A boom reverberated through the trees, powerful enough to shake the ground beneath his feet. Mulder had been around enough explosions to know one when he heard one. He cast a quick glance at Scully, and then they were running, sprinting toward the beach.
The twin beams of their flashlights bounced over the sandy trail as an orange glow spread across the horizon ahead. The sun had set hours ago, which left only the possibility of fire. For so many reasons, this was bad. Very bad. Possibly catastrophically bad.
They burst onto the beach, skidding to a stop as they took in the scene before them. In the distance, a fire raged on the Belvedere, the research vessel they’d arrived on. The ship spewed sparks and debris into the sky as it began to slip beneath the waves.
“Jerry!” Scully shouted, her gaze darting frantically up and down the beach. “Vanessa?”
Mulder paused, listening for a response they both knew wasn’t coming. “They were on the boat, Scully.”
Ignoring him, she jogged from one end of the beach to the other, shining her flashlight over the pale sand as she called for Jerry and Vanessa Jorgensen, the researchers who’d brought Mulder and Scully to this remote island off the coast of Australia, an island populated entirely by flowering trees that would release a deadly toxin into the air at sunrise.
“Photosynthesis,” Scully had explained to him earlier as she examined one of the blooms under a microscope in the lab onboard the Belvedere. The sun’s rays would trigger the blooms to open, poisoning the air. Consequently, there were no inhabitants on this island—human or animal—except for him and Scully.
On the horizon, the flames were snuffed as the boat slipped beneath the surface, leaving behind only a few bits of smoldering debris. The scent of fire hung heavy in the air.
“The Jorgensens aren’t here,” Scully said as she made her way back to him.
“They were on the Belvedere when we left them,” he said. “I think they went down with the ship.”
“But how did it get way out there?” She gestured wildly toward the wreckage, her flashlight beam bouncing over the sand. “And why did it explode? Mulder…shit.”
Yeah, they were fucked. The Belvedere was gone, taking the scientists, equipment, and all the protective gear needed to survive tomorrow’s toxic bloom with it.
“It looks like, for whatever reason, they were abandoning us,” he said. It was the only explanation he could think of for the boat, which had been moored just offshore when he and Scully went into the woods to collect samples, to have been so far out to sea when it exploded.
She whirled to face him. “We need to search the campsite. Maybe there’s equipment we can use to call for help.”
“Good idea,” he agreed, because if they didn’t find a way off this island before sunrise, they would be dead. And while he risked his life on a regular basis chasing aliens and government conspiracies, he didn’t actually want to die. He sure as hell didn’t want Scully to die. There had to be a way off this island, a way to survive.
A makeshift camp had been erected at the edge of the beach, where the Jorgensens had done their research before they’d set up a lab on the Belvedere. The campsite was covered by a large beige tarp which was supported by wooden beams, under which stood a table with two metal chairs, a cot, and various boxes of supplies. A generator had been placed on a wooden pallet outside the tent to power the single overhead bulb and the equipment that used to be here, before the Jorgensens had moved everything aboard the ship.
Scully marched into the tent ahead of him, bending over the milk crates in the back corner, while Mulder turned his attention to a ratty black suitcase beneath the cot. Inside it, he found various clothing, a men’s shaving kit, and an unopened bottle of whiskey. He tossed the bottle onto the cot. Hell, they might need some liquid courage to get through this. Next to the suitcase, there were two life vests. No radio.
“This is absurd,” Scully muttered as she carefully stacked the contents of the crates on the floor beside her. In the beam of her flashlight, he saw several large bags of potato chips and what looked like an assortment of other non-perishable junk food.
With a pump outside for fresh water, the tent was fairly well stocked for survival, except for its utter lack of any electronics they could use to call of help…or protective gear to shield themselves from the deadly trees.
“Maybe whatever made the Jorgensens run off without us also caused them to call for help before the ship blew,” he said, offering up what might be their only hope.
“Dammit.” She stood, turning to face him. “There’s nothing here.”
“That’s not quite true.” He held up the life vests. “Worst case, we put these on at sunrise and swim for our lives.”
