"Nothing ever happens," Mulder wakes himself saying, jerking back from the depths of sleep.
Scully's face is a stern half-moon in the driver's seat.
"Hmm?" she says, eyes on the road.
"Dreaming," he says rather pathetically, hauling one shoulder up.
"About your love life?"
"Hah," he says. She smirks to herself. Every now and then he remembers she is someone's little sister.
A semi oozes past, its bulk as eerie as the lanternfish Mulder saw in a photo, the small lights set to tantalize with false promises of goodness within. The rental car hurls them through the night, back to the hotel, after the long day of pounding on the doors of innocent farmers. The air conditioner has the same hushed burble as his aquarium filter. The night is clear enough to swim in. If he rolled down the window, the dark would spill in and flood the car. He spins out a story in his half-awake mind: he and Scully, in their rented (though stolen would have more glamour) subaquatic transport are speeding towards the last outpost of civilization to confront the crooked Merpolice. He finds he is holding his breath and abandons the narrative. More apt to be pioneers. The thought of Scully's face hidden beind a ruffled bonnet is too entertaining to pass up.
"Think the Homestead Act is still in effect?" he asked.
Her mouth crimped. "This isn't a Conestoga, Mulder, and you're not a country boy. You'd starve without a deli."
"You hunt, I gather. What do you say, partner?"
"After seven years, you expect me to be suddenly amenable to your lunatic schemes?" She makes a smooth stop at a deserted crossroads and sets the car in motion again.
"But you were so good with those pigs," he wheedles.
"Only you would want to settle down by actually settling," she says, putting the turn signal on though there isn't another car on the road. She pulls into the parking lot and noses the car into a slot, equidistant from the cars on either side. He hovers as she unlocks her door and slips in.
"Night, Mulder," she says, tipping her head against the frame.
"Night," he says as she pushes the door to and slides home the bolts. He lays awake in his mirror room, arm cocked over his head so that the back of his hand rests against the wall, trying to feel her heartbeat through the dark.
What the hell are they doing?
There was a time his days had purpose, but now he finds himself floundering. A day's work? A life's work? A fine romance, a deadly drama, a comedy of errors? Scully is no waifish Ophelia, but there are days he fears they'll all end up dead due to the miching mallechos set off by his own determination. At least piles of manure aren't as likely to kill them as most of his demons.
He remembers when he met her, the cool firmness of her handshake and the bad cut of her suit. She is leaner now. Honed is the word he would use: it suits the way they scrape against each other. She has the clean compact lines of his Sig and he reaches for her the same way in a crisis. She isn't pretty. The word isn't in her vocabulary, with all the frou-frou softness it implies. If he can say she is beautiful, it is the beauty of the scalpel's edge. He feels softer by the day, his hand always half-extended to her. There are weekends he orders two coffees just because he forgets she isn't there. He drinks the second and buzzes for hours, having learned to tolerate cream in his coffee rather than face the shades his brain creates.
He dreams about picket fences and Scully with a fond palm cupped over the head of a blond boy. He wakes in a sweat. She deserves more. Not just someone who calls to say, "Hey, I found a musty old file, want to get takeout and give up your weekend?" She merits someone who calls to say instead "I was thinking of you" and leaves it at that. She deserves to be the sign and the signifier. He still loves the hunt, too, with a modern man's shame over the thrill of the chase. Dress it in a suit, give it a pistol, and call the hunt a puzzle or a profile or a case, but she's right: he gets off on it. She rides with him, but it doesn't take her to the same place. Bad motels, bad food, his everloving need to track the villain to his last hideout. Or maybe she does feel the call of it these days: he's guilty about that too. What has he made of her, this serious woman whose family hardly recognizes her? The two of them in coordinating blacks, him stooping along in the shadows with her ramrod-straight and stern beside him.
Who would she be if she weren't his Scully? How many hours of laughter has he stolen from her? How many years of ease? He feels the weight of his debts as an ache when he runs, a tug between his shoulders when he drives.
