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Two Worlds Collide

Chapter Text

 

November 1998

 

Scully’s wool coat flapped against her legs as she strode across the field toward the small police presence gathered near the tree line. As a force of habit, she bore most of her weight on the balls of her feet to keep her heels from sinking into the soft earth, because she’d be damned if she was going to ask Mulder to slow his lanky stride so she could keep up. He walked beside her, tall and loose-limbed, his expression eager as a puppy but with the intensity of a bloodhound following a scent trail.

Overhead, the London sun had been blotted out by a hazy gray sky. The air was heavy with moisture, cool and damp, clinging to her skin and frizzing her hair. A white tarp had been erected over the crime scene ahead, and officers in white coveralls moved about beneath it, processing the scene. Off to the side, a blonde woman dressed all in black stood talking to two uniformed officers.

Scully and Mulder headed for this trio. He was convinced he was onto something big, and he’d convinced her to come all the way to London—on their own dime and vacation time from the bureau—to prove it. For once, she agreed with him, or she’d never have agreed to this trip, especially since it meant revisiting one of their most ridiculous cases. Well, and then there was the fact that both of them were dying of boredom now that Kersh had taken them off the X Files. If she had to spend another day running background checks…

It was a punishment. And it was working, because she was about to lose her mind, and Mulder had taken to sneaking off on unauthorized field trips—like this one—chasing down his never-ending list of conspiracy theories. She hadn’t been entirely convinced by the exsanguinated cows, but it had been enough to get her on the plane. When the body was discovered this morning, though, she’d felt a rare thrill. They might actually be in the right place at the right time for once. They might actually close this case.

As they neared the group of officers ahead, Scully straightened her spine and lifted her chin, steeling herself for what was to come. Mulder’s pace quickened, and she lengthened her stride to keep up.

The blonde turned, tossing her hair over her shoulder as she watched them approach. Her eyes locked on Scully’s, intense and startlingly direct. Scully’s heel caught in a tuft of grass, and she gripped Mulder’s arm to keep herself from falling.

His hand rested momentarily against the small of her back, steadying her, as he turned toward the blonde. He seemed to have drawn the same conclusion Scully had—this woman was clearly in charge. Authority radiated off her like a force field, adding to her already striking appearance. She was petite, probably not any taller than Scully, with blonde hair that hung halfway down her back in loose waves and piercing blue eyes.

“You’re the FBI agent I spoke with over the phone?” She directed this at Mulder, her voice like chipped ice, sharp, cold, British.

“Special Agent Fox Mulder.” He extended his hand.

“Detective Sergeant Stella Gibson.” She gave his hand a quick shake before turning her gaze on Scully.

“Special Agent Dana Scully.” She took Detective Gibson’s hand and shook, trying not to stare too hard, but there was something so magnetic, so powerful about her presence, Scully couldn’t look away.

The detective stared right back for a long moment. She was younger than Scully had initially thought, maybe even a few years younger than Scully herself. “I confess I’m still not sure why the FBI is interested in this case. Obviously, you have no jurisdiction here.”

“We’re not here in an official capacity,” Mulder told her as his eyes scanned the crime scene. Yellow tape marked a shallow grave the Metropolitan police had already uncovered and emptied. “But we think we may be familiar with your killer from a prior case of our own.”

Her eyebrows rose. “You think my killer is American?”

“Yeah, actually, we do.” Mulder had that look again—like an excited puppy—as he prepared to launch into a tale about vampires and pizza delivery boys.

Scully braced herself, determined not to roll her eyes at the absurdity of it all. Because, as crazy as it sounded, it had—at least in some capacity—actually happened. Whether or not the killer had been a flying teenage vampire or just a crazy, coldblooded killer, he had been a killer, and he had escaped, unpunished.

“About a year ago, Scully and I were called to investigate a case where the victims were found completely drained of blood, with two puncture marks on their neck, like fangs.” He emphasized that last part with a dramatic flair, and Scully couldn’t help it. She rolled her eyes.

Mulder gave her an impatient look. “The local authorities had initially overlooked the fact that each victim’s shoe laces had been untied, like the body you just uncovered.”

“Go on,” the detective said, her interest clearly piqued, and Scully could picture what would happen next so clearly. Mulder would adopt that flirtatious tone that made women swoon, weaving a tale of danger and intrigue, while Detective Gibson drew closer, pressing him for details, maybe resting a hand on his arm.

And it really shouldn’t bother Scully, because it happened all the time, and she knew Mulder never actually slept with these women. He was as clueless as he was charming. In fact, Scully wasn’t actually sure he’d had sex in the six years she’d known him. So, she wasn’t sure whether the hot surge of jealousy she felt swelling in her chest now was over the thought of Mulder flirting with Detective Gibson, or of Detective Gibson returning his affection.

Because Scully still found herself oddly captivated by the detective herself.

“It was Scully who noticed all the victims’ stomach contents consisted of pizza,” Mulder was saying. “And she realized the pizza delivery boy was our killer.”

“The pizza delivery boy?” Detective Gibson’s gaze was still cool, assessing. “But you didn’t have enough evidence to make an arrest?”

“Well, ah…” His gaze darted to Scully.

She gave her head a slight shake. Good luck explaining the rest of it without sounding completely insane. But, luckily or unluckily for her, Mulder had never much cared what people thought of him.

“The thing is, he’s a vampire.” He leaned forward with a conspiratorial smile aimed at Detective Gibson.

She blinked, hard, jaw jutting irritably as if she didn’t have the patience for any of this. “I don’t understand.”

“It was what drew us to the case in the first place,” Mulder said. “All the classic signs of vampirism were there, right down to the untied shoes. Did you know that most vampires are obsessive compulsive?”

The detective stared at him as if he’d just told her that…well, that vampires were real. Scully might have found it amusing if her own reputation weren’t at stake alongside Mulder’s.

“It was never actually proven that he was a vampire,” she interjected, trying as ever to be the voice of reason. “In fact, he was using a drug called chloral hydrate to incapacitate the victims before he drained them of blood, which would suggest he was quite human.”

“Then explain what happened in your hotel room that night,” Mulder said, smug.

She heaved a resigned sigh. “I was at the medical examiner’s office, conducting an autopsy on our second victim, when I discovered that the chloral hydrate was in the pizza they’d both eaten shortly before they were murdered.”

“At the same time, I was in Scully’s hotel room, eating the pizza she’d ordered…”

She glared at him, still annoyed that he’d eaten her dinner, even if it did almost get him killed. “Long story short, the pizza delivery boy, a local teenager named Ronnie Strickland, had drugged my pizza, which Mulder ate. I got there just in time to interrupt him before he could kill Mulder too.”

“I had been able to delay him for a few minutes by throwing sunflower seeds at him,” Mulder explained with another smile, turning the full force of his boyish charm on Detective Gibson.

She folded her arms over her chest, looking decidedly unamused, her gaze flicking to Scully’s. And suddenly, Scully would rather be swallowed up by the damp London soil beneath her heels than tell this woman the rest of the story. But Mulder was already explaining how he’d plunged a wooden stake through Ronnie Strickland’s heart.

“Bearing in mind that Agent Mulder was under the effects of chloral hydrate at the time, which may have affected his judgment,” Scully added. “The important thing is that Ronnie Strickland killed at least two people in Chaney, Texas, last year, and now we believe he’s killing here in London.”

“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” Detective Gibson said, her tone clipped with impatience. “But I’ll take it from here.”

“Actually…” Scully stepped forward, and the detective fixed her again with that intense stare. “I’m a medical doctor. I autopsied the victims in Texas. Maybe you could just let me take a look at this body to check for similarities?”

For a moment, she was sure the steely-eyed detective was going to send her on her way, and then she’d be forced to follow Mulder wherever he decided to poke next, since she’d driven here with him, but then Detective Gibson gave a brisk nod.

“I suppose that couldn’t hurt.”

“Thank you,” Scully told her earnestly. “I brought the bite impressions from our cases with me from DC. Hopefully, we can get a match.”

“Great. You go look at the body, Scully. I’m going to check something out.” Mulder strode off in the direction they’d come from, his mind already miles away, focused on…wherever he was headed. If it wasn’t so perfectly, typically Mulder, she might actually scream in frustration.

Instead, she gave Detective Gibson a tight smile. Hopefully she didn’t mind driving Scully to the morgue.

* * *

Stella rested her hip against the doorframe, watching Agent Scully as she examined the body. She’d changed into blue scrubs, red hair gleaming beneath the harsh overhead lights in a most distracting way. She and Stella had observed the official autopsy, which confirmed that the victim—one Joe Morris—had indeed eaten pizza shortly before his death, and now Scully was getting the chance to make her own observations under Stella’s supervision.

She was newly promoted to Detective Sergeant, which at her age and especially as a woman, meant she had a hell of a lot of pressure to succeed on her shoulders. She absolutely could not afford to fuck up, not on this case and especially not with the questionable interference of Agents Mulder and Scully. Her gaze dropped to Scully’s gloved hands.

“Have you ever heard of a condition called Renfield’s syndrome?” she asked, tossing a glance over her shoulder at Stella.

“No.”

“Sufferers have an obsession with drinking blood.” Scully bent her head to examine the bite wound more closely. “Some of them even believe themselves to be real life vampires.”

“So, you don’t think your killer was actually a vampire, then?”

Scully’s brows drew together, causing faint wrinkles to appear above her nose that only added to the professional yet sexy vibe she had going. “As a scientist, I would have to say no.”

“And as an agent?”

Scully gave her a sharp look. “There is the small matter of the way he walked out of the morgue once the medical examiner removed the wooden stake from his chest cavity.”

“The wooden stake your partner drove into his heart.”

Scully straightened, tongue darting out to wet her lips, obviously choosing her next words carefully. In the end, all she said was, “Yes.”

“Agent Scully—”

“Dana,” she interrupted, her expression softening as she met Stella’s gaze for a moment before returning to the body on the table in front of her. “I know it sounds crazy. I can’t explain it. But whether or not either of us believes Ronnie Strickland is a vampire, the fact remains that I think he’s here in London. See these puncture wounds?”

Stella pushed off from the doorframe and stepped closer, close enough that the faintly fruity smell of Scully’s shampoo reached her nose through the other, less pleasant scents of the morgue. “I see them.”

“He wears prosthetic fangs over his teeth.” She gestured to the two fang marks that punctured the victim’s neck. “I expect that once the lab comparison comes back, you’ll find that these marks match our victims in Texas.”

“Your bodies weren’t buried.” Stella met Scully’s eyes, intrigued by what she saw there, intelligence and determination sparkling in their blue depths.

“No. He left them at the scene in Texas, but he’s had almost a year to learn from that experience. Who knows how many people he’s killed and buried since then?”

“He’s become more sophisticated,” Stella said. “Assuming it’s the same man.”

“The puncture wounds, exsanguinated bodies, pizza in the stomach, chloral hydrate in his bloodstream, and the untied shoelaces are all a match for our case in Texas.”

“A lot of similarities,” Stella admitted. She’d been ready to write Mulder and Scully off as slightly crazy and way out of their jurisdiction when she’d first met them, but now she was willing to admit there was a strong chance their cases were linked.

“I expect Mulder’s out canvassing local pizza delivery places,” Scully said.

“He didn’t tell you where he was going?” Stella had never worked with a partner. The Metropolitan police assigned officers at random to each case, but her impression was that her counterparts in America worked quite closely with their partners.

But Scully was shaking her head, her expression a combination of frustration and amusement. “His feet sometimes work faster than his mouth.”

“I see.” Stella watched as Scully stepped back from the table, removing her gloves.

“I had a photo and profile of Ronnie Strickland sent to your office. You should show it around, see if he’s still delivering pizzas for a living.”

“I’ll do that,” Stella said. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Scully’s smile was brief but sincere.

“So, you believe he suffers from Renfield’s syndrome, then?” she asked, not sure why she was pushing the subject, but it fascinated her to see a woman of medicine, of science, otherwise so logical and rational, consider the possibility that their killer might be a mythical creature.

Scully drew a deep breath, pushing it out slowly, her jaw flexing as if she’d grown unfortunately accustomed to answering questions like these. “There were anomalies in his blood that I can’t explain, not to mention his apparent resurrection from the dead. I would have to examine him myself to be certain, Detective Gibson.”

“Stella,” she corrected.

“Stella.” Scully looked her dead in the eye, and Stella felt it in the pit of her stomach, a shivery heat that rose up to lodge in her throat. Nothing turned her on in a woman more than competence, intelligence, and right now, Dana Scully had her halfway convinced vampires were real.

“It’s possible that there’s a science to Ronnie Strickland’s condition that I’m not aware of,” Scully said. “It’s also possible he’s just another self-deluded psychopath.”

Stella led the way out of the morgue, waiting in the hallway as Scully changed back into her clothes. She emerged from the bathroom wearing the black trousers, white button-down shirt, and black blazer she’d had on earlier, running her fingers through her slightly ruffled hair.

Stella had driven her here from the crime scene and was prepared to offer her a ride back to her hotel as well, assuming the elusive Agent Mulder didn’t reappear. Her gaze caught on Scully’s slender fingers as she toyed with a button on her shirt. “Have you eaten yet, Dana?”

“What?” Scully darted a nervous glance in her direction.

“Would you like to get something to eat before I drive you back to your hotel?” she clarified.

Scully hesitated long enough that Stella started to consider alternate options to burn off the restless energy buzzing inside her, like going to one of her favorite bars to find a random man for the evening, or a swim, or even returning to the office to update her case file with the new information Scully had provided.

But she smiled as she buttoned her blazer. “I’d like that.”

“Perfect.” Stella couldn’t help the way her gaze drifted to the delicate curve of Scully’s collarbone beneath her Catholic cross pendant, the swell of her breasts visible beneath the open top button of her blouse. The way Scully’s cheeks darkened when she caught Stella looking. The slight toss of her head as she dared her to keep looking.

On second thought, Stella wasn’t in the mood for a man tonight, after all.

Chapter Text

Scully sipped her wine as she let the stress of the day slide off her shoulders like the blazer she’d hung from the hook beside their table. “Sorry for stepping on your toes at the crime scene earlier,” she told Stella, who sat across from her, watching her through slightly narrowed eyes as she sipped her own wine. “I know Mulder can be a bit…much.”

“It’s all right,” Stella assured her. “If you help me catch my killer, we’ll call it even.”

“And if we don’t?”

Stella arched a perfectly-plucked brow. “Then I’ll be forced to assume you’re both somewhat insane.”

Scully couldn’t contain the laughter that bubbled up from her chest, escaping as something between a gasp and a giggle. “You wouldn’t be the first, and you won’t be the last.”

“Does it bother you?” Stella asked, her tone frank, genuine curiosity in her eyes.

Scully lifted the wineglass to her lips and took a hearty swallow. “Sometimes.”

“I’m sorry.” All the force had gone out of Stella’s tone. “For poking at a sore subject.”

Scully shook her head. “It’s okay. Really. You can ask.”

“I guess I’m just wondering how a woman of science can sit there and tell me my killer might in fact be a vampire.” Stella leaned forward slightly in her seat, her eyes boring into Scully’s. There was no condescension in her gaze, though, only a genuine desire to understand. “That you’ve in fact dedicated your career to investigating cases most logical people would assume to be completely ludicrous.”

“You’ve done a little research into the X Files, then.” It wasn’t a surprise. She would have done the same, and in Stella’s shoes, she’d have drawn the same conclusions.

Stella nodded, swirling her wineglass thoughtfully. There was a small beauty mark above her upper lip, and Scully found herself wondering what it would feel like beneath her tongue. She’d experimented with both men and women in college, even had a fairly serious girlfriend her first year of medical school, but she hadn’t been with a woman since. Sitting across from Stella tonight, she wondered why not.

“I was originally brought in to debunk Mulder’s theories, to prove him wrong.”

“And?”

“And sometimes I do, but just as often, he turns out to be right. He’s got a brilliant mind and an uncanny ability to see truth in things the rest of us write off as fiction. I’ve seen things that can’t be explained by science, at least not as we currently understand it.”

“Interesting.”

“Do you really think so?” Scully asked, unable to contain her inner skeptic.

“I do,” Stella told her. “I confess, I hope my killer turns out to be your killer, although I’ll be betting that he suffers from Renfield’s syndrome.”

“I don’t care if he’s a vampire or not as long as we catch him,” Scully muttered, still remembering the sting of embarrassment when they’d met with Skinner to tell their ridiculous tale.

“I gather you don’t often get proof of the unexplainable things you investigate.”

“No, we don’t. It’s…frustrating.”

“I’m sure it must be.” Stella stared into the depths of her wineglass, as if contemplating a life where she never got to prove her worth. Somehow, Scully imagined that wasn’t an option for someone like Stella.

“Sometime, maybe I’ll tell you a few of our wilder tales.” It came out sounding flirtier than she’d intended, and her cheeks warmed.

Stella looked up, eyes locking onto Scully’s like a heat-seeking missile that had just found its target. “I’d like that.”

Scully’s fingers tightened around the stem of her wineglass. Why was their food taking so long to arrive? Why had she become so attached to Mulder that she’d hardly been on a date in the last six years? Because she felt woefully out of practice sitting across the table from someone like Stella, who oozed confidence and sex appeal.

Not that this was a date. This was just dinner with a colleague. Wasn’t it? God, she was terrible at this.

“Are you and Agent Mulder…?” Stella asked, her intention as transparent as the air between them.

Scully gave her head a slight shake, brushing back the red lock that fell across her eyes. “No, we’re just partners.”

Stella raised an eyebrow questioningly.

Scully huffed, bursting with a combination of nervous energy, attraction, and confusion. “Okay, we’re not just partners, but we’re not sleeping together either.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

Scully sighed into her drink. “I don’t either.”

Stella waited patiently for her to explain, drink dangling from her well-manicured hand.

“There’s no one in the world I’m closer to. I’d give my life for him, and he would do the same for me. We have quite literally gone to the ends of the earth for each other. Sometimes, I wish it could be more, but the short answer is that we’re not involved romantically.”

“But you feel you owe him some kind of loyalty.” Stella wasn’t a detective for nothing.

“Sometimes.”

“Tonight?”

“No.” Scully’s breath caught in her throat. They’d both leaned forward as they spoke, faces dangerously close across the table. Stella’s gaze dropped to Scully’s lips, and heat blazed through her, focusing in a bolt of fire that shot through her core.

“Are you sure?” Her r’s were lost to her accent.

Scully was just as lost…in her accent, and in Stella herself. Here was a woman in control of every aspect of her life, calmly confident in her ability to seduce Scully and not ashamed to show it. And tonight, Scully wanted a bit of that confidence for herself. “I’m sure.”

* * *

Stella led the way to her car, selfishly pleased with the sound of Scully’s heels clicking beside hers on the pavement. She’d fallen into a pattern lately, a predictably dull pattern of men, as forgettable as they had been handsome. With Scully, she felt a flutter of excitement she hadn’t felt in a while. Scully was different for her on several fronts.

Usually, Stella didn’t fuck people she considered an equal, preferring to keep the power dynamic in her favor. Somehow, she sensed this wouldn’t be a problem with Scully, if for no other reason, because Scully was only in London another day or two. Anyway, Stella was too intrigued and too attracted not to at least feel things out between them.

She stopped beside her silver Citroen sedan, turning toward Scully. They stared at each other in the yellowish light of the parking lot. Somehow, the artificial lighting caused Scully’s hair to almost glow, flames dancing around her face and snapping in her eyes.

“Just making sure we’re on the same page,” Stella murmured as she feathered her fingers through that fiery shock of hair. She’d almost expected it to burn her fingers, but it was cool in the evening air, as soft as the puff of air that escaped Scully’s lips at the contact.

“We’re on the same page,” she whispered, one hand coming to rest on Stella’s waist.

And that was all the invitation she needed. Stella pressed her fingers into Scully’s scalp, using her hand as leverage to guide Scully’s lips to hers. They met in a rush of warm breath, lips touching hesitantly at first. Stella brought her free hand to the hollow of Scully’s back, feeling the way she stiffened momentarily at the touch.

Stella sought her eyes, holding her gaze as Scully softened into her embrace, releasing a sigh that almost sounded like relief. Maybe Scully needed this night as much as Stella did. Maybe she had her own demons that needed silencing, the kind that could only be silenced by the touch of another human being. Somehow, she suspected it had been a lot longer since Scully sought this kind of release than it had been for Stella.

She dragged her teeth lightly over Scully’s bottom lip, eliciting a moan that sent a rush of heat and need straight to Stella’s core. She repeated the action, tugging her closer so their bodies pressed together, everything in perfect alignment—breast to breast, hip to hip, toe to toe. Stella’s heels gave her a slight height advantage, a position so rare it filled her with a heady euphoria that made her wild and reckless.

Scully’s lips parted, and Stella kissed her properly, drunk off the taste of her, wine mixed with an after-dinner breath mint, sin and innocence combined into an intoxicating cocktail that had Stella’s pulse pounding hard and fast through her veins. She brought both hands to the back of Scully’s head, cupping her face as she kissed her senseless.

Their tongues moved together in a sensual dance, slow and rhythmic and full of intention. Scully kissed like she spoke—earnest and intense and passionate, so fucking passionate. Her tongue swirled around Stella’s, and it was her turn to moan. She lifted her head, dragging much-needed oxygen into her lungs as she attempted to think through the lust-filled haze that had overtaken her senses.

There was something almost arrestingly innocent about Scully as she stared at Stella, lips swollen, cheeks flushed, chest heaving, as if Stella were the first person to have ever kissed her. But the daring glint in her eye told Stella she wasn’t as innocent as she looked.

“Have you done this before?” Stella couldn’t help asking. “With a woman, I mean.”

“Yes.” Scully reached for her, spinning them so Stella’s back pressed against the door of the car, Scully’s thigh pressed between her own.

She stiffened automatically, hands gripping Scully’s wrists to push her away, to regain control, but the reflex died away as Scully kissed her again, using her newfound leverage to roll her hips against Stella’s. Their kiss grew messier as they groped at each other, pulling desperately at fabric as they tried to bring their bodies impossibly closer.

A car door slammed somewhere nearby, and they both jumped. Scully lifted her head, a satisfied smile dancing around the corners of her lips. Stella sucked in a deep breath and pushed it out, stepping briskly past Scully. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d forgotten herself like that, even for a moment.

Scully tugged at her blazer, glancing at Stella out of the corner of her eye, as hesitant now as she’d been bold before. Stella ran her fingers through her hair, taking a moment to compose herself. A light drizzle had begun to fall, cold and unwelcome, glistening on her clothes and dampening her hair. “What do you say we continue this at your hotel room?”

Scully hesitated only a moment before nodding. “Yes.”

A hot rush of anticipation flowed through Stella as she unlocked the car. She slid into the driver’s seat as Scully climbed into the passenger seat beside her. The restaurant she’d chosen wasn’t far from Scully’s hotel, a fact she was intensely grateful for as she began to drive. Scully was quiet beside her, hands clasped in her lap, darting occasional glances at Stella.

She could still taste Scully on her mouth, could still feel the firm yet slender weight of her thigh pressed between her legs, reigniting the restless ache that burned for her there. Knowing Scully had done this before made her even more confident about the night to come.

The London streets bustled around her, thick with cars and buses, their lights glistening off the damp asphalt. Stella wrestled her impatience as the light in front of them changed to red. The interior of the car grew heavy with lust and silence.

“So, you don’t have a partner, then?” Scully asked out of the blue, seemingly needing to fill the air between them with something other than their growing restlessness.

“No.” She heard the curtness in her tone and softened it with a sigh. “Met officers typically work alone. At times, we’re assigned to work a case with another officer, but we’re only partnered for the duration of the case.”

“Sounds lonely,” Scully commented.

Stella wanted to ask her what it was like to work with the same person for six years, but she didn’t want to bring up Mulder, not when she hoped she was about to have sex with his partner, the woman who’d already admitted to having feelings for him. “I prefer it,” she said instead. “I don’t think I’d like being attached to the same person for any length of time.”

“At work or in general?” Scully asked, and Stella was aware she was watching her in the near-darkness inside the car.

“Either. Both.”

“Mm,” she responded, although Stella couldn’t be sure if she was agreeing with her or not.

She pulled up in front of Scully’s hotel, guiding the car toward the valet. Scully tucked a lock of crimson hair behind her ear, giving Stella another deceptively shy smile as she stepped out into the night. Stella stood from the driver’s seat, leaving the car running for the valet.

“Ma’am,” he said with a polite nod as he stepped forward.

Scully gave him her name and room number, and he handed her a yellow valet ticket. Stella rounded the car with purposeful strides, intent on getting Scully into the lift as quickly as possible so she could touch her again, kiss her again, almost overcome with the need to have her behind a closed door and naked.

Stella’s phone buzzed inside her pocket, and she reached for it, knowing before she’d even checked the screen that it would be the Met. Her stomach plummeted, disappointment mixing with the usual excitement of a new case. She held up a finger to Scully, who had just pressed the button to summon the lift.

She brought the phone to her ear. “Gibson.”

“It’s Kingsley,” her supervisor, DSI Fran Kingsley, spoke in her ear.

“Yes, ma’am,” Stella responded, turning away from Scully.

“We’ve got another homicide, and I apologize for calling on you after assigning you the Morris case this afternoon, but Pembrick and Hammill are out with the flu, and besides that, I could use your expertise on this one.”

Stella felt something deep inside her tense. Her expertise, such as it was, generally involved women and children, usually crimes of a sexual nature. “I’ll be at the station in ten,” she told her boss flatly before pushing the phone into her pocket. She looked at Scully, who was staring at her shoes.

“You have to go,” she said.

“Work. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize.” Scully stepped forward, pressing a quick kiss against her lips as she handed her the valet ticket. “I understand as well as anyone what that’s like. Go.”

“Thank you.” Stella stuffed restlessness and regret into the back of her mind, focused now on the case at hand.

“I’m here tomorrow night too,” Scully said, giving her hand a quick squeeze.

“Good to know.” Stella gave her one last kiss and headed for the hotel’s front entrance, already waving to the valet to bring her car.

* * *

Scully walked straight to the door connecting her room to Mulder’s and turned the lock. She wasn’t sure why, exactly, since Stella hadn’t made it past the lobby, but with her body still humming from their kisses, she didn’t want to see Mulder tonight. Not that it was likely he’d use the connecting door. He never did, unless he was popping his head in to tell her about a development on a case. And she wasn’t even sure where he was tonight, probably still out tracking down leads.

She sat on the bed, touching her fingertips to her bottom lip, remembering the scrape of Stella’s teeth there, the hunger in her eyes when Scully had pressed her against the door of the car, the heat of her body against Scully’s. It was entirely unlike her to make out with a fellow detective on a case, and that’s exactly why she was so thrilled she’d done it. She wasn’t here in an official capacity, and therefore she was free to do whatever she wanted. And she wanted Stella.

Maybe she was tired of dedicating every moment of her life to Mulder and the X Files. They weren’t even assigned to the X Files anymore, and how long could they really expect to keep their sanity sitting at their desks, conducting background checks while Jeffrey Spender and Diana Fowley—Scully scowled at the mere thought of the woman—carried on their work?

Something had to give. And it might just be Scully.

She stood and walked to the bathroom, shutting the door behind her before she started the shower running. She stepped out of her clothes, folded them neatly on the counter, and stepped beneath the hot spray, letting it wash the stress and excitement of the day from her skin. With any luck, tomorrow they’d catch Ronnie Strickland, and maybe she’d even get a second chance with Stella.

Maybe she’d go back to DC with a new spring in her step, maybe even a new mindset for herself. If she and Mulder didn’t get the X Files back by the end of the year, maybe she’d ask for a reassignment to a different field office or even leave the FBI entirely, go back to medicine. It had always been her first love, after all. One thing was for sure, she was tired of sitting back and waiting for things to happen.

It was time—past time—for her to start driving her own life.

After her shower, she dried her hair and put on her black silk pajamas, frowning at herself in the mirror. They weren’t exactly the sexiest sleepwear, just as well Stella hadn’t seen them. Maybe she’d find time tomorrow to sneak out and buy herself some lingerie…just in case.

It was still early, but jetlag had done a number on her, so she crawled into bed, not even bothering to set an alarm, and was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow. The sound of someone knocking at the door woke her sometime later. She shrugged onto her elbows, squinting at the clock beside the bed.

3:42 am.

Dammit, Mulder. She crawled out of bed, already preparing the barb to throw his way if he’d woken her at this hour to tell her anything even remotely vampire-related. Or alien-related. Or anything to do with monsters of any kind. But of course he was, because he never woke her during the night for any other reason.

Preparing her best “I don’t fucking believe you” face, she unbolted the door and yanked it open to reveal Stella standing in the hallway. Her blonde hair looked somewhat more disheveled than it had when they said goodbye in the lobby, as if she’d been standing outside in the intervening hours, being punished by the frigid wind and drizzling rain that had fallen stubbornly over the course of the evening. She still wore the black wrap-around sweater and pants she’d had on earlier, covered now by a slate-gray wool coat.

She blanched at the expression on Scully’s face. “I’m sorry. It’s late. I shouldn’t have—”

“No,” Scully interrupted, replacing her scowl with a smile. “I thought you were Mulder. You, I’m happy to see.”

“Mulder?” Stella frowned. “Why would he be at your door at this hour?”

“To tell me about monsters. Come in.” She took Stella’s hand, giving it a gentle tug. Her fingers were ice cold beneath Scully’s.

“I’m not here to talk about monsters,” Stella whispered, leaning forward to capture her mouth, her lips almost as cold as her fingers.

“Thank God,” Scully said between kisses. This close, she saw that Stella wasn’t here to talk about monsters but to escape them. There was a haunted look in her eyes Scully knew well. Whatever crime scene she’d just come from, it had been a rough one, the kind you couldn’t leave and go home alone, not unless you wanted the monsters to torment you for the rest of the night. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No.” Stella pressed her against the wall, covering Scully’s body with her own. “I don’t want to talk at all.”

“Okay.” She reached for Stella’s coat and pushed it over her shoulders, turning to lay it across the chair to her right. It was dark in the room now that the door to the hall had shut, only the faint lights of the city below filtering in through the window. Scully had left the blinds open earlier to enjoy the view and forgotten to shut them before she went to bed. Now, she was glad to have enough light to see Stella by, if just barely.

In her black clothes, Stella was little more than a ghost before her, cold skin pressed against Scully’s, hands roaming as their mouths met again, hungry and seeking. Stella’s hand slipped beneath the loose fabric of Scully’s pajama top, and she sucked in a breath at the contact, although Stella’s fingers were rapidly warming against her skin, heated by the fire blazing between them.

Scully spared a brief, vain moment to lament that Stella was seeing her pajamas after all, but it was quickly replaced by a groan as Stella cupped her breasts, allowing her fingernails to skim lightly over the sensitive skin below. She let her head fall back against the wall. “I hope I’m not dreaming.”

“You’re not,” Stella breathed in that way-too-sexy accent, dipping her head to suck at the pulse point on Scully’s neck as if to prove her point. She bit down hard enough to leave a mark before dropping lower still to nip at her breast, snagging her nipple between her teeth through the thin, silk fabric.

Holy shit. How had she let herself go so long without being touched? She’d almost forgotten how good it felt to be with someone like this, especially a woman. There was something incredibly powerful about kissing someone her own size, feeling soft, slender fingers against her skin instead of the big, rough ones she was used to. “How did you know my room number?”

“From the valet ticket.”

“Nice detective work.” Her hands slid around Stella’s waist, familiarizing herself with the delicate curve of her body, the jut of her hipbones beneath the soft fabric of her pants. She traced a finger down Stella’s zipper, rewarded by a harsh exhale against her lips as Stella’s hips swayed forward to meet her touch. Scully stroked her through the fabric, feeling half-drunk on the freedom to touch her, to be touched, to give and receive pleasure.

Stella’s hands were working the buttons of Scully’s top now, expertly popping them open one by one until the fabric slid to the floor with a faint gasp, baring Scully’s breasts to the moonlight.

“You’re stunning,” Stella said quietly.

Scully felt heat rise to her cheeks at the compliment. When was the last time someone had appreciated her as a woman? Not as an FBI agent, a doctor, or a patient. An image of Ed Jerse flitted through her mind, and she quickly shut it out. This night with Stella would be a million times better and more memorable than her night with Ed.

With slightly trembling hands, she untied the knot at Stella’s hip and released her sweater, helping her to guide it over her head. Scully tossed it onto the chair with her coat, pausing to take in the sight of Stella in her bra, her full breasts filling the cups perfectly. It was too dark to fully appreciate the sheer black lace in front of her, but even so, Scully felt a hot thrill as she ran her fingers over it.

“Do you always dress like this under your work clothes?” She thought of the plain black satin bra she’d worn earlier that day.

“Yes.” Stella’s hands skimmed over Scully’s bare stomach to the waistband of her pajama pants.

“Why?” Scully pinched Stella’s nipples through the lace.

Stella hissed out a breath, her hips jutting forward to press against Scully’s. “Because I like pretty lingerie,” she said, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world, and why not? Why didn’t Scully buy pretty things just for herself? Maybe once she got home from this trip, she would.

“And because I never know where I may end up at the end of the night.” Stella met her gaze, the lights of the street below twinkling in her eyes like diamonds.

How often did she do this? Scully forced herself not to ponder that thought as she unbuttoned Stella’s pants, pushing down the zipper she’d teased earlier. Stella stepped out of them, tossing them over the rest of her clothes on the chair, standing before Scully in a matching black lace thong. Her body gleamed a pearly white in the dim light reflected from the window. Scully ran her hands down Stella’s sides, savoring the lean, toned feel of her flesh beneath her palms.

Stella pushed down Scully’s pajama pants, baring the pink cotton panties she’d worn to bed, and it was a good thing it was dark in the room, because she was pretty sure her cheeks were a perfect match for her panties right now. Then Stella swiped a thumb across the cotton fabric, and Scully forgot everything except the sizzling, throbbing heat in the wake of her touch.

Stella stepped her slowly and deliberately toward the bed, kissing her the whole way, her tongue dancing against Scully’s, the lace of her bra teasing Scully’s bare breasts as they fell together onto the sleep-rumpled sheets. Stella settled on top of her, one lean, muscled thigh pressed between Scully’s, and she was so turned on she could barely think, barely breathe.

She inhaled slowly, hearing the hitch in her breath as Stella’s tongue flicked her nipple, her hips moving in a deliciously, torturously slow rhythm that pressed her thigh directly against Scully’s clit. She reached out, gripping Stella’s ass, pulling her closer, fingernails pressing into Stella’s smooth skin, causing her to gasp.

“You like that?” she managed, pressing her nails harder into Stella’s skin.

“Yes.” Her voice had gone impossibly high-pitched, little more than an exhale as she closed her eyes, hips moving against Scully’s in earnest now.

“And this?” She slid her hands up Stella’s back, pulling her down so she could suck one of Stella’s nipples into her mouth through the shell of her bra. She bit down, drawing a strangled groan from Stella’s lips.

“Yes,” she whispered, her body shuddering in pleasure beneath Scully’s touch.

She remembered the look in Stella’s eyes when she’d come to the door. While Scully had been safe and warm in her bed, Stella had been standing in the cold rain, staring down God-knew-what kind of evil. And Scully desperately wanted to cleanse her of it, at least for tonight, to replace the bad pain with the good kind.

“Roll over.” She pushed on Stella’s shoulders, guiding her to the bed, and to her surprise, Stella didn’t protest, landing on her back against the sheets, eyes smoldering up at Scully in the near darkness. “Can I take these off?” she tugged at the strap of Stella’s bra before dropping her hand to the lace band at her hip.

Stella hesitated, and Scully had the distinct impression she didn’t always undress for sex, that maybe she’d already seen more of her than most of her partners did. But then she lifted up and unhooked her bra, tossing it and her panties to the floor beside the bed. Scully’s heart thumped against her ribs as she settled herself over Stella.

She bent her head, sucking one of her nipples into her mouth as her hand traveled down the smooth, flat expanse of Stella’s stomach. She squeezed her thigh, feeling the strong muscles there, wondering fleetingly how she kept them that way. Stella shifted beneath her, muscles bunching beneath Scully’s fingers, eyes boring into hers, glinting crystalline in the dim light.

“Ready?” Scully whispered, and Stella nodded, breathing deeply, eyes fluttering shut in anticipation of her touch.

Scully bit down on her nipple at the same time she slid her hand to the juncture of Stella’s thighs, and Stella gasped, hips bucking beneath the confine of Scully’s body. She stroked her fingers through Stella’s wetness, holding her breath as she touched Stella’s clit, focused on delivering as much pleasure as possible.

“Yes,” Stella gasped. “More.”

Scully kissed her way up Stella’s chest to her neck, nipping at the tender skin there as her fingers swirled over Stella’s clit before sliding down to her entrance. Keeping her palm firmly against her, she pushed a finger inside, simultaneously sucking at the mark she’d made on Stella’s neck.

Stella sighed, her body seeming to tense and relax at the same time. Her eyes were closed now, eyebrows jumping as Scully pumped her finger in and out before adding a second. She curved forward, bringing her head down to lavish her attention on Stella’s other breast, nipping and sucking as Stella rode her hand, thighs clamped around her wrist, grinding herself against Scully’s palm as she pumped her fingers inside her.

Stella arched off the bed as her inner walls gripped Scully’s fingers, pulsing as she began to come. She threw her head back, letting out a sound somewhere between a moan and a gasp that was possibly the most erotic thing Scully had ever heard. Her clit throbbed so powerfully she thought for a moment she might come from the sound of Stella’s orgasm, from the feel of her body trembling beneath Scully’s as she came apart in her arms.

Stella flung an arm over her eyes, breathing deeply. Scully withdrew her hand carefully, leaning down to place a fierce kiss against Stella’s lips. Stella’s other arm came around her, surprisingly strong as she pulled Scully flush against her body, hot damp skin against hot damp skin.

And then Stella was moving, rolling, pinning Scully to the bed beneath her. Stella’s fingers hooked under the band of Scully’s underwear, dragging them down her legs, and she kicked them free of her ankles, her body burning beneath Stella’s. She felt as if she might die if Stella didn’t touch her before her next breath, but at the same time, she wanted this moment to last forever, the feel of Stella’s breasts against hers, the press of Stella’s hipbone against her clit, the way every cell in her body felt exquisitely, almost painfully alive in a way she wasn’t sure she’d ever felt, or at least never taken the time to notice.

She closed her eyes, breathing, just breathing, and then Stella’s lips were on hers. Everything inside Scully seemed to vibrate, like she was a metal alloy heated to the point where it liquified, putty beneath Stella’s talented fingers, hers for Stella to mold into something new. As she sucked Scully’s tongue into her mouth, her fingers dipped between Scully’s legs, finally touching the parts of her that had been aching for her touch almost since they’d met.

Scully didn’t even try to contain the needy noises she heard herself making, strangled cries and groans, her hips grinding against Stella’s hand as Stella’s nimble fingers stroked in and out of her, making her eyes roll back in her head. She’d forgotten this part about being with a woman, the way their bodies fit together in perfect symmetry, how soft it all was. Stella’s skin, her hair as it feathered over Scully’s shoulders like spun silk.

And, unlike most men Scully had been with, Stella knew her way around the female anatomy, because of course she did. She arched her fingers inside Scully’s body, hitting that spot she could never quite seem to find by herself, the spot that made her toes curl and her lungs seize and the most outrageous cry of ecstasy to leave her lips.

In response, Stella kissed her deeper, fucked her harder, thumb pressing against Scully’s clit as she stroked that spot inside her, and Scully’s entire world was distilled to the tips of Stella’s fingers, the magic she’d woven there that had her coiling toward one of the most intense orgasms of her life. Her hips bucked, and her fingers clenched around Stella’s waist as the pressure built to an almost unbearable strength inside her.

“Please,” she gasped.

Stella increased the pressure of her hand, stroking her inside and out, and Scully broke with a cry, clutching desperately at the woman on top of her as she rode out the waves of pleasure. It just kept coming, and she held on, to Stella, to her sanity, to this newly unleashed part of herself that she never wanted to lose.

Stella rolled beside her, placing a kiss on Scully’s cheek that was far more tender than anything they’d previously shared. Scully felt the brush of her lips all the way to her soul.

“May I use your shower?” Stella whispered, and Scully nodded, attempting to corral the emotions charging wildly around inside her.

“Help yourself to anything you need,” she said, pleased that her voice sounded steady, calm even. She watched as Stella climbed out of the bed, her body lithe and graceful as a cat as she paced toward the bathroom. The door closed, and water began to run.

Scully grinned to herself, rubbing a hand over her face. It was just sex, really, really great sex. The best sex of her life? Maybe. Probably. She thought of Stella in the shower, briefly considered joining her before realizing that was crazy and would almost certainly not receive a positive reception from Stella. Besides, with endorphins fizzing in her blood, she felt the edges of sleep already curling around her, lulling her into its peaceful embrace.

The next thing she knew, Stella was walking toward the bed, wrapped in the thin white robe the hotel had provided. Her hair looked longer when it was wet, hanging almost to her waist. Her face was scrubbed clean, fresh and almost angelically beautiful, those fathomless eyes blinking at Scully without the weight of the mascara she’d worn earlier. Bare-faced and wet-haired, she looked younger, almost impossibly so, a glimpse at the woman behind the armor she wore to work each day.

It was this version of Stella who climbed into bed beside Scully, curled up quietly next to her, and closed her eyes. And it was this peaceful, innocent image of Stella that Scully carried with her into her dreams.

Chapter Text

Stella groped for the phone, lifting it to her ear almost before it had started to ring, an instinct ingrained from years of nights like this one, nights in which the alarm went off almost before her head touched the pillow. She managed to thank the front desk employee on the other end of the line for the wakeup call, her voice hoarse with sleep and hushed by the desire not to wake Scully.

But as she sat up, feet brushing against the coarse hotel room carpet, blinking furiously to anchor herself to consciousness, she felt a hand on her thigh, a soft, delicate hand that made Stella’s heart race at the simple contact.

“Up already?” Scully murmured.

“I have to be at work.” And she knew it needed no further explanation. Scully understood, was clearly as dedicated to her work as Stella.

“I’ll probably see you there later this morning.”

“I suppose you will.” Stella looked over her shoulder at Scully, wishing almost immediately that she hadn’t. Fresh-faced in the soft morning light, Scully was so beautiful Stella almost had to close her eyes against the sight, pale skin offset by those brilliant blue eyes and the vivid red of her hair. A smattering of light freckles dusted her cheeks and the bridge of her nose, and it was all Stella could do not to reach out and run her fingers over them.

“Don’t look at me like that if you want to make it into the office on time,” Scully whispered, a knowing smile on her lips.

Stella bent and kissed her, just a quick brush of lips that nevertheless eradicated the last shadows of sleep from her brain.

“Tonight, though…” Scully’s voice drifted away as she stretched, letting Stella watch as the sheet dropped to her waist, revealing her bare breasts, rosy nipples already pebbled against the chill of the room.

“Perhaps.” Stella stared a moment longer before turning her gaze to the pile of her clothes on the chair beside the bed. She didn’t usually fuck the same person two nights in a row. The fact that she was considering it now should be evidence enough that it was a bad idea.

She stood, pulling on her bra and underwear, but when she reached for her clothes, last night came rushing back at her in a cold, unforgiving wave. Seven-year-old Alissa Pine’s lifeless eyes stared up at her from her final resting place in a dumpster in the East End, begging Stella to unravel the monstrosities that had been done to her, to bring the man responsible to justice. The scent of decomposition filled Stella’s nostrils, seeming to radiate off the clothes on the chair. Even though she knew it was only in her head, she had to swallow past the urge to gag.

“You can borrow something clean if you like,” Scully said softly from behind her.

Tears pricked her eyes, burning anger for the little girl thrown out like rubbish mixed with gratitude for the woman watching her from the bed. “Thank you.”

“There are some things in the dresser, office clothes in the closet.”

Stella walked to the dresser. She had a change of clothes at the office, kept there for nights she never made it home, nights when she crashed on the cot behind her desk for a few hours of rest in the midst of a particularly intense case. She’d intended to go there last night, hadn’t meant to sleep in Scully’s bed, but she’d been so tired, Scully’s arms so warm, and for the two hours remaining before she had to get up, what difference did it really make where she slept?

She opened the top drawer and pulled out jeans and a plain black top, which fit her almost perfectly. She went into the bathroom to freshen up, and then, less than ten minutes after her wakeup call, she put on her coat, picked up her things, and headed for the door. When she reached it, she paused, looking back at Scully, who was still watching quietly from the bed.

It was just sex, just one night. Don’t make me regret it.

But all the things she would usually say—whether outright or through her actions—failed her as she met Scully’s earnest gaze. “I’ll see you at the office, then.”

Scully nodded as a smile touched her lips.

Stella’s heels clicked confidently across the polished floors of the hotel lobby a minute later, the only thing that felt familiar to her right now. Scully’s jeans were a bit loose on Stella’s hips. Her shirt smelled like something innocent and sweet, the essence of its owner clinging to the fibers as they brushed against Stella’s skin.

She retrieved her car from the valet and drove the short distance to the station, swiping her parking pass as she pulled into the garage beneath the building. In the lift, she schooled her expression and straightened her spine, steeling herself for the day to come. Two killers to hunt, the responsibility for bringing them to justice resting solidly on her shoulders.

“Morning, ma’am.” DC Chen nodded to her as she passed. He was a good officer, steady and dependable, the top man on her team.

“Good morning.” She paused by his desk. “I’ll be briefing everyone about the Pine case in the conference room at nine. Can you pass that along?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Thank you.” She strode directly to her office, closing the door behind her. She turned the lock, closed the blinds, and opened the closet, reaching for the garment bag hanging there. She stripped down, gratefully slipping into her own clothes. Then she took her toiletry bag to the restroom down the hall and did her makeup before giving her hair a quick brush. It had dried in unruly waves while she slept, so she twisted it up at the nape of her neck and clipped it there, polishing her look.

The woman staring back at her from the mirror was Detective Sergeant Stella Gibson, frosty and formidable, ready to take on the world. She would start by catching the monster who’d assaulted and murdered Alissa Pine.

She walked back to her office, already mentally running through the list of suspects. The girl’s stepfather topped her preliminary list, no steady job and a history of—

Fox Mulder stood in front of her desk, hands in the pockets of his slightly-too-large beige trousers, one foot tapping impatiently against the floor.

Stella brushed past him, sitting behind her desk as she fought back the impatience that filled her at the sight of him. Pizza-delivering vampires had fallen down her list of priorities. “Agent Mulder.”

“Detective.” He nodded politely. There was something endearingly enthusiastic about him, hazel eyes gleaming as if he’d just discovered the eighth wonder of the world. “I found him.”

“And by him, you mean…” She drummed her fingers against the desk.

“Ronnie Strickland. He goes by Tommy Lowe now, but the manager at Franco’s Pizzeria IDed him. He clocks in at noon.”

Stella felt her eyebrows rise. She leaned back in her chair, surveying Mulder through a new lens. This man was like a dog with a bone, driven and determined when he put his mind to something. “You found him.”

He nodded. “The manager gave me his home address, so if you’ll just—”

She held a hand up to silence him. “I’ll assign immediate, round-the-clock surveillance.”

“Can’t you bring him in?”

“I have nothing to charge him with. No evidence. As you’re not here in an official capacity, I have no authority to say that my case and yours are linked.”

“But…” He trailed off again as she tossed him a sharp look.

“We’ll get him, Agent Mulder.” And she felt a rush of gratitude for the man standing in front of her. If he’d indeed found her killer, and if that man indeed turned out to be a serial killer who’d perhaps been operating under her nose for almost a year now, she’d forever be in his debt. “Thank you for your help.”

“You’re welcome.” Mulder shuffled his feet as if caught off guard by her platitude, as if no one had ever thanked him for his work before. What was it like for him and Scully in their daily lives in America, running from one unsolvable case to the next, cases in which no one ever took them seriously despite both of them being—as far as Stella could tell—intelligent and capable agents?

“And Agent Scully?” She wasn’t sure why she said it, maybe just to test his reaction to her name.

“She should be here in a few minutes,” he answered, folding himself into one of the plastic-backed chairs on the visitor side of Stella’s desk. He was a handsome man, tall and lanky, with a charming smile and an inherently flirtatious manner. Yet, there was also something awkward about him. As she watched, he lifted a pen from her desk, twirling it between his fingers until it spun to the floor with a clatter. “Sorry.”

“No need.” She turned her back to him as she booted up her computer. “There should be coffee in the break room if you’d like a cup, down the hall on the left.” She dangled the bait, hoping she might buy herself time to organize her notes before the meeting she’d called for the Alissa Pine case, although she thought caffeine was probably the last thing Mulder needed.

Had he seen Scully this morning or just spoken to her by phone? Had Scully told him anything about last night? None of her business, but she figured Scully hadn’t, given the way he’d treated Stella so far this morning. He was possessive around Scully, she’d noticed it yesterday. He wouldn’t be pleased to know Stella had spent the night in her bed.

Stella smiled to herself as she logged in to the network, peripherally aware of Mulder standing from her guest chair.

“Can I bring you a cup?” he asked.

“Mm, please.” She tossed a half-smile in his direction.

“How do you take it?”

“Black.”

“Could have guessed.” He shuffled into the hall, disappearing in the direction of the break room.

Stella exhaled slowly, pressing her fingertips against her scalp. Fatigue weighed heavy behind her eyes, and she blinked it back, working her brain step-by-step through everything that needed to be accomplished this morning. She’d filled two sheets of notepaper by the time he returned, a paper cup in each hand.

An idea struck, a way to make him useful, give him something productive to do in his relentless pursuit of Ronnie Strickland, and get him out of her hair for the rest of the morning at the same time. “Agent Mulder, can I ask you and Agent Scully to take the lead on Ronnie Strickland’s surveillance?”

Mulder looked at her like she’d just told him Santa Claus was real. “Yeah, of course.”

“Perfect.” She lifted the phone and summoned DC Anker to her office, introducing Mulder to the eager young officer. She briefed Anker on the case and the surveillance that needed to be done.

When she looked up, Scully stood in the doorway to her office, dressed in a pale gray pencil skirt and a white blouse that only seemed to highlight the vivid beauty of her face, red hair tucked neatly behind her ears, eyes as bright as the summer sky. Everything inside Stella heated, and she had to concentrate to keep her gaze cool, unaffected.

She looked down at her lap to collect herself, registering her own clothes as she did, the gray skirt and white blouse almost identical to Scully’s. Fucking ridiculous, just the impression she wanted to make today. Jaw clenched, she forced her gaze back to Scully’s.

“Good morning, Agent Scully.”

“Morning, Detective.” Scully reached up to touch the gold cross at her throat, revealing a flash of purple on her neck where Stella had feasted just a few hours ago.

She inhaled sharply, dropping her gaze to the sheets of notepaper in front of her, a serial killer and a child predator waiting for her to catch them. “I’ll let Agent Mulder catch you up to speed.”

