Chapter 1: i
Fox Mulder is in love with the library girl.
Or, well, enamored with, at least. Smitten with. Big-time crushin’ on.
He sees her for the first time in the fiction section, kicking along a step stool and dragging a re-shelving cart, putting Dickens and Dostoevsky back where they belong. Her messy red bob is bright against the classic lit beige, and her little blue jeans make his palms itch. She’s about five-foot-nothing, has to tip-toe even with the step stool, and her thin white t-shirt tugs out of her waistband a little more each time she stretches. It’s entrancing.
So entrancing that he stands there for longer than he should, Vonnegut clutched in his fist, forgotten. Long enough for her to notice, balanced up on her stool, a book halfway to the shelf. She glances at him briefly over her shoulder, then slides the book home and looks back at him again. A slim eyebrow arches.
“Can I help you?”
Her voice is deeper than he expected, but soft. She blinks at him, eyes big behind gold wire-rims. Her face waits somewhere between expectant and impatient.
“No, uh—no,” he says, shaking his head, backing away.
She stares at him a moment longer before returning to her cart.
Boys, he says when he gets home, boys, you aren’t going to believe it. He says, I think I might be in love.
A week later, it’s the circulation desk.
It’s late, not quite ten. He has a history exam tomorrow, and the guys have their Dungeons & Dragons buddies over. Seven dudes shouting about wizards and dexterity checks in his living room means he can’t focus at all. So he goes to the library.
He’s not thinking about that girl—really, he’s not. Not about her fluffy bangs or her slim hips or her soft, rich voice. Not at all. He’s just looking for a place to study, that’s it. Just somewhere quiet to blow through the Renaissance and call it a night.
But she’s right there, perched on a chair behind the counter, when he walks through the door. Her sweater is dark blue and speckled, like she’s taken a bit of the night sky and wrapped it around her for warmth. She bows over a book, chin resting in her sleeve-covered palms, coppery hair falling in waves around her face.
For a moment, he considers heading straight to the third-floor reading nook, the one in the religion section that the freshmen haven’t discovered yet. If he gets started now, maybe he can be in bed by midnight.
But then he looks at the girl again. She nibbles on her bottom lip while she reads, and—well. Da Vinci’s been dead for four hundred years. He can wait a little longer.
Mulder hitches his backpack higher on his shoulder, crosses to the counter, and leans forward on his elbows. The girl looks up, chin still in her hands, that same expectant-impatient look on her face, and Jesus, this close, she has a whole sky map of freckles on her cheeks.
Whatever suave cool-guy thing he was going to say gasps and drowns in her Bora Bora-blue eyes. What comes out instead is: “Desk duty tonight. Easier to reach, huh?”
Real smooth. Real fuckin’ smooth. Foot, meet mouth. Earth? Feel free to open up anytime now.
The girl’s eyebrows shoot into her bangs. Then she sighs the sigh of someone who deals with dumbasses like him all the time.
“Are you ready to check out?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t—”
She straightens in her chair, customer service-polite. “Your card, please.”
“No, I’m not—”
“Help you find something, then?”
“No, I don’t need—”
“Then what can I do for you?”
Rewind time? Let me start over?
“I just wanted—that is, I—uh. What are you reading?”
A beat. The girl stares at him. Her eyes really are breathtakingly beautiful, even when they’re sizing him up like he’s a bug that has just crawled into her soup.
“What am I reading?” she echoes, flat.
“Yeah, your, uh, your book there. Is it good?”
He can hear the clock on the wall behind her. Tick, tick, tick. Her silence stretches for so long that he starts to wonder if he wasn’t just speaking in his head.
Finally, she nods once. Curt. Up, down. “It’s fine.”
Cut your losses, kid. Walk away. But his mouth’s already off and running, the last to get the memo.
“Fine? Oh, well, fine—fine’s better than bad, right? What is it?”
She sighs again. Slides a thumb between the pages to mark her place and flips the cover shut. He reads the title upside down.
“The Principle of Relativity?” He whistles low. “Just a little light reading, huh? That’s cool. Physics is…cool.”
She blinks like a cat, slow and bored. Says, “Yeah.”
He shoves a hand through his hair and tries to smile. “I’m, uh, I’m Mulder. Fox. My first name’s…Fox. I’m just Mulder, though.”
Her strawberry mouth puckers and she nods again.
