Mulder’s mother-in-law was sick. Terminal cancer, from what Scully gathered from the little he talked about it. He was gone a lot, accompanying Lauren back and forth between her parent’s house in Newport News and the hospital and home.
Their basement office felt cold, empty without him in it. She felt like every small noise she made echoed off the walls. One Friday, she left early, unable to stand it any longer.
She went home, but felt alone there, too. She drifted out into her neighborhood, the warm sun of the afternoon laying long shadows through the streets.
There was a farmer’s market set up a few blocks from her apartment— an entire block’s worth of a street closed off, with tented stalls lining both sides of the road, selling everything from fresh eggs to flowers to jewelry.
She was looking through the selection of breads and baked goods on the edge of one of the stalls when she felt a light tug on bottom of the sundress she had changed into. She looked down to find a small black feline paw had reached through the bars of the cage in the next stall and had hooked a claw into her dress. Her laugh alerted one of the women working the rescue group’s stall, who rushed over to help release her from the kitten’s grasp, with an “oh honestly , Trouble.”
“His name is Trouble?” Scully asked, laughing.
“Her,” the woman said, smiling at the little black fluff affectionately, “she’s sweet but has an excess of personality.”
“How old is she?” Scully asked.
“Ten weeks,” the woman answered, then narrowed her eyes, seeing a prospective cat rescuer suddenly in her midst. “Here,” she went on, handing Scully a feather-on-a-stick cat toy, “play with her. She’s a hoot.”
Scully bobbed the toy about Trouble’s head, who took one swat at it and then jumped into the air and caught it, growling like a dog. Scully laughed, delighted.
“She plays fetch, too,” said the woman, who was still hovering nearby.
“You’re kidding,” Scully said, tugging on the feather, which Trouble refused to give up.
“I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” the woman said, “wadded up paper ball. And when she brings it back, she drops it better than my retriever ever does.”
Scully was thoroughly charmed.
“You in the market for a new friend?” the woman asked with a smile.
“Oh! No, not really.”
“Well, we’ll be here if you change your mind. Our rescue group has a stall at the Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays and Fridays.”
Scully smiled at the woman and turned away, thinking of buying a bag of apples and a bouquet of flowers.
“Miss?” the woman said, and Scully turned back to look at her, “Trouble won’t be here long. The cute ones get adopted quick.”
Scully smiled indulgently and walked on. On her return trip through the market to head home, carrying a bag of greens, two cartons of strawberries and a small bouquet of yellow calla lilies, she saw a small girl playing with Trouble and a slightly larger orange tabby kitten. The girl’s parents were standing a few feet away and the girl turned to them. “I want the orange one,” she told them.
Scully was insulted on Trouble’s behalf. It was no fun coming in second. She veered back toward the cage and stuck a finger through the bars. Trouble rubbed her face against her finger and sat down, purring.
“Can I get an adoption application please?” Scully said then, and found that the woman was already behind her with a clipboard and a pen. The woman winked.
Two hours later she tumbled into her apartment laden with her haul from the farmer’s market, twenty five pounds of kitty accoutrements and a cardboard cat carrier that had little black paws popping out of the holes in the top.
She opened it up and looked down at its lone occupant, who sat, looking back at her, as prim and proper as a posy. She looked like a ball of black puff with two green eyes, as round as the moon.
“We’re going to change your name, Trouble,” Scully said, “A friend of mine once told me about self-fulfilling prophecies.”
Scully didn’t go to Lauren’s mother’s funeral, but she did send flowers. She tried to strike the right tone with the arrangement, somewhere between work acquaintance and best friend, and leaned into one that was more on this side of ostentatious than not.
She got a thank you card from Lauren, but it was written in Mulder’s scrawling hand.
Scully had voiced a craving for a mid-afternoon latte, and the day was bright and clear, the first in almost a week. He volunteered to accompany her to a nearby coffee shop.
He waited in the back of the shop next to a stack of high chairs and a small creamer station dusted with spilled Sweet’N Low and cinnamon. He watched as she gave her order to the barista, laughing at something the girl had said as she handed over her money. Her face shone amongst the other patrons, brighter and clearer than anyone else’s. It was like she alone was in focus, everyone else in the world walking in an ill-defined blur.
Why had he waited so long, he wondered. Some misplaced sense of loyalty? Things with Lauren had always gone from bad to worse, waiting certainly hadn’t made them better. It wasn’t to spare Lauren’s feelings. It certainly wasn’t to spare his own.
Scully turned from where she stood in line and caught his eye. She smiled at him with a radiance that hit him square in the solar plexus.
How many years had he wasted? How many breaths had he taken, how many nights spent alone in a bed of two?
He smiled back at her, a delicious ache in his chest.
Their first meeting with Skinner after Mulder informed him of their relationship was a budgetary meeting. Kimberly smiled at them in a knowing way when they walked into the front part of Skinner’s office, at which Scully blushed. Mulder wondered vaguely how much Skinner and his assistant talked.
Just before Skinner adjourned the meeting of roughly ten people, he said “Please consider this a reminder to make sure your current address, emergency contact information, and any other pertinent personnel file data is updated and filed with Human Resources.”
Mulder shot a look to Scully, who shot a look back.
The skin at the base of his left ring finger was bare but indented with years long pressure.
