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thirty-six

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She wakes groggy and disoriented. The light in the bedroom is weird, somehow too bright and too soft for six am. She’s tangled in the sheets in the middle of her empty bed, Mulder’s pillow still warm against her cheek. She snuggles into it, breathing his warm, sleepy scent, before rolling over to see the alarm clock, to see how much time she has left to snooze. Fifteen minutes, maybe, since the alarm hasn’t gone off yet. Twenty if she’s particularly lucky.

The blankets tug around her waist as she leans towards the edge of the bed, squinting at the clock. It's— No. No.

She jolts upright so fast the room spins. Eight fifty-two. Eight fifty-two. She is nearly an hour late for work and she knows—she knows—she set the alarm last night. She always sets the alarm.

The floor is cold and harsh on her bare feet, but she hardly notices as she stumbles from bed, dragging blankets and pillows down in her haste. If she doesn’t shower—if she wears her hair up, no makeup—if she skips the coffee—maybe she can make it by nine thirty.

She’s tugging open her drawer, rooting for underwear, a bra, anything clean, when Mulder materializes in her doorway, holding a cup of coffee in her favorite mug. His hair is still sleep-tousled, his sweats riding low on his hips.

“Hey,” he says. “Calm down. No work today.”

She stops, a bundle of hose in one hand. “What?”

“I talked to Skinner already. Don’t worry about it.”

“Mulder.” She narrows her eyes, already seeing him bundling her into the car for some non-government-sanctioned monster hunting trip to Georgia or Pennsylvania or Bumfuck, Idaho. Not today. She does not want this today. “What did you do?”

He chuckles. “I appreciate your faith in my abilities, Scully, but this one wasn’t me.” His head tips towards the window. “Look outside.”

For a moment, she stares at him, head cocked a little to the side, trying to determine if this is some kind of trap. What’s out there, Mulder? But he only smirks at her, that innocent little boy who me? smirk she finds by turns infuriating and irresistible. She puts down the hose. She goes to the window and pulls back the curtains. And oh.

Oh.

Everything—white.

The forecast last night had said one to three inches. This has to be one to three feet. The last time she saw so much snow, piles and piles of it, she was naked in his winter coat at the end of the world.

“Even the bad guys are staying home today,” Mulder says, slipping the steaming mug into her hands and wrapping his arms around her from behind. He nuzzles her hair, kisses the tip of her ear, whispers low and private, “Happy birthday, Dana Katherine.”

Something in her trembles, loosens. She expected him to forget.

He makes her waffles. She didn’t even know she had a waffle iron. It has been so long since she’s had the time for anything more complex than scrambled eggs, an omelet on a good day.

The kitchen smells heavenly when he’s finished, like dough and syrup and warm blueberry preserves. She spreads a heavy pat of butter across her waffle so it melts into the crevices, makes little oily swimming pools.

No luxuries are spared on her birthday.

“What do you want to do today?” He sits across from her and bumps her feet with his under the table.

She thinks for a minute, using the last bite of waffle like a mop to soak up the syrup on her plate. Last weekend, they were in Minnesota. Before that, Detroit. Before that, Louisiana. She chews slowly, feeling the fatigue in her muscles.

“Nothing,” she says at last. “I want to do nothing.”

Mulder grins and leans over the table to kiss her with his maple-sticky mouth.

“We can do that.”

“I always wanted to be able to dance like that,” she confesses, her cheek pressed to his thigh.

They’re watching Dirty Dancing, snuggled together on her couch. She remembers seeing it for the first time in theatres with Missy. They went home and danced together in her living room like teenagers, giggly and high on Patrick Swayze’s hips.

Mulder traces her jaw with his thumb, up and down, up and down.

“Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” he says.

Outside, the snow continues to fall.

Lunch is a can of Campbell’s potato soup and the last of the crusty bread she bought four days ago. They eat it on the couch, an Afghan draped around both of their shoulders like a tent.

“Thirty-six.” He nudges her with his elbow. “Do you feel any different?”

Does she? She takes stock, compares thirty-six to thirty-five. Same hands, same feet. Same haircut, more or less. Same eyes. Same nose. Same taste for black pepper in her potato soup.

She shrugs. “Not really.”

Beside her, he licks his spoon and sets his bowl on the coffee table. He’s put on a shirt since this morning, but his hair’s still a mess, all spiky and wild. He settles back beside her and worms his arm around her hips.

Last year on her birthday, on a plane to California, she wanted to be a thousand miles away. The thought of playing house with him, of being so close to him, made her want to throw things.

Now, looking at him, at the curve of his bottom lip and the shadow of scruff on his jaw, she aches. Close isn’t close enough.

She takes his hand and guides it into her shirt. Kisses the side of his neck. Breathes him in.

“Maybe a little,” she concedes.

The rest of her soup goes cold.

Late afternoon, he runs her a bath. She is sated and boneless on the couch, sticky with the salt of his sweat and hers.

“Come on, birthday girl.”

He scoops her up like a sack of flour and carries her to the bathroom. It’s different, being carried like this when there isn’t an immediate threat. When she’s not dying. She nuzzles his chest and smells herself there, warm and animal.

The water is hot when he lowers them into it. She hisses and melts, and he molds her back together with the bracket of his hips, the cradle of his arms.

She closes her eyes and drifts. He is the only tether she needs.

“What’s the best birthday you ever had?”