“Mulder, we’re a hundred miles from the mainland,” she said quietly, her gaze dropping to the rough wooden boards beneath her feet.
He hated that look. He’d seen it too many times in the four years since she joined him on the X Files. It was the calm acceptance that—yet again—this might be it. They might not get out of this alive. For once, their predicament wasn’t his fault, though. No, his favorite scientist had brought this case to him herself. Scully had been thrilled by the opportunity to come here and study these trees, and he’d been more than happy to join her, hoping to discover some sort of otherworldly influence at work.
“I’d rather take our chances in the ocean than sit here on the beach and choke to death, wouldn’t you?” he said. “There’s always a chance the Jorgensens called for help or that someone spotted the fire from the explosion. Help might be on its way, and we just don’t know it.”
“Right.” She nodded firmly. They’d fight, just like they always did, and hopefully they’d live to tell the tale.
Outside the tent, the moon had risen, shimmering over the black expanse of the ocean. Now that the glow of the fire had faded, the moon—and their flashlights—were the only source of light. Once their batteries ran out, they’d be in total darkness. At least they didn’t have to worry about predators, or even rats. The trees had ensured that this island was devoid of all air breathing creatures. Scully reached up, her slender fingers gripping the chain that dangled from the bulb overhead.
Without thinking, his hand shot out, gripping hers. “Don’t turn on the light.”
She tugged the chain, flooding the tent with an amber-tinted light. “It’s fine, Mulder. Jerry showed it to me earlier. This isn’t a florescent bulb. It won’t affect the trees.”
“Okay.” He was still gripping her hand. Her fingers were warm and soft beneath his, as petite as the rest of her, but there was nothing delicate about Dana Scully. She was fierce and strong, imbued with an intangible aura of power that belied her slight stature. Maybe that was why he felt a surge of energy where their skin touched.
Hastily, he withdrew his hand and took a step back. The bottle of whiskey caught his eye, and he lifted it. “Interested?”
A smile tugged at the corners of her lips. She bent and held up a bag of chips. “Party on the beach?”
“I can’t think of a better way to pass the time.” He switched off their flashlights and helped her gather various packages of food and a blanket from the cot, which they spread over the rapidly cooling sand outside.
Before them, the ocean surged and retreated in its never-ending cycle, waves crashing against the sand. Sometimes, he felt like he and Scully were trapped in the same endless loop, always chasing truths they never seemed to find, continually finding themselves in situations like this one, situations they might not make it out of alive. It should feel hopeless, but somehow, it didn’t. Somehow, he still believed that the truth was out there. Maybe it was just over the horizon. Maybe tomorrow, they’d find it.
Or maybe, they’d die at sunrise.
“Do you think we would know?” he asked as she plopped onto the blanket beside him.
She gave him an inquiring look. “Know what?”
“If this was it. If this was our last night on earth.” He twisted the cap on the whiskey, breaking the seal.
“It’s a nice thought, but scientifically, no. There’s no way to know.” She grabbed the bottle from his hands and took a hearty gulp, spluttering as she swallowed.
“Not everything can be explained by science, Scully.” He lifted the bottle from her hand and took his own gulp. The whiskey burned as it slid down his throat. It spread warmth through his gut, a deceptively pleasant sensation, given their situation. Suddenly, he understood why people turned to the bottle when they needed to tune out from the real world for a little while.
Scully ripped open a bag of potato chips, setting it on the sand where they could both reach it. For several minutes, neither of them spoke. They passed the bottle back and forth, drinking whiskey and eating potato chips while waves slapped the beach in front of them, sparkling in the moonlight. The amber glow of the tent behind them illuminated the patch of beach where they sat.
“This is nice,” she said. “Ludicrous, but peaceful.”
“Agreed.” He turned his head to look at her.
She wore a snug white tank top that seemed to glow in the moonlight, drawing his attention to the swell of her breasts, rising and falling with each breath. Gorgeous. So fucking gorgeous. He noticed. Of course, he noticed. He’d been attracted to her almost from the moment they met, but she was his partner, and he wasn’t that kind of guy.
