familiar with this. I don't ask what drives him to sit in the dark. I'm sure he has his reasons.
"So, am I driving?" I ask.
"What is it with you and your 'sorta' car?" I tease.
"I don't really have a car," he admits.
"What, you walk here from Alexandria?"
"I use the bureau's cars now. I used to have this Austin Healey, but it died in the line of duty."
"You had an Austin Healey? Tell me it was red," I beg.
He blinks, startled. "It was black. I got it when I was at Oxford."
"You were at Oxford?" I decide to shut up. I sound like an idiot.
He nods. "Went to school there."
I know nothing about him. Our separate footsteps echo in the stairwell.
Outside it's raining with a forced deliberateness. We trot to my car. Fox bobs up and down by the passenger side, waiting for me to unlock the door. "It's raining," he whines.
I stop my fumbling with my keys and stare at him over the top of the car.
"Open the door," he begs.
Water is running down my nose, but I only smile.
Fox opens his mouth to say something, but his eyes light up, and he suddenly darts around the hood of the car. I stand completely still for a moment, watching as he flies toward me, his trenchcoat billowing out behind him. Understanding his new game, I clutch my keys tightly and run away from him.
"It's raining!" he yells.
"So it is," I call over my shoulder, splashing through a puddle. My tennis shoes squish as I circle the bumper. I stand next to the passenger-side door.
"You're looking pretty smug," he says. "Oh, but what do we have here? What's this, hmmm?"
I peer around the windshield to see Fox's hand closing over the mirror on the side of my car.
"What if..." he postulates, "I took this and sort of--"
I watch in horror as he angles the mirror so that were I to try and use it, I would have a nice view of the traffic directly above my car.
"Noooo," I cry. "That's been perfect for 10 years!" I run around the hood to stand next to him. My wet hair is clinging to my face. "You are the worst," I say, shaking my head.
"Oh, definitely. It's people like you that make me believe in capital punishment."
"I'll have to stay on your good side then," he says. He's standing so close to me that the water from his hair drips down onto my neck.
"All my sides are good," I say, finally unlocking my door.
"Agreed," he says, running off for the other side of the car.
I drive with my window open, using the pause at every stop sign and stop light to adjust the mirror Fox perverted. The rain flies in sideways, sometimes reaching Fox's side of the car. "If I had known you were so fussy, I would never have touched that mirror," he says, sulking.
"I hope you're pleased with yourself."
"Even Scully isn't this fussy about driving," he complains.
"How would you know? I bet you never let her drive," I accuse. He shoots me a wounded look.
"I see you checking the speedometer. Don't think I don't. That is the mark of someone used to always driving. You feel out of control. Admit it."
"You won't admit it?"
"I don't feel out of control." His voice is rising.
"Uh huh, whatever." I turn a corner and park in a small lot in front of a store. "We're here." I roll up my window, convinced that my mirror will never be the same again.
Fox squints out the watery windshield. The glare of a neon sign blurs through the rain. "What's that say?" he asks me.
"Psychedeli," I reply.
"Like psychedelic..." I offer.
Fox shakes his head. "You're amazing."
We get out of the car and run through the rain to the deli. The glass door swings open easily, and our shoes squeak on the clean tile floor. The cow bell above the door clangs mournfully.
It's brightly lit inside, and the walls are covered in colorful swirls of paint. Fox stops before one and mutters something that sounds like Mandelbrot. Pat Benatar is playing on the stereo system.
From the back room springs a five foot one pixie. "Hey-ya," she calls. "Nerissa!" she adds, recognizing me.
"Bernice," I say, smiling.
"Damn, girl," she says, throwing her head back, spinning around and stomping one foot. "I've told you not to call me that."
"Bernie," I try.
"Bunny," I say grudgingly, "this is Fox." I turn around to find him standing right behind me.
"Rad," Bunny says. "So what's your real name?"
Fox looks at me then back at Bunny. "Fox," he says.
"No WAY." Bunny stands and stares. "For real?" she asks me, as if I might break down and admit his name was really Arlington or something.
"True story," I say, nodding. "Would I lie to you?"
"Yes," she answers, without hesitating. We both laugh.
"So," Bunny says, clapping her hands together, "what'll it be?"
I glance at the salads in the refrigerator case. I hear Fox rattling off some complicated instructions for a sandwich. He sounds like he's relaying the steps for disarming a bomb. One misstep with the amount of mayonnaise and we would all be kissing our asses good-bye.
"What are you grinning about?" Fox inquires.
"And some people call me fussy," I remark.
"They must have grossly misjudged you."
"What looks good, Nerissa?" Bunny asks me, wrapping up Fox's pastrami sandwich.
"Are the olives in the Greek Salad Greek?" I ask, studying the salad through the cool window. Fox is flipping through the portfolio of the artist who painted the walls. I hear him snort.
"Nissa, I swear you ask the weirdest questions. No, they're not Greek," Bunny answers me.
"Good, I hate Greek olives. I'll have that then."
"To here or to go?" Bunny asks, dancing a little.
"To go," Fox says.
I turn to look at him, wondering what his plans are. "Sure," I say.
I leave my window up on the drive to my place, but my fingers itch to reach out and tilt the mirror just a little to the left. Some part of me is convinced this will restore the mirror to its once perfect state. I catch Fox throwing me amused glances.
"Shut up," I tell him.
"I wasn't saying anything."
"You're thinking so loudly I can almost hear it."
"That's the radio," Fox explains helpfully.
"So you weren't trying to sell me a new mattress?"
"No, I was the one thinking that I've stumbled upon your greatest weakness."
I laugh. "You're nowhere near close. This is only mildly annoying."
Fox gives me a frightened look.
"Run away! Run away!" I shout.
"Are you going to be okay?" he asks, still looking worried.
"I'm going to be just fine," I say, hoping I'm telling the truth.
The rain makes it a little harder to park than usual -- not that parallel parking is ever easy. I get my BMW wedged in its space, and then Fox and I sprint for my front door. There's a green flyer stuck between the doorknob and the frame.
"Need a tree surgeon?" I ask Fox, handing him the flyer so that I can unlock the door.
"I live in an apartment," Fox says. "Where would I keep a tree surgeon?"
I toe my soggy sneakers off, wring my hair out and then step inside. "He could sleep on the couch," I suggest, putting my purse down on the kitchen counter.
"I sleep on the couch," he says.
I can't tell if he's joking or not. "Why don't you get started on your sandwich. I have to put on some dry pants."
"What about me?" he asks, gesturing to his wet jacket and pants.
"I don't think my jeans would fit you," I say, backing out of the room before I have to deal with his comeback.
I turn on the floor lamp in the corner of my bedroom and cast around for some jeans. Strangely enough it appears I don't have any. I peel off my wet pants and hang them on the towel rack in the bathroom. About to make what I consider a moral sacrifice, I open my hamper. No jeans in there. I suddenly remember where my jeans are -- in my laundry basket. In the trunk of my car. Uh huh. Perfect place for them.
I put on a pair of black corduroy pants that have always been too big for me. They slump around my hips like sulky child in a chair. I put on my wool slippers and shuffle back out into the kitchen.
"Doctor," the General calls.
"Did you know you have a message?" Fox asks, hovering over my answering machine. His trenchcoat and jacket hang off the brass hook by the entranceway, dripping water onto the rug.
"No," I say, "but it does remind me that I need a secretary."
"Are you saying I'm nosy?"
Pressing the play button, I decide not to answer him. I open the carton of Greek Salad and pick out an olive with my fingers.
"Hi, honey, just calling to see if you're okay. Your father was ranting about something tonight, and I, um...just wanted to know if everything's all right." My mother speaks in whispers, always afraid my father will hear her. She's like a mouse -- twitchy and quick.
"Great," I mutter. "The blind leading the dumb."
"Doctor," says the General again.
I get a fork out of the drawer and start impaling tomatoes and cucumbers and crumbles of feta cheese. Leaning against the counter, I eat my salad, accidentally biting down a little too hard on my fork. I cringe and put the fork down on the counter, looking over to where Fox sits at my table. "Did you already eat that sandwich?" I ask him, not quite believing anyone could eat so quickly.
"Inhale might be more accurate," he says sheepishly.
I narrow my eyes at him. "Did you eat lunch today?"
"No," he answers quietly.
"Sorry," I say, refusing to be more specific than that.
"Doctor. Doctor," General Lee calls from his corner of the room. "Doctor."
"Is he going to keep that up?" Fox asks me, drawing attention to the General's misbehavior.
"He just wants attention. I usually say hi to him after I've been home for this long."
"So why haven't you?"
Because I'm punishing myself. It's not the General's fault that my father yelled at me today. He depends on me to take care of him. All the General knows is that when all hell had broken loose, I had shown up and lashed it back down.
I take the General out of his cage, but I don't say anything to him. I just let him stand on my hand while I watch him. He is like a child, all dependence and hardly any comfort.
