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At Sea, At Anchor

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Mulder popped open the lid on his Diet Coke, stabbing with the straw at the ice that was trying to fuse into one solid iceberg in the middle of his cup. He broke it up into slush, shaking and sloshing it once he had the lid back on, the paper cup going soft on him already, sweating in the heat, the Coke sweet and ice cold. He got bits of ice through the straw, crunching it with his teeth as he scanned the crowd.

Georgetown Park, they called it, even though that meant “mall.” Then again, the Capitol Mall was a wide, grassy park… Mulder appreciated the irony, finding an out-of-the-way bench still in view of the fountain. It was crowded for Sunday, which was the point. He flipped his wrist, checking his watch. Ten minutes early. His disconcerting new habit these days, early for anything that got him out of his apartment, out of wiretap duty in dank, dark basements that weren’t his dank, dark basement. It was seriously starting to damage his reputation, the alienated rebel, chronically late, too fixated elsewhere for time to matter. Over the past year, Scully had become his clock, keeping him on track, on schedule, herding him into briefings on time, no heads turning or stern looks from Skinner when he ducked in the door fifteen minutes late. But, without Scully, something had backfired. He had not reverted to his old ways; his clock now ran fast, his watch something he checked nearly every two minutes— sometimes to find that two minutes had not even passed.

He sighed. Another trait he had absorbed from his partner. As if in her absence, the balance she brought to his world was still needed, a responsibility he now had to shoulder himself.

12:16. Then 18. Sun streamed down through the atrium ceiling. He’d gone for a run that morning, not long after dawn, before the heat grew oppressive. It was that time of year in D.C., to bask in the sunlight from inside a building. Air conditioning, ice cold sodas— these were the things, a reverse-hibernation, that kept cities sane. He’d never minded summer heat as a kid, dirt and sweat and months of time to kill. It was different in the city. More stifling, more trapped. Not even a breeze off the Potomac that made it through the city streets.

His wrist beeped. He blinked, quick to shut off the alarm. An old holdover from his non-punctual days, a habit to try to keep himself from losing time. Not just minutes could pass that way— but hours, whole days. Like sleepwalking, bad dreams. He tipped his face back up for a second to feel the filtered sunlight— more light than heat, held up high overhead. Someone shouted nearby. He rubbed his face, opened his eyes, part of the crowd once again.

It was near the west entrance he caught sight of her. He almost missed her at first, a full head shorter than most of the crowd that ebbed and flowed between them. Her hair was pulled back; she wore a blue t-shirt, not her usual beige. Her head ducked, angled down, like she was listening to someone, and then like she was smiling. Because she was. A flash of a smile he could see from that distance, even a laugh. Her lips moving then, Scully tucking a strand of hair behind her ear as she walked. 

It took Mulder another second or two to catch a glimpse— the short, tow-headed boy that walked alongside her, bumping his own way through the crowd, holding something— small bags, it looked like— that made him walk slowly. One in each fist.

Scully paused, her hand on the boy’s head to keep him beside her as she scanned the area, looking at faces. Saying something again to the boy as she caught Mulder’s eye. A glance passed between them that would get lost in the room, a brief nod of recognition. Scully lifted one finger off the boy’s head, a gesture directed at Mulder, hold on, one minute. There and then gone, moving off through the crowd.

It was habit that kept Mulder watching the entrance, searching the shoppers for anyone out of place. Habit and training, what kicked in automatically when his mind had moved elsewhere. Scully had mocked him at first, insisting as he did on these cloak and dagger routines, that they were necessary. You have an inflated sense of our importance, Mulder, she’d said. But then again Deep Throat had been shot, crumpling on the bridge right in front of her eyes, and he could see how deeply it still shook her. It quelled her protests. Indulging him, maybe, but still too high a risk to do anything less.

