Mulder’s machine blinked.
Eight o’clock on a Tuesday, home from a swim at the Y. Work was something he left early these days— well, “early,” considering— the open-plan bullpen and ass-kissing partner giving him a headache by noon. He understood now, in myriad ways he hadn’t before, why the appropriate metaphor was “punching a clock.” That’s exactly what he wanted to do: punch the face of every clock that ticked by so slowly. Taunting him all day long. He’d never used to notice that, had he?
No. He hadn’t.
So it was with a vague sort of optimism that he dropped his wet duffle, crossed the room, hit play on the blinking light. The day was so dull that he could hope for the impossible: Scully’s bright voice, calling from Quantico, telling him to drop by her office, or pick up files that she’d faxed him, or hell, chew him out for the message he’d left that afternoon about toxic sludge sewers. He smiled just thinking about it. Another downside of the current ass-kissing partner: there was no one who got worked up when he pushed it too far, or rolled her eyes and begrudged him a bad sort of joke.
“Mulder? Langly.” The tape crackled. Ah well. The thing about impossibilities was that they were mostly impossible. Mulder tapped flakes in the fish tank while Langly rambled through the daily minutiae— they were going to press with that story on Ultra, Byers’s new statoscope had come in. Tell him about tonight, dumbass, came Frohike’s voice. “Oh, right. Yeah, tonight,” Langly said, and told Mulder to come over. They’d order Cugino’s, beat Frohike in poker. Frohike said something else in the background that Mulder couldn’t quite catch.
“Delete this when you get it,” Langly said quickly, his standard signoff as he hung up the phone.
Mulder sighed, weighing the offer. It was half an hour across town; his stomach was already growling for the takeout in the fridge. But, it was takeout in the fridge. How many nights in a row had he eaten cold lo mein hunched over files on the couch? A movie on tape, something obnoxious and numbing. Or a ballgame on cable, and the Yankees weren’t playing tonight.
Would it really hurt, a couple hours in the company of some guys who’d talk shit, bust his chops?
His stomach still rumbled, but a quarter past eight Mulder had pulled on a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. He checked his keys, threw the lock, and with a six-pack of beer he clattered his way down the stairs.
“You’re late,” Frohike said, throwing open the door.
“Reinforcements,” said Mulder, and held up the beer.
“How did you know?” Byers said, with the first hint of sarcasm Mulder had heard in days.
Two large pizzas, lids open, took up most of the table. Slices were already gone. Langly had his mouth full, raking red and blue chips into a haphazard pile. Byers split the deck, shuffling.
“You started without me?” Mulder asked, taking the empty seat and a slice of pizza at the same time.
“I’m already up ten,” Langly said. “Full house beats two pair.”
“Ten what? Ten dollars?” Mulder said around his large bite. “You boys finally run out of Monopoly money?”
Langly flipped a chip in the air. “Ten grand.” He grinned. “These bad boys are a thousand.”
“High rollin’,” said Mulder. That’s the way their games went, high stakes and wild bets, all debts absolved at the door.
Frohike returned from the kitchen. “Hey Mulder,” he said, cracking open a beer. “Where’s the hot one?”
Mulder hooked his thumb toward his chest. “Right here.”
“No, I mean the hot one.”
“I’m not enough for you, Frohike?”
Byers spoke up. “I guess you don’t see much of Agent Scully these days, since they reassigned her?”
Thanks, that’s the reminder I needed, Mulder thought glumly. “Not really, no.”
Frohike clapped a sympathetic hand on his shoulder, handing Mulder the beer. “Drink up, dude. We all knew she was too good for you.”
“With friends like you, Frohike, who needs anyone else?”
“That’s the spirit.” Frohike grinned. “All right, boys, deal it up. Get ready to weep.”
They took turns dealing, clockwise around the small table. The pizza diminished. Mulder drank the beer the guys brought him, joked around, bet and lost. He had forgotten how good it could feel to shut his mind off for a night. The alcohol didn’t hurt, a pleasant buzz settling in by the second beer. He grew more loose with his bets, trusted his gut, actually won.
“I thought Dungeons and Dragons would be more your speed,” he said to the guys, adding the seven of diamonds to the clubs in his hand. He looked up in time to watch Frohike and Langly turn pointed looks at Byers. Whatever the story was, it made Byers turn pink.
“Shit got real?” Mulder guessed.