* * *

Scully held in a sigh as she adjusted her position in the passenger seat of Mulder’s rental car, stretching against the stiffness in her back.

“Just like old times, isn’t it, Scully?” he looked over at her with a smile.

“Mm hmm.”

“We’re going to catch him today. I can feel it,” he said, bursting with the conviction and enthusiasm that had made her follow him to the ends of the world, and for the moment, she couldn’t bring herself to quash it, so she just smiled and nodded.

They’d been sitting outside Ronnie’s apartment for two hours now, waiting for him to make his move. Soon, he’d head to his job at the pizza parlor, and hopefully from there, he’d go after his next victim. It all seemed too good to be true. Too easy. Nothing like this ever happened for them. Something was bound to go wrong.

Still, she kept her skepticism to herself. Maybe this trip to England would mark the start of a new era in her sex life and in her career. After feeling like she’d been mired in quicksand on both fronts for years, watching life pass her by as she chased answers she never seemed to find, maybe she’d return to America tomorrow a new woman.

“Shame Sheriff Hartwell’s not here this time,” Mulder said with an amused smile.

“Seriously, Mulder?” She rolled her eyes at him, wondering how he could still tease her about her harmless crush on the handsome sheriff while completely missing the way she looked at Stella, the fact that Stella had spent the night in her bed, that Scully had had to button her blouse higher than usual this morning to hide the mark on her neck. Warmth spread through her belly as she touched a hand to it.

“It’s okay, Scully. I won’t tell anyone you have a thing for vampires.”

“He wasn’t a vampire.”

“Sure. You keep telling yourself that.” He grinned at her.

She sighed, regretting that second cup of coffee before committing herself to a stakeout. Once Ronnie reported to work, maybe she could go into one of the neighboring businesses and use their restroom.

“Here he comes,” Mulder said, shifting the car into drive as quickly as he shifted his demeanor from playful and teasing to agent on the hunt for a killer.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” Maybe a part of her had doubted him, hadn’t truly believed he’d tracked Ronnie Strickland here to London, but as he came into view, hopping into a small blue sedan at the curb, Scully found herself looking at the same kid—was he still a teenager or a man now? —who’d eluded her and Mulder in Texas last year.

“Told you so.” Mulder sounded positively gleeful now.

Scully lifted the radio DC Anker had given them and reported in, letting the Metropolitan police know they were on the move. As it turned out, though, Ronnie wasn’t on his way to work. He drove slowly across town, as Scully reported their progress to Anker, who dispatched several patrol vehicles to follow at a distance, just in case.

“He’s called off from work today,” Anker told her over the radio. “Told his manager he was sick.”

“Oh,” Scully said. “Shit.”

“What?” Anker asked.

“He’s wearing his uniform and carrying a pizza delivery box.”

“Bloody hell.” Anker sounded excited now. Scully heard him repeating this information to someone and the murmuring of voices in the background. “DS Gibson and I are in pursuit. We’ll take the lead if the situation develops.”

“Okay.” She swallowed her frustration that she and Mulder would have to sit back and let them make the arrest, because this was the Met’s case after all. She and Mulder weren’t even supposed to be here.

Ten minutes later, Ronnie parked his car in front of a nondescript brick building, emerging with the pizza box in hand. He had definitely improved his game since his antics in Chaney, Texas. No more attacking people along his pizza delivery route, leaving the bodies at the scene. Had he hacked into the pizzeria’s system, making rogue deliveries on his own time?

“Holy shit,” Mulder said as Ronnie entered the building.

Scully radioed Anker with this development.

“DS Gibson says to hold your position, Agent Scully,” he told her. “We’re in route. Patrol officers should be on the scene momentarily.”

“He could be killing someone as we speak!” Mulder reached for the door handle, never having followed orders a day in his life.

She gripped his cuff. “He’s still using chloral hydrate to incapacitate his victims, which means he’s got to deliver the pizza and then wait for the drug to take effect. We’ve got time, Mulder.”

“I’m just going to go take a quick look around.” He stepped out of the car, crossing the street and entering the building Ronnie had gone into.

Scully pinched the bridge of her nose, annoyed she couldn’t follow him and frustrated that she’d be left behind to explain his insubordination…again. Several patrol cars pulled to the curb over the next minute or so, but Scully stayed in her seat. She waited until she saw the gray Citroen sedan park near the corner before she climbed out of Mulder’s rental car.

She walked briskly, head down in case Ronnie Strickland happened to look out of a window. She doubted he even remembered her, but with the red hair, she sometimes made a memorable figure in a criminal mind.

She slipped into the backseat of Stella’s car, briefing her and Anker on the latest developments, including the fact that Mulder had gone into the building on his own.

“Fuck,” Stella hissed, eyes meeting Scully’s for a moment in the mirror, icy in their intensity.

“He knows what he’s doing. He won’t endanger the investigation.” She could only hope he didn’t make a liar out of her.

“I’ll take it from here,” Stella told her for the second time in as many days, her tone cool and dismissive, but Scully didn’t budge. If Stella wanted her to leave the car, she’d have to kick her out. She didn’t, though. She gave Scully another seething look in the rearview mirror before turning to Anker. After leaving the hotel, she’d changed from Scully’s clothes into a gray pencil skirt and a white blouse, almost an exact match to the outfit Scully wore today.

Stella’s blouse was sleek and silk, though, where Scully’s was a stiff cotton blend. The irony might have made her smile under other circumstances, ones where she wasn’t sitting in the backseat of a police vehicle with an uncomfortably full bladder, listening as the woman she’d spent last night with cursed out her partner.

Stella was on her radio now, coordinating with the patrol officers on scene. One of them had gone into a building across the street with high-powered binoculars and was surveilling the apartment from which a pizza delivery order had been placed nearly an hour ago.

The radio in Stella’s hands crackled to life. “We have eyes on the homeowner. He appears to be unconscious on the sofa.”

“Hold your positions,” Stella said, her tone calm yet edged in steel.

“The door to the hall has opened,” the officer reported. “The suspect has entered the flat. I repeat, the suspect has entered the flat.”

“Now,” Stella barked, gesturing at Anker as all hell broke loose on the other end of the radio. Shouts echoed over the line, and someone screamed.

Scully straightened in her seat, itching to grab her weapon and dive into the melee. Stella leveled her with a stare. “You stay here.”

She nodded, praying quietly Mulder wasn’t inside that building fucking up the whole operation right now. She watched as Stella and Anker strode across the street and disappeared into the building. And then, everything was quiet.

She sat, and she waited, toe tapping restlessly against the gray-upholstered console between the backseats. The car smelled like Stella, the vaguely-exotic scent of her perfume. Scully closed her eyes and inhaled, remembering the brush of Stella’s hair on her shoulders, the scrape of her teeth over Scully’s bottom lip before she kissed her.

She shifted in her seat, a warm ache blooming between her thighs at the memory. She crossed her legs, waiting…and waiting what felt like an eternity until finally the front doors of the building burst open. Two patrol cops emerged, Ronnie Strickland cuffed between them.

And she couldn’t help herself. She climbed out of Stella’s car and strode across the street, leaning a hip against the patrol car parked in front of the building, waiting for Ronnie to notice her, hoping he’d recognize her. She wanted him to see her, dammit. He looked up, eyes gleaming with anger, prosthetic fangs in place as he hissed—actually hissed—at her in his rage.

“You!” he screeched. “I know you!”

Stella emerged from the building, flanked by Anker and several other agents. She folded her arms over her chest as she took in the sight of Scully in front of the building, not in the car where she’d told her to wait. But where the hell was Mulder?

“Gotcha this time,” Scully told Ronnie before turning her back on him. She was halfway back to their rental car when Mulder caught up to her, having materialized out of God-knew-where.

“We did it, Scully.” He ate up the ground between them with his long strides, already reaching for the handle to the car. “We got him.”

“Yeah, we did.” She smiled in spite of herself. “You didn’t do anything in there to screw up their operation, did you?”

“What?” He looked at her like the very idea was absurd. “Of course not. I just kept an eye on things until they brought him in.”

“Okay.” She lowered herself into the passenger seat, eager to get back to the station.

“You realize what this means, don’t you?” He started the car before turning to her, mossy green eyes burning into hers like they often did, the way that sometimes made her ache to kiss him. Today, it didn’t have the same effect.

“No,” she said simply.

“Once Kersh finds out we closed this case, he’ll have no choice but to put us back on the X Files.”

She sighed, rubbing a hand over her brow. “If you take this to Kersh, he’ll have our badges for coming here in the first place.”

“But Scully…”

“Stop it, Mulder. We caught our guy. We won. If we ever get back on the X Files, we can officially close the case and celebrate, but for now, we’ve got to be happy that justice was served.” She was sick to death of being the voice of reason, always being the voice of reason. They so rarely closed a case this definitively, and now that they had, they still wouldn’t get credit for it. It wasn’t fair. But few things relating to their work ever were.

Mulder looked crestfallen. He sat there for a long moment, staring at the steering wheel as he seemed to come to terms with her reality. She sat beside him, patiently waiting. Always waiting. A lifetime waiting for this man.

“You’re right,” he said finally.

“Okay.”

“We’ll go back to the station and help Detective Gibson get the paperwork squared away, and I’ll see if I can get us on a flight back to DC this evening.”

She looked over at him. “What? Why?”

“Because we caught him. The case is closed.” He looked confused by her confusion, and she realized in a sudden jolt how drastically different her idea of fun was from his. In fact, she wasn’t sure Mulder actually knew how to have fun unless it involved chasing aliens.

“I’ll keep my flight for tomorrow, thanks.”

“But…”

“We’re on vacation, Mulder,” she told him. “Officially, that is. We put in for vacation time to come to London, and I’d like to see a little bit of the city before I go home.”

“Oh.” His brow wrinkled as he finally started driving toward the station. “Okay, then. You stay, but I’m going to change my flight. Frohike was telling me about this report of a wolf-man in Montana…”

She tuned him out, thinking ahead to her night off.

And Stella.

Chapter Text

“So, did you guys plan this, or…?” Mulder grinned, sweeping his hand dramatically between Stella and Scully, gesturing to their nearly identical outfits.

Stella had just come from the morgue, where she’d stood over Alissa Pine’s tiny body while the medical examiner told her in gruesome detail every disgusting thing that had been done to the girl. She was running on fumes, and her patience for Mulder’s humor was running extremely thin. Her left eye twitched. “Is that supposed to be funny?”

His jaw gaped open for a moment while Scully pressed a hand over her eyes in embarrassment. How did she put up with him day after day? Six years of this, of listening to him mouth off about monsters and aliens, cracking stupid jokes in his ill-fitting suits.

“Tomorrow, I thought I might dye my hair blonde,” Scully deadpanned, glancing from Mulder to Stella. “See if you could tell us apart.”

Stella clenched her jaw against the completely irrational urge to laugh. She glared at Scully before spinning on her heel to walk to her office. She shut the door behind her for effect, sinking into her chair. For a moment, she just sat there, fingertips pressed against her brow, rubbing at the headache pulsing there.

Alissa’s body swam across her vision, and tears pricked at the backs of her eyes. Later that afternoon, she and Chen would question the girl’s stepfather. She could hardly wait to sink her teeth into the sonofabitch, metaphorically speaking, of course, but first, she had to prepare. She drew in a deep breath and pushed it out, blinking her composure into place.

Then she turned to her computer and got to work. She reviewed every detail of the Pine case, making careful notes about the holes in the stepfather’s alibi, his prior conviction for child pornography, and the as yet unidentified fibers on Alissa’s bare legs. She had no idea how much time had passed when she heard a knock at the door to her office. “Come in.”

The door opened, and Scully stood there, a bright smile on her face that was in such contradiction to the darkness in Stella’s mind she almost growled at her for having the nerve to look so happy. But she’d already dropped into the guest chair, still wearing that skirt that looked so ridiculously like Stella’s. Scully’s emphasized the hourglass swell of her figure and made Stella’s fingers clench against the urge to touch her.

“Chen told me you hadn’t eaten.” Scully set a white paper bag and an insolated coffee cup on the desk between them, still with that smile that made Stella want to scream at her or kiss her. One of the two.

“I missed lunch.” She sounded harsh even to her own ears. “Busy,” she added, purposefully softening her tone.

“I’ll get out of your hair, then.” Unphased, Scully stood, turning toward the door.

Stella blew out a slow breath. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Scully told her. “I always wished someone would bring me a sandwich when I was having a day like this. So…”

Stella gave her a grateful smile.

“Anyway, I’m headed back to the hotel for the evening. I might do a little sightseeing…playing it by ear.” She raised her eyebrows just slightly, enough to make sure Stella caught her meaning.

“Noted.” She took another breath, pushing back the desire that had barreled through her at the thought of seeing Scully again later. Don’t do it, a little voice inside her warned. She was already far too taken with Scully for her own good. But then again, tomorrow she would fly back to America, so there was no real danger in Stella allowing herself this one night. “Where’s Mulder?”

“At the airport. He’s flying home early.”

“I see.”

Scully smiled again, ducking her head. “I’ll, ah…see you later. Or not. You’ve got my number.”

Stella nodded, and Scully walked to the door, pulling it open.

“Dana.”

“Yes?” She turned, blue eyes as bright as cornflowers.

“I’ll see you later.”

* * *

The first thing Scully did when she got back to her room was change. She’d joked about the matching outfits, but truthfully, it was awkward. If she saw Stella again later, she didn’t want to look like a less-glamorous version of her. Besides, office clothes were for the office. She put on a floor-length black knit skirt with the blue top her mom had given her for her birthday.

It brought out the blue in her eyes, or so Maggie said. Right before she reminded Scully that thirty-three was almost mid-thirties, and had she thought about at least testing the dating pool? She’d never get married if she didn’t date.

Well, here she was in London, wearing the shirt and going on a date, even if it was with the least likely person in the whole world to someday marry her. If Stella had one thing in common with Mulder, it was that they were both married to the job, dedicated to the pursuit of justice to the detriment of their own well-being.

Scully had always thought she’d settle down someday and start a family. Even after she’d learned she couldn’t bear children of her own, she’d thought of adoption. Emily’s face flitted across her vision, and she gasped at the pain that gripped her chest, blinking back tears. Pressing a hand against her ribs, she sat on the bed, pulling herself back together.

These were thoughts, fears, and tears for another day. Right now, she had a city to see. So, she stuffed a few things into the pockets of her coat and headed out, frustrated to find London as cold, gray, and wet as it had been this time yesterday. Well, no matter. She’d spent enough hours standing outside in the cold rain at crime scenes. She’d hardly even notice it under these relatively happy circumstances.

She rode the tube to Green Park and walked to Buckingham Palace to watch the changing of the guard, before touring Westminster Abbey. And if she geeked out in front of the rows of ancient texts in its library, well, nobody needed to know about that but herself.

Darkness had fallen outside when she left the abbey. Her stomach rumbled with hunger, but she was hesitant to eat, hoping Stella would call. Her heart beat faster every time she so much as thought of her, let alone saw her. Could they possibly top the magic of last night? The one thing Scully was sure of was that she at least deserved the chance to try. She so rarely allowed herself to do something like this, to seek a night of pleasure just because it was something she wanted. But when she decided to cut loose, she was all in.

No regrets, no matter how tonight played out.

Since the rain had stopped, she set off at a brisk walk, deciding to see where her feet carried her. She needed the exercise after the stress and frustration of the day. Eventually, she walked past a market, multi-colored tents boasting a variety of food and treats. Led by her empty stomach, Scully wandered between the stalls. Ten minutes later, she walked back out with a bag of fudge in her hand, a morsel of salted caramel already melting in her mouth. She’d gotten a sampling of flavors, hoping she might have someone to share it with later.

As if on cue, her phone rang. The number was long and foreign-looking, and her stomach tingled in anticipation. Cursing herself for having a mouthful of fudge, she connected the call. “Hello?”

“Dana?”

She almost choked on the fudge at the sound of Stella’s voice. Quickly, she swallowed. “Yes.”

“Still want company tonight?”

“Yes.” She didn’t even care how eager she sounded, because she had earned this night, dammit.

“Where are you?”

“Um.” She looked around for street signs. “I don’t know exactly. I was walking, and I found this market, and—”

“Camden?” Stella asked.

“Maybe?”

“Are you lost, Agent Scully?”

She could hear the smile in Stella’s voice, and her own lips stretched in response. “Yes, but I can see a sign for the Underground up ahead, so I won’t be lost for long. Where should I meet you?”

“How do you feel about room service?”

“It sounds perfect,” she answered honestly. “And I just bought us dessert.”

“I thought you were dessert,” Stella said throatily, causing Scully to trip over her own feet. “I’ll meet you at your hotel.”

Scully hurried toward the Underground station. She bought a ticket and fidgeted with her skirt as she waited for the train to carry her across town to her hotel…and to Stella. Except, as it turned out, she had to change trains—twice—to get where she needed to go. It took almost forty-five minutes all told, and she was about to jump out of her own skin from a combination of nerves and anticipation by the time she made it into the lobby.

Was Stella here already? Scully didn’t see her anywhere, so she rode the elevator to the fifth floor, heart jumping into her throat as she spotted Stella in the hallway outside her room, one hip against the wall, arms folded across her chest in a way that managed to make her look both aloof and commanding.

“Took you long enough,” she said, her gaze sliding over Scully.

She felt it like a physical touch, shivering slightly as she stepped forward, tugging at Stella’s arm, undoing her carefully composed poise so she could kiss her. “Sorry,” she murmured against her lips.

“Thought you might be properly lost after all.” Stella kissed her back, her mouth hot and demanding against Scully’s.

“No, but the Underground is slow.” She fumbled with her keycard as Stella wound an arm around her waist, lips diverting their way down Scully’s neck as she unlocked the door and swung it open. They stumbled inside, arms interlaced, kissing whatever skin was within easy reach.

“You changed.” Stella tugged at the waistband of Scully’s skirt.

“Mm.” She undid the top button of Stella’s blouse. “If there had been a ‘who wore it better,’ you would have won.”

“I disagree. Your hips in that skirt.” Stella slid her fingers over the thin knit fabric covering Scully’s hips. “Absolute torture not being able to touch you.”

“And you look like you just stepped off a fashion runway, which is pretty unfair, considering I know you only got about two hours sleep last night and worked a twelve-hour day catching serial killers.”

“You energize me.” Stella dug her fingers into Scully’s hips, drawing her flush against her body.

This close, though, Scully could see the shadows beneath her eyes, the worry lines between her brows, the pink mark on her bottom lip where she must have bitten it in stress or frustration. Scully sucked it between her own lips, soothing the spot with her tongue as Stella exhaled deeply, the rigid set of her spine softening beneath Scully’s fingers.

She’d heard one of the other officers talking about a little girl found in a dumpster, and now she knew what had caused the haunted look in Stella’s eyes last night when she’d come to Scully’s room, seeking comfort from a near stranger. If she could help replace those images with something warm, something solid, something good, even for a few hours, then it was time well spent.

Especially if it meant another orgasm like the one Stella had given her last night. Maybe even more than one, because right now, the night ahead loomed large and endless before them.

“Did you stop at home after you left here this morning?” she asked as she stepped Stella backward toward the bed, unbuttoning her blouse as she went.

“No.” Stella gasped as Scully trailed a finger over her exposed collarbone, dipping between her breasts, covered tonight in a pink lace bra, just a shade darker than her skin. “I keep a change of clothes at the office.”

“Convenient.” Scully tongued her nipple through the fabric, then gave her a gentle shove.

“Yes.” Stella fell backward onto the bed, blouse open, skirt slightly bunched at the hips, and Scully felt her throat go dry. Surely nothing had ever been more beautiful than the way Stella looked in that moment, cheeks slightly flushed, eyes so vividly blue they seemed to be lit from within.

“I want to taste every inch of you.” Scully crawled on top of her, intent on doing just that, but the next thing she knew, she was flat on her back, Stella’s weight pressing her to the bed as she kissed every last rational thought from her head. Stella nudged a thigh between her legs, and Scully opened to her, grateful for the loose knit fabric of her skirt.

“You taste like caramel,” Stella murmured, one of her hands wandering down Scully’s body, pushing up her shirt.

“Fudge.” She waved a hand in the general direction of the bag she’d dropped just inside the door.

“I like it.” She kissed Scully again, tongue diving into her mouth, hands diving everywhere else, tugging at fabric, removing clothes. Scully shifted this way and that, helping Stella to undress her until finally she lay naked beneath her.

Stella sucked briefly at the mark she’d left on Scully’s neck last night before trailing hot, open-mouthed kisses down her chest. One of her hands slid between Scully’s thighs, stroking her as she sucked her nipple into her mouth.

“Fuck,” Scully breathed, back arching as the restless desire that had been throbbing inside her since she’d caught sight of Stella outside her door blazed out of control.

“Yes,” Stella murmured, continuing to work her way down Scully’s body, tongue winging its way around her navel and over her belly.

Realizing where she was headed, Scully tensed in anticipation, thighs clamping around Stella’s hand, and she looked up, her eyes questioning. “Is this all right?” she asked softly.

Scully looked down at her, blonde hair hanging loosely over Scully’s thighs, kindness in her eyes and sin on her tongue. “Yes,” she whispered, allowing her knees to fall open as Stella settled herself between them.

And Stella replaced her fingers with her tongue, beginning with one long, slow lick through Scully’s folds that had her head dropping against the pillow and a decidedly unladylike noise coming from her lips. Stella licked all the way to Scully’s clit, teasing it with the tip of her tongue, making her whole body shiver and tremble.

A vague image formed in her mind of the echocardiogram in the hospital, the way the needle would jump when the patient was stimulated. Hers would be leaping off the paper right now. She’d break the fucking machine.

Stella’s tongue retreated, licking and swirling before jabbing inside her, causing her to arch off the bed.

“Oh,” she gasped, reaching down to palm her own breasts.

“Yes,” Stella said against her wet skin. “Do that. Do whatever feels good.”

“You feel good,” she moaned, hips thrusting impatiently against Stella’s mouth. “So good.”

In response, Stella closed her mouth over Scully’s clit and sucked as she pushed two fingers inside her.

“Yes,” Scully gasped. “Just like that. Don’t stop.”

And she didn’t. She kept a gentle suction with her mouth as her tongue swirled over Scully’s clit, licking and flicking while her fingers pumped in and out, and Scully was writhing against the bedspread, grinding herself against Stella’s mouth as the pressure built inside her, winding hotter and tighter until she thought she might burst from it.

“Jesus Christ,” she gasped as she broke. “Stella…”

* * *

Stella lay beside Scully, toying with a lock of her hair to keep her hands occupied while Scully regained her senses. Stella steadied her breathing, attempting to quell the desire throbbing inside her, already mentally talking her way back out the door before Scully could finish undressing her. Last night, it had been dark. Tonight, the lights were on, and Scully would see her.

Scully would want to return the favor. Hell, she’d already been the first to ask.

“I want to taste every inch of you,” she’d said, as sincere as she was enthusiastic, tossing Stella to the bed.

She sat up now, straddling Stella’s hips, red hair mussed and gleaming nearly as bright as the light in her eyes. She rocked her hips against Stella, and she couldn’t help the way her breath hitched, the need pulsing wickedly inside her. Maybe she could still salvage this.

“Touch me,” she demanded, guiding Scully’s hand beneath her skirt, and she did. Her fingers pushed aside the lace of Stella’s underwear, brushing through her wetness, making her pant.

Yes. Fuck, yes.

She tilted her hips, increasing the pressure of Scully’s hand, silently urging her on. Scully slid down, straddling Stella’s thigh as she lowered herself to kiss her breast, fingers working their magic, and fuck, she needed this. She needed it so badly she felt slightly desperate, and that was not a feeling she enjoyed.

She sucked in a deep breath, steadying herself, grounding herself to the feel of Scully’s fingers, the rhythm she’d set, not quite hard or fast enough to Stella’s liking. And then Scully bent her head, kissing Stella through the fabric of her skirt. The heat of her mouth, even diluted by various layers, still brought Stella gasping up off the mattress.

“Can I?” Scully asked, looking up at Stella. “Please? I want to taste you. I’ve wanted to since last night.”

Yes. But she couldn’t say it out loud. Her whole body stiffened beneath Scully’s as the word lodged in her throat. Their gazes held, unspoken words passing between them as Scully sensed her discomfort. And Stella hated herself for the shame that heated her cheeks as she thought of Scully seeing her, really seeing her. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply, breathing past it, focusing on the need still burning inside her and the pleasure Scully could bring.

The truth was, she’d never done this, never let anyone get this close to her scars. She’d fucked on tables, on desks, behind bars, in grungy public bathrooms, and in the backseat of a patrol car, but she’d never bared herself to any of her partners, not the way she was dangerously close to baring herself to Scully. Most men were relieved, glad even, when she refused their feeble attempts at going down on her. But Scully was different. She genuinely wanted to do this, wanted to please her, and she would understand. Stella knew she would.

If there was ever a moment for Stella to let go, a partner to grant this level of trust, it was now, this woman, this night.

Now or never, Stella.

She’d never been one to back down from a challenge, especially the self-imposed kind.

“It’s okay,” Scully said, sliding up to press a kiss against Stella’s lips.

“No,” Stella said, opening her eyes, staring into Scully’s. “I do. I want you to.”

“Are you sure?” Scully asked, brows wrinkled in concern.

“Yes.”

“I could turn the light off,” Scully offered.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Once she’d committed to something, there was no going back. She was all in, or she might as well button her shirt and go home right fucking now.

Still Scully hesitated, and Stella shifted restlessly beneath her. She pushed at Scully’s shoulders, guiding her where she wanted her. “Dana, please.”

“Okay,” Scully whispered. She started with Stella’s bra, fingers snaking beneath her back to unhook it, sliding it and her blouse over her shoulders and tossing them aside. She focused her mouth on Stella’s bare breast, nipping and sucking as her fingers sought the zipper at the back of her skirt, distracting Stella with the pulses of pleasure that pinged through her blood at the skim of Scully’s teeth, the heat of her tongue.

The promise of feeling that heat, that pleasure on her clit…her body burned in anticipation. She’d always wondered what it would feel like, hadn’t been sure she’d be able to let go of herself enough to find out. But Scully was safe, as safe a partner as she would ever get.

She arched her hips, allowing Scully to slide the skirt down her legs, leaving her in nothing but her thong. And the blinding heat, the need pulsing inside her cooled slightly as she waited for Scully to see, waited for understanding to dawn in her eyes. She saw the moment it happened, saw her blink as the scars came into view.

Stella didn’t make a habit of feeling weak, and she refused to feel it now, even as discomfort crawled over her skin like an unwelcome layer of clothing, thick and hot, smotheringly so.

“Oh,” Scully breathed, and then she dipped her head, pressing her lips against Stella’s scarred skin, tracing each line with her tongue gingerly, almost reverently, as if they were a mark of beauty, not pain. Stella had thought them to be dead, devoid of feeling, but she’d never been more aware of anything in her entire life than the play of Scully’s mouth over her damaged skin.

By the time she’d reached the inner crease of Stella’s thigh, the highest scar—the oldest, the original scar—Stella had forgotten everything but the heat and pleasure of her tongue. Scully kissed her through the lace of her underwear, and Stella forgot how to breathe.

Then Scully was moving, climbing her body to bring their mouths together, telling Stella everything she needed to know in the fiery press of her lips. I understand. You’re beautiful. Thank you for sharing yourself with me.

All without saying a word.

Tears leaked from Stella’s eyes, dripping into her hair.

Scully hooked her fingers beneath the band of lace stretched over her hip, looking up and meeting Stella’s eyes as she sought her permission. Stella nodded, and Scully stripped the underwear away, dropping them to the floor with the rest of her clothes.

She scooted down the bed, placing a hot kiss against Stella’s inner thigh, licking and teasing her there until Stella was squirming, panting, overcome with the need to feel Scully’s tongue where she ached for her. And then Scully looked up. Their eyes locked as she moved to place the heat of her mouth directly over Stella’s clit. She hissed out a breath, eyes squeezed shut, relief and arousal barreling through her in equal measure. It was the most overwhelmingly erotic thing she’d ever felt.

She was torn between the desire to grind herself against Scully’s mouth, to relieve the pressure building inside her or hold herself perfectly still and try to make this moment last forever. Scully’s tongue swiped back and forth against her, and Stella thought she might be having an out of body experience.

Her fingers grasped the blanket beneath her, gripping, clenching as Scully slid her tongue down to Stella’s entrance before plunging inside her. She gasped, wondering briefly if she was even going to survive this. White dots burst behind her eyelids as Scully returned to her clit, sucking fiercely as she pushed two fingers inside her.

“Fuck,” she rasped, grounding herself by sliding one hand into Scully’s hair, holding loosely in those soft, silky strands as Scully performed magic with her mouth, fingers filling her, taking Stella to places she’d never been, to heights of pleasure she’d never known possible.

And then she broke, coming against Scully’s tongue in a hot rush of sensation. She heard herself gasping, moaning, hips moving desperately against Scully’s mouth as she came and came and came. When it was over, she lay on the bed for a long moment, just breathing, her body limp and buzzing with relief.

She pulled Scully up to kiss her, tasting herself on her lips, seeing her pleasure reflected in Scully’s eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered, not even bothering to hide the tears that spilled from her lids. “Thank you.”

Chapter Text

Scully sat cross-legged beside Stella in bed, room service trays laid open on the sheets between them. She’d never done this before, ordered over-priced burgers and eaten them half-naked in bed with the woman she’d just fucked. And why hadn’t she? Why did she so rarely allow herself this kind of indulgence?

If she’d learned anything in her six years with the FBI, it was that tomorrow was never guaranteed. This was the part of the job Stella seemed to have embraced most readily, allowing herself all the fanciful indulgences Scully had gone so long without. Stella worked hard and played hard, then got up the next morning and worked even harder.

Right now, she was eating a French fry—a chip, she would call it—and watching Scully watch her eat. She had on the hotel’s robe again, while Scully wore a plain black T-shirt, both of them bare-legged against the sheets. Stella’s hair hung long and tousled down her back, wavy from being tied in a knot at the back of her head all day.

Scully was struck again by how young she looked, unbuttoned and out of the office. If she removed the makeup and the attitude, dressed in jeans and a ponytail, she could go undercover as a high school student.

“How old are you?” she blurted, curiosity getting the better of her.

Stella straightened, tossing a lock of golden hair over her shoulder. “Twenty-nine.”

Still in her twenties. Scully smiled as she poked the last bite of her burger into her mouth.

“Why are you looking at me like that? How old are you?” Stella asked.

“Thirty-three.”

Stella blinked, plainly not having suspected Scully to be older, when Scully had assumed it since they’d met. Stella’s worldliness was born out of a confidence not backed by her years. She’d forged her way through the ranks on grit, smarts, and determination, and no doubt she’d keep right on climbing.

“I’m glad you’re here.” Scully had the sudden, strong urge to hug her, but she held herself in check, unsure how Stella would react to the gesture. There was a closeness between them, not just the intimacy they’d shared, but a mutual sort of trust and comfort, something Scully had so rarely experienced in her life, she wanted to treasure it forever.

Stella half-smiled as she rose and carried her tray to the door, setting it in the hall. Scully followed with her own tray, grabbing the discarded bag of fudge on her way back to the bed.

“Dessert?” She crawled onto the bed and opened the bag.

“Mm.” Stella gave her a heated look before reaching inside and pulling out a chunk of dark chocolate. She made a little sound of pleasure as she chewed, and Scully wondered how anyone ever managed to spend time in her presence and not fall madly in love with her.

How many people were out there even now, swooning over her without her knowledge? Because already Scully had no idea how she was supposed to forget her when she returned to DC in the morning. How could she forget any of this? Or was that the whole point? She should remember every moment in as much detail as possible.

They ate as much fudge as either of them could stomach, and then Stella leaned over to place the bag on the nightstand. That was when Scully saw the scars on the soles of her feet. Dear God, how much more pain had she etched into her own body? Stella turned, tucking her feet beneath the robe as she saw Scully looking.

I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.

But Scully only smiled, leaning in to wipe a morsel of fudge from Stella’s cheek, kissing her until the tension in her body released. They lay on the sheets facing each other, and Scully was imagining an alternate life in which she lived here in London, fighting crimes she actually stood a chance of solving and coming home every night to Stella in her bed. Of course, it was a fantasy. Even if she lived here, she wasn’t foolish enough to think Stella was the kind of woman who’d settle down, not with Scully or anyone else.

There was a reason they were in a hotel room instead of Stella’s home, after all. This was only temporary, like the room they were in. Their relationship was as neat and clean as the sheets below them, except it wasn’t. Scully didn’t do temporary very well. She’d been forced to accept it in too many aspects of her life over the years, and she would accept it again tomorrow when she said goodbye to Stella.

But that didn’t mean she had to like it. And it didn’t mean this had been meaningless. She could still taste the pain of Stella’s scars against her lips. That ladder of thin white lines carved into her delicate, intimate skin might as well have been a map to her soul, because Scully saw things there that she knew without asking Stella didn’t share readily, if ever.

She saw a teenaged Stella, angry, frightened, hurting herself to numb other pain, attempting to take control of things that were beyond her control. Somewhere along the way, she’d traded the razor blade for a badge, wielding control and power with an iron fist, making hardened criminals cower with a single look, causing men—and women—to fall all over themselves for her attention.

Stella Gibson, endlessly, effortlessly in control, had shown Scully her vulnerability. And she would never, ever forget it.

Right now, Stella was watching her out of sleep-glazed eyes, weary from the day but still alert, still hungry, a heat glowing there that re-ignited the ache between Scully’s thighs that burned whenever they were together, whenever she so much as thought of her.

Wordlessly, they slid together, kissing, touching, hands roaming under clothes. Stella’s robe slid onto the sheets behind her as she pushed Scully’s T-shirt over her head, leaving them both naked. Scully traced her fingers over the freckles on Stella’s chest, rolling Stella to her back so she could look her fill. Stella’s breasts were fuller than Scully’s, rounder. She palmed them, rolling her thumbs over Stella’s nipples so that they contracted into tight pink buds.

“So pretty,” she murmured as she bent her head to kiss first one, then the other.

Stella was quiet, but her gaze was calm, her body loose and pliant beneath Scully’s fingers, no trace of her earlier insecurities. She was leaner than Scully, her body lithe and toned. Scully had felt those muscles last night in the dark, and now she could see them in all their glory. She trailed her fingers over Stella’s six-pack abs.

“Don’t let this go to your head, but do you work out?” she asked, grinning at Stella, who used the moment to flip them, pinning Scully beneath her with the full force of those muscles she’d just been admiring.

“I swim,” she whispered, thrusting her hips against Scully’s. “And I spend my free time in the gym at the station.”

“Not all of your free time.”

“I believe this also counts as working out,” Stella said between kisses, hips still moving, one strong swimmer’s thigh between Scully’s to give her the friction she needed. “Can’t let anyone get the drop on me.”

“Never,” Scully murmured, picturing Stella in the gym, lifting weights to pull her weight in a man’s world. She knew the feeling, had found herself physically disadvantaged in enough situations where she’d wished for a few more inches, a little more muscle, but more often, she’d had to rely on her wits—and her weapon.

Stella kept moving, riding Scully’s thigh while Scully moved against her from below, matching the rhythm of Stella’s hips, rocking together, moaning as the pressure inside her mounted. She wanted to close her eyes, concentrate fully on grinding herself against Stella’s thigh until she’d found release, but she couldn’t look away from the beautiful woman on top of her.

Stella threw her head back, bottom lip clenched between her teeth as she moved. Her blonde hair spilled over her shoulders in messy waves, cascading over her breasts, which bounced with every thrust of her hips. Scully felt powerful in this position, seeing Stella from this angle, the way she would look if she were riding a man. Caught up in the fantasy, she reached a hand between them, touching Stella, carefully pushing two fingers inside her.

Stella gasped, leaning forward, riding Scully’s fingers with abandon. Scully felt separate from her own need, wholly focused on giving Stella pleasure, on making her lose control. And she was close, Scully could tell. She arched her fingers inside Stella, and Stella let out a soft cry, swaying forward to rest her hands on Scully’s shoulders, a fine sheen of sweat gleaming on her chest.

Stella whimpered as she came, her body clenching around Scully’s fingers. Scully held her breath, watching in awe as Stella rode out her orgasm. Her hands trembled as she lowered herself, body covering Scully’s from head to foot, kissing her deeply as she slipped a hand between Scully’s thighs.

It didn’t take her long to send Scully over the edge too, and they lay together for a long time afterward, limbs entwined as they caught their breath. Scully felt an irrational urge to hold on to her forever. The solid, mortal weight of Stella resting against her heart felt so good, tears brimmed in Scully’s eyes. How long had it been since she’d held someone like this? Naked bodies pressed together in the aftermath of pleasure, relaxed and content with the world.

“Stay the night?” she asked quietly.

Stella hesitated, her gaze drifting to the door as if searching for the conviction to walk out of it. Scully released her, dropping her arms to her sides, but then Stella nodded. “Yes, all right.”

And Scully smiled as she brought her arms around Stella again.

Tomorrow, Scully would fly home to DC and figure out what to do about Mulder and the X Files, about her life in general. Tomorrow, Stella would hunt down that little girl’s killer and see him punished. But tonight…tonight was just for them, two women seizing comfort where they could find it, a refuge from the insanity of their day-to-day lives.

Eventually, Stella disentangled herself and went into the bathroom. When she returned to the bed, she reached for the robe where it had fallen, eyes locking on Scully’s as she hesitated for a moment before covering herself. Scully didn’t mind; she wanted Stella to be comfortable, wanted to tell her how much she appreciated the things Stella had shown her, but she sensed the words didn’t need to be said, that she’d only make Stella self-conscious if she tried.

Instead, she turned to put her T-shirt back on, stopped by the feel of Stella’s hands gripping her waist from behind. Stella’s fingertips traced the tattoo on her lower back, circling the ouroboros inked there.

“I like it,” she said, her voice soft and cool as spun silk.

“I don’t,” Scully confessed, the hot sting of embarrassment flowing through her as she remembered her ill-fated night with Ed Jerse.

“Why not?” Stella crawled over to lay beside Scully, facing her.

“It was a stupid, impulsive decision that almost got me killed.”

Stella’s eyebrows rose. “Explain.”

So, she did. She told Stella about her ill-fated solo trip to Philadelphia, her night with Ed, the way he’d nearly killed her, and the cancer that had driven her to such a rash decision in the first place.

“It’s fitting, then,” Stella said. “The snake eating its own tale. It symbolizes rebirth. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Maybe you did get the tattoo you deserve.”

“Maybe.” She tended to get so caught up in the hurt and embarrassment of what had happened with Ed, and then the fear and pain of the cancer, she sometimes forgot about the tattoo itself. Maybe Stella was right. Maybe it symbolized the things she had survived. And maybe these nights with Stella were part of her rebirth.

* * *

Stella crept along the dark alley, careful to keep her weight on the balls of her feet so her heels didn’t make noise against the damp asphalt. Alissa Pine’s screams echoed from somewhere ahead. If Stella could just get there in time, she could stop this.

She could save Alissa.

But no matter how far she walked, no matter how fast, Alissa’s screams never drew any closer. She turned left, following Alissa’s cry for help, following the alley like an endless maze. Now she could hear him. Garrett Hunt, Alissa’s stepfather, was attacking her. Stella broke into a run, heels clacking down the alley.

She drew her weapon as she rounded the corner, and there they were. Garrett loomed over the girl’s body. Alissa screamed.

“Stop!” Stella yelled. “Put your hands where I can see them.”

But when he turned around, it wasn’t Garrett Hunt at all.

“Come here, my little shining star,” he said, reaching for her. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

Stella lurched upright in bed, heart racing, body drenched in sweat. Gasping for air, she reached for the lamp beside the bed and switched it on, fumbling for her dream journal before her surroundings registered. She was in Scully’s hotel room. Her journal was at home.

“You okay?” Scully asked groggily from behind her.

“Fine. Sorry. Bad dream.” Stella shut the light off, feeling ridiculous for having turned it on in the first place. Sometimes revisiting old scars reopened old wounds, a lesson she ought to know by now. She lay back in bed, rolling toward Scully to replace the unwelcome face in her dreams with Scully’s bare-faced beauty, just visible in the light filtering from the window.

“Our line of work causes a lot of those,” Scully murmured, wrapping an arm around Stella to pull her in for a kiss.

Stella stiffened. She wasn’t used to having someone in her bed when she had a nightmare, and she wasn’t used to liking it. She wasn’t used to heartbreakingly beautiful redheads who stripped away her defenses with a single touch.

Beside her, Scully’s breathing evened out, and Stella focused on the rhythm of it as she willed herself back to sleep. She felt as if she’d only just closed her eyes when the phone began to ring, rousing her for the day. This morning, though, Scully got up with her, puttering around the room in that black T-shirt that barely covered her ass as she packed her suitcase.

Stella came up behind her, pressing her against the wall as she slid her hands beneath the hem of that fucking T-shirt. “How much time do you have?”

“About an hour until I need to check out.” Scully gasped as Stella’s fingers reached their destination. “When do you need to be at the office?”

“I can be a few minutes late.”

“And I can be time efficient.” Scully spun to face her, one hand sliding beneath Stella’s robe.

Stella exhaled as Scully touched her, pinning her against the wall for a messy kiss. Their hips moved together as their hands stroked each other toward release. Scully broke first, head thunking against the wall, pussy fluttering around Stella's fingers as she came.

Scully’s hands went to her own hair as she regained her senses, eyes blinking open to meet Stella’s. The next thing she knew, Scully had spun them to pin Stella against the wall before dropping to her knees. Stella’s breath caught in her throat as Scully looked up at her with a wicked smile right before she put her mouth on her.

Stella flattened both palms against the wall, focused on keeping herself upright as Scully licked and sucked. Desire coiled inside her, hot and tight. The hotel room melted away. She forgot about the time, the open files on her desk, the little girl in the morgue waiting for justice. All she knew was the pleasure of Scully’s tongue as she carried her over the edge.

Release radiated from her core in blissful waves. She heard the cry that escaped her lips, felt the way her legs shook, her nails scoring the paint as she slid down the wall to join Scully on the floor. For a moment, they sat there together, arms entwined as they caught their breath. Stella blinked back the unexpected moisture in her eyes.

She slipped out of the robe, leaving it on the floor as she stood and went into the bathroom for a shower. She rinsed herself off as quickly as possible—careful not to get her hair wet—and redressed in yesterday’s clothes, hoping she had something clean left at the office. As she fixed her appearance in the mirror, Scully showered.

It was all strangely comfortable, as if they’d gotten ready together hundreds of times, despite there being nothing comfortable about it at all. Scully’s packed suitcase lay on the bed, plane ticket protruding from the zipper pocket at the top.

“I guess this is goodbye,” she said quietly from behind Stella.

She turned to find Scully in black jeans and a white button-down shirt, blazer draped over her arm. “It is.”

Scully walked to the bed and picked up the little notepad and pen the hotel had provided her. She wrote several lines on it before folding it into a little square and handing it to Stella. “Now you’ve got my home number and my email address. Drop me a line sometime.” Her smile was hesitant. “Or, you know, at least let me know how Ronnie Strickland makes out at trial.”

“I’ll do that,” Stella told her, relieved to have a professional reason to contact her. And then, because she wasn’t overly fond of goodbyes, she led the way out of Scully’s room. They rode the lift to the lobby as silence spread between them like a sticky web, seeping into the empty spaces and choking Stella when she tried to find words—any words at all—to say.

Luckily, Scully saved her. She propped her suitcase upright and reached for Stella’s hands before leaning in to place a quick kiss on her lips. “Take care.”

“You too.” Stella’s fingers clenched around the neat little square of paper in her palm as she walked away.

Chapter Text

May 2012

 

Scully arrived in London on a brilliantly sunny day, so different from the heavy, gray days she’d spent here fourteen years ago. Hopefully, it was an omen, a sign she’d made the right decision in coming here. Back then, she’d been hunting a vampire. Now, she was searching for a new version of herself, or something like that anyway.

She sat on the bed in her new apartment, bouncing slightly to test the mattress. It squeaked beneath her weight, and a smirk tugged at her lips as she imagined the noise it might make if it saw any action. She’d shipped several boxes of her belongings, but they hadn’t arrived yet—it took longer to clear customs than she’d realized—so all she had was the suitcase she’d flown over with. Thank goodness the rental came furnished.

She picked up her cell phone and dialed, listening as the line crackled across the Atlantic.

“Hello?”

She smiled involuntarily at the sound of Maggie’s voice. “Hi, Mom.”

“Dana,” her mom said, relief palpable in her voice.

“Just letting you know I got in safely, and I’m all settled in my new apartment.”

“And how is it?” Maggie asked. “Does it look okay in person? Clean? Safe?”

“It looks pretty much like it did in the pictures.” She glanced around the loft bedroom, open to her left with a low railing that overlooked the living room and kitchen below. A blue quilt covered the full-sized bed, with matching curtains on the windows. “I can’t wait for you to see it.”

“I can’t either,” Maggie said.

Scully would only be here for two months, and she’d insisted Maggie come for a visit before Scully started her fellowship next week. They were long overdue for a mother-daughter vacation together. The sad truth was, Scully was overdue for any kind of bonding time with another human being.

“I’m so lonely,” she’d whispered to Mulder one night as she lay beside him in their unremarkable house in the middle of nowhere. She’d breathed desperately past the tears clogging her throat, wondering how she could feel so alone when she shared her bed every night with the man she’d loved for most of her adult life, the man she’d thought she would spend the rest of her life with.

But as she’d lain there, waiting for a response that never came, she’d felt the truth of her situation. The man holding her wasn’t the same man she’d fallen in love with. He’d become a shell of the man he’d once been, retreating inside their house, inside his office, inside himself. Nothing, it seemed, could fulfill him the way the X Files once had, not even his love for her or the life they’d created together after they left the FBI. They’d become isolated in their little house, and despite her job at Our Lady of Sorrows, she was lonely. So achingly lonely.

What she hadn’t expected was that once she’d left him, once she’d gotten an apartment in Annapolis closer to work and her mom, she’d felt even lonelier, so lonely that when she lay in bed at night, she could hardly breathe past the emptiness inside her. Sometimes she felt like her chest might collapse in on itself.

Every morning, she got up and went to work. She fought for other people’s children, tried to fix them, tried to make them whole again. Sometimes, she succeeded. Sometimes, she failed. Never as greatly as she’d failed her own son. William’s absence felt like a missing piece of her soul, and losing Mulder only seemed to intensify it, until she felt like she was only a shell of herself too.

When she’d first heard about the opportunity here in London, she’d applied without thinking, desperate for a change. But when she received the call that she’d been chosen to study under Dr. Linenburger at The Royal London Hospital, she’d panicked. She was forty-eight years old. What the hell was she doing, considering yet another career switch and traveling halfway across the world to set it in motion? Was she having a midlife crisis?

In the end, she’d decided to go with the momentum she’d already set in motion. A few months in London might shake her out of the stagnant slump her life had fallen into. Maybe she’d find something here she’d been unable to find at home.

Once, a very long time ago, she’d found something here, someone here, who’d shaken her out of a similar—if milder—slump. Those two nights with Stella were a sparkling memory she’d carried in her heart all these years, a shining moment when she’d grabbed hold of what she wanted, when she’d shared something special, something wonderful with another human.

For two memorable nights, she hadn’t been lonely.

Smiling at the memory, she finished up her conversation with her mom and walked downstairs to the living room. Having already unpacked her only suitcase, she found herself at a loss for how to spend the rest of her first afternoon in London. She needed to grocery shop. And she should familiarize herself with her new neighborhood.

Deciding that was as good a place as any to start, she shrugged into a thin jacket, tucked her phone into her back pocket, and headed out. The sun still shone brightly overhead, and she squinted as she walked, taking in the buildings on her street, rows of two and three-story dwellings in aged stone. There was a sense of history etched into each elaborately carved façade that she’d missed since the last time she’d been here.

Spotting a café at the end of the block, she headed for it. A coffee might help clear the jetlag-induced fog from her brain. Tea, perhaps. She wasn’t a big tea drinker, but when in London…

What was Stella up to these days? Scully had hardly let herself think about her over the years, had semi-successfully convinced herself that her decision to accept a fellowship in London had nothing to do with the detective who’d once turned her world upside down.

She and Stella had kept in touch, albeit barely. Stella had indeed emailed to tell her when Ronnie Strickland was convicted and again after he mysteriously died in prison a few months later, having apparently starved to death despite receiving three meals a day. He’d been severely anemic at the time of his death, a fact Mulder had celebrated as proof Ronnie had indeed been a vampire, deprived of his usual diet of blood.

But a handful of emails and phone calls spanning more than a decade hadn’t given them any real insight into each other’s lives. She knew Stella still worked here in London, that she had climbed the ranks of the Metropolitan Police like Scully had known she would. But would she want to hear from Scully now? Would she want to see her?

And did Scully want to see Stella? That yearning deep in her gut said yes, desperately so. But after all these years, she could hardly expect them to share the same connection they’d shared then. It might be awkward. What if it somehow tainted the perfect memory Scully harbored of their time together? She couldn’t bear for anything to tarnish those moments.

Anyway, she had time to decide. She certainly wasn’t going to contact Stella on her first day in London. Scully entered the café and ordered a latte, figuring she’d been British enough for one day. She sat at a table by the window and sipped her drink, scanning local headlines on her phone. It grounded her somehow to know there was just as much murder and mayhem here as there was on her side of the Atlantic. Some things were the same no matter where you lived.

“Met Officer Attacked by Belfast Strangler”

The headline jumped out at her, although it took her a moment to realize why, and it wasn’t the headline at all. It was the photo below it, the photo of Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson. Scully quit breathing, nearly dropped her coffee, as she registered what she was seeing.

Attacked.

A sick feeling spread through her belly, and she gripped the edge of the table as she read the article, which told her little other than that Stella and another officer had been attacked by a serial killer while in police custody. Both had been treated at the hospital and released. It had happened almost a week ago.

Was Stella okay? Was she still in Belfast? Was she here in London? Is she okay?

Scully pulled up Stella’s email address on her phone and composed a message. They didn’t know each other well enough for Scully to ask the most burning question in her mind, so instead she stuck to the facts. She told Stella she was here in London for a few months studying pathology from a respected doctor at The Royal London Hospital and asked if she’d like to get together sometime to catch up.

Safe. Straight forward.

So much for not contacting Stella right away, but Scully wasn’t worried about protecting her feelings or her pride anymore. She just needed to know Stella was okay.

Before she could second guess herself, she hit Send.

* * *

“Are you sure you don’t something more to eat?”

Stella sipped from her tea. “I’m sure.”

