In the bathroom, Scully pulled off her scrub top and let it drop to the floor. The constant pale of her skin reflected in the mirror like an unfamiliar ghost and she wondered when she'd gotten so thin. Her bra was loose and the bones in her shoulders stuck out like wings.
Too tired to put her shirt on just yet, she sat on the edge of the tub, still surprised by the ribs that shouldn't have been so visible. This life was starving her and she stared at the speckled linoleum until her vision blurred, unable to remember eating dinner or lunch or having anything more than a cup of coffee and a muffin for breakfast.
It felt like they'd been in Indiana forever. She'd lost weight, Mulder had lost sleep, Skinner had probably lost even more hair. The case had taken its pound of flesh from each of them.
They were leaving tomorrow and she still hadn't packed. The thought of gathering up her things overwhelmed her. She'd been in this hotel room too long and her clothes were no longer within arm's reach of her suitcase. She looked up from the faded linoleum and glanced at the back of the half-open bathroom door. Her navy pinstripe suit was still where she'd hung it after the press conference the day before.
"To the best of our knowledge the suspect is a weak man, incapable of action without the crutch of a rigid script. He does not pose a direct threat except in the situation we have outlined...."
It had been a strip-tease of Mulder's profile, and they'd given Scully the seven veils and tossed her up on stage. Later in the day, she'd caught a glimpse of the broadcast as she passed through the field office. At the time of the briefing, she'd known Mulder was behind her, but until she saw the footage she hadn't realized exactly how close he'd been.
From the camera's perspective it looked like he was standing beside her instead of behind her. His arms were crossed over his chest, his body slightly angled toward hers. They both looked very bored.
Seeing the TV, she'd stopped and watched, thinking, This is how other people see us, this is what we look like together. It made her self-conscious and a little jealous, as if anyone who looked at her and Mulder would be able to see things she could not.
Mulder had come up behind her then and put a hand at her waist. She hadn't jumped or even questioned what he was doing. It was him, and she knew that. Anyone else would have gotten an elbow to the stomach and a seat on the floor.
"Now there are two damned attractive individuals," he'd said into her ear.
That had been yesterday. Today they'd arrested one David Allen Hyde in conjunction with the bombing deaths of five Indiana women, and Scully had assisted the M.E. with one final autopsy. Certain she wouldn't be able to tolerate much more of Mulder's silent hovering, she'd tried to convince him to make an appearance at the party at Chen's and leave her to the dead body on the table.
Still, he'd lingered at the morgue, looking uncertain and fiddling with the cuffs of his sweater. He'd lasted until the M.E. got out the Stryker saw. The whine of the blade made his face go pale and he started backing toward the doors. Scully had caught up with him in the hall.
"I...I think I'll go to that party."
He'd surprised her. She hadn't expected him to go; she'd only suggested it as a subtle hint that he should leave.
"You can take the car," she'd offered. "Do you have the keys?"
"No, that's okay. I'll just get a ride. You can come pick me up when you're done," he'd said, reaching out to give the arm of her scrub top a light tug. Then he'd walked away, leaving her to stare after him in confusion.
She was glad they were leaving. Mulder started to get needy during these longer cases, and she started to forget why she wasn't supposed to let him need her.
She kicked the scrub top out the bathroom door. There probably wouldn't be enough time to return it to the morgue before their flight tomorrow. She resigned herself to the thought of another sea-green shirt to take home, this one stamped Wabash County. She didn't want any souvenirs.
Cold, she finally pulled her t-shirt on. It barely warmed her and she stood, trying to gather the energy to pack.
Her makeup was spread crazily across the counter from the night Mulder had pounded on her door and told her to get ready in five minutes. Angry that she couldn't find her lipstick, she had dumped her cosmetics bag upside-down.
Scully left the bathroom, deciding to leave the mess where it was for one more night. It would keep.
Her room had two dressers and a large closet with sliding mirrored doors. Her few pairs of socks and other pair of jeans were rattling around in the drawers, and her suits were making the huge closet look even more empty. Taking out the suits, she forced them into her garment bag, then tossed the piece of luggage near the bathroom as a reminder to pack the navy pinstripe.
She put a few pairs of trouser socks in the suitcase that sat on the extra bed, its lid cracked open like a steamed clam. Back at the dresser, she opened another drawer and took out a pair of silk pajamas. She tried to fold them, but the peach material stubbornly refused to hold a crease. She gave up and dumped the slippery mess into her suitcase.
"How come you never wear those for me?" Mulder asked.
Scully tensed and looked over to where he was reclined on her bed, long legs crossed at the ankle. He'd been so quiet that she'd forgotten he was there.