Okay, buddy. Move along.
She tosses her book open. The cover makes a little thwap as it hits the counter. She taps the page.
The next day, after his exam (which, after staying up until two in the morning replaying easier to reach, huh?, he’s certain he did not pass), he goes to the library.
She’s reading at the desk again, hair up in a little fountain ponytail. He thinks—though he’s not sure—that she might be trying to kill him.
“Ready to ch—oh.” Her face actually falls when she realizes it’s him. He’d laugh if she wasn’t so pretty. “You’re back.”
She has two tiny gold hoops in each ear, and he is overcome with the urge to touch them, to see if the metal is warm from her skin. He shoves his fists deep into his pockets instead.
“I wanted to apologize,” he says, “for last night. We got off on the wrong foot.”
She nods. She says, “Fine. Okay. Are you checking out this time?”
He laughs now; he can’t help it. She’s so serious. This little librarian. He doubts if she’s even twenty yet, but the prim line of her mouth is Ph.D.-stern.
“No, uh, I wanted to make it up to you.”
She folds her arms and her lips twitch into the barest hint of a smirk. “Make it up to me?”
“Yeah.” He shrugs. “I was an ass last night, but I’d like to make it up to you. What do you say? Coffee tonight, my treat?”
She cocks her head to the side, and he almost has her smiling now, he’s sure of it.
“I have class tonight.”
She shakes her head. “Work.”
“Okay.” He rests his elbows on the counter, gives her his most winning smile. “When are you free?”
A real smirk. Just a little one, but there. “I’m not.”
“Not for coffee.”
“Dinner, then. A movie?”
She bends forward, mimicking his position from the other side of the counter, her nose only inches from his. She smells like cinnamon. He can’t breathe.
“Sorry, Fox-Just-Mulder. I’m not interested.”
“Because I was an ass?”
“I was an ass.” He nods, smiling. “I get it. Okay. A name, then. Just tell me your name.”
She taps a finger to her lips in thought and he really wishes she wouldn’t. He’s having a hard enough time keeping his eyes above sea level as it is.
“I thought you were supposed to be making it up to me. How’s me giving you something you making it up to me?”
Oh, but the library girl is fun.
“Well, I’m trying, but you won’t let me. Figure the least I can do is call you by your name.”
She sits back again, picks some fuzz off her cardigan (green today; she’s like a little Christmas elf). Her eyes cut up to his through her lashes and dart away. She straightens a stack of paper.
At last, she says, “Dana.”
“Dana.” He grins. Dana. It’s the prettiest name he’s ever heard.
He learns her schedule fast. He should; he’s there every day, leaning over the counter, cataloging her various sweaters and sighs.
He learns other things, too: she only wears glasses when she reads, she likes peanut M&Ms, she blasts through books faster than any person he’s ever seen. Carl Sagan on Monday, Susan Sontag on Tuesday, Toni Morrison on Wednesday, and he starts to suspect this girl might have been a child prodigy way back when. Maybe still is.
A week into this, he asks her—Dana, are you a genius?—and she doesn’t even look at him. Just flips the page, her mouth twisted into something trying not to be a smirk.
“You know,” he continues. It’s easier to talk when she’s not looking directly at him, her eyes like hypnotists’ perfect blue gems. “If you are a genius, you should tell me your last name. For when I hear it on the radio someday, I mean. ‘Dana So-and-So wins Nobel Prize.’ So I know it’s you.”
“Why would I want you to know it’s me?”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
Her jaw twitches, but she still doesn’t look up.
“I’m just saying,” he says. “It’d be nice one day, when you cure cancer or whatever, to be able to say ‘I knew her when.’” He leans down, crowding into her space, and lowers his voice. “And to satisfy everyone’s curiosity. Why, yes, she was always that beautiful.”
She looks up then, a sharp cut through her lashes, a stern glare belied by the soft flush on her cheeks.
“Mulder,” she warns, and he likes the way she says it. Mul-der.
She holds his gaze for a moment, and he can see himself reflected in her glasses. His ridiculous grin. The flop of hair he forgot to comb this morning, too concerned with making it to the library before class.
Then she looks away, eyes down, little pink tongue darting out to wet her bottom lip. When she meets his eyes again, she is Professional Dana, all calm and poise.
“I have work to do,” she says and reaches for a stack of bookmarks on the edge of the desk. She taps them straight like a deck of cards.