"Special agent," the General says. This wakes me up a bit as I try to recall where he might have learned that.
"That evening I came over before we went to dinner," Fox reminds me, suddenly standing at my side. But then I think he must have been there all along.
How could my father do this to me? Make me question all I am. Make me want to give up on what I have. Make me ashamed. It is too late to do what my father wants. It has always been too late. So this is my punishment. He makes me doubt myself.
General Lee is getting restless. He digs his claws into my hand. He can sense my unease. So can Fox. "Can I hold him?" he asks, nodding toward the General, who stands uncertainly on my hand.
"Sure. You can try. He might not like it, but you can try."
"You can always try," Fox says to me.
"Doctor," the General says. He uses Felix's voice. It's like being spoken to by the dead.
I know that Felix would never have put up with me acting like this. He'd bully me into a few beers until I had enough liquid courage to denounce my father -- loudly. Because of this I am well known in more than a couple Georgetown bars. But that courage never lasted the night, and the mornings after were always too blurry to remember.
"Doctor." This time it is Fox's voice.
I try to escape from the haze I've lulled myself into. I clear my throat, a sound that aggravates General Lee because he cannot duplicate it. "Here, General, do you want to talk to Fox?"
The bird books always suggest you give the bird an option. Don't force him into doing something he doesn't want to do. Make it seem like it's his idea.
"He's very gentle. He'd never hurt you." Say good things about the new person. Assure the bird that they're not going to get hurt.
"You can trust him..." I trail off. What am I saying, and why does it feel like it has nothing to do with bird handling? I look from the parrot on my hand to Fox. He reaches a hand out, but it's not to my bird, it's to me.
I can feel my face getting ready to slip.
"Nerissa, what's wrong?" He puts a hand on my shoulder. I can feel his fingers through the cotton of my shirt.
"Doctor." It's Felix's voice again, warning me. In my head, I hear Felix from another time: "Don't play hard to get, Nerissa. It never was your style."
General Lee has a good grip on my hand. It's starting to become a dull pain. He's frightened. "Good bird," I say, resorting to soothing tones. I can feel my throat closing up. I put him back in his cage rather quickly. "Good bird." I close the door and drape the blanket over him.
"Awful formal around here," he says from under the blanket, even though he knows he shouldn't be talking when I've put him to bed. Being a bird though, he can't resist one-liners.
Fox looks vaguely startled to hear his voice coming from a bird. I smile halfheartedly and slip out from under his hand. Felix is going to be disappointed in me.
I wash my hands at the kitchen sink. There are tiny red dots where the General's toes dug into the skin. I wipe my hands off on a dishtowel and then cover my face with them. My eyes are already sore, as if I'd been crying these last few hours instead of slowing drowning inside.
"Does this have something to do with your father?" Fox asks.
I turn around, my back against the sink. "Fox," I say, still not crying. I stopped being able to cry after Felix died. Now I only cry when I'm angry. It seems backwards to me--to cry in the middle of battle -- but the angrier I get, the more I weep.
Fox reaches out for me again. I step forward, into him and wrap my arms around him. I need someone else. I need not to be me.
"You can tell me, Nerissa," he says, holding me. He's so real, standing here in my kitchen, heart beating, lungs moving. So real. And for once I feel like crying. I wonder how gentle tears might feel as they fell to trace my cheeks. But I have cried too much for Felix, if it is possible to cry too much, and now I only have hot, stinging tears left for myself.
I press my cheek against Fox's shirt. He's still wearing his tie, and its silk rasps in my ear. "My father called me today at work," I say quietly, barely louder than the beating of Fox's heart.
"I haven't talked to him on the phone since I moved here almost six years ago. He called to tell me--" I stop. What had that been about? "He called to tell me I wasn't his daughter."
Fox's arms tighten around me.
"My father hates his lack of control over me. He hates not being in control. I'm beginning to think he hates me too."
"You've got to believe he loves you," Fox says. One of his hands moves on the back of my head, his fingers tangling in my wet hair.
"Why?" I ask, my eyes foggy. I close them.
"He's your father."
"No. No." I shake my head a little. "He doesn't," I say, answering some other, older question. I shrink, pull away. "I think he loves what I could have been. He's loving a me that never was, that never will be. Like an older sister I can never compete with. 'Why can't you be more like Nerissa?'..." It's true. I don't exist. Nerissa is a lawyer. She still lives in Chicago, close to her family. She's brilliant, wonderful. And her father's so proud.
I move away from Fox and go sit on the couch. I curl up in the corner against the armrest, lay my forehead on the cushioned back.
"He doesn't know what he's missing then." Right here, next to me again -- sitting. Why won't he leave? I don't want him to leave. I don't want to talk about this anymore.
There is a blanket lying across the back of the couch. I pull it down, cover myself, offer to share. He gives me a look as if perhaps to say blankets are for babies, but he accepts. I hesitantly lean my head against his shoulder.
"I'm sorry your pants are all wet," I say, not sorry at all but wanting to change the subject.
"It's just the cuffs," he insists, pretending to be tough.
"It's just a flesh wound," I say in a horrible British accent.
"That is the second Monty Python reference out of you tonight," he says, catching on.
"You're counting?" I ask.
"I'm listening," he corrects.
Don't go. Don't ever go.
When I wake up at five in the morning, Fox is gone. The lights are off, but morning light trickles through the windows, turning the room a gentle orange. I'm lying on the couch, the blanket pulled up around me.
I wonder when he left. I don't see a note. I want to get up and go sleep in my bed, but the ache and the weariness that comes from hating my father keeps me on the couch. I go back to sleep.
My phone doesn't ring for a day. No calls from my father or mother or Sean. No Fox either. I realize I don't have his phone number. I never asked for it -- he always seems to show up before I need him. Calling him has never occurred to me, but now that it has, I don't know what to do.
I'm sitting behind my desk, tapping a pencil against my glasses when a shadow briefly darkens the glass window in my door. Before I have a chance to figure out what's going on, Fox is standing in front of my desk.
I think back to our first conversation: "You look like trouble." And standing there, with his wild grin, Fox Mulder looks like trouble on wheels. I'm almost afraid to ask him what he's doing here.
"It's Friday," he announces. True enough; I nod grudgingly. "Let's play hooky," he goes on to suggest.
"I am the Assistant Curator of the Citizen's Civil War department of the National Museum of American History," I say with some amount of dignity and also manage not to smile at how ridiculously pompous I sound.
"I'll write you a note," Fox offers. He pulls a pen out from a stack of inventory forms, and I hand him a piece of paper before he starts writing on something important.
He leans over my desk, "Please excuse Dr. Malinowski," he composes aloud. "...Mal-in-ow-ski," he sounds out. I look over his shoulder. He spelled it right, which isn't too big of a surprise. My name is on the door he had just come through.
He wraps his arm around what he's writing so that I can't see. I watch him and the small grin on his face. The smallest things make him impossibly happy.
"Please excuse Dr. Malinowski from work today -- as she is suspected of being a great risk to national security and must be taken into immediate custody," he reads.
"How am I a risk to national security?" I ask, taking the paper from his hands. I go over the note, appreciating the bold block letters of his script.
"It's a beautiful day outside, and I can't concentrate on my work while I'm tormented by the thought of you stuck up here."
"Tormented," I repeat, letting wonder seep into my voice.
"I might miss an important clue that would let some dangerous criminal escape," he says, nodding.
"How insidious of me," I remark, toying with the note. "How is it that I have managed to escape your notice before? I must be exceedingly cunning."
"Poor timing," he says sadly, suddenly becoming serious.
Timing. I've never thought of it that way before. Was this all just a result of timing? I slip Fox's note into my desk drawer -- evidence that this is not a dream. "So what's the rest of your story?" I ask. Fox doesn't seem like the type to shrug off work, and I know I'm not.
"Scully's visiting her brother, and Skinner gave me the day off," he mumbles sheepishly.
"Now that sounds a bit more believable. I'll see what I can do."
At this, Fox spreads his arms wide as if to embrace the whole world. For the first time I realize he's wearing jeans, tennis shoes and a grey T-shirt.
I narrow my eyes at him. "Interesting wardrobe choice, Fox. Get a lot of respect from those dangerous criminal types while wearing..." I lean down in my chair to get a better look at his shoes. "Reeboks?"
"They tremble at the mere thought of my air-cushioned soles."
"I'm sure. What else aren't you telling me?"
"You sound just like my partner."
I suddenly get the impression that this is not a good thing. I stand up and get my bag out from under my desk. I open its flap and shove some papers into it. Digging my keys out from the front pocket, I say, "Okay, but I've got to clear it with Philippe first."
Fox knows he has won. And so do I. Philippe is easily charmed. If for some reason he insists I stay, Fox could probably persuade him otherwise.
I lock my office door and walk through the work room to Philippe's office. "He's the curator," I whisper to Fox, knocking softly at the door.
"Entrez!" Philippe yells, an embarrassment to all of France.