Fran made a sound of disbelief as she bit into her steak sandwich, eyeing the empty soup bowl in front of Stella. She’d known Stella long enough to know soup wasn’t her lunch of choice and also not to question it, not to make her explain the soft diet that had her longing for the satisfaction of sinking her teeth into something, literally anything at this point, a hunger that grew steadily stronger with each passing day.

“Soup,” Fran muttered, eyes searching Stella’s for an explanation she knew she wouldn’t receive. Many years ago, Fran Kingsley had given Stella her start at the Met. She’d been Stella’s boss, had given her a leg up in a male-dominated world, and along the way had become one of her dearest friends. About ten years ago, Fran had been recruited into MI5, leaving the Met behind. Her short brown hair was shot through with silver now, but it only seemed to intensify the power of her presence. “So, how long until this bullshit inquiry is resolved?”

“Hopefully no more than a week.” Stella’s phone dinged with a new email, and she glanced at it instinctively, hoping irrationally that the inquiry into her handling of the Belfast Strangler case had been dropped and she might be allowed to return to the office this week after all. She swiped her finger across the screen, calling up the message.

Dana Scully, the sender’s name announced itself, and Stella inhaled sharply. There was a name she hadn’t seen in years, a name that stirred something warm deep inside her soul whenever she saw it. They rarely emailed, and when they did, it usually involved a case one of them was working on, but just knowing Scully was out there had always brought Stella a strange sense of comfort.

Today, it brought the opposite. Stella’s name had been in the news a lot over the last few weeks, for reasons she’d rather leave solidly in her past. She couldn’t tolerate the thought of any kind of “are you all right” message from Scully now.

So, she set her phone aside, returning her attention to Fran, who was watching her out of gray eyes as sharp as knives, ready to peel back Stella’s protective layers, an “are you all right” of her own. “You should at least drink something stronger than tea with that soup.”

Stella’s lips twitched. “Bit early in the day for that, don’t you think?”

“Never too early,” Fran said with a meaningful lift of her eyebrows. “Not in our line of work. Have you seen someone?”

Stella swallowed the question with another sip of tea. “I have an appointment on Friday.” A mandatory condition of her return to work.

“Good. Well, I’ve got to dash, but give me a ring if you need someone to have that drink with.” Fran was offering more than her company, and they both knew it.

“Thank you,” Stella told her quietly.

“Take care.” Fran’s hand rested briefly on Stella’s shoulder, and then she was off, striding toward the door as other customers in the café stepped to the side to let her pass. She was a force of nature, all right, and Stella was fiercely glad for her presence in her life.

She sat for a few minutes to finish her tea, fighting the growing sense of emptiness inside her that had nothing to do with the pitiful bowl of soup she’d eaten for lunch and everything to do with the week ahead. Without the prospect of work, it loomed impossibly long before her, almost overwhelmingly so.

Eventually, she left the café, stopping at the market on her way home to pick up a few things, including a fresh sleeve of flowers since the ones she’d bought at the airport two days ago had already begun to wilt. At home, she took Fran’s advice and poured herself a tumbler of whiskey, then set about putting away her groceries. She stocked her fridge and wiped down the counter before clipping the stems on the fresh flowers she’d bought and arranging them in a vase, a splash of red and purple against the otherwise muted tones of her kitchen.

She bent her head and inhaled deeply, eyes shut, lost for a moment in the intoxicating scent of fresh roses, until her cracked ribs spasmed, shooting bolts of fire through her chest. She froze, not daring even to exhale, one hand braced against the counter as she cursed furiously inside her head, waiting for the pain to subside.

Then she eased herself onto a barstool at the counter and took a hearty gulp of her whiskey. She reached absently for her phone, searching for a distraction, almost having forgotten the email waiting for her there. Dana Scully. Really, what was one more “are you all right” at this point? Stella had already fielded dozens of them. Even her mother had called, and they spoke about as often as she spoke to Scully.

I’m fine. Thanks for thinking of me. Just biding my time until I can get back into the office. She mentally composed her reply as she clicked on the message.

And then her breath caught in her throat again, but this time it had nothing to do with her cracked ribs. Scully’s email wasn’t an “are you all right” at all. She was here in London, and she wanted to meet. Stella set her phone on the countertop, taking measured breaths as she considered how to respond. This was the worst time to re-introduce herself to someone from her past, while she was bruised, physically and mentally.

Once upon a time, she and Scully had shared something incredibly intense and meaningful together, maybe the most intimate moment of Stella’s life. She’d been young then, so fucking young. But it wasn’t as if it would happen again. Scully had been with Mulder almost since she’d left London the first time, and while that wasn’t necessarily a hindrance for Stella, it certainly was for Scully. So, this would be dinner with an old friend, nothing more.

Stella desperately needed an escape from her flat, from the chaos in her brain, from the reality awaiting her at the inquiry next week. And right now, her escape had arrived in the form of Dana Scully.

* * *

Scully fidgeted in front of the mirror in the bathroom. What did you wear to have dinner with someone you’d once shared two of the most passionate nights of your life with? Someone you hadn’t seen in over a decade? She’d never been one for dresses. To wear one tonight felt disingenuous, like she was trying too hard to impress Stella. Instead, she put on dark wash skinny jeans and a black top, leaving her hair loose down her back. She touched up her makeup, adding a bit more eyeliner than she would usually wear.

And then she left the bathroom before she started overthinking things or second guessing herself. She headed downstairs, picked up her jacket, and set out. The restaurant Stella had suggested was only a few blocks away, so she decided to walk. She needed the fresh air to clear her head, because she had no idea what the etiquette for a night like this was.

Outside, dusk purpled the sky over the rowhouses on her street. The air was cool and refreshing, just what she needed. She started walking, heels clicking against the sidewalk, the knot in her stomach loosening with each step until it unraveled completely. Seeing Stella again tonight would be a good thing. She was almost sure of it.

She could use a friend here in London, and while she and Stella had never exactly been friends in the past, maybe they could be now. Maybe they could be more than friends. Warmth spread through her belly as she remembered the nights they’d spent together in their youth. Scully had been a single woman for over a year now. Whether or not she and Stella rekindled things, she was overdue to put herself back in the dating game.

It was intimidating at her age, especially after having spent over a decade with Mulder. It had been so long, so very long since she’d been on a date. Not since Stella, fourteen years ago. And here she was, on her way to meet Stella again. Maybe a date. Maybe just dinner with a friend.

That knot in her stomach tightened again, pinching at her ribs. She rubbed at it as she walked. What if she froze completely when she saw her? What if they’d changed too much to rekindle even a friendship? What if they were just two strangers trying awkwardly to generate enough conversation to make it through a meal together?

Scully huffed a breath, casting her eyes skyward. She was being ridiculous. She knew it but was powerless to stop herself. There was a reason she’d buried herself in work for most of her life, why it had taken seven years for her and Mulder to take their relationship to the next level. She wasn’t very good at this, at putting herself out there, at making romantic connections with people. She never had been.

Which was all the more reason for her and Stella to keep things platonic this time. A friendship would be more likely to last the duration of Scully’s time in London than any kind of romantic relationship, after all, and Scully was pitifully short on friends. After her case in Belfast, Stella might need a friend too.

Scully forced herself to keep walking as the restaurant came into view, not allowing her footsteps to slow until she was reaching for the handle to the heavy-looking wooden door. Inside, the restaurant bustled with activity, snippets of conversation in British accents drifting past her ears, but her gaze was locked on a figure standing to the left of the hostess desk.

Stella’s back was to her, but she’d know that stance anywhere. Her hair was shorter now, reaching just past her shoulders in perfectly coiffed waves. She wore a black pencil skirt with a blouse the color of a shiny penny, glistening beneath the restaurant’s track lighting. Scully sucked in air, heart racing, heat spreading through her like a wildfire, an instantaneous, almost overwhelming physical reaction she hadn’t experienced in, well…in fourteen years.

As if sensing her presence, Stella turned. Their eyes met, but the fresh-faced detective who’d swept Scully off her feet way-back-when was nowhere in sight. The detective superintendent who faced her now was older, hardened in a way that made Scully stand a little taller, her spine straightening almost involuntarily.

Stella still retained every bit of her ethereal beauty, azure eyes coolly assessing Scully as she toyed with the curve of her hair, fluffing it between her fingers before tossing it over her shoulder. Scully was so taken with the sight of her that it took several long seconds for her to register the bruising and stitches at Stella’s left brow, the discoloration over her cheekbone and her chin, carefully concealed with makeup but still visible to a doctor’s eye.

Scully’s stomach dipped, lust mixing with concern and the completely flustering experience of seeing her again for the first time in so long. The intervening years had strengthened Stella’s armor, her expression unreadable behind that icy stare. Scully hesitated for another moment before stepping forward, wrapping one arm around Stella in a brief hug.

“It’s so good to see you,” she breathed against her neck. She smelled the same, something fresh and feminine and uniquely Stella that had Scully’s head spinning through a whirlwind of memories, Stella’s bare skin pressed against hers, lips and teeth and more pleasure than she’d known possible.

Stella was stiff against her now, one hand tangling in Scully’s hair as she hugged her back before pulling free. “It’s good to see you too.”

Scully stood there, smiling nervously, hoping Stella hadn’t felt the frantic beating of her heart. They were older now, so much older, toughened and scarred by life. Scully felt a crushing pressure in her chest as she imagined herself trying to explain everything that had happened since she last saw Stella. And what things did Stella need to confess in return?

“Shall we get a table, then?” Stella asked, breaking Scully out of her spiraling thoughts.

She nodded, falling into step beside her as they approached the hostess. They were shown to a quiet table near the back of the restaurant, and Scully felt somewhat calmer once they were sitting across from each other with a bottle of wine between them. She sipped from her glass gratefully, watching as Stella seemed to settle as well, eyes softening as she looked across the table at Scully.

“So,” Scully said with a hesitant smile. I read all about Paul Spector this afternoon, and I’m so fucking sorry. But she knew better than to broach such an uncomfortable subject before they’d gotten reacquainted.

“So,” Stella repeated, the ghost of a smile on her lips. “Did you fly in today?”

Scully nodded. “This morning.”

“The redeye?” Stella’s eyes were sympathetic.

“Yeah. I got a few hours of sleep on the plane, but I’ll be glad to crash tonight.”

“I bet.” Stella sipped from her wine, eyes never leaving Scully’s. “And you’re here for work?”

Scully had forgotten the magic of her accent, that smooth, smoky voice, the way it crawled over her, melting her from the inside out. Stella’s voice was lower now than she remembered, somewhat scratchier. Scully found herself leaning in every time she spoke. “Yes. I’ll be working with Dr. Linenburger at The Royal London Hospital. He’s a noted forensic pathologist whose done some really interesting work in digital imaging that I’m excited to try my hand at.”

“You’re interested in pathology, then?”

She knew Stella was just making conversation, trying to get to know modern-day Scully, but the questions felt almost like an interrogation beneath her intense stare. She nodded. “I’ve been practicing medicine for the last decade, but lately, I’ve started to realize I miss being involved in the investigative side of things. So, yes, I’m considering a move into pathology.”

“Dr. Scully,” Stella said, tongue darting out to wet her lips. “I like it.”

Scully reached for her wine to cover the blush she felt rising to her cheeks. “A lot has changed since the last time I saw you.”

“Probably too much to cover during one meal,” Stella said, arching an eyebrow. She was playing coy, but also saving them both from diving too deep into personal territory tonight, and Scully was thankful for that.

“Yes. My life has been…I’m not sure there’s a word for it, really.”

Stella reached across the table, covering Scully’s hand in her own. “I’m so sorry about your son. I can’t even imagine.”

Scully felt the hot press of tears behind her eyes, her skin gone warm and prickly. She had foolishly mentioned her pregnancy during one of those occasional emails she’d exchanged with Stella, which meant she’d later had to explain William’s absence. She’d never had the words to describe that time in her life. Whenever possible, she tried not to speak about it at all. She cleared her throat. “Thank you.”

Stella’s brow wrinkled. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’m sorry.”

Scully shook her head, swiping beneath her eyes. “No, it’s okay.”

“Thoughtless of me,” Stella said quietly, staring into the ruby depths of her wineglass.

And Scully couldn’t bear her guilt, not over this, not over anything. She couldn’t let their evening turn sour because of her own sad history, barely ten minutes after they’d been reunited. “No, really. It’s…it’s gotten better.”

Stella met her gaze, uncharacteristically at a loss for words. Scully was torn between the urge to laugh or cry at the ridiculousness of it. Here they were, stumbling through the personal territory they’d both wanted to avoid tonight. Maybe the only way around it was to go through.

“I’ve seen pictures of him,” she told Stella, her voice hoarse from the lump of emotion lodged in her throat.

Stella’s eyes widened. “William?”

She nodded, willing herself to get the words out. “Once the charges against Mulder were dropped, things finally settled down. His life wasn’t in danger anymore, and neither was William’s. Last year, his adoptive parents reached out to us through Agent Doggett, the agent who’d helped me coordinate the adoption. They sent us pictures.” She closed her eyes, feeling the tears splash over her cheeks. “He’s happy. He’s growing up on a farm in Wyoming. He rides horses.”

Stella’s chin quivered slightly as she reached forward, brushing the tears from Scully’s cheeks. “I’m glad things have gotten better…that you have some peace.”

“I do.” Scully nodded as she blinked back more tears. “Not knowing was a living hell. Every day, I worried. I imagined awful things. But now…now, I know he’s okay.”

“And Mulder?” she asked.

“He’s still Mulder.” A wry smile curved her lips. “Actually, no, he’s not. He lost his purpose after we left the FBI. I went to work at the hospital, and he…he closed himself up in his office.”

“His purpose wasn’t loving you?” There was that arched brow again.

Scully dropped her gaze to her wineglass. She took another long sip. “He loved me. I think he still does. But the X Files were always his true passion. He didn’t know what to do with himself once he’d lost them.”

“It sounds like things have been very difficult for you both.”

“We broke up.” She glanced at Stella. “I moved out about a year and a half ago.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” If Stella had any reaction to learning Scully was single, she didn’t show it.

Scully blew out a breath, grateful to have it all out in the open. “Thank you.”

“Do you still love him?” Stella asked gently, eyes locked on Scully’s.

“I’ll always love him,” she said, “but I’m not in love with him. Not anymore.”

“I see,” Stella said, and Scully wondered if she did. As far as she knew, Stella had never loved anyone the way she’d loved Mulder, had never spent a decade living with someone she’d thought she would spend her whole life with.

Their waitress interrupted them to bring their meals, and they fell to lighter topics as they ate, Scully’s upcoming fellowship, her new apartment—flat, Stella called it, and Scully immediately embraced the term—things she should do and see while she was in London. Stella deflected Scully’s casual attempts at shifting the conversation in her direction.

This was hardly surprising. In fourteen years, Scully had barely learned more about her than her last name. But she knew parts of Stella few others had seen, understood her in ways she doubted many other people ever had or would.

It didn’t stop her from worrying about how Stella was handling the aftermath of the case in Belfast. Did she have someone in her life to confide in? A friend? A therapist? Anyone at all to share the emotional burden? Those weren’t questions she could ask, not tonight, anyway.

Still, they had to address the elephant in the room, so after they’d settled the check, she decided to just do it. “I read about what happened in Belfast.”

Stella went unnaturally still on the other side of the table, turning her head slightly to stare over Scully’s shoulder. “I assumed you had.”

She touched Stella’s arm, offering comfort the same way Stella had done for her earlier. “I’m one of the few people in the world who can honestly say I’ve been there. I know what it feels like, and I’m here for you if you need a friend.”

Stella did meet her eyes then, just for a moment, gratitude gleaming in their crystalline depths. “Thank you.”

“Also, it’s not why I emailed you.” Scully sucked her bottom lip between her teeth as a smile threatened. “Or, it’s not the only reason, anyway.”

“No?”

She shook her head. “I had been thinking about you since I took this position, wondering…”

“Wondering?”

She shrugged, trying to keep things light. “Haven’t you ever wondered?”

Stella stood from the table, brushing a hand against Scully’s waist as she led the way toward the front of the restaurant. “Once or twice.”

Chapter Text

Stella stepped outside into the crisp evening, inhaling slowly as the breeze tossed her hair, soothing her flushed cheeks. When she’d agreed to have dinner with Scully, she’d been looking for an escape from the monotony of her flat, the chance to catch up with an old acquaintance, but she hadn’t expected…this.

This thing between them, whatever the fuck it was. Fourteen years ago, she’d been young and naïve when she shared two distinctively memorable nights with the woman beside her. Even then, it hadn’t been just sex. Now, she was old enough to know better, and yet she couldn’t even look at Scully without itching to touch her, taste her, press her into the nearest surface and fuck her senseless.

The feeling was so intense, she was physically uncomfortable with it, skin prickling, blood pumping. She should say goodnight right fucking now, get out of here before she did something she’d regret in the morning, because she’d definitely regret jumping back into bed with Scully. This woman. This week. It was too much.

Dana Scully was the one woman who’d ever seen past her defenses, and Stella’s defenses were already down after Belfast. She was playing with fire, begging to be burned, torched, annihilated.

And yet…

She turned toward Scully, seeing the same struggle reflected back at her from the midnight depths of her eyes. Scully wasn’t supposed to have broken up with Mulder. She wasn’t supposed to have grown impossibly more beautiful and alluring than she had been all those years ago. And she definitely wasn’t supposed to look at Stella like that.

Stella wasn’t in the right place, mentally or physically, to do this, especially not tonight, but then again, she didn’t always make smart decisions when it came to sex. “I guess I should…” Her words evaporated into the night air along with her resolve.

“You should what?” Scully lifted her head, drawing Stella’s gaze to the pearly column of her neck, the pale vee of exposed skin between her breasts.

Stella took a small step toward her. Scully—as always—met her halfway, stepping forward, hands landing on Stella’s hips like they belonged there, igniting a fire between them as Stella cupped a hand around the back of Scully’s head, bringing their lips together. A soft moan escaped into the night air, and she wasn’t even sure if it was hers or Scully’s.

“Your hair got so long,” she whispered, sliding her fingers through the soft strands that reached almost to Scully’s waist. It gave her a young, innocent look that was no match for the wicked gleam in her eyes.

“And you cut yours.” Scully slid one hand up Stella’s back to tug at her hair, and that did it.

Stella pressed forward, slamming Scully into the brick wall of the restaurant behind her, bringing her lips to Scully’s with bruising intensity. Scully gasped, hips arching forward against Stella’s, fingers digging into Stella’s ass as she pulled her closer, kissed her deeper, tongues lashing as the heat simmering between them detonated.

Stella braced one hand against the wall, the other anchoring her body to Scully’s as she pressed into her, lost to everything but the pleasure of their kiss, the fire in her blood, the desperate need to get Scully naked and satisfy the desire clawing inside her. They kissed until stars danced behind Stella’s eyelids, reminding her to breathe.

She lifted her head, sucking in some much-needed oxygen to find Scully grinning at her like a flame-haired vixen.

“My flat’s only a few blocks from here.”

Stella licked her lips, tasting Scully on her tongue. “Lead the way.”

Scully did, walking briskly down the street as Stella matched her pace. There was an unspoken rush between them, both of them walking as quickly as they reasonably could. Scully looked over with one of those deceptively shy smiles, sliding her left hand into Stella’s right.

“I wondered if it would still be like this,” she said after a minute. “If maybe we’d just be friends this time. I tried really hard to convince myself we should just be friends.”

“I did too,” Stella admitted. “It would undoubtedly have been a smarter decision.”

Scully’s fingers tightened around hers. “Maybe this once, we both deserve to be stupid.”

“Perhaps.” Stella felt herself smiling for maybe the first time in weeks, and it spread a different kind of warmth through her body, one that made her feel lighter on her feet, like the air in her lungs had been replaced with helium.

“And besides,” Scully said, tossing her another coy glance. “I’m here for two months. We can still be friends. I’ve never liked the term ‘friends with benefits,’ though. I think you and I could be friends who fuck.”

Stella felt an honest-to-God laugh bubble up in her chest, but she stilled it on her lips. “Friends who fuck?”

“Yes.” Scully nodded earnestly just before she spun, pushing Stella into the side of the building behind her. Rough stone bit into her scalp, ribs screaming as she sucked in air, too turned on to feel anything but pleasure. Scully rubbed her body against Stella’s, creating a delicious friction as her jeans scraped over Stella’s skirt. “Friends who fuck a lot.”

“I like it,” Stella whispered.

Scully kissed her, hard, before pulling away. “Come on. I’m just up here.”

She led the way around the corner and up another block, stopping in front of a two-story gray stone building on the residential street. Stella had been down this street before. In truth, her own flat wasn’t very far from here, but Scully didn’t need to know that, at least not tonight.

Scully pushed a key in the door and led the way up a flight of stairs. Another key and another door, and they were inside her flat. Stella had a brief impression of a blue-tiled kitchen and modern furniture before her lips were on Scully’s, hands roaming the way she’d wanted to let them before.

“It’s nice,” she murmured against Scully’s lips.

“It came fully furnished, and my stuff’s not here yet, so whatever you’re seeing isn’t mine,” Scully told her, walking her toward a set of steps against the far wall. “Bed’s up there.”

Scully unbuttoned Stella’s blouse as they climbed the stairs, stumbling over the top step. Stella gripped her wrist, hauling her upright, guiding her toward the bed, unable to wait another minute to have her naked and panting beneath her.

Scully looked at the bed and then at Stella, blinking hard and giving her head a slight shake. “I can’t quite believe I’m here…that you’re here.”

“That makes two of us, then.” Stella reached for the button of Scully’s jeans, popping it open as Scully pushed Stella’s blouse from her shoulders. She shook her arms out, letting it flutter to the floor.

Scully sucked in a breath as her gaze dropped to Stella’s ribs, and something else blazed to life inside Stella, something just at hot as her desire for Scully but a lot uglier. She clenched her jaw, letting Scully look and hating every moment.

“Are they broken?” Scully asked quietly, looking for a moment more like a doctor than a lover.

“Only cracked,” Stella told her, forcing some volume into her voice. “Mostly just bruised.”

Scully dropped to her knees and placed a tender kiss at the heart of the discoloration. “I’ll be careful with them.”

Stella closed her eyes, inhaling sharply at the unexpected pleasure of Scully’s lips against her bruised skin. She reached down, gripping Scully’s shoulders, hauling her back to her feet. “Be sure that’s the only part of me you’re careful with.”

Scully smiled. “I will.”

She reached for the back of Stella’s skirt, fumbling with the zipper as Stella went for the zipper of Scully’s jeans. To her credit, she didn’t even flinch as the rest of the bruising came into view, the ugly mixture of green and brown that spread over Stella’s stomach, faded now to yellow around the edges. Scully feathered her fingers over the bruises as she skimmed the skirt over Stella’s hips, understanding mixed with the heat in her eyes.

They kissed as their hands worked, ridding each other of clothes, touching and teasing as they went, until at last their naked bodies pressed together. Stella pushed Scully onto the bed, following her down, landing with one thigh between Scully’s, her wetness slicking Stella’s skin, stoking the fire already blazing inside her. Stella bent her head to capture Scully’s lips, bringing her hands to Scully’s breasts.

“Yes,” Scully gasped, hips rocking against Stella’s thigh. “God, Stella, don’t tease me, not tonight. I can’t take it.”

Stella heard the urgency in her voice, felt it inside her own body, aching in her bones and centered in the throbbing need between her legs. She bent her head to take Scully’s nipple between her teeth as she slid her hand between Scully’s thighs. She gathered Scully’s wetness on her fingertips, skimming lightly at first, adding increasing pressure with each stroke.

Scully arched off the bed, eyes closed, hair hanging behind her in a red curtain, an erotic image immortalized in the museum of Stella’s brain. She swiped her tongue over Scully’s breast as her fingers swept up to press against her clit.

“Fuck.” Scully pressed her hips against Stella’s hand. “Harder.”

There was a request Stella was happy to indulge. She fucked Scully harder, slipping first one, then a second finger inside her, pumping in and out as she continued to use her mouth on Scully’s breasts, licking and sucking, drawing her nipples into tight buds.

The mattress squeaked rhythmically beneath them, and Scully buried her face against Stella’s chest, laughter shaking her shoulders as she clawed at Stella’s skin, drawing her closer.

“What’s so funny?” Stella slid a hand beneath her, anchoring their bodies together.

“The mattress,” Scully gasped. “This morning…I thought…” She whimpered as Stella quickened her rhythm, the mattress giving an extra loud squeak as they moved. “Sounds like porn.”

“Better than porn,” Stella whispered.

“Mm, yes.” Scully’s hips bucked, her thighs clamped around Stella’s wrist, and then she was coming, her pussy pulsing against Stella’s hand as she let out a long, low moan of pleasure. She flung her head back against the pillow, pale skin gleaming against the navy-blue quilt below her like a Victorian painting.

Stella sat back for a moment to admire her, noticing the small circular scar on Scully’s abdomen. A bullet wound. That hadn’t been there fourteen years ago. What else had Scully endured since the last time they saw each other?

“Your turn,” Scully murmured, tugging at Stella’s hand, drawing her down next to her.

“Please.” Stella couldn’t keep the plea from her voice, desperate for Scully’s touch and the pleasure she could bring.

In response, Scully straddled her, looking down at Stella with a smile twinkling in her eyes. So beautiful Stella could hardly bear to look at her. “Tell me if I hurt you.”

“You won’t,” Stella assured her, shifting restlessly beneath Scully’s weight.

“Only the good way,” Scully whispered before dipping her head to nip at Stella’s neck.

“Fuck, yes,” Stella gasped, hands grasping the quilt beneath her, fisting in the soft fabric as Scully’s hand slipped between her legs, touching her where she burned for her. Her hips moved of their own accord, meeting the movements of Scully’s hand, creating a rhythm together that was almost more than she could stand.

She squeezed her eyes shut, hearing the whimper that tore from her throat as Scully pushed a finger inside her, stroking in and out as her palm pressed against Stella’s clit. More, but as soon as the thought had formed in her head, Scully added a second finger. Stella arched her hips, swamped in sensation, drowning in it.

Beneath the hot rush of Scully’s fingers, the delicious suction of her mouth over Stella’s nipple, all the shadows in her mind vanished into the brilliance of the fireworks exploding inside her. Scully moved against her harder, faster, and Stella swore, overcome with the need building inside her, so strong she thought she might burst from it.

“Look at me,” Scully whispered.

Stella opened her eyes, meeting Scully’s blue stare as Scully curled her fingers inside her, and she was coming, her hips bucking against Scully’s hand, relief washing over her in waves, pleasure burning away the pain.

She pulled Scully down for a messy kiss, lips moving together sloppily as the aftershocks of her orgasm pinged and sizzled in her blood. Finally, they were still, bodies entwined and slick with sweat. “God, I needed that,” Stella whispered.

Scully’s arm tightened around her. “Me too. More than you know.”

* * *

Scully opened her eyes, blinking into the muted light of an unfamiliar room as yesterday’s events filtered through her mind, arriving in London, her new flat, dinner with Stella…

Stella.

She rolled over, taking in the empty, rumpled sheets beside her. Scully blinked again, focusing hard, as if it might make her magically appear, but the bed remained empty. As Scully stretched, various aches and twinges made themselves known, places that hadn’t ached in so long she’d feared she might never feel the sensation again. Last night definitely hadn’t been a dream. But Stella had gone.

Scully swallowed her disappointment, tucking it away with a lifetime of disappointments, a space that seemed to grow endlessly inside her, holding all the remnants of a life not lived. Some days, the void inside her felt so large, it threatened to swallow her whole.

Not today, though. She and Stella had shared a wonderful, memorable night together. Surely, they’d see each other again. Friends who fuck. Scully smiled to herself at the term she’d coined last night. It sounded ridiculous in the light of day, but she was still wholeheartedly in favor of the concept itself. She climbed out of bed, looking around idly for the robe she could have sworn she’d hung in the closet yesterday, but it wasn’t there.

And that’s when she saw Stella’s clothes stacked neatly on the dresser, the shiny, coppery blouse folded on top of her skirt. If Stella’s clothes were still here…

Something warm fluttered in the pit of her stomach. She reached for a T-shirt and cotton drawstring pants, scrambling into them before she padded down the stairs from the loft to find Stella seated at the table in the kitchen, wearing Scully’s missing lavender robe, sipping tea as she scrolled through messages on her phone.

She looked up, and Scully couldn’t fight the grin that stretched her cheeks. “Hi.”

“Good morning,” Stella responded, setting down her tea. “I didn’t want to wake you, thought you needed the sleep after your flight.”

“I did.” Scully looked around, finally locating a clock on the microwave that told her it was almost nine thirty. “Jetlag and all that, but also…someone kept me up pretty late, as I recall.”

Stella’s mouth quirked in one of her almost-smiles.

“I didn’t even know I had tea,” she said, eyeing the pale blue mug in Stella’s hand.

“I found some in the pantry, maybe a gift from your landlord. Cheap stuff.” Stella wrinkled her nose slightly.

“You’ll have to show me what kind to stock.” She walked past Stella into the bathroom to freshen up and brush her teeth, finding Stella in the same position when she came back out, one leg crossed over the other, impossibly beautiful in Scully’s robe. She leaned down to press a gentle kiss against Stella’s lips, somewhat giddy she was still here. “Do you have plans today?”

“A few things I need to get done,” Stella said with a noncommittal shrug of her shoulder. “I’m only just back in London myself.”

Scully started the coffee pot and sat across from Stella. “When did you get back from Belfast?”

“Friday.” Three days ago. This morning, bare faced in Scully’s kitchen, the bruises and the thin row of stitches above her brow were more visible, a harsh reminder of what she’d been through, although Scully suspected the psychological bruises ran much deeper.

“And when do you go back to work?”

“Another week or so.” Stella’s shoulders rose slightly. She reached for her cup and sipped from her tea. “Not until the inquiry into my handling of the Belfast Strangler case is complete.”

“I’m sorry. That’s bullshit.”

Stella blinked into her tea, a myriad of emotions at play in the stormy depths of her eyes.

“Well, as it happens, I don’t start my position at the hospital for a week either. I came over early to get settled and do some sightseeing.”

Stella looked up. “Is that so?”

She nodded. “My mom’s coming at the end of the week for a few days, but other than that, I’m free.”

“Are you close?” Stella asked.

“Yeah.” Scully finger-combed her hair as she relaxed into her chair. “I mean, not as close as we should be, maybe. I got a bit isolated those last few years with Mulder. I was miserable…with him, with my job at the hospital, with everything, really. I buried myself in work and just kind of hid from the world.”

“And now you’re taking on the world,” Stella observed before polishing off her tea.

“Trying to, anyway. I mean, I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve spent too many years missing out on things because I was too complacent to go after what I really wanted.”

“And what do you want?”

“Right now? Breakfast with you.” She looked over at Stella, waiting for her to nod in agreement before she continued. “But yeah, I’m thinking long-term too. I mean, am I crazy to be considering another career switch at my age?”

“No,” Stella said. “Not if you think it will make you happy. We should all seek a job that satisfies us that way.”

“Are you happy?” Scully asked. “With your job, I mean?”

Stella stared into the empty cup in front of her. “Happy isn’t a word I’d use to describe my work, but yes, it fulfills me. I’m good at my job, and I can’t imagine myself ever doing anything else.”

“I think forensic pathology could be that way for me. At least, I hope so.” The truth was, medicine had drained some of her spirit, attempting to save kids that were too far gone to be saved. She’d shed enough tears in her life. Yes, there were spectacular wins, but the losses always seemed to weigh more heavily on her conscience.

“I think it would suit you,” Stella said.

“I do too. I performed a lot of autopsies during my years with the FBI. There’s a science to it that appeals to me. And there’s a, well…a certain safety to working with patients who are already dead.”

Stella stood, ostensibly to get dressed for breakfast, but Scully felt the barrier go up between them. She’d hit a nerve. She thought of the woman Stella had saved in Belfast, the one who’d spent almost a week in the trunk of a car and nearly died, the unspeakable horrors she’d endured that Stella now carried on her conscience.

“There’s a café down the block that seems nice,” Scully said. “I had a coffee there yesterday.”

Stella nodded, heading for the stairs.

“Feel free to borrow whatever you need,” Scully called after her, smiling to herself as she remembered making the same offer fourteen years ago.

* * *

Scully took an invigorating sip of her coffee, watching as Stella toyed with her oatmeal. Porridge, she called it, which made Scully smile. She might never get over her infatuation with the British words for things, and the way Stella said them in particular.

Porridge, though? She’d had her suspicions last night when Stella ordered gnocchi for dinner. Not that Scully had shared that many meals with her, but she remembered Stella eating things she could sink her teeth into. “Did he break your jaw?” she couldn’t help asking, feeling slightly sick as she remembered the bruises she’d seen on Stella’s body last night, to know she’d been so brutally beaten.

Stella let the spoon fall against the side of the bowl with a soft clink, shaking her head. She touched two fingers against her bruised cheekbone. “I forget what they called it.”

“Zygoma fracture?” Scully guessed.

“Yes, that’s it.”

“Soft diet?” she asked.

Stella nodded, staring morosely into her oatmeal.

“Sorry,” Scully said, feeling somewhat guilty for eating eggs and toast in front of her.

“Only a few more days,” Stella said, but there was a faraway look in her eyes now, and Scully wished she hadn’t asked, wished Stella’s bones weren’t broken, wished Paul Spector had never existed.

After breakfast, they wandered around Scully’s new neighborhood together, stopping into a local shop where Stella bought a blouse and a pair of shoes while Scully traced her fingertips over pretty things but shook her head when Stella encouraged her to try something on.

“I’m going to be working in a hospital,” she told Stella. “I’ll be wearing scrubs every day.”

Stella shrugged, and they left the shop together, walking idly down the street, eventually settling on a bench in a nearby park to enjoy the weather. Stella wore a pair of Scully’s jeans with the copper blouse from last night, looking ridiculously beautiful as a breeze tossed her hair over her shoulders.

Mulder had once compared Scully to a rose, with her crown of red hair and hidden thorns. But if she was a rose, Stella was some kind of rare flower that bloomed every twenty years, one that people came from around the world to observe and photograph.

Scully found herself staring at Stella’s profile, her strong jaw leading down to the delicate curve of her neck, hard meeting soft. The paradox of Stella Gibson. She’d walk away right now if Scully let her, disappear back into her own life even if it wasn’t what she really wanted, because that was what Stella did. She didn’t make connections, but Scully hoped she could convince her to keep this one, at least as long as she was in London. She needed this, and she suspected Stella did too, whether she’d admit it or not.

Scully leaned back on the bench, closing her eyes. London was going to turn out to be a good thing for her. As recently as yesterday, she hadn’t been sure. In fact, there’d been a moment when she stepped off the plane where she’d become almost paralyzed by self-doubt, convinced she’d made one of the biggest mistakes of her life coming here. But now, if for no other reason than the chance to reconnect with the woman beside her, she felt a sense of anticipation about the future for the first time in years.

That was the difference between Mulder and Stella. Well, one of many. Her relationship with Mulder had been…stagnant, years and years before they even kissed, years of searching for a truth they never seemed to find, years of watching their relationship crumble. She had no idea where this thing with Stella was going, but it was the opposite of stagnant. Stella moved at lightning speed, and it was as overwhelming as it was exhilarating.

Scully had desperately needed something to shake her up and get her moving forward again. She’d never imagined it being Stella, but in this moment, on this park bench, it felt inevitable, like they’d been on a collision course with each other since they said goodbye the first time.

“I’m glad I’m here,” she said softly.

“Mm.” Stella hummed in agreement.

“I could wander around London with you all day and be the happiest woman alive, but I sense you have more important things you need to be doing,” Scully said, cracking open an eye to look over at her.

Stella sat with her elbows on her knees, legs spread, gaze fixed somewhere in the distance. “I need to stop in the office and pick up some case files, and afterward I’d like to go for a swim.”

“Stella, you can’t.” Scully kept her tone gentle. She knew how little Mulder had liked it when she tossed medical advice at him and that Stella would have even less patience for it.

“I don’t see why not,” Stella countered. “It’s low impact.”

“And very core-intensive,” Scully told her. “Swimming with fractured ribs is extremely painful and might exacerbate your injury. What did your doctor say?”

“I didn’t ask him,” Stella admitted, still staring off into the distance.

“Because you knew he’d say no.”

“I need to swim.” There was something razor sharp in her tone.

Scully remembered Stella mentioning swimming when they first met, and she understood instinctively that this was more than exercise for Stella. It was a form of stress relief, of self-care, something that helped keep her sane and grounded when the rigors of the job took their toll. Scully understood. She’d had her own methods for keeping the demons at bay, not all of them as healthy as swimming.

“Promise me that if it hurts too much, you’ll stop,” Scully said.

Stella didn’t respond, but a muscle in her jaw flexed, reminding Scully of Stella’s complicated relationship with pain.

“You could worsen the fractures. It’ll take longer for you to heal, longer to get back on top of your game at work. Okay, I’m done.” She’d said her part. Stella was an intelligent, competent woman, and Scully had to trust her to make decisions in her own best interest.

“I’ll be careful.” Stella leaned over to kiss her before standing, and Scully didn’t miss the slight wince as she straightened.

She felt a brief wash of guilt for the way she’d slammed Stella into the side of a building last night, but then again, she hadn’t known about the cracked ribs at the time, and Stella hadn’t exactly been complaining. “Call me later?”

“Yes,” Stella said with a nod, picking up her shopping bag. Twenty-four hours ago, they’d been virtual strangers, and now…

“Hey.” Scully sprang off the bench, grabbing Stella’s hand. “This was really great, you know, seeing you and well, everything last night.” She pulled Stella in for a kiss, a real kiss, not the quick peck on the lips Stella had given her on the bench.

Stella softened into her embrace, kissing her back with the kind of enthusiasm that made Scully think she wasn’t the only one feeling emotional about their reunion. She lifted her head after a long minute, pleased by the heated, slightly dazed look in Stella’s eyes, because she felt the same way.

Maybe if she was lucky, she’d really get to know Stella this time, form a lasting bond she could take back to Maryland with her at the end of her fellowship. Maybe they could forge a friendship that would go beyond a handful of emails over the span of a decade.

“I’m just really glad to see you again,” she whispered, bringing her lips to Stella’s one last time.

“I am too.” Stella gave her a quick squeeze before she disentangled herself from Scully’s embrace and walked away.

Chapter Text

Stella floated on her back in the pool, kicking lazily. Scully had been right, of course. She hadn’t managed two laps before the searing pain in her chest forced her to stop. The darker part of her mind urged her to keep going, push through the pain to the blissful calm on the other side, but there was Scully sitting like an angel on her shoulder, reminding her she could make her injury worse, give her boss another reason to keep her benched. Above all else, she needed to get back to work.

So, she kicked her way slowly across the pool, arms floating at her sides, watching the reflection of the water ripple across the ceiling, mesmerized by it. Coming here had still been a good idea. The water buoyed both her body and her spirit. The scent of the chlorine was as invigorating as caffeine. Just returning to her local pool for the first time in two months felt like a win, however small.

She’d be back tomorrow.

Knowing she’d regret it if she attempted to haul herself up the ladder, she instead made her way over to the steps in the shallow end and walked out of the pool. After a quick shower, she was on her way home.

But her flat, although it sparkled after yesterday’s fit of cleaning, was still just as empty. And while she felt somewhat calmer after her trip to the pool, her body still buzzed with unspent energy. She stood in the kitchen, fingers tapping restlessly against the countertop as she stared at her phone, debating her options.

She and Scully had already spent most of the last twenty-four hours together. Logically, they needed space, time away from each other. Everything about Scully screamed more than sex. It always had. The strength of the connection between them had scared Stella in her youth, and it scared her now.

She’d made the decision a long time ago to put her career first. Some people simply weren’t suited to relationships, and she was one of them. It was perfectly fine for her to accept this about herself, to take what she needed from her sexual partners without derailing her life or her career.

But a quiet night at home alone wasn’t in the cards tonight, not while she was feeling like this. And since she couldn’t work and couldn’t swim, that left sex. Sure, she could go out, find some random man, and let him fuck her, but the truth was, there was only one person she wanted to see, to touch and be touched by tonight.

And that person, while potentially dangerous, was only in London for two months. How much could really happen between them in that amount of time? Scully had been temporary before, and she was temporary now. Maybe the universe had sent her Stella’s way for a reason, a perfectly timed distraction while she recovered from Belfast.

Once they both got back to work, they’d barely have time to see each other, even if they wanted to. So really, they just had this one week. And even Stella was capable of a relationship lasting a week.

Decision made, she picked up her phone and composed a quick text.

Dinner at my place tonight?

And then she bit down on her lip, waiting for Scully’s response.

Sounds perfect. What can I bring?

Just yourself. Stella followed that with her address and a time, and then she headed to the market, relieved to have something—or more accurately, someone—to occupy her evening. She didn’t often cook. Usually, she didn’t have the time for it, not when she was busy with work. She enjoyed eating out, picking fancy things off a fancy menu and having them brought to her without any further effort on her part.

But tonight, she was looking forward to cooking. Tonight, she needed something to keep both her mind and her hands occupied until Scully arrived. She browsed through several websites touting “easy date night meals” on her phone, swearing under her breath as she tried to find something she could eat. Eventually, she decided on a lemon chicken pasta dish. She’d just leave the chicken off her plate. God, she missed meat. She was so fucking hungry.

She quickly gathered all the ingredients she’d need, paid, and went home. Back in her kitchen, she poured herself a glass of wine and put on some music, a relaxing playlist to set the mood. And then she set to work. She was so caught up in cooking, she lost all track of the time, and the next thing she knew, Scully was knocking at her door.

Well, fuck. She’d meant to go upstairs and change before Scully got here, freshen her hair and makeup, but here she was, still wearing Scully’s jeans. At least she’d put on a clean shirt when she showered after her swim. She turned down the heat on the stove before she walked to the door.

Scully stood on her doorstep wearing black jeans and a blue top that highlighted her eyes while perfectly setting off the crimson hues in her hair.

“Blue is your color,” Stella said as she invited her inside. “You look lovely, and I’m a mess. Sorry. The time got away from me.”

“You look perfect,” Scully said, sliding her hands around Stella’s waist to kiss her. “And thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” For a moment, they just stared into each other’s eyes, smiling.

“You smell like chlorine,” Scully said, but her tone was teasing not chastising.

“I was careful.”

“Good.” She pulled Stella in for another kiss, this time adding enough tongue to make Stella forget all her well-laid dinner plans. “Because I need you limber enough for other activities later tonight.”

“Won’t be a problem,” she murmured against Scully’s lips as a delicious ache spread between her thighs. Then they were kissing again, bodies pressed together. With Stella in bare feet, Scully had a slight height advantage, and she put it to good use, hands roaming everywhere.

“I know I just saw you, but…I missed you.” She smiled against Stella’s lips, hands on Stella’s ass, pressing their hips together so tightly Stella was considering throwing out the chicken in favor of taking Scully directly upstairs to bed. Fuck that, she could take her right here in the foyer.

She drew in a shallow breath, mindful of her ribs, and blew it out. “You’ve hardly had a chance to miss me,” she deflected, as if she didn’t feel the same way.

“I know.” Scully released her, tucking a wayward strand of red hair behind her ear. “Whatever you’re cooking smells really good.”

“Lemon chicken pasta.” Stella led the way to the kitchen and poured Scully a glass of wine.

“Thank you,” Scully said as she accepted the glass. “Will you be able to eat that?”

“I can eat the pasta.” Stella adjusted the heat on the pan and stirred the sauce.

Scully settled herself on a stool. “Can I help with anything?”

She shook her head. “It’s just about ready.”

“If you’d told me when I landed in London yesterday that I’d be sitting here tonight watching you cook dinner for me, I’d probably have laughed.”

“Any other week, it would have been a laughable idea.” Stella checked the pasta, tamping down her discomfort over the domestic scene she’d inadvertently created here tonight.

“Well, I’m extremely sorry you’re facing an inquiry at work,” Scully said, her expression sobering. “But it’s an awfully lucky coincidence that I’m here and also not working this week. I think we can sufficiently distract each other so we don’t get bored.”

A smile tugged at Stella’s lips as relief tingled in her veins. Yes, Scully’s timing was impeccable. In fact, Stella wasn’t sure how she’d have made it through the week without her. She took plates out of the cupboard and dished up two servings, one with and one without chicken. She’d never tried this recipe before, but it smelled good, and the sauce had thickened the way it looked on the recipe page, which she took for a good sign.

“If it tastes like shit, we’ll have to improvise,” she said with a meaningful lift of her eyebrows.

“I’m sure that won’t be a problem.” Scully took her plate and her wineglass and followed Stella to the table. They sat across from each other, beginning to eat in a comfortable lull in the conversation. The playlist Stella had started earlier was still going, and it set a nice ambiance to the meal. “It’s delicious,” Scully said.

Stella couldn’t argue with her. She was by no means a chef, but the meal had turned out nicely, and having Scully here with her was a definite plus. They chatted casually as they ate, and Stella had refilled both of their wineglasses by the time their plates were clear.

Scully looked up, eyes glossy in the lamplit kitchen. “Thank you. I can’t even remember how long it’s been since I enjoyed a meal like this with someone. I forgot how nice it could be.”

“You’re welcome.” Stella lifted her wineglass and sipped. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d shared a homecooked meal with a romantic partner either, but she’d also never lived with anyone. Scully had spent over a decade with Mulder. What had it been like, if they never shared a quiet meal together?

They walked to the kitchen together. Scully insisted on rinsing their plates while Stella cleaned up the leftovers from the stovetop. She’d just finished scooping the chicken into a container when Scully’s arms slid around her waist from behind, her chin landing on Stella’s shoulder. For a moment, they stood like that, just breathing in the closeness between them before Stella spun in her arms.

She pressed forward, capturing Scully’s mouth with her own, walking her backward into the countertop so she could better leverage her position. She slid one of her thighs between Scully’s, and Scully angled her hips against Stella’s, fitting them together perfectly. And then they kissed, and kissed, and kissed.

They kissed until Stella had forgotten everything but the feel of Scully’s lips on hers, the swipe of her tongue, and the scrape of her teeth. Their hips moved together until Stella thought she might combust from the friction building between them.

“Upstairs,” she whispered, disentangling herself to lead the way. They were quiet as they climbed the stairs, both of them breathing heavily. As soon as they’d crossed the threshold into Stella’s bedroom, they were on each other again, hands groping at clothing, fumbling buttons and pushing down zippers. And then Stella was flat on her back in bed with Scully straddling her, jeans still dangling from one ankle.

“Time for me to thank you properly for dinner,” she said as she dipped her head, sucking at Stella’s nipple through the fabric of her shirt.

“Is that so?” she managed, squeezing her eyes shut against the onslaught of pleasure coursing through her veins.

“Mm hmm.” Scully pushed the shirt up to her breasts, and Stella raised off the mattress to help her pull it over her head, grimacing as pain knifed through her chest, stealing her breath. Wordlessly, Scully pushed her against the sheets, pressing a hand over Stella’s ribs in a way that reduced the blinding fire in her chest to mere embers. “Just breathe,” she whispered, and Stella did, exhaling shallow breaths against Scully’s palm until the worst of it had passed.

“You’re good at that,” she whispered.

“There are benefits to having a doctor in your bed,” Scully told her, gently tugging the shirt over Stella’s head without further aggravating her ribs. Stella shook her foot, and the jeans fell to the floor, leaving her in only her bra and underwear. “You’re so beautiful,” Scully said, running her hands down Stella’s body in a reverential sort of way.

Stella shivered beneath her touch, uncomfortable with her words but too turned on to really care. Scully quickly stripped to her own underwear, further distracting Stella with the sight of all that smooth, creamy skin contained beneath black lace.

“Did you wear that just for me?” she asked, reaching up to grip Scully’s ass, guiding her back to Stella’s hips.

Scully grinned as she settled herself against Stella. “A wise woman once told me I should buy pretty lingerie just for myself, and I took her advice.”

“Good advice,” Stella quipped, biting her lip as Scully rolled her hips directly over her clit.

“It was.” Scully flattened herself against Stella, kissing her fiercely as her fingers worked the clasp on Stella’s bra. She freed Stella’s breasts, lavishing them with the full attention of her mouth and fingers while Stella arched beneath her, seeking more, needing more, even as Scully bit down on her nipple, making her gasp with pleasure.

Scully transferred her mouth to Stella’s other breast as one of her hands hooked beneath the lace band at Stella’s hip, tugging her underwear down her legs. Stella steadied her breathing in anticipation of her touch. She could feel that she was already drenched in her own desire.

“Been a while since I’ve done this,” Scully said as she kissed her way down Stella’s stomach. “Let me know if I’m rusty.”

“I can’t imagine you will be.” Stella’s skin flushed hot, her pussy throbbing as her hands reached for Scully, needing something to hold onto. She gripped Scully’s shoulders as she settled between Stella’s thighs, looking up at her with a smile that melted away any last hesitation she might have harbored about giving herself over to Scully this way.

Scully swept her hair over her shoulders before leaning in to press a wet kiss against Stella’s inner thigh, and she held her breath, nerves tingling, shooting sparks through her veins. Scully placed the flat of her tongue against her, licking slowly from Stella’s entrance to her clit, and she grasped the sheet beneath her, clenching it between her fingers as a breathy moan escaped her lips.

Scully worked magic with her tongue, enveloping Stella in the wet heat of her mouth. Stella pushed one hand into her own hair, pinching her nipple with the other, while Scully jabbed her tongue so far inside her she saw stars. Scully licked and teased, sucking at Stella’s clit until her whole body seemed to pulse with need, hips grinding against Scully’s mouth.

“Fuck me,” she gasped, muscles trembling as she struggled to keep her thighs from clamping around Scully’s head.

“Mm,” Scully responded, the sound vibrating against Stella’s wet skin, and she arched her back, no longer aware of her cracked ribs, no longer aware of anything beyond Scully’s tongue and the orgasm coiling inside her.

Scully pushed a finger inside her. Stella looked down, and their gazes locked. Scully’s eyes seared into hers, embers burning in their blue depths, so fucking sexy she stole the air from Stella’s lungs and the sense from her brain, turning everything inside her liquid hot and thrumming with need.

She wanted to freeze the moment, make it last forever, and then she just wanted to come against Scully’s tongue, wanted it so badly she could hardly breathe. She flung her head back against the pillow, panting as Scully added a second finger, pumping in and out as her tongue swirled over Stella’s clit.

And just like that, she broke, pleasure rippling through her in waves of scorching heat. She exhaled in relief, absorbing every moment as the restlessness that had been fizzing inside her all day evaporated, replaced by a bone-deep satisfaction that no one but the redhead currently sprawled between her legs had ever been able to provide.

She’d let other people go down on her in the years since she first met Scully, but it was never this comfortable, this intimate. She’d forgotten the difference, and now she feared nothing else could ever compare.

“Not so rusty after all,” she managed after she’d caught her breath.

Scully crawled up her body to press a lengthy kiss against her lips. “Glad to hear it.”