But now, watching her take it seriously— he felt foolish. Going through such a farce. Interrupting her Sunday even when she had her nephew in tow. It had never occurred to him that she would not be alone. He felt the twinge of guilt, one he hadn’t felt earlier over leaving the signal that he wanted to meet. She had a life. It was disorienting, as always, to place her in that context. She had family and friends. Errands to run. Obligations to people other than him, than their work. She had told him outright that she was as dedicated as he was to getting the X-Files reopened, but there was no way she could be. Nor should he expect her to be. He saw the inevitable: time moving on, with its days and weeks. A few more infrequent meetings. The occasional call, and then none at all. Scully busy, moving on with her life, her career, that inexorable tide that he never could quite get the hang of, how to move on. If she stayed with the Bureau, she’d pass him in the hall, now and then. One day, there would be a blank look on her face, a long pause before recognition dawned in her eyes— Oh hi, then a smile, how have you been? Strangers— not colleagues, not friends.

He swallowed. He almost got to his feet, ready to weave his way through the crowd, tap her on the elbow, shake his head, no, I’m sorry, some other day. He would do it. He could do it. He could. Couldn’t he?

For reasons he’d rather not analyze: no. He didn’t move from the bench. Selfish or foolish, always one or the other. Oftentimes both. Only a minute, he promised himself. No more than a minute. Scully was coming this way, a soft pretzel in hand. Negotiating, it looked like, with her young charge as they walked, trying to talk him into a trade.

She looked like somebody’s sister. From here, younger than her years. Short, fair and freckled, an extra few pounds on her frame that made her look fresh-faced and girlish, completely belying how she was forged of pure steel. The opposite of his type. He went for tall, dark, and the kind of brilliant that was more like torment, too crazy. The ones that were sure to outplay him at his own game, chasing each other away. Detonating like bombs any serious commitment long before he had the chance to fuck it up. It was safe, playing with that kind of fire. When he got burned, the damage was minimal, not enduring. Someone steady, solid, sure— that was what scared him. That could destroy him. Having someone like that to lose.

“Is this seat taken?” 

Scully stood right in front of him. Teasing him slightly before she sat down. In a good mood. Maybe even glad to see him, not the annoyance with him that he had expected. Two weeks since he’d seen her— that was a unit of time he had tracked.

“It is now,” he said, an awkward smile, for something to say.

The boy stood beside her, leaning into her leg. Holding two small bags, Mulder saw now, filled with water. Goldfish swimming.

“This is Trent,” Scully said. Explaining to Mulder, “My friend Ellen, her son. He’s with me for the day.”

So: godson, not nephew. Mulder gave him a smile.

“Trent, this is—”

“Fox,” he said for her, clearing his throat. He felt Scully glance at him sideways. Not the name she had started to say, but he’d learned long ago that it helped more than hurt when it came to kids, once he’d outgrown the beatings. Sure enough, Trent inched his way closer.

“Fox,” Scully echoed. Saying to Trent, “He’s my friend that I told you about. The one we came to see.”

She still had the pretzel in hand, wrapped in a napkin. She gestured to Trent and he reluctantly joined her, sliding onto the bench in a half-hearted slouch until she caught hold of him, lifting him next to her onto the bench. She used the momentary lapse in his focus to set the goldfish aside, upright in their bags, swapping that for the pretzel that she placed in Trent’s hand. “There,” she said, pinching off a large piece for herself. She broke that piece in two, offering half to Mulder. When he shook his head no, she smiled as she ate it, Trent stuffing a bite as equally large in his mouth.

“We were starving,” she said. “We’ve been going all morning.”

“I can tell,” Mulder said.

She smiled at him again, and then she turned serious, glancing around them. “You have something for me?” She kept her voice casual, but said the words low, meant only for him. Just like that, all business again, alert and efficient. 

He hesitated, then said, “I didn’t know—” A half-formed apology, glancing at Trent, but Scully dismissed it. 

“What do you have?”

The answer: a whole lot of nothing. At least, nothing so urgent it demanded this meeting. But what could he say? The truth, the part that made him feel foolish? That he’d largely invented this reason to see her, because he woke up that day and needed a friendly face? Just a few minutes, that’s all, of her conversation, her presence. Just the simple reassurance that he was not in this alone.

Instead, he laid his hand down beside him, touching the newspaper tucked by his knee. He slid it towards her an inch. It was folded; sticking out from the fold, a thick white envelope. She looked back up and nodded, leaving it right there in reach. 

“It’s probably nothing,” he said, his voice still low. “This guy, Arlinsky. He contacted me. Forensic anthropologist. I wanted to get your opinion.”

Scully nodded again. “I’ll look it over,” she said. “I’ll let you know.”