"Philippe?" I say cautiously, opening the door partway. I can feel Fox craning to look over my head.
Philippe is sitting at his desk, playing chess with himself. "Have you noticed this place is woefully empty?" he asks me, moving a pawn sideways.
I stare, shocked. I should have expected Philippe to have no respect for other people's rules. I look behind me. "Where are all the interns? Where are the employees?"
"You now understand my dilemma," Philippe says, concentrating on the board in front of him.
"You're saying they just didn't show up? The entire staff?"
"Oh, I expect they're around," he says vaguely, picking up a rook and executing an L-shaped maneuver with it, knocking over the white king -- no, it can't be the king. There are two of them, and there is a pile of what appears to be queens at Philippe's elbow. Fox nudges me gently aside and goes to sit in front of Philippe's immaculately tidy desk.
"There's something going on in the museum proper that we were all invited to," he says, waving a dismissive hand. Now that he mentions it, I did notice some new banners up out front. Not that I ever bothered to read them.
"A new exhibit featuring religious cults in the 1800's is on loan," Fox says absently, watching my boss move his pawn back to its original square.
"That's it," Philippe says, pointing in my general direction.
"Was there a memo I missed or something?" I ask. Neither of them are listening to me. I throw my hands up.
"May I?" Fox asks Philippe, gesturing at the side of the board closest to him. Philippe looks up for the first time since I opened the door.
"Nerissa?" he asks me.
"He's with me," I say, bewildered.
"Well then, feel free to make a move."
I step into the room to stand at Fox's side. He leans forward and picks up the black bishop and moves it four squares ahead to stand diagonally to the white pawn.
"Checkmate," the Oxford scholar says. I massage my temples. Am I in some sort of an alternate universe where pawns are important and bishops move sideways?
"Nerissa, where did you find this one? He's much smarter than your last," Philippe exclaims, obviously pleased.
"Nathaniel had his good points," I mumble.
"Unfortunately none of them involved his IQ," Philippe confides in a very interested Fox.
"He was good with his hands," I insist, defending my poor taste in men.
Two male heads swivel around to look at me in shock. My mouth drops open, and I start laughing uncontrollably. "He...he makes--" I say with an uncharacteristic stutter. "He makes...furniture," I finally spit out.
Both Philippe and Fox get a comically relieved look on their faces. I stumble over to the other chair and collapse into it. "Good with his hands," I repeat, starting to laugh again.
Fox reaches over and pats my knee. I swat at his hand, and he catches it with his own. Leaning into me, he whispers, "He was good with his hands?" He runs a thumb down across my palm.
"So, are you going to introduce me to your new beau, Nerissa?" Philippe asks, breaking apart whatever coma I was falling into.
"Philippe," I growl, suddenly aware it is almost impossible to growl in French. But from Philippe's amused expression I can tell I was at least partially successful.
With one more scorching sweep of his thumb, Fox drops my hand and extends his to Philippe. "Special Agent Fox Mulder, FBI." Philippe studies Fox, obviously trying to find some evidence of this.
"I've come here today to take Ms. Malinowski in," Fox says.
"Nerissa?" Philippe questions. I can tell he finds certain elements to this story believable -- I just can't tell which ones.
"I've fallen into a bad crowd, sir," I say, playing along.
"So I've heard," Philippe comments innocently, clearing his chess board.
"What have you heard?" I ask, glaring at him.
"I was talking with Oliver the other--"
"Oliver!" I say, interrupting him. "That little gossip puppy."
"Whatever you two were doing in the hall last week really made an impression on him."
I frown. "We weren't doing anything."
"I think that's what impressed him," Philippe explains.
I sigh, frustrated, and change the subject. "What's with your wacked-out game of chess there, Phil?" Philippe refuses to break so much as a frown, and he's always hated being called Phil. He must be in a really good mood today.
"I switched the pieces around. Same rules, different symbols. It confuses people, and they don't try to offer suggestions. Your Fox here is the first person in history to catch on." I notice Fox's slight wince at the use of his first name.
"Not afraid of strange things?" Philippe says to Fox.
"You could say I specialize in the strange," Fox tells him. I hope he's not talking about me.
"So you're taking off?" Philippe asks us.
"I, uh, thought maybe--"
"Yes," Fox says.
"Have fun, kids," Philippe says, setting up the chess board again --two lines of stately queens where the pawns usually stand.
"So, what do you want to do?" Fox asks me once we're standing outside. I can't help it; I laugh.
"Whoops," Fox says. "I fell right into that one. Classic male behavior."
"Have you been reading 'Cosmo'?" I ask, pretending to be afraid.
"Actually," he says, looking vaguely ashamed, "I've been known to read Scully's magazines while on stakeouts."
Now I really am afraid.
"How could she have allowed that! Now you know all our secrets. She'll get kicked out of the Secret Sisterhood for sure, now." I shift my eyes from side to side and back away, intending to make a run for it.
"Wait!" Fox calls.
I turn and run down the sidewalk.
"They were mostly medical magazines," he shouts, chasing after me down the mall. "Only the occasional 'Cosmo.' Come back." He's laughing.
Everyone is staring at us, and on a busy Friday that's a lot of people.
"I wasn't even really paying attention," he yells.
"We hand you our secrets, and you laugh at them?" I dodge a baby carriage and a garbage can and turn a corner. I twist around to look behind me and catch Fox flashing his badge at some poor tourist. She'll have a story to tell when she gets home; that much is for sure.
"Our guy showed up before I had a chance to read the orgasm article!" he calls. I trip in surprise and stumble to a halt in front of a box planter. Fox shows up at my side. He's not even breathing hard.
"You do realize what you just screamed in front of a good portion of DC?" I ask, grimacing.
I can see that he does not. I find myself wondering if he is prone to outbursts of such behavior.
"You're embarrassed," he says, circling me as I try to turn away. My face feels hot, but my olive skin has a high tolerance for blushing. I'm sure it doesn't show. This alone gives me the courage to lie. "No," I say. "Just..." I search for a suitable word. I settle on, "Surprised."
Now as he circles me, I turn to face him. I reach out suddenly and catch his hand. "Let's go," I say.
"Where?" he asks in an almost whisper.
I smile, knowing three thousand dollars worth of orthodontist bills have made it a beautiful one. "Where we end up," I answer.
We are at the gardens in Dumbarton Oaks, sitting on a bench underneath the shade of a bower. It's late afternoon and cool here in the shade of the gardens.
We played tourist today. We chased each other through the National Art Gallery's maze-like interior, eliciting frowns from the uniformed guards. We counted the steps in the Washington Monument. We went through the White House, gawking and pointing like people who'd never before seen the inside of a house. We even went through the guided tour at the Hoover building, Fox asking the guide all sorts of annoying questions she couldn't answer.
"How many toilets are there in this building?" "Do the elevators have security cameras in them?" "Does Assistant Director Skinner wear boxers or briefs?" "What about a bra?" "His middle name is Sergei," Fox had whispered to me.
Now I am sitting next to him, looking out on the gardens. I love Dumbarton Oaks. It is like another world. I had thought Fox would appreciate that. He doesn't seem very attached to this one.
Behind us, the small fountain drips into the pool of water under it. I am talking about something. It seems I'm always talking about something. At the beginning, I remember hoping he didn't mind, but lately I've realized that often I'm talking simply to fill the silence he creates by not talking.
Today it probably doesn't matter either way because I don't know if he is listening to me or not. All I know is that he is watching me intently.
I have my elbows resting behind me on the back of the bench. I'm spinning one of the silver rings on my right hand when I feel Fox's hand curling around my bare wrist.
I stop talking instantly.
And although I haven't moved an inch, I feel like I've been knocked out of the ballpark, soaring and spinning and never hitting the ground.
I watch as he gently turns my wrist so that my hand is palm up. He raises my arm toward him and touches his lips to the inside of my wrist. All I can see is the way he is looking at me. And all I can feel is the way his lips have seared my lonely skin.
I would do anything for him.
Fox Mulder seduced me with a kiss.
That small spot on my arm becomes my entire world, and I study it with all the single-mindedness of a dedicated scholar. My pulse races. My head spins. I shiver in the heat. All because of one small kiss on the inside of my wrist.
He didn't ask permission. He didn't drop any hints. He just kissed me, and now I am completely his. In turn, I don't ask permission, I don't hint. I blink and lean in to kiss this man whom I had met on another DC bench only a few weeks ago. I wrap my right arm, which he still holds lightly, around his head. I curl my fingers in dark brown hair that feels like cashmere. My last boyfriend had had a crewcut.
I put my left hand on his thigh so that when I lean in further I won't lose my balance, won't tumble from this seat and fall. I am so close to him that I can see exactly what color his eyes are until he closes them.
On the edge of my vision I catch sight of two ladies in straw hats so large domed cities could be built inside them. The women are coming toward us.