He grins. “So you’re telling me I should go, then?”
She doesn’t look at him. She’s arranging pens in a cup by color now. “Mm-hmm.”
“And you won’t tell me your last name?”
Black pen, black pen, blue pen, red pen.
“You don’t need it.”
His grin widens and he leans in just a little farther. She doesn’t retreat. He likes that about her.
“If you say so,” he whispers.
She nods, curt. “I do.”
He straightens and hitches his backpack up on one shoulder.
“You’re a cruel woman, Dana,” he says. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She rolls her eyes and he almost—almost—misses the way she smiles when he turns away: small, private, like she doesn’t even mean to be smiling at all.
Chapter 2: ii
she resents the idea that some boy who will no doubt be gone in another week’s time can ruffle her so much.
Dana has always been good with change. It comes with the territory of being a Navy brat. As a kid, she attended four different elementary schools, two middle schools, and she graduated high school with a class she’d only known for less than a year.
But there is a difference between moving with her family—keeping, if nothing else, the familiarity of her siblings, her parents, the old worn quilt on her old twin bed—and moving alone to the other side of the country, starting college (an exciting but daunting task on its own) nearly 3,000 miles away from everything and everyone she’s ever known.
Granted, she’s handling it better than some—better, for instance, than the girl who lives across the hall and cries on the phone to her parents every night, or the boy in her math class who comes only every third day and reeks of alcohol and pot when he does. Dana, at least, is making an effort.
She has gone to a few welcome mixers, to an underwhelming movie night hosted by her RAs, to a panel discussion on monoclonal antibodies with an audience of serious-looking grad students and old men in sweaters. She leaves her door open while she studies, just in case somebody should like to pop in. On two different weekends, she has allowed her roommate to take her out to parties filled with people who, even if they are new like her, seem to have known each other their whole lives. She has even formed a tentative working friendship with her bio lab partner, and she is frequently invited to have dinner in the dining hall with some of the girls on her floor (although, after a few nights of awkward small talk over rubbery pizza, she has stopped accepting).
But still. Despite the built-in camaraderie of the freshman experience, of being one of many sharing the same anxieties, excitements, and first-time hangovers, she feels…foreign. A little out of her depth.
She tells herself it doesn’t matter. College is, after all, simply a means to an end. But when she calls her parents on Sunday afternoons and her mother asks if she’s making friends, having fun, having the all-American college experience—the one she herself, married and pregnant right out of high school, was denied—well. Dana’s never enjoyed lying.
So she’s glad for the library. She may not know the difference between all the fraternities or where to find the best pizza in town or what a Jägerbomb tastes like, but she has the Dewey Decimal System down pat. She knows all the nicest reading nooks—even the ones the other freshman haven’t found yet—and she gets a startlingly large amount of satisfaction out of booting couples who think they’re sly enough to make out in the fifth-floor economics section. (In the three and a half weeks she’s been working here, she’s kicked out four couples. A rush, every time.)
She likes being the one who, at least for a few hours a day, gets to ask how can I help you? She likes that she has the answers. And she likes—perhaps better than anything—that here, it is perfectly fine to be alone. She doesn’t feel self-conscious behind the circulation desk the way she sometimes does sitting alone at a table meant for four in the student union. There’s nothing sad about it. There’s no pressure to socialize.
Or: there didn’t used to be.
Because now there’s a boy. A persistent boy. A persistent, irritating boy who is tall and lanky with a flop of dark hair and a collection of wrinkled t-shirts, who goes by his last name even though (in Dana’s opinion) his first is actually kind of nice, who, for some unknown reason, has set his sights on her and has made it his life’s mission to not give her a moment’s peace, who has decided that any day she is here, he will be too, hanging all over her desk, following her from floor to floor like a lost puppy, forcing her to listen to his questions and his stories and his inappropriate flirtations which, despite her best efforts, turn her pink as a cherry blossom, damn her Irish heritage.
Even when she tells him to get out—Mulder, I need to work—he will only grin and lean closer like he was never taught about personal space and say something completely disarming like, Dana, has anyone ever told you that you have Cassiopeia right…here? And then he will touch her little constellation of freckles so gently with the tip of his finger, like he’s really not touching her at all, and she will lose track of her filing or her faxing or whatever it was she was doing before he sauntered up, so cool and composed, to lean across her desk in the first place.