So she isn't pretty (too severe, too pale of skin and sharp of chin) and she rubs him, god, the wrong way entirely with her pointed insistence on the rational. There are days lately that they just prickle at each other until the air is so charged he isn't sure one of them won't take a swing. He gets smug and she gets arch and he wants to remind her of Scully-that-was with the bad suits and the naivete, but the quips dry up when he looks at Scully-that-is, who might just shoot him to shut him up, her eyebrow cocking almost audibly as a pistol. It was easier when they were upstairs, Moose and Squirrel against the Badinovs. Now they've won and they're back in their weird seclusion, and he spends all day trying not to think about things. Diana and Spender and the enormous scar on Scully's stomach and a normal life and that's just for starters. Scully nags at him: he should be thinking of his knees, his cholesterol, his prostate, his geriatric future chasing phantoms, and he almost blushes under her cool stare as she dissects him and gets irritable about that.
"You want to be the one saying I told you so for once?" he snaps. "I'm sure when I'm dead you'll find a reason." She doesn't rise to the bait, just purses her lips and turns away, and he spends a couple of hours coming up with a good retort for her to have said. "Sooner rather than later" or "I've already seen you naked, I understand the situation" or a reminder of how it's her logic that turns him into something the world doesn't shun. But none of them measures up to her eloquent silence and the fact that she's still here (god, the miracle and the thorn in his side) and it makes him crankier and crankier until he has to go to the vending machine and buy a candy bar to drop on her desk. She raises an eyebrow and splits it with him, both of them with sticky fingertips and dense mouthfuls of nougat and peanut. She swallows with an effort, taps her lower lip with one finger. He licks exaggeratedly at his mouth and tastes caramel. She nearly smiles.
There are some days they're so in synch it's as if they're sharing a skin. He never thinks of it until later, when he turns and she's not there. But they haven't either of them been there, lately. In the bullpen, he can't even stare surreptitiously sideways at her profile.
They talk on the phone in the evenings, too accustomed for self-consciousness. He doesn't remember how many times he's heard her fall asleep, even in the middle of some hushed dispute. He thinks of her, limbs askirl in the comforter, wearing those shapeless pajamas. He wants to ease her out of them, put her in his oldest, softest t-shirt, watch her curl around him as she dreams. Hell, he'll let her drool on his chest if that's what it takes to see her unlimber that prickly standalone self-assurance. She must have been a girl once, laughing with those blue eyes, listening to rough-voiced men croon about how they needed her to need them. He likes to think that he could stop running long enough to spend the morning reading snippets of news stories to her.
He stares at the phone on the table. It lies there, implacable. He sighs, picks it up, and hits the button.
"Scully, it's me."
"Mulder," she says with a touch of reproval, "it's Friday night."
"It only feels that way because it gets dark early," he says, glancing at the dusky mirror of his window.
"Mulder," she sighs.
"Yeah," he says, and almost hangs up.
"And?" she prompts.
"There's a haunted wood in West Virginia that's very scenic this time of year," he says.
"The hotel has a hot tub," he says. "And the hike up to the site is gorgeous."
There is a long moment of silence. He hums The Eagles under his breath.
"Pick me up in half an hour," she says and hangs up.
They spin out the long miles between haunted places together in a silence he likes to call comfortable. He has been a connoisseur of silences since Samantha disappeared: his mother's, Phoebe's, Diana's. Scully's are sometimes cool or pointed but never cruel. The evening dims into early night. He wants to hear stories of her childhood, wants to relate the play-by-play of sandlot games from the days when Samantha was there, pigtails bouncing against her shoulders as she scrambled for a foul ball and held up the game. Instead he tunes the radio to NPR and feels Scully slouch next to him, relaxing into a concert of Bach's sonatas. She props one stocking-sheathed foot on the glove box.
"You like Bach, Mulder?"
"I live for Bach," he says easily. She flashes him a look and he quirks his mouth in a doesn't-matter smile. Those are times he doesn't like to think about, when they were separated, when he abandoned her without looking back and she came anyway to save him from his follies. Dana Scully, Our Lady of Second Chances. He'd lay flowers at her feet, but she doesn't suffer reverence well, the deflection of affection almost automatic between them. Not all wisdom has benefits, he thinks: too wise to woo, they are stuck in the stasis of longing and denial.
The stairs to the basement still smell like smoke when he goes to salvage his files, and his car still smells like Diana's perfume, however he tries to air it out. Betrayal has an acrid bite in his nose. Scully's hands are ashy as they sort through burned fragments of manila; he is aware that he does not deserve her.