Her feet are in his socks in his lap. His thumb digs into her heel and she arches her back, groans her approval. He’s so good with his hands. So good with them everywhere.

“Mm.” She feels weightless, as light as the snow feathering her window. The best birthday she’s ever had? “Ask me again tomorrow.”

There’s a lasagna from her mom in the freezer, homemade and thick with vegetables. It heats in the oven while they stand at the window again, wrapped together. She draws pictures in the fog of the glass with her finger. A square. A circle. A little love heart.

The sun set an hour ago and everything is colder now, closer. She can feel the chill trying to get at them through the cracks. Mulder holds her tighter.

“City’ll probably be shut down again tomorrow,” he says, chin on her shoulder. “Think you can handle me for that long?”

The oven timer says thirty-four minutes. She turns in the circle of his embrace and nudges him back against the counter. Sucks his bottom lip between her teeth. Worms her hand into his sweats. Shows him just how well she can handle him.

They eat at the table on her best china, drink her best bottle of wine, turn the lights down low. It feels fancier than she is, here in her borrowed socks and oversized sweatshirt and frizzy, curly snow day hair.

But Mulder pulls her chair out for her and holds her hand, looks at her the same as he would if she were in that slinky black cocktail dress in the back of her closet.

By the end of dinner, when his fingers start venturing higher into her sleeve, brushing over the thrum of her pulse, the crease of her elbow, she almost blushes and pushes him back. Look where we are. People might see.

He grins and shoves plates out of the way. Drags her up to meet him in the middle, hovering over the table, his mouth open and wine-spiced. Let them look.

She does the dishes because she can’t not, birthday or no, and when she finishes, he’s there behind her with a pint of ice cream from her freezer. One candle burns in the center, melting chocolate.

“I ordered you a cake,” he says, “from an actual bakery. That one downtown you like? I was supposed to pick it up at lunch today, but…”

“I love it,” she says. That he ordered her a cake. That he remembered. That he’s offering her her own ice cream with that sweet, unsure look on his face.

“Happy birthday,” he says. “Make a wish.”

For this, she thinks as she blows out the candle. For years and years of this.

He builds her a fire after, makes a big deal out of it. Grunts and bicep-curls the tiny logs. He likes this part, she knows. Playing Man, Provider. She’s happy to let him do it, sprawled on the couch with the last of her wine, watching the flex of his glutes through his sweats when he bends.

He stokes it to a full blaze and turns down the thermostat, then steals a blanket from the back of the couch and spreads it picnic-style on the floor. Ta-da! he says with his hands when he’s finished.

“Hmm. Very nice.” She settles herself cross-legged at the hearth, feels the heat seep through her clothes, through her skin.

Mulder bends and kisses the top of her head. “Close your eyes.”

In other circumstances, she might put up a fight. Just a little one. Just for show, mostly. But here, with the heat of the fire baking her cheeks, she’s content to let her eyes slip shut, to wait for whatever he’s planning.

She hears him leave the room, then a minute later, return. She hears the silky crinkle of wrapping paper and a bubble of excitement forms just beneath her ribs. It is one of her many secrets, little weaknesses she keeps tucked away three hundred and sixty-three days of the year: she loves—loves—gifts.

“Okay,” Mulder says. “Open ‘em.”

There are two—twice as many as she expected yesterday. She can’t help the grin that curves her lips as she looks from the boxes to the man beside her. The man. Her man.

“This one first.”

He hands her the larger of the two. It’s square and has a little heft to it. The paper is shiny like foil, purple and blue, expertly creased. She’s seen Mulder’s wrapping. She wonders who he got to do these.

The paper tears easily beneath her eager fingers, and she balls it up and casts it aside. It’s a shoebox. The excitement bubble swells and she pulls off the lid.

Boots. Charcoal suede ankle boots. Little gold buckle on the side. Almond-toed, just how she likes them. Stacked heel, three inches. She can tell just by looking at them that they’ll make the perfect noise on tile. Clip-clip. Powerful. She can tell just by looking at them that they’re too much.

“Mulder, I can't—”

“Do you like them?”

“Yes, but—”

“Then you can.” He covers her hand with his and strokes the webbing between her thumb and forefinger. “Scully, I’ve spent seven years destroying every pair of shoes you own. These are yours, okay? Don’t wear them to work.”

They stare at each other for a beat longer, and then he cracks. Smiles. Raises her hand to his mouth and kisses her knuckles.

“Okay,” she says.

“Okay. Other one now.”

It’s smaller, long and skinny and vaguely triangular. She wonders, as she’s slicing the tape from the end with her thumbnail, if he got her a big box of Toblerone. She rips the paper away and no.

No, it’s certainly not chocolate.

It’s a nameplate. Engraved brass on a heavy hunk of mahogany, far nicer than his. This isn’t government-issue.

She runs her finger over the lettering and bites her lip. Beside her, Mulder shifts and clears his throat.

“I, uh. I should have given you this three years ago.”

She glances up. His eyes are dark, serious.

“I just… I want you to know that it’s always been yours. The desk, the office, the— It’s always been yours.”

She turns the nameplate over in her hand, imagines it side-by-side with his on the edge of the desk.

Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.

Dana Scully and Fox Mulder.

“And I've—” He bites back the rest of his sentence and touches her leg instead, his hand warm and heavy on her knee.

It is the greatest gift she’s ever received.