* * *

Scully drifted awake slowly, like she’d been skimming along the edge of consciousness for a while. It was dark in Stella’s bedroom, quiet, and she had no idea what time it was. It could be two in the morning or six. Jetlag was a bitch who had completely messed up her internal clock. Two nights in a row of screwing Stella’s brains out hadn’t helped either.

She turned her head, looking for a clock, but instead found herself facing Stella’s blonde curls splayed across the pillow. She lay on her back, one hand pressed against her chest, breathing in shallow pants. Her eyes were closed, but she was definitely not asleep.

“Hey.” Scully touched her shoulder, feeling Stella flinch at the contact. “You okay?”

Stella nodded, turning her face away from Scully.

Clearly not okay. “Stella…”

“Hurts more at night sometimes,” she said quietly.

“Especially after sex and swimming, I bet.” Scully brushed a hand over Stella’s cheek. “What did they give you to take?”

“I can’t remember. I don’t like to take it.”

“Do you have trouble with narcotics?” Scully asked carefully, remembering the scars on Stella’s legs, knowing that one form of self-harm often accompanied another.

“No, but they make me feel spacey. Can’t concentrate.”

“That’s okay in the middle of the night, I think,” Scully said. “Would you like me to bring you one? You should at least take some ibuprofen.”

Stella said nothing, tension radiating off her in the darkness.

“There’s no reason not to—”

“I’m fine.” Stella attempted to roll away, but the breath hissed out of her as she flopped back, her hand again pressed against her ribs.

Scully rested a hand over Stella’s, feeling the shudder that wracked her body with each exhale, wishing there was more she could do to ease her pain.

“Go back to sleep,” Stella whispered, turning her face into the pillow.

“Not a chance,” Scully told her, giving Stella’s fingers a squeeze. “I’m lousy at this too, you know. They say doctors make terrible patients, but I think cops might be worse. Either way, I'm screwed.”

Stella was quiet for a long moment, and when she finally spoke, her voice was hushed. “The prescription bottle is in the cabinet in the bathroom.”

“Okay.” Scully slipped out of bed before Stella could change her mind, padding downstairs to fill a glass of water. Back upstairs, she located the prescription bottle. Based on the number of pills inside, Stella had only taken two or three since she’d been released from the hospital. Scully shook one onto her palm and brought it with her into the bedroom.

She set the pill and glass on the nightstand so she could slide her hands behind Stella’s back and help her sit without further aggravating her cracked ribs. Stella grimaced as she came upright, hands gripping Scully for support. She squeezed Stella’s shoulder in sympathy before handing her the pill and the glass of water. Stella swallowed it quickly and slumped back against the pillow.

“Let me,” Scully said, sliding closer. She pressed her palm against Stella’s chest, wrapping her fingers around the curve of her ribcage, applying compression to the fractures the way she’d done earlier. Gradually, Stella relaxed beneath her touch, breaths evening out. “Better?”

“Yes. Thank you.” Her voice was soft, eyes shut.

“Want to talk for a bit, or are you ready to sleep?”

“I don’t sleep well these days,” Stella admitted.

“Been there,” Scully told her. “Med school taught me to sleep whenever and wherever I could, and for years, I carried that with me through the FBI. I could sleep on the plane on the way to a crime scene or in the car while Mulder drove us through some Godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere chasing monsters.”

Stella was quiet, listening, breathing steadily beneath Scully’s palm.

“But it all catches up to you eventually,” Scully whispered. “The ones you didn’t save, the killers who went unpunished, especially if they managed to deliver a few blows before they left.” She paused, measuring her breath to match Stella’s, forcing herself not to tense up, not to back away from what she was about to say, because Stella needed to hear it. She needed to hear it more than Scully needed to protect herself from sharing it. “I shot a man once. I mean, I’ve shot a lot of men. I even shot Mulder once.”

At this, Stella’s breath hitched in surprise. She turned to look at Scully in the near darkness.

“In the shoulder,” she clarified. “He was about to do something really stupid, and it was the only way to stop him. He’s lucky I’m a good shot.” She smiled softly at the memory. “But the man I shot—the one I meant—his name was Donnie Pfaster. A real crazy sonofabitch. He liked to cut off women’s hair and fingers after he killed them and keep them as souvenirs. He kidnapped me, tried to add me to his collection, but Mulder showed up in the nick of time with reinforcements.”

“I’m sorry,” Stella murmured.

“It shook me more than I ever wanted to admit. He went to prison, but he escaped five years later, and he…he came after me again, this time in my apartment.” She paused, allowing the fear, the helplessness to surface inside her for the first time in years. Of all the times she’d fought for her life, this one had perhaps been the most terrifying. “He overpowered me, tied me up in my own fucking closet while he ran a bath. He was going to wash me, wash my hair, paint my nails. That’s what he did. That was his ritual.”

Stella quit breathing for a moment, stiffening beneath Scully’s touch. She’d read that Paul Spector had rituals too with his victim’s hair and nails. Maybe it was what had driven her to tell Stella this story.

“Anyway, I got free. We fought, and I was able to grab my gun. Mulder came busting into my apartment at about the same time.” She swallowed hard, heat crawling over her skin. She’d never admitted this next part to anyone. Only Mulder knew, because he’d been there. “I could have cuffed him. I could have let Mulder cuff him, but I…I shot him. Right there in my living room.”

“Fuck,” Stella whispered.

“I didn’t sleep for a long time after that.”

“Sometimes I wish I could have shot Spector,” Stella admitted quietly. “I felt so helpless, lying there on the floor while he kicked me.”

“I know.” She leaned in to kiss Stella’s cheek. “I know.”

“My whole fucking team watching on the closed-circuit television.” Stella’s breath caught, tears glistening in the moonlight. “And I just…lay there. Why didn’t I fight back? He wasn’t a very large man. I should have been able to subdue him.”

“He blindsided you, Stella. You weren’t expecting it.”

“I’m always expecting it,” she whispered.

Scully thought those might have been the truest words she’d ever heard Stella speak. Her armor was always on, always waiting for the next blow to land. “Even the best of us get caught off guard occasionally. You are not weak, or helpless. Spector bruised you, but he didn’t break you.”

Stella swiped the tears from her cheeks. “Sometimes I’m not sure.”

“Well, I am.” Scully pulled her close, holding on to her in the dark, fiercely protective of the woman in her arms.

After a moment, Stella broke free of their embrace, maybe because of her ribs, but probably, she just needed her space. And maybe it was crazy, but as she rolled away, Scully felt closer to her than ever.

Chapter Text

On Thursday, Scully’s boxes from home finally arrived. Stella sat at the table in the kitchen, again sipping tea in Scully’s lavender robe, but this time it was tea of her own choosing. Since Scully’s arrival on Sunday, they’d spent at least a portion of each day together. They’d toured several museums, gone out to dinner again, and even spent an entire afternoon pouring over one of the open cases Stella was working on, trying to find a new lead to advance the investigation.

Scully was starting to get the hang of things here in London. She’d found out that the little washing machine in the kitchen doubled as a dryer and that Brits weren’t fond of top sheets or face cloths, both of which she’d purchased for the flat herself. She’d expected to make these discoveries on her own. Truthfully, since leaving Mulder, she’d become accustomed to going about life on her own. Often, she preferred it that way.

Her time with Stella didn’t seem to change things, though. Stella was equally independent, if not more so, quietly drifting in and out of Scully’s days like the sun passing through London’s persistently cloudy skies. This morning, she sat and sipped tea as Scully put away clothes and shoes, filled an entire shelf with books on pathology, and arranged a collection of photos and knickknacks from home.

“What’s this?” Stella asked, spinning an unusual penny between her fingers. It was actually two pennies fused together, a souvenir from Scully’s days with the X Files.

“I guess you could say it’s my lucky penny. I’ve been carrying it around for longer than I’ve known you.”

“And here I thought you were a woman of science,” Stella teased, setting it on the table in front of her.

“I’m not really sure why I brought it.” She twirled it idly between her fingers. “Sentimental value, I guess.”

“Maybe you’re due for a spell of good luck,” Stella commented, lifting the cup to her lips.

“Maybe we both are.” She set the penny in a catch-all box on the shelf, tossing Stella a quick glance. “My mom will be here tomorrow, through the weekend.”

“Oh?” Stella lifted one eyebrow slightly.

“I’d like to introduce you.” She’d been thinking about it all morning. Not to mention, the idea of not seeing Stella for three whole days while her mom was here felt unbearable after spending the better part of a week with her. Honestly, it was unsettling when she realized how quickly Stella had become such an important part of her life, how hard it was to imagine her not being a part of it after Scully’s fellowship was over.

“Introduce me as your friend?” Stella asked, staring into her tea.

“Girlfriend, woman I’m dating, whatever term you prefer,” Scully said as she sat across from her. “Anything other than friends who fuck.”

A smile quirked Stella’s lips. “And she’ll be okay with that?”

“I lived with a woman for a while after college, during my first year of medical school. It was a shock for both of my parents, but they got over it. Well, my mom did anyway.”

“Not your dad?”

She shrugged. “He didn’t approve of a lot of my choices, including joining the FBI. And unfortunately, he passed away before we had a chance to resolve our differences.”

“I’m sorry,” Stella murmured.

“Thank you, but it’s fine. Really. I made peace with it a long time ago.” Scully waved a hand in front of her face. “The point is that my mom will be so happy to see me with someone new, it’ll far outweigh any hesitations she might have about my sexuality.”

“She didn’t like Mulder?”

“She loved Mulder.” Scully sighed deeply. “No one was happier than she was when we finally got together, but she tired of his bullshit a lot sooner than I did. No mother wants to see her daughter living in isolation with a man who never leaves the house. Never leaves his fucking office.” She shook her head. “It wasn’t always like that, but for a long time…for a long time it was.”

“Is that why you left him, then?” Stella’s eyes were kind, no hint of judgment in their crystalline depths.

“No.” She would never have left him because he was ill. She would have stuck with him through any depths of his depression, no matter the personal cost. No, that hadn’t been it at all. “I left when I realized our life together would never be enough for him.”

“He missed his work,” Stella said, astute as ever.

Scully exhaled from the depths of her soul. “Of course, he did. So did I. For nine years, the X Files had consumed our whole lives, but, God…it cost us so much.” Her eyes flicked involuntarily to the baby photo of William tacked to the fridge. “Over the last few years, he’s consulted on several cases for the FBI, and every time they called, it was like he was waking up for the first time in months. He’d shave his beard, get dressed, run off wherever they sent him. The truth is, his work is his biggest passion, not me.” And that had maybe been the hardest truth of all to acknowledge as their relationship disintegrated.

“Are you sure it can’t be both?” Stella asked carefully.

“I know that I alone wasn’t enough to fulfill him.” She swiped at her eyes. “I know that he’s doing better now than he had been in years, because of his consulting work with the FBI. I’m sure he’d be even happier if I were there with him, but I can’t do it again, Stella. I can’t go back to that life. I’m done chasing monsters in the dark.”

“I understand,” Stella said.

“I gave up so much for him over the years. I let his passion, his quest become my own, to the point where I almost forgot who I was and what I wanted out of life. I think that maybe I’m only just now starting to rediscover what makes me happy.” She paused, looking at Stella. “For so long, I was just…Scully, and now I’m finally remembering what it’s like to be Dana again.”

Stella reached over, placing her hand on Scully’s in silent support.

“Mulder and I will always be a part of each other’s lives, but I can’t live with him. I can’t be with him. Never again.” These last few days with Stella had only reinforced this point. She’d forgotten what it felt like to be with someone who made her feel good, someone who genuinely cared about what she wanted, someone she could share a quiet morning with as easily as a wild night.

She and Mulder had never shared this can’t-keep-my-hands-off-you-if-I-tried kind of passion. Theirs had been more of a slow burn, a deeper connection born out of years of trust and intimacy from their work together. They’d had their share of passionate nights, but it had never been as explosive as her chemistry with Stella.

“So, will you meet my mom?” she asked again, trying to drive the conversation back on topic. “We could get dinner together, or even just tea. I know she would love to go out for a real British tea service.”

Stella smiled, but there was something distant in her eyes. “We’ll see.”

And in fact, once Maggie arrived the following morning, Stella became mysteriously busy, which Scully figured was probably bullshit, but she tried to swallow Stella’s silence with grace. After all, Stella was still recovering from her last case, both physically and emotionally. Not to mention, she wasn’t sure what Stella’s relationship was with her own parents. She’d never mentioned them, which was telling in and of itself.

“Well, isn’t this adorable,” Maggie exclaimed as she entered Scully’s flat, slightly breathless from the flight of stairs leading to the front door.

“It is,” she agreed. “I really love it here.”

“London seems to suit you,” Maggie said, turning to give Scully a warm hug. “You look good. You look great, really. There’s a light in your eyes I hadn’t seen in too long.”

“I’m happy, Mom,” she said, hugging her back. “And I’m really excited to start my fellowship on Monday.”

“A fellowship at your age.” Her mom shook her head in faux exasperation. “You ought to be planning for retirement, not switching careers.”

“But if it makes me happy…” Scully reminded her.

“I know, I know. If it makes you happy, it makes me happy.” Maggie walked to the window in the kitchen and looked out. “You know, in all the moving around we did with your father in the Navy, I’ve never been to London.”

“Which is why we’re going to do all the sightseeing while you’re here.”

“I can’t wait.” She stifled a yawn behind her hand. “But do you mind if I take a nap first? Jetlag has really wiped me out.”

“You should definitely nap. You’ll feel so much better after.” Scully guided her toward the stairs leading up to the loft. “I changed the sheets on the bed this morning for you. I’ll sleep downstairs on the pull-out couch.”

“Oh, sweetie, I’ll take the couch. I don’t mind.”

“I won’t even hear of it, so don’t even try,” she told her mom firmly.

“Okay, okay. Oh, how cute is this?” Maggie surveyed the loft.

It looked homier now that Scully’s belongings had arrived, with pictures on the dresser and on the windowsill that overlooked the street below. She sat on the edge of the bed while Maggie rustled through her suitcase, getting what she needed.

“I might join you for that nap,” she said with a yawn. She’d been up late last night with Stella, and soon enough, she’d be working long hours at the hospital and wishing for the freedom to nap.

“You should. Lie down here with me.”

And so, she lay down on the bed next to her mom and slept, relaxed and happy. By the time they stirred, it was late afternoon, but since they had nowhere to be, they lay in bed together and chatted like they hadn’t chatted since Scully was a girl still living at home.

“I’m so glad you’re here.” She reached over and squeezed her mom’s hand.

“Me too, sweetie. Me too.”

“Let’s go out for dinner tonight,” Scully suggested. “See a little bit of London.”

“I’d love that.”

They got up, and Maggie puttered around in the bedroom, hanging her clothes in Scully’s closet as she talked excitedly about all the things she wanted to do while she was here in London.

Scully sat on the edge of the bed and listened, smiling contentedly.

“Wow, Dana, this is a gorgeous blouse. I don’t remember seeing you in it before.” She pulled out one of Stella’s black silk blouses, admiring it. “You’ve got a few nice pieces in here I don’t recognize.”

“Oh, um.” Scully felt her cheeks heat. “Those are Stella’s, actually. She has better fashion sense than I do.”

“Stella?” Maggie turned, curiosity dancing in her eyes.

“Stella Gibson. I think I told you about her back when we first met, when Mulder and I were working on the X Files.” She had mentioned Stella’s name, but nothing of what they’d shared.

“Stella.” Maggie tapped her chin. “Is she a detective?”

“Yes.”

“And you two have reconnected now that you’re back in London.” Maggie’s face lit. “How wonderful. But why are her clothes in your…oh.”

“Yes,” Scully confirmed. “We’re dating.”

“Oh,” Maggie repeated, coming to sit beside Scully on the bed. “Well, this is unexpected. Is she part of the reason you look so happy?”

Scully felt her chest tighten as she nodded. “Yes, she is.”

“Then, I’m very happy for you both. Will I get to meet her while I’m here?”

“I hope so,” Scully told her honestly. “She’s a detective superintendent now, which is more or less the equivalent of a lieutenant in America. So, she’s very busy.” She decided not to mention Stella was still benched, pending the outcome of her inquiry.

Maggie was quiet for a moment, her expression pensive. “This is a big deal. I was so worried about you after you broke up with Fox. You seemed so sad…so lonely. And you buried yourself in work the way you always do.”

“I did,” she admitted. “Some habits are hard to break.”

“Just don’t fall in love and stay here in London,” Maggie said, giving Scully’s shoulder a nudge.

Scully scoffed at this, even while she felt a pang in her chest. “I won’t, Mom. Don’t worry.”

* * *

Stella looked up from the case file spread across her coffee table at the sound of an incoming text message. She knew who it would be from before she checked her phone. There was absolutely no chance the inquiry had been resolved on a Sunday evening, and even if it had been, her boss, Chief Superintendent Chris George, would have called with the news. Sure enough, Scully’s name showed on the screen.

Mom and I are going to dinner at Pearl tonight. Join us?

Stella set the phone down with a sigh. It was Maggie’s last night in London, and Stella had made herself scarce for the duration of her visit. She didn’t particularly want to meet Scully’s mother, although she was fairly sure she’d like the woman.

The last time Stella saw her, Scully had told her she’d left Mulder because he’d always put his work ahead of her. What Stella hadn’t had the courage to point out—and what Scully either hadn’t yet realized or had decided didn’t matter given the temporary nature of their relationship—was that Stella and Mulder were alike that way. Scully deserved someone to put her first. She deserved it more than anyone in the world, but Stella was not that person. She’d married herself to the job decades ago, and there was no changing her now.

So, she would prefer to stay far the hell away from Scully’s mother. But Scully knew perfectly well Stella was sitting at home tonight, and to ignore her dinner invitation seemed pointedly rude, even for Stella. And then there was the fact that she missed her like crazy, missed her so much she was actually considering having dinner with her mother just for the chance to see her. Because Scully started her new fellowship in the morning, and hopefully Stella would be back at work herself in the next few days, which meant they’d be seeing a lot less of each other from here on out.

Fuck it. She needed to see her.

What time? she replied to Scully’s message.

Does 7 work for you?

Yes. See you there.

Stella’s soft diet was over, so she could order whatever she wanted tonight. Maybe sinking her teeth into a big juicy steak would satisfy her hunger for Scully, because this would only be dinner, with Maggie in town. Stella set down the phone and scraped the papers in front of her into a pile. As she had no open cases of her own, George had given her several case files from within the department to look over, review, and give her thoughts and expertise on. It was what she did best, after all, the reason she’d been sent to Belfast in the first place. Still, nothing compared to having her own case to chew on, something done right the first time rather than a mess left for her to unravel after the fact.

After several hours spent doing just that, Stella needed some serious stress relief before sitting through dinner with Scully and her mother. She put the files away, grabbed her gym bag, and headed for the pool. Two sad laps later, she was folded over the edge of the pool deck, breathing past the searing pain in her chest and cursing Paul Spector with every fiber of her being.

How fucking dare he.

She caught the eye of the man behind the desk as she walked by on her way out. Young, handsome, strong. He smiled at her, revealing dimples that were entirely too appealing. Eager. So fucking eager. He’d be more than willing to take her behind the closed door of the changing room and give her what she needed. Except he wasn’t the person she wanted tonight. So, she stalked home, seething, irritable, and still buzzing with restless energy.

She laid herself carefully across the bed, applying pressure to her chest the way Scully had shown her, until the pain receded. And then she lay there a few minutes longer, staring at the clock, willing it to move faster, or slower, or maybe not at all.

She shifted restlessly against the sheet, her mind wandering to the man behind the desk and the relief she could have had. Damn Scully for getting inside her head like this. She reached down, touching herself through the thin fabric of her pants, her hips automatically arching into the contact, seeking friction. She stroked, softly at first, until her clit started to throb, begging for more attention.

Sighing deeply, she pushed her hand inside her underwear, touching herself properly. Her fingers slipped through her wetness, rubbing and stroking as she remembered the way Scully touched her, the way she looked when she went down on her, blue eyes gleaming as her tongue drove Stella out of her mind with pleasure.

“Dana,” she gasped, fucking herself harder. She wanted to move, to thrust her hips against the bed as she finger-fucked herself, but her ribs would never tolerate it, especially not right after a swim. So, she lay flat on her back, working herself closer to release as she pictured Scully sprawled between her thighs, that curtain of red hair hanging over her shoulders as she sucked Stella’s clit into the heat of her mouth.

Fuck, yes.

Her hand moved faster, harder, and then she was coming, moaning, hips bucking, Scully’s name on her lips, her memory at Stella’s fingertips as she rode out her release. And then, finally calm—at least for the moment—she got out of bed to get ready for dinner.

She took her usual care in getting dressed, deciding on a black top and trousers, simple but feminine, nothing to draw undue attention to herself. She did her hair and makeup, applied a dab of her favorite perfume, and headed for the door.

Half an hour later, she walked into the restaurant, immediately spotting Scully and an older woman who had to be her mother. Maggie Scully was as petite as her daughter, with short, dark hair shot through with streaks of silver. She had a warm smile that Stella immediately liked.

“Hi, Stella.” Scully beamed as Stella approached, so visibly excited to see her that Stella felt a pinch somewhere in the vicinity of her heart. Was she even capable of such an open display of affection? Almost certainly not.

“Dana,” she said, gripping Scully’s hand as she leaned in to kiss her cheek. “And you must be Maggie.”

“So nice to meet you, Stella.” Maggie took her hand with a smile.

The hostess showed them to a burgundy-upholstered booth. Stella scooted to the inside of the far bench, surprised when Scully slid in beside her instead of sitting next to Maggie. She nudged her hip against Stella’s, giving her hand a secret squeeze beneath the table.

“Thank you,” she mouthed, blue eyes sparkling as she smiled at Stella, so earnest, so happy, and Stella realized in a rush just how glad she was to see her.

“I’m glad I could make it,” she said.

“Mom and I have done all the sightseeing we could fit into the last two days,” Scully told her, reaching behind herself to pull her hair into a ponytail.

“I even let Dana talk me into riding on the London Eye,” Maggie said. “And I’m afraid of heights.”

“She almost broke my hand when she realized we had to step on while it was moving,” Scully said, giving her mom an affectionate look. “But it was worth it, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was,” Maggie agreed. “The views from the top were amazing, and as long as I didn’t look straight down, it wasn’t bad at all.”

“Mm,” Stella said neutrally.

Scully gave her an amused look. “You’ve never been on it, have you?”

“No,” she admitted.

“You mean you’ve never played tourist in your own city?” Maggie asked.

“I’m afraid not.”

Maggie fixed her with a friendly smile. “What do you do for fun, Stella?”

“I swim, mostly.”

Scully opened her mouth as if to admonish her for swimming with broken ribs, but seemed to change her mind, reaching instead for her water glass, and Stella was incredibly grateful to her for not opening that particular can of worms in front of her mother.

“I used to swim a lot too,” Maggie said. “I was on the swim team in high school.”

“You were?” Scully asked, looking over at her mom. “I didn’t know that.”

“Yes,” Maggie confirmed. “Butterfly was my best stroke.”

She and Scully kept the conversation moving as they ordered their food and while they ate, telling Stella all the things they’d done together over the last two days. And even though Stella mostly listened, occasionally chiming in with an anecdote about London or a shared experience, she felt relaxed and content. Scully and her mom obviously had a good relationship, the kind of mother-daughter relationship Stella had always been fascinated by.

“I’ll be right back,” Scully said after their plates had been cleared away, heading in the direction of the restroom.

Stella looked across the table at Maggie. “I’m glad you’ve had such a nice visit.”

Maggie smiled. “So am I. My husband was in the Navy, and we spent our years together moving constantly. After he passed, I guess I just got content to stay in one place, but this trip has reminded me that it can be fun to travel. Maybe I should do it more often.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Stella agreed. “I guess I travel more for work than for fun as well.”

“Seems to be a common theme with you law enforcement types.” Maggie narrowed her eyes at her, but her tone was light, teasing.

“I suppose it is.” Stella lifted her wineglass, swirling it before polishing off the last sip.

“Well, it’s good to see Dana looking so happy,” Maggie said. “And I think you’re a big part of that, so I’m glad you two reconnected, and I’m glad I got the chance to meet you.”

Stella fiddled with her empty wineglass, unsure how to respond to any of that. She finally settled on, “I’m glad I got to meet you as well.”

“You seem to be good for each other.”

Stella wished desperately for more wine, or better yet, for Scully to return to the table so Maggie would change the subject.

“She’s been through so much,” Maggie continued. “And then she and Fox became so isolated in that house. I hardly ever saw them, and when I did, he looked miserable, and she looked exhausted, like her spirit had broken. Even after she moved out, she was working herself to the bone, trying so hard to save all those kids, even the ones who couldn’t be saved.” Maggie swallowed, pressing a hand against her chest as tears glistened in her eyes. “It was killing me to watch her punish herself like that, taking all the blame for the end of their relationship and losing William…well, it’s just good to see her smiling again, that’s all.”

“I’m glad too,” Stella said, and when she looked up and saw Scully approaching the table, it was all she could do not to pull her into her arms and kiss her right here in front of her mother, kiss her and hold her until she’d forgotten all the darkness in her past.

Except, if she wasn’t careful, Stella could become another shadow in Scully’s life who would end up causing her even more pain.

* * *

By the time they left the restaurant, Scully was so happy she could burst. Stella had been quiet during dinner, and Scully knew she hadn’t really wanted to come, but she still thought it had gone well. Stella seemed to have enjoyed herself, and Maggie was definitely taken with her. Spending the evening with the two of them together had been so nice, a memory she would cherish.

“It was lovely to meet you,” Maggie told Stella once they’d reached the sidewalk.

“You too,” Stella said with a small but genuine smile.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” Scully said. “I have a long day at the hospital, but maybe we can get together after.” She missed Stella something fierce. As much fun as she’d had sightseeing with her mom, the nights had been long and lonely now that she’d gotten used to sharing her bed with someone else again.

Stella nodded. “Good luck tomorrow.”

“Thank you.” She leaned in and pressed her lips to Stella’s, just a quick, chaste kiss, but it still filled her with warmth and contentment.

Maggie’s eyes widened, but she was smiling. They said their goodbyes, and Scully hooked an arm through her mom’s as they walked away. “What’s the matter, Mom? You act like you’ve never seen two women kiss before.”

“Well, I’m not all together sure that I have,” her mom said. “But I’m happy for you, Dana. I really am. And I like Stella a lot.”

“Good.” Scully gave her a hug. “Because I like her a lot too.”

“You seem to make each other happy, and really what more can you ask for?” her mom said, squeezing Scully back.

She looked up at the stars twinkling overhead, muted by the lights of the city around them. Such a simple truth, but really, what more was there to life than happiness? She did feel happy when she was with Stella, happier than she could remember feeling with someone in a long time. Probably she and Mulder had been that happy once. But, then again, maybe not. Their relationship—once they finally started sleeping together—had always been mired in tragedy. Happiness seemed to elude them.

“She’s obviously crazy about you,” Maggie continued. “She couldn’t take her eyes off you all night.”

Scully felt her cheeks warm. “That’s just how she is, Mom. She’s very intense when she looks at you, at anyone.”

“Not the way she looks at you,” Maggie insisted with a laugh. “And you’re right, she does have better fashion sense than you do.”

“Hey.” Scully nudged her gently with her shoulder.

“What can I say? She’s beautiful.”

“Should I be jealous?” Scully teased.

Maggie tossed her head back and laughed. “Heavens, no. But I wouldn’t be sorry if you keep dating her.”

“Except for the fact she lives in London,” Scully said, sobering.

“Yeah. Except for that.”

And that was a big exception. But Scully wasn’t thinking about it yet, or not much anyway. She had more important things to focus on at the moment, like her mom’s impending departure and her first day at the hospital.

She slept fitfully that night, tossing and turning on the pull-out couch in her living room as nerves took over. She was going to be studying under a renowned forensic pathologist. The days would be long. And hard. And gruesome. She was probably certifiable for even considering a career switch like this at her age. Except she’d already spent years performing autopsies in the X Files. She was good at it. She had experience.

She could do this.

She could not do this. That was the mantra running through her head as she walked into the morgue the following morning. After an emotional farewell to her mom at daybreak, she’d ridden the tube to The Royal London Hospital, where she met Dr. Linenburger, a gruff but amiable man who’d immediately put her to work.

“I have an interesting case for us to start with,” he told her as he rolled a body out of the refrigerator. Together, they lifted and slid the dead woman onto the table. “Deceased is Margery Waite, forty-eight-year-old white female. Suspected victim of assault. She was found in the greenery beside a popular walking path in north London yesterday evening.”

Scully took in the woman’s torn clothing and the abrasions visible on her skin, which seemed to support the theory that she had fallen victim to some sort of foul play. She and Dr. Linenburger completed their external examination, carefully bagging and preserving the woman’s clothing while sharing their observations with each other.

“These aren’t abrasions. They’re burns,” Scully said, leaning in for a closer look.

“I agree,” he said, watching her closely as she worked.

She suspected he already had a good idea of what had killed this woman, that he was waiting for her to draw her own conclusions, a bit of a test on her first day. It had been a decade since she last performed an autopsy, but she was pleased to find that the routine came right back to her, with a few improvements due to new technology. They performed a full body CT scan, which revealed some strange abnormalities in the woman’s internal organs, as if she’d been exposed to extreme heat before her death.

“Ask if anyone in the vicinity reported bright lights or lost time.”

Mulder’s voice echoed in her head, and she felt such an intense pang of longing, of nostalgia, that for a moment she couldn’t breathe. He would have been so excited when she showed him her findings from this autopsy, certain it was an X File. Nothing could compare to his enthusiasm for strange cases.

God, she missed him. She should call him. Soon.

After a yogurt cup with a packet of protein powder stirred in, she spent the afternoon alongside Dr. Linenburger as she completed her internal examination, confirming the organ damage she’d seen on the CT scan. The victim appeared to have suffered cardiac arrest following whatever trauma had occurred while she was out for her nightly walk.

On a hunch, Scully removed her gloves and checked the weather report from the previous evening. A severe thunderstorm had passed through the area at approximately the same time Margery died, and all the pieces of the puzzle came together in her mind.

“I think this woman was struck by lightning,” she told Dr. Linenburger.

“Ah,” he said. “I had suspected the same thing.”

Together, they went over her findings, eventually confirming Margery Waite’s cause of death. Scully had always struggled between her identity as a medical doctor and an FBI agent. She’d always felt strongest and most satisfied when she’d been able to marry the two by using her medical knowledge to solve crimes…or in this case, by proving that no crime had occurred, a fact she hoped would provide some peace to the deceased’s family.

This was a part of herself Scully had missed in the last ten years. Maybe she hadn’t even realized how much she’d missed it until this moment. She spent the rest of the afternoon rushing around the hospital in a flurry of activity as Dr. Linenburger’s assistant took her on a belated introductory tour of the hospital. She was introduced to countless people, walked down seemingly endless hallways, and ended her first day back in the morgue, looking at a fresh body.

It was all a little bit overwhelming, a little bit terrible, and a little bit awesome. She showered at the hospital to wash the residue of death of her skin before changing into a fresh set of scrubs and setting out for the tube station. First days always felt especially exhausting, so much extra energy expended on remembering names, making good impressions, and cramming as much new knowledge into her brain as possible. After she’d descended to the platform and stood waiting for the train, she finally checked her phone for the first time all day.

How did it go?

The sight of Stella’s name on her screen sent a punch of heat and emotion rushing through her chest. She pressed a hand against her ribcage, relieved to feel a beating heart there after holding two cold, dead ones in her hands earlier today.

Exhausting, but good, she replied.

Almost immediately, the little dots at the bottom of her screen began to bounce, letting her know that Stella was responding.

Have you eaten? I could bring dinner to your place.

That sounds perfect. Thank you.

See you in a little while.

Scully stepped into the train with a smile on her face. It had been four days since she and Stella had been alone together, and she was almost giddy at the prospect of seeing her, kissing her, getting naked with her…if she didn’t fall asleep before they made it that far. Because as she settled into an empty seat by the window, exhaustion swept over her like a powerful tide.

Her eyelids sagged, her body sinking into the seat as if weighed down with lead anchors. She blinked, keeping her eyes focused on the lit marquee above the door, scrolling the name of the next stop, not allowing herself to close her eyes even for a moment for fear she’d doze off and wake in some obscure corner of London while Stella waited on her doorstep with food.

She got off successfully at her stop and walked the two blocks to her building, the crisp night air giving her a brief second wind that faded the moment she entered her flat. She sat down at the kitchen table, rested her head on her arms against the cool tabletop, and conked out the way she used to do in med school.

A knock startled her awake, and she sat up, blinking against the intruding glare of the overhead lamp. Then she stood, rushing toward the door because Stella was here, and she couldn’t wait another moment to see her. She pulled the door open, and Stella gave an almost comical doubletake as she took in Scully’s appearance.

“Hi,” Stella said, reaching out to tuck a strand of hair behind Scully’s ear, a lock she could only assume had been wildly out of place.

“Hi.” Scully wrapped her arms around her, half-smooshing a bag of takeout food between them as she hugged her, bringing their lips together for a messy kiss.

“You have the imprint of your shirt on your face,” Stella murmured against her lips with a smile, brushing her fingers gently over Scully’s cheek.

“I fell asleep at the kitchen table waiting for you,” she confessed, threading her fingers through Stella’s as she guided her inside and closed the door behind them.

“Long day?” Stella asked with a sympathetic look as she began setting cartons of food on the table.

“So long,” she said, pulling a bottle of sparkling water out of the fridge. She poured two glasses and set them on the table, while Stella rummaged through her cabinets, coming out with plates. They worked together in quiet harmony as they prepared the meal, which turned out to be Thai and smelled so good Scully’s mouth was already watering. That yogurt cup had been a lifetime ago.

“Good, bad, or not sure yet?” Stella asked as they sat, choosing chairs next to each other instead of across the table from each other, both apparently needing that closeness between them tonight.

“Good, I think.” She smiled as she took a bite of spicy chicken and vegetables. “You know how first days are, so overwhelming. And I was up most of the night worrying about how it would go.”

“I know the feeling,” Stella said. “So much pressure to impress, especially as a woman.”

“Yes.” She wiped sauce from her lip, sucking it off her finger.

Stella’s gaze heated as she licked her own lips, but she kept eating quietly, much more delicately than Scully, who was practically inhaling her food, having suddenly rediscovered her appetite. They didn’t talk much as they ate, just enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company. Once they’d both cleared their plates—and Scully had gone back for seconds—they cleared away the leftovers and walked into each other’s arms.

“You got your stitches out.” Scully stroked the freshly mended skin on Stella’s brow.

“And no more soft diet,” Stella said, confirming what Scully had already noticed. “I can eat anything I want.”

Something about the way she said it sent Scully’s pulse racing. “Good to know.”

“Shall I let you sleep, then?” Stella asked quietly as her eyes asked a different question entirely.

“Not quite yet.” Scully felt herself heat in all the right places beneath Stella’s inquiring gaze.

“I was hoping you’d say that.”

That was more or less the last thing Scully registered before Stella was on her, tongue licking into her mouth as her hand dove beneath the waistband of Scully’s pants, her thighs nudging Scully’s as she walked her backward into the couch. When the backs of her knees met upholstery, she sat, turning to lay flat on the cushions as she pulled Stella down on top of her.

Stella hovered over her, her tongue sliding against Scully’s as her hand slipped inside Scully’s underwear. She gasped, hips tilting to allow Stella better access, too deliriously aroused to do anything but lay there, moaning as Stella’s fingers found all the right places, working her into a frenzy in an embarrassingly short time.

“Fuck,” Scully mumbled into her mouth, arching off the couch as Stella finger-fucked her right over the edge. “Oh my God,” she gasped, hips grinding to an exhausted halt beneath the warm weight of Stella’s body, the piercing heat of her gaze, and the wicked lashing of her tongue.

But Stella apparently wasn’t finished. Tearing her mouth away from Scully’s, she crawled down Scully’s body, pushing her shirt and bra out of the way as she turned the attention of her lips to Scully’s breasts, nipping and sucking until Scully had forgotten all about her long and exhausting workday.

Stella traced her tongue down the center of Scully’s ribcage, swirling around her navel, before traveling lower, and Scully was on fire for her again, burning for her touch, for the hot, wet thrill of her tongue against her most intimate parts. When Stella tugged at her pants, she lifted her hips, helping Stella peel them down her legs, along with her underwear.

Stella looked up, meeting Scully’s gaze for a hot second, blue eyes glinting with wicked intent, before she dropped her head, settling between Scully’s thighs as she licked slowly through her folds, pressing the flat of her tongue against Scully’s clit before swirling it there in a motion that made Scully moan as lights exploded behind her closed eyelids.

“Stella,” she gasped, hands tangling in the honeyed depths of Stella’s hair. In response, Stella picked up the pace, licking and sucking, hands on Scully’s hips to steady her as Scully writhed beneath her, hips grinding against Stella’s mouth.

A second orgasm, even stronger than the first, built inside her, rising like a tidal wave beneath the heat of Stella’s tongue, the suction of her mouth, the scrape of her teeth. Scully gasped and moaned, looking down to meet Stella’s gaze as she broke. Stella’s eyes seared straight through to her soul as the orgasm slammed through her.

She closed her eyes, lost to the sensations flooding through her body as she came. And then she just lay there, limp, damp with sweat, and burning hot where Stella’s mouth still covered her.

“Jesus Christ,” she managed finally, reaching down blindly for Stella, who kissed her way up Scully’s body to her mouth, breathing heavily from her activity. Scully opened her eyes, squinting at her as she caught her breath. “So, basically, you didn’t miss me at all, then.”

“Not a bit,” Stella quipped, lips swollen and pink, cheeks flushed, eyes sparkling like diamonds.

“I think you’ve destroyed me,” Scully whispered, still panting, muscles the consistency of butter. “In the best possible way.”

As she gathered her wits, she saw Stella still fully clothed on top of her. Scully’s own shirt and bra were pushed up to her neck, her pants and underwear somewhere on the floor. Holy shit. Stella was a force of nature when she unleashed like this.

“Come on,” Scully said, pushing at Stella’s shoulders as she sat up. “Let’s go upstairs so I can return the favor.”

Chapter Text

Stella lurched upright in bed, heart racing, ribs screaming in protest of the sudden movement. She sat there for a moment, sucking in air, waiting for the images behind her eyelids to fade. They would fade. They always did. It was the same dream she’d been having for weeks now, the one where she was walking through the woods outside Belfast, looking for Rose. Walking and looking. Walking and looking…

She could hear Rose calling her name, screaming for help, but she couldn’t find her. She could never find her, never got to her in time. When she finally found the car and popped open the boot, Rose would be laying inside, naked with a rope around her neck. Dead. It was always the same.

Except tonight. Tonight, when she’d opened the boot, it had been Scully laying there with a rope around her neck, eyes glazed with death. Stella shuddered, controlling her breathing so she didn’t wake the real, live Scully beside her, the one who’d worked a very long day and needed to sleep, no matter how badly Stella needed to hold her right now, to assure herself it had just been a dream.

Instead, she reached for the bag she’d left beside the bed. She pulled out her journal—the new one, the one Paul Spector had never touched, the one no one but Stella would ever touch. Sitting in Scully’s darkened bedroom, she jotted down the dream, finding comfort in the ritual, before she lay back down. She snuggled just a bit closer to Scully, close enough to hear the gentle puff of her breath and feel the warmth of her body.

And then, with her nightmare safely tucked away inside the journal beside the bed, she slept. The next time she woke, Scully was puttering quietly around the bedroom, pulling on blue scrubs, her hair tied back in a messy ponytail.

“Back to work already?” Stella asked, her voice deep and rusty with sleep.

“Yes. Sorry.” Scully leaned over to kiss her.

Stella gripped her elbows and pulled her down on top of her so she could kiss her properly. “Don’t be sorry.” She wished desperately to be in Scully’s position, tiptoeing off to work at the break of dawn, the prospect of a long and satisfying day ahead of her.

“Maybe we can see each other again tonight?” Scully asked, propping herself up on her elbows to meet Stella’s eyes.

“Yes.”

“Okay.” She disentangled herself from Stella with a smile and headed down the stairs.

Stella stood, putting on her clothes. She followed Scully downstairs, where they shared a rushed cup of coffee together before setting out. Scully headed for the tube station to ride to work, and Stella set off toward her flat, deciding a walk would do her good this morning. Thirty minutes later, she walked through her front door.

And then she suppressed the urge to scream. She was so fucking tired of her own company, tired of looking at case files she already knew by heart as she waited for the phone to ring. Scully had been a welcome distraction, but now that she’d started her fellowship, there was nothing left for Stella to do but wait.

She went upstairs and took a long, hot bath, adding a few drops of lavender oil to the water, hoping it would relax her. It didn’t. She dressed and walked downstairs, mentally compiling a list of errands she could run to pass the time. Maybe she’d even buy groceries and cook dinner for Scully again tonight.

There was a new voicemail on her phone, and the number sent a burst of adrenaline through her system. It was a Met number, a call from work. She pressed the phone to her ear, listening as Chief Superintendent Chris George asked her to be in his office at 1400 today. The inquiry had been resolved, he said. She could resume active duty immediately.

“Welcome back, Stella,” he concluded before ending the call.

“Thank you,” she whispered to no one in particular. She marched back upstairs to polish her hair and makeup, making sure no trace of the bruises was visible on her face.

Never let them see your weakness.

Then she gathered the case files she’d been reviewing, stuffed them into her briefcase, and headed for the office. Her arrival was quiet. She kept her head down, crossing the station floor with as little fanfare as possible.

“Welcome back, ma’am,” one of the officers called to her.

She lifted her hand in greeting, not pausing until she’d reached her desk, unnaturally clean after her long absence. She sat behind it, running her hands over its smooth surface as a heady sense of power flowed through her veins. She was back. Belfast was officially, finally behind her. Thank God.

Exhaling deeply, she reached for her briefcase, pulling out the case files she’d spent so many hours pouring over at home, checklists forming in her mind of the actionable tasks to be taken now that she was back. She’d need to schedule meetings with the SIO’s in charge of each case to go over her findings and recommendations.

“Stella.”

She looked up to see DSI Stephen Chen leaning against the doorway to her office, coffee cup in hand and a warm smile creasing his handsome face. Something loosened inside her chest, the unexpected relief of seeing a familiar—and friendly—face. “Stephen.”

“It’s good to have you back,” he said.

“It’s good to be back.” She tapped the file beneath her fingers, feeling more like herself than she had in weeks. “I was actually just about to call you.”

“Yeah?” He stepped into her office and settled himself in the guest chair in front of her desk.

She nodded. “I reviewed the Beaujon case last week while I was at home.”

“Please tell me you found something I missed,” he said. “Because I really want to nail this motherfucker, but I’m starting to feel like I’m chasing my own tail here.”

Her lips quirked. This was one of the reasons she’d always liked Chen. He wasn’t afraid to ask for help, although he was a brilliant detective in his own right. He’d been her protégé when he first joined the Met. She’d taught him, trained him, and now he’d been promoted beside her. Back in the day, he’d helped her put Alissa Pine’s stepfather behind bars. “Nothing you missed, per se, but I do have a suggestion for a new line of inquiry.”

They spent the next thirty minutes going over her suggestions for his case, and when he left her office, she felt good about the progress they’d made. From there, her day flowed relatively smoothly. She met with the other officers whose cases she’d reviewed and observed an interview with a newly discovered witness. Her meeting with her boss went uneventfully, a brief summary of all the ways she’d fucked up in Belfast, a promise not to repeat past mistakes, and a firm handshake as she was officially welcomed back.

Before she’d even realized the time, Scully had texted to say she was leaving the hospital.

I’m actually at the office myself, Stella replied.

Good news? Scully asked.

Yes. Inquiry closed. Officially back in action.

Congratulations! Mind if I stop by?

Stella felt her eyebrows lift in surprise. No.

She started sorting through the files on her desk, updating her notes and organizing things for tomorrow, pleased with the progress she’d made today. A few minutes later, she heard a laugh that made something warm zing through her stomach. She looked up to see Scully at the reception desk, red hair loose over her shoulders, laughing at something Anwar had just said to her.

Stella waved a hand to catch her attention, and Scully met her eyes with a smile. She said something to Anwar, waving as she strode in Stella’s direction. She arrived in Stella’s doorway, still smiling, one hip leaned against the door frame, looking worlds fresher than she had at the end of yesterday’s shift.

“The hospital’s not far from here, and I wanted the chance to see you in action,” she said.

“Satisfied?” Stella felt a smile tug at her lips. She leaned her elbows on her desk, watching Scully closely. She was impatient to kiss her but unwilling to do so here at work, especially unwilling to give her colleagues anything to whisper about on her first day back.

“Yes,” Scully answered, wandering into Stella’s office, eyes roaming over everything in sight.

“Do you miss it?” Stella asked.

“Sometimes,” she admitted. “But not enough to consider ever coming back.”

“Pathology is your happy medium then, is it?”

“Yeah. I think it is.”

“And how was your second day?”

“Better than the first,” Scully said with a brisk nod. “I’m finding my footing.”

“Good.” Stella stood, shutting down her laptop and grabbing her bag. “Ready?”

Scully nodded, leading the way toward the exit. Several heads turned as they walked past, and Stella wondered what they thought. Friends? Colleagues? She doubted anyone guessed they were lovers, but with her reputation, who knew? Then again, Stella didn’t make a habit of parading her lovers through the office.

“Cut up any bodies today?” she asked as they pushed through the front door onto the street beyond.

“Just one,” Scully told her, wrapping those fingers that had so recently diagnosed death around Stella’s, transferring warmth from one to the other. “Want to grab something to eat? And then, my place or yours? Your choice.”

“Mine,” Stella said automatically, needing the comfort of her own things to keep the positive momentum of the day going.

So, she and Scully stopped at a nearby pub for dinner before heading to Stella’s flat for the night. She’d assumed they wouldn’t see each other as often now that they were both back at work, had assumed that was what she wanted to happen. But as Scully pressed her against the bed, hands roaming beneath Stella’s clothes, she found herself hoping they managed to make this thing between them last for the duration of Scully’s fellowship after all.

* * *

Over the next two weeks, Stella and Scully solidified their new routines. They were both working long hours now, both comfortably exhausted by the time they made it home in the evening. Often, they’d wind up together either at Scully’s flat or Stella’s in the evening, sharing food and conversation and seemingly endless sex. It had been a very long time since Stella had been part of a relationship like this, the kind of relationship where she found herself checking her phone more often than she should in the office just to see if Scully had texted, where someone cared where she went after work.

This was the kind of relationship that demanded more than she was usually willing to give. She hadn’t meant for it to happen, but she wasn’t exactly complaining either. With Scully, she found she was willing to bend in places she usually held rigid. Stella enjoyed being with her, genuinely looked forward to seeing her. She was as smart as she was beautiful, and every bit as dedicated to her career as Stella was. And the sex…

Still, she held a part of herself back, unwilling to give herself over completely to anyone, even Scully. There were nights when she needed to be alone, and there were places where she’d never bend.

And then there was the date looming on the calendar. Stella hadn’t given much thought to her birthday. Generally, she considered it a win if she managed to sneak past it without having to acknowledge the date. Her coworkers knew better than to say anything. Probably, she’d work late that night. It was her birthday, and she could celebrate any way she liked, even if that meant not celebrating at all.

So, why did she feel like she was keeping some kind of dirty secret every time she looked at the calendar and didn’t say anything to Scully? It was just a day. It would pass, like any other day, and Stella would be another year older. Big fucking deal.

Her office phone rang, illuminating Chris George’s extension. She lifted the receiver to her ear. “Sir?”

“Do you have a minute?” her boss asked.

“Of course,” she responded, already closing her laptop. “I’ll be right there.” She put down the phone, picked up her notepad, and crossed the station floor to George’s door, which stood ajar. She rapped her knuckles against it, pausing there.

“Stella, come in.” He gestured to the empty chair in front of his desk. “How are you doing?”

“Fine, sir.” She sat, one leg crossed over the other, hands folded over the notepad in her lap. Surely, he hadn’t called her in to assess her performance. Since her return, she’d helped close two of her colleagues’ open cases and just this Monday had been made SIO on a new homicide. It wasn’t like George to micromanage her, and she hoped he wasn’t about to start now.

“Good, good,” he said, leaning back in his chair and giving her an assessing look. “I have a bit of a favor to ask on behalf of the chief super up in Wembley.”

“Of course.” She relaxed internally as she realized this meeting had nothing to do with what had happened in Belfast.

“They’ve got themselves a problematic case, a rape, as it happens. The primary suspect is a former officer, and there are concerns that things have been mismanaged in his favor.” George sighed, still watching her closely.

Stella straightened in her seat. She was being sent on another review. It was unusual for her to be sent out again so quickly. Usually, she only assisted other jurisdictions a few times a year. It was a welcome chance for her to flex her mental muscles, get more experience under her belt, and untangle a complicated case. She’d never gone out only two weeks after returning to her home office, certainly not after a case as mentally and physically destructive as the one in Belfast had been.

“I know it’s a lot to ask so soon after your return,” he said. “But they requested you specifically. It will be only a week. I’m certain Stephen can cover the Martin case for you until your return after you just helped him close Beaujon.”

“Yes, of course,” she answered automatically. This review had not been presented to her as optional, not that she would have ever considered saying no. Ultimately, it was good that she was still in demand, even after Belfast. So, she tucked away a sense of discomfort she couldn’t quite explain as she made her way back to her office to begin clearing her calendar for next week.

A text from Scully waited on her phone.

Dinner tonight? I’m craving pizza.

Sounds good, Stella replied. She opened her laptop, eyes scanning appointments and meetings that would need to be canceled. Her birthday was next Wednesday, right in the middle of her weeklong trip to Wembley. Well, at least now she had a legitimate excuse not to spend it with Scully.

* * *

“Oh my God, this is so good,” Scully said around a mouthful of pizza.

“Mm,” Stella agreed, reaching for another slice. Somehow, her white blouse remained unblemished, while Scully could already see three separate dots of sauce on the front of her scrubs.

She’d picked up a pie from their favorite Italian spot on her way home from the hospital, loaded with the works, and between the two of them, they might polish the whole thing off. Nothing beat a long day of fighting crime—or slicing up bodies—to work up an appetite. Stella ate quietly, her expression a million miles away. This in itself wasn’t unusual. She often got lost in her own thoughts, but tonight, she seemed more distracted than usual.

“Tough day?” Scully asked.

“Nothing out of the ordinary,” Stella said. She chewed and swallowed another bite before glancing over at Scully. “I’m being sent on another review.”

“Oh?”

Stella nodded. “Next week.”

“That seems…soon,” Scully said carefully. Stella hadn’t even finished healing from the case in Belfast, was only barely back into the swing of things here in London.