It would be easier, she thinks, if he wasn’t so nice. And clever. And handsome. If he was a dumb, ugly jerk, she would have no problem throwing him out (and she’d probably take an even greater amount of satisfaction in it than with the horny couples).
Because she’s not stupid. She knows that pretty, older boys with low, rumbly voices and plush, pink lips don’t seek out girls like her. Not with good intentions, at least. Boys—men, she corrects, because, god, he’s twenty-one—like him go for a different sort of girl. Taller. Older. Louder, funnier, sexier.
So there has to be some ulterior motive, has to, and it’s only a matter of time before his sweet exterior cracks to reveal whatever is really lurking beneath those puppy dog eyes and big smile and soft, gentle hands.
She hopes he just leaves her alone before then. It will be easier, really, for everyone involved.
It is a quarter past ten, and Dana lies curled on her lumpy twin bed, her phone cradled in both hands, her back to the wall. The cinderblocks are cool through her thin pajama top.
“He came in again today,” she says, low, like a secret.
“And?” Her sister’s voice is tinny and amused, two thousand-odd miles and a phone line away.
“He said I was beautiful,” she says. “He said I was going to win the Nobel Prize.”
Missy hmms. “For being beautiful?”
Dana shakes her head even though there’s nobody here to see it. Her roommate has been gone for three nights in a row.
“For curing cancer.”
Melissa snorts. “And what’d you say?”
Dana bites the inside of her cheek, the sore patch she’s nibbled raw.
“Nothing.” She draws the blankets tighter around herself. “I told him to leave.”
A pause. Dana thinks her sister might laugh at her, but Missy only sighs.
“Don’t do that. This guy likes you. Why are you—”
“No, he doesn’t,” Dana says. She scrunches the phone cord between her fingers and releases it. Scrunches. Releases.
Melissa does laugh now. “Excuse me, what?”
“He doesn’t like me, Missy. He’s just…playing.”
“Just playing.” Melissa doesn’t sound convinced.
“The way guys do. You know. When they don’t mean it.”
“Oh, my god, Dane.” Melissa laughs again. “‘Just playing’ is calling you after midnight to ask what you’re wearing. It’s…it’s buying you a few drinks, taking you home, and not calling you the next day. This boy is not ‘just playing.’”
When Dana doesn’t say anything, Melissa continues: “Babe,” she says. “Do you honestly believe this guy would be spending that much time in the library if he was ‘just playing?’ Last week, you told me he was there until eleven o’clock on a Friday. Trust me. No guy is spending his Friday night in a library for a girl if he’s just playing.”
Dana bites her cheek again, licks her bottom lip. She thinks about last Friday. He’d shown up a little after eight, fresh from a shower, his hair still damp. She’d been in the fourth floor biology section, pulling books on tree frogs to fill a hold request, and he’d materialized behind her, smiling, with a cup of coffee and a packet of peanut M&Ms. The flip in her stomach had almost knocked her over.
“Hey,” he said. “I was looking for you. Here. Sustenance.”
And he’d thrust the coffee and the candy out at her with a dip of his chin, almost shy. She’d had a lab at eight that morning, and she’d been exhausted. The coffee smelled heavenly—rich and creamy. Exactly what she hadn’t even known she’d needed.
But instead of taking it, she’d folded the books about tree frogs to her chest, lifted her brow, and said, “Mulder, no. You can’t be doing this.”
“Why not?” He seemed genuinely curious. Concerned, maybe, that he was breaking some food-and-drink policy.
She tightened her grip on the books and said, “I don’t need it. I’m working. I need to focus.”
“Exactly,” he said. “Caffeine. Sugar. I only have your best interests at heart.”
Her cheeks flamed and she turned away, trying to seem like she was looking for the next book on her list even though all the titles blurred together.
“C’mon, Dana,” he said. “I come in peace.”
“I’m busy.” She didn’t turn around even as he came up behind her, so close she could feel the heat of him, could smell his foresty, manly soap.
“What are you looking for?”
And she’d relented. Something about his closeness, about the way he leaned over her just a little bit, made her weak. She’d shown him the list, and she’d accepted his help.
But she hadn’t accepted the coffee or the candy. Not even when he’d followed her back to the circulation desk and spent the next two hours shifting his weight from one foot to the other, asking her about class, her day, the best book she read that week, her last name, her phone number, and would she like to have dinner one night—any night—he was free any time?