He'd only said a few words to her since she'd collected him from Agent Chen's house half an hour ago. She'd thought he was probably tired and wanted to be alone, but when they got off the elevator he'd followed her into her room and flopped down on her bed.
Now he was staring at her like he'd never seen anything so fascinating. They'd been there for two weeks, were leaving tomorrow, and Mulder had to choose tonight to go spooky on her.
"I'm too old for slumber parties, Mulder," she said, stifling the sigh that wanted to escape. She would have asked him to leave if she thought he actually would.
He was studying her, his eyes moving across her face as if looking for something. He paused at her ears. She was wearing the pearl earrings he had given her after returning from Hong Kong. He'd said they were a birthday present. It had been October.
"Not too old, Scully."
His gaze slid lower to her waist where her shirt was coming untucked, across the flare of her hips, down her legs. He glanced at her bare feet and smiled, briefly the Mulder she knew again.
He'd been acting out of character at Chen's house earlier, but she had assumed his increased affection was due to the beer in his hand. He'd been there two hours before she showed up, and though she didn't know him to drink, two hours was long enough to get decently drunk. Masterson was lucid, if tipsy, and Scully had noticed Skinner leaning against the wall as if his personal section of the planet had too much spin on it.
She'd found Mulder alone on the patio, looking up at the stars. Without turning around, he'd asked, "Interested in fogging up the windows of the rental?" It was then that she'd noticed the bottle he held. He'd turned, a suspicious grin on his face. "Oh, sorry, thought you were someone else." He'd laughed, and after some hesitation, she'd smiled in response, unused to Mulder being in such a good mood.
They'd gone back inside. Mulder put down his beer bottle, mock-whispered, "Just a second," and headed for Masterson. Before he got to her, he'd looked over his shoulder at Scully like he wanted her to stop him, so she'd stepped forward and tugged him back by the belt loops of his jeans. The pleased look on his face had made her laugh, and he'd put his arm around her shoulders and stolen a drink from her lemonade. They'd squeezed through the doorway together and up the stairs.
Upstairs, the family room had been filled with a more sober crowd. Chen's partner, Connie, had called out a good-bye, which was followed by murmured agreement from the others, and Mulder had given them a smile and said it was nice working with them.
Scully had watched this all from under Mulder's arm, wondering how a few beers could have changed Mulder so dramatically. Earlier in the morgue he had seemed depressed, two hours later and he was campaigning for Mr. Congeniality.
Once they'd gotten outside, Mulder had slowed, walking in the almost blind way he did when he was thinking. His arm was still around her shoulders, holding her to him absently.
He'd let go of her when they got to the rental. She opened the driver's side door and stood behind it, watching him as he leaned back against the car, staring up at the sky. It was how she'd found him on the patio, studying the heavens like a man trying to discern the meaning of the universe.
Closing her suitcase, Scully looked back at her partner. Stretched out on her bed in blue jeans and a tight black sweater, he looked sober enough, not like Masterson, who'd seemed about 40 proof and had whispered such fascinating things about Mulder in her ear.
Scully sat down next to her partner, tucking one leg under her. Her knee pressed into Mulder's thigh, and some of the warmth returned to his eyes. Maybe he was just lonely.
"Is something wrong, Mulder?"
It took him a while to answer. "No."
She wasn't sure she believed him. She changed the subject. "So how'd you get to Chen's house?"
Mulder rolled his head on the pillow and gave her a what-does-it-matter look but said, "I caught a ride with Connie. She was talking to Skinner in the hallway."
Scully nodded. "He stopped by after you left and asked how things were coming." Mulder shook his head a little. "I told him it wouldn't be much longer, but I guess you know how that turned out. You should have taken the car, Mulder. You were stuck there for two hours."
He shrugged, like a teenager in a sulk. "I helped Connie in the kitchen, watched Masterson play pool."
"Masterson?" Scully said, remembering how Masterson's sloppy whispers had made her blush.
"What?" Mulder asked. He sounded annoyed, as if she were bothering him in some way.
She frowned at him and stood up, tired of whatever was going on with him and wishing that he would just leave and be troubled in his own room.
"Why don't you go pack?" she suggested, turning back to her own suitcase.
Mulder grabbed her hand and made a face. "Sorry, Scully. I'm--" He sighed.
"I noticed," she said, "but I don't have the energy to figure you out tonight, Mulder. So either tell me what's bothering you or leave me alone."
He laughed and ran a hand through his hair, pushing himself up a little so that his shoulders rested against the headboard. "I'm fine, Scully. Just fine." His grin wobbled and she wondered again how much he'd had to drink.