I move my hand from the top of Fox's thigh to the inside of it. His eyes snap open. I shift my lips from where they almost balance on his own and whisper in his ear, "Busted." I rest my cheek against his for a moment and then stand up.
I offer him my hand as the two ladies come chattering around the corner. "Oh, it's so hot!" one of them remarks needlessly. Tourists.
Fox sees what almost happened and gives me a shy smile. I'm sure he could imagine the incident. He takes my hand and stands up.
We tour the rest of the garden holding hands like teenagers. It really is too hot for the hand-holding business, but I think we are both afraid of what will happen if either of us lets go. We might forget -- forget what is happening between us. Of course a certain spot on my wrist still feels like it is floating inches above the rest of me...so I'm nowhere near forgetting. Not even close.
My car is air-conditioned and helps to reduce the heat outside to only a bad memory. My half of the silence is a comfortable one. I have a feeling Fox's half might not be so. I take time away from the crazed bicyclist messenger nipping at my tailpipe to glance over at Fox.
He's staring out the window. A tall woman about my age stands out on her porch, watering her hanging basket. She stretches up onto tiptoe to reach the watering can's spout over her head. She's wearing jeans and a white cotton tunic. I watch as she leans down to set the can by her bare feet, her dark brown braid falling over her shoulder. She's not showing much skin. I wonder briefly why she's caught his attention -- I return mine to the road.
I turn onto my street. A large white van is blocking the way, so I don't have much room to maneuver into my spot. I twist myself into contortions, trying to angle my small car into my even smaller parking space.
I reach out to steady myself by grabbing a hold of the passenger seat, but my hand accidentally lands on Fox's shoulder instead. My eyes catch his, and he smiles. I move my hand to his seat, slightly embarrassed for no reason at all.
I manage to park without groping him further, and after locking the car I sprint up the steps to my door. Leaving it open for Fox, I dump my things on the floor by my hall table, dropping my keys into the black ceramic bowl there specifically for that purpose.
I take a wine glass down from the cupboards and fill it with bottled water from the fridge. The glass instantly turns foggy. Holding the goblet to my cheek for an instant, I jump a little when the door finally closes. It's so quiet I can hear the dead bolt snick home. There's something very serious about the sound of a door locking.
I take a sip of the water. I'm suddenly very thirsty. Fox comes into view. I realize I'm wedged into the corner between the sink and the refrigerator. I clutch the glass to my chest. "It's hot out there," I say, not thinking about the weather.
Fox doesn't answer. I immediately recognize this game. It's the game where one person talks and the other just stares. I give up my role and stand silent, refusing to play.
He slips one hand around my neck, his thumb resting on my cheek. He takes the wine glass from my fingers, which is a good thing because they suddenly feel very itchy, a strange wanderlust taking hold of them.
I watch him as he drinks greedily, his eyes on mine over the rim of the glass, his hand still resting on my face. He sets the glass down behind me on the counter. I'm in thrall. I can't remember where I've put my hands. Once again my world has shrunk to the universe of his face.
Fox's fingers roam into my hair, wrapping themselves around my curls. He leans in closer to me, closer. My vision starts to blur. I close my eyes.
I find my hands. They're burrowing under the hem of his T-shirt like hungry and curious chipmunks searching for food. They find nothing but the smooth, warm skin of his back and stomach.
I feel his lips dancing up the curve of my neck. He noses my ear with its three silver hoops. They click against his teeth.
I trace the curve of his ribs with my fingertips, finding a rough streak on his left side like an old scar. He darts back from me. I open my eyes and look out the window over the sink. Someone jogs by with a dog.
"Old tennis injury," he says in my ear.
"Has anyone ever told you it's okay to be serious sometimes?" I recognize the jogger as Meryl from across the street. She doesn't stop at her house but continues on, her small white running shoes snapping against the sidewalk, her big yellow dog at her heels.
"No," Fox says, "they tell me to laugh more. They tell me not to be so serious."
"What else do they tell you?" I ask, still looking out the window, my chin resting on his shoulder, my arms wrapped around his waist.
His fingers thread themselves through the belt loops on the back of my jeans, pulling me closer to him. "They say I need to be more trusting. They say I could be happy...if I let myself."
I wonder where this sudden sadness has come from. Such a sadness in both of us. I feel like I've lost something. "Will you let yourself?" I ask, feeling so far away. I'm not standing in this kitchen. That's not me pressed up against that man. This is something else. Someone else. A black and white snapshot in a scrapbook at a garage sale.
He stirs then. We have been standing so still. "I don't know."
I said that to him once.
"Will you let yourself?" I ask again. I don't want to hear his answer. Either way it will be defeat. I think I know that much about him.
"I am happy." He draws back to look at me. "I'm happy." His bright eyes try to smooth over the worry in my own.
"You don't look happy, Reynard," I say gently, wishing I could lie.
He smiles a little. One of his hands brushes against my cheek. "I--" He stops. "Kiss me, Nerissa." His eyes have changed, turned a strange green. I think I could slip into them and forget to come out. Live there forever. Forget.
His lips are soft and easy under my own. He makes a noise like a baby just waking up, and I feel his thumbs following the arch of my hip bone on either side...down.
"You," he says, and I don't mind at all that he doesn't finish the thought. Yes, me.
One of us takes a step. Forwards or backwards. I'm pulling; he's pushing. We circle, moving separately...and end up in my bedroom -- together.
I wake up with a lurch, feeling misplaced, as if part of myself is still dreaming somewhere. My stomach surges, and I run for the bathroom, ripping the sheets off of me.
I get there, and I realize I'm not going to throw up. It is simply fear down there. I'm cold. There's a sweatshirt lying on top of the closed hamper. I pull it on and sit on the edge of the tub.
I look up. It's Fox, standing in the doorway. Alive, in one piece and wearing only boxer shorts. I wonder what time he had come in. I put one hand to my mouth, slip off the tub to sit on the floor.
"I had a dream," I say. A bad one. Only a month and a half has passed since I first saw him sitting on that bench, and I'm already wondering what I'd do if he...left.
He kneels down next to me. "Do you remember it?"
Wet leaves. I could feel the rain but couldn't see it. Felix dead. Fox dead.
"No," I say.
Felix's sister standing there in the hallway. Dana Scully hugging a black trenchcoat in her arms. A phone ringing and ringing. The hospital tiles covered with wet leaves.
I'm crying. "You're dead. You and Felix. Dead."
"I'm right here. I'm not dead."
So many leaves.
He hugs me. "Nerissa, I'm here." His voice is low. He turns my face toward him. "Right here."
My eyes fix on the bullet wound in his left shoulder.
He kisses me on the temple. "You're okay," he tells me over and over.
All I can see are the leaves.
"Nerissa." He's almost pleading. I've scared him.
I blink my hot eyes, wondering where these tears have come from. He's looking at me with his green gaze. I'm so glad his eyes aren't brown. Felix had had brown eyes. Brown like dead leaves.
"Sorry," I say, pushing my face into Fox's shoulder.
"I'm sorry," he answers.
Neither of us say what we're apologizing for. The pain, I suppose. He stands up, and I follow, too tired to resist. His arms are tight around me, as if his only thought is to hold on for as long as he is able. I watch him in the mirror above the sink. His eyes are closed while he smoothes my hair. He's so very beautiful. I want to tell him the truth. I love you, I tell his reflection. My lips barely move.
The first thing I hear when I wake up is a buzzing. A twangingly horrible buzzing like that of a demonic alarm clock.
"I don wanna go to work," I mumble into somebody's chest.
The chest chuckles. "Lucky for you it's Saturday."
I rub my eyes and clear my throat. "What are you doing here? I thought you said you'd be in Boston all weekend."
"Scully stayed. They didn't need both of us. I got back late last night..." He trails off, obviously waiting to see how much I remember before he says anything more.
"Right," I say, appreciating his consideration. "You had a rose between your teeth and a pizza."
"Then you must be the guy with the walk-a-thon."
"No, I'm the tree surgeon."
"Why else--" He's interrupted by a screeching howl.
"slag pit stag shit honey bring it close to my lips yes"
"Phone," I say, slapping at the covers. I can't reach it; Fox is closer. He picks it up off the night stand and hands it to me. I dial the number upstairs. It rings for a while.
"don't blow those brains yet we gotta be big boy we gotta be--"
The music drastically reduces in volume as someone picks up at the other end. "Sharon and Justine's House of Whips."
"You've come to the right place, sir or madam."
"Sharon, why is your music so loud?"
"Spring cleaning, Nissa."
There's a tugging on my hair. I look up. Fox is braiding it, in tiny minuscule braids. They'll never come out. "Great," I mutter. "It's August," I say to Sharon.
"Could you keep it down? Some people aren't--"
"Is Mulder there?" Sharon asks eagerly.
"No," I say. Fox's hands stop moving. I realize he can hear the entire conversation. Sharon's talking quite loudly, and I'm still lying on his chest.
"Who was that getting out of the taxi last night then?"