“Good night, Mulder,” she said about ten times before he finally left—not without a few glances over his shoulder—so she could close up.
He’d left the coffee (cold) and the candy (unopened) on the desk. The coffee she poured out in the women’s room. The M&Ms… The M&Ms she ate later, one by one, while she called Melissa, sucking the candy coating off to make them last.
“Dana,” Melissa says now, breaking the silence. “You know he’s not going to wait forever, right?”
Dana frowns against the receiver. “What do you mean?”
“I mean this guy is clearly crazy about you. But if you keep playing hard to get—”
“—then he’s going to get bored, okay? It’s fun for a little while, but then it’s like…like running your head into a brick wall, over and over and over again. Eventually, if you keep telling him to get out, he will. And he won’t come back.”
“Good,” Dana says, even though the unexpected ache in her chest doesn’t necessarily agree. “That’s what I want.”
“Hmm.” On the other end of the line, Dana hears the flick of a lighter. “Well. If you really don’t want him, tell him you’ve got a sister in California who would be more than happy to entertain him.”
An image—brief, but not brief enough—flashes through her mind and her stomach clenches.
“I have to go, Missy,” she says. “Good night.”
She recradles the phone on her bedside table and turns out the light. She imagines walking into the library tomorrow, no Mulder. And the day after that, no Mulder. And next week, no Mulder.
She imagines that today was the last day. She imagines him never coming back to lean over the circulation desk and waggle his eyebrows at her, or stand too close to her in the stacks, or surprise her with a little treat ever again.
Maybe she’d spot him on the green one day and he’d point her out to his buddies and laugh. Hey, that’s the girl I messed with last semester. You know, the dumb one who really thought I liked her? Maybe he’d be too busy making puppy dog eyes at some other girl—some tall, willowy, interesting girl—to even notice her.
It would be for the best. This past week has just been a sort of…temporary universal insanity. A paracosm. A Dickensian glimpse into what her life could be if, perhaps, she lived in some alternate reality (which, let the record show, she does not believe in—but hypothetically).
Here, Missy’s voice interrupts, echoing in her head. This guy is clearly crazy about you. She frowns into the darkness. It sounds so simple when her sister says it, so reasonable.
And then there’s Mulder’s voice, too, low and intimate, asking her to coffee, to dinner, to a movie, to anything, really, anything at all. And not just one day. Every day. Several times a day, again and again and again, no matter how many times she says no, says Mulder, please, says I have work to do.
Dana tosses and turns and draws the covers up over her head, curling herself tight against the seductive pull of fantasy. She has always been the level-headed one, never a daydreamer, never impractical. She resents the idea that some boy who will no doubt be gone in another week’s time can ruffle her so much.
Huffing, she hugs a pillow tight to her chest and resolves to put Fox Mulder from her mind. It works, like most nights, only until she begins to dream.
Chapter 3: iii
She is a puzzle wrapped in high-waisted denim that he’s desperate to solve.
Fox Mulder is not—despite what some might think, judging by the company he keeps—hopeless with the ladies. He’s had his fair share of dates and kisses and, when the dates and the kissing have gone particularly well, warm bodies in his bed. Or his warm body in somebody else’s bed. Or, on one memorable and near-impossible occasion, the backseat of somebody else’s Volkswagen Beetle.
He even had Diana sophomore year—not his first girlfriend, but certainly his most serious. They had talked about grad school together and about the little apartment they’d rent above the private practice they would open someday. She had wanted to call it Fox & Fowley. He—infatuated but not dumb—had not. (This was, of course, before she took off for a semester abroad and never returned.)
All of this to say, he isn’t some sweaty preteen with his first crush.
He can’t eat. Can’t sleep. Can barely focus in class. He’s up at seven—seven!—even on days he doesn’t have to be anywhere until noon, just so he can be at the library by eight.
“Dude,” Langly said last week after Mulder spent a good—oh—forty-five minutes talking about the clips Dana wore in her hair on Thursday. “You’ve got it bad.”
And he does. God, he does. He’s never had it so bad. He’s seen the inside of the library more in the last two weeks than he has in the last three years. He’s never been so late to so many classes so many times in a row. It’s just impossible—actually, factually impossible—to walk away from her when she’s leaning towards him on her elbows, whispering words like special relativity and time dilation and inertial frame of reference.