“Is that your name really?”

Trent’s small voice, interrupting. Wedged there against Scully, holding what was left of the pretzel in both of his hands.

Mulder looked up at Scully, then back down at Trent. 

“You mean Fox?”

Trent chewed a bite, watching him.

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s my name, really.”

Trent tipped his head back to look up at Scully. She nodded. 

“You wanna see?” Mulder said. He already leaned to one side, pulling his wallet out of his jeans. Careful to not flash it, he opened it up for Trent, pointing to the short name. Trent’s eyes went wide, ignoring the name, fixed on the gold badge. 

“Now you’ve done it.” Scully laughed softly.

Trent’s finger reached out, tracing the big block letters. FBI. He pushed the last bite of pretzel into Scully’s hand, taking the badge from Mulder, sitting up on his knees. He turned on his knees, facing her now, leaning back against Mulder. She seemed to know what was coming; before Trent said a word, she ate the last bite of pretzel, brushed off her hands and reached into her purse. Trent took the badge from her, holding it open too, studying one, then the other, his head moving back and forth. 

Mulder glanced down over Trent’s shoulder, the two-inch solemn-faced Scully that had stared at the camera, chin up, shoulders squared, a force to be reckoned with even then. The same photo he’d seen when word came down she’d been assigned to his office, leaving him unprepared for the woman who’d walked through the door.

“This one’s like that one,” Trent was saying.

“That’s right,” Scully told him. “We both work there. Together.”

Directed at Mulder this time, Trent said: “You do?”

Mulder said, “We do. We were partners.” 

Scully sat leaning sideways into the back of the bench, her elbow propped up, resting her cheek on her hand. “We are partners,” she corrected him simply, still speaking to Trent.

Mulder stared at his own face, looking up from the badge, too serious, too naive. He felt it again, the pit in his stomach. A longing for something he couldn’t name, much less fathom. A groundswell of loneliness. He was an expert by now at keeping that off his face, but Scully must have seen it. Her hand touched his arm on the back of the bench. A tentative touch, getting him to look up.

He did. She didn’t smile. She simply returned his gaze, her short hair coming loose from her ponytail, gold cross caught in the neck of her shirt. Anywhere else— in the office, alone— he would have reached out to straighten it without even thinking. Communicating in gestures, in silence, when he didn’t have words. She didn’t either: she squeezed his arm. His forearm, bare, where he was dressed in a t-shirt, not a suit and tie. Casual, just like she was, without some of their armor.

That’s what had changed, since her father died. She had been hiding out, disappearing into her oversized trench coats, using those extra layers to shield herself from the world. He knew the feeling. The loss, the instinct to withdraw, to regroup. But with him, she stayed open. She tried to stay open, exposed and vulnerable, as much as she could, letting him in. He only now saw the difference, believed it, the trust she placed in him. The extent to which she considered him a friend, not the enemy. Like a gift she had placed in his hands before he’d ever asked.

His impulse, right then, was to refuse it. Somehow, shove it back in her hands, before it cost her everything. His fear disguised as self-sacrifice, not wanting to handle the cost himself. It was too high. Everyone he came to trust, to love, to need— it ended one way. Scully had seen it herself, her hands shaking slightly, flecked with dried blood, there in the hospital when she’d told him that Deep Throat was gone. Trust no one, she’d told him, Deep Throat’s last words. Sitting right there in front of him, the one person on this planet he would trust with his life.

Scully, with one more squeeze, let go of his arm, breaking into his thoughts. Trent had started to fidget, not even the FBI holding a six-year-old’s interest for long. “We better go,” she said, taking their badges from Trent. She folded hers closed, handing the other one back to Mulder. He slipped the badge in his pocket, watching her gather her things. She paused before she stood up, saying to him, “I’ll be in touch.” Sliding the newspaper with its folded contents into her purse. He nodded, Trent climbing over his knees, ready to take off. Scully got to her feet, calling Trent back, and said to Mulder, like a non sequitur, casual once again, “The Lion King’s playing at four.”

She had caught hold of Trent, brushing crumbs off his shirt. “This one’s seen it twice,” she said, tweaking Trent’s chin, teasing him, smiling. She looked back at Mulder. She offered, “If you want to join.”