"Do you not have a life of your own?" I ask, feeling only slightly invaded. "Why were you even up that late?"
"We were studying. So who was that?"
"That was Fox," I say. Beneath me I can feel Fox relax. I hadn't realized how tense he had gotten.
"Yes," I say firmly, "he's Mulder's replacement."
"Can I talk to him?"
"No, he's not wearing any pants."
For some reason this makes sense to her. "Okay," she says agreeably.
"Promise to keep the music down?"
She sighs. "I sup-POSE."
"Thanks, Sharon." I turn the phone off before she can say anything further and settle back against Fox.
"So now that you've secured your role as alpha female, what are you planning on doing today?"
"Nothing," I say lazily, closing my eyes. "I worked late last night."
"Sure I couldn't convince you otherwise?" Fox wheedles.
"Sure," I say, already falling back asleep.
The next time I wake up it's completely silent, and I'm alone. It's also a little past noon. I jump out of bed and land on a huge wingtip.
"Fjord," I grunt, kicking it across the room. I stumble into the bathroom and peer in the mirror. There are three tiny braids on the top of my head. I squint at them, then start digging around in one of my many bathroom junk drawers. I find a couple of small red rubber bands and wrap them around the ends of the braids. Laughing at myself, I step in the shower to find it quite cold. That's what I get for sleeping so late.
After the quickest shower possible, I get dressed and go out into the living room. Fox is sitting on the couch watching television. I flop down next to him. He's drinking Diet Coke and eating potato chips.
"I'm bored," I say, watching as a double play is instantly replayed four times from four different angles. A Budweiser commercial comes on.
"You just woke up," Fox says in an accusing tone.
"I didn't expect to sleep this long. Sharon always ends up forgetting why her music's so low, and she turns it back up. When I went back to sleep I thought I'd wake up again in only a half an hour or so."
"I gave her and Justine some money to go get ice cream." He turns to smile at me. I stare at him, perplexed and overcome with wonder.
"Nice braids," he says, flicking at one.
"But...when'd they leave?" I ask.
"A couple of hours ago." He shrugs. The game comes back on.
"Where'd you send them?" I poke him to get his attention. "Vermont?" I joke.
"However far they can get on thirty bucks."
"Jesus," I exclaim. I pull the bag of potato chips off his lap and sit there instead. "Did you do that for me?"
"Couldn't hear the game," he mutters.
I kiss him under his ear. "Did you do that for me?"
"Yeah," he says, fighting a smile.
I smooth his bangs back from his forehead. He's used my shampoo again, and his hair smells like roses. I watch as his eyes dart back and forth, catching the movement on the TV screen. His eyes are a faded hazel today. I've found that in the morning, when he first wakes up, they're pure green. They make him look a little startled. I don't see those eyes during the day. They seem to fade away after he's taken his shower and strapped that gun to his hip. Tough guys don't have green eyes.
"You're very special," I tell him seriously, hoping he won't make a joke. He looks at me as if I've broken his heart. He fingers the braids in my hair and runs a thumb across one of my eyebrows. Thank you, his eyes tell me.
I kiss him primly on the cheek, then hop off his lap. "I'm going to make you an apple pie," I say.
Fox makes a grab for my arm but misses; I'm already sliding out of reach. "It's a million degrees outside," he protests, maybe only then remembering how to talk.
"Then what's a couple more?" I argue. "We can put vanilla ice cream on the top and go out and eat it on the steps when it's just getting dark. It'll be like heaven." I pretend to get weak-kneed.
"I imagine that's just what it'll be like," he says, his smile threatening to make my knees go weak for real.
Chewing on a piece of bitter apple skin, I run the peeler around the last green apple. The skin coils into a perfect spiral. I make one more turn around the apple, managing to keep the peel intact.
One perfect twist. I've never been able to do that. My grandmother once tried to teach me, but I was impatient and unlucky in my youth. Still am.
I glance behind me into the living room. The couch is vacant, the television pandering to an absent audience. I hear water running in the bathroom. Without letting myself wonder why, I toss the apple peel over my left shoulder. I hear a strangled laugh from the hallway behind me. I jump guiltily.
"What...was that?" Fox asks me.
"Umm..." I stall for time, looking at the peel that lies on the white tile floor of the kitchen.
"Nerissa," Fox says in a chiding tone. He's clearly amused with me. He walks over to where I'm standing and rests his chin on my shoulder.
I sigh. "I have a Polish grandmother who swears, swears, that if you throw an entire apple peel over your left shoulder it will spell out the initials of your future husband."
"But there's a catch -- you've got to peel it yourself. And this was the first time I've ever peeled an entire apple in one go without breaking the peel. So you see, I had to try." I smile, getting to see the absurdity of the situation.
"So what's it say?" Fox asks, peering down at the floor with me.
We stare at the twisted green ribbon. I nudge it with the flour-covered toe of my penny loafer. "Oh, this is bad. Real bad," I say.
"Ooohhhhhhh, what do the gods have in store for you, great Madame Malinowski?" Fox says, chanting like a Gregorian monk. He slips one hand under my T-shirt and places it on my stomach. His hand is warm and soft and slightly wet.
"It's a sign! Tragedy awaits me!" I declare.
Fox gasps playfully. "It could be wrong."
"But the peel never lies!" I exclaim, enjoying myself.
"What does it say?" he cries dramatically.
"No. I can't," I say, placing the back of my hand to my forehead and striking a pose.
"You must!" he insists.
I hang my head. "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince."
Fox pulls me back into him, laughing. "You are brilliant, funny, mildly attractive, and you're mine."
I choose to ignore the mildly qualifier and say, "You forgot about the apple pie I'm making you."
"That can wait." Fox snags the bowl I used for the apple peels and pulls me down to the floor. He leans his back against the cupboards and places me in the V of his legs, my back resting against his chest. His hand is still under my shirt. He picks up an apple peel with his other hand and sticks it in my mouth. His fingertips brush against my teeth, making them ache like the touch of an ice cube might.
"You're beautiful," he whispers in my ear. "I want you to know that. No matter what I say."
"What will you say?" I ask, suddenly afraid of everything we haven't said yet.
I can feel him shaking his head. "You shouldn't become so dependent on words," he says, his hand sliding up the skin of my stomach. "They lie."
I feel like I should protest this last statement of his, but our touching skin is more honest than any declaration, and it leaves me momentarily without words.
The sky is a blank smoky purple. Fox and I sit out on the porch. Plates with flakes of pie crust and smears of vanilla ice cream rest behind us.
He's been quiet, but then he usually is. I stare at the fireflies that blink among the shrubs at the side of the house. They disappear only to reappear three feet away. I wonder what the lights mean. Are they for communication?
Are they pick-up lights?
Flash. Come here often?
Fox sits one step up and to my right. I wrap my arms around his legs and rest my head against his knee. His hand comes down to play with my hair.
Flash. I love you.
"What are you thinking?" I ask, being brave.
He sighs. "I have to leave tomorrow."
"Leave?" I question, not sure what this means. I pull away from his legs to look him in the eye.
"We've got a case. Scully and I are going out of town for the next three or four days."
"Okay," I say slowly, "where?"
"Delaware." His hand's still in my hair, but his face is in shadow.
"So, what's so special about this?" I feel some hesitation in him; it seems oddly out of place. "You were just up in Boston."
"That was for a conference." He shrugs. "This will be the first time I've gone away on a case since we got together. It's just...I know this will feel different -- for both of us."
I frown slightly. "I'll be fine," I say, "as long as you don't take off for good." Suddenly I'm thinking of Felix.
"It's just a missing persons case. It shouldn't be too dangerous." He stops talking and pulls me up next to him. A bright twinkle hovers on the horizon. "Look, it's Venus," he tells me, pointing.
The goddess of love.
It's Tuesday night. There's a baseball game on. I watch it because that is what he would do.
I put the General on my leg. I decide to explain baseball to him. "There are these two teams of men. One team stands in the field. One of the team members throws this ball at a player from the opposite team. He tries to hit it with this stick--" I'm cut off when the phone rings. "Excuse me," I say to him. I reach over and pick up my cordless phone from the coffee table. "Hello?"
"Hi," he says, laughing.
"Hi," I say a little more demurely.
"Scully and I just got back from dinner, and I thought I'd give you a--WHAT?"
I hear a cheering in the background. I look at my own television set where the umpire is waving his hands. I make an assumption. "Oh, come on," I say. "He was clearly out, even the General could see that."
"Smarter than a dog," the General says.
"You're watching the game?" he asks me. "With your bird?" he says a beat later.
"Actually he prefers public television, but I've got the remote."
Fox laughs. It's a good sound. I smile.
"So how are you doing without me?" he asks.
"Things were rough for the first few hours, but after I rent my sleeve and shaved my head, I felt much better. I even made the General a little black armband. Justine sent us down a casserole." I sniff loudly. "We're getting by," I say in a strained voice.
