Mulder watched Ellen Reardon tear the photograph with steady hands and coolly discard eight year old Cindy’s image into the fire. The glossy coating bubbled as the paper twisted and melted amidst the searing flames. To his left, he saw Scully take a deep breath, heard her swallow hard. Neither of them said anything beyond the necessary pleasantries, making their excuses as they awkwardly vacated the Reardon household for the final time.
Scully carefully navigated the steps down from the porch and cut across the lawn with a slow, defeated gait. Mulder headed to the driver side door without discussion.
He broke the silence as they headed towards the airport.
“She seemed awfully quick to dismiss the daughter she loved and raised for eight years, don’t you think?”
Scully dragged her eyes away from the hundred yard stare that had heretofore been aimed out of the passenger window, her elbow neatly tucked onto the door ledge. She turned her face towards him, thoughtfully slow, her pouted lips peeling away from the forefinger that had been pressed against them. She sighed and shrugged.
“Grief can manifest in a lot of different ways, Mulder. She’s still processing everything. She just found out her own child murdered her husband. We don’t know what she’s feeling.”
Mulder nodded regretfully. Scully returned her gaze to the passing view, crooking her finger beneath her nose now. The pout returned. Mulder knew this meant she was mulling something over.
“You ever think about having kids, Mulder?”
This was so unexpected he laughed. Not a loud laugh but an airy, shocked chuff. He did a double take to check whether or not she was serious. She turned to consider him again, her face calm, her eyes steady. She was serious. His cheeks rounded as he attempted to form a response.
“No, I can’t say I have ever thought about it, Scully. To be honest I don’t even know if I could keep a pet alive. I think it helps to pass that test first before you consider being responsible for other humans.”
They drove the rest of the way to the airport without speaking. It didn’t even occur to him to ask if she ever thought about the subject herself.
Mulder surreptitiously watched Scully slide the last of her papers into her briefcase and clip it shut. She lifted her winter coat over her shoulders, letting it hang open over her skirt suit as he busied himself peering at a set of negatives through a loupe.
“You going to be at home in a couple hours Mulder? I wanted to swing by. I, ah, I have a little something for you.”
He looked up from his light box with some surprise.
“A gift? For me?”
“Yeah,” Scully answered, letting out a shallow breath, her eyes darting off to the side, her chin tilting up. She fingered a coat button at her waist.
“A couple hours? Better give me three,” Mulder hedged, thinking of the places that might possibly be open past five p.m. on a Thursday night two days before Christmas, and where he could buy a suitable festive offering for Scully.
Some time later, he’d just finished hastily wrapping the best thing he’d been able to find at such short notice when he heard a soft knock at his apartment door. He tugged it open, still holding the scissors in one hand. Scully stood in the hallway with her arms behind her back and a slightly self-conscious look on her face.
“Come on in,” he motioned to her. “This is all very mysterious.”
Scully quirked a playful eyebrow at him as she stepped inside, crab-walking into the living room with her back turned away from him to keep the contents of her hands concealed.
“I didn’t wrap it,” she said, apologetically. She stood still, hesitating.
“That’s okay, Scully, I’ll let you make it up to me somehow.”
She stared at him for a few seconds then shook her head a little, seeming to remember why she had come. She pulled her right hand out from behind her hip and presented him with an empty glass bowl. He nodded in thanks, but couldn’t conceal the confusion that played across his brow.
“And, ah, this,” she added, producing a clear plastic bag filled with water, clutched in her left fist. In the center of the turgid offering floated a bright orange goldfish; its tail twitching from side to side, its mouth lazily bobbing open and shut. He took it and lifted it up to better catch the light.
“Carnival in town?” he joked, grinning. “How many targets did you have to shoot down to win this for me, Scully? Isn’t it cheating if you have a firearms certificate?”
She smiled back.
“It’s so you can practice keeping something alive. Pass your test before you consider any…. further responsibilities.”
Was she blushing, he wondered? He couldn’t properly tell because she hid her face from his peering gaze almost immediately, looking down as she reached into her overcoat pockets. She lifted out some fish flakes, a bag of brightly colored pebbles, and a slim paperback entitled Practical Fishkeeping: A Beginner’s Guide.
She rested the last of his gifts down on the coffee table and looked up at him with an awkward, tight little smirk. He stood there balancing the fish and the bowl, just holding her gaze and smiling. She blinked and looked down at the empty glass orb, suddenly reaching out to take it back.
“Let me fill this up for you,” she offered, swiftly walking off through the dining room and into the kitchen. He followed.
At the sink, she placed the bowl down and turned on the cold water. She motioned for him to come closer.
“The guy at the pet store said you’re supposed to half fill it with new water, and the other half with the water from the bag. But you should let this get to room temperature first, then float the baggie in it for a while before making the transfer.”
Scully shut off the faucet and lifted the bowl from the sink, the water gently swishing from side to side. She slid it towards the back of the kitchen counter, next to the knife block, and reached out to take the bag from Mulder’s grip, gently placing it where the bowl had just been sitting. She reached up to tear some paper towels off the roll that was suspended under the cupboards, wiping up a few drops that had escaped, then padded the damp sheets together and turned to toss them into the trash can.
