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They bought the house in the spring. Scully, at the time, had been dreaming of their son. Mulder had only picked houses with two or more bedrooms in quiet deference to her longing. But it was November now, and the ache in her heart had faded a little. They’d spent the summer working on the house: painting the walls, retiling the bathrooms, powerwashing the siding, scrubbing the place within an inch of its life. They’d both learned to chop firewood and laid in a supply that seemed endless. She was sure it wouldn’t last through December. Nothing ever lasted as long as she hoped it would.

After a lingering summer, it was finally fall. The wind plastered red and yellow leaves to the white siding. One morning they chopped carrots and potatoes and pearl onions. Mulder seared the beef and Scully tipped all the vegetables into the slow cooker with broth. She kneaded dough and set it to rise in the oven, the light on behind the shadowed glass. They tugged on wool socks and laced up their hiking boots. Scully pulled her hood over her hair against the drizzle and slipped her hand into Mulder’s to warm her fingers.

“I love this,” she said, the words cloudy in the air. She’d always been afraid of that before, she thought, that if she told him she loved him, it would linger between them, tangible. She wasn’t afraid now. Whatever she didn’t have, she had him, and they had the house, and they had built something solid between them, somewhere between the Southwest highways and the trail through the woods.

“Didn’t take you for a hiker,” he said, his mouth quirking.

“I love this,” she said. “I love us. I love that there is an us. I love that we can do things like walk in the woods without looking over our shoulders every five minutes.” She took her hand out of his and spread her arms wide, encompassing the forest around them. “I love that I know how to grout tile now instead of how to dismantle and clean my handgun.”

“I bet you could still take apart a Sig Saeur,” Mulder said.

She shrugged. “It’s nice that my life doesn’t depend on it.”

“I know what you mean,” he said. “I gotta say, I like knowing how to use an ax.”

“I like watching you use the ax,” she said, smiling at him.

“Likewise,” he said. “I like knowing you could still take me out.” He prodded her bicep with the knuckles of one hand. “You’re still packing heat.”

She rolled her eyes at him, but she couldn’t help smiling.

“Apples,” he said suddenly, glancing past her.

“Apples?” She turned and there was a gnarled little tree dotted with apples like early Christmas decorations. Mulder was already loping toward it, his footing steady even on the damp little of the forest floor. He stretched up an arm and plucked a couple of apples. He shook the rain off them and handed one to her. She turned it over in her fingers. A little pippin, slightly knobbly, the skin greenish gold and laced with brown. She polished it on her sleeve and looked at Mulder. He held up his apple like he was toasting her and then took a bite. His teeth sank into it with a faint crunching noise.

“Mm,” he said. “Try it.”

She looked at it from all sides, considering her angle of attack, and bit into the side that seemed the least blemished. The flesh of the apple was brightly tart, with a delicate sweetness that perfumed her mouth. “Mm,” she agreed.

They filled their pockets. “They’ll only freeze if we leave them, Scully,” Mulder rationalized, stretching up to snag another.

“I’m sure the squirrels would harvest them if we didn’t,” she said, but she stuffed them into her anorak anyway.

She was shivering by the time they got back to the house, her hair twisting into tendrils in the damp. She should have brought gloves. It had been too long since she’d been in the woods. The temperature was dropping fast. There was snow in the forecast. She hadn’t believed it before, but she did now. The porch railings were hung with drops of rain already beginning to freeze.

“You know, this was the nicest trip to the forest we’ve ever had,” she said as she unloaded her pockets, the apples toppling across the table. “No bugs. No mothmen. No werewolves.”

“When have we ever had werewolves?” he asked, his eyes crinkling.

“No shapeshifters,” she corrected. “No skinwalkers. No Jersey Devil.”

“I know Atlantic City isn’t exactly civilization, but it’s not the woods,” he teased. She sighed and shivered, catching herself with a gasp.

“Let’s build a fire,” Mulder said. He pulled the blanket off the couch and wrapped it around her, pulling the hem over her hair and tucking the ends over her shoulders. She looked at him with some reproach.

“Am I just supposed to stand here now that you’ve wrapped me up like a mummy?”

“You’re supposed to relax,” he said, and scooped her up. She squeaked in surprise and then let herself go soft into the cradle of his arms. “I never got to carry you over the threshold. At least I can carry you to the couch.”

She curled up against the arm of the couch as he slipped on his coat again and went out to the porch to get the wood. He let the logs clatter to the hearth and sets them in the fireplace, building a neat little fire in only a few minutes.

“I didn’t know that was one of your skills,” she said, lazy in the warmth of her blanket and her love.

“I told you,” he said, “I was a Guide as a kid. Spent all my summers building fires at camp. Haven’t I ever built a fire for you?”

“You usually leave it to me,” she said. “You’re always putting up a tent or lying helplessly on a log while I try to get the gunpowder out of a bullet or something.”

“Good thing I finally get a chance to show you my skills,” he said.

“You always show me your skills,” she teased. “But I do like this one.” Warmth licks out of the fireplace, coloring her cheeks. “Mmm.”

“Glad I can satisfy you,” he said.

“You could always satisfy me,” she said.

He rose, dusting his hands on his thighs, and came over to the couch, settling in beside her and slinging his arm around her. They watched the flames.

“We did that, Scully,” he said. “We cut that wood.”

“Keeps you warm twice,” she said. “Isn’t that what they say?”

“That is what they say,” he told her.

“This way is nicer,” she said, cuddling into his side and laying her head against his shoulder.

“I agree.” His voice was a warm rumble under her cheek.

“Look what we’ve made,” she said.

“We’ve done a good job,” he said.

“It’ll be strange to go back to work,” she mused. “But probably for the best.”

“There’s only so much wood you can chop,” Mulder said. “You’re not a woodchuck.”

“And you’ll write your book,” Scully said.

“A man of leisure,” he teased. “While you’re saving children, I’ll be writing a tome that only professors and paranoid conspiracy theorists will keep on their shelves.”

“It takes all kinds,” she told him. “You’ve saved the world plenty of times. It’s about time the world knew.”

“We did it together,” he said. “We’ve done it all together, Scully.”

“That’s my favorite part,” she said.

The fire crackled, pockets of sap sparking as they watched. The scent of woodsmoke blended with the richness of the beef broth simmering away and the yeasty waft of the dough on its long rise. Scully filled her lungs with it, holding the warmth of it inside her as the fire heated her through. It was only November, but it felt like sitting in the dark with only the Christmas lights on when she was younger: that pure joy rising in her, like her heart had been set alight, a gentle ember that glowed inside her ribs. She lifted her face and Mulder kissed her. Peace, she thought, at last, and she pulled him closer as sleet pattered at the windows.