"My condolences for your loss. Do you know if the deceased happened to have left any running shoes behind...say, by your desk?" he asks nonchalantly.
I look over my shoulder to see Fox's shoes lounging around under my desk chair. "Yes," I say. "They were his most treasured possession." I pretend to get choked up. "They had air-cushioned soles." I press a fisted hand to my mouth, though my audience consists solely of one bird.
"What a schmuck that he left them behind then," Fox jokes. "Wait a sec--" A swish of a door opening over carpet. Fox: "No, I'm not. I already called him. Nerissa. Okay, but he's got your number too. I said okay."
"Okay," he says, talking to me this time. "Um, I've got to go. I just wanted to let you know that I was all right. Bye." I hear him call out to Dana before the connection is cut, "Scully--"
"It's his job," I say to the General, though I'm really the one that needs convincing. "It's not her; it's his job."
"Doctor," General Lee says.
She's a doctor.
I'm drawn to them. She's my partner.
I suddenly feel very restless. I decide to call upstairs and ask Justine if she wants to go for a run.
Trying to fall asleep that first night without Fox is strange. He was right. This is different. Though probably not in the way he imagined it would be, or is this what he really had in mind? I can't stop thinking about him and his partner and the way they can hold entire conversations with just their eyes. Are they doing that now? The connecting door between their hotel rooms stands open in my mind's eye.
The next morning I burn my toast, pull an earring out while brushing my hair and ram my elbow into a corner on my dresser. I'm amazed that I didn't somehow accidentally drown in the shower, but I manage to get dressed and into my car without further injury. I go to work and try to act like a normal person who isn't dating an FBI agent who is out of town with his stunning partner. I eat lunch at my desk with the door locked.
I come home to find a postcard from a mushroom museum. It's postmarked Elsmere, Delaware. It says "Miss me? Fox" in his blocky writing. I run inside and pretend I'm not crying.
That night I regale myself with horror stories. I know Fox has been shot more than once. It would be just my luck if he got shot a third time. I wonder if the funeral of an FBI agent is as elaborate as that of a police officer. I fall asleep.
The third day I come to an understanding and stop worrying. I find I am able to get on with the portion of my life that is still unrelated to Fox. I just decide that even when he is in town he is still chasing after criminals. His life is in danger every day whether he is within reach or not. It doesn't make me feel better overall, but for the remainder of his absence, I worry less.
And the next time he tells me he'll be leaving, I make plans to go out to dinner with friends. I go shopping. I do laundry. I don't worry...too much.
The leaves are getting a wistful look about them, and a few are already dancing along the sidewalk under my feet. Fall is approaching. One year without Felix. One year later.
Last September Felix was alive, complaining about his students, the faculty, his book. This September I miss him. I have Fox now, though, and he's filled in a few of the gaps, added some decoration of his own.
I'm meeting him for lunch at the Post Office. He hasn't been around much lately, sleeping at his own apartment rather than mine. I miss him. I find myself almost running to our meeting place. The autumn will not take another one from me; after all, it's winter that's supposed to be the harsh one.
Fox isn't here. I check my watch. I'm on time. He's late, something that I've come to expect from him lately. I wait ten minutes...fifteen. No. Did I sense this approaching? His disinterest, his withdrawal?
Panic explodes inside of me, and I stomp one foot against the shiny tile. God damn him. My hands clench. I spin away from the warmth the building offers and leave into the September chill. The sun is hidden behind a tangle of dim grey clouds.
I won't let the fall kill me again. I cross the street to the Hoover Building and walk inside. I fist my hands in a strange version of crossed fingers -- for good luck. Let him be downstairs. Let him be busy. Let him have forgotten. Anything. Let him be alive.
I let go of my fists and press my hands flat to the marble of the front desk. "Is there any way I can get in touch--"
"Your name?" the guard asks.
"I'm Nerissa Malinowski, but I don't think I'm on the list, you see--"
He interrupts me again. "You're on here for Agent Mulder. Picture ID please? Sign here, Dr. Malinowski."
His boredom only makes me more furious. I show my driver's license to him then tuck it back into my purse. I sign the clipboard, but I'm not sure if I even spell my name right in my hurry. "The basement--" the guard begins, but this time I'm the one interrupting.
"I know the way," I say, going through the gates and heading for the elevator. The basement looks more than a little forlorn today. There are a few more stacks of cardboard boxes, and one of the overhead lights is flickering indifferently. I stop in front of his office door. If I left right now, later I could say I had forgotten our plans for lunch. I could lie.
"Mulder?" a voice calls out. It's his partner. The door opens to show me her worried face, but the worry disappears, and is quickly replaced with a composed detachment once she sees it's me. She returns to her desk, but leaves the door open. I walk in, leaving the door slightly open behind me.
I know the answer before I ask. Even so, I have to try. "Have you seen Fox today?" It's the wrong question. I'm supposed to ask if she's seen him lately, or if he said anything about meeting me for lunch. But I already know the answer, so asking the wrong question isn't going to protect me.
"Mulder didn't come into work today," Dana says calmly, looking at me from across the desk. The nameplate on it reads Fox Mulder. "He's not answering his phone."
"I was supposed to meet Fox for--" I break off and give a weak laugh. "It sounds like we're talking about two different people."
"I think perhaps we are." She's staring at a framed photograph that I can't see from here.
"I was supposed to meet him for lunch. He didn't show, so I came over here to see if he'd gotten held up. My name was on the list though," I say, tugging self-consciously at my visitor's pass. "There was no reason for it to be. We weren't planning on me coming in."
At this, Dana looks up at me. "A pass?" She looks back to the photo and whispers to herself, almost as if addressing the picture, "Mulder, what are you thinking--" She breaks off. "Why don't you take a seat?" she says to me.
I sit down in one of the visitors' chairs in front of the desk. Dana picks up the phone. "Yes, this is Agent Scully, I need you to look at the visitor's list. Agent Mulder called to put--....yes, Nerissa Malinowski. When did he request that pass?" She takes some notes on a piece of paper. "This morning...yesterday?" She sounds vaguely startled. "Thank you...no."
"Has he done this to you before?" she asks out of nowhere, hanging up the phone with a heavy clunk.
"No," I say indignantly. He wouldn't have lived to do it a second time. I had told him about Felix. He knew about the dreams.
"He left that message at the desk last night, probably calling from home -- his apartment," she says. I can't tell if it's a revision or a clarification.
"Why?" I ask, confused. "We were going to meet at the Post Office."
"Why'd you come here then?" Dana asks, folding the note in her hands in half, in half again -- like a child preparing to make a snowflake.
"It's right across the street. I was going to check if he was still here," I say, feeling like I'm being accused of something.
"I think that's what he was planning on. He knew he was leaving last night. This is his way of telling us." She crumples the note and throws it into a corner of the office.
"Leaving for where?" I ask, not understanding.
"Doesn't matter, as long as I'm not with him," she says, tense. "Mulder has...interests he feels compelled to follow -- alone."
"When will he be back?" I'm desperate for some reassurance, something I fear only Fox's partner can give me right now.
"I don't know." She smiles to herself. "I never know."
Tears are coating my face. My losses seem to be playing with my privilege to cry -- alternately taking and giving. So I can cry again. Thank you, Fox Mulder.
I sit on the bench where we met this summer. It's a Friday afternoon, but a cold one and most people are staying inside. I have a limited audience; still, no one's paying any attention to the well-dressed woman, crying on a street bench. I suppose I should be thankful, but all I feel is alone.
I don't go back to work. There's no way that I can. I get in my car and drive home.
All I feel is a blank numbness. I wonder which stage of the Kubler-Ross this falls under. He may not be dead, but this is still mourning -- the death of hope.
Denial? No. I understand what's happened here. Acceptance, then. Who would have thought it would feel so dull? So lifeless, so like death itself.
I was not angry with Felix for dying. That was not his choice, to die, to leave me. But Fox...I am sure once the numbness burns off I will be angry. But this is no comfort to me. The numbness overtakes me, and I dream.
The leaves are plastered wetly to my windshield. I can't see where I'm going. They press themselves tighter against the glass, unwilling to be ripped off by the wind that knots my hair and throws cold rain down my collar.
The window is open, and the curtains flail helplessly. I can hear the cell phone in Dana Scully's pocket ringing, ringing with no regard for the death in the air. One leaf drifts down to rest by her feet, high heels smudged with mud.
There's a little girl on the corner, eating cookies out of a box. The ribbons in her hair twirl in the wind. She says she's sorry.
I wake up. The phone is ringing. I don't know what time it is. I don't know what day it is. The window is open and cold rain is landing on my face. The phone stops ringing. I sit up, notice I'm wearing the same clothes...the same clothes as yesterday? I check my watch. Five in the morning on Saturday.
What does Paul McCartney know about yesterday? But then, what do I know? Five in the morning on a Saturday. I have to do something. I get out of bed, take a shower, get dressed and go to work.