“It is,” Stella agreed, lifting a string of cheese and draping it across her pizza slice. “It’s in Wembley, so not too far from home. Far enough to warrant a hotel stay, though, I’m afraid.”

“I’ll miss you,” Scully blurted, covering her admission with a smile as Stella gave her a sharp look. It was true, though. Her time in London was already beginning to feel short, and she’d hoped to spend every bit of it with Stella.

“It’s only for a week.”

“Okay,” Scully said, taking another bite of pizza. They fell back to eating in silence, and Scully found herself remembering the headlines from Belfast, the ones about Stella and that officer, James Olson. She choked on a bite of pizza, coughing as she reached for her water glass.

“Are you all right?” Stella asked, eyes narrowed as if she was asking about more than Scully’s airway.

“Fine,” she muttered, taking a long drink of water. She was the one who’d suggested a casual relationship. Technically, Stella could fuck anyone she wanted to while she was away on her review, or even here in London. But that didn’t feel okay, not anymore. Maybe it never had. Scully was loyal to her core, and maybe she had no right to ask for it in return, but she didn’t want to share Stella with anyone else, not for the two short months she would be here in London. She fidgeted with her slice of pizza, watching as the toppings slid one by one back into the box in a gloppy mess.

“Dana,” Stella said, a warning in her tone.

Scully looked at her helplessly. She was so bad at this. She had no idea how to broach the subject and was uncomfortably aware Stella might bristle or even bolt once she realized was Scully was asking. But she’d spent too many years not speaking up for what she wanted in a relationship and then being disappointed when she didn’t receive it. Not this time. “I just…I don’t really know how to say this, but…it’s just you and me, right? Even when you’re away?”

Stella froze with the pizza halfway to her mouth, and for a moment, they stared at each other in loaded silence. A glob of sauce dripped onto Stella’s skirt, and for some reason, Scully had the irrational urge to laugh. Instead, she pushed a paper towel into Stella’s free hand.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“The skirt is black,” Stella said as she dabbed at the sauce. “Hard to stain.”

“That’s not what I was sorry for.”

Stella’s chin went up, and Scully’s stomach bottomed out. She’d overstepped. Friends who fuck. Her ridiculous label for their relationship certainly hadn’t implied any kind of exclusivity.

Stella sat ramrod straight across from her as a war raged in the turbulent depths of her eyes. And then, she nodded slightly. “Just you and me, for however long this lasts.”

“Really?” Scully couldn’t keep the surprise out of her voice.

A muscle in Stella’s jaw twitched. “I am capable of restraint when it’s asked of me.”

Scully set down what remained of her pizza and took Stella’s half-eaten slice, tossing it carelessly into the open box before pushing her flat on the couch, covering Stella’s body with her own. She brought her lips to Stella’s for a bruising kiss. “Exclusivity, yes, but I never asked you for restraint.”

Chapter Text

Stella pushed through the door into the lobby of her hotel, a mixture of relief and frustration fizzing inside her. As tired as she was, the prospect of a night alone in her hotel room felt unbearable. Her gaze flitted to the bar on her left. A month ago, she would have gone straight in and found a willing stranger to occupy her evening. Knowing that she couldn’t chafed at her nerves. Realizing that she didn’t even want to made her eye twitch.

Her heels clicked briskly over the polished floors, not betraying her inner discomfort. She hadn’t slept well last night, had missed lunch, and had spent too many hours sitting in a too-hard plastic chair reviewing case notes with a misogynistic pig of a man who took issue with every word that left her mouth. She should have stopped at the restroom before she left the station, but she’d been in too much of a hurry to get the fuck out of there. Consequently, she needed to pee, her stomach ached with hunger, her feet hurt, her ribs hurt, her neck hurt. In short, she was an absolute mess.

Happy Fucking Birthday, Stella.

And yet, she considered stopping for a drink. Just a drink. A little something to numb the pain before she went up to her empty room. Before she didn’t call Scully because it felt too disingenuous to call today and not mention the date. But as her feet slowed in front of the bar, her gaze caught on an entirely-too-familiar waterfall of red hair on a petite figure perched on the barstool nearest to the lobby.

Heat wound its way through her, crawling over her skin, making her jaw clench. Arousal. Irritation. Anger. What the fuck was Scully doing here?

Stella stalked to the empty stool beside her, sliding carefully onto it. Scully turned to face her, beaming at Stella with a smile so bright, she almost had to squint against the power of it. After a moment of pointed silence, though, Scully’s smile dimmed. She called the bartender over and ordered a whiskey for Stella to match the tumbler sitting on the bar in front of her.

“What are you doing here?” Stella finally asked as the bartender set a glass in front of her. She murmured a thank you as she lifted it to her lips, taking a hearty swallow.

“I think you know.” Scully sipped her whiskey, darting a glance over at her.

“Who told you?”

“Stephen,” Scully said with a small smile. “He tipped me off when I brought you lunch the other day.”

Stella took another gulp of her whiskey, feeling it burn all the way down her esophagus, igniting her temper. What was Chen thinking, meddling in her business like this? He knew she didn’t like a fuss. The whole office knew, but Chen knew her better than most, well enough to have known better.

“I thought you’d be happier to see me.” Scully swung one foot against the edge of the bar, drawing Stella’s gaze to her legs, bare from the knee down.

She swallowed more whiskey, her gaze wandering slowly over the slinky black dress Scully wore. It wrinkled at her hips where she sat, and Stella wanted to take the bunched material between her fingers and pull Scully against her, kiss her, fuck her, use her to blot out the darkness in her mind. Then she saw the way Scully’s breasts spilled over its lowcut bodice, and her brain went up in flames. Fuck. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a dress before.”

“I don’t wear them often.” Scully glanced over at her again, eyes probing Stella’s, trying to read her mood. She’d worn a dress for Stella’s birthday. Suddenly, her throat felt too thick.

“I’m sorry.” She dragged her gaze away from Scully, staring into the amber depths of what remained of her whiskey. “I’m not very good company tonight.”

“I can see that.”

Stella blinked at her unexpected candor. “I don’t like a fuss.”

“Then I won’t make one.” Scully leaned subtly closer, drawing Stella’s gaze again to the way her breasts were poured into that dress. “You look like you’ve had a shit day.”

“I have,” she admitted. The whole week had been shit so far. She’d seldom faced such open hostility from a precinct when she was sent in for a review. They were completely fixated on the former officer who’d been accused of the crime, and while he was definitely a fuck-up, Stella didn’t think he was guilty of rape. If only she could convince the prick in charge to listen to her.

“I’m here to make it better,” Scully said softly.

Stella exhaled, her spine softening as she heard the truth in Scully’s words. She was taking her pissy mood out on the person who least deserved it. Scully was dressed to go out, had probably come here tonight with big plans, an evening Stella simply wasn’t up for. She couldn’t bear the thought of polite dinner conversation, hours more in her heels. But for Scully…perhaps she could find the strength for it somewhere inside herself.

Scully shifted closer to Stella on her barstool, sipping her whiskey. “Tough case?”

“Aren’t they all?”

A smile touched Scully’s lips. “Some more than others.”

“It’s not the case as much as the DCI in charge of it,” Stella said.

“Ah. He must be a real asshole to have you this riled up.”

“He is.” Stella took another drink of her whiskey, watching the way the light glinted off Scully’s cross pendant as it dangled just above her cleavage.

“For the record, I don’t like a fuss on my birthday either,” Scully told her. “But sometimes it’s nice to be pleasantly surprised.” Her hand crept over to squeeze Stella’s beneath the bar.

Stella breathed past the lump in her throat, the sudden, overwhelming surge of affection for the woman sitting beside her. She hated surprises, even pleasant ones. But she couldn’t seem to hate anything about Dana Scully.

“Is this anti-celebratory mood a Gibson family trait, or just you?” Scully asked, her expression gentle yet probing. No doubt, she’d realized Stella never mentioned her family. They were both detectives after all.

“Both, I guess,” she answered.

“It can’t be both,” Scully said, her tone teasing.

“My mother doesn’t celebrate much of anything, although she did call today,” Stella told her. “We aren’t close.”

“And your father?”

“He died when I was fourteen.”

“Oh.” Her hand found Stella’s again beneath the bar. “I’m sorry.” It seemed ludicrous that Scully didn’t already know this formational fact about Stella, but she had only herself to blame for it.

“Ancient history,” Stella told her, but sitting here with Scully, body aching after a long, stressful day, it didn’t feel so ancient. She remembered the fresh soapy scent of his aftershave when he hugged her, the bright glint of his eyes when he laughed, the pure unadulterated happiness she’d felt when she was with him. Nothing in her life had ever been the same after he died.

Some of this must have shown on her face, because Scully said, “You and your dad were close.”

“Yes.”

They lapsed into silence for a minute as both of them polished off what remained of their whiskey. Scully turned toward her, understanding gleaming in the indigo depths of her eyes as her knee bumped into Stella’s. “I had planned to take you out somewhere nice, but on second thought, I think tonight calls for room service.”

“Please,” Stella said gratefully. In truth, nothing sounded better.

Scully paid for their drinks, linking her fingers in Stella’s as she led the way toward the elevator. “Anything you want tonight, Stella.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Anything?”

Scully’s eyes glinted dangerously. “Anything.”

* * *

Scully sat on the edge of the bed, feet swinging restlessly. Stella had excused herself as soon as they’d reached her room and gone into the bathroom, and she’d been in there long enough now that Scully was starting to worry, really worry, that she’d fucked up by coming here. Stella certainly hadn’t been happy to see her, but then, she’d seemed to warm up to her before they came upstairs.

A sick feeling swirled in her stomach. What if she’d made a difficult day worse for Stella? Why was today so hard for her? Why hadn’t Scully respected her boundaries in the first place? Her eyes stung.

The bathroom door opened, and Stella emerged, barefoot and bare faced, wearing her pale pink silk robe. She looked tired. Maybe even a bit vulnerable. But not angry. In fact, the hungry gleam in her eye seemed to hint that she might be glad for company tonight after all.

Scully meant what she’d told her earlier. She would do anything to make Stella’s birthday a little brighter. She’d had a difficult few months, and while Scully had second-guessed herself about a million times before coming here tonight, ultimately, she couldn’t bear the thought of Stella being alone on her birthday.

Scully walked to her now, resting her hands on Stella’s hips as she leaned in for a gentle kiss. She kicked off her heels, bringing herself down to Stella’s level so their lips lined up perfectly. She might never truly get over the thrill of kissing someone without having to go up on her tiptoes.

Stella exhaled into their kiss before dropping her forehead against Scully’s, eyes sliding shut. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“So am I.” Scully swallowed her smile, as pleased by Stella’s affection as she was concerned by the exhaustion in her face. She slid her hands up Stella’s back, feeling the knots of tension bunched in her muscles. “How do you feel about back rubs?”

Stella let out a little sound of relief. “Sounds so good right now.”

“Lay on the bed,” Scully said, giving her a nudge in that direction.

“Should I take this off?” Stella tugged at the sleeve of her robe.

“Your choice.”

Stella lay face down on the bed, still wearing the robe, wincing as her chest came into contact with the mattress. Dammit, Stella. Scully had glimpsed the wet swimsuit hanging in the bathroom. She knew it was a better option than some of Stella’s other coping mechanisms for a rough week, but she obviously hadn’t done her cracked ribs any favors.

And Scully couldn’t relax her with a back rub while she was in pain. She walked to the closet and pulled out the extra pillows and blanket she found there, carrying them to the bed. Then she propped them beneath Stella until she’d taken the pressure of the mattress off her ribs. “Better?” she asked.

Stella nodded, eyes closed and looking far more comfortable than she had when she first lay down. Scully worked her skirt up her thighs so that she could crouch over her, placing her hands on Stella’s shoulders, thumbs pressed into the knots between her shoulder blades. Stella inhaled sharply.

“Okay?” Scully asked, receiving another nod in response. She kneaded her fingers into Stella’s trapezius muscle, gradually increasing pressure as she worked through the knots she found there. Stella seemed to melt into the bed, eyes closed, body gradually loosening beneath Scully’s fingers.

Once she’d worked the tension from Stella’s shoulders, she made her way down her back, kneading and stroking, rubbing away the effects of a stressful day. By the time she’d reached Stella’s glutes, she almost thought she’d fallen asleep, she’d gotten so still, so relaxed, so quiet. But as Scully’s fingers slid over the backs of her thighs, Stella’s hips shifted, arching into her touch.

Scully smiled. “Still with me?”

“Mm,” Stella murmured, shifting again beneath Scully.

Scully sank her fingers into Stella’s hamstrings, carefully massaging away the strain of countless hours in heels and however many laps in the pool. Stella sighed deeply into the pillow beneath her, golden curls fanned out over her shoulders, so beautiful, even if she did look a bit like a fallen angel in this position.

“Any other parts that need attention?” Scully whispered as her fingers slid beneath the hem of Stella’s robe.

“Yes,” Stella breathed. “Please.”

Scully skimmed her fingers up Stella’s bare skin to the juncture of her thighs, finding her already wet, so wet. An ache grew between Scully’s thighs as she began to stroke Stella, doing what she could to erase the last of the tension from her body. She lay beside Stella, pressing their bodies together as she worked Stella with her fingers, swirling and plunging, drawing a gasp from her throat.

Stella rolled to her side, moving the pillows out from under herself, drawing Scully in closer, replacing their somewhat awkward position with a much more friendly one, chests pressed together, legs entwined and mouths meeting for a messy kiss as Scully continued to finger-fuck her.

Stella panted against Scully’s neck, fingers gripping her dress, trying to bring her impossibly closer. She came with a gasp, body tensing against Scully’s before she collapsed onto the pile of pillows behind her, eyes closed and breathing hard.

“I think that’s what they call a happy ending massage,” Scully said, leaning over to brush a golden strand of hair out of Stella’s face.

“Fuck, yes,” Stella said, chest heaving, cheeks stained a satisfied pink.

“Better now?” Scully asked as she crawled in next to her.

“So much better,” Stella murmured, one arm coming around Scully, pulling her flush against her body. The crystalline depths of her eyes were calm now, her body relaxed against Scully’s. “Shame you got all dressed up like that.”

“Not really,” Scully told her. “We’ll go out another night. And your present is under this dress.”

“Is it?” Stella’s interest sharpened, lips pursing in one of her almost-smiles as her gaze dropped to the dress.

“Yes.”

“And I get to unwrap it?” Stella asked.

Scully felt a warm flush spread over her skin. “Yes.”

“Now?”

“If you like.”

“Oh, I like,” Stella murmured, pushing herself upright. “Stand up for me.”

Scully climbed off the bed, ridiculously pleased and equally aroused that Stella had taken so quickly to the game. Also, to see Stella looking so much calmer and more comfortable than she had when she first approached Scully in the bar downstairs. Now, she looked like a woman enjoying herself on her birthday, and it made Scully irrationally proud and just…so happy to see her this way.

Stella stood there for a moment, gaze raking from Scully’s face to her pink-painted toes as if deciding how best to unwrap her. Scully’s body sizzled beneath her stare, heat building everywhere. Finally, Stella stepped forward, pressing Scully against the wall, kissing her deeply as her hands roamed over the dress, sliding over the slinky fabric, pressing here and there to give herself a hint as to what lay beneath.

She palmed Scully’s breast, pinching her nipple through the fabric. “Lace?”

“Maybe,” she gasped, desire tightening in her core.

“You know just what I like,” Stella murmured as her fingers traveled behind Scully’s back, slowly dragging down the zipper of her dress. She resisted the urge to shrug it off her shoulders, letting Stella have the honors. She looked at Scully now, eyes bright, amused, aroused, despite the dark smudges beneath them. Lips quirking, she pushed Scully’s dress off her shoulders, and it slipped to the floor in a whoosh of fabric, leaving Scully standing before her in the sapphire blue lace bodysuit she’d bought yesterday just for this occasion.

Stella sucked in a breath, pinching her bottom lip between her teeth as she again raked her gaze over Scully, pupils blown with lust. Scully had never felt so aroused from watching someone look at her, getting off on the fact that Stella was getting off on looking at her. It was disorienting. And surreal. And hot.

Stella traced her fingers reverently over the lace containing Scully’s breasts, her breath quickening. “My favorite color.”

“Really?” she couldn’t help asking, because she wasn’t sure she’d ever seen Stella wear blue.

“On you,” she said softly, fingers sliding over lace, nails skimming Scully’s sensitive flesh. “My favorite color on you.”

* * *

Stella roused at a knock on the door, realizing as she blinked through her disorientation that she must have dozed off in bed while they waited for room service to arrive.

“Don’t move,” Scully said, pressing a kiss against her cheek. “I’ll get it.” She slipped out of bed and wrapped herself in Stella’s robe, finger-combing her hair as she looked around for her purse, pulling out a bill to tip the attendant who’d brought their food.

Stella tugged at the sheet, making sure she was fully covered before the door opened. God, she wasn’t sure she even had the energy to sit up, let alone eat. She was so tired, still sore, although less so since Scully’s magical massage and the two orgasms she’d delivered, one before and one after Stella had unwrapped her birthday lingerie. What had she ever done to deserve someone like Scully in her life, even temporarily?

“Happy Birthday,” Scully said, wheeling a cart toward the bed that contained much more than silver room service platters. On one side, a bottle of champagne was chilling in a bucket of ice. An arrangement of flowers stood between the two trays, big squishy peonies in various shades of pink, so beautiful they made Stella’s eyes well with tears. “I know how much you like fresh flowers, and I thought you might like some for your room while you’re here.”

“I do. They’re beautiful.” She blinked, trying desperately to clear her vision, but it was no use. The tears slipped over her cheeks, and she swiped them away. “Thank you. Really. That was very thoughtful of you.”

Scully smiled as she sat on the side of the bed, and the sight of her in Stella’s favorite pink robe was playing all kinds of tricks on her mind, mostly making her want to pull Scully against her and kiss her senseless. “Also, fudge,” Scully said, holding up a white paper bag. “It reminded me of our first night together.”

“It was our second night, as I recall,” Stella said, smiling at the memory. “You didn’t get that off the room service menu.”

“No,” Scully said with a pleased smile. “I left these things at the front desk earlier, while I was waiting for you.”

“A woman who plans ahead.” Stella leaned over to kiss her before burying her nose in the flowers, inhaling their crisp floral scent. Just the thought of having them here for the rest of the week made it feel so much more bearable.

Scully popped open the bottle of champagne. She poured two flutes, handing one to Stella. “To the year ahead.”

Stella tapped her glass against Scully’s, not knowing how to respond to that. What would the year ahead bring? For Stella? For Scully? For their time together? She couldn’t think about any of it, not tonight, anyway. Instead, she sipped, letting the cold, tart bubbles fill her mouth and fizz their way down to her stomach.

Scully lifted the lids off their trays and set them on the floor, and the room filled with the rich scent of beef. Stella’s stomach rumbled loudly, and she pressed a hand against it with a rueful smile. She slipped into her nightgown before crawling across the sheets to join Scully in front of the food.

She and Scully sat side by side on the hotel bed, eating burgers and fries, the bag of fudge on the nightstand, and it was so much like that other night, the night they’d caught Ronnie Strickland, the night Stella had first bared her scars to Scully. Tonight, she sat confidently beside her, not much caring that the gown did little to hide the ancient scars on her legs.

They were mostly quiet as they ate, sneaking glances at each other, sharing smiles and occasional kisses between bites. It was so much like that other night, but also…not at all. They were so much older now, so much wiser, so much more comfortable with each other, even if they’d only been reunited a few short weeks ago.

Somehow, the connection between them seemed so much more firmly rooted than it should have been, given the handful of scattered phone calls and emails they’d exchanged in the intervening years. They were halfway through the bottle of champagne by the time they’d finished their burgers and Scully brought the bag of fudge onto the bed.

“You spoil me,” Stella murmured as Scully handed her a piece of dark chocolate fudge, her favorite. All her favorite things. How did she already know Stella so well? How was she so good at all of this?

“As you deserve,” Scully responded with a playful smile, popping a bite of caramel fudge into her mouth. “This is new since that night,” she added, touching the tattoo on Stella’s wrist. “What does it mean?”

Stella stared at the Sanskrit letters inked there, a warm flush spreading over her skin as she debated how to answer. But surely, this was one small truth she could give her, after Scully had given her so much. “It means rebirth, to start over again.”

“Nice,” Scully said casually before her eyes widened, her mouth going slack as the meaning of Stella’s tattoo sank in. “Oh.”

Stella looked away, intensely uncomfortable, skin tight and prickly, cheeks burning.

“Like mine,” Scully whispered.

“In a way.” She’d gotten it not long after Scully’s first visit, when she’d caught her first serial killer, her first big victory as a Detective Sergeant. It was a celebration of the next chapter in her life, a reminder that her life would always evolve, always move forward as long as she was here to drive it. Maybe she’d been thinking of Scully and her ouroboros when she chose it.

She’d certainly never thought she’d sit here and explain it to the woman herself, to give her this insight into the effect she’d had on Stella’s life, the impact she continued to have. Was there any end to the ways she could knock Stella’s world off its axis, send her spinning when she thought she’d figured herself out?

“Mine got ruined,” Scully said quietly.

Stella turned to her in surprise. “What?”

In response, Scully slipped out of the pink robe, turning her bare back to Stella. She leaned over, squinting more closely at the multi-colored snake on Scully’s back. A scar shone in the center of it now, bisecting the snake through its belly, its colors muted and blurred beneath the shiny tissue. The scar was wide and jagged, obviously the result of some sort of wound. “What happened?” Stella asked.

“Don’t laugh,” Scully said, eyebrows rising to warn Stella that her story was going to involve an X File.

“Of course not.” She would never laugh at Scully, especially not over anything that had caused her so much pain.

“I was abducted by a religious cult that believed this enormous parasitic worm was the second coming of Christ,” Scully said.

“Jesus,” Stella whispered.

“And they put it in me. In my spine.” Scully shuddered, wrapping her arms around her abdomen. “I was pregnant.”

Stella just stared as this information worked its way through her brain. “They put a giant parasitic worm in your spine? That’s what made the scar on your back?”

She nodded. “Agent Doggett had to cut it out of me before it reached my brain. It was…horrifying.”

“That sounds like an understatement,” Stella said quietly. “And you were pregnant with William?”

She nodded as a tear slid over her cheek. “My miracle baby, and they put that thing inside me…”

Stella reached for her, pulling her against her chest. Sometimes she wondered if she would ever fully understand all the horrific things Scully had endured during her time with the X Files. And here she was fretting over Paul Spector cracking her ribs. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Scully murmured against her chest. “It wasn’t in me very long, and obviously it didn’t end up affecting my pregnancy. It did ruin my tattoo, though.”

“I don’t think so,” Stella told her, fingers combing through the auburn depths of Scully’s hair. “Just added character to it, that’s all.”

“A little added life experience.” Scully sat up, smile back in place.

They ate more fudge and polished off the last of the champagne before clearing away the remnants of their meal. Room service trays went into the hall, and the vase of flowers sat on the desk next to what remained of the bag of fudge. They got ready for bed, climbing in beside each other.

Fatigue weighed heavy on Stella, as it had every night this week. But tonight, with Scully beside her, she slipped easily into sleep, not stirring until Scully’s alarm went off sometime later.

“Sorry,” Scully whispered as she reached for her phone and silenced it. Outside, the sky was still ink black. “I didn’t mean to wake you, but I have to catch the train back to London before my shift starts.”

Fourteen years ago, it had been Stella sneaking off at the crack of dawn to go to work. “It’s okay. I wouldn’t have wanted you to leave without saying goodbye.”

“Me either.” Scully leaned in to place a quick kiss against her lips before she slid out of bed. She went into the bathroom, returning a few minutes later wearing blue scrubs, hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wandered around the room, shoving things into the duffel bag she’d brought with her before sitting on the bed to give Stella one last kiss. “Bye.”

Stella reached out and grabbed her wrist. “Thank you, for last night.”

“You’re welcome.” Scully gave her a warm smile. “I hope you’re back home soon.”

“I should be back this weekend.”

“Let’s go out then,” Scully suggested. “A fancy dinner, something fun? A real date.”

“Yes,” Stella agreed. “I’d like that.”

“Okay, then. I’ve got to run, or I’m going to miss my train.” She leaned in for one more kiss and then slid off the bed. She paused by the desk, sneaking a piece of fudge with a guilty smile before heading for the door with a wave.

Stella watched her go, wondering how she could ever really tell her how much last night had meant to her. She hadn’t shared anything that meaningful on her birthday since before her father died. And before she could let herself ponder that uncomfortable truth any further, she climbed out of bed. Following Scully’s lead, she popped a piece of fudge in her mouth as she went into the bathroom to get her swimsuit.

She had laps to complete before heading into the office.

Chapter Text

Scully saw her when she was still a block away from the restaurant. Stella stood just to the right of its entrance, talking on her phone, but that wasn’t what had captured Scully’s attention. Stella wore a knee-length dress that clung to her slender frame. At first glance, it looked black, but when a shaft of late-day sunlight fell across it, Scully saw that it was actually a deep, shimmery purple. And if she was flawless in her everyday attire, Stella Gibson in a dress was downright otherworldly.

She held up a finger in Scully’s direction, and her stomach plunged as she realized what was happening. That ultra-concentrated, serious look on Stella’s face was usually reserved for work. Which meant, she probably had to go. And Scully understood. She really, truly did. It was just that Stella had been out of town all week. They’d only seen each other the night of her birthday for those few precious hours, and Scully had been looking forward to tonight—the chance to dress up and go out with her—so much.

But this was the life they’d both chosen to live, a life that involved being called in to work at a moment’s notice, even on a much-anticipated date night. So, Scully swallowed her disappointment gracefully, determined not to give Stella any undeserved guilt. Hopefully, they could at least see each other later tonight.

Stella hung up her phone, staring at it for a long moment, eyes glazed with whatever news she’d just received. Scully closed the distance between them, pausing to appreciate the extra makeup Stella wore tonight, eye shadow shimmering against the sunset, lips painted a shade darker than Scully was accustomed to. “Work?” she asked.

Stella nodded, eyes focusing on Scully, a faint smile curving her lips. “You look lovely.”

“So do you,” Scully told her. “In fact, I’m wondering why I never thought of an excuse to have you dress up for me before, because damn, Stella.” She slid her gaze appreciatively over Stella’s dress.

Stella stepped forward, pressing her lips against Scully’s as her fingers hooked into the front pockets of Scully’s pants, bringing their bodies together.

She sighed into Stella’s kiss, so glad to be here with her, so glad to be anywhere with her. “Do you have to go?”

“No,” Stella murmured against her lips.

“Thank God.” Scully pulled back to grin at her, ridiculously relieved. “Because I’m really looking forward to tonight.”

“So am I.” Stella gave her another long look, but there was still something distant in her gaze. Whatever the phone call had been about, it was weighing on her mind.

“Bad news?” Scully asked.

“Good news, actually,” Stella told her. “They got him.”

“The rapist in Wembley?”

“Yes,” Stella said, and now Scully could see that it was victory, not defeat, distracting her from their date. “They were so focused on the fact that their top suspect was a former Met officer and wanting to avoid any implications of impropriety that they completely missed the link to the victim’s ex-boyfriend, who had a history of sexual assault.”

“But you saw it,” Scully said proudly.

“I did.”

“You’re a smart one,” Scully told her.

“I’m just good at my job,” Stella deflected.

“You are,” Scully agreed. “Your brain is always one step ahead, always seeing the connection everyone else misses.”

Stella silenced her with another kiss, this one deeper and more demanding than the last, her hands cupping Scully’s face, her perfume filling Scully’s lungs, intoxicating her, distracting her. Stella was shit at accepting compliments. So was Scully, for that matter.

“So, we’ll celebrate your win tonight,” Scully said when they’d come up for air.

Stella slid her hand into Scully’s as they walked into the restaurant, giving her fingers a gentle squeeze. “Good to have something to celebrate.”

“It sure is.” And she figured it was especially good for Stella, coming off her disastrous last case. Scully was ridiculously glad she’d been able to follow it with a win in Wembley. Maybe it would help Stella make peace with everything that had happened. Maybe she’d needed a win to put Belfast behind her.

They were seated at a table for two in the loft part of the restaurant overlooking the main dining room below. It was quieter up here, more romantic. A candle flickered on the table between them, and as their wine arrived, Scully watched Stella visibly relax on the other side of the table, sinking into her chair as the tension drained from her shoulders, a satisfied smile toying with her lips.

“It’s good to be back,” she said thoughtfully, and Scully wondered whether she meant back in London after spending the week in Wembley, or back on top of her game after closing this case. Maybe both.

“You deserve this,” Scully told her. “And it’s perfect timing for our date night.”

“Yes, I suppose it is.” Stella swirled her wine before taking a sip, her gaze riveted on Scully’s. “Although, if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m a bit impatient to take you home.”

Scully crossed her legs, leaning forward so that her elbows rested on the table. “Well, if I’m being perfectly honest, it was a lonely week here in London without you.”

Stella’s eyes flickered like the blue flame at the heart of a fire, the hottest part. “Is that so?”

“Yes.”

“A shame our theater tickets aren’t refundable, then,” Stella said, taking another long sip of her wine.

“It is, but it isn’t, because I’m really looking forward to the show too. It’s been years since I’ve gone out like this.”

“Mm,” Stella said. “I haven’t either, at least not for fun.”

“What for, then?”

“Fundraisers, work events, the kind of thing where I’m still working, even if I’m not.”

“Yeah, I know all about those things.” She and Mulder hadn’t been invited to many of them as part of their work at the FBI, but there had been fundraisers and parties during her years at Our Lady of Sorrows, events Mulder had usually begged off, leaving Scully to attend on her own.

She and Stella chatted through their meal, while Scully basked in the relaxed vibes coming off Stella tonight. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen her so fully at ease with the world around her. They polished off their bottle of wine before heading out into the cool evening air, strolling together down the street toward the theater.

Stella’s heels clicked against the pavement, her hair shining gold beneath the streetlights as they passed. Scully stumbled over an uneven section of pavement, and Stella’s hand shot out to steady her, fingers clasped around Scully’s, warm and strong. From across the street, a man whistled. Stella’s eyes sparked like flint in his direction.

“Hey, ladies,” he called. “How about a drink?”

Scully glanced over to see a group of about five men loitering outside a bar, smoking. Stella ignored them, although her stride quickened just slightly, fingers still tightly laced with Scully’s.

“Come on, ladies. Let’s have some fun,” another man shouted, and she was peripherally aware that they’d begun walking on the other side of the street, keeping pace with her and Stella. And then, almost before she’d realized what was happening, they were crossing the street.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Stella muttered under her breath.

Scully grinned. These men had no idea who they’d just messed with.

“’Ello, beautiful,” one of them said as the group fell into step around her and Stella, crowding their space, turning the air stale with the scent of their cigarettes.

“Not interested,” Stella told him curtly.

“Drinks?” the first man said. “On us. Anything you want.”

“No, thank you,” Stella said.

“Aw, come on. We just want to have a little fun.”

“The lady said no,” Scully said flatly.

“Two pretty lasses like yourselves shouldn’t be out alone, especially all dressed up like this,” the largest man in the group said, moving in close to Stella, hand out as if to touch her dress. “Let us show you a good time.”

Stella stopped walking so abruptly that Scully bumped into her, shoulder colliding with Stella’s. Her expression had flipped from quietly annoyed to quietly furious, her hand slipping from Scully’s. She took a swift, threatening step toward the man who’d spoken, and he fell back, raising his hands in the air.

“Whoa,” he said. “Easy.”

“Fuck off.” Stella’s tone was lethal. She stood, eyes narrowed, shoulders squared. “Now. All of you.”

“Come on,” one of them said. “We just want to have a good time. Don’t you ladies know how to have fun?”

“As a matter of fact, we do,” Scully told him. “And being harassed by a bunch of men who don’t understand the word ‘no’ is not my idea of a good time.”

Stella arched an eyebrow, her razor-sharp gaze never leaving the men in front of them. Somewhere in the back of Scully’s brain, it occurred to her that maybe she should be alarmed. Neither she or Stella were armed tonight, and they were pitifully outnumbered by a group of drunk and semi-aggressive men. But she’d be damned if anything was going to ruin this night, and somehow, she felt sure she and Stella could take down the whole group with their bare hands if necessary. In fact, slightly high on adrenaline and Stella’s indestructible attitude, she found herself relishing the thought.

But the men were already beginning to back off, demeanor shifting from “drunk and pushy” to “drunk and defensive.”

“No need to be like that,” the big one said as Stella’s eyes bored holes in his ugly face. “You don’t want us to show you a good time? Your loss.”

“Bitch,” one of them muttered, not daring to meet either her or Stella’s gaze.

They ambled off in the direction of the bar they’d come from, tossing various insults over their shoulders as they went.

Scully waited until they’d crossed the street before turning to Stella, whose stance was still dialed all the way to deadly. She was absolutely terrifying and so fucking sexy, Scully could hardly stand it. She grabbed her waist, bringing their lips together for a bruising kiss. “You’re hot when you go all badass like that.”

Vaguely, she was aware of the men hurling a new set of slurs at them, but she tuned them out, focusing on the pleasure of Stella’s tongue in her mouth, her hands on Scully’s ass.

“Fucking tossers,” Stella murmured against her lips, body softening into their kiss.

“They picked the wrong women to mess with tonight.”

“Men like them usually do.” Stella pulled back, glancing in their direction, and they must have still been watching, because she extended her middle finger toward them before tugging Scully after her in the direction of the theater.

Scully leaned in to whisper in her ear, “Hot.”

Stella gave her an amused glance. They rounded the corner, and Scully spotted the glittering marquee up ahead for the show they were seeing tonight, an adaptation from Broadway that she’d always wanted to see. They made it inside with time to spare and stopped at the bar for a drink before going to their seats.

Something in Stella’s expression had gone distant again as she stared at the ornate room around them, intricately carved woodwork, red carpeting beneath their feet, and an elaborate chandelier glittering overhead. “My father brought me here once,” she said quietly, lifting her wine for a hearty gulp.

Scully blinked at this unexpected information, reaching over to place a hand on Stella’s.

“I was thirteen,” she continued. “It was my first time attending the theater. I felt so grown up that night.” She cleared her throat, eyes glazed in memories. “I couldn’t have told you the name of the theater, but I remember this room so clearly.”

“Oh, Stella.” Scully desperately wanted to hug her but knew she wouldn’t want that, not right now.

“There was a photographer here that night. He took our photo right over there.” She gestured to a spot on the far wall, an empty space between two large windows. “I kept that photo for the longest time, but it got lost in one of my moves. I hadn’t thought of it in years.”

“I’m sorry,” Scully whispered.

“Don’t be sorry.” Stella looked up, meeting her eyes. “It was a good night, a special memory. He got sick soon after. I’m glad to be here again.”

Scully blinked the moisture from her eyes. “I’m glad too.”

* * *

Stella felt like she’d entered an alternate reality, one where Dana Scully occupied every vacant spot in her brain, in her bed, in her life. She’d spent a sleepless, miserable week in Wembley, and here she was back in London, awaking refreshed on a Sunday morning with Scully beside her, crimson hair fanning across the pillow.

In this alternate reality, Stella considered going downstairs to find something to fix them for breakfast. She imagined waking Scully with hot coffee and pancakes, before remembering her cupboards were currently bare. And then she considered kissing her awake to tell her how beautiful she was first thing in the morning, how beautiful she was every fucking moment of the day, how every part of Stella’s day felt more beautiful when Scully was a part of it. But those were truths to hold inside her own heart, not things to be said aloud.

In the end, she simply lay there, watching Scully sleep, lulled into a strange sense of calm that was as foreign to Stella as it was appealing, the ability to lay quietly in bed without being consumed by the darker parts of her brain.

Scully’s eyes fluttered open, blinking lazily as they focused on Stella. “Morning.”

“Good morning.” Stella slid closer to press a kiss against her lips. “What do you want to do today?”

Scully laughed, voice husky with sleep. “In a hurry, Stella?”

“No,” she said apologetically. “Just been lying here thinking.”

“And what do you want to do today?”

“I need to go for a swim. Would you like to come with me?”

Scully yawned, stretching against the cream-colored sheets. “Maybe. I’m not much of a swimmer, though.”

“That’s all right. There’s also a hot tub.”

“Sold,” Scully said with a smile.

“Perfect,” Stella said, immensely pleased at the idea of bringing Scully to the pool with her. “I need to run some errands afterward and catch up on paperwork. Everything’s been piling up while I was out of town.”

“I have a few things to do too, but maybe we can meet up again later for dinner?”

Stella hesitated, having assumed they’d go their separate ways after their swim, that they’d see each other again sometime later in the week. After realizing how much she missed Scully while she was in Wembley last week, she’d come home determined to return a little space between them. But here she was, helpless beneath Scully’s warm gaze and the promise of another comfortable evening together. “That sounds nice.”

So, they got up, moving around Stella’s flat together as they got ready. Stella gave her a suit to borrow, and they stopped at a little café down the street for a light breakfast and some much-needed coffee before walking to the pool. The usual high Stella felt upon walking through the doors was compounded today by having Scully at her side.

Just the sight of Scully in her swimsuit was a ridiculous turn-on, two of her favorite things brought together. Stella inhaled the sharp scent of chlorine, watching as Scully dipped a toe into the pool, the reflection of the water dancing across her face.

“I have to admit,” Scully said, glancing over at Stella with a smile. “I’m curious to see you here in your element.”

“Is that so?” Stella walked to an available lap lane, sliding her goggles into place. Aware Scully was watching, she put a bit more effort into her dive than she might have otherwise. Usually, the initial rush of water over her body brought an overwhelming sense of relief. Today, she was surprised to realize she wasn’t in such desperate need of it. Apparently, Scully herself was almost as good a form of stress relief as swimming.

Stella surfaced, arms and legs beginning to move, pushing and pulling her through the water in a comfortable rhythm. Today, she managed a solid thirty-minute swim before the pain in her ribs built to the level where she knew she should stop. She was healing, slowly but surely.

She pulled up at the end of the pool, resting her elbows on the deck as she took shallow breaths until the pain had eased. Scully was in the next lane, kicking lazily on her back, arms fluttering at her sides as she swam. Stella turned around to better watch her, trailing her fingers across the surface of the water. Scully stopped at the opposite end of the pool, grinning at Stella across the turquoise expanse of water. She braced her hands behind her and hauled herself up onto the pool deck, gesturing for Stella to follow her.

Feeling like an invalid, Stella swam across the pool to the steps and walked out. She followed Scully to the hot tub, which was thankfully unoccupied at this early hour. After removing her cap and goggles, she stepped in, letting the hot, swirling water caress her skin as she sank into its depths. They settled side by side, legs bumping beneath the water’s churning surface. Scully leaned back, eyes closed, a peaceful smile on her face.

Stella leaned in, kissing her, hands roaming beneath the water. They fooled around until the heat of the tub drove them out, showering together before they went their separate ways. From there, Stella spent a few hours catching up on paperwork, shopping, and all the other chores she’d fallen behind on while she was out of town, before heading to Scully’s for the night.

The next morning, they were both up early to get ready for work. It had become almost routine at this point, moving together from Stella’s flat to Scully’s, both of them equally comfortable in each other’s spaces. Stella walked into the Met that morning with a bit more swagger in her stride than usual, head up, shoulders back.

A world of difference from the last time she’d returned from a review, physically battered and sidelined by an inquiry into her mishandling of the case. This time, she’d gotten her man. She swept into her office, setting her briefcase beneath her desk, eager to get started with her day. As she booted up her laptop, Chen popped his head through her doorway.

“Nice job in Wembley,” he said.

“Thank you.” She looked at him, feeling a rush of gratitude for his role in Scully’s birthday visit. Maybe he’d known her better than she knew herself last week. Maybe letting certain people into her personal life wasn’t always a bad thing.

He sat with her go over developments on the Martin case, which was progressing nicely. From there, she began wading through a week’s worth of information that had accumulated in her absence. Just before lunch, her phone rang with an outside line, and she picked it up absently as she closed out of her case notes.

“Gibson,” she answered.

“Stella, hi, it’s Fran.”

Stella’s lips curved involuntarily at the sound of her friend’s voice. “Fran, it’s good to hear from you. How are you and Mitch?”

“Never better. I was actually calling to invite you over for supper next weekend. It’s been too long since we’ve had you over. What do you say? You and Dana.”

“Dana? How did you…” Stella pinched the bridge of her nose, swiveling her chair to look out the window.

“You’re not my only friend at the Met,” Fran reminded her with a delighted laugh.

“Right.”

Fran had probably been talking to Chen. Stella didn’t care if people knew about her relationship with Scully, so she really wasn’t sure why the idea of bringing Scully to dinner at Fran’s filled her with such discomfort. It just felt so…domestic, like a scene out of a movie where Stella didn’t belong.

“So, what do you say?” Fran asked. “Dinner?”

Stella hesitated. The last time they’d seen each other, she had been emotionally ravaged, sipping soup with a fractured cheekbone. No doubt, Fran wanted to check up on her and make sure she was okay, but…maybe she really was okay, for once. “Yes, of course. I’d love to join you for dinner. I’ll have to check with Dana about her schedule and get back to you.”

“Perfect.”

Stella disconnected the call and leaned back in her chair, still unsettled by the invitation but pleased by it as well. Fran would like Scully. She was sure of it. Really, she couldn’t think of anything unpleasant about bringing Scully to dinner, except for the domestic picture it painted. But she’d had dinner with Fran and Mitch countless times. It wasn’t really that different to bring Scully with her this one time, was it?

When Stella got home that night, she extended the invitation, and Scully eagerly accepted, as Stella had known she would. So, that was that, then. No sense wasting any more energy second guessing herself about it.

They spent the rest of the week in their newfound routine, meeting at either Stella’s flat or Scully’s after work, sharing bits of either other’s lives that Stella hadn’t shared with anyone in a long time. She fucked often, but she rarely dated. Everything with Scully just felt…easy. Comfortable. It would all have to end soon enough when Scully went home, but in the meantime, maybe this was exactly what Stella had needed after Belfast.

By the time Saturday rolled around, she was surprised to realize how much she was looking forward to their dinner plans. She found herself oddly proud at the idea of introducing Scully to one of her dearest friends, to let Fran have a glimpse of this part of Stella’s life, to see that she had managed to be a part of something normal and meaningful, even if only for the duration of Scully’s fellowship.

Scully dressed in fitted black trousers and a royal blue blouse that accentuated her eyes and set off the rubied tones of her hair. Stella wore a black pencil skirt and a gray blouse, nothing different than she’d wear to work, but it felt different with Scully at her side as they approached the Kingsleys’ front door.

She knocked, and it swung open almost immediately to reveal Fran’s smiling face. Stella’s former boss was in her early sixties now, but her eyes still twinkled with the same vigor they had when Stella was a newly minted constable, fresh out of the academy and determined to take on the world.

“Stella.” She leaned in for a quick hug and kisses on each cheek before turning to Scully. “And you must be Dana. It’s such a pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Scully told her with a warm smile.

“Do come in.” Fran motioned them inside. “Mitch is in the living room.” She led the way through the parlor into the living room, where her husband sat in his motorized wheelchair. Mitch Kingsley had been shot in the line of duty five years ago, only a few weeks before his planned retirement. Life had a sick sense of humor sometimes.

“Stella,” he said, a brief smile softening his otherwise stern expression. “Good to see you.”

She crossed the room to him, leaning in to kiss his cheek before she turned to introduce him to Scully. They exchanged pleasantries, Scully gave Fran the bottle of wine they’d brought, and soon everyone was gathered in the dining room serving up salad and pouring wine while Fran placed a sliced beef roast in the center of the table.

“Fran tells me you’re a former FBI agent,” Mitch said to Scully as he began to fill his plate.

“I was, yes, for many years,” Scully confirmed.

“A room full of detectives,” Fran said with a chuckle. “Something tells me we won’t be short of conversation this evening.”

“What kinds of cases did you work on?” Mitch asked.

“Unexplained ones,” Scully said, without a hint of the frustration she’d displayed when Stella had asked her the same question back in 1998. “My partner and I investigated unsolved cases that were often pretty strange. We saw things that sometimes I still can’t quite believe.”

“Like what?” Mitch asked with newfound interest, and Stella cringed internally in anticipation of the way he would react to talk of aliens or vampires.

But luckily, Scully knew how to read a crowd. “Like a prehistoric parasitic organism that had been preserved in an ice core sample taken near the arctic circle, an enormous subterranean fungal growth with hallucinogenic properties that nearly digested my partner and me, and a town that believed itself to be the victim of a lake monster that turned out to be an extremely voracious alligator. And those were some of our tamer cases, believe it or not.”

Both Fran and Mitch were staring at Scully, their expressions somewhere between shock and awe. She darted a quick grin in Stella’s direction.

“That alligator ate my dog,” she added with a wistful sort of look.

“You had a dog?” Stella asked in surprise. Somehow, she had never pictured Scully with a pet, but now that she thought about it, she could see Scully taking it on long walks and giving it belly rubs, showering it in the seemingly endless depths of her affection.

“Only for a little while,” she said. “A little Pomeranian named Queequeg.”

“Like that bloke from Moby Dick,” Mitch said.

“Yes,” Scully told him with an appreciative smile. “My dad and I gave each other nicknames from the book. I called him Ahab, and he called me Starbuck. So, I named my dog Queequeg.”

“And he was eaten by an alligator?” Mitch asked.

She nodded. “Maybe someday, if my life settles down enough to allow it, I’ll get another dog. I liked having him around.”

“You and Stella met on that case, what…twelve, thirteen years ago?” Fran asked. “That psychopath who was drinking people’s blood?”

“Yes,” Scully confirmed with another shy smile in Stella’s direction.

“I don’t think you and I were properly introduced back then,” Fran told her. “I was Stella’s boss at the time, and I remember the case well. Very strange.”

Scully shrugged, reaching for her wine. “I told you my cases were strange.”

“Indeed,” Fran said, visibly enchanted by Scully, just as Stella had expected. What she hadn’t expected was to see Mitch hanging on her every word as well. Sometimes she forgot just how charming Scully could be, how effortlessly she shifted from one world to another, how much better she was than Stella at compartmentalizing the darker parts of her life, presenting her time at the X Files as an exciting adventure, leaving out the abductions, the pain, the heartbreak she’d suffered at every turn.

After dinner had been cleared away and dessert served, they lingered around the table, sharing more police talk. Fran told Scully about the first killer Stella had ever caught, how she’d been so determined to check all the boxes during his arrest that she’d read him his rights three times and sat at her desk until sunrise the next morning, typing up the longest arrest report in the history of the department.

“I was very thorough,” Stella confirmed, sipping her wine with a self-deprecating smile. “I didn’t want to fuck anything up.”

“She had her sights set on my job from the moment I hired her,” Fran told Scully. “I had never seen a female officer with such ambition, such grit, and one of the sharpest minds to wear our uniform.”

“I wasn’t after your job,” Stella deflected, her cheeks uncomfortably warm.

“Not in a strict sense, but you were going places, and we both knew it. I did what I could to help you get there.”

Stella met her gaze. “And I appreciate that more than you know.”

Fran lifted her wine, waving it in Stella’s direction. “You’d have gotten there with or without me, but I opened the doors for you a little sooner where I could. You were an asset wasted on patrol.”

“Thank you,” Stella said quietly, overwhelmed with gratitude for the woman in front of her even as her skin prickled uncomfortably beneath Fran’s praise.

Scully squeezed her hand beneath the table, neatly shifting the conversation by asking Fran about a photo of Scotland on the shelf behind them. They lingered for another hour or so before finally calling it a night.

Fran pulled Stella aside as they made their way to the door. “I’m so glad you two could make it tonight.”

“So am I,” Stella told her. “Thanks so much for having us.”

“Dana is delightful, although you obviously know that.” Fran’s eyes danced with amusement. “You seem very happy together, and I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.”

“She’s only in London for a short time,” Stella reminded Fran.

“I’m sure that could be worked around,” Fran said with a wink. “You’re a complicated woman, Stella. It takes a special kind of person to match you, intellectually and romantically. If Dana is that person, hold on to her, okay?”

Stella’s ears were still ringing with Fran’s words when she made it home that night. She lost herself in the welcome warmth of Scully’s body, drowning out anything but the absolute pleasure they created together. But she felt the darkness swirling inside her, rising steadily, threatening everything. Stella could never make something as beautiful as what she shared with Scully last.

Scully deserved a life in America with her friends and family, a partner who loved her unconditionally, someone who would put her first, the way neither Stella or Mulder ever could. She deserved the chance to have a dog, a whole house full of pets if she wanted them. So, Stella would let her go when the time came. But, in the meantime, she intended to enjoy every moment they had left.

Over the next week, she and Scully alternated nights between their flats, sharing most of their free time together. Everything had fallen into place, maybe a little too easily, until the night Stella arrived at Scully’s flat to find her slumped over her kitchen table, face resting in her hands and tears coursing down her cheeks.

Chapter Text

Scully stared at Stella without really seeing her. She gasped for breath, tears blurring her vision, emotion pouring out of her in an uncontrollable wave so intense she couldn’t speak.

“Dana, what’s happened?” Stella asked quietly.

Scully lifted a hand, gesturing for Stella to come and sit beside her at the kitchen table. Stella sat, so close her shoulder bumped Scully’s as she looked at the letter spread out in front of them. Scully smoothed her hands over it, noticing a dark circle in the middle of the paper, a teardrop threatening to smudge the impossible, improbable words written there.

Stella clasped her fingers around Scully’s as she began to read. Scully released a shaky, shuddering breath, her eyes tracking to the words on the paper, words she’d already read a dozen times. Somehow, the letter felt more real now that she had someone to share it with, to confirm this was really happening.

 

Fox and Dana,

We’ve debated many times whether to send this letter, whether it’s in Will’s best interest, in ours, or in yours, but he’s a strong-willed boy, and he’s been very insistent. We’ve heard about your circumstances from Agent Doggett, the reasons you had to give him up for adoption, and that the danger to Will and to yourselves is now past.

So, we’d like to honor our son’s wishes and invite you to his eleventh birthday party. He knows who you are, knows an age appropriate amount of information about your situation, and he would very much like to meet you both.

We hope that, for his sake, we can all come together to honor his wish, and that, if it goes well, and if it’s what he wants, you might be able to keep in touch with him in some small way. The last thing we want to do is disrupt his life in any way, but we also don’t feel like it can be a bad thing for him to have more people in his life who love him.

You’ll find a copy of the invitation enclosed. Please send your response as quickly as possible. We haven’t told Will that we agreed to his request, so if your answer is no, we’ll simply tell him we decided it was best to wait until he was older to try to get in touch. We don’t want him to be hurt by any of this, so please, if you decide to come, make sure that you’re doing so for Will’s sake, and with his best interests at heart.

