Ominous clouds huddle low against the horizon, grey stacked on grey. The road is a ribbon of emptiness stretching out until the next hill, cracked pavement unpatched after a winter's thaw. No semis to pass, and no troopers to give Mulder yet another friendly warning. Driving through Wisconsin wasn't like this in the years when they were investigating UFO crashes and alien DNA in the cows. Nothing's that simple anymore.
Gas is a problem the way it never was back then. Not exactly Mad Max, but there aren't any enclaves of survivors selling it at the off ramps for $1.29 a gallon. Scully's driving, so Mulder listens to the ham radio and directs her to a station near Black River Falls. Tribal governments do a better job these days of keeping distribution lines open, since they're not implicated in selling out humanity like people with the title of Senator. Funny how unpopular that makes leaders; their plans for hegemony died with them.
No more roadside stands; farmers don't want to be infected with the black oil, and strangers are regarded with suspicion at best. Only place to pick up provisions in these parts is a market where an armed cashier hunkers down behind glass and most of the food seems to be unappealing remnants of Cold War stashes.
But the locals are selling their goods here; Scully passes up the MREs and pasteurized processed cheese food, spying a small wheel of hand-cut aged cheddar. It's undyed, and its bright creamy shade says the cows ate well enough that spring. The pastures are in better shape than ever, with the human population half of what it was. Against all odds, there's even a peck of apples, and she picks up the red basket by its wooden handle and pays for her selections before they change their mind. She counts out loonies and toonies, Eisenhower and Susan B Anthony dollars. Something about the end of the world makes people take comfort in the clink of actual metal.
Mulder joins her outside, having traded too much of their remaining cash for an irregular baguette and a brown jug. At her raised eyebrow, he says, "Homebrew. Not a lot of wine coming in from Napa these days."
Scully shakes her head. "Mulder, nobody's heard from Southern California in over a year; there are blockades starting at Vegas. Ever since the Hoover Dam went, it's been considered a loss. Not much agriculture with no water."
"Doesn't look like water's going to be a problem here," Mulder replies, eyes turned upward.
Scully breathes in the smell of oncoming rain. The scientist in her says that a downdraft from thunderclouds carries ozone to ground before the storm, but the taste of wet pavement always reminds her of that first case in Oregon, of laughing with Mulder in the rain. As they hurry back to the borrowed Chevrolet, the vanguard of raindrops begins pockmarking their windshield.
"Frohike claims he's talked to hams who've been in the dead zone. The colonization forces were strongest there." Mulder slides behind the wheel, twisting to set the growler of beer on the floor behind his seat. Scully opens the passenger-side rear door to put the basket of apples on the back seat, noticing Mulder's angular hip and shoulder effortlessly turning back. "San Diego, I think he said they were from."
Scully slides into the passenger seat and relishes leaning back, stretching out. Mulder requires much more legroom than she does, but she'll leave the seat like this. She scoffs, "A disembodied voice will spin a tale to anyone who will listen. Let's believe the ones willing to meet with us."
These days, no-tell motels are thin on the ground. Went the way of the entertainment industry, both relics of a time that isn't coming back. But many of them were hastily abandoned, and they find such a one tucked away in the new-growth forest outside what used to be Madison. Local government fared better than national, but the more political a city, the more likely that ashes are all that remain. Droplets of rain start to pepper the windshield as they pull into the inaccurately named Sun Prairie. Scully's happy to get off the road before the storm.
When they pull up, there's a man standing on the wood chips that used to be a lawn. His revolver is more deterrent than threat, since it's not pointed at them, but he doesn't look like he's about to offer them room service. They step out of the car, and Mulder tries the line that sometimes works.
"Federal agents." He flashes the worn badge he no longer has any right to use.
"Ain't no federal anything anymore," the man says. "This here's my place. You move along now."
Mulder doesn't take that well. "Okay, how about two people with guns?" He slings his thumb into his belt, showing his sidearm.
"This is Wisconsin. Lotta people have guns." But the man shifts uneasily.
"Two people with loaded guns?" Mulder says, an eye flicking to the empty cylinder of the man's revolver.
Time to defuse this situation. "We've got apples to trade," Scully says, and the local brightens considerably. She reaches back through the car window and shows one off.
"Got clean sheets in room seven, if you've got an even dozen of those beauties."
She thought that might work; pollination has been erratic ever since the bees were co-opted for much less helpful purposes. The way to a man's heart doesn't have to be through his ribcage.
There's a sagging porch outside their drive-up room, but the rain is picking up, so inside they go. The room is cozier than it looked from the outside, with solid wood chairs and a table by the window. Between flashes of lightning, Scully carves pieces of bread and cheese while Mulder pours two mugs of amber liquid.
"Almost forgot," Mulder says, and pulls out a packet of sunflower seeds, tearing them open and crunching on a few. The scattered shells make her smile, a reminder of an easier time
They share their repast, cozy enough, in this oasis outside of time. Mulder tosses her an apple, and Scully sits, legs tucked up on her chair, across the table from the only constant in her life. The resistance demands so much attention, so much criss-crossing the country as the Lone Gunmen pass them tips, that Scully is bone-tired beyond anything she felt in medical school, beyond the long hours of their years in the FBI. But time is wearing short and there's too much left to do.
A pack of Morleys lies forgotten on the floor next to the sagging bed, mute testimony to the general indifference of the proprietor, if their host can be described as such. But Mulder and Scully are tired enough that any non-moving surface will do, even if it's not the cleanest. Mulder picks the foil up, crushes it in his fist.
"Cancer Man has his minions still." The glittering intensity in Mulder's voice when the conversation wanders near Krycek says more than Scully wants to examine.
"Come to bed," she urges. Kicking off her shoes, she wriggles her toes in relief. She doesn't wear the heels she once did; those require even surfaces and are wholly unsuited to driving. Still, at the end of the day her feet are telling her she's not as young as she once was. Romance of the open highway be damned; driving all day is hard on the body. And the road's all they have at this point.
Mulder watches the flashes through the window, and she watches him, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallows. Never thought they'd make it to this place, but the frisson between them from the first day they met makes it all but inevitable.
Hands slipping along slick skin, and Scully's finding all the places Mulder's sore from the day. Scars speak volumes about what they've been through together, and she hovers above him, runs her fingers along the traces of where she shot him. Mulder reaches up, caresses her jawline, sets his index finger against her lips before she can speak.
"Don't tell me why we shouldn't, Scully," he says.
"I wasn't about to, Mulder." She's not exactly lying. Yes, she was going to tell him that they shouldn't, but then he shucked his shirt off and her pants ended up on the floor at some point in a blur of kisses and touches. Months of pent-up desire disappear into necessity, into right.
Raindrops bead on the window, sparkling in the dim light from the parking lot. The sky's brightening towards the east, and Scully slips out of bed to the restroom. She blinks in the harsh light of the single bare bulb hanging above the sink, and finds herself grateful for the running water and toilet paper. Enough time logged in abandoned rest stops makes a woman appreciate the simple things in life.
She looks in the mirror and asks herself questions without answers. There are so few simple things left; this thing with Mulder certainly isn't one.
Come dawn, they need to be on the road. But until then, Scully heads back to bed and cuddles up against Mulder's sleeping form. She pulls the scratchy sheet over their nakedness; there's a chill in the room, but Mulder's warm. The world's gone to hell, but neither of them is facing it alone.