“We’re taking what’s called a—” Langly made the word pointed too— “hiatus at the moment.”
“Ah,” Mulder said as he lost the pot. Fifteen grand went to Frohike with his trip kings.
An hour into the game, they’d banned Frohike from dealing. He had a knack with the cards, keeping count, guessing odds. Not that it made much difference to ban him from dealing. His stacks of chips grew as each of theirs dwindled. They bluffed him, they tried calling his bluffs, they ganged up on him with their bets and even cheated outright, and Frohike still raked in the chips.
That’s what Mulder could do— read the bluffs at the table. Screw the math, he read faces. Langly had a tell that jiggled the whole table, his leg anxiously jumping at the least little bluff, his leg jumping harder when he had the cards to back up his bets. Byers compulsively sorted his cards over and over when he had a good hand.
Frohike, though, was the one who gave away nothing. He stared Mulder down from across the table, relaxed and tapping his fingers. He’d found a green plastic visor, cocking it above his thick glasses, further obscuring his gaze until he looked like a dealer so shady he’d been kicked out of Vegas.
He gestured to Mulder. The magnanimous gesture: call, raise, or fold.
Mulder looked down at his hand, then at the chips on the table.
“Call,” Mulder said.
“Call,” Frohike said, tossing his chips in the pot. Langly had already folded. Byers braced himself for the slaughter and flipped his cards face up. King high. Mulder beat him with a pair of threes, then Frohike took his sweet time revealing his hand one by one. Five hearts in a row.
“Young and in love,” Frohike said happily, and raked in the pot of several thousand in chips.
“I can’t take this.” Mulder exaggerated a grimace, hopping up for the bathroom. Empty bottles littered the table. Frohike found one that still sloshed and raised it high, then drank it down.
“Get your ass back out here,” he called to Mulder, full of good cheer. Langly groaned, in the worst shape of all, down to a scant five chips left.
Langly was the one who raised the stakes. He had no choice, desperate to stay in the game when he drew an ace. That ace made a straight, which won him the pot, which kept his big wagers securely in his possession— his Jimi Hendrix guitar pick, his Legend of Zelda. But the precedent had been set. Within a few hands, the pot seemed comprised of anything in the room that held dubious value.
Clothing was next. Except as Frohike put it, not in the hot way. Byers won Langly’s shirt, which in the spirit of decency, meant Byers gave him his own. They looked like Trading Places. Unwilling to risk the only clothing he wore, Mulder lost his keys, then his phone. He bet high on a bluff, and had to hand over his badge.
At last, luck turned his way. “Read ‘em and weep, Melvin,” Mulder announced, and laid down all spades. Frohike groaned, his first major loss in an hour, unzipping his vest to toss it across the table. The visor was next, and Langly happily donned it, adding it to his ensemble.
That’s when Frohike got up, after Mulder shuffled and dealt and Frohike looked at his cards. He came back with a dime bag that he dropped on the table.
“Pot in the pot?” Langly snickered, three beers in at least.
“You guys know I’m a Fed, right?” Mulder asked.
But Byers flashed him the badge that was now in his possession and Langly scrounged up a lighter and Frohike licked and rolled paper and exhaled the first cough of smoke.
He held the joint out to Mulder. “C’mon, J. Edgar. Live a little,” he coaxed.
Mulder turned down the offer. The first time, then the second.
It’s not like it had been years since he had cut loose this much. Months, maybe. Several months, but… okay, no, it was years. Even the beer had gone straight to his head, a warm, pleasant buzz that made every joke funny.
He had earned it, he figured. One night once a decade in which to be irresponsible. It’s not like he had to… okay, yes, he had to drive home. And report to work the next morning. To the federal government. But he hadn’t done this since college, and when Langly held out the joint, trying to get him to take it for the third time, Mulder caved. What the hell. One small hit wouldn’t hurt, except it scorched his lungs and through the hacking and coughing he could hear Frohike laugh.
“What the hell is this stuff?”
“Buckle up, dude.”
“I’m not kidding. What is this?” It had been a long time since college, but nothing Mulder had then had been half that strong.
“It’s the good stuff,” Frohike said.
“Yeah, The Good Stuff.” Langly inhaled with a relish, rolling the smoke on his tongue. Byers was shaking his head.
“Don’t even ask where they get it,” he warned.
“Don’t worry,” said Mulder. That ranked low on his list of current concerns, far below his new worry over the state of his lungs.