Mulder watched this whole domestic performance with quiet awe. The way Scully moved about his kitchen with ease, confidently knowing where things belonged and happy to take charge of them, pleased him greatly. It made him feel more at home than he’d ever felt while alone in his own space.
He realized he was staring at her. Scully took a deep breath and looked away, her eyes skipping past him into the next room, drawn to the lumpy package sitting on the dining table. It was gift-wrapped in cheap, gaudy paper featuring snowmen dancing pas de deux with eerily satanic elves: the only roll they’d had left at the gas station where he’d stopped in desperation.
“Is that for me?” she queried, gently.
“Oh, yeah,” he confirmed, dashing over to pick it up. He held it out for her to take, and she thanked him as she did, tucking it under her arm.
“You’re not going to open it?” he asked.
“It’s not Christmas yet, Mulder,” she said, teasingly. “I’ll take it to my parents’ house and put it under the tree to open Christmas morning.”
“But I opened mine,” he countered. His mind flashed to the image of Scully unwrapping his gift in front of her parents and siblings before Christmas Day Mass. It was a wall mounted key rack topped by a cat figurine with beady little humanoid eyes banded across its face. He'd panic-bought it at the gas station car wash gift shop. Women liked cats, right? He cringed, second-guessing his hasty decision, but it was too late now.
“It’s a fish, Mulder. I couldn’t wrap a fish.”
“Okay,” he relented, regretfully. Scully’s family were going to think he was such an ass.
“Anyway, I should get going,” she said with a sigh. “My sister just told me my little brother announced he’s not coming home for the holidays. She’s working on him but I gotta call my mom and talk her off a ledge just in case.”
He nodded. Began walking her to the door. As he pulled it open for her he reached out two fingers and a thumb, gently tugging at the sleeve of her coat. She hadn’t even taken it off. She looked back at him.
“Thanks for the gift, Scully. It’ll be nice to have some company at home as well as in the office now.”
Scully smiled shyly, stepping into the hallway.
They both looked up at the sound of the elevator doors opening at the other end of the hallway. Three men stepped out and approached the apartment directly opposite Mulder’s.
Number forty-five. It had been unoccupied for weeks.
They made for an odd trio: Mulder’s balding African American building manager in a folksy blue checked shirt, starting up what sounded like sales patter as he fiddled with the lock; a tall, white, clean shaven formal type with a vaguely unnerved expression, a fussy silk tie and nary a hair out of place, and a cherubic Asian American man whose only facial definition was provided by a thin line of beard along his jawline, dressed down in a chunky woollen sweater and cargo pants. The latter two waited patiently as the key proved sticky and awkward to turn, the super rattling the handle with some frustration. They turned their faces in languid unison to return Mulder and Scully’s curious gazes.
The taller man nodded upwards briefly in greeting, his silvered coif catching the light from the overhead bulbs. First Mulder, then Scully, returned the gesture with polite smiles and nods of their own, and the shorter man grinned, the rounded apples of his cheeks shining as he tilted his head downwards, looking directly at Mulder for a few seconds through notably long eyelashes.
The super got the door open, disappearing inside as he announced that the unit was available immediately, but fussy tie and chunky sweater lingered for a moment in the hallway, their eyes roaming over the length of Scully. Or Mulder. Or perhaps both. After a few seconds, the taller man, the one with the greying hair, softly reached for the elbow of his companion, looping his arm around the crook of it and tugging him through the open door, leading the way.
Just before he vanished from sight, the younger man lifted his hand and fluttered his fingers in their direction, mouthing but not verbalizing a quick, flirtatious “’bye.”
Mulder and Scully looked at one another in amused bewilderment. Scully raised her eyebrows and tilted her chin.
“New neighbors, huh?” Her eyes sparkled momentarily.
Mulder nodded, commenting, “Guess so,” while emitting a breathy chuckle.
They moved on.
She shoved her hands deep into her pockets, her left elbow squeezing her present against her ribs. “Okay, well, you should avoid feeding the fish for the first twenty-four hours while it settles in. And keep the lights dim.”
“Aye-aye, Captain,” he grinned.
Scully looked at him a bit playfully. “So… are you gonna give it a name?”
The thought hadn’t crossed his mind. He felt a bit put on the spot. “Well, I don’t know Scully,” he hedged. “I’ll have to give it some consideration. Naming is a very important part of the pet keeping process.”
Scully’s eyes danced with the matching grin she was only half suppressing. After a beat, she spoke. “You can do it, Mulder, I believe in you.”
He bowed his head in gratitude, his hand gliding down the edge of the door.
Scully allowed herself to give him a satisfied smile, then turned on one heel and swept down the hall. At the elevator, she pushed the button before turning back.
“Merry Christmas, Mulder,” she offered, with a shy smile.
“Merry Christmas, Scully,” he said in a low voice, leaning into the doorframe.
Well past midnight, Mulder reached the final page of the fishkeeping manual and closed the book. He reached over and placed it on the coffee table, turning onto his side ready for sleep. He lifted his head one last time, watching the little orange molly now happily exploring the confines of its bowl on top of the chest of drawers in the apartment entryway.
“Hey, Einstein,” he murmured into the gloom. “What do you say we get you a partner?”