Best,

Tom and Marsha Van De Kamp

 

Stella looked up, her own eyes brimming with tears. “Oh, Dana…”

“I know,” she gasped, fingers clenching around Stella’s. She sucked in a breath and held it, trying to get control of herself. Her heart raced, and her lungs spasmed from the intensity of her tears. She exhaled slowly.

“This is a big development,” Stella said quietly. “Did you have any idea it was coming?”

“No,” she whispered. Her head swam. Her pulse was rapid, and a sheen of cold sweat coated her skin. She was hyperventilating. She might even be suffering the mild effects of shock. She tried to take another slow breath, pressing a hand against her diaphragm.

“I’m very happy for you.” Stella’s thumb traced back and forth over the palm of her hand, so soothing.

Scully concentrated on her touch, swallowing thickly. She squeezed her eyes shut to keep the room from spinning. “I need…a drink of water.”

“I’ll get it.” There was a scrape of wood against linoleum as Stella stood, and a minute later, Scully heard the clunk of a glass against the table. “Here you are.”

She wiped the tears from her face, meeting Stella’s concerned gaze and offering her a shaky smile. Then she gulped the glass of water Stella had placed in front of her. “Thank you.”

“Are you all right?” Stella pressed a hand over hers, warm and soft against Scully’s cold, clammy skin.

She nodded, causing fresh tears to spill over her cheeks. “I’m going to see him, Stella.”

She smiled. “Yes, you are.”

“I have to call Mulder,” she whispered.

Stella pushed back from the table. “I should go.”

“No.” She gripped Stella’s hand. “Please stay.” I need you

Stella nodded. She stood and walked into the living room to give Scully some privacy for the call. And so, for the first time since arriving in London almost a month ago, she dialed Mulder’s number. It was mid-afternoon on the East Coast. He’d be sitting in his office chasing conspiracy theories, maybe looking at a letter like the one she held and feeling like the earth had just shifted beneath his feet.

A chance to see their son…

Will. The Van De Kamps called him Will. He was turning eleven. Fresh tears spilled over her eyelids as the phone rang in her ear.

“Hello,” he answered, his voice so clear, he might have been sitting at the table across from her.

“Mulder, it’s me.”

“Hey, Scully.” He sounded tired. “How’s London?”

London? He wanted to talk about London? “Mulder…did you get the letter? The one Doggett sent us?”

“Yeah, I got it.”

She sucked in a breath, fingers tightening around the phone. “I can’t believe it. After all this time, we’re going to see him again. I don’t even know what to think. I’m just…in shock.”

“You’re going, then?” he asked.

“Of course, I’m going. Aren’t you?”

“I don’t know, Scully. I feel like I’ve had to put William behind me to move on with my life. Maybe it’s best to leave him there.”

“What?” She pressed a hand against her chest as more tears rolled over her cheeks. “But…he wants to see you. He wants to see us. We’ve been given a chance that might never come again.” A chance to make things right…

“You should go,” Mulder said. “I know how much he means to you. You should definitely go.”

“Mulder, he’s our son. Our son. How could you even think about not going?” Her eyes swept the kitchen, seeking and finding the baby photo of William tacked to the fridge. She remembered the way he felt in her arms, so soft and warm, the solid weight of him against her chest. She could still hear his delighted giggle as he yanked her hair and see the little star-printed hat with ears he’d been wearing the day she gave him away…

“I just don’t think it would be a good idea for me right now,” Mulder said, suddenly sounding hollow and tinny, as though an ocean separated them after all.

“You’re making a mistake,” she whispered.

“Yeah, well, it’s my mistake to make. I have to go.”

The line clicked, and she sat there for a long moment, staring at her phone. Then Stella was there, looking at Scully with sympathetic eyes. She lurched out of her chair, wood screeching against linoleum as she pressed herself into Stella’s embrace.

“He’s not going,” she whispered, hands fisting in Stella’s blouse as her tears left dark spots on the gray silk. “How could he not go?”

“I’m sure he has his reasons,” Stella said as she rubbed her back. “And they don’t have to be your reasons.”

“I’m going to see him,” she sobbed, clinging to Stella. “After all these years, I’m going to see William. I never thought…”

“Shh.” Stella guided her toward the couch, pushing her down to sit. “You deserve this,” she murmured, still rubbing Scully’s back. “You deserve this.”

“He goes by Will now.” She hiccupped, her face still buried against Stella’s blouse.

“It’s a good name.”

“It is, isn’t it?” She sucked in a shuddering breath. “Did you see the invitation? It’s a Harry Potter themed party. I’ve never read Harry Potter…”

Stella held her, one hand stroking her hair as Scully cried on her shoulder.

“After I gave him up, I couldn’t bring myself to read any of the books we might have enjoyed together. It didn’t feel right.”

“Well, I’m sure you could read it before next weekend,” Stella said calmly. “Or even on the flight to Wyoming. It will be a long flight.”

“Have you read it?” she whispered, turning her face so that her cheek pressed against the cool silk of Stella’s blouse as her tears finally slowed.

“No.”

“Will you come with me?” she blurted, fingers still clutching Stella’s shirt.

“Dana, I don’t think that would be appropriate, and it’s certainly not a good idea.”

“Not to the party,” she clarified. “I’ll do that on my own. But will you come to Wyoming with me? We could make it a long weekend together, see what there is to see out there. Grand Teton. Old Faithful.”

Stella was quiet for a long minute, still stroking Scully’s hair. She closed her eyes, focusing on that soothing gesture, the comfort of Stella’s fingers grounding her when everything else inside her still felt like it was spinning, like the poles had been reversed and she was dangling upside down, trying to find her way back up.

“Of course, I’ll come,” Stella said finally. “If you’re sure it’s what you want.”

“It is.” Fresh tears soaked Stella’s blouse. “Thank you.”

“Dana…”

Scully lifted her head, meeting Stella’s eyes, overcome by a rush of emotion so powerful she almost started crying again. I love you.

The words came to her without thought, and she knew them immediately to be true. She loved Stella, loved the fierce way Stella cared about the people in her life, including the victims she fought so hard for. She loved the seemingly limitless passion between them, the way Stella could shatter her into a million blissful pieces and put her back together with a single smile. She loved that Stella would drop anything for her if she asked.

Somehow, over the past few weeks when she was supposed to have been throwing her heart and soul into her new fellowship, she’d fallen head over heels in love with the woman sitting next to her, the woman currently staring at her with unabashed affection in her eyes.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Scully whispered.

“I’m glad I am too.” Stella’s arms tightened around her.

And she didn’t let go, not when Scully woke in the middle of the night, sobbing, and not when she screamed obscenities at Mulder sometime before daybreak. Neither of them got much sleep that night, and Scully was so tired the next morning, she felt like crying all over again at the thought of the twelve-hour shift ahead of her.

“I’m too old for this,” she mumbled into her coffee.

“No, you’re not,” Stella told her as she set a plate of toast on the table between them. “You’re just emotionally wrung-out, and that’s more exhausting than the most grueling workday.”

“That’s true.” She picked up a piece of toast gratefully.

“So, chin up,” Stella told her, sliding a finger beneath Scully’s chin for effect. “Today will be long, but I’ll be here for you at the end of it.”

“Thank you.” Tears brimmed in her eyes, and she leaned in to kiss Stella. “I mean it.”

Stella dropped her gaze to the table. “It’s nothing.”

“It’s not nothing. And I don’t want it to end when my fellowship is over.” She exhaled, watching as Stella stiffened, knowing immediately she’d said too much.

“Dana…let’s not do this right now, not this morning of all mornings.”

“I could stay in London. I could get a job here.” It wasn’t even that outrageous. She loved it here, and she was about to start her career over from scratch no matter where she lived.

“When you finally have a chance to get to know your son in the states?” Stella finally met her eyes, her expression sharp.

“Do you have any idea how far Wyoming is from Maryland? If I get the chance to see him again, and that’s a big ‘if,’ but if I do, what difference does it make which airport I fly out of to get there?”

Stella stared broodily into her coffee, feathers clearly ruffled by the topic at hand. If Scully had taken the time to think before she spoke, she would have foreseen this reaction. It was perfectly predictable, and yet, it still hurt…a lot if she was being honest with herself. She’d spent so many years loving a man who had always loved his work more than he’d loved her, and now she’d fallen for a woman who was the same way, a woman who would give every ounce of her soul if it would save even one of the victims she sought to protect on the job, but couldn’t give Scully the simple satisfaction of agreeing to live in the same city with her.

And right now, on this particular morning, it was more than she could bear.

“You know what, forget I said anything.” She stood from the table, tossing her uneaten toast in the trash. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“Dana…” Stella trailed behind her as she grabbed her bag, heading for the door.

“Don’t say anything,” Scully told her, seizing hold of her anger and using it to banish the tears that had threatened moments before. “You’ve already made yourself perfectly clear.”

Stella ran her tongue over her teeth, chin jutting in defiance, but she said nothing, following Scully quietly out the door. The air between them prickled with unspoken words and hurt feelings as they made their way down the stairs to the street.

They stared at each other for a long moment before Scully turned away, walking as fast as she could in the direction of the tube station, walking off her anger. By the time she’d arrived at the hospital, she was just plain tired. And now that she’d cooled off, she was a little bit ashamed of the way she’d treated Stella that morning.

Stella had held her all night, had promised to fly all the way to Wyoming with her to hold her together after she went to William’s birthday party, and how did Scully repay her? By biting her head off when Stella balked at the idea of Scully moving to London, which she’d dropped on her completely out of the blue after a sleepless night.

But still…

Even though she knew it was irrational, she was hurt that Stella hadn’t at least been willing to consider something more. Which meant, she was really only mad at herself for wanting more from Stella than she was able to give. Deep down, people couldn’t change the way they were. Mulder and Stella were both loners, and Scully was the unlucky, ignorant fool who’d fallen in love with both of them.

Well, it ended here. She could go to Wyoming alone. She’d been alone—emotionally, at least—when she gave birth to William and when she’d given him up for adoption. It was only fitting that she would take this next step in their journey on her own too.

She buried herself in work to keep her emotions at bay, completing a total of three autopsies, the third of which came after she’d driven with Dr. Linenburger to a crime scene on the outskirts of London to examine the body first on site. As she donned the white protective suit that law enforcement wore here in the UK, adrenaline burned away her fatigue. This was the first time she’d stood at an active crime scene in ten years.

“It’s good to be back,” she whispered to herself.

No matter where she ended up when all was said and done, it was good to be back.

It was past nine when she finally left the hospital that night. She was exhausted, famished, and emotionally brittle. She hadn’t heard from Stella all day. Neither of them had sent their usual text to coordinate whose flat they’d stay at tonight or what they should do for dinner.

Scully wanted to cry as she walked up the street toward home. Her cupboards were bare, but she was too tired—physically and emotionally—to stop somewhere for food on her way. Was this it, then? Had she and Stella broken up? Were they finished?

No. Scully would go to her tomorrow and apologize—after she’d had some sleep—but she might suggest that they add some space back into their lives if it was all going to end in a few short weeks when Scully’s fellowship was over.

As she walked, it started to rain, ice cold drops splashing over her head and shoulders. A slow drizzle soon turned into a deluge, and Scully was caught in her scrubs, no umbrella, soaked to the skin within minutes. She cast her eyes upward, cursing against this sad, soggy end to her already shitty day.

She sloshed her way up the street, sneakers squishing with each step. A peanut butter sandwich would have to suffice for dinner. And maybe a glass of wine, although she wasn’t even sure she had any. She and Stella had polished off a bottle together a few nights ago, and it might have been Scully’s last. As she turned onto her street, she blinked back tears.

Fuck this day right to hell and back.

That’s when she saw someone standing on the front step of her building. A woman. Her head was obscured by a black hood, but Scully would know that petite frame anywhere. She stopped in the middle of the street, shivering as rainwater trickled down her spine, shoulders squared, jaw clenched. Stella came toward her, stopping a few feet away, expression guarded, arms clasped around herself.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly.

Scully’s shoulders slumped as all the fight went out of her. “Me too.”

“I just don’t want you to make a mistake, especially not because of me.” Stella’s gaze dropped to the pavement, water flowing around the toes of her shoes.

“Being with you doesn’t feel like a mistake.” Scully took a step closer. This was a stupid conversation to have in the rain, even stupider than it had been this morning over a plate of uneaten toast after a sleepless night.

“Moving here for me would be,” Stella said.

“Why?” Raindrops rolled over her cheeks. They felt like tears. Maybe they were. Maybe she was so wet and so emotionally overwrought she couldn’t tell the difference anymore.

“Because you have a life and a family in America, a mother who loves you, a son you’re just about to reunite with. Those are permanent, important things, and I’m—”

“Also important.” She closed the remaining distance between them, wrapping her arms around Stella. “Surely you realize that.”

“I’m not permanent.” Something cracked in Stella’s voice on that last word, and Scully felt like the earth had split open beneath their feet, a gulf yawning between them.

“You could be,” she whispered, throat aching with tears.

Stella swallowed hard, looking up into the rain-soaked sky. Raindrops slicked her cheeks, or maybe they were tears. Maybe they were both crying, or maybe neither of them was. “I don’t think I can. I’m sorry.”

“Stella…”

“I’m just trying to be honest with you.”

“I know.” She gulped. Her nose was running, and she had the totally irrational urge to laugh, to just double over and laugh until something in her life made sense, because right now nothing did. “I know. Thank you.”

Stella’s arms came around her, the plasticky surface of her jacket sleeves sending a shudder through Scully’s body as they slid over her bare skin. “I’m trying,” she whispered. “I really am.”

“Please keep trying,” Scully whispered back.

Stella kissed her in response, an answer of another kind, a language Stella was more comfortable with when it came to expressing emotion. Scully met her kiss, cold wet lips pressed against cold wet lips, and since it really wasn’t fair that Stella was still relatively dry inside her jacket while Scully felt like she’d just come out of a dunking tank, she pushed her fingers through Stella’s hair so that her hood fell back. They pressed together, water dripping everywhere, fabric scraping and skin slipping. Stella’s teeth skimmed Scully’s bottom lip, tongue teasing, as hot as the rest of her was cold, and then they were kissing for real.

Scully shut her eyes against the rain still splattering relentlessly over her head, absorbing the feel of Stella’s mouth on hers and the firm grip of her hands on Scully’s ass. Rainwater ran between their lips, cold mixing with hot, and how was she ever supposed to let go of any of this? This moment, this woman, this life here in London. She wanted it all, and she wanted it to last forever.

“Come on,” Stella murmured against her lips. “Let’s go inside.”

She nodded in agreement, remembering her bare cupboards as her stomach reminded her of its presence with a loud rumble. But she was so glad to have Stella back she didn’t even care if she had to feed them both peanut butter sandwiches tonight.

“I brought food,” Stella said, guiding Scully toward her front door and the plastic bag sitting on the top step. Her beautiful blonde curls were plastered to her face now, and Scully felt guilty for pushing off her hood.

I love you, she thought desperately. I love you so much.

And despite what Stella said, she was permanent, because she would be in Scully’s heart forever, no matter how many miles ended up between them.

Chapter Text

Stella grew restless about four hours into the flight. She had finished the book she’d brought with her to read, and now there was nothing to do but think about where she was going and why she was going there. And she didn’t like the answer to either question. Beside her, Scully was asleep, black-rimmed glasses on her face and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone open across her lap.

It was irritating the way she could sleep anywhere. Stella was tired to her soul, and yet she couldn’t sleep, not in her own bed, not in Scully’s, and certainly not on this airplane currently jetting its way across the Atlantic, carrying them toward Scully and Mulder’s son. Stella shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t have taken time off work so soon after her return, and she sure as fuck shouldn’t be anywhere near this family reunion.

At least she’d had the presence of mind to request the aisle seat, so she didn’t have to disturb Scully as she stood to stretch her legs, desperate for something to do that didn’t involve sitting here, dwelling on her current situation. She made her way down to the lavatory, which was thankfully empty. When she returned to her seat, Scully was still asleep.

Somewhat curious and a whole lot bored, she slipped the book off Scully’s lap, earmarking her place before she flipped back to the first page. The idea of a woman her age reading about an eleven-year-old boy wizard was completely laughable, and yet, she found herself getting sucked into the story. It was hard not to root for Harry and his friends, and she couldn’t help noting the similarities to her current situation. Scully’s son was the same age as Harry. When young Harry learned about his parents’ true identities and the circumstances that had left him an orphan, it wasn’t so different from young William learning about Mulder and Scully and the mysterious, dangerous situation surrounding his birth.

Stella saw a bit of herself in Hermione. She too had been an insufferable know-it-all once upon a time, so naïve as she marched through the halls of the private academy her parents sent her to, enjoying the admiring looks she got from the boys—and the girls—while earning top marks in all her classes. A lifetime ago.

“Well, there’s a sight I never thought I’d see.”

Stella looked over to find Scully watching her read with a sleepy grin. “I was bored.”

Scully turned her head to peer out the window at the ocean stretching endlessly below. “How long was I asleep?”

“A few hours.”

“What did you think?” she asked, gesturing to the book.

“Not bad.” Stella handed it back.

“I’m enjoying it too.” She held it tightly, a faraway look in her eyes that probably had nothing to do with Harry Potter and everything to do with where they were going.

“It looks like they’re preparing the meal service,” Stella said, more to distract Scully from her thoughts than anything else, but it was true. The cabin had filled with the scent of something savory, and a cart loomed at the far end of the aisle.

“I’m going to sneak out to the bathroom before they block the aisle,” Scully said.

Stella stood to let her out, fingers tapping against her thighs as she attempted to corral the restless energy inside her. If only they were staying in a nice hotel with a pool, she’d at least have a good, long swim to look forward to once they’d landed, but no, Scully had insisted that they rent a cabin in the woods so they could experience nature while they were in Wyoming.

Everything Stella knew about nature had to do with dead bodies found there, corpses left in desolate places by deranged people. She saw herself walking through the woods in Ireland, as she so often did in her dreams, looking for Rose, and the restlessness inside her intensified.

Scully returned to her seat, and Stella sat back down beside her, buckling herself in. She let the metal snap against her fingers as it closed. Fuck. What was she doing on this airplane?

As if sensing her discomfort, Scully reached over and gave her hand a squeeze. “I have a little surprise for you when we get there.”

“A surprise?” Stella attempted a smile, trying to give Scully the reaction she was looking for, even as her mind spiraled around all the well-intentioned things Scully might have planned for her that would no doubt make Stella feel even more uncomfortable about being here. She didn’t want a gift. She didn’t want anything out of this weekend except to provide comfort for Scully where she could.

Scully was looking at her now like she knew every thought currently spinning through her head, and Stella had the distinctly uncomfortable feeling that she might. Scully had always been too perceptive where Stella was concerned. Then again, she didn’t know her well enough to know Stella hated surprises.

They ate mediocre airplane food, read more Harry Potter, passing the book between them, and shared idle conversation as the flight dragged on. Eventually, they landed in Minneapolis, where they boarded their second flight to Jackson, Wyoming. Scully became visibly more anxious as the day wore on, and Stella put her own discomfort aside, distracting Scully and providing what reassurances she could.

“I can’t believe Mulder isn’t coming,” Scully admitted as their plane began to descend into the Jackson airport, tears shining in her eyes.

Stella wanted to kick him in his very fine ass for not being here for his son and for causing Scully unnecessary pain and stress at an already overwhelmingly painful and stressful time. “I’m sorry,” she said instead, squeezing Scully’s hand.

“I’m going to see William tomorrow.” Scully turned her face against Stella’s shoulder, weeping silently.

Stella rubbed her back as uninvited tears pricked at her own eyes. She swallowed them, gathering Scully closer into her arms, wishing and hoping with every fiber of her being that everything would go well for her on this journey back to her son.

They landed uneventfully and picked up their rental car. Stella fought to contain her frustration as she plugged the address for their cabin into the GPS in the dash and watched it direct them out into the middle of fucking nowhere.

“I wonder how many serial killers have used this cabin before us,” she quipped as she drove them out of the airport.

“So funny,” Scully scoffed at her, but she was smiling.

It was late, and they were both exhausted after traveling for more than twelve hours. But Stella held back her complaints about the cabin, even though it meant they had to stop for groceries on the way, since they wouldn’t have the convenience of room service. This trip wasn’t about her. Stella was only here for emotional support.

So, she dutifully picked out groceries for the next two days and drove them into the middle of the fucking forest, and when they got there, she put everything away, made sure Scully took the sleeping pill she’d brought with her for tonight, and tucked her into bed, holding on to her until Scully fell into a restless sleep.

When Stella woke the next morning, she was hit by the disorienting sense of confusion that always followed a long journey and jetlag. The bedroom was decorated in the slightly garish American style that was meant to celebrate the wilderness…or blood sport. A deer head was mounted on the wall over their bed, and a bear skin served as a rug on the floor. It made Stella’s skin crawl.

But this trip isn’t about you.

Scully walked into the bedroom, a cup of coffee in each hand. “Morning.”

“Good morning.” Stella sat up to accept one of the cups, registering two unsettling facts at once. First, Scully had never woken before Stella before, and second, there was a slightly manic gleam in her eyes. Today was already taking its toll on her, and it had barely begun.

Scully sat beside her in bed, and they drank their coffee in silence, both of them lost in the uncomfortable depths of their own minds.

“Are you ready for your surprise?” Scully asked after the coffee cups had been set aside.

Stella did her best not to flinch. This was all wrong. She didn’t want anything from Scully right now—not ever—but especially not this morning. “Maybe it should wait until after the party.”

“The party isn’t until two,” Scully said, practically vibrating with nervous energy. “We’ve got hours and hours to kill until then. Come on. Get up and get dressed, just throw on something comfortable to go for a walk with me.”

“Okay,” Stella conceded. For Scully, she’d accept whatever this was and try her very best to be grateful for it. She wouldn’t let herself add any stress to Scully today.

Scully pulled a black canvas bag out of her suitcase and stuffed a few covert things into it while Stella pulled on jeans and a T-shirt and went into the bathroom. By the time she’d come back out, Scully was waiting by the door, toe tapping nervously against the hardwoods.

Scully tossed her a granola bar as they headed out the door, and they ate in silence as they walked down a narrow trail leading away from the back of the cabin. Stella resisted the urge to make another quip about serial killers and buried bodies. It was probably more likely that they’d encounter a bear or some other similarly murderous animal than a human.

“Oh, here it is,” Scully said quietly as something glimmered through the trees ahead of them. “Your surprise.”

Stella’s surprise was a thing already out here in the woods? She walked faster, curious in spite of herself. The woods opened up in front of them, and a lake came into view, glittering sapphire blue beneath the sky yawning overhead.

“You can swim all the laps you want to out there,” Scully told her. “Bigger than the biggest hotel pool. And there should be…yep.” She gestured to the side. “A beach right over there to go in.”

“A lake.” Stella stopped short. “This is my surprise?”

Scully nodded. “I knew you would need to swim. Actually, I thought a swim might do us both some good this morning.”

“But I didn’t bring my—”

“Swimsuit?” Scully patted the bag she was carrying. “I packed it for you. And mine too.”

“I…I don’t know what to say.” Stella’s eyes stung. Her lip quivered, and her chest had grown uncomfortably tight. Was this what it felt like to experience a happy surprise? Or was this what it felt like to fall in love?

“You’re welcome,” Scully whispered, pressing her lips against Stella’s.

“Thank you.” She wrapped her arms around Scully, holding on to her until she’d regained the ability to speak. “This is perfect. Thank you.”

Scully gave her an “I told you so” of a smile, pulling free to open her bag. She tossed Stella’s suit at her and took out one of her own. “I don’t think the local wildlife will mind if we get changed right here on the beach.”

“Scandalous,” Stella said as she tugged her T-shirt over her head. She stripped down and pulled on her black racerback suit as Scully did the same beside her. And then, hand in hand, they waded into the lake. The water was cold, shockingly so as it first met her skin.

“Shit,” Scully whispered beside her, shivering past a nervous giggle.

“You’ll get used to it,” Stella told her, wading deeper. The water was a deep green color but clear enough to reveal their toes against the sandy bottom and the little fish that darted between them. Stella tried not to think what else might be lurking out there. Usually, she preferred to keep her distance from wildlife, but right now she was so touched by Scully’s grand gesture with the lake, she was more than willing to swim with hungry fish and snakes and who-knew-what else.

She waded in up to her waist and then dove beneath its shining surface, eyes closed since Scully hadn’t packed her goggles. It was just as well since she didn’t really want to know what was below her. Leaving Scully behind, she stroked her way out to the middle of the lake, burning through everything inside her that needed burning.

She treaded water as she took in the scenery around her for the first time. Mountains rose in the distance. She was surrounded by trees and birds and the endless blue sky above. There wasn’t a house or any other sign of civilization in sight. And despite her resistance to being here, she had to admit it was beautiful. Scully’s crimson head was visible near the shoreline, swimming lazily in the shallows. Even more beautiful than the scenery.

The lake felt like liquid ice beneath Stella’s toes, so she brought them to the surface, floating on her back while she soaked it all in. After a few minutes, she struck out again, swimming toward shore, sucking the brisk mountain air into her lungs, inhaling energy and exhaling peace.

By the time she reached Scully, she felt like a whole new woman. She gave Scully a warm, leisurely kiss before heading back toward the center of the lake, swimming until she was calm, inside and out. The ache in her almost-healed ribs was barely noticeable. When she’d swum herself out, she made her way to the beach where Scully stood in waist-deep water, watching fish nibble at her toes.

“It tickles,” she said with a smile as Stella approached.

“Disgusting,” Stella countered, pulling Scully into her arms and sending the fish darting off into the deeper, darker parts of the lake.

“Better?” Scully asked, touching Stella’s cheek.

“Yes.” She pulled their bodies flush, Scully’s hardened nipples teasing hers through the fabric of their suits. “You too?”

“Much,” Scully said with a nod. “It was just what I needed this morning.”

“Yes.” Stella kissed her deeply. “Also, this.”

Scully smiled against her lips as her hand slipped between Stella’s thighs, pushing her swimsuit to the side. “And this.”

“I like the way you think.” Stella tugged at the fabric of Scully’s suit, fingers encountering the heat of her body beneath the cold of the water. Ripples spread around them, disturbing the glassy surface of the lake as they moved together, swaying beneath the cloudless sky. Scully came first, dropping her head onto Stella’s shoulder as her body gripped Stella’s fingers, pulsing with release. Then she was moving again, fingers pumping in and out of Stella’s body as an orgasm built inside her, as big as the Wyoming sky.

She came against Scully’s fingers, release rippling through her like the water around them, so intensely grateful for the woman in her arms she could cry. She very nearly did. She’d come on this trip to give Scully her support, but Scully had given her just as much in return.

As they waded out of the lake, Stella gave her hand a squeeze. “Come on. Let’s get you ready to meet your son.”

Chapter Text

Scully was going to throw up. Her stomach twisted painfully, and her eyes watered. She gripped the edge of the bathroom sink, attempting to steady herself. As she stared at herself in the mirror over the sink, she was transported back in time over eleven years to a different morning, a different mirror, a different reason for the nausea in her belly and the fear in her heart.

That morning—the morning after she’d learned she was pregnant and that Mulder had been abducted—she’d been in a state of fear unlike anything she’d ever experienced. That fear had stayed with her throughout her pregnancy and William’s first year of life. It had ultimately forced her to give him up, and even then, she’d lived with the nightmare in her mind. Was he okay? Was he safe? Had she done enough?

Today, those questions would be answered.

Today, she was going to see her son.

No matter what happened once she got to the party, she would see him. And that would have to be enough, because the rest of it—his reaction to seeing her, her reaction to seeing him, the Van De Kamps reaction to any of it—was all so overwhelming that she was standing here in the bathroom on the verge of throwing up just thinking about it.

She closed her eyes, trying to take slow, deep breaths, but all she could do was gasp against the tightness in her chest. And then Stella’s hands slid around her waist, settling over the churning depths of Scully’s stomach, warm and soothing. Her body pressed against Scully’s from behind, chin over her shoulder, cheek to cheek.

“It’s going to be wonderful,” she said quietly.

Scully inhaled against Stella’s palms. “What if it’s not? What if he gets upset when he sees me? What if we don’t recognize each other? What if the whole afternoon is awkward, or they ask me to leave?”

“Then you come back here and cry in my arms and know that you tried,” Stella said. “But it’s not going to happen that way. You may not recognize each other, and it may be awkward at first, but this is going to end up being a good thing for you both. I’m certain of it.”

Tears slipped over Scully’s cheeks, and she swiped at them with her fingers, trying not to smudge her eye makeup. “What if he doesn’t like the present I got him?”

“He’s an eleven-year-old boy. It won’t be the first or last time he dislikes a gift.”

“But it’s the first gift I’ve bought him since he was a baby,” she whispered.

“Dana…” Stella kissed her cheek. “He won’t remember what you bought him, but he’ll remember that you were there.”

Scully nodded, trying to absorb the truth of Stella’s words over the almost overwhelming sensations of fear and insecurity swirling inside her. “What if he hates me for giving him up?”

“If he hated you, he wouldn’t have invited you to his birthday party.”

“You’re right. Okay. I’m going.”

“Call me if you need me,” Stella said, pulling her in for a hug and a kiss. “You’re taking the car, but I’m sure I could hitchhike on a moose or something if you need someone to come rescue you.”

Scully smiled as she pressed another kiss against Stella’s lips, immensely grateful for her attempts at distracting her. “Thank you.”

“Text me anyway,” Stella said. “Let me know how it’s going.”

“I will.” Scully gathered her purse and the wrapped gift and headed for the door. With one last look over her shoulder at Stella, she climbed inside the car and set out. According to the GPS, the Van De Kamps’ farm was about forty-five minutes from here.

What was the etiquette for greeting the son you gave up for adoption? For greeting his new family? No matter what Stella said, the afternoon had the potential to be horribly awkward for everyone involved. In less than an hour, she would see William. Fresh tears welled in her eyes. Could she hug him, or would that be too much?

“Too much,” she whispered to herself. She needed to get her emotions under control before she arrived.

You should be here too, Mulder.

But there was no point dwelling on it now. She’d survive this afternoon—good or bad—and then she’d go home to Stella. Even if William regretted inviting her, even if he hated her for giving him away, even if she did nothing but watch awkwardly from the sidelines, she would leave with the peace of mind of knowing what his life was like now. She would know what his voice sounded like, how he walked, what flavor of cake was his favorite.

She would know he was safe.

As she turned onto the road the Van De Kamps lived on, she became aware that the car behind her had been there for several turns now. Another party guest, no doubt. Arriving alongside someone she’d never met who knew her son better than she did was probably the worst way to make her entrance, but there was nothing she could do about it now.

She drove past open, grassy fields until a large farmhouse came into view. Children ran on the lawn, and a cluster of balloons floated from the mailbox. Her mouth went dry, and her stomach clenched. Please don’t puke now. Not now. She pulled into the driveway and found an empty spot to park.

The sedan that had been following her pulled in beside her. Definitely another party guest. Here she was, about to have a panic attack in front of a stranger. She caught a glimpse of the driver, and her heart somersaulted into her throat.

Mulder.

She hadn’t seen him in months, not since they met for breakfast right after she accepted her fellowship in London. The sight of him now had her whole body trembling with relief. Oh, thank God. They were going to do this together after all. Their eyes locked, and an avalanche of memories shook loose inside her, late nights in their basement office, a million different hotel rooms and hospital beds, the well-worn couch in living room of their house where she’d told him she was leaving.

She climbed out of her car and walked to his. He stood, and she wrapped her arms around him, breathing in his familiar scent, salty like the sunflower seeds he’d eaten on the way here. Had he always been so tall? She buried her face against the wide expanse of his chest. “You came.”

“I got to thinking after we talked,” he said. “Decided this is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity you don’t say no to.”

“I’m so glad.” She straightened, swiping at her cheeks, so glad to see him she could hardly speak. She, Mulder, and William had only ever spent two days together as a family. Today had to feel even more monumental to him than it did for her. At least she had seen William smile, held his hand, watched him crawl. But then again, maybe that made this harder for her. Mulder had never gotten the chance to know his son. William was less tangible for him. So much more of her heart was at stake.

He pulled an enormous gift bag out of the back of his car, and she resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Of course, he’d show up with the biggest gift. She picked up her own gift, and hand in hand, they made their way toward the house.

A couple a little bit older than her and Mulder approached with welcoming smiles and apprehension in their eyes. Scully gulped, cheeks hot, throat dry. Mulder’s hand pressed against the small of her back, a silent gesture of support.

“You must be Fox and Dana,” the woman said. “I’m Marsha Van De Kamp, and this is my husband, Tom.”

Scully nodded, trying desperately to focus, to keep her eyes from scanning the yard, looking for William. Would she recognize him? Would he recognize her? “It’s so nice to meet you. I can’t possibly tell you how much it means to me—to us—to be here today.”

“You can thank Will for that,” Marsha said. “But it’s nice to meet you too, genuinely so.”

Even Mulder seemed to feel the gravity of the situation, offering polite greetings as he shook hands with Tom and Marsha without a single joke.

“Will went inside with a couple of his friends,” Marsha told them. “But I’m sure they’ll be back in a minute.”

“Okay.” She felt equal parts relieved to know that he wasn’t here yet and desperate to get their reunion over with before she had a nervous breakdown from the anticipation.

“Please just…follow his lead,” Tom said gruffly. “It’s his birthday party.”

“We’re just here for the cake,” Mulder said with a wink.

“Mulder,” she hissed, horrified, but the Van De Kamps were laughing.

“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Marsha said.

“The last thing I would ever want is to make him feel uncomfortable, today or any other day,” Scully said quietly, overcome with gratitude for these people who’d raised her son and then been generous enough to invite his birth parents back into his life, which was surely as awkward and stressful for them as it was for her and Mulder.

“The gift table is over there,” Tom said, gesturing toward the house.

“Thanks,” Mulder told him. He led the way, and she followed, glad for a moment to catch her breath before whatever came next. Mulder gave her hand a squeeze after he’d set his enormous gift bag on the table.

She turned to face the yard full of people she didn’t know, and…there he was. A red-haired boy raced across the lawn toward her and Mulder, and time seemed to stop. Her pulse thudded in her ears, and her hand, still gripped in Mulder’s, turned cold and clammy. On any random day, on any random street, she would have known immediately that he was hers. Hers and Mulders.

William’s hair was the same bright, copper red hers had been as a child, although these days, her red hair came from a bottle. He was tall and lanky like his father, with the same inquisitive hazel eyes. He skidded to a stop in front of her, a wand in one hand, popsicle in the other. “Are you Dana?” he asked.

She nodded, swallowing over the painful lump in her throat. “And you’re Will.”

He smiled, head bobbing in affirmation before he turned to Mulder. “Fox?”

“Yeah.” He stuck out a hand, which Will took. “But you can call me Mulder. Everyone does, even your mother.”

Scully gasped, hoping desperately that Mulder hadn’t overstepped by calling her William’s mother, but the boy was still smiling. Then she realized he’d probably thought Mulder was talking about Marsha Van De Kamp, and she wanted to cry.

“Mulder?” Will made a face. “That sounds weird.”

“I guess it does,” Mulder agreed, “until you get used to it.”

Tom and Marsha walked over. “I see you’ve met.”

“Yes.” Scully forced herself to smile, hoping she looked less hysterical than she felt.

Will looked at her before turning toward the Van De Kamps, as if waiting for them to tell him what should happen next. Scully found herself wishing for the same thing.

“Well, we’re all very glad you’re here,” Marsha said graciously.

Scully murmured her thanks, looking down at her tightly clasped hands to avoid staring too much at Will. Mulder commented on the horses visible in the pasture behind the house, asking which one Will rode. He pointed out a brown and white horse named Fidget. Mulder and the Van De Kamps walked toward the pasture, and suddenly, Scully was alone with her son.

She looked at Will, who was still watching her closely out of those eyes so like his father’s, coppery hair shining in the sun. He was almost as tall as she was. Somehow, she’d never expected that. He looked closer to a teen than a boy.

“I can’t quite believe I’m standing here,” she admitted. “Thank you so much for inviting me.”

“My mom said it was too dangerous for you to keep me when I was a baby,” Will said, taking another bite of his popsicle. Something in his expression had changed, a hesitance there that hadn’t been before.

“Yes, that’s true.” She gripped her hands together, not sure what to do with them. “There were some very bad people after us. Mulder had to go into hiding, and I…I couldn’t keep you safe, no matter how hard I tried or how much I loved you.”

“Are you like spies or something?” he asked, eyes wide, and she wondered what scenarios he’d envisioned over the years to explain to himself why she’d had to give him up. Probably nothing he’d imagined was as outrageous—or dangerous—as their reality had been.

“No,” she answered his question with a laugh. “But we were FBI agents at the time.”

“Secret agents?” Will asked.

“Something like that,” she agreed with a smile. “I’m a doctor now.”

“That’s kinda boring.” He swallowed the last bite of his popsicle and shoved the stick into his pocket. “You should have stayed a secret agent.”

“But then I might not have been able to come today.”

“I guess.” He flicked the wand in his hand as if performing a magic spell. “What house are you?”

“House?” she asked, her mind going to the rented cabin where Stella was currently sitting, waiting to hear from her.

“At Hogwarts,” Will clarified. “Have you been sorted yet?”

“Oh.” She smiled as realized he was talking about Harry Potter. “No, I haven’t.”

“I’m a Ravenclaw,” he told her, “although I wish I was a Gryffindor, like Harry and all the Weasleys. Both of my parents are Hufflepuffs.” He made a face as if being a Hufflepuff was lame.

“I don’t think I’d mind being a Hufflepuff,” she hedged, not wanting to come between Will and his parents. “They seem like the nicest ones, although I’ve only read the first book.”

He shrugged noncommittally. “Can I see your phone?”

“Um, sure.” She pulled it out of her back pocket and unlocked it, swiping away a good luck text from Stella that made her eyes sting before handing it to Will.

He tapped at it for a few seconds before handing it back. “Just answer these questions, and it’ll sort you.”

There was a quiz on her screen. She clicked through the questions quickly, trying to give them the attention they deserved but unable to truly concentrate on anything but the fact that her son was standing in front of her. Her knees shook furiously, and tears pushed at the backs of her eyes as she hit SUBMIT at the bottom of the quiz.

“I can’t look,” she said, handing her phone back to him. “The suspense is killing me. You tell me what I got.”

Will looked at her phone. “You’re a Ravenclaw! Like me.”

“No way.” She grinned as a rogue tear broke free and splashed over her cheek. “Let me see.”

He turned the phone toward her, showing her the blue Ravenclaw logo on the screen. “Ravenclaw is the smartest house. Wait until I tell my parents.” His smile faltered, and he handed the phone back quickly. “I mean…”

She pocketed it and reached for his hand. “They’ll always be your parents, Will. I’m just…well, I’m someone who loves you very much and is so ridiculously glad to be here today for your party.”

“It’s weird,” Will admitted, looking down at his shoes.

“It is weird,” she agreed. “I’m glad we both think so.”

This earned her a smile and a brief glance in her direction. “You look like me.”

“I noticed that too.” It hit her like a punch to the gut every time she looked at him.

“Everyone always asks me where I got my red hair.”

She touched a wayward strand of her hair reflexively. “Now you know, but you don’t have to tell anyone if you don’t want to.”

“It can be our secret,” he said.

She smiled. “Would it be okay if I gave you a hug?”

He hesitated, glancing over at his parents, who were still talking to Mulder, before giving her a shy smile. “Yeah, that’s okay.”

She extended her arms, and Will leaned in as she folded her arms around him. She inhaled the scent of his hair, remembering the last time she’d held him, the little hat with the pointy ears and the way he’d giggled in her arms. Her heart swelled inside her chest so that a few cracks in its surface seemed to repair themselves as the lanky boy in her arms hugged her back.

He pulled free as Mulder and the Van De Kamps approached, and before she’d had a chance to catch her breath, Mulder was taking the house quiz, forehead wrinkled in confusion, obviously having no idea what Hogwarts houses were but eager to play along.

“Oh wow,” Will announced once Mulder had finished taking the quiz. “You’re a Gryffindor. That’s really cool. I’m jealous.”

Mulder beamed at this news, cracking a joke about his bravery. Will ran off, returning a minute later with a blue and gray striped scarf for Scully and a red and yellow one for Mulder. Then he was off again, joining a group of boys his age as they passed around a portable gaming device.

Scully fingered the blue scarf at her neck, suddenly unable to breathe. Her lungs felt heavy and useless, and tears pressed behind her eyes. She cleared her throat, turning to Marsha. “Could you point me toward the restroom?”

“Oh, sure. It’s down the hall on the right.” She gestured toward the front door of the house.

“Thank you.” She excused herself to walk inside, intent on getting herself behind a closed door before she fell apart. But as she walked through the living room, she found herself unexpectedly surrounded by photos. Pictures of Will riding his horse, smiling family portraits, class photos. A life lived without her.

She pressed a hand over her mouth as she rushed for the bathroom, finding it just as the tears broke free. She sat on the closed toilet, buried her face in her hands, and sobbed until the pressure in her chest had eased.

Will was happy. He was a normal kid, living the life she’d wanted for him, the life she’d been unable to give him. It was such a relief, even as it tore her heart out all over again. Her son, her own flesh and blood, was a stranger to her now. It was going to absolutely kill her to walk away at the end of this party, even though she was fiercely grateful for having had the opportunity to come.

Once she’d gotten control of her emotions, she stood and walked to the sink to splash water on her face, then slid her phone out of her pocket and dialed Stella.

She answered on the first ring. “How is it?”

“Well, I’m currently crying in the bathroom,” Scully whispered, sniffling as she patted her eyes, trying to get rid of the redness.

“Oh, Dana…”

“No, it’s good, it really is. I…I hugged him.” The words tumbled out of her in a rush. “He’s a great kid. And Mulder’s here. It’s just overwhelming.”

Stella let out an audible sigh of relief. “I’m so glad. Okay, get yourself together now and go back out there. Save the tears until you get home so I can dry them for you.”

She sucked in a deep breath and blew it out, tears miraculously dissipating at Stella’s words. “Yes.”

“You’ve got this,” Stella told her. “Will is a lucky lad to have two sets of parents who love him. Now go back to the party. I’ll be here for you when you get home.”

“Okay.” She closed her eyes and blew out another breath. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Bye,” she whispered, ending the call. She stood and splashed more water on her face, no longer caring about her makeup. Luckily, her complexion cooled as quickly as it heated, and the splotchiness from her tears was already fading.

After a few more deep breaths, she left the bathroom, surprised to find Mulder sitting on the couch in the living room, elbows on his knees, staring at the floor between his feet. He looked up as she approached, offering her a sad smile. “You okay?”

“Yes and no.” She sat beside him, leaning into him as he wrapped an arm around her.

“Sounds about right.”

“And you?” She looked up at him. “How are you doing?”

“I guess he feels real to me now in a way he never did before.” Mulder stared at the pictures on the wall, a look of such intense longing on his face that her heart pinched.

“That’s a good thing, I think.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m really glad you’re here.” She rested her head against his chest, just breathing in the closeness between them. Maybe, after everything they’d been through, they deserved this day, this chance to make memories with their son. Maybe it would give them closure. Maybe even peace.

“Me too, Scully.”

“I’ve missed you,” she whispered.

“My number hasn’t changed,” he joked.

“I know.” She sat up, giving his knee a squeeze. “Come on. We should get back to the party.”

He stood, walking over to pick up a photo of Will. “No denying he’s our kid, is there?”

“No.” She’d seen the resemblance in the photos the Van De Kamps sent last year, but it still hadn’t prepared her for seeing him in person. In some ways, it made things easier, because it made the connection between them more visible. But at the same time, it made her even more aware of what she’d lost.

She slid her hand into Mulder’s as they walked outside. They made their way to the refreshment table and grabbed sodas, watching as the boys played, acting out scenes from the Harry Potter movies. Marsha approached, a hesitant smile on her face.

“I’m really glad you both could make it,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, but Will was so insistent that he wanted to meet you. Now that you’re here, well…I can see that it was a good thing.”

“I will treasure this day forever,” Scully told her. “Truly.”

“I’m glad,” Marsha said, leaning in to give her an impulsive hug. “I really am.”

“I don’t think I can ever properly thank you for it.” Scully brushed away a tear.

The boys raced up then, asking about cake and presents, and soon they’d all gathered around a rectangular folding table covered in a plastic tablecloth with a chocolate cake at one end. Will sat at the head of the table, smiling broadly as everyone sang to him. Scully felt like she might be having an out of body experience, watching herself from above as she clutched Mulder’s hand and sang Happy Birthday to their son.

She pulled out her cell phone and took a quick picture as Will leaned forward to blow out his candles, hoping she wasn’t overstepping any bounds, but everyone around her had their phones up, taking photos. Slices of cake were quickly doled out, and she and Mulder found a quiet spot beneath a large tree to eat their cake while the kids sat at the table.

“This day wouldn’t have been the same without you,” she told him, grinning as he wiped a spot of frosting from her cheek.

“I’m glad I came.”

After the cake had been eaten, it was time to open presents. Will kept his seat at the head of the table, laughing and shouting as he unwrapped gifts, seemingly thrilled with everything he received. When her box landed on the table in front of him, Scully felt her whole body flush. Truthfully, she had no idea what he liked.

“It’s from Dana,” Will announced, and everyone turned to look at her.

She wanted to melt through the grass at her feet. Did these people know she was his mother? Did they judge her for giving him up? Did they wish she wasn’t here?

Will wasted no time ripping the paper off the box, and the party guests’ attention refocused on him as he whooped. “A Lego Hogwarts set! I had been wanting this one.” He turned to smile at her. “Thank you, Dana.”

“You’re welcome,” she managed to say.

Will ripped through a few more gifts—and received another Lego Hogwarts set, although thankfully a different one—before Mulder’s giant gift bag reached the table. Will pawed through the tissue paper inside before pulling out a baseball bat, glove, and a handful of balls.

Once he’d finished opening gifts, Will rejoined his friends, trying out the Nerf gun one of them had given him. People started to say their goodbyes, and Scully felt a wave of helplessness rise up inside her that it would soon be her turn to say goodbye too.

But before she could quite make up her mind to leave, Will ran up to them, turning to Mulder. “Will you show me how to hit the ball?”

Mulder beamed like someone had just given him an all-access key to Area 51. “Yeah, I’d love to.” As they walked off together, Mulder was already demonstrating the proper way to hold the bat.

Hips before hands.

She remembered that long-ago day when he’d shown her how to bat. She’d played along, so desperately infatuated with him that she couldn’t bring herself to remind him that she had two brothers. She knew how to hit a friggin’ ball. But damn, that had been a good day.

She watched as Mulder helped Will with his stance, snapping more pictures with her phone. How many times over the years had he longed for the chance to teach his son how to hit a ball? The sight of him with Will now had her fighting back tears all over again.

They’d lost so much.

Today, they’d regained a little bit of it. Mulder and Will spent about a half an hour together, with Mulder leading the makeshift batting practice. Around them, party guests headed to their cars. Scully wasn’t sure whether she should stay or go, but she couldn’t quite make herself go.

Finally, Mulder and Will walked off to put the bat away, Mulder’s hand resting on Will’s shoulder, the perfect image of a father and son. When they returned, she decided there was no more postponing the inevitable. “Thank you so much for inviting us to your party, Will.”

He smiled at her. “You’re welcome. And thanks for the Legos. I can’t wait to put it together.”

Send me a picture of it when you’re finished, she wanted to say. But the reality was, she might never see or speak to him again. She held up her phone. “Would you mind if I took a picture of us to remember today by?”

“Yeah, that’s okay,” he agreed, coming to stand beside her.

“I’ll take it for you,” Marsha offered.

“Thank you,” Scully told her, hoping her words expressed her true gratitude for the moment. She stood next to Will, one arm over his shoulders as they smiled for the photo.

“Let me get one of the three of you too,” Marsha offered, and Mulder stepped in beside them. She snapped another photo, and then held up her own phone. “I’d like one too, if you don’t mind. I think we’d all like to remember this day.”

Scully nodded breathlessly, lips shaking as she smiled for the photo. “Thank you.”

And then it was all over. She turned to Will. “I hope you had a great party. Thanks again for inviting me. I’ll never forget it.”

“I won’t either.” He leaned in to give her an impulsive hug. “I’m really glad I got to meet you. Or…re-meet you, or whatever.”

“Yeah.” She smiled at him, memorizing every detail of his face.

“Maybe you can come to my party again next year,” he said.

She tried her very best not to overreact to that, not to scream or cry or leap for the stars. Instead, she just smiled. “I’d love that.”

Mulder and Will said their goodbyes, and she thanked the Van De Kamps again for allowing them to have this day. Then she followed Mulder toward their cars, feeling numb…or drunk…like maybe she was having an incredibly vivid dream that she’d wake from at any moment, alone and miserable in her bed.

She and Mulder stopped by their cars, facing each other. Before she could second guess herself, she flung herself into his arms, hugging him fiercely. He hugged her back, tucking her head beneath his chin the way he’d always done, and it felt so good, so familiar. She exhaled against his shirt, overwhelmed by a sense of affection toward him that she hadn’t felt in years.

She wasn’t in love with him anymore, but he was a part of her life—of her history and her future—in ways that could never be erased.

“Hey Scully, do you want to go get a drink or something?” he asked hesitantly, obviously feeling the connection between them too.

She pulled back, looking into his eyes. “I’m, um, I’m here with someone, Mulder.”

“Oh.” He blinked hard, jaw clenching. “Someone from…from London?”

She nodded. “You know her, actually.”

“Her?” He blinked again. “I do?”

“Stella Gibson.”

He raked a hand through his hair, obviously racking that brilliant brain of his for the name. “The detective we met on the Ronnie Strickland case?”

“Yes.” When she and Mulder first got together, she’d told him about her relationship with Stella, although neither of them had mentioned it since. “We reconnected after I moved to London.”

“And she flew all the way here with you?”

She nodded. “I think the three of us going out for a drink might be…awkward.”

He swallowed, Adams apple bobbing. “Yeah, ah, definitely awkward. But I’m happy for you, Scully. I am.”

“Thank you.” She blew out a breath, leaning in to give him another hug. “And how are you doing, Mulder?”

“I’m good. I’ve been doing more consulting work for the FBI. I even saw Skinner last week.” He grinned at that, and she smiled back.

“That’s amazing,” she said. “Please give him a big hug from me if you see him again.”

“I don’t know about the hug,” Mulder told her. “But I’ll pass along the sentiment.”

“We’re doing okay, aren’t we?” She met his eyes, daring to look directly into them for the first time since she’d walked out of their house over a year ago, no longer afraid of what she might see in those hazel depths.

“Yeah, we are.”

“I’m glad.” She swiped at her eyes. God, how many more tears could she shed today?

“Take care of yourself, Scully.” He walked around to the driver’s side of his rental car.

“You too.” With one final glance over her shoulder, she got into her car and drove away.