He only took two more hits, small and careful each time. It was more than enough. The high in his head met the buzz from the beer and rolled over together— or some other metaphor that made much more sense. Langly got harder to read, winning two hands before they learned his new tells. Byers became a little more… Byers. And Frohike was Frohike. He played host of the party, pleased with himself at how the evening progressed.
It was why, Mulder thought later, he should have seen what was coming. But that was the problem, he did not see it coming, not until Frohike had a phone that looked a whole lot like Mulder’s, punching in a number, then saying hello.
It was Mulder’s phone. The one Frohike had won from him about six hands ago.
“Well, we’re just sitting here wondering who’s missing out on this party,” Frohike was saying.
“Oh my God.” Mulder lunged, bumping chips off the table. Frohike dodged easily, chuckling at the attempt, saying, “Yeah, he’s right here,” and not handing over the phone.
There was only one number it could be. By the time Frohike hung up, Mulder sat at the table, his head in his hands.
“Tell me you didn’t,” he said into his hands.
“I didn’t,” Frohike said easily. Mulder looked up with hope, then saw the way Frohike grinned.
“She’ll kill me,” was something Mulder probably said.
This time it was Byers who clapped a sympathetic hand on his shoulder and offered… nothing else.
Mulder cracked open the door, leaning his head through it. “It’s not what you think.”
Except Scully’s face, as she looked him up and down, went with another opinion.
“Okay,” he conceded. “It might be what you think.”
“What’s going on, Mulder?”
All things considered, Mulder might just prefer the version of Scully that was like his least favorite schoolteacher. Because this Scully, the one who looked like she had to keep her face straight and bite back a laugh, made him want to open the door and let her into the room.
Which is apparently what he did.
Because then Frohike stood there welcoming her to their place. And Byers and Langly scrambled over each other to clean off half of the table. And Mulder shrugged at her glance that asked for more explanations, Langly the one in a necktie, Byers wearing a t-shirt that said RIDIN’ HIGH.
“I have no idea what Frohike told you,” Mulder finally said.
“I’m not too clear on that either,” Scully admitted. And then, a beat later: “Are you wearing his vest?”
There was no way the evening ended that quickly. Just for a moment it seemed like it might, Scully surveying the table and its paraphernalia, including a Playboy that had been in the last pot. “That would be mine,” Frohike said quickly, collecting his winnings. That’s when Scully learned, Langly bemoaning his loss, how close to unbeatable Frohike was at the game.
“Watch out, Melvin,” said Mulder, pointing at Scully. “This one doesn’t play fair. She’d take you for all you’ve got.”
He was joking, that’s all— it had basis in fact, he’d lost his fair share to Scully when they’d passed the time with some cards, but, his foresight still lacking, he didn’t think Frohike would look up at Scully with quite that much interest. And he never dreamed Scully would do anything but scoff off the challenge and head straight for the door.
The next thing Mulder knew, no idea how it happened, Scully had taken his seat, and he’d taken Langly’s, and she faced off with Frohike as Byers dealt out the cards. Frohike rubbed his hands together, a little too gleeful over this sudden good fortune.
“You and me, baby. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Scully won the hand. It was a bit of luck on her part, a small bet to open, then calling when Frohike went big to try to back her out of the pot. She drew a jack from the deck, which gave her enough to beat Frohike’s bluff.
“Double or nothing,” he said, eyes gleaming behind the thick glasses.
The next hand went his way. He opened big, drew two cards, and then raised again when Scully refused to fold. But luck had switched sides, and Mulder, too happy when she revealed the high pair, had to eat a few words when Frohike’s was higher. “S’okay,” Mulder said, squeezing her shoulder, clear where his loyalties lay. And clear that it didn’t faze Scully one way or the other.
“Two out of three?” she asked Frohike, possibly mildly flirting.
“Best of seven,” he countered, willing to push his luck.
The third hand was quick. Scully folded her cards, which dealt a blow to the table, Langly visibly wincing as Mulder sank back in his chair. But she came back strong, taking that pile of chips back with a jack-ten-nine straight.
Langly whooped. Byers laughed. Mulder flashed her a thumbs-up, and when it made Scully grin, he wouldn’t put it past Frohike to lose the next hand on purpose just to see that again.