One morning, Mulder woke up to find Blackwell sitting on his chest, the end of her fat, fluffy tail twitching slowly up, keeping time like a metronome. The cat regarded him coolly for minute, then yawned once and flopped down to lay atop him, purring gently.
Scully awoke about ten minutes later and cracked a sleepy eye to look at the domestic tableau before her.
“She likes you,” she said.
“I have a way with women,” he rumbled, scratching a nail under the cat’s chin.
“I’ll remember that the next time she needs her claws trimmed,” Scully said, stretching.
Mulder considered the animal.
“Why did you name your cat Blackwell?” he asked.
“Have you heard of Elizabeth Blackwell?” she asked back. He shook his head. “She was the first woman to graduate from Medical School in the United States,” she said.
He nodded, running his hand along the velvet coat of the black cat.
“Perfect,” he said. Blackwell purred. So did Scully.
He had dreams. Terrible dreams. He dreamt that he hadn’t made it in time to the top of Skyland Mountain. He dreamt that Melissa had been shot dead in Scully’s doorway. Dreams where he showed up at the hospital to visit Lauren’s mother and found Scully in her bed.
In the mornings, he woke to find Scully next to him and pulled her close. She generally woke when he did this, but never once complained.
Blackwell had stopped growling when playing with toys after a week or two of living with Scully, but would still occasionally play fetch. Mulder was so taken with the idea of a dog-like cat, he offered to open an X-File on her and swore he would teach her tricks.
True to his word, as the years passed, Mulder taught Blackwell several, including a high five, “speak” and a version of “play dead” in which he would pull an imaginary service weapon (complete with correct form and safety procedures) say “bang” and over she would keel. True her status as a feline, Blackwell would perform these tricks only five times out of ten, which Scully did have to admit, was pretty good.
On a lazy Sunday morning when Lily was nine months old, Mulder, Scully and their daughter were whiling away in their rumpled bed (Mulder with a book, Scully with a crossword, Lily with an orange teether) when Mulder set the book down on his bedside table and turned to Scully.
“Lily and I taught Blackwell a new trick,” he said.
Scully set down the newspaper and pencil where Lily couldn’t get to them and turned toward him.
“I’d like to see it,” she said, smiling.
“What do you think, Lil?” Mulder said to the baby who babbled a bit in response, a string of drool sliding down to soak into her already damp onesie.
Mulder nodded, pursed his lips and whistled.
A light tinkling sound came down the hallway, and Blackwell jumped up easily onto the bed and sauntered up to Mulder to give him a gentle headbutt.
Scully clapped softly.
“She comes when whistled for now? I’m impressed.”
Mulder pet the cat affectionately and then looped a finger underneath the cat’s collar to bring it up and over her fur.
“And check out the new accessory,” Mulder said.
Scully clicked her fingers and Blackwell walked over to her.
“A new collar, I see,” Scully, said, eyeing the new black collar with equal parts humor and distaste -- it had a repeating pattern of alien heads and ufos.
Mulder nodded as Blackwell sat in front of Scully and then he thrust his chin up and towards the cat.
“That’s not all,” he said, “check out the hardware.”
Lily made a grab for the cat, but was scooped up by her father who lifted her to his shoulder as Scully leaned down to take a closer look at Blackwell’s new collar. Where the bell usually was, hung a platinum ring with three diamonds and an aged patina. Scully sucked in a breath and fingered it, flicking her eyes to Mulder, who looked at her with affection.
“What do you think, Scully? Make an honest man out of me?”
Blackwell sat patiently as Scully unhooked her collar and slid the ring off of it. She held it in her palm, her eyes shining.
“Was this…?” she said, and Mulder knew what she was asking.
“It was the ring I gave to Lauren,” he said, “it was my grandmother’s. She returned it to me a few months ago. She thought you should have it.”
Scully smiled sadly.
Mulder rushed on.
“I understand if you would rather not wear it. I’d be happy to buy you a new one. But I wanted to give you the option. Mulder women have been wearing this ring for close to a hundred years. It maybe doesn’t have the best mojo, but…”
“I love it,” Scully said, as Lily reached up and patted at Mulder’s cheeks. Scully slid it over her finger and it seemed to fit perfectly.
“So is that a yes?” Mulder asked, nuzzling their daughter’s head.
“It’s a yes,” Scully smiled. “And Mulder?”
He looked at her.
“I don’t believe in mojo.”
They buried Blackwell under the dogwood tree in their backyard, eleven year old Lily crying into her mother’s shoulder. Eight year old William, who had inherited his mother’s stoicism and his grandmother’s stiff upper lip stood next to them, watching his father blankly as he patted the soil flat with the back of a shovel.
“She was good cat,” William said somberly, and Mulder reached out and pulled him into a hug. He could feel a wet spot start to soak into his shirt.
“She was, buddy,” he said, and swung his eyes to Scully, who was absently rubbing Lily’s back, her eyes still on the ground. “I think maybe we should celebrate her life with ice cream, what do you say?”
William snuffled loudly, wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
“Vanilla, dad?” he said on another sniffle, “chocolate is bad for cats.”
Scully finally cracked a smile.
“It’s what she would have wanted,” she said, and tucked a strand of bright red hair tenderly behind Lily’s ear.
A blossom detached from the tree and fell gently to the ground, landing softly on the freshly turned earth.