"Sure," she said, giving his hand a squeeze, then turning away to pick up her book from the nightstand and stash it in her carry-on.
She made a few more halfhearted circuits of the room, rounding up some stray shoes and one of Mulder's ties. She snapped it at him like a whip. "This yours?"
He put his hand out and she whipped the tie at him again, letting him catch the other end and reel her closer.
He looked tired and lost. She was worried about him. "Did you have anything to eat today?"
"No, Masterson gave me half her sandwich at lunch," he answered, experimenting with his tie, apparently unaware he'd contradicted himself.
"Why don't we go down to the restaurant and get something to eat?" She tilted her head at him. "I need a break from packing."
"Me too," Mulder joked, throwing his tie into the air like it was a streamer. It landed on the lamp shade. "Come on, Scully, I'm buying."
She'd wanted tomato soup because it was late and chilly and she felt like indulging herself with comfort food. Mulder insisted she get a grilled-cheese sandwich to go with it, calling her un-American when she declined.
He'd ordered one for her anyway, smiling up at the waitress while he asked for pickles on his club sandwich, two straws for the vanilla milkshake, and a grilled-cheese sandwich "for my friend here." She didn't stop him, knowing that Mulder was the part of her that did what it wanted instead of doing what it should.
Now, with her chubby soup spoon in one hand and a triangle of grilled-cheese in the other, Scully felt like a kid, warm and relaxed. She was just stealing a sip of Mulder's milkshake when he looked up at her and said casually, "Hey, Scully."
Unwilling to make the commitment of having her own straw, she'd been using his, but now froze, convinced he was about to call her on it.
Mulder leaned back against his side of the round booth. "I think if Skinner had drunk one more beer tonight he would have tried to grab my ass."
She blinked and bit down on the straw still in her mouth. "What? Mulder--"
He nodded. "It's official, I'm irresistible."
She wanted to think he was joking, that this was some stunt he and Skinner had come up with while at Chen's, but she remembered Skinner leaning against the wall, his face red, something confused in his eyes. It explained Mulder's mood as well, his silences and odd stares.
She pushed the milkshake back to him. "What did he do?"
Mulder shrugged. "Nothing, really. My virtue, such as it is, is still intact."
"Are you sure?"
"About my virtue?" Mulder asked, putting his arms along the back of the booth and looking pleased with himself.
Scully sighed. He might be comfortable enough to joke about this, but that didn't mean she had to.
"About Skinner. You're all right?"
Mulder waved the question away like it was an annoying bug. "It was just unexpected. I had no idea he liked me that much."
Scully gave him half a smile. "Then what makes you so sure now?"
Mulder groaned and dropped his head back into the fake ferns behind him. "Come on, Scully, you know when someone's making a pass at you, don't you?"
"Usually," she said, allowing for Mulder, who she was never entirely sure of.
He spread his hands out as if to say "and there you go," then leaned forward again, returning to his fries.
"Mulder, he'd had too much to drink. He said or did something he's probably already regretting, but you're both adults, you'll survive."
"Sure," Mulder said, looking distant.
She smiled in apology and stuck her spoon in his milkshake. "Would it help if I told you what Masterson said about you?"
Mulder perked up. "Ooh, is it naughty?"
"It's pretty racy," she agreed, licking her spoon and watching him grin. He tugged on her fingers.
"You could whisper it to me."
"I could," she said, knowing she wouldn't.
He knew this too, and shook his head, staring down at the table and playing with her fingers. He looked lost again, like he'd been interrupted while speaking and now had no idea who he was.
She tried to forget she had the power to disappoint him. He always acted so independent, insisting that he didn't need anyone, and she allowed herself to believe that about him, that he needed no one and lived in a world where the ghosts in the basement were his closest friends. But it wasn't true, and had not been for a while.
"Pie?" she asked, trying to make it up to him. She played tag with his fingers, hoping to coax another smile from him. When he smiled it was easier to believe he was sane.
He obliged her with a tired grin. "If that's what Masterson whispered in your ear, I don't want any part of it."
The waitress came and cleared their plates. Scully ordered pie and Mulder played with his straw wrapper.
"You okay, Mulder?" She had to ask one more time, just to make sure, because he was off-balance, and she hated how unsteady that made her feel.
"Yeah, Scully." He knew what she was doing. "Just tired of Indiana."
It sounded like a euphemism, or an excuse, but it was Mulder, and probably all she'd get from him tonight, or ever.
"Me too," she said, squeezing his fingers and looking forward to going home.