But Frohike won. She tried to bluff him and lost, giving up a full stack of her chips. “You got this,” said Mulder, going for brash overconfidence. If she heard him, she ignored him. Byers dealt out the cards.
“Hmm,” Frohike said, when he saw his hand.
He stacked his chips in the middle as Scully regarded her cards.
“Don’t overthink it, Dana,” Frohike said, another one of his ploys.
Scully gave no sign that she heard him. Mulder looked back and forth; Frohike was relaxed, Scully gave nothing away.
She counted her stack of chips. Frohike leaned forward with interest.
“Raise,” Scully said.
The chips she stacked in the pot doubled Frohike’s bet.
Then she doubled that too.
“The lady plays hardball.” Unperturbed by the move, he requested one card.
Byers flipped the top card, dealt Frohike the next. Frohike showed no reaction when he glanced down at it. He nodded to Scully, satisfied with his choice.
“Agent Scully?” asked Byers.
“Standing pat,” Scully said.
Frohike faltered. It was just for an instant, not even a blink, but Mulder caught it. Doubt flickered across his face for the first time all night. To call the bet she had made would take him all in; one misstep, game over.
“Hmm,” Frohike said.
Scully returned his gaze, looking just like herself. Mulder had no idea how she did it. His own strength in poker was his deadpan expression, no twitch and no tells, eyes calm and face blank. But Scully’s face wasn’t blank. She showed curiosity, weighed decisions, kept her face candid and open. And yet none of that revealed anything. It wasn’t a mask, it wasn’t quite misdirection, it was just as natural to her as breathing. She revealed nothing she didn’t want to reveal.
Frohike tapped the edge of his cards. Mulder saw it coming a second before he tossed the cards down.
“Fold,” Frohike said.
There was a moment of mayhem. Langly and Byers scuffled between them to get to Frohike’s cards. They turned over trip tens, a six and a nine rounding out the hand that he held.
Mulder let out a long, low whistle. He’d leaned over her shoulder to see Scully’s cards. He reached for her wrist, bringing her hand down to show them.
She couldn’t help it, she grinned. 2-3-5-6-8, all of them off suit. A stone cold bluff.
In the general clamor she caught Mulder’s eye. Shrugged.
“Worth a shot,” she said, modest.
“I told you,” Mulder told Frohike.
“Dude,” Frohike said.
“Last hand, all in?” Scully offered her worthy opponent.
Frohike seemed to have one word left. “Dude,” he said again.
Scully took the last hand with aces and eights. Frohike declared to the room, “I hope these assholes realize you just kicked all their asses,” and proceeded to declare his intentions for matrimony, saying to Scully, “You and me, Vegas—”
“All right,” Mulder said, his cue to cut in.
But Scully winked at Frohike, a new regard for him now that she had lacked when they met. She’d finally seen past that first layer of bluster. Proving to Mulder that he hadn’t been wrong about impossible things.
Scully showed him her watch.
“Yep,” Mulder said, at the prompt to wrap up. Langly hadn’t stopped talking, his sentences peppered with “awesome.” Byers was clearing the table. Frohike was still gloating over his loss and his wins.
“Yo,” Frohike said as the pair of them reached the door.
He signaled to Scully, then tossed her Mulder’s keys.
Mulder patted his pockets. “Wait,” he said. “Guys. Who’s got my phone and my badge?”
At the end of the stairwell, Mulder pushed through the door. He held it for Scully, letting the night air hit them, fresh, cool, and welcome after the stale air indoors. This way, Scully pointed, when he tried to point left, heading towards his own car. He did a quick jog to catch her.
“I’m fine to drive,” he said. “Really.”
“I can tell,” Scully said. She leaned over, made at face at the scent she caught off his clothes.
“What?” He pulled his t-shirt up, sniffed.
“You smell like a college dorm.”
“Better or worse than a sewer?” Mulder leaned in, sniffing her hair.
Scully gave him a look. “We should definitely hang out more often.”
Ah, her sarcasm. He could stand out here all night hassling her just to hear it.
“We should,” he agreed. Scully was sorting her keys from his own. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, watching her find the one that fit the car door.
She clicked the lock open, then turned around, pausing a moment. Her gaze had turned curious, like he should look different out here in the dark.
Mulder looked down to make sure he wasn’t still wearing the vest.
“You know,” she said. “Mulder, I’ve never seen you drunk before.”
“I’m not drunk,” he informed her. Buzzed, yes. Only slightly. Not what he would call drunk.