Mulder smiled at the picture the two of them made in front of him. He shook his head no, taking the offer for what it was— something she wanted to offer, something she didn’t think he’d accept. He was grateful for the gesture. “I told the guys I’d swing by,” he said. 

“Good,” she said sincerely. She always did that, feeling better about leaving him when he had some place to go. Was he really that much a lost cause? But then Scully was saying something else, pausing, going, “The short one…?”

“Frohike?”

“Tell Frohike no.” 

A slight grin curved at her mouth, tugging one side of it upwards.

Mulder winced. Chuckled, winced.

“Oh no. What did he say?”

But Scully was shaking her head. “No, whatever he says— tell him I said no.”

Trent was tugging her hand. Mulder sat there grinning, Scully giving it back, the two of them sharing the joke. No part of today was anything like what he’d pictured. A few seconds passed before his grin faded, as did her own. She leaned down, holding Trent still to say something in his ear. Trent frowned, and she said, “Go on,” nudging him forward. 

Trent stepped toward the bench. Mulder had forgotten it too, the two plastic bags full of fish. Trent had turned goofy now, leaning his belly on the edge of the bench, lifting his feet off the floor, stretching to reach the first bag. Mulder slid the second one closer, Trent grabbing at it with his small hands.

But when Trent stood up, he looked back to Scully, then back to Mulder. He stuck out one hand at Mulder, one plastic bag full of water, three fish.

“Tell him thank you,” Scully said.

Mulder looked up, and blinked when he saw she was talking to him, not to Trent.

“What?” he said.

“It’s what you need,” she said. Holding on to his gaze. “Something to take care of.”

Trent thrust his hand further. Before he knew what had happened, Mulder had the bag in his hand. Trent stepped back towards Scully, bumping into her knees. Holding the other bag in a hug to his chest, lest anyone ask him to relinquish it too.

“I don’t—” Mulder started to protest.

“Take them,” Scully said, the final word. Mulder saw then that she had acted on impulse. Not sure herself why she had done it, starting to doubt it. She had not thought it through. It was those instincts of hers, though, same but yet different, that had saved his ass several times over. If he was going to rely on her instincts, he needed her to not doubt them. He looked back down at Trent.

“Thank you,” he said to the blond-headed boy.

Trent showed him a shy smile, the first real one he’d given to Mulder. He pointed at the fish. “You can name that one Fox.” 

Mulder held in a smile, taking the kid seriously. “Okay,” he said.

“And that one’s named Sam.” 

At the sound of the name, Mulder glanced up automatically, looking at Scully. 

“That’s his dog’s name,” she said softly, before he could start believing that all kids were clairvoyant.

“That one’s name’s Tiger,” Trent was saying, oblivious. “No! Lion.”

“Okay,” Mulder said again.

Scully smoothed down Trent’s hair, the gesture full of affection. Trent squirmed, ducking out from her hand, slipping away.

“Bye, Mulder,” she said, and then they were gone.

12:38 read the clock, over the main exit. Mulder sat there a moment as the second hand moved around. Watching, out of habit; making sure no dark suits moved to follow Scully out the door. His soda, where he had set it aside, had sweated a puddle. He checked his own watch, then looked back up at the clock. They read the same, only a few seconds off. No missing time.

The three fish, when he lifted the bag up in front of his face, bumped around in slow circles. One of them swam right up to the plastic, eyeballing Mulder, seeming to return his level gaze. He wondered if it were true— if goldfish were doomed to reset their memory every three seconds, living their life in those perpetual increments. It seemed like those sorts of myths were always proven false. Unexpected frontiers, depths that nobody guessed, even right there in a fishbowl. The fish popped his mouth open and closed, spreading his gills. 

What now? There was his natural inclination, in every area of his life except work: the minimum of effort for the minimum results. A bowl from his kitchen cabinet, filled with tap water. For some reason, though, in his mind, he pictured Scully walking into his place. The arch of her eyebrows at his lack of effort, the rueful shake of her head as he met her low expectations. It made him want to do… something. That she wouldn’t expect. That made room in his life for something besides himself. Thereby proving her wrong— either that, or proving her right.

He puffed out his cheeks, then exhaled the air. “Well, boys,” he said. Wondering where you bought fish food on a Sunday in June.