There are a few people in the workroom. They give me strange looks. I ignore them. I'm making up for lost time, I tell myself as I sit down at my desk. I don't usually work on Saturdays, but I left early yesterday.
Yesterday. That word keeps ringing in my head. There's a chance it's there for good. Yesterday Felix died. Yesterday I didn't become a lawyer. Yesterday Fox left. The thought clenches my stomach and my jaw, and I refuse to think about it further.
Work. I hunch over my desk, one hand holding my head, the other holding a pen. I work.
There's a tapping at my door. I'm immediately reminded of Poe's "The Raven."
"Come in," I call.
The door opens, and Philippe stands framed in the doorway. He doesn't come in. "Haven't seen you in here on a Saturday since...."
Since Felix died. Don't say it, Philippe.
"For a year at least," he says, turning his head away.
I want to laugh at his discomfort. I want this to be funny. Philippe doesn't know what to say. That makes two of us. "I have some things to catch up with," I say, gesturing to my desk. "Some unfinished...things."
Philippe nods, still not looking at me. Who we're fooling, I don't know. "Do you want the door closed?" he asks, backing away.
"Yes," I say softly.
The door closes. I go back to pretending it's yesterday.
Yesterday...oh, I believe in yesterday...
The song is stuck in my head now, not just the word. Now there's music and rhythm, repeating and repeating in a strange string of endless nonsense.
There's a shadow hanging over me...oh, yesterday came suddenly...
After working myself stupid on Saturday I came back home to find an invitation to dinner written on the back of an old water bill wedged in my mailbox. Justine and Sharon. I had looked up to see Sharon watching me from the window, and I waved and shook my head no.
...now I long for yesterday...
Today I realize I should have forced myself to go. Should have stepped back into that life without Fox because I can't let him return after what he's done, and the sooner I accept that...the sooner I can start living without him. God, it's an ugly prospect.
Now it looks as though they're here to stay...oh, I believe in yesterday.
If I could just get this song out of my head. Those three syllables of longing, the way they linger, it's driving me crazy.
There is a knock at my door. I trudge to answer it. I'm slow, weighted down with all these yesterdays. I want them to go away -- I don't want to believe in them.
I open my door to find Fox's partner standing out on my front porch. My numbness muffles my surprise, but when I look at her face and any numbness I entertained vanishes.
They found him. I put one hand to my mouth, wrap my other arm around my stomach. God no.
They found him somewhere. His car forced off the road. Someone's bullet in his head. Those brilliant eyes of his blank. They must have found him. Because I have a feeling that that would be the only way to find Fox Mulder. Dead.
Don't tell me he's dead, I beg her with my eyes.
"Nerissa," Dana chokes out.
I shake my head in answer to her unspoken question and bite my lip. Suddenly I know what's going on. Dana had convinced herself that he would be here. We're two extremists, each at one end of the spectrum. The truth must lie between us.
"He's--he's not here," I stutter.
She shakes her head. He is not there either. I don't know what to do. Fox calls us his better halves. I've never asked where that left him.
"He's been so happy lately. I...didn't think he'd do this, again," Dana says, still standing on my doorstep. I'm too weak from my own distress; I can't let her grief in my house as well.
Something penetrates the worry. "Again? He's done this before?" Why would a man think himself so invincible from the love of others, so exempt from their concern?
Dana tries to laugh, but it only chokes her. "I can't count the times; he's done it so often. I--"
"Come inside," I say, deciding we should share our pain. It is a similar one, after all. She steps across the threshold. It's Sunday afternoon, but she's dressed in a fitted maroon pants suit. She must have been working. In all of the litanies of yesterdays, I forgot she was left behind as well.
We sit down at the kitchen table. I realize it's freezing in here. Or maybe it's just me, cold hands, cold heart. "Would you like something hot to drink?" I ask. "I think it's cold in here."
"I think it's cold everywhere," Dana says softly.
I get up and plug in my electric kettle. "He's done this before," I repeat. I lean against the counter and look at the floor.
"Townsend, Wisconsin; Arecibo, Puerto Rico; Deadhorse, Alaska; Hong Kong; Canada," she recites, staring out the window over the sink. It reads like a travel itinerary for a cheap travel agency. See the world, fly steerage.
"He does it while we're on cases too," she continues. "Leaves me behind. I don't think he realizes that I'd be willing to go with him. I think I'm the last thing on his mind at that point. Now it looks like we're tied for last place," she says, finally looking over at me.
We're equals now? Is that what she's saying? "He never should have done this to me," I insist, accidentally stressing the "me" and watching as Dana turns her head away again.
The steam escaping from the spout of the electric kettle is condensing on the window. It reminds me of holidays back at home where all the cooking made the windows fog up, and room was lit with white candles, glowing softly in centerpieces made of pine.
I turn and stare blindly out the window. I want to go home. I want a home. I unplug the kettle and bring it over to the table with two mugs and a tin of tea bags.
"Did Mulder say anything to you last week? Anything about what he was up to?"
So she has no idea where he is either. "No," I say. "I guess I didn't talk to him much last week. He never talked to me about his work, anyway." Past tense. Never talked. So I can speak the words even if I don't believe in them.
"Have his nightmares been getting worse? They make it hard for him to sleep sometimes," Dana says.
"He has nightmares?" I ask. I never saw one. He sometimes mumbled in his sleep or pushed his pillow to the floor, but he never had a nightmare. Not in my bed.
Dana looks at me, startled, as if she has betrayed him, betrayed herself. She clears her throat. "I just assumed you knew." Something is happening here. One of us isn't being told the whole story. I have a feeling it's me. "No," I say slowly.
"Maybe he was getting better," Dana says, biting at her lower lip.
"From what?" I ask, tired of being on the outside. What she says next does nothing to improve this.
"From the past."
"Is something wrong?" "Nothing is wrong really." "Are you sure?" "Nothing new at least." "Those things are often the worst...sitting in the dark never fixes anything." "This can't be fixed." "An even better reason not to sit in the dark."
The possibility that I ignored his pain by not even seeing it puts a sickness in my stomach. But he never told me. We are both to blame -- if there is such a thing as blame here. I force myself to swallow past the thickness in my throat.
The door to my townhouse rattles. Dana jumps, startled. I see how her hand trails down near her side. I've seen Fox do that when he's nervous or feels threatened. When someone is ramming their car up my tailpipe. In line at the movies. Funny noises outside. A squirrel climbing the tree by the window.
They're going for their guns. It's a gut reaction. They no longer stop to consider the more mundane excuses. Guns are the answer to everything that threatens them.
The door opens. Fox stands there in half of a three-day-old suit. He's missing the jacket and most of the buttons on his white dress shirt.
Across from me, Dana stares. "Mulder," she whispers, but it's more a breath than a word. She reaches out blindly for her mug and wraps her hands around it. She can't look away from him standing like death in the doorway.
I stand up.
Fox comes into the house and closes the door behind him. He's limping and cradling his right arm. He looks okay. He looks alive.
I never thought I'd be so desperately angry to see someone in my life. I attack him quietly, "Where the hell have you been?" Don't they say that on TV? My head hurts -- when had I become an actress?
"Aren't you going to ask me if I'm okay?" he asks weakly.
"You're here aren't you? As opposed to lying dead in some foreign country where they'd have to wrap you up in a box in order to send you home. So you must be okay."
Fox looks at Dana and then back to me, pleading his case without words. "What? Not in front of Scully? Dana feels the same way I do, only she won't say anything because she's trying to act professional -- a quality her partner seems to lack."
"This is my job, Nerissa. You knew that from the first day we met." Out of the corner of my eye I can see Dana shaking her head.
"This isn't your job, Fox. This is you defying your job. If this was your job, Dana would have gone with you," I say, pointing behind me.
"I had to go."
"And I have to do this."
Fox stares at me blankly.
"Do you think this is okay? Am I supposed to get used to this? Is this supposed to be fun for me?"
Fox shrugs, then winces from the pain.
"You disappear for three days and then return with a broken arm and a few new battle scars. Do you think I wouldn't notice you were gone? Or do you think I just don't care? You're wrong. Do you hear me? You are wrong, Fox. You have people that care about you, and this is not the way you treat them." I swipe my hand in front of me in a violent slashing motion.
"Felix did this to me. He left me -- forever -- without telling me. I'm not going to let that happen to me again. I love you, but I'm not going to let you do that to me." It is so easy to say "I love you" when angry, to make it sound like an accusation, a threat.
I love you, but--
I love you, but...
...but you're killing me.
Fox's jaw tenses even as his eyes soften. I am using love as ammunition. His only option is to take it as a hit.
"I'm not even going to ask how you got here. I don't care. I'll take you to Georgetown Medical, and then I'm taking you home," I finish. This has been much harder than I expected. But he doesn't argue with me, and I could have stood for it to be just that much harder. Instead it is somewhat easy.
Fox's eyes have darkened. Before he had left, he was practically living out of my house. He knows what this means. "You can't," he says.