“Or high before,” Scully said.
Mulder touched the tip of his finger to the tip of his nose to prove his sobriety.
“You’re supposed to stand on one foot for that.”
“Oh,” Mulder said, and didn’t even attempt it. Just gave her more of that smile.
“It’s good,” Scully said softly, since he was inches away, the street quiet and empty. Their voices would carry.
“It’s good to see you relax. You never do that.”
“Yeah, well.” Mulder shrugged. “I used to have this partner who nagged me. She always said how I should.”
Scully’s expression was strange. He frowned, trying to read it.
“That’s what this was, right?” she finally said. “Cutting loose with the guys? Not…” She trailed off. His frown deepened. “You still have your badge,” she said. “You didn’t quit.”
It dawned on him. A full revelation. That’s what she’d thought? Why she drove all the way over… because she could tell he’d gotten drunk on a Tuesday. And why that might be.
“I didn’t quit,” Mulder told her.
The breeze stirred up. It blew a scrap of paper off the sidewalk, flattening it around his leg. He reached down to grab it.
“Not today, anyway,” he said.
He’d started to crumple the paper. Then straightened it out instead, showing the headline to Scully.
She shook her head, trying not to smile, taking it from him. The latest Lone Gunmen press sheet that had been printed in bulk and then discarded the same way.
Mulder said, grinning, “You know you’ve done it now, right? You’ll never live it down either.” He nodded upstairs.
Scully knew what he meant. “Mulder, I saw his eyes. I doubt someone that stoned will remember what happened.”
“Oh, he’ll remember.”
She started to laugh. A car horn blared, at least two blocks away. When she turned back around, Mulder tapped at her elbow.
“Thanks,” he said, meaning it.
For everything. For giving a shit. “For driving all the way over here.”
“For beating Frohike at cards?”
“That too,” he said.
Scully wrinkled her nose. He fleetingly wondered how long it would take him to count all her freckles. Okay, he considered, he might not be completely sober.
“What?” Mulder asked, at the look on her face.
“I think we’re on Candid Camera.”
She nodded behind him, about two stories up. A small lens attached to the side of the Lone Gunmen’s building swiveled slightly and whirred. Like she had all night, Scully seemed more amused than alarmed.
“In that case,” Mulder said, and bent down, kissing her cheek. He held his hand on the back of her head, his body blocking, he hoped, exactly where he kissed. At least from the two-story angle.
A distant horn honked again. It pulled them apart.
Scully frowned slightly, looking like her thoughts weren’t quite in the right order. But he had gotten away with it— drunk, high, or both. He should try that more often. He liked flustering Scully. And he was still buzzed enough that she could invent the excuses she wanted.
“You can punch me,” he offered. “If that sells the story.”
Scully opened the door. “You should probably get in the car.”
“Yep,” he agreed, and caught the press sheet she crumpled and tossed back to him, almost right at his head.
The ride was comfortable, tired, quiet. Mulder turned his head sideways, leaning back on the headrest, watching the streetlights slide past Scully’s side of the car.
“Take two aspirin,” she told him when she stopped in front of his building. “And two more in the morning.”
“Yes, Dr. Scully.”
“And drink water, lots of it.”
“You know, it might be hard to believe, but I’ve actually done this before.”
“Well, that’s good to know,” Scully said dryly.
He’d propose, just like Frohike, to that kind of sarcasm. He should probably get his head checked.
“I mean it, Mulder,” Scully said, serious. “Be careful, okay?”
Mulder knew what she meant. He’d wake up in the morning, most likely hungover, and not have a partner he trusted out there watching his back.
“I’ll be careful,” he promised.
“Call me if you need anything.”
He wondered if she meant it, if he needed anything. If he just needed to bug her because she’d dish it right back.
“Oh, and Mulder?” she said.
He leaned back in the car door to tell her goodnight. But Scully said, “If you want me to pick up the phone, stop leaving me messages about toxic sewage.”
It took him a second to remember and laugh. “What?” he said, innocent.
“Goodnight, Mulder,” she said.
At the end of the block, Scully flicked on her blinker. He watched her make the turn, then slipped his keys in the door. That’s when Mulder remembered— he hadn’t answered her, had he, when she’d asked him that question about quitting tomorrow.
He thought about it, climbing back up the stairs.
Not today. Not tomorrow.
After that— well, he’d see.