Chapter Text

Stella was sure she’d paced a groove into the floor of the cabin by the time she heard the car pulling into the driveway. She’d sat with her laptop for an hour or so, catching up on work, but after Scully’s tearful call from the bathroom of her son’s birthday party, she’d more or less done nothing but wander about the cabin, fidgeting endlessly with her phone to be sure she didn’t miss a call or text. None came, which she hoped was a good sign.

As Scully parked outside, Stella steadied herself, fussing with her hair and smoothing out her blouse. Scully walked through the door, red hair cascading over her shoulders, so beautiful that Stella forgot whatever she’d planned to say.

Scully gave her a shaky smile, and then she was in Stella’s arms, her tears giving way to great soul-shattering sobs that tore at the fibers of Stella’s heart. She held on to her, stroking her back, her hair, her cheeks, as Scully released all the emotions she’d held inside during the party. She cried until the shoulder of Stella’s shirt was saturated with her tears, until her eyes were red and swollen, until finally she just held on to Stella, breathing against her neck, chest spasming from the intensity of her tears.

“It’s okay,” Stella murmured, kissing the tears from her cheeks. “I’ve got you.”

“He…I…” Scully shook her head against Stella’s shoulder, still unable to speak. After a minute, she reached into the back pocket of her jeans and pulled out her phone, showing Stella a smiling photo of herself with a boy that was so unmistakably her son, Stella herself gasped.

“Oh, Dana.” She wiped fresh tears from Scully’s cheeks as they both stared at the photo.

“I know.” She touched the photo with her finger as if remembering the moment. “I still can’t quite believe it happened.”

Stella guided her to the couch, and they sat. “Do you want to talk about it?”

She nodded, a smile tugging at her lips as she swiped a hand over her eyes. “It was hard, so hard, but…oh, Stella, he’s such a great kid.”

“Well, of course he is.”

Scully blew out several long, slow breaths, composing herself. “It was a little awkward at first—Will even said so—but overall I don’t think it could have possibly gone any better. The Van De Kamps were very gracious about the whole thing, and Will seemed happy to meet us.”

“I’m so glad.” Stella rested a hand on Scully’s thigh as she swiped through photos on her phone, showing Stella pictures of Will blowing out the candles on his cake and playing baseball with Mulder. “It’s really good that he came,” she commented as Scully showed her a picture of Mulder with his hands over Will’s, showing him how to grip the bat.

Scully nodded. “This was a really big deal for him. You know, he only got to spend two days with William after he was born before he had to go into hiding. So, I can only imagine what it meant for him to get to teach his son how to bat.”

Scully relaxed into the couch, eyes closed, head against Stella’s shoulder, looking wrung out but peaceful. “I told him about you,” she said after a minute, smiling without opening her eyes.

“Mulder?” Stella felt an uncomfortable pinch in her chest. She’d tried hard all afternoon not to let herself think about Scully and Mulder together with their son, bonding, reminiscing, sharing so many important memories and making new ones. Perhaps this experience would bring them back together. Perhaps it should. Perhaps Stella was driving a wedge between them just by being here.

Scully nodded. “He was surprised, to say the least.”

“I’m sorry,” Stella murmured.

“For what?” Scully gave her a quizzical look from beneath puffy eyelids.

“For coming between you today. You should probably be with him right now.”

“I’m right where I want to be.” Scully lifted her head to place a tender kiss on Stella’s cheek. “He asked me to get a drink with him afterward, and that felt wrong, but I think I’ll see if he’d like to get coffee tomorrow, if he’s still around. We should probably talk about everything that happened today.”

Something cold washed over Stella, and suddenly she was the one who wanted to cry. “Everything that happened?”

“The party,” Scully clarified. “Seeing our son. It was a lot to process, and he’s doing it alone.”

Stella was quiet, trapped in her own discomfort with the situation, not sure what to say.

Scully snuggled closer against her. “Seeing him today only reinforced that I’m not in love with him anymore, in case you were worried about that.”

“I wasn’t worried,” Stella said, hating that she’d been so transparent.

“He’s like family. I care about him…a lot, and he’ll always be a part of my life in some way. But I don’t want to kiss anyone but you.” She turned her face toward Stella’s, bringing their lips together. Scully slid into her lap, straddling Stella’s thighs as she kissed her properly. “I don’t think I could have made it through today without you.”

“Yes, you could. You would have.” Stella gripped Scully’s hips, drawing her closer, pressing their bodies together.

“But I’m so glad I didn’t have to.” Scully looked down at her, eyes brimming with emotion and affection, everything Stella had never wanted and was now terrified she couldn’t live without. “Stella, I—”

“Shh.” She closed her lips over Scully’s, swallowing the words she was afraid to hear, turning them into fuel for the fire burning between them. She pushed Scully flat on the couch and showed her how much she meant to her, and then she melted into the cushions beneath her as Scully returned the favor, putting that wickedly talented tongue to good use.

Afterward, they worked together in the kitchen, making a pizza with the frozen dough Stella had picked up at the grocery store yesterday. They took their supper onto the back deck with a bottle of wine and sat on the cushioned lounge chairs there to watch night fall over the forest.

“I guess there’s a certain charm to being out here in the woods,” Stella said, plucking at a strand of cheese that dangled from her pizza slice.

“Can’t do this in a hotel.” Scully looked up at the patch of sky visible through the branches overhead.

Stella opened her mouth to make a retort about room service but changed her mind. “No, you can’t.”

“Those years when I lived in that house in the middle of nowhere with Mulder…I got to a point where I hated it. I hated it so much, I couldn’t remember the things I had loved about it when we first moved in. Like this.” She stretched out in her chair, feet crossed in front of her.

“I’ve never lived outside the city,” Stella confessed.

“Really?” Scully turned her head to look at her. “Then I’m extra glad I insisted on the cabin.”

“You’re indoctrinating me into nature.”

Scully looked at her, eyes glowing with the reflection of the sunset overhead. “I’m going to indoctrinate you into all kinds of things.”

And that was exactly what Stella was afraid of.

* * *

Scully was so tired she might fall asleep right here in her lounge chair behind the cabin. It was the dizzying kind of exhaustion that came after an emotionally draining day, but there was a sense of peace in her soul now, a calmness where before there had been so much turmoil and unrest.

“I’ve never seen so many stars before,” Stella said softly from beside her.

Scully stared at the swath of sky visible through the canopy of trees overhead. “I wish we could see more of the sky from here. I bet we’d be able to see the Milky Way. It would blow your mind.”

“You already blew my mind.” Stella gave her a suggestive look, keeping the tone between them light. “But yes, I suppose it would be nice to see the Milky Way.”

“I’m sure we could see it from the beach,” Scully said, burrowing deeper beneath the blanket Stella had draped over her. “But I’m too tired to move. Let’s walk down tomorrow night.”

“Is it safe to walk down that path at night?”

“Detective Superintendent Gibson, are you afraid of bears?” Scully asked teasingly.

“I’m not keen on becoming supper for any of the beasts of the forest, no,” she said. “And neither of us is armed this weekend.”

“I’m not sure a handgun would stop a grizzly bear anyway.” Scully laughed softly at the alarmed look Stella tossed in her direction. “I think you need a rifle.”

“Fuck off,” Stella said. “You’re just trying to scare me.”

“No, I’m not. Google it.”

“You know what, on second thought, we can see plenty of stars right here.”

“We could stop in town for bear spray tomorrow, if it makes you feel better.”

“Bear spray?” Stella’s voice rose comically.

“The smell is supposed to repel them.”

“Sounds lovely.” Stella turned her gaze toward the sky.

“Stella for star,” Scully whispered, and beside her, Stella stiffened, her body suddenly carved from granite, a layer of ice over her gaze. The teasing air between them evaporated into the cool night air. Scully reached for her hand, not quite sure what had happened. “Sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Stella responded, her tone distant. “I just…I don’t like it.”

Stella for star. That’s what had upset her?

Scully was silent for a moment, mind spinning as she tried to imagine what the significance might be, already knowing she wouldn’t like the answer. She also knew that if she didn’t push, Stella wouldn’t elaborate, and Scully had shared so many painful things with her, had let Stella hold and comfort her through one of the toughest days of her life, and maybe it was time for Stella to share something in return.

“Who called you that before me?” she asked, taking the risk and hoping it paid off.

“Paul Spector.”

That fucker. Scully reached for Stella’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “And before him?”

Stella was quiet for so long Scully had decided she wasn’t going to answer, so long she wondered whether she’d been wrong in her assumption or whether Stella simply wasn’t ready or able to tell her. Her hand slipped from Scully’s, disappearing beneath the blanket as she tucked her chin, eyes locked stubbornly on the stars above. “My stepfather.”

“Oh,” Scully breathed. Oh. Damn. Fuck. Oh Stella… For a moment, she wished she hadn’t pushed for the answer, and then she hated Stella’s stepfather for what he’d done, and then she just wanted to hold her. Scully rolled onto her side, reaching for Stella, but she pushed her away, body rigid against her touch. “Stella, I am so sorry.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“I know.” She brushed away fresh tears. “I just…can I hold you?”

Stella was silent, but she slid sideways in her chair just slightly, making room for Scully to crawl in beside her, and she did. She tucked herself beneath Stella’s blanket, arms wrapped around her, nose against Stella’s neck, breathing in her scent.

They lay like that for a long time as the forest creaked and rustled around them. Stella gradually softened against her, relaxing into her embrace, accepting her touch and trusting her not to push farther into places Stella didn’t want to revisit. Scully knew that Stella didn’t give this kind of trust easily—if ever—and she was overwhelmed by the power of it.

She loved Stella so much. If this trip had taught her anything, it was that family took many shapes and forms—as did love—and she wanted to celebrate all of it. Sometime before they flew back to London on Monday, Scully was going to find the perfect moment to tell Stella how she felt. Lying there, wrapped in Stella’s arms beneath a blanket of stars, she wondered if there would be a better moment than this one. “Stella…”

As if she’d read Scully’s mind, Stella seamlessly changed topics, tugging at Scully’s hand. “Come on. Let’s go inside.”

“But I’m so tired,” she protested, squeezing her eyes shut.

“You got me to stay in a cabin, but there’s no way I’m sleeping outside with the bears.” Stella stood, lifting the blanket so that cold night air greeted Scully’s previously cozy warm skin.

She started to grumble, but she was so glad to hear the teasing tone back in Stella’s voice that she held it in. “Okay.”

They went inside, bringing the remains of their dinner with them. They were quiet as they got ready for bed, but it was a comfortable silence, punctuated by affectionate glances and bodies touching as they moved around each other in the bathroom. When they slid into bed beside each other, Scully leaned in for a kiss, pressing a hand over Stella’s newly mended ribs, wishing she could heal the rest of her as easily.

“Did he go to prison?” Scully asked softly.

Stella’s breath hitched beneath her palm. She turned her face toward the wall, but she didn’t pull away. “No, but I caught a lot of others.”

Scully thought of the little girl in the dumpster fourteen years ago, the way Stella had come to her hotel room that night, the haunted look in her eyes and her unflinching determination to put the girl’s stepfather behind bars. Now, Scully understood. She wrapped her arms around Stella, nestling her face into the soft depths of Stella’s hair, waiting for her to settle again the way she’d done outside.

Finally, Stella rolled toward her, pressing her lips to Scully’s in the dark. They held on to each other for a long time, just breathing in the unspoken love and trust between them. Scully had never felt closer to anyone in her whole life.

“Thank you,” she whispered as her eyes drifted shut, leaving the interpretation of that up to Stella, but any way she took it wouldn’t be wrong, because Scully was grateful for every moment that had transpired between them.

That night, she slept deeper than she had in days, anchored by the woman beside her. She woke the next morning with her heart comfortably full of memories she’d made yesterday with William and a newfound sense of intimacy with Stella. The bed was empty, and the smell of coffee drifted from the kitchen.

Scully reached for her phone, tabbing through the photos she’d taken at Will’s party, pausing on the picture of them together. Will knew her now. She’d spoken to him and hugged him and watched him blow out the candles on his birthday cake. Once she was back in London, she’d write a letter to the Van De Kamps, properly expressing her gratitude.

With a happy sigh, she got up and went into the bathroom, wrapping her lavender robe around herself before she went in search of Stella. She found her in the living room in her own robe, typing away at her laptop, probably solving a murder case from four thousand miles away.

“Morning,” Scully said.

Stella looked up at her with a smile. “Good morning.”

“Ready for our nature day?” she asked, purposefully needling her, hoping to put to rest any residual discomfort Stella might harbor about the things she’d shared last night.

Stella arched an eyebrow as she returned her gaze to her laptop. “You go ahead. I’ll catch up.”

“As if I’d let you off that easily.” She sat on the couch beside her, eyeing the Metropolitan police logo on her screen. “All work and no play…”

“Piss off,” Stella said. “I have to catch up on some paperwork.”

“Okay, you do that while I cook us breakfast, because we’re going to need fuel in our bellies for hiking.”

Stella slid her hungry gaze over Scully’s robe. “I can think of better ways to burn that fuel.”

“We’ll do that too…later.” Scully stood before Stella was able to successfully distract her and walked into the kitchen. “Omelet sound good?”

Stella nodded, returning her concentration to her laptop while Scully busied herself at the stove, whipping up two omelets with cheese and spinach, lots of protein for all their upcoming activities—both indoor and out. They ate together at the kitchen table before Stella wandered into the bedroom to get dressed while Scully cleaned up in the kitchen.

A few minutes later, Stella walked back into the living room. Scully’s mouth fell open, and she pressed a hand over it to stifle a giggle. Stella had on crisp gray athletic pants with zippered pockets over her thighs and a black button-down shirt tucked into her pants that looked like…was that flannel? She’d finished it all off with black leather hiking boots.

Scully crossed the room and rubbed a hand over Stella’s shoulder. Yep, flannel. “Wow, Stella. This is a look.”

Stella fluffed her hair, looking down her nose at Scully as if the boots gave her an extra six inches, instead of one. “Isn’t this what one wears to go hiking?”

“We’ll call it hiking couture.” She grinned, still stroking Stella’s flannel-clad shoulder.

Stella gave her an exasperated look. “For fuck’s sake.”

Scully laughed all the way into the bedroom, calling over her shoulder as she began looking around for her own hiking clothes, “But really…flannel?”

“It’s a cotton weave,” Stella shot back. “Would you prefer I hiked in silk?”

“No, no. I like the flannel.”

* * *

Stella wasn’t built for hiking. Her feet hurt from the unfamiliar boots, and her shoulders ached from the backpack, not to mention the sweat trickling down her spine. Beside her, Scully’s ponytail bounced against her neck as she chattered happily about the things they’d seen so far.

Trees and rocks. So many fucking trees and rocks.

Stella would have been perfectly content to see them in photos, but she was trying her hardest to be a good sport for Scully’s sake. Holding in a sigh, she swiped at her brow. She’d long since removed the shirt that Scully had found so amusing, now wearing only a form-fitting black tee tucked neatly into her pants.

“I think this is it,” Scully announced, leading the way around a bend in the trail. “Just up here.”

Stella scrambled over several more rocks, following her, and then they were standing at the summit. Before them, the trail ended in a panoramic overlook, revealing immense peaks with sheer rocky races and their lake glittering in the valley below.

“Wow,” Scully breathed, sliding her hand into Stella’s.

Even Stella, sweaty and irritable as she was, had to admit the view was breathtaking. Especially when it included the woman beside her, hair gleaming ruby-red in the sunlight, cheeks flushed from exertion, satisfied smile on her face as she took in their surroundings.

“Perfect spot for a picnic, isn’t it?” Scully slipped off her backpack, unzipped it, and pulled out a blue-checked blanket, which she spread over the ground before them.

“Yes.” Stella sat beside her.

Scully reached for her backpack to begin laying out their food, but Stella was faster, pressing her down to the blanket as she climbed on top of her, hips straddling Scully’s. “I worked up quite an appetite during our hike.”

“Did you?” Scully cocked her head, seamlessly following Stella’s change of topic. “Must have been the heat from all that flannel.”

“It’s cotton, and I do wear it on occasion.” She rolled her hips against Scully’s, causing her to suck her bottom lip between her teeth, hands going to her hair as she looked up at Stella.

“I think this Wyoming air has gone to your head,” Scully teased, arching her back, nipples hard beneath her shirt, blue eyes sparking with mischief.

“That’s entirely possible.” Stella kept moving, rocking their hips together, teasing them both as she tossed her head back, sucking in more of that mountain air. It smelled like earth and wildflowers, sounded like the wind through Scully’s red hair and the whisper of her breath in Stella’s ear right before she came. It felt heady and intoxicating, almost like a drug.

She reached between them, unbuttoning Scully’s jeans. Scully lifted her hips cooperatively, helping Stella tug them down. She slipped her hand inside Scully’s underwear, finding her already wet. “Guess you worked up an appetite too,” she said as she brought her lips against Scully’s, claiming her mouth as her fingers claimed her pussy.

“Mm,” Scully moaned into her mouth, hips moving against Stella’s hand. “Always hungry for you. Always.”

“I thought so.” She fucked Scully hard and fast, and as she cried her release into the mountaintops, Stella lost her breath at the sight. “So beautiful,” she whispered.

“So are you,” Scully countered, rising onto her knees as she rolled Stella to the blanket. “Your eyes are the color of the sky, and your hair…when the breeze blows through it, it’s like spun gold.” Her hands worked open Stella’s pants, pushing them down her hips. “I love when you’re not wearing makeup, and I can see all your freckles.” She kissed her way over Stella’s chest. “Even more beautiful in the sunshine.”

Stella closed her eyes, putty beneath Scully’s eager fingers, heart racing, body burning, ears buzzing at the word “love” on Scully’s lips.

“I love the way you look when you’re this turned on,” Scully whispered as she pushed two fingers inside her, making Stella gasp. “Your cheeks are flushed, and there’s this look in your eyes that’s almost…feral. It’s hot.”

Stella opened her eyes, meeting Scully’s gaze. Right now, she felt feral, lust and need sweeping through her veins, throbbing in her core as Scully fucked her.

“I love the sounds you make when you’re about to come.” Scully arched her fingers, hitting Stella’s G-spot as her palm pressed perfectly against Stella’s clit.

She gasped, hips grinding against Scully’s hand, moaning as the energy built inside her, lighting her up as brightly as the sun blazing overhead before shattering her into a million blissful pieces in Scully’s arms. “Fuck,” she panted as sparks of pleasure burned through her blood, making her tremble.

Scully leaned down and kissed her. “I love you, Stella.”

“Fuck,” she whispered against her lips, still buzzing with pleasure as tears leaked from her eyes, rolling into her hair. “Dana…”

“You don’t have to say anything.” Scully kissed her again, hard and fierce. “I just needed you to know.”

She pulled Scully against her, foreheads pressed together, lips seeking, bodies touching everywhere. She’d been running from those words all weekend, and now that Scully had said them, Stella felt like she’d been filled with sunshine, hot and bright, as wonderful as it was terrifying. Her hands shook as she cupped Scully’s face between her palms. “I love you too.”

As soon as the words were out, she wanted them back. They left her feeling vulnerable and exposed, an intensely uncomfortable sensation. But then she looked into Scully’s eyes. She saw the surprise, the joy, the adoration there, and a sense of peace settled over her. Stella loved so rarely, maybe it was okay to acknowledge on occasion. Surely Scully deserved this moment. It didn’t have to change anything between them once they went home.

“Oh, Stella.” Scully was crying now too. They were both crying, kissing, tears mingling on their faces, salt on their tongues and love in their hearts.

“I don’t know what to do about it,” Stella whispered, heart pounding against Scully’s chest, skin prickling as if it had grown too tight for her body.

Scully gave her a smile, so beautiful and pure Stella melted beneath its power. “Just feel it. That’s all.”

Chapter Text

Scully stood beside Stella on the beach as the moon rose over the lake. A branch cracked somewhere in the woods behind them, and she couldn’t help smiling as she saw Stella clench the can of bear spray in her right hand. Scully wasn’t worried about bears, or mountain lions, or anything else that might be roaming these woods. Nothing was going to ruin this weekend for her, not after her reunion with William and the beautiful moment she’d shared with Stella on a mountaintop that morning.

After their hike, Scully had met Mulder in town for coffee before he flew back to Virginia. Consulting for the FBI was a good thing for him. There was a light in his eyes that she hadn’t seen since they left the X Files ten years ago, and she was so glad to see it. They were both stronger and happier now, and after this weekend, she was more secure about where they stood in each other’s lives now that they were no longer a couple. He seemed to be too.

After coffee with Mulder, she and Stella had gone for another swim in the lake. Then they’d eaten pasta together on the back deck, and now they were down at the lake so she could show Stella the Milky Way before they flew home tomorrow.

“Mulder once told me that starlight is where lost souls go,” she murmured, looking up at the heavens. The sky glowed with millions of stars, eclipsed by the moon that hung silvery bright over the lake in front of them, reflected on its surface in glittering ripples.

“Do you believe that?” Stella asked.

“No.” She smiled at the memory. “But it’s fascinating to think that some of the stars we’re looking at right now are long dead. They’re so far away that their light is still shining on us thousands of years after they’re gone.”

“Never really thought about it,” Stella said, her t’s neat and clipped. After all this time, her accent still made Scully swoon. Maybe it always would.

“Look, there’s the Milky Way.” She pointed at the milky strip overhead, stars so close together the whole sky seemed to glow.

“Okay, that is impressive,” Stella said.

“Worth coming out here for?” Scully threaded their fingers together. Stella’s skin was cool from the night breeze. Her hair had shone like spun gold in the sunlight earlier, but it glowed a shining silver in the moonlight now, equally breathtaking. Scully loved her so much she felt like she might burst from the power of it.

“That remains to be seen,” Stella said, casting her eyes in Scully’s direction. “Depends whether we make it back to the cabin in one piece.”

“The inimitable Stella Gibson is afraid of bears,” she whispered, giving Stella’s shoulder a playful nudge.

“Fuck off,” Stella muttered, but there was laughter in her voice.

They stood there for a long time staring up at the stars before making their way back to the cabin. They went to bed early that night, since they had to be up at the crack of dawn for their flight home to London. Was London home now? As she drifted off to sleep beside the woman she loved, she had a feeling it might be.

The flight was uneventful, although long. They took a taxi together to Scully’s flat, heading straight upstairs to bed since they both had to be at work the next day. Stella sat on the edge of the bed in her white lace-fringed nightgown. “Do you have any lip balm? The flight dried me out.”

“Yeah, just look in the nightstand.” She gestured at the table by the bed before heading into the bathroom to brush her teeth. When she came back out, Stella was curled up in bed with a smug grin on her face.

“Look what I found?” She held up Scully’s hot pink vibrator.

Scully felt her cheeks heat to the color of the toy. “Yes, well, I’m sure you have one too…or more than one.”

Stella gave her an amused look as she pressed the silver button at the base of the toy, frowning when nothing happened. “Thought we might have a little fun with it together.”

“Well, it looks like it needs to be charged.” Scully leaned over to kiss her. “But I don’t think I have the energy tonight anyway. I have to be up in six hours to work a twelve-hour shift.”

Stella pressed the button again, confirming the vibrator was dead before setting it on the table beside her. “Used it up, did you?”

“Um, the opposite of that, really. I don’t think I’ve turned it on since I got here.” She grinned at Stella. “You’ve kept me plenty busy.”

Stella lifted the covers, and Scully crawled in next to her. They shut out the light, and she was asleep almost immediately, deep and dreamless until the alarm woke her the next morning “Ugh.” She rolled over to silence it, brain foggy, eyes gritty. “Jetlag.”

“Tell me about it.” Stella blinked at her from the other side of the bed, looking similarly wrecked. But this was part of the job—for both of them—so they got up without further complaint and got ready for work. Before she walked out the door, though, she took a moment to pop the vibrator onto its charger.

By the time she dragged herself back through the door some thirteen hours later, she’d forgotten all about it. She was exhausted, but Stella—beautiful, workaholic Stella—was still at the office. She’d texted earlier to say she would probably sleep there and that Scully shouldn’t wait up for her.

Well, if this was the price to pay for their weekend together, she would happily pay it. Somewhere in the back of her mind, though, she wondered if Stella was doing this to return some space between them, if she was regretting the things she’d said and shared in Wyoming. Scully pressed a palm against her forehead. She was overthinking this. Stella was busy after taking yesterday off from work. And if she needed some time to herself after their long weekend together, that was fine too.

Scully heated up a microwave meal for herself, and then she marched straight upstairs, ready to fall into bed. The vibrator sat on her nightstand, fully charged. She unplugged it with a smile, remembering the way Stella had held it last night. Just for fun, she pressed the button to turn it on. Nothing happened. She pressed it again. Silence.

“Well, that’s too bad,” she muttered to herself. She tried it a few more times, and then sent a text to Stella.

Sad news. The vibrator is dead.

Almost immediately, Stella texted back. Well then, I’ll have to take you shopping for a new one.

Don’t be silly. I’ll order one online. Scully had never actually visited a store that sold them. Why put herself through that potentially embarrassing situation when she could shop anonymously on the internet—and most likely have access to a larger inventory, not to mention customer reviews?

Where’s the fun in that? Stella replied.

The fun comes after it arrives. She added a winking emoji.

I’ll take you shopping on Saturday.

Fine. Good night, Stella. Don’t work too hard.

Night, love.

Scully pressed a hand against her heart. Yes, it was a British term of endearment, but Stella had never used it with her before, and…gah. She set the useless vibrator aside and lay in bed, still wearing her scrubs, asleep almost before her head hit the pillow.

* * *

Stella worked until her eyelids felt like sandpaper scraping over her eyeballs every time she blinked. It felt good to be back in her office. The fatigue was like an old friend, welcome and familiar. The cot behind the desk was her mistress, offering a respite—albeit brief—from the file in front of her.

Wyoming felt surreal, almost like a dream. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw Scully, fingers buried deep inside her as she told her she loved her, hand in Stella’s as she showed her the Milky Way, blushing furiously as Stella held her vibrator.

Dana.

Stella inhaled sharply, pressing a hand against her chest. She’d been wrong on that mountaintop because her declaration of love changed everything. Now, it was a tangible part of herself, something she was aware of every minute of the day. This was it for her. There would never be another person to infiltrate her heart the way Scully had. And yet she still feared the painful, inevitable truth. It couldn’t last, not for someone like her. It would end, the way all her relationships did. Scully would return to America at the end of her fellowship. And Stella would have to remember how to live without her.

What did a life without her even look like? Stella lifted her head, realizing that it looked like…this. An office devoid of personal photos, case files stacked in front of her, a harsh fluorescent bulb overhead, burning her eyes into dust. With a heavy sigh, she shut off her laptop, turned out the light, and crawled onto the cot waiting for her, barely conscious long enough to pull the blanket over herself.

When she woke, voices echoed outside her office, officers working cases, fighting crime, chasing killers, an endless cycle of good versus evil. She lay for a moment, staring up at the white-tiled ceiling overhead, grateful she’d managed a few peaceful hours of sleep. She rolled to her side and picked up her phone, blinking past the grittiness in her eyes.

Morning. Hope you catch whatever fucker you’re after this week.

It was from Scully, of course. No one else texted Stella outside of work, which was either sad or efficient, depending how she looked at it. A smile tugged at her lips as she scrolled through her camera roll to the selfie she and Scully had taken atop that mountain on Sunday, both of them smiling widely, arms around each other, cheeks pressed together.

When was the last time she’d taken a carefree photo like this?

She couldn’t even remember. With a sigh, she sat up, stretching past the various aches and pains in her body. Truth: she wasn’t as young as she used to be. She would be up for promotion soon. Was it time to give up this life, move up the management chain, let someone else lose sleep over the rapists and murderers not yet caught?

It was a question for another day. She set her phone on the desk, grabbed a clean change of clothes from the closet, and made her way down to the locker room to shower and prepare herself for the day ahead. Thirty minutes later, she called DC Welsh and DC Copeny into her office to discuss strategies and steps in the Flynn murder. After that, she headed to the morgue to receive the autopsy findings, and then walked straight into a meeting with her boss, Chief Superintendent Chris George, and several other high-ranking officers to discuss the department’s crime solving rate so far this year.

She’d just returned to her office, sinking gratefully into the chair behind her desk, when she heard a familiar laugh. She looked up to see Scully charming Anwar behind the reception desk. Scully watched with a dazzling smile as he leaned back in his chair, entertaining her with one of his wild tales, hands up and waving wildly. His gaze dropped—just briefly—to Scully’s cleavage, visible above the vee neck of her scrubs, and then he leaned in to whisper something in her ear.

Stella stood and walked to the door of her office, leaning a hip against the frame, left eye twitching furiously as she chewed her bottom lip, eyes searing into the top of Scully’s head until she finally looked up, meeting Stella’s gaze. She didn’t bother to blink, letting Scully feel every possessive ounce of her displeasure.

Scully had visited headquarters often enough that Anwar and most of the junior officers up front knew her by name. They knew she was here to see Stella. Maybe some of them had their suspicions, but honestly, she doubted it. They had assumed Scully was a friend, a colleague even, simply because they hadn’t bothered to pay attention. And therefore, Anwar felt comfortable flirting with her right under Stella’s nose.

Scully walked toward her now, holding Stella’s unblinking gaze. She reached the doorway in which Stella remained unmoving, hip cocked, arms crossed over her chest. She waited until Scully was right in front of her, and then she uncoiled herself from the doorframe, placing one hand possessively on Scully’s hip, just low enough to make her intention clear.

She looked toward the reception desk, catching Anwar’s gaze. She made sure he saw, and more to the point, that he understood, and then she kicked the door to her office shut behind them.

Chapter Text

By the time Saturday rolled around, Scully was more than ready for a day off. The work week had felt long, even though it had actually been short, since she and Stella had flown home from Wyoming on Monday. Despite her exhaustion, she was really enjoying her fellowship. She felt invigorated about her career in a way she hadn’t since leaving the FBI and was finally fully confident she’d made the right move, switching to forensic pathology.

But now that her fellowship was drawing to an end, decisions needed to be made. Her lease was up in two weeks. Her flight home to Maryland had been booked since before she arrived in London. Except now, she wasn’t sure she wanted to take it. She needed to have a talk with Stella, the terrifying kind of conversation that could make or break their relationship, and Scully was already so worried about it she could hardly breathe.

She and Stella barely seen each other this week. They’d both worked long hours, and although they’d managed to spend a couple of nights together, there hadn’t been much time for anything but sleeping. So, when Scully woke next to her on Saturday morning, she snuggled deeper under the covers, intensely grateful for this time to just…be. Beside her, Stella’s eyes blinked open. She watched Scully with a kind of lazy satisfaction on her face.

She was breathtakingly beautiful in these first moments of the day, when she was still relaxed and sleepy, blonde hair tossed over the pillow behind her. There was a peacefulness about her, an innocence lurking in the azure depths of her eyes before she buttoned herself up for the day. How would she react to the things Scully needed to say?

“We should go out to dinner tonight,” she said impulsively. “Someplace romantic but private.”

“Special occasion?” Stella asked, hands roaming over the hem of Scully’s sleep shorts.

“Not really. We just haven’t gone out in a while, and maybe we need some time to talk.”

Stella’s fingers, which had just reached the band of Scully’s underwear, paused. “Talk?”

Scully resisted the urge to flinch. Instead, she scooted closer, fingering the lacy bodice of Stella’s nightgown. “We don’t have to spend all our time fucking.”

Stella’s expression softened, but there was a wariness in her eyes that hadn’t been there before. No doubt, she was as aware of the upcoming date on the calendar as Scully was. “Speaking of fucking, I believe I promised to take you shopping today.”

“Shopping?” Still caught up in her own internal battle, it took Scully a moment to follow Stella’s change of topic. The vibrator that needed replacing. Right.

“Yes.” Stella’s fingers were moving again, teasing Scully through her underwear.

“Who needs a vibrator when I have you?” Scully tilted her hips toward Stella’s hand, trying to increase the whisper soft brush of her fingers.

“Why settle for one when you can have both?”

“Good point.” She closed her eyes as Stella drew circles over her clit through her underwear, teasing. “Stella…”

In response, Stella crawled on top of Scully, straddling her, hips frustratingly still. “We should wait until after we’ve gone shopping.”

“What? No.” She squirmed beneath Stella’s weight, uncomfortably aroused. She felt Stella’s heat through the thin layers of cotton separating them and knew she was just as aroused. She also knew Stella was getting off on this little game. Distraction. That’s what this was. She was distracting Scully from the conversation they needed to have. And it was working, because nothing seemed as important right now as the press of Stella’s hips against her own.

“Patience, Dana.” Stella rolled her hips, just once, and Scully arched into the contact.

Two could play this game. She reached between them, teasing Stella through her nightgown, feeling her wetness, seeing the heat in her eyes. Then Stella was touching her too, stroking her mercilessly through her pajamas, driving her wild. They kept on like that until both of them were breathing hard. Scully’s panties were soaked, her clit throbbing when Stella broke free and slipped out of bed.

“Get dressed,” she called over her shoulder as she walked toward the bathroom. “We’ve got shopping to do.”

Scully glared at her back, bringing her hand between her legs. She just needed a quick minute to finish herself off, and then she’d be more than happy to go shopping.

But Stella turned around, her expression smug. “None of that.”

“I hate you,” Scully grumbled as she climbed out of bed, rummaging through Stella’s drawers for something to wear.

“No, you don’t,” Stella called as she shut the bathroom door behind her.

“No, I don’t,” she agreed quietly as she stripped out of her pajamas and got dressed.

Stella returned a minute later, face damp from washing, but the hungry gleam in her eyes let Scully know she was sticking to the rules she’d set. She pulled Scully into her arms and kissed her, hard. “It’ll be worth it. I promise.”

They finished getting ready—which involved a lot of unnecessary touching, both of them finding any excuse to bump into each other, hands brushing against fabric, hips rubbing. Stella’s nipples were hard beneath her blouse as they walked outside, the taxi she’d called already waiting at the curb for them.

“Brunch first,” she announced, giving the driver an address near one of her favorite shopping districts.

Horny as she was, Scully’s stomach grumbled hungrily at the thought. She and Stella had been too busy teasing each other to eat, or even to fix coffee. Fifteen minutes later, the taxi pulled up in front of a café with ample open-air seating, which seemed perfect for the unusually sunny June day brewing around them.

They were seated at a table for two near the back of the patio. Stella ordered poached eggs and sausage with a side of hash, while Scully ordered avocado toast, which earned her a reproachful yet amused look from Stella.

“So, have you got any plans for the rest of the day?” Stella asked sweetly as she sipped her tea.

Scully leaned in to whisper in her ear, “Fuck you.”

“Oh, you will,” Stella answered smugly. She was thoroughly enjoying herself, dammit.

Scully was tempted to kiss that smile off her face, but she knew Stella would only enjoy that even more. So, they ate brunch, legs occasionally bumping beneath the table. Once, Stella’s hand even found its way onto Scully’s thigh, squeezing firmly. As much as she hated to admit it, there was something to be said for Stella’s little game.

Scully couldn’t remember when she’d spent this much time thinking about sex, anticipating it, wanting it, needing it, her every thought consumed by the beautiful woman on the other side of the table. Stella held her gaze, devouring her with her eyes as she sipped quietly from her tea.

After they ate, Scully excused herself to the bathroom, only to be followed by Stella. They went about their business quietly until they were at the sink washing their hands. Stella glanced around to make sure they were alone before pressing Scully against the door, effectively blocking entrance to the bathroom as she brought her mouth to Scully’s, meeting her for a hungry kiss.

She fitted their bodies together like they were pieces of a puzzle she already knew by heart, and Scully was ready to kneel at Stella’s altar, because surely this was the best idea she’d ever had. The thrill of the game, of the shopping ahead and the evening to follow…she was dying in the very best possible way. After a hot and heavy minute, Stella drew back, winking as she led the way out of the bathroom.

They left the restaurant, and then Scully was filled with a different kind of anticipation, a combination of nerves and heat as she imagined not only what it would be like to step inside a sex shop, but to do so with Stella.

The shop itself was nondescript from the outside, with a brick exterior and a painting of a couple in a passionate embrace in the window. The shop’s name—Shag—was printed in black letters over the door. Stella took Scully’s hand as they entered, walking with the same unflinching confidence in which she entered any situation, be it a murder scene or a sex shop.

Her heels clicked across the polished floor as she walked, and Scully caught several heads swiveling in her direction. Not for the first time, she wondered if Stella was truly unaware of her admirers or only pretended not to notice. With her, it was hard to be sure. Either way, Scully felt an odd sort of pride to be walking beside her.

The only other occupants of the store were a couple looking at lingerie along the righthand wall, an older woman browsing a display case in back, and the saleswoman behind the counter, dressed in a formfitting black leather skirt and a matching silk blouse, her hair in a neat bun at the back of her head.

Scully tried not to gawk, tried to act as nonchalant as Stella as they made their way through the store. It was less tacky than she’d anticipated, no mannequins sporting strap-ons or racks of leather and whips. On the contrary, the store was upscale, posh, and seemed to cater almost exclusively to women.

The shelves were lined with pink satin, soft music played in the background, and the racks of lingerie featured more silk and lace than Scully had ever seen—even in Stella’s closet. As Scully took in her surroundings, Stella was already guiding her toward a table on the left, which displayed vibrators of every size, shape, and color.

Samples had been set out for customers to touch, with boxed versions of each model stacked behind for purchase. Just the sight of all those toys brought the ache between her thighs back to life. Stella lifted a small, purple, teardrop-shaped vibrator similar to Scully’s old one and held it on her palm.

“A vibrator like this is a good place to start,” Stella said. “A staple for any woman’s collection, but have you ever tried a G-spot stimulator?”

The saleswoman, who had walked over to assist them, stopped in her tracks, giving Stella an impressed look. “Let me know if you need any assistance,” she said, making it obvious from her tone that she appreciated a woman who knew her way around a sex shop.

“I will, thank you,” Stella told her, before turning back to Scully. “So?”

“Um.” Scully looked over her shoulder, making sure no one was close enough to listen in on their conversation. She’d shot people, and sliced and diced bodies for a living, but she’d never discussed vibrators in public before. “I tried one once, but it didn’t do anything for me. Maybe I just didn’t know what I was doing with it.”

“Well, modern day toys have come a long way,” Stella said as she lifted another one off its stand. This one was a deep eggplant color, long and curved and wider on one end. “This is a dual clitoral and G-spot vibrator. You can use it for either or both simultaneously. It can be a bit tricky to get the positioning right. Better if you have a partner to help you.” Her eyes sparkled dangerously at this, and the ache between Scully’s thighs began to throb.

“I guess you’d need the right partner, then,” she said, playing along as she reached for the vibrator in Stella’s hand. It was softer than she’d expected, almost like human skin.

“Try a few and see what textures you like,” Stella told her, standing close enough that Scully could feel the heat radiating from her body and smell the floral scent of her lotion.

“I like the feel of this one.” Scully slid her hand up and down the length of the toy, watching as Stella bit her lower lip, gaze locked on Scully’s fingers.

“Some of them are battery-warmed,” Stella said, reaching over to press a button on the one Scully held. It began to buzz, vibrating against her palm.

Her breath hitched. She couldn’t believe she was getting this turned on in a sex shop. This day was officially insane. And also strangely fun. She pressed her hand against Stella’s, the toy vibrating between them. “I think we should get this one.”

“Whatever you want,” Stella said, the picture of perfect poise, but her nipples were hard beneath her shirt, and it sure as hell wasn’t cold in here.

They spent a few more minutes browsing vibrators. Scully picked out a small one like the one she’d lost in addition to the fancy one Stella had suggested. She’d imagined that Stella would lead her through the shelves of oils and accessories next, but to her surprise, Stella headed straight for the register, her haste betraying her outward calm. She was losing patience with her own game.

“Oh hey, Stell, look at these.” Scully stopped in front of a rack of handcuffs.

Stella arched a brow. “Surely, you’ve used those before.”

“Well, yeah.” She and Mulder had played around with their cuffs a lot back in the day. “But I don’t carry cuffs anymore, and police issue handcuffs aren’t exactly designed for comfort, anyway. They lead to a lot of unfortunate bruises and chafing. But these…” She lifted a pair of pink fur-lined cuffs. “These look fun.”

Stella’s tongue darted out to wet her lips as she looked from the cuffs to Scully’s face. “You should get them, then.”

“I think I will.” But when she looked over at the register, the pretty saleswoman was gone. In her place was a man, dressed just as nicely in all black. He was cute…in a younger man kind of way. And she felt stupidly flustered at the idea of handing him her new vibrators and kinky handcuffs. Knowing Stella would find this ridiculous, Scully tossed her hair over her shoulders and walked ahead, plopping her purchases in front of the salesman with a polite smile.

“Did you find everything you were looking for?” he asked as he began ringing up her purchases.

“Yes, I did. Thank you.”

Stella stood beside her, fingers tapping absently at the countertop, eyes roaming over the various sexy knickknacks on display.

“Nothing for you?” he asked her.

Stella looked up at him. “Not today. Just helping her shop.”

“A good friend,” he observed, his gaze dropping to Stella’s breasts.

Instead of feeling jealous, Scully suppressed a smile as she waited for Stella to tell him off, or perhaps even more likely…drop him with that icy look of disapproval that left men and women alike cowering in her wake. But when Scully looked over at Stella, she was giving him the look, the one that made Scully wet every time she was on the receiving end of it, the one that said, “I want to devour you.”

And okay, now she was jealous. And pissed. What the fuck, Stella? Scully huffed as she accepted the hot pink bag the man passed across the counter to her, fuming silently as she signed the receipt and strode out of the store ahead of Stella, who had an awfully satisfied look on her face. What game was she playing now? Scully couldn’t keep up.

“What the hell was that?” she spat as they reached the sidewalk, but as she rounded on her, Stella grabbed her elbow, pulling her in for a sloppy kiss, tongue delving deep into Scully’s mouth as their bodies bumped together.

When she pulled away, Stella tossed a satisfied glance over her shoulder at the window to the shop and the man behind the counter, whose mouth was hanging open comically as she’d obviously intended. “That,” she said, as she took Scully’s hand, guiding her toward an available taxi at the end of the block, “was for letting Anwar flirt with you at the office last week.”

“Payback’s a bitch,” Scully muttered, smiling now as she followed Stella down the street.

“And so am I.”

Chapter Text

They went to Scully’s flat, since it was closer. As the taxi carried them across town, Stella entertained herself by making out with Scully, her thoughts occupied somewhere between the heat of Scully’s mouth and the contents of the bag on the floor between her feet.

When they finally stepped out in front of her building, Stella pushed her up against its stone façade, pressing their bodies together much the way she’d done on Scully’s first night back in London, when they’d barely made it inside her flat before they started tearing each other’s clothes off.

The urgency bubbling inside Stella today was just as powerful, if not more so, fueled by hours and hours of anticipation. She was losing at her own game, slightly desperate as she wedged her thigh between Scully’s and sucked a beautiful hickey onto her neck. She shoved a hand beneath Scully’s shirt, palming her breast through the lace of her bra, drawing a gasp and a giggle from her lips.

“Come on, Stella. This is insane. Let’s go inside.”

Stella pulled back, steadying her breathing as Scully unlocked the front door. They were quiet as they walked up the stairs so that Scully could let them into her flat. And then, without pause, they headed straight up to the loft. Scully tossed the bag onto her bed and turned to Stella.

Within moments, they had scrambled out of their clothes as their mouths met for a ravenous kiss. Stella reached for the bag and took out the handcuffs, placing the key on the table beside the bed. Then she pushed Scully onto the sheets, watching as her hair spread like a crimson halo around her head, cheeks flushed as she looked at the pink-lined cuffs in Stella’s hand.

Slightly drunk with anticipation, Stella climbed on top of her, pinning her to the bed as her hands slid down to grip Scully’s wrists. She pulled Scully’s hands above her head, pausing for a moment to take in the sight of her, naked and at Stella’s mercy.

Scully looked up at her, a challenge rising to the shining surface of her eyes. “No.”

Stella froze, blinking at Scully for a moment as if she’d heard her wrong. She released her wrists, sitting up so that her hips straddled Scully’s, unsure what the hell was going on.

“It’s my turn,” Scully said, rising so swiftly that she had Stella pinned to the mattress beneath her before she’d realized what was happening. Scully settled into her position of power, grinning down at Stella as she sucked in a startled breath. “My toys, my bed, my rules.”

Stella narrowed her eyes, jaw jutting automatically in defiance, heart pounding even as she felt herself grow wetter beneath the powerful grip of Scully’s thighs. She made a show of protesting, tugging against Scully’s grip on her wrists, but the satisfied grin on Scully’s face made it clear she already knew Stella was going to let her do this.

When Scully snapped the cuff around her wrist, though, a shudder of something very real ran through her, so real that even Scully felt it. She paused, leaning down to kiss Stella before she cuffed her other wrist. “Is this okay?” she murmured against her lips.

Stella squeezed her eyes shut as she nodded, a heady combination of surprise and arousal buzzing through her veins. She had cuffed her share of partners in bed, getting a thrill off the total control, the power she could yield once that person was completely, one hundred percent at her mercy. But she had never given up that control, never trusted anyone enough to give them this much power over her.

A hot rush of awareness rolled over her skin as she let Scully cuff her to the headboard. Maybe these toy cuffs would be trivial to break out of if she really tried. But maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe she was truly at Scully’s mercy.

She opened her eyes, watching as Scully took the rest of their purchases out of the bag. And then she disappeared down the stairs. The sink ran, and Stella knew without asking that Scully was washing the new vibrators like the good doctor she was. This was the person Stella had given herself over to, the woman whose first act after cuffing her to the bed was to sanitize their new toys.

The knot in her chest loosened. As she waited for Scully, she scooted herself closer to the headboard, flexing her wrists, testing the cuffs. The soft fur lining cushioned her skin from the metal, and for a moment, she wished for real cuffs, cold steel digging into her wrists, the bite of pain increasing her pleasure.

Then Scully was crawling up her body, the smaller vibrator in her hand. She brought her lips to Stella’s as she pressed the button so that it started buzzing in her hand. Stella’s thighs pressed together in anticipation. Scully’s mouth drifted to Stella’s neck, placing hot, wet kisses on her skin as she pressed the vibrator against Stella’s stomach. It tickled, making her squirm even as she felt another rush of wetness between her thighs.

“Dana…” She arched her back, wishing for the freedom to put Scully’s hands where she wanted them.

“Patience,” Scully purred, sliding the vibrator down Stella’s stomach in a frustratingly slow path toward its destination.

Stella breathed, focusing on the brush of Scully’s hands as they slid over her ribs, the heat of her mouth as she licked her way over Stella’s breasts. The toy hummed softly between them, tucked somewhere Stella couldn’t feel it, teasing her with just the sound.

Scully dipped lower, and suddenly Stella felt it buzzing against her hipbone, close enough to where she needed it that the ache between her thighs intensified, making her restless with anticipation. She shifted beneath Scully, biting her lip against the whimper in her throat.

“Is this what you need?” Scully murmured as she slipped the toy between Stella’s thighs, coating it in her wetness before pressing it against her clit.

“Yes.” She sighed in relief, her body coming alive as the toy vibrated against her.

With a wicked smile, Scully lowered her hips, sandwiching the toy between them. She settled into place, moving her hips rhythmically against Stella’s. “What about this?”

“Yes.” Stella’s voice was like cut class, smooth and sharp as it left her mouth. She tilted her hips, trying to increase the contact between them, increasingly aroused but still needing more. And then she watched Scully’s grand plans for her moment of power unravel as she succumbed to her own pleasure.

She began to move her hips in earnest, head thrown back, tits bouncing with each thrust of her hips against Stella’s. She reached between them, and the vibration kicked up a notch, making them both gasp. Scully circled her hips, and Stella bucked beneath her.

“More,” she panted, frustrated with her lack of freedom, with the way Scully’s thighs clamped around her own, pinning her legs together, preventing her from fully appreciating the toy. She needed to be touched. She needed control.

And then, with a moan, Scully came, hips grinding against Stella’s as she rode out her release. Stella watched, entranced as ever with the play of pleasure across Scully’s features, the silent O of her lips, the pink of her cheeks, the flutter of her eyelashes.

So fucking beautiful.

And pleasure turned to power as Scully regained her composure. She looked down at Stella with a truly wicked glint in her eyes, radiating dominance, making Stella shiver with anticipation.

“Here’s the deal,” Scully whispered as she leaned down to kiss her. “You don’t come until I tell you to.” She spread her warm body over Stella’s, skin pressing everywhere as she brought her hand between Stella’s thighs, pushing several fingers inside her as the toy continued to vibrate against her clit. “Got it?”

“Hm?” Stella deflected, wholly distracted as Scully pumped her fingers in and out of her body, filling Stella the way she’d needed to be filled, fingers curling forward to stroke her G-spot on each stroke. Stella arched her back, hips moving to the rhythm Scully had set, eyes fluttering shut as the pressure inside her built.

“Stella…” Scully’s fingers stilled.

Stella grumbled in protest, opening her eyes to find Scully staring down at her in faux exasperation.

Scully’s eyes narrowed. “Did you hear what I said?”

You don’t come until I tell you to.

Stella pinched her bottom lip between her teeth, biting back her instinctive rejection. She didn’t let people dominate her this way. But then she thought of the date looming on the calendar, the conversation she was desperate not to have, and she knew she would give Scully anything she wanted if only it let them preserve this happy bubble they’d been inhabiting just a little while longer. “Mm, yes. Got it.”

“Good,” Scully said with a satisfied smile as she began to move again, swamping Stella in sensation, and really, how could she complain if this gorgeous goddess wanted to fuck her senseless? The sight of Scully above her, proud and confident as she exerted control, was absolutely breathtaking and also extremely arousing.

She was so close, so close. She tilted her hips into Scully’s hand, and fuck yes, that was exactly what she needed. Just as she felt herself on the edge of release, Scully withdrew her fingers, reaching between them to shut off the vibrator.

“You were going to disobey me,” she said in a surprisingly stern voice.

“Oops,” Stella whispered, drawing on what was left of her composure to keep from moaning as her core clenched helplessly around nothing.

“I’m going to have to punish you for that,” Scully murmured as she bent her head and kissed her, mouth hot and demanding.

Stella nipped at her bottom lip hard enough to make Scully gasp. Her patience was infinite when she was in control but frayed quickly when she was not, and right now, she was torn between her mounting frustration and the unexpected part of her that was…really fucking enjoying this.

Scully met her eyes for a loaded moment before she ducked her head, kissing a path between Stella’s breasts, tongue swirling over her skin as she made her way across Stella’s ribs and down her stomach, drawing slowly closer to where Stella needed her.

“Fuck,” she hissed as Scully’s tongue swiped over her clit, reigniting the fire inside her.

Scully licked and sucked, again bringing Stella to the edge—which didn’t take long given the amount of teasing she’d already endured—before slipping away to kiss a scorching trail down Stella’s inner thigh.