West Virginia will not solve any of this, but he is longing for the old earnest purity of the supernatural after the months and months of bureaucracy. After the indignity of being dragged out of their basement. After the wedge Diana has put between them, after his new disillusionment, after his near-drowning. A nice trip to the woods, one that won't end in some ancient hollow filled with bones or the two of them dehydrated beyond recognition. It is tending toward autumn in the mountains, and he has hope again.
She's seen him naked before with those doctor eyes, one self-inflicted health concern after another. He frets that when the day of glory comes she won't see him as anything but a collection of troubles bundled in a too-familiar skin. Where's the mystery of undressing each other when they know all the scars? Where's the room for shadows and secrets and discovery?
All these dreams of yielding, but in the light, they brace their feet and bicker, an endlessly rehearsed debate.
They get in too late for the woods, just collapse in their separate rustic rooms. She yawns through breakfast, but he plies her with coffee and drags her up the mountain.
"What am I looking for?" she asks, her feet clompy in her boots. She has brought a pack with food and water and a good pocketknife. He has a compass in his pocket and a pamphlet in his bag about the local hauntings.
"Any sign of haints, spectres, manifestations, you know."
"Projectile vomiting?" she asks wryly, and pushes up the sleeves of her fleecy pullover.
"Breakfast wasn't that bad, Scully. Now get ghost huntin'."
"Mulder, is this an apology?"
He stretches his legs and outpaces her, scrambling up outcroppings just because he can. The ghostly copse is bright and sunny, the leaves just edged with crimson and yellow.
"Look at that, Scully," he says, putting out his arms and spinning. "Have you ever seen a place more positively haunted?"
She laughs, unpredictably. They eat apples and spit out the seeds. She chose the apples from a bowl in the dining room; he doesn't recognize the names of the varieties when she says them. He thinks, briefly, that he should give it all up and they could grow apples instead. In the evening they sit by a fireplace and the owner of the inn tells them all the ghost stories. Mulder takes notes. Scully stares dreamily into the flames. They slip into the hot tub under the stars, Scully in a very functional one piece, her towel close at hand against the chill in the air. They seem to be the only guests at the lodge. He swats at a lonely mosquito. Scully peers up at the sky.
"You know," Mulder nudges her toes in the water, "if we went up there now, maybe we'd catch Old Smoky in the act of spooking deer."
She regards him, her eyes half-lidded through the steam. "Mulder, was there even a ghost here?"
"There's always a ghost," he says.
On Monday, they don't talk about it.
Sometimes he sees himself as she must see him, on bad days. Hulking, crowding Mulder, deranged Mulder, screeching inanity even the Gunmen would discount out of hand. Broody, sulky, disturbed Mulder, who hasn't had a date or even a bedroom in years, who has more than once held a gun on her. Same old same old, dragging her across the nation's pale and seedy underbelly for the sake of an anonymous newspaper clipping or a breathless phonecall.
"Why do you trust these whackos?" she asks once, point blank Scully bluntness. "Mulder, are you just aching to have faith in someone?"
He bristles, ignoring the opportunity to be sweet. "They're not whackos. They're truthseekers."
"They're attention seekers." She is already turning away.
"Please don't undervalue my work," he says stiffly, stirred into adolescent sudden outrage so that his elbows jab at the fabric of his suit and his ears feel too large, awkward, hearing sly whispers. "However little you may respect these people and their struggles to confront the paranormal aspects, things that people like you say shouldn't exist, they deserve at least the justice of being listened to. This is my life, Scully. I'm not apologizing."
Her shoulders tilt. "It's become my life."
He punches the buttons on the radio until he finds a classic rock station and taps the steering wheel, trying not to turn around or beg forgiveness. Maybe he'll miss the exit, just drive until they find her magical normal-normal suburb so that she could trot up some manicured walkway to a boring husband and two point five adopted children, since he'd taken the chance of her own from her. Picket fences, Irish setter, parade of heart attack victims and plain vanilla old folks splayed across her morgue table. Maybe that would suit her, he thinks, as they grind into the parking lot. He feels guilty later and turns his plate so she can steal his fries, but she is looking out the window.
The informant is an unqualified whacko.