"What do you mean, I can't? I will."
"My apartment is..." He clears his throat. "Destroyed."
"Oh. I see," I say, his confession not having the desired effect on me.
"Besides, I can't really move my right arm. I think it might be broken...."
Dana's still sitting behind me. She hasn't said a word. I know what she's thinking though. She's thinking Fox can stay with her. I don't like her thinking that.
"Do you want to change before we go?" I ask, not looking at him. I don't want to see how mangled he looks. He looks like hell. I wonder what monsters he was chasing after this time. One of these days he's going to catch up to them, and they're not going to like it.
"I'd like to change," Fox says like a sleepy child.
My head snaps up, but he's already on his way to the bedroom. Sensing something, he turns back to look at me. I beg myself not to plead with him. I have to be the strong one here. I have to be the one to let go. I can't. Not right now. Fox turns back to the bedroom, pulling the door shut only partway.
Dana is staring at me. "Nerissa?"
"How do you excuse his behavior? How do you rationalize this to yourself?" I ask, turning away and hugging myself.
"Until he does it again?" I ask bitterly.
"Yes," Dana says, inadvertently reminding me that there is much I don't know about that man in the other room, reminding me that she does know. This is becoming Fox and Dana understanding each other. But then why did he come here? Why didn't he go to Dana's instead?
"Nerissa," Fox's weak voice trails out from behind the door hesitantly.
I glance at Dana before I go to him. Before I came along this would have been her job. Not for the first time I wonder if she resents me, even slightly. Today I can't tell; all I can see in her eyes is worry. I push the door open the rest of the way and then close it behind me.
"Could you help me with my shirt?" he almost begs.
Despite missing most of its buttons, the shirt clings to him stubbornly. I unbutton the cuffs, carefully watching out for his right wrist, and, as he winces, I pay special attention to that shoulder as well.
I throw down the shirt to the floor and look up at him. His right arm is bruised and scraped, and there's an ugly redness spreading from his lower ribs to his hip and under the waistband of his pants. He looks down at me.
"What did they do to you?" I ask, biting my lip, not really wanting to know.
"Nothing I wasn't expecting," he answers. "Do you mind if I take a shower?"
"A shower? How do you expect to take a shower when you can't even take your own shirt off?"
"Well...I was thinking I might need some help. I don't want to have to do it alone in my apartment." He sounds so pathetic. He doesn't even bother to leer at me. Something is definitely wrong with my Fox.
"You're not going back to your apartment. You're staying here," I grumble ungraciously. "You can take a bath after we get back from the hospital."
"But you said--"
"I know what I said. That was just big talk. You know me...always threatening to kick ass but never actually doing it." Here it is -- the giving in. I knew it was coming.
"I don't know. I'm feeling pretty whipped."
I feel a faint smile creep across my face, but I don't think he sees it.
"So does this mean I get a sponge bath?" he teases, trying to get my attention. I'm not listening. I don't know when I looked away from his face, but I find myself staring at his shoes. They're covered in red dust.
"Nerissa?" he asks, putting his left hand on the back of my head, clumsily. I raise my head with his prompting and narrow my eyes at him.
"Nerissa, I'm sorry I disappeared."
"I could live with knowing you weren't going to be around for a couple of days, but you didn't even bother to tell me you were leaving. No excuses, okay? I'm reasonable, Fox. You obviously forgot to take that into account." I hope that if I openly declare my capacity for reason I'll start feeling more reasonable, maybe even become reasonable. I feel like a wobbly gyroscope just before it skids sideways and falls over. I do not feel reasonable.
"Nerissa, I'm sorry I've hurt you."
I don't want his cheap apologies. "What makes you think you hurt me, you bastard? Because I'm fine. I--"
Fox stops my lies by pulling me to him with his good arm, his hand still resting on the back of my head. I'm standing a good two feet away from him and have to take a big step forward so he doesn't tip me over.
He tucks me against his left side, my face resting on his chest. I put my left hand on his hip, and I put my other hand gently on his back, feeling the bunched muscles there. He is incredibly tense. I don't know where he found the energy.
"You look like hell, Reynard. Your cunning plans must have fallen through."
And I know that nothing's going to be all right, but for this moment, it's easy to wish it will be. We fall silent. Our breathing slows and synchronizes. I tighten my arms around his waist. I know I have to let go; I just don't know why I have to. Stubbornness, pride...maybe, but maybe I'm afraid. I pull away from him, sit down on the edge of my bed.
"What's wrong?" Fox asks me.
I look up at him, ready to laugh, but the concern in his eyes stops me. "I'm afraid," I say, no longer able to laugh.
I sigh. All that worrying I was doing about yesterday was actually misdirected. It's tomorrow I'm actually scared of -- tomorrow and myself.
"Nerissa?" Fox sits down next to me gingerly.
I squeeze my eyes shut, shake my head. I stand up and start looking for one of his shirts.
"Nerissa, look at me," Fox demands. I stop my search but don't look at him.
"This doesn't have to--" he starts.
"No, I think it does," I answer. "I'll love you, because I do, but that doesn't mean I can stay with you."
The sound Fox makes can only be described as a stifled moan. I find a clean T-shirt on the chair in the corner and turn around to look at him. He's still sitting on the bed. I walk over to him and gently pull the shirt over his right arm and then tug the rest of it awkwardly over his head and other arm. It looks a bit stretched at the end, but it's better than what he had on -- not so many tears, a lot less blood.
I put on a brave face, a fake one. "Come on, G-man, let's get you patched up." I push open the bedroom door. Dana is still seated at the table, her tea sitting cold in front of her. She probably doesn't know what she's supposed to be doing.
I'm sick of these two. I want them to leave. Alone I can handle either of them, but together they are unbearable. They're like twins or members of some secret society. I don't have the right handshake. I'm missing that shared womb time. I resent it.
"I'm taking Fox to Georgetown," I say to Dana. I can feel him standing behind me. I'll miss him being so close, taking it for granted that I want him there.
"I'll follow you," she says numbly.
"Scully's my personal physician," Fox whispers in my ear just loud enough so that Dana can hear him.
"I'm a pathologist," she says somewhat tersely.
"Like I said...."
I turn around to find him smiling at her. "Time to go," I say, herding him toward the door.
Dana and I sit in the waiting room. She's pretending to read a magazine -- "Field and Stream."
I'm yawning. It's late. I won't be going to work tomorrow. One more yawn encourages tears to form in my eyes. I rub them away. Down the hall I see a bandaged and prescription-carrying Fox limping our way. Dana must see him too; she puts down her magazine and turns to me.
"Nerissa, if he needs you, if he wants you, you'll never get rid of him. Know what...." She pauses, clearly asking herself if she wants to go on. "Know what you want from him before you give this another try. He's...." She stands. "He never gives up." She nods to me in farewell and goes to meet Fox. I watch as they talk in the hallway.
At one point he looks over her head at me for one intense second before his eyes drop back down to her face. He reaches out for her with his good arm and pulls her to him in a quick hug. She touches his cheek briefly. I look away, not jealous, just confused. Her high heels make quick tapping sounds as she walks away from him and down the hall.
Fox lies in my bed on his left side. He has his right arm tucked in close to his body. I have put a couple pillows behind his back so that he won't forget and roll over onto his bad side.
The doctor gave him some pretty strong pain-relievers because there was little else she could do for bruised ribs. Fox sports a girdle of medical tape around his abdomen, and I was instructed to keep him pretty drugged up so he could get some sleep and start healing.
I sit in a chair next to the bed, watching the way his chest rises, hitches as it hits a sore place, then falls again. His eyes are closed. His eyelashes curl against his cheeks.
I close my own eyes, feeling peaceful for some unknown reason. I'm ready to fall asleep in this chair when I hear him moving against the sheets. I open my eyes.
"Nissa?" Fox mumbles.
I smile at the abbreviation of my name. "What is it, Fox?" I ask gently. His eyes aren't even open.
"Did you know I have," he pauses, confused, "had," he says a bit more forcefully, "a sister?"
Both of us know the answer to that question. I know nothing about Fox's family. I somehow know that his father is dead, but I don't even know where his mother lives.
His eyes open, and they glitter in the dark. "I had a sister named Samantha. She was taken from our house in Massachusetts when she was only eight years old. I was twelve and supposed to be watching her. I think we were sleeping, and she was just gone. I've never stopped looking for her. I never will," he says.
I don't know what to say. I'm not sure there is anything to say. "Fox," I say softly, just that. I reach out and take his hand, wishing I had known this earlier. There are things I wouldn't have done, wouldn't have said if I had known. He must have known that too, planned it that way.
"Go back to sleep," I say to him. "I'm here." He looks a little sorrowed as he smiles and closes his eyes again. I hold his hand, thinking that of all the people I've ever known, Fox Mulder is the most alone. And he seems to like it that way.
The morning traffic starts up as a low hum, and I'm glad he's sleeping because I don't want him to see me crying.