Scully returned on a day when the sun rose in fire and set in smoke.
Mulder didn't see her approach. He was splitting wood behind the cabin and the sound of the sledgehammer hid the soft thump of the mule's hooves as it came up the overgrown lane. He didn't even know she was there until she came around the corner of the cabin, towing the ugly creature like a toddler with an oversized red wagon. "Mulder?"
He was lifting the sledge up for another swing when he saw her: instead of swinging, he shifted his weight over his right foot and lowered the sledge carefully to the ground. Two years ago, in the spring, he'd gashed his leg with the hatchet and Scully had to stitch him up. He'd come away with a lumpy scar and much more respect for the tools of his new trade.
"Scully," he said, and stopped.
The fires had been burning for weeks: it was September, after all, and the air always smelled of smoke this time of year. But Mulder suspected the Big Chief fire had jumped the river--there was ash in the air now, settling down like snowflakes over Scully's baseball cap and cracked leather jacket.
He looked at her: sunburnt and weary-eyed, her hands empty but for the faded neon of the mule's reins. There was a bundle tied to the back of the saddle, a net bag full of empty Dasani bottles hanging from the horn.
She wasn't looking at him; she stared around the yard, laboriously cleared down to the bare earth, the scrub cut back to a fifty-yard radius around the cabin. The squash was doing well, so long as Mulder remembered to water it; Scully raised an eyebrow at the way the vines trailed out of the raised bed and around the legs of the empty chicken coop.
"Pumpkins?" she asked after a moment.
Mulder leaned the sledgehammer against the chopping block and took a step closer to her. When she didn't move, he took another one.
"Spaghetti squash," he said. He was less than ten feet away and she hadn't moved yet. Something drifted across her face, a hint of a smile. The mule dug a foot in the ground and made a grumbling kind of noise. Mulder raised an eyebrow at it, the skin on his face feeling stiff, the facial muscles rusty. "New friend?"
She shook her head, moving her hand up the mule's reins to keep him in place. Mulder noticed some grey in the ponytail tucked neatly through the opening in the back of her cap. But he was hardly one to speak, now; apparently he'd inherited his grandfather's hair, which meant a swift transition from genteel grey temples to salt-and-pepper. Somewhere along the line, between late nights in the basement of the Hoover building and this penumbral existence, they'd gotten old.
"Couple of months," Scully said, and Mulder realized she meant the mule. "Traded a breach-birth for him," she added, and let her lips curl upward.
It hurt suddenly: a stabbing pain finally erupting, after nine months of solitude. He raised a hand, opening his mouth, fumbling for something to say, anything. "Scully--"
She dropped the reins and took both his hands, raising them to her face before walking forward into his arms. Her cap fell off as he kissed her, chapped lips against chapped lips, tasting the dust and ash on her skin. Her arms tightened around him and he couldn't ask if this time she would stay.
The mule whuffled and wandered off, heading for the squash patch.