She is asleep, her breath a rhythmic fog on the window. Her hair has drifted across her face like autumn coming on. He can see the pulse in her neck. The compact loveliness of her startles him: pulse, respiration, the flicker of muscle as she shifts. She is so solid: the brace of arm from wrist to shoulder as she sights along her gun, the stance of her when they argue. Her skin in the moonlight looks bluish, the milky color of old marbles. She had been almost heavy in his arms, that time in Antarctica, as he'd struggled to clothe her in the meagre layers of down and Goretex. The two of them in the clothes he'd worn, sharing his warmth, sharing his skin. As he'd lifted her, he'd caught his own scent on her neck. Her damp skin, bare inside his parka. The two of them breathing in the defiance of the fathomless cold.
And now this, after the whacko. Each of them lost in particular frustrated solitude inside the cocoon of the rental car. The sussuration of tires on the highway. The clear air of the desert so unlike DC, with its concrete memories of swampiness. Go west, young man, he thinks as the car spins northeast back to the cluster of lights where their hotel hunches around a rock garden. Go west and grow up with your country. That made three times this year he'd dragged her along, restless in the bullpen, craving the nocturnal thrill of exchanged information. Cloak and dagger, he would say, thinking of spy movies. Like taking a woman's number in a dark bar, Scully would say, Mulder, what were you thinking?
He shows up on her doorstep at Halloween, painted corpse grey with false stitches inked over the real scars. "Trick or treat," he rumbles, and she steps aside.
"You know Frankenstein was the doctor, Mulder."
"Didn't your mother ever warn you about things that go bump in the night?" he says over his shoulder on the way to the candy bowl, but she ducks past him and rations out three bite-size bars into his palm. "No apples? No granola? Why, Doctor Scully, what wicked indulgence. You're letting these kids live it up."
She half-shrugs, her shoulder cantilevered by the crook of the opposite eyebrow. Scully at equilibrium. "Any remnant of true ritual has been superceded by the commercialized sugar high, Mulder. The offering's only a gesture at the amalgamation of centuries of superstition and pagan belief."
"And yet," he murmurs, "think of the dental bills."
Her mouth quirks. In her line of work, he supposes, they appreciate distinctive dentition. "Not my watch. Plus, I like my windows unegged."
They watch bad monster movies on tv, punctuated by commercials and insistent variations on ghouls, heroes, and cartoon princesses. She rambles on about Samhain and Egyptian ritual and the bourgeois dilution of tradition until he unwraps a candy bar and pushes it between her lips. Not that he doesn't love to hear her talk, especially about fertility and death and holy holies and the human tendency to enjoy having the hell scared out of them, but it's Plan Nine From Outer Space and this is the good part.
She swallows, licks her lips, waits for commercial, worries a bit of peanut from between her back teeth. "I was you with all that Samhain stuff, you know. I don't think they sell Flowbees anymore, but I thought about stealing your awful ties."
"You may talk the talk, Scully, but you'll never encompass the Mulder mystique." She grimaces at him. "You're too short and too functional."
She brushes her knuckles against his knee and pretends it's an accident. "Happy Halloween, Mulder."
"Happy Halloween, Scully." He thinks his heart is growing three sizes larger, wrong season or not.
She pushes his hair back from his injured brow with a remarkable tenderness for a diagnostic. He touches the small of her back in possessive deference. They do not speak of this. It is a language of bodies, all fingertips and shoulders and the comfortable bump of knees under tables that are too small.
He steals her keys at Christmas out of hope.
They are often at odds. He knows she is seeing Diana around corners. The consummation goes on devoutly wished and entirely unconsummated; they are both restless with only their own skins around them. He is still hearing Padgett's voice on a loop (the lurid whisper, the revelation she didn't flinch from, so how could it be true except that she is not the swooning type), still seeing Ed Jerse's all-American face and blistered arm. The precedent of her lovers depresses him, but then, she's not tall, dark, and top-heavy. Tastes change.
He worries that he loves her by association. He worries that she tolerates him simply because she's used to him. In the daylight, in the office, their lives feel so ordinary. Two hired guns for the FBI, overeducated, underpaid, no scope at all for the kind of epic love he wants to believe they could share someday when they get around to saying it. When they find a safe space. "Son," says the bottom of the whiskey bottle some nights, "you're delusional."
He wants to believe.
"All right," she says at Christmas, exasperated, "I'm afraid. But it's an irrational fear." Scully tough as textbooks, always reaching for the quantifiable and the explicable. Love they can't riddle away so they ignore it, mired together in their apprehension, except for shining moments like Christmas morning, months ago. He knows this fear is rational, this fear of this, of them, as real and rational as his fear of Them, the consortiums, the shadow-men. She is not afraid, he thinks. She is not afraid of anything. She has confronted her demons and emerged cool and whole. But they push each other away.