She’s a physics major—pre-med!—and she reads James Joyce and string theory for fun, and three days ago, she wore her hair in the smallest french braid he’s ever seen and how—how—is he supposed to walk away from that?
He lies awake at night and thinks about her. Every night. All night. About library Dana and her big, blue eyes and her freckles and her sweet little waist. His hands would fit so perfectly around that little waist, he’s certain. He needs to know. That, yes, but so much more.
Where is she from? The closest approximation he’s been able to get out of her is not here. Does she have brothers? Sisters? A boyfriend? God, he thinks he would die if she did. What’s her favorite food? Is she a morning person? A night person? Does she snore in her sleep? Does she kiss the same way she talks, deliberate and measured and smart? What is her damn last name?
It’s become a game now, he thinks. He hopes. He hopes it’s a game and that she’s playing it too, this keep away, this Dana, who are you? He asks her daily. She rebuffs him daily with her self-satisfied smirks, her little pink tongue darting out to greet her lips.
(He dreams about that tongue. He—more than dreams about that tongue. A few choice magazines are collecting dust in his bedroom because of that tongue.)
He’s even asked around, but nobody seems to know a freshman named Dana with a tiny nose and a dry wit and a berry-pink mouth. (God, the mouth.)
Frohike tells him to take it easy. “She’ll come around,” he says. But Frohike doesn’t understand. Mulder’s going crazy. All day, every day, twenty-four/seven, it’s Dana. Dana Dana Dana. His brain is a radio that only gets one station: all Dana, all the time. She is a puzzle wrapped in high-waisted denim that he’s desperate to solve.
Which is why, after two excruciatingly Dana-less days, he approaches her on Monday with a stack of books and a smile.
“Mulder,” she says cautiously, in much the same tone one might reserve for a child who has just wandered in with something unnerving, like a dead rat. Or a bomb. “What are you doing?”
He pushes the stack towards her. “Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that this was a library.”
“Uh-huh,” she says slowly. “I just didn’t think you—”
“What? Read?” He rests his elbows on the desk and shakes his head. “Maybe you’d know that if you’d have dinner with me. It’s half-price pizza at the bowling alley tonight. What’dya say?”
Dana sighs, then lifts her chin and holds out a hand.
He grins as he hands it over and watches her do her thing. Her script is neat and tiny as she copies his name and student number onto the first date card. She stamps it and moves on to the next. She’s on the third when she pauses, her brow knitting together. He tightens down on his smile and tries to look innocent as she sits back in her chair and crosses her arms.
“Mulder,” she says, and god, he could listen to her say his name all day, even exasperated like that. “What is this?”
He drums his fingers on the countertop. “What is what?”
She quirks an eyebrow at him, a wry expression that says she knows that he knows what she’s talking about. She holds up the first book and reads the cover.
“Iron Town by Dana Chamberlain.” Then the second: “Fundamentals of Ecology and Society by Dana Rankin.” Then the third, the fourth, the fifth: “Dana Graham. Dana Olson. Dana Earle. Is this your idea of cute?”
“My idea of cute is you in that sweater,” he says, because she’s wrapped in some fuzzy, grey, oversized number today that swallows her whole and presumably guards against the fan blowing cold air behind the desk. Then quickly, before she can protest, he continues: “This is my idea of practical. You won’t tell me your last name.” He shrugs. “Thought I’d test out some possibilities. How’d I do?”
She looks nonplussed, but as someone who has devoted nearly two whole weeks to studying her face, he feels relatively confident that the little tic at the corner of her mouth means she’s at least a little plussed.
“Are you serious?” she asks.
He nods. “About you? Absolutely.”
She flushes the prettiest pink and drops her gaze, toying with the ripped edge of the Dana Olson paperback.
“You don’t even know me,” she mumbles.
“And whose fault is that?” He leans in a little closer, trying to catch her eye. “In case you haven’t noticed, you’re not exactly an open book.”
He realizes this was the exact wrong thing to say a moment too late as her forehead wrinkles and her lips draw up into a tight pucker.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she says, slamming all the Dana books back into a pile. “I didn’t realize I owed you my whole life story. Do you need my original birth certificate, or will a copy be enough?”
She starts to slide from her chair, but he reaches out and catches her arm. Her face is red, and she doesn’t look at him.
“Whoa,” he says. “Hey. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I didn’t…it’s not a bad thing.”