She couldn’t help the whimper that escaped her lips. Her legs shook, skin burning beneath Scully’s kisses. She squeezed her eyes shut, exquisitely aware of every flick of Scully’s tongue as she lavished Stella’s inner thigh with the heat of her mouth. Distantly, she remembered that night so long ago when Scully had reverently kissed her way over the scars there, back when Stella had been young and vulnerable. Today, there was nothing but heat and anticipation, so much fucking heat and anticipation.

Stella arched her back, half wild with the need thrumming inside her. “Dana…”

“Are you ready to behave?” Scully murmured against her skin.

“Yes.” Stella barely recognized her own voice, it was so pitched…so needy.

Scully covered her with her mouth, sucking hard, and Stella’s hips bucked off the bed. “Fuck,” she gasped.

Scully explored her folds slowly and thoroughly, licking and kissing every inch of her while Stella’s brain went up in flames. Surely, she’d never experienced anything this intensely erotic in her entire life, arousal building steadily until it consumed every cell in her body, her entire consciousness distilled to the heated pleasure of Scully’s tongue.

It took every bit of her strength not to grind her hips against Scully’s deliciously talented mouth, and even so, she felt herself rapidly approaching the point of no return. “Dana, I can’t…” Her hips bucked, betraying her desperation.

Scully lifted her head, a look in her eyes Stella had never seen before, and it was so hot, it almost sent her right over the edge. “You need to come?” Scully asked calmly.

“Yes.” Stella could barely breathe past the need throbbing inside her.

Scully held her in that searing gaze. “Beg for it.”

Stella’s jaw clenched, and she shifted restlessly. “Please.”

Scully’s tongue flicked her clit. “Please what?” Her breath teased Stella’s wet skin.

“Please make me come,” she answered without hesitation, no longer trying to hold back as her hips moved against Scully’s mouth.

“Good girl,” Scully murmured as she got down to business. She pushed two fingers inside Stella as her tongue swirled over her clit, fucking her hard and fast, driving her relentlessly toward her much-needed release.

Stella moaned, breathing in ragged pants as the pressure inside her built, so intense she thought she might come apart at the seams from the strength of it. And suddenly, it was too much. She yanked against the cuffs as something akin to panic roared to life inside her.

And just as quickly, Scully had slid up to meet her, lips pressed to Stella’s, anchoring her in the tranquil depths of her eyes as her fingers slowed, steadying Stella until she’d recovered her balance. “Okay?” she whispered.

Stella nodded breathlessly, grounded beneath the welcome weight of Scully’s body. She stared into Scully’s eyes as release ignited in her core, pulsing through her in endless, blissful waves. “Fuck,” she sobbed, arching into Scully as she rode out one of the most intense orgasms of her life. “Dana…”

“I’ve got you.” Scully kissed her as her fingers coaxed Stella to new heights. With a gasp, Scully ground herself against Stella’s thigh, and then she was coming too, their hips moving together messily until they collapsed in a tangle of limbs, slick with sweat and sex.

After a minute, Scully leaned over to retrieve the handcuff key, freeing Stella’s hands one at the time. She rubbed her wrists as she folded Stella’s arms against her body, kissing her as Stella rolled her shoulders, stretching out her cramped muscles.

Then she wrapped her arms around Scully, holding tight, as unexpected tears flooded her eyes. She pressed her face into the fiery depths of Scully’s hair to cover the moment, wondering helplessly how she was supposed to give her up in just two weeks.

* * *

They spent the next several hours exploring Scully’s new toys. Stella used the fancy dual action vibrator on her, and Scully came so hard, she thought she might still be feeling the aftershocks a week from now. Afterward, ravaged and ravenous, Scully ceded her plans to go out to dinner in favor of ordering in.

She and Stella wrapped themselves in robes and ate Chinese food on the couch as they revived themselves from their bedroom workout. Once they were comfortably full, they snuggled together on the couch. Stella lay with her head in Scully’s lap, eyes closed as Scully toyed with her hair, running her fingers through its soft, honeyed depths.

They still had things to discuss, and maybe it was better done here at home than in a restaurant anyway. Scully stared down at her, so desperately in love that it brought tears to her eyes. “Stella, we have to talk about what happens after I finish my fellowship.”

Stella’s eyes opened, turbulent and stormy. “Not tonight,” she whispered, something raw in her tone. “Please.”

“Okay,” Scully agreed, wiping away a tear. If there was one thing she excelled at, it was avoidance of her emotions. It was a big part of the reason it had taken seven years for her and Mulder to get together, and also why she’d clung to their relationship for so many miserable years after things between them had fallen apart. Queen of avoidance, thy name is Dana Scully.

And so, she let Stella postpone their conversation that night.

And the next night.

And the next.

For a week, she tried to find the right moment, but every time she opened her mouth, she either chickened out on her own, or Stella skillfully changed the subject. The end of Scully’s time in London was looming ever closer, and they both knew it.

What Stella didn’t know was that Scully had signed up to take her boards here in London as well as back in the states, giving herself a little more time to decide where she was going to live. After she completed her fellowship, she’d spend the next month or so studying for the test. And she wanted to stay here with Stella for that time. Forever, maybe. Hopefully. But at least until she took her boards.

So, as she packed the boxes of belongings she’d brought with her to London, she didn’t ship them back to Maryland. Instead, she stacked them against the wall in the living room, leaving them in limbo with the rest of her life.

On Friday, she finished her fellowship, emerging from the hospital exhausted but victorious. It had been a rigorous two months, but she’d learned so much, accomplished so much, and rediscovered the thrill of a job that truly fulfilled her. She’d hoped to celebrate with Stella that night, but she called as Scully was leaving the hospital to say that her biggest case had just broken and she’d be spending the night at the office.

“I’m sorry,” she said, sounding so genuinely apologetic that it made Scully’s heart ache with affection.

“Don’t be,” Scully told her. “Go catch your guy, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I’ll call you in the morning,” Stella told her. “Congratulations, Dana.”

“Thank you.”

Several of her colleagues had invited her out for drinks to celebrate, and since Stella wasn’t around, she decided to accept. They went to a bar near the hospital, sharing beer and morgue humor and so much laughter Scully was still giddy from it as she stumbled home that night, slightly tipsy and a whole lot happy.

She slept hard and deep that night, the kind of sleep that always accompanied the end of an extremely rigorous period in her life. On Saturday morning, she woke slowly, enjoying the freedom to lay in bed and do absolutely nothing. In that moment, the rest of her life was wide open, hers to make of it whatever she wanted. A new job. A fresh start. It didn’t take long for her thoughts to wander to Stella, wondering where she was, how her night had gone, if she’d successfully caught her killer.

Scully got up and showered and put on a pot of coffee. She fixed herself some toast and had just finished eating when Stella texted to say she was downstairs. A wide smile covered Scully’s face as she pressed the button to buzz her in. Moments later, Stella was at her door, dressed in a black silk blouse and pants, clearly having come directly from the office. There was an exhaustion in her eyes that told Scully she’d barely slept in days.

“Hi.” She pressed a quick kiss to Stella’s lips as she tugged her through the door. “Coffee?”

“Please.” Stella nodded as she sank into one of Scully’s kitchen chairs.

“So, you got him?” Scully asked as she set a cup in front of her.

“Thank you.” Stella lifted it and took a grateful sip. “Yes. Full confession. Combined with the evidence we accumulated against him, he’ll go straight through to sentencing.”

Scully felt a surge of pride in her chest. “You’re good at this.”

Stella’s eyes darted up to meet hers, just briefly. “I have a great team behind me.”

“Take the compliment,” Scully said with a smile, reaching out to squeeze Stella’s hand.

“You’re all finished, then?” Stella neatly shifted the conversation away from herself, then flinched as she realized she’d inadvertently broached the topic they’d been avoiding for weeks.

“I’m all finished.” Scully looked down at the table, her bubbly mood folding as if she’d popped it between her fingers. There had been so many better times to have this conversation, so many peaceful moments when they’d both been relaxed and comfortable.

Stella sat across from her now, exhausted and brittle, a disaster waiting to happen. “Good for you. You’ve worked hard. You deserve this.”

“Well, I still have to pass my boards,” Scully told her, suddenly eager to deflect their reality for just a little bit longer. But the boxes stacked neatly against the wall told their own story, one Stella read with tired eyes as she looked over Scully’s shoulder.

“You’ll pass,” she said. “You’ll get top marks.”

“I hope so.” She chewed her lip. “Stella…”

“I know.” She set her coffee cup down with a heavy thump, staring into it with steely determination.

“I’ll spend the next month studying. I could just as easily do that here.”

“Your flight is booked. Your mother is expecting you.”

“I don’t think she is, honestly,” she told Stella gently. “Not after she’s listened to me carry on about you for the last two months.”

“Dana…”

“I know this is scary for you, Stella. It’s scary for me too. This thing between us happened fast, but it happened. All I’m saying is, where’s the harm in me staying a little longer? I can’t extend my lease on this place, but I could find somewhere new, or—”

“No.” Stella spoke so quietly Scully wasn’t sure at first that she’d actually heard her say it, but the evidence was right there in her eyes.

“Yes,” she countered. “Why not?”

“Because you’d only be prolonging the inevitable.” Stella let out a weary sigh, taking another sip of coffee. “And in the long run, that’s not doing either of us any favors.”

“Way to have faith in our relationship,” Scully said with a wry smile.

“Because I don’t,” Stella said with a painful sort of finality, setting her cup down.

Scully sucked in a breath and blew it out, fighting to stay calm. She wanted to scream, wanted to cry, wanted to beg, because why did this always happen to her? Why couldn’t she manage to find happiness that lasted longer than a brief moment in time? Her fingers went to the cross at her throat as she blinked back tears.

“Get over here,” she demanded, lurching to her feet. “This isn’t a conversation to have sitting across the fucking breakfast table from each other.”

Stella’s eyebrows raised. She stared at Scully for a long moment, and then she stood, walking slowly forward until they were face to face.

Scully reached down and clasped Stella’s hands in hers, holding on to them as tightly as she could. “Okay, you beautiful, stubborn fool. Tell me why I can’t stay.”

“Because,” Stella paused, dropping her eyes to their joined hands. She sucked in a shaky breath before meeting Scully’s gaze. “I’m the same as Mulder. My work is my life. It always will be, and sooner or later, I’ll end up hurting you the same way he did.”

“Oh, Stella.” Tears spilled over her eyelids at Stella’s unexpectedly candid response.

“And because, deep down, I’m simply not cut out for any of this. I don’t…I don’t know how to love you the way you deserve to be loved.” Tears rolled over Stella’s cheeks, and she pulled one of her hands from Scully’s grasp to swipe them away. “I’m sorry.”

“Goddammit.” Scully huffed as she clung desperately to her composure. “Stella, all I’m asking for is that you agree to keep seeing me if I stay in London a little longer, and you know, maybe let me crash at your place so we don’t have to keep bringing all our clothes and shit back and forth to each other’s flats.”

“That’s not all, and you know it.”

“Fine,” Scully ceded, deciding to go for full candor the way Stella had done. “I love you, Stella, more than I knew it was possible to love someone. When I’m with you, everything just makes sense, like…this is where I’m meant to be.”

Stella was quiet, breath hitching, more tears falling.

“And I know it shouldn’t make sense, but then again, nothing in my life ever has.” Scully released a slightly hysterical laugh. “I thought I wanted to be a doctor, and then I became an FBI agent instead. I thought I’d spend the rest of my life with Mulder, but for us, the anticipation was better than the actual relationship. And once I finally got the chance to practice medicine, that wasn’t what I’d hoped either. You were supposed to be a one-night stand, Stella, and somehow you’ve become the most important thing in my life, the one thing I got right. Please don’t push me away now, just because you’re scared.”

Stella bristled, eyes glossy. “That’s not why.”

“Remember when I asked you to come with me to Wyoming? It was a huge thing to ask, especially right after you’d been cleared from your inquiry, but you did it. You didn’t even hesitate. You took time off work, and you came with me. I don’t think Mulder ever took a day off work for me in his life.”

“If something had come up with a case, I would have had to stay behind.”

“Then you would have called and talked me through it on the phone, and it would have been enough. Stella, you are enough.”

Stella lifted her chin, defiance sparking in her tear-filled eyes. “I wasn’t there for you last night.”

“And that’s okay,” Scully told her. “There will be times when I can’t be there for you either. We both have jobs that demand a lot of us, assuming I pass my boards, anyway. There will be nights when I’m called out of bed to a crime scene, probably nights when we both are.”

“You’re confusing the point,” Stella said, a sharp edge in her tone that hadn’t been there before, and Scully wasn’t even sure what the point was. Maybe there was no point. Maybe the point was that Stella had already made up her mind to walk away, and nothing Scully did or said could change it.

“I just…I love you, and you love me, and I want to stay.” She cupped Stella’s face in her hands. “Please let me stay.”

“I can’t.” Stella swallowed hard, eyes squeezing shut. “I’m sorry. I really am.”

“Me too,” Scully said as she finally succumbed to her tears. She let her head fall forward so that her forehead pressed against Stella’s. “So fucking sorry.”

Their mouths met for a messy kiss, charged with all the hurt and desperation simmering between them. For a moment, Stella melted against her, hands tracing Scully’s body as if memorizing every inch. Then, she pulled back. “Goodbye, Dana.”

And she walked out the door without looking back.

Chapter Text

Stella walked out of Scully’s flat and kept on walking, heels slamming into pavement, muscles moving, carrying her blindly forward. When she finally lifted her head, she had no idea where she was, an unfamiliar street somewhere in London. Actually, she could have been standing in front of her own building, and she wasn’t sure she’d recognize it.

The world around her seemed somehow altered, everything muted and strange. There was a dull whooshing noise in the back of her head like rushing water, threatening to drown her in her own misery. She blinked, attempting to bring her surroundings into focus. Spotting a sign for the Underground up ahead, she walked toward it. She didn’t often ride the tube. It was too crowded and unpredictable for her taste. She preferred taxis whenever possible. But right now, it would do.

She swiped her card, descended the escalator to the platform, and boarded a train that would take her back to the office, despite it being Saturday and despite having just worked for twenty-four hours straight. Whatever vibe she was giving off this morning seemed to work in her favor, at least. The other commuters parted around her as she walked, reminding her of a video she’d seen once of a shark swimming through a school of bait fish. For a brief moment, she considered snapping her teeth for effect. But, in the end, she just chose an empty seat and sat quietly.

Forty-five minutes later, she strode toward the comfort and familiarity of her own desk. This, at least, was the same as she’d left it. Black laminate strewn with reminders of the case she’d just closed, notes stuck to various surfaces, photos, strategies. With a heavy sigh, she sank into her chair.

“Stella?” DSI Chen stood in the doorway to her office. “I thought you’d gone home.”

“Forgot a few things,” she said, gesturing vaguely at her desk.

“Great job on the Swanson case,” Chen told her. “Really nice work.”

“Thank you.”

“Well, I won’t keep you,” he said, backing into the hall. “Go home and sleep. Enjoy your weekend.”

She nodded, and he left. Sleep. She hadn’t managed more than a catnap at her desk last night, but she couldn’t exactly curl up on her cot at this hour, and if she went home now, the empty flat would swallow her whole. Instead, she sat at her desk, staring blankly at the case notes in front of her, letting the morning pass her by.

Eventually, she became aware that people were staring, looking in at her as they passed her office, wondering what she was doing here on her day off and after just having solved her most pressing case. So, she gathered her things and left, but instead of going home, she went to the pool. She put on her swimsuit, and she swam, and she swam, and she swam.

Beneath the water’s protective surface, she removed her goggles, and she cried, releasing her tears as the water masked her emotions. She swam until the ache in her ribs resurfaced, and she wondered if it would ever fully go away. Would the ghost of Paul Spector always be there in her chest, reminding her of the way he’d beaten her?

She swam until she couldn’t swim anymore, and then she went home, just long enough to change her clothes and make herself presentable, to make it look as if she was a normal, functioning human being, but not long enough to let her mind wander to Scully, to smell the scent of her hair on Stella’s sheets or see one of Scully’s blouses mixed in with her own in the closet.

Then, she went back to work, because what else could she do? She sat at her desk and began making notes on the Petersen case, her next priority now that Swanson was closed. The next thing she knew, her eyes popped open. She sat up, disoriented, blinking as she realized she’d fallen asleep at her desk with her head on her arms.

Next to her mostly illegible Petersen notes, there was a sandwich and a can of soda, and before she could even wonder where they’d come from, she saw the note beside them, in Chen’s handwriting.

Thought you might need this.

And she felt such a warm surge of affection for him, she almost smiled. Chen was one of the few people in this world she could truly call a friend. She’d done this for him once, right after he’d split from his wife, reminding him to take care of himself. Because as she stared at the sandwich on her desk, she realized she hadn’t eaten today. She probably hadn’t eaten much yesterday either. And the dull, pounding headache currently assaulting her brain was the result.

So, she unwrapped the sandwich and ate, not really tasting it and not caring. She sucked down the can of soda, crawled onto the cot behind her desk, and slept.

The next week passed more or less the same. She worked. She swam. When she slept, it was usually on the cot behind her desk. In the back of her mind, she was aware the date for Scully’s flight home had come and gone, taking her back to Maryland, to the friends and family waiting there.

Scully had texted the day before her flight. If you change your mind, you know where to find me.

I won’t, Stella had replied. And then, Safe travels. And then, because she couldn’t quite help herself, I’ll miss you.

Scully hadn’t replied.

Now, she was gone.

And Stella was tired of her wretched post-Scully existence. It was time to move on, to get back to her real life, the one she’d led before Scully came swooping in with her warm eyes and big heart. There was only one way Stella knew to cleanse herself of emotional baggage. Well, only one way that she currently allowed herself to indulge.

So, when Friday rolled around, she left the office on time. She went home and changed into a casual black skirt and a beige top that showcased her tits, easy access so she could fuck with her clothes on. She dabbed a bit of perfume on her neck and carefully reapplied her makeup. And then she called a taxi to take her to one of her favorite bars, an upscale place with a luxury hotel next door, the perfect location for a hook-up.

She’d done this before, done it enough times that she didn’t even need to think through the steps. She sat and ordered a drink while her gaze roamed the bar, assessing her options like a leopard on the hunt. Almost immediately, her gaze settled on a man four seats down. Younger, clean-cut, with an enthusiastic air about him as he made idle conversation with the bartender. Just what she liked.

She imagined him whispering dirty words in her ear, the feel of his cock inside her, waiting for the rush of arousal that was sure to follow, but none did. Her body remained cold, indifferent. Still she watched him, appreciating the dusting of stubble on his cheek, his strong grip on the glass in his hand. He had nice hands. Nice hands were always a good sign.

As if he felt the weight of her gaze, he turned, and their eyes met. Handsome, even more so than she’d thought initially. And he recognized an invitation when he saw one. Within seconds, he had stood from his barstool, walking deliberately toward her.

“Mind if I take this seat?” he asked, gesturing to the empty stool beside her.

American. Perfect. Except it wasn’t. She’d already lost before she’d even made it out of the gate.

“Not at all,” she replied, crossing her right leg over her left, letting her foot bounce idly as she watched him sit.

“John Baker,” he said, extending a hand.

What a perfectly boring name, as unmemorable as the man beside her.

“Stella Gibson.” She gave his hand a quick, firm shake. “Are you here on business?”

“Yes,” he said with a nod before launching into an explanation that almost immediately became white noise in her ears. She caught the words “data acquisition management” and “global expansion.”

“How nice,” she said blandly, downing the last of her scotch.

“Can I buy you another round?” he asked, already gesturing for the bartender.

“That won’t be necessary,” she said, giving him a look that expressed clearly what she wanted instead.

“I’m staying at the hotel next door,” he said, eyes wandering over her body, clearly liking what he saw. And she let him look. She let him look because that’s why she was here, after all.

“Perfect.” She stood, gathering her purse as he drained his drink, and then she led the way outside. They didn’t talk as they walked next door to the hotel. The evening breeze tossed her hair over her shoulders, cool, crisp. A shiver rolled over her skin.

She remembered another hotel, a lifetime ago, a deceptively innocent-looking redhead waiting to beckon her into her bed, into her life, into her heart. Stella clenched her jaw, looking pointedly at the man beside her. Jeff? John? What was his name?

It didn’t matter in the long run. She only needed a few hours of his time. She didn’t need to remember his name or anything else about him. They walked to the lift at the rear of the lobby, and he pressed the button to take them up.

She ran her tongue over her bottom lip, ran her eyes over his body, ran the errant thoughts out of her mind. He stood close enough for her to smell the slightly-too-strong scent of his cologne and the alcohol on his breath. He held her gaze as he leaned in, lips pressing firmly against hers. Hard. Rough. His stubble pricked against her cheek. She’d always loved that about kissing a man, the play of rough against smooth, hard against soft.

“Everything all right?” he asked with an air of confusion, and only then did she realize she’d turned her face to the side, breaking the kiss.

She blinked at him in surprise, feeling nothing but cold inside where there should have been heat. No, she was not all right. Not even close. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve made a mistake.”

And she walked away, leaving him standing beside the lift, mouth slightly agape, hands shoved into the pockets of his trousers.

* * *

“So, you and Dana broke up, huh?”

Stella looked up as Chen settled himself into the guest chair across from her desk, a sympathetic look on his face. “What gave it away?” she asked wryly.

“Oh, you know.” He gestured around them, the rumpled cot behind her and the trashcan overflowing with discarded coffee cups. “It was either that or you decided to give up your flat and move in here.”

She laughed softly, leaning back in her chair. “The thought has crossed my mind.”

“Want to talk about it?” he asked.

“Not really.” But there was no conviction behind her words.

Chen leaned back in his chair, resting his right foot against his left knee. “It was the same for me for a while after Aisling left me.”

“I remember,” she said. “How did you get past it?”

“Time,” he said with a shrug. “And work.”

She laughed bitterly. “That’s what I was afraid of.”

“Who dumped who?” he asked, comfortable enough in their friendship to push harder than most would dare, and since he was Chen, she allowed it.

“I did,” she admitted, unexpectedly relieved to finally talk about it out loud. Maybe he could tell her why she was still caught in this miserable limbo where she couldn’t get Scully out of her head, couldn’t move on, couldn’t seem to do much of anything at all.

“Why?”

“Because…” She paused, looking around her office as if the answer was tacked to the wall somewhere between case notes and crime scene photos. “The job. This life. I was afraid…I was afraid I couldn’t be what she needed me to be.”

“I see,” he said, staring at his hands.

“Why did Aisling leave you?”

“The job. This life.” He looked up with a sardonic smile. “The truth is, over the years, we grew apart. And the more distant I felt from her, the more I buried myself in work, until finally, there was no one there for me to come home to.”

“That is exactly what I feared,” Stella said softly, remembering the hurt in Scully’s eyes as she’d pushed her away, the tears on her cheeks. It tore at Stella’s heart even now.

“The thing is,” Chen said, “if I had it to do all over again, I’d still marry her. I’d still take that chance. And maybe this time I’d try a little harder to make things work.”

Stella inhaled sharply, fingernails biting into her thighs as she stared at him.

“Maybe we’d still fail,” he said. “But at least I’d know I tried.”

She shook her head. “You’d be setting yourself up to make the same mistake all over again.”

“Maybe. Aisling is a teacher. She was always home by dinnertime, and she wanted me to be too. She needed the steady, predictable kind of life that I couldn’t give her. But Dana’s like us. She works long shifts and unpredictable hours. She’s probably slept behind her desk too. Are you sure she really needed more than you could give her?”

You are enough, Scully had said that last day. You are enough.

Stella shook her head to clear away the memory “I didn’t want to hurt her.”

“Did you ever consider that you already did?”

She looked down at her desk, wishing she could put into words the rest of her fears, her inadequacies, all the reasons Scully would be better off without her. “No.”

Chapter Text

Scully walked beside Mulder as they tromped over limp, sodden grass toward the crime scene ahead. A white tent had been erected near the tree line, and various law enforcement personnel milled about beneath it. Overhead, the Virginia sun blazed, and Scully squinted, wishing she’d brought sunglasses. Her gaze settled on a blonde woman talking to two uniformed officers, and for a moment, she was back in that field outside London fourteen years ago, the day she first met Stella.

Today, though, they weren’t chasing a vampire. She had no badge in her blazer pocket or gun tucked against the small of her back. In fact, she wasn’t here in any official capacity at all. The FBI had requested Mulder’s assistance on a case, and when he’d called to ask if she wanted to tag along, she’d surprised herself by agreeing. After spending the majority of the last month alone in her apartment, studying for her board exam, she’d decided it would be good to get out for a few hours and visit an active crime scene. Plus, it was a chance to see Mulder.

“Mr. Mulder,” the blonde said, waving them over. Her voice was gruff and American, nothing like Stella. “Thank you for coming on such short notice.”

Scully hid a smile. They’d been out of the FBI for a decade, but she still hadn’t gotten used to the man beside her being called anything other than Agent Mulder.

“Agent Keeley,” he said, extending a hand. “This is my former partner, Dana Scully.”

Keeley greeted her before leading them to the remains her team had discovered, which had been declared “not quite human” on initial examination. Scully crouched for a closer look. At first glance, the bones before her appeared to be those of an adult female, although the differences jumped out at her almost as quickly.

Some of the vertebrae were decidedly not human, and there was evidence of a tail, along with numerous other small bones Scully couldn’t immediately identify. She cocked her head, drawing on her recent training in forensic pathology as she attempted to decipher the scene in front of her. The skeleton was in disarray, likely the result of animal predation since the body had been left exposed, so it was difficult to tell where the errant bones had originated.

Behind her, Mulder and Keeley chatted about a case they’d apparently worked on together a few weeks ago, joking with each other in a way that made Scully almost nostalgic for the old days, when she and Mulder had worked scenes like this one for a living. As she listened, her eyes scanned the bones in front of her. Scavengers had really made a mess of things. Or maybe…

She stood, turning to face Agent Keeley. “I think what we’re seeing here is likely two sets of remains, a woman and an animal, probably a small dog. Perhaps the victim was attacked while she was out walking her dog.”

Keeley squinted at her. “But there’s only one skull, one pelvis, two arms, two legs…”

“These remains have been here for months, maybe longer,” Scully explained. “Scavengers have probably made off with the rest.”

Keeley turned to Mulder, an admiring expression on her face that Scully was all too familiar with. “Mr. Mulder, what do you think?”

“I think Scully’s probably right,” he said, with a wink in her direction. “She usually is.”

“Just an educated guess,” Scully said, wondering why the medical examiner hadn’t drawn a similar conclusion. Why had Keeley called Mulder to consult before the remains had been brought to the morgue for an autopsy? It would be simple enough to confirm the presence of animal bones during examination.

“As much as I’d love to tell you that we’re looking at the remains of sasquatch, or an alien, I don’t see any evidence of that here,” Mulder told Keeley, amusement twinkling in the depths of his hazel eyes. “Now, if you get these bones back to the morgue and the DNA test turns up anything unusual, you know how to reach me.”

“I do.” Keeley took Mulder aside, her hand on his biceps as she spoke to him in hushed tones.

Scully thumbed through notifications on her phone, beginning to think the whole thing had been a ruse for Keeley to flirt with Mulder. There was a time when this would have made her seethe with jealousy, but today, all she felt was an odd sort of amusement at the predictability of it all.

“You should ask her out,” she said as they made their way back to his car almost an hour later.

He gave her an inquiring look. “What?”

“Mulder, she likes you,” she said with a weary sigh as she climbed into the passenger seat of his Explorer. A dull headache pulsed behind her eyes, and she hoped it didn’t turn into a migraine. She’d had a few of them this month, too much time spent squinting at textbooks. It was probably time to increase the prescription on her glasses. “She called you out here on a ridiculous case so she could flirt with you.”

“Well, I…really?”

“Really,” she said, giving him a small smile.

“Still got it,” he said, patting himself on the chest with a smug smile.

“You’re ridiculous,” she told him. And she loved him for it. She leaned into the headrest and closed her eyes as he started driving, so thankful they’d reached this point in their relationship. In a way, their friendship had never been stronger, because the sexual tension wasn’t there anymore, and neither was the jealousy.

“Want to grab dinner?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure.”

He stopped at a pizzeria not far from her apartment, and they shared a large pie—meat on his side, veggies on hers. Despite her heartbroken state, it felt good to be out, sharing laughter and conversation with another human being. In the five weeks since her return from London, she had mostly kept to herself, burying herself in work—or in this case, studying—to avoid dealing with her feelings. She was nothing if not predictable. Queen of Avoidance, after all.

“So, you and Stella?” Mulder asked hesitantly, as if sensing the elephant in the room.

“Didn’t work out,” she said with what she hoped was a casual shrug.

“Sorry.” He reached over to cover her hand with his.

“Yeah, me too.” She sighed, staring down at the half-eaten slice of pizza on her plate.

“I really am sorry, you know,” he said. “I want you to be happy. We both deserve that much, don’t you think?”

“We do,” she agreed. “I’ll get there again. It’ll help once I’m back at work, I think. What about you? Are you happy?”

He looked pensive, and she reached over to swipe a strand of cheese off his chin. “I think I am. You were right to leave. I want you to know that.”

“Really?” she whispered, a lump rising unexpectedly in her throat. She’d always believed solidly in her decision, but deep down, she’d feared that he would never accept the truth, that he still blamed her for leaving, even resented her for moving on with her life.

“I can’t imagine not having you in my life,” he said. “But we’re stronger as friends.”

“Yes.” She swiped at a tear. “We are.”

When they walked outside after their meal, he pulled her in for a hug, tucking her head beneath his chin the way he’d always done, and they stayed like that for a long minute, just absorbing the closeness between them, the connection that would always be there, no matter where their lives took them.

By the time Mulder pulled the Explorer to a stop in front of her building, she found herself in a much better mood than she’d been in when she started the day, even if the crime scene had been somewhat of a waste of time and despite the fact that her headache had indeed magnified into a migraine. “Thanks for letting me tag along today,” she told him. “I had fun.”

“We should do this more often.”

“Yeah,” she said with a smile. “We should.”

“Night, Scully.”

“Goodnight.” She let herself into her building, rubbing at her forehead as she walked down the hall. Once she was inside her apartment, she went straight to her bedroom to change into pajamas before padding to the kitchen in her bare feet to take some ibuprofen. She settled on the couch, flipping on the TV while she waited for the vicious throbbing in her head to ease.

Her gaze settled on an orange-tinted stain on the rug, and she sighed. There were quite a few nicks and stains in her apartment now that hadn’t been here before. That’s what she got for subletting to a college student while she was in London. Surely, an orange stain wasn’t the reason this place didn’t feel like home anymore, though.

Nor was it why she’d flown to London last week to take her UK forensic pathology certification exam. Hedging her bets. That’s what she’d told herself. Next week, she would take her American boards. And if she passed both, what would she do? A restless, impulsive part of her wanted to move to London, even without Stella. She’d felt energized there, filled with a sense of ambition that seemed to have abandoned her since her return to America.

This apartment, this city, this life felt like a step back, when she so desperately wanted to maintain her forward momentum. She was beginning to realize she’d fallen in love with London itself, not just the beautifully off-limits woman who lived there. Maybe someday, they could be friends, or at least casual acquaintances. Scully couldn’t fathom losing Stella entirely. But her heart had a lot of healing to do before she could even contemplate reaching out to her.

She and Stella had shared something deeper than she’d ever shared with another person, and she was forever altered by it. Her heart would heal, and she would go on with her life, but she’d never forget what they shared or lose Stella’s impact on her life.

As a Law & Order rerun played quietly on her TV, Scully closed her eyes, hoping a nap would help with her headache. It was only seven o’clock, and she couldn’t justify going to bed this early, no matter how late she’d been up last night studying. She drifted off almost immediately. A knock at the door jostled her awake sometime later. She blinked, disoriented to find her living room swathed in darkness. How long had she been asleep?

Dun dun.

Apparently, Law & Order was still playing on her TV. She groped for the remote control and turned it off, squinting at the clock. It was almost ten. Who on earth was knocking on her door at this hour? It had to be someone who lived in the building, since she hadn’t buzzed anyone in. She sat up, wincing at the pain still pounding in her head. Hopefully, there hadn’t been a medical emergency in the building. Hers was always the first door anyone knocked on, a byproduct of being a medical doctor. She was always happy to help, but at the moment, all she really wanted to do was crawl into bed and sleep for another eight hours or so.

Another knock, this one louder than the first.

Scully slid off the couch. Almost certainly a medical call. She glanced down at her blue silk pajamas. lamenting that one of her neighbors was about to see her in them. Without bothering to check the peephole, she yanked the door open to reveal Stella standing in the hallway, dressed all in black with a travel-sized rolling suitcase beside her.

Scully blinked, wondering for a moment if she was dreaming, because there was no logical explanation for Stella Gibson to be standing on her doorstep. Her silk blouse was wrinkled, matching the lines between her brow. She looked smaller than Scully remembered, somehow, or maybe it was just that she loomed larger than life in Scully’s memory.

“Hi,” Stella said, her expression hesitant as her eyes met Scully’s.

“How did you get in?” Scully blurted, still halfway wondering if this was really happening. Her brain felt sluggish and slightly off kilter from the migraine.

“One of your neighbors held the door for me,” Stella said in that crisp British accent that had always been Scully’s undoing. “You should speak to him about that. Terrible security.”

Scully’s arms fidgeted restlessly at her sides as she fought the instinctual urge to hug Stella, to kiss her. Old habits died hard. She lifted a hand instead, pressing her fingertips against her forehead as she stepped back, waving Stella into her apartment.

Stella pushed her suitcase through the door and paused, glancing around Scully’s darkened living room. The wrinkle in her brow deepened. “I’m sorry…did I wake you?”

“No,” Scully answered as she switched on the light, giving her head a slight shake. She looked down at her pajamas, realizing she must look like she’d just climbed out of bed. “I mean, yes, technically. I dozed off on the couch. Migraine.”

“Oh no, I’m sorry.” Stella’s gaze fell, her shoulders rising as she drew in a breath. “Perhaps I should come back.”

“Stella…why are you here?” Scully’s voice dropped to a whisper as her brain finally caught up with what was happening. Stella was here in Annapolis, standing in Scully’s living room. Suddenly, her heart was galloping like a runaway horse, making her head spin.

Stella stared at her, mouth slightly agape as if she’d lost the ability to speak.

Scully led her to the couch, but when they sat, there was a gap between them that hadn’t been there before, an empty space almost wide enough for another person. Scully closed her eyes against the sight, breathing slowly until her pulse calmed, along with the throbbing inside her head. When she opened her eyes, there was Stella, still sitting beside her, looking impossibly beautiful, impossibly tired, impossibly sad.

“Stella, what are you doing here?” she repeated.

“You said,” Stella paused, and her voice wavered, “You said that if I changed my mind, I knew where to find you.”

“You changed your mind?” Scully sat up straighter, hardly daring to believe her ears.

“I feel as if I’ve no right to say so, after all this time.” Stella looked at her lap. Her bottom lip shook, and her hands were clasped so tightly, her knuckles shone bone white in the lamplight. A restless energy crackled in the air around her, as if she might bolt back through the door with the slightest provocation.

Scully’s gaze dropped to the chasm between them, and she scooted over so that her right thigh pressed against Stella’s left. She reached out and gripped Stella’s tightly clasped hands between her own. “You do, Stella. Please tell me what you came here to say.”

Stella sat there for a long moment, her gaze fixed somewhere on the opposite wall. Her jaw clenched, and her hands—still clutched in Scully’s—began to shake. Then, as if she’d just made up her mind about something, she turned her head, pinning the full force of her gaze on Scully. “I love you,” she said quietly. “And I’m sorry.”

“Oh,” Scully breathed as a funny tingle swept through her body, making goosebumps rise on her skin. “Oh.”

“I know I don’t deserve it.” A tear slid down Stella’s cheek. “But if you could find it in your heart to forgive me…”

All the air seemed to have evaporated from Scully’s lungs, and for a moment, she just stared at Stella as shock burned into happiness inside her. “Of course, I forgive you.”

Stella inhaled sharply. She squeezed her eyes shut, and more tears slid over her cheeks. “I have no idea what I’m doing, Dana. The things I feel for you…they terrify me.”

“I know,” Scully whispered, turning to press her lips against Stella’s. In a heartbeat, their arms were around each other, fingers clutching at clothing as they clung to each other, kissing desperately. Stella’s breath warmed her cheek, her heart pounding beneath Scully’s palm, tears mingling on their cheeks. “I know, because I feel it too. I love you so much, Stella.”

“The only thing more terrifying than loving you is trying to live without you.” Stella’s tone was brittle, her voice hoarse.

“You don’t have to,” she whispered, capturing Stella’s mouth, drinking her in, drowning in her, happiness sweeping through her like a tidal wave.

Stella broke free, swiping the tears from her cheeks. “I don’t know how to be the person you deserve.”

“And I already told you,” Scully said with an exasperated smile. “Stella, all I need is you, just the way you are.”

Stella’s shoulders slumped, some of the rigidity going out of her spine as she gave Scully a fragile smile. “I would really like the chance to try.”

“So would I.”

“You live here now,” Stella said as her gaze swept Scully’s apartment. “But I have a lot of airmiles saved up. We can make something work, surely.”

Scully cocked her head to the side. “What’s your current stance on me moving to London?”

“I couldn’t ask that of you. I—”

“You’re not asking. I’m telling.” She stared into the crystalline depths of Stella’s eyes, seeing her future reflected back at her. “I was thinking about it even before you showed up tonight.”

“What?” Stella’s brow furrowed.

“I want to move to London. You’re just the icing on my very British cake.”

“But your board certification—”

“I’ll take my American boards next week, but I’ve already taken them in the UK. I flew to London last week.”

Stella blinked in surprise. “You did?”

“I did.”

Stella’s eyes narrowed. “How’s your head?”

“I’ve worked twelve-hour shifts and completed delicate surgeries with a worse headache than this. And I registered to take the test in London before we broke up. Dr. Linenburger has already started to put the word out for me for positions opening in the next six months.”

“Oh.” Stella smiled, one of those rare, beautiful smiles that lit up her whole face.

“Yes.” She tightened her arms around Stella, holding on to her, breathing in her familiar scent that felt so much more like home than any four walls ever had. For once in her life, the future looked impossibly bright and wonderful.

She’d forged a new friendship with Mulder. She’d reconnected with her son. She’d launched a new career. And she’d given her heart to the most amazing woman. There were no more monsters lurking in the shadows, only peace. Happiness. Love.

So much love.

“I love you so much,” Stella murmured, echoing her thoughts. “And I do know one migraine cure you may not have tried yet.” Her expression heated, that familiar look in her eyes, the one that could almost make Scully come from the strength of it alone.

She nodded breathlessly, her chest heaving against Stella’s. God, she’d missed her touch. Her body was starved for Stella’s. “It’s true. An orgasm releases dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin into your bloodstream, all of which help with pain relief. Plus, they just feel good.”

“So smart,” Stella murmured against her lips. “Now shut up and let me make you come.”

Chapter Text

June 2019

The Wyoming sun blazed hot and bright overhead as students crossed the stage one by one, receiving their diplomas and turning their tassels. Scully remembered—however vaguely—the thrill of walking across that stage, knowing her whole life was ahead of her. How differently it had all ended up from the future she’d imagined for herself that long-ago day.

“I can’t quite believe I’m sitting here,” she whispered, tears swimming across her vision.

“Feeling old, are you?” Stella squeezed her fingers.

“A little,” she admitted. “But mostly just so…grateful.”

“He looks so handsome,” Maggie murmured from Scully’s other side. “So grown up.”

“He does,” she agreed. Her son was a man now, standing tall and proud in his blue robes on the risers at the front of the field, waiting for his name to be called. He had a long wait ahead of him before the principal made it through the alphabet to Van De Kamp.

Since that first reunion at Will’s eleventh birthday party, there had been more meetings, more parties, and as he grew older, even a handful of emails and phone calls. She’d gotten to watch him grow—albeit from afar—and now she was here to watch him graduate from high school. When she thought back on that first terrifying, heartbreaking year of his life, it seemed almost impossible that this moment had come.

Today, she sat between Stella and her mother, a few rows behind the Van De Kamps. Mulder was on the other side of Maggie, and somewhere off in the stands were more familiar faces, faces she hadn’t seen in years, people she couldn’t wait to hug after the ceremony was over.

“William Van De Kamp,” the principal called.

Will walked across the stage, his red hair gleaming from beneath his cap. Her baby. Her son. Her William. Tears rolled over her cheeks, and her heart swelled in her chest, filled to bursting with happiness and pride as she watched him receive his diploma.

Stella took her left hand, squeezing tightly, as Maggie took her right. When Scully darted a glance in either direction, she saw tears on both of their cheeks as well. She smiled, holding tight to the two women she loved most.

After the ceremony finished, things grew somewhat chaotic as everyone stood, pushing their way through the crowd to find their newly minted graduates. Scully was jostled this way and that as she, Stella, Maggie, and Mulder made their way to the sidelines, letting Will celebrate first with his parents.

And then, there he was, weaving through the crowd toward her. He walked straight up to her, grinning like the boy he’d been, not the man he’d become, as he wrapped his arms around her, lifting her off her feet with the strength of his embrace.

“Congratulations,” she said, closing her eyes as she breathed him in, this life she’d created, carried inside her for nine months and nursed for eleven. The boy she loved with every fiber of her heart. “I’m so proud of you.”

“Thank you,” he said in that deep voice she still hadn’t quite gotten used to. “I’m so glad you could come.”

“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

He released her, turning to Mulder, who greeted him with an enthusiastic back slap and more congratulations. Will was nearly as tall as his father and every bit as handsome. Maggie was next, tears streaming down her cheeks as she hugged her grandson. Stella greeted Will more quietly than the rest of their group, but the pride in her eyes shone just as bright.

The Van De Kamps joined them for another round of hugs, and then they headed off with Will to take pictures and greet more family before the party that would be happening later at their house. Scully turned to Stella after they’d gone, wrapping her arms tightly around her. Stella stroked her hair, murmuring words of comfort as Scully regained her composure.

“Well, if you aren’t a sight for sore eyes.”

She turned at the familiar voice to see Skinner walking toward her through the crowd, bald head gleaming in the sunshine. Doggett and Reyes walked beside him, all of them smiling widely. Scully had been unsure at first about inviting them, but since they’d all been such an important part of William’s first year of life, and since she hadn’t seen them in so long, she hadn’t been able to resist the X Files family reunion.

There were more hugs, more laughter, and in Stella’s case…introductions.

“You look good, Dana,” Doggett said. “Happy.”

“Thanks, John. So do you.”

“I have Monica to thank for that,” he said, looking at his wife with unabashed affection in his eyes.

“Did I hear my name?” Reyes sidled over, wrapping an arm around his waist as her warm gaze settled on Scully. “How are you, Dana?”

“Good,” she said, threading her fingers through Stella’s. “Really good.”

As she looked at the circle of people around her, she realized they were all good. Better than good, really. Doggett was an Assistant Director in the FBI, and he and Reyes had an eight-year-old daughter, Elena. As for Skinner, now that he was no longer saddled with the X Files, he’d finally been promoted to Deputy Director.

“Hey there, partner,” Mulder said, walking over to Reyes. A few years ago, the two of them had opened their own private investigation firm. Now, they worked together to solve unexplained cases, often consulting for the FBI. And he looked happier than she’d ever seen him. He had his life’s work back, and this time, no one could take it away from him.

After they’d all spent a few minutes catching up, they separated to their respective vehicles to make their way to the Van De Kamps’ farm for the graduation party, where they spent the rest of the afternoon celebrating with all the other people in Will’s life, sharing food and drinks and conversation. It had surprised Scully at first, how welcoming everyone in the Van De Kamp family had been to her and Mulder. Her son couldn’t have been raised by better people.

Will made his way over to Scully and Stella, soda can in one hand, cell phone in the other. “I was wondering, what would you think about me coming to visit you guys in London for a few weeks this summer?”

Scully pressed a hand over her mouth. “Really?”

“Yeah,” he said with a smile and a shrug. “I’ve never been to Europe, never even left the country, and I figured this is a good chance before I start college in the fall.”

“What do your parents think?” she asked, darting a glance at the Van De Kamps.

“They’re cool with it,” Will said.

“Then there’s nothing I would love more,” she told him, trying her damndest to keep the tears out of her eyes until after he’d walked away. “I could take some time off work and show you around, I mean…unless you’d rather not spend that much time with me.”

“I do,” he said with a laugh. “It sounds great.”

She pulled him in for an impromptu hug. “I can’t wait.”

* * *

Stella had laughed when Scully suggested they rent the same cabin they stayed in seven years ago, but she wasn’t laughing now. Now, she was sweating. And not just from exertion. Scully had insisted they hike to the mountaintop overlook where they’d shared such a memorable afternoon together all those years ago. It was hotter today than it had been that day and also cloudier, giving the air a heavy, humid feel that had Stella’s hair curling and her patience fraying.

“Not quite as easy at fifty-five as it was at forty-eight,” Scully commented with a smile as she spread out their blanket, but despite her complaint, she didn’t look especially taxed. As far as Stella could see, she hadn’t even broken a sweat. Her hair was frizzing, though. It always did when the weather was humid, even more so than Stella’s.

“Oh, fuck off,” Stella told her. “You could hike circles around me, and you know it.”

Scully grinned over her shoulder at her. “Like you swam laps around me this morning in the lake?”

Stella settled beside her on the blanket, looking out at the sheer rock faces before them. Below, their lake glittered a rich, deep blue from within the lush green of the valley. “It looks the same, doesn’t it?”

“Mostly,” Scully agreed. “Although I do see a few more houses down there than I remember.”

“We’ve changed,” Stella said. Since the last time she sat here, she’d risen through the ranks to Chief Superintendent, a managerial position that offered her a lot more power and more predictable hours.

Scully—in her never-ending search for new and exciting challenges at work—had left her job as a forensic pathologist last year and accepted a staff position at the local university to teach forensics, although she still consulted with the Met on occasion when they needed an expert opinion. Now, they were both home in time for dinner most nights.

She and Stella had bought a new flat together, a bigger space with two guest bedrooms for Scully’s friends and family to stay in when they visited from the states. Maggie came several times a year and often stayed a week or longer. She was so taken with London that Stella wouldn’t be surprised if she moved there someday too.

“We’re older,” Scully commented in response to Stella’s statement.

“Wiser,” she countered.

“More content.” Scully reached over and squeezed her hand.

It was true. Stella hadn’t known this kind of contentment was possible, at least not for her. The last time they sat here, she’d been so frightened of her feelings, terrified to tell Scully she loved her, desperately trying to avoid that next step in their relationship.

“You know,” Scully said as she gave Stella a funny look. “I think you were wearing those same pants that day. I remember the zippers on the pockets.”

“Was I?” Stella had chosen them today for a reason, and it was all she could do not to clap her hand over the slight bulge in her left pocket. Her pulse spiked, and dammit, she was sweating again.

“I don’t know how you keep clothes for that long,” Scully teased. “And they still look brand new. Mine all get stains or holes after a few years, and I throw them out.”

“Spending too much time on your knees, are you?” she shot back, earning a laugh from Scully.

“You would know.”

“Care to refresh my memory? I am getting older, as you so kindly pointed out.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure you remember this,” Scully said with a wicked grin as she crawled into Stella’s lap, pushing her down flat on the blanket. “I think you remember what we did on this blanket last time too.”

“Actually, it’s my turn to get on my knees today,” Stella said, flipping them so Scully lay beneath her. “Or…on one knee, at least.”

Scully froze, blue eyes wide, lips parted in a silent O.

Heat washed over Stella’s skin, the realization that there was no going back. Not that she wanted to. She’d never wanted anything in her life more than she wanted this moment. But she wanted it to be perfect, and romantic gestures weren’t exactly her forte. Heart thumping against her ribs, she backed onto her knees, hovering over Scully as she unzipped her left pocket and pulled out the ring. She clasped it against her palm.

“Dana, when I first saw you walking across the field toward my crime scene over twenty years ago, I felt something spark between us. It scared me. It terrified me, honestly. I’d never felt anything like that with another person before.”

“I felt it too,” Scully whispered, tears already leaking from her eyes as she sat up to face Stella.

“Our worlds collided that day, and nothing in my life was ever quite the same.”

Scully nodded breathlessly, her bottom lip trembling.

“After you left, I tried to put you out of my mind. I mean, we’d only spent two nights together. How could that possibly mean as much as it felt like it had?” Stella’s cheeks grew hot, her eyes wet.

“But it did,” Scully said. “I know.”

“And when you came back to London, right after I’d come off that awful case in Belfast, there was that connection again, this thing between us that scared the fuck out of me because it was so strong, so powerful, and I was so sure I was going to fuck it up.”

“Oh, I remember,” Scully said, smiling through her tears.

“But here we are, seven years later.” Stella’s voice was hoarse as she forced the words past the lump of emotion in her throat. “You make me happier than I knew it was possible to be. Dana, I love you more than anything in the world.”

Scully was crying in earnest now, nodding through her tears, red hair clinging to her damp cheeks. “Same. I love you so much.”

“But there’s one thing that would make me even happier.” She unclenched her hand, holding the ring between shaking fingers. “Dana Katherine Scully, would you do me the incredible honor of agreeing to be my wife?”

“Yes.” Scully was nodding almost before the words were out of Stella’s mouth. “A million times yes. Oh, Stella…” She gasped as Stella slid the ring onto her finger. “It’s so beautiful. I love it. I love you.”

“I always said blue was your color.” Stella looked down at the ring she’d chosen, a simple gold band with a sapphire at its center. It was a nontraditional ring from one nontraditional woman to another. And now that she saw it on Scully’s hand, her eyes overflowed with tears of joy.

“It’s absolutely perfect.” Scully leaned forward, capturing her lips for a lingering kiss.

“You’re perfect,” Stella countered.

“Not even close.”

“You’re perfect for me.”

“And you are perfect for me.” She kissed her again. “And here I thought this day was already perfect after Will’s graduation. Best day of my life, by far.”

“It has been a pretty great one.” The emotion that filled Stella now was steady and calm, a soul-deep contentment that she would spend the rest of her life with the amazing woman in front of her.

They lay together on the blanket, side by side, basking in the moment. Scully rolled to face her. “You know, I think I should pick out a ring for you too once we’re back in London. I want the world to know you’re my fiancée.”

“Really?” Stella had never imagined herself wearing a ring, but she didn’t dislike the idea of it either. “I’ll leave that up to you, then.”

“Okay.” Scully grinned at her. “I’ll surprise you.”

“I hate surprises.” Stella leaned forward to kiss her, pressing their bodies together, heat growing everywhere they touched.

“You like them when they’re from me,” Scully reminded her, one hand sliding between Stella’s thighs, tongue licking into her mouth, lighting Stella on fire from head to toe.

“I do,” she murmured against Scully’s lips. “I do.”