He can't decide what he wants. Only her, to have and to hold away. She is exactly right and exactly wrong and there are days he wants to claim her and days he wants to put half the world between them for one reason or another. Mostly he just wants to go on like this, idle days in the basement. Funny. He can't remember when he stopped trying to keep her at arm's length. She was the spy sent in from the cold. Now she holds the earth steady but they boxstep around the space between them, though she sidles up almost under his arm now and then.
An ordinary stakeout, undercover work for someone else, placating the powers that be. They are in a restaurant. He has his arm slung over her shoulders, for verisimilitude, he tells himself. She doesn't quite lean into his side and toys with her drink: tonic with a twist. He murmurs nothings about the news, about some new article he read on acupuncture for abductees. She tips her head up and peers over his chin to give him the skeptical glare.
"Mulder, why do I think you have an appointment for tomorrow morning with this acupuncturist?"
"Hey," he says, "I'm not an abductee. But if you want to go...."
She starts to turn away, gives him the one-eyed fisheye. He is startled by the depth of blue of her eyes in the dim. Just as he starts to worry he's stirred up too much of the aching past, she shifts her hip against his.
"I'm packing," she reminds him. Her lips pucker in that amused way that makes him think of a perfect plum he ate on a summer beach, half-stolen out of a joint packed lunch as Samantha picked the crusts off her sandwich.
"Come on, Scully," he prods teasingly. "Maybe if you clear your chi, the crazies will quit following you around."
"I sincerely doubt it," she says, and for a moment, her head touches his shoulder. "Isn't that what we're here for tonight?"
Let's ditch it, he wants to say. You and me and a pizza and some beers, what do you say? Forget this Bureau shit. Dinner and a movie.
But she's already scanning the room again over the rim of her tonic, though she's still settled against him. He sighs and picks up a cold fry, leftover from what used to be lunch - they wouldn't let the waitress clear the table. Skinner spooked her pretty good too, Mulder thinks, wondering if he can flag the girl down for a piece of pie. But she's pinballing her way across the far edge of her section, avoiding them.
"You know it's Shark Week on the Discovery Channel?" he says experimentally.
"Should have led with the Mystery Science Theatre marathon," Scully counters.
"Scully!" he says, charmed.
"I get the TV Guide too, Mulder." She flashes a quick grin. "Better than skin mags."
"Research." He cranes his head. "Is that Grubeck?"
"Or his twin," Scully says grimly. Mulder lifts the arm from her shoulders and waves at Grubeck, who makes his way slowly to them.
"What's going on?" Scully says. "Is the surveillance over?"
"Dincha hear? Team shagged 'im block from here four hours ago." Grubeck squints at them. "Finito."
Mulder feels his eyes tighten with anger. Deliberately forgotten, left in this restaurant. For himself he minds less, but Scully doesn't deserve it. Grubeck shifts from one pudgy foot to the other.
"Well," says Scully dryly. "Looks like there is such a thing as a free lunch. Or at least an expensed lunch." She drains her tonic and touches his arm.
It was easier to be alone, but the rough joy she raises in him is a better armor than misery. He stands tall, towering over Grubeck, and ghosts along behind Scully as she strides out of the place, his fingertips grazing her spine. It is one of those DC end-of-summer evenings: the air is thick and gold as honey, so that breathing is a slow effort. Scully's idea of civvies is a tank top and a filmy skirt that looks as if she inherited it from Melissa: Mulder admires the bronzy glaze of sunset on her collarbones. She stops abruptly at a corner and props her hands on her hips.
"I feel like smacking the crap out of something," she announces. "Let's go to the batting cages."
He loops his arms around her when they get there, reminding her how to hold the bat; they both pretend she's forgotten. The nape of her neck smells like a picnic. He tries not to breathe her in too noisily. She plants her shoulders against his chest and crows when they connect. Later, tired of the machine, he lobs easy underhanded pitches for her and teases her for the wiggle of her hips as she sets up to swing.
"Technique," she insists, and slaps one back at him so hard and fast he has to dodge.
That night, like every night, he can't believe he doesn't say it.