She continues to glare at the countertop, and he takes a chance. He swipes his thumb across the inside of her wrist once, back and forth.
“I like you, Dana,” he says, “but I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. If I’ve been too pushy… I’m sorry, okay? Tell me to go, and I’ll go. You don’t owe me anything.”
She settles back into her seat and sniffs. For a brief, horrible second, he thinks he’s made her cry. But when she finally looks up, her eyes are dry and clear.
“Scully,” she says.
He cocks his head. “Sorry?”
“My last name is Scully.”
The relief, the giddiness that floods him nearly knocks him off his feet. This is what winning the lottery must feel like. Dana (Scully!) brushes a little curl behind her ear and gives him an uncertain smile.
“Scully,” he says, liking the way it rolls around on his tongue. “Dana Scully.”
She nods. “Yes.”
“You wanna get some lunch, Dana Scully? My treat. You can tell me absolutely nothing about yourself. You don’t even have to talk. We can sit in total silence and pretend we’ve never met.”
She narrows her eyes at him but they’re playful, maybe even a little impish.
“Don’t push your luck,” she says.
But when he comes back half an hour later with turkey sandwiches and potato chips and two bottles of lemonade, she doesn’t kick him out. She also doesn’t kick him out when he follows her outside to the picnic tables behind the library, and she continues to not kick him out as she picks one in the shade of a big oak tree. He watches (with what he hopes isn’t slack-jawed amazement) as she pulls her fuzzy sweater over her head to reveal a little blue t-shirt and pale, smooth arms, and still, she doesn’t kick him out.
They sit on the same side of the table and watch other students lounge in the grass, toss frisbees, eat their own lunches. A warm September breeze ruffles Mulder’s hair, and occasionally, Dana’s knee brushes his thigh. He tries not to choke at the contact, electric even through his jeans.
True to his word, they don’t talk, but he eats slower than ever, savoring the nerve-wracking feeling of her next to him, the occasional touch of her elbow as she reaches for her drink. It turns out they don’t really need to speak anyway. She teaches him things even in total silence.
For example: when she finishes her chips, she steals the rest of his. She doesn’t ask permission; she simply watches him from the corner of her eye as she dips her fingers into the bag. He files food thief away in his mental rolodex of Dana facts and nudges the bag closer to her. (She also doesn’t say thank you, but the way she licks salt from her fingertips is thanks enough.)
When all the food is gone, they linger a little while longer, sipping the last of their lemonade. Beside him, she is serene, her eyes heavy-lidded, her face tipped up into the breeze. He wants to ask what she’s thinking about, but he bites his tongue. He promised her a silent lunch. He needs her to know he means what he says.
Finally, after what feels like an eternity or maybe only a minute, the black plastic Casio on her left wrist beeps. Lunchtime over.
Dana stands and does a little stretch. Her t-shirt rides up, baring an inch of milky white stomach, and Mulder is suddenly, painfully aware of the blood in his veins. He forces himself to look away. The last thing he needs is to ruin whatever modicum of progress he’s made this afternoon by ogling her belly.
He stares off into the middle distance until she begins gathering her things. She drapes her sweater over her arm and balls up her trash. After a moment’s hesitation, she takes his trash, too, and dumps it all in the nearest garbage can. Then she wanders back and hovers at the edge of the table, touching the corner with her fingertips.
“Um,” she says. “Okay. Well…”
Her cheeks are pink—though from what, he’s not sure.
“Thank you for lunch,” he says, and she flushes darker.
“You bought it.”
He just shrugs. “You know what I mean.”
She licks her bottom lip, then draws it between her teeth. He tries—really, he does—not to stare.
“I need to…” She gestures vaguely over her shoulder.
“Yeah,” he says, not rising. As much as he wants to follow her back inside and whisper to her for the rest of the afternoon, something tells him to take her earlier advice and not push his extraordinary luck any further.
“Okay.” She raps her knuckles lightly on the table and holds his gaze for a moment longer, then heads for the doors.
The sway of her hips is enchanting, and he can’t help himself.
“Hey, Dana Scully,” he calls.
She pauses and turns around, eyebrow quirked. “Yeah?”
“Okay if I come see you tomorrow?”
She purses her lips (against a smile, he thinks) and begins walking backwards.
“I dunno,” she says with a little shrug. “Guess you’ll have to ask me then.”