It wasn’t just her body that had captured his attention, either. It was her mind. Maybe he’d fallen for her a little bit when he read her senior thesis on Einstein’s Twin Paradox, before they’d even met. Sometimes, he knew she felt it too. In those moments, it seemed inevitable that they’d end up together somewhere in the future.
Other times, he knew he was too singularly focused on his pursuit of the truth to be the man she deserved. Tonight, though, the only truth he was thinking about was his all-consuming need for the woman beside him, the beautiful, smart, fierce woman currently tipping back a bottle of whiskey like she gulped liquor straight from the bottle every night.
She slid a glance in his direction, her gaze landing on him like a physical touch, making his entire body buzz with awareness, and this was one of those moments. A moment when he knew she felt it too.
She brought her fingers to her lips, sucking salt from the potato chips while her eyes locked onto his, and she knew. She definitely knew. If she made a move tonight, he wouldn’t stop her.
She didn’t, though. Instead, she turned her gaze on the darkened waves before them. “It sounds like a cliché, but if I died tonight, I’d have regrets.”
“You would?” So would he, but still, he hated to hear the words on her lips.
“I’ve been so focused on the X Files the last few years, I feel like I haven’t taken the time to just live.” She sighed, and there was such sadness in that sound, it tore at his soul. She looked at him again, a fierceness in her gaze now. “And before you go blaming yourself for that, this isn’t about you, Mulder. This is the life I’ve chosen to live.”
“Even after everything that’s happened?” He took another swallow of whiskey, by now comfortably drunk, and she must be too, to be telling him these things. He was desperate for more, anything, a deeper glimpse into her psyche, and maybe…absolution for any guilt that he’d brought this on her, that he’d poisoned her life with his own martyrous quest.
“I work,” she said. “I look for answers. That’s what I do.”
“It’s what we both do.” He reached for more potato chips, anything to keep his hands occupied so that he didn’t reach for her.
“I guess I just…I always assume that I have more time.” She reached for a package of mini donuts and tossed it at him before grabbing another for herself. “There are still so many things I want to do before I die.”
His whiskey-tinged brain slipped back to their recent case in Home, Pennsylvania, the moment when she’d confessed her desire to be a mother. It had surprised him at the time, but now he could picture it so easily, Scully and a little red-headed baby. She deserved that. She’d be a great mom. The best.
“Tell me one of them,” he said as he popped a white powdered mini donut into his mouth. “What’s one thing you haven’t done yet that you want to? Something you could do here, tonight, on this island.”
You, he hoped she’d say, but maybe that was the whiskey talking.
She was quiet for a long moment, chewing through a mini donut and then a second one before she finally spoke. “Go skinny dipping.”
He inhaled powdered sugar and choked, coughing desperately as Scully pounded his back, a knowing smile on her lips.
“Skinny dipping, huh?” he said when he’d regained the ability to speak.
She sucked powdered sugar from her finger, and she must be fucking with him, because she never spent so much time licking her fingers or looking at him like…that. “Yeah,” she said, her voice gone low and throaty. Sexy.
His cock surged inside his shorts. “Well, what are you waiting for?”
* * *
Scully stood, dusting the residue of potato chips and powdered donuts from her clothing as she stared at the ocean before her. It beckoned to her, an adventure waiting to happen. Yeah, she was drunk. Of course, she was drunk, because she’d just eaten about a million calories in junk food, drank more whiskey than she’d consumed since college, and announced her plans to go skinny dipping…in front of Mulder.
She should be embarrassed. She should definitely be embarrassed. Probably.
But she wasn’t. She was making the most of out a shitty situation, possibly her last night on earth, and really, why shouldn’t she eat junk food, get drunk, and go skinny dipping with her partner? It wasn’t like she was worried about anything happening between them…at least, not unless she wanted it to. Mulder was a perfect gentleman.
She trusted him. God, she trusted him with her life. She trusted him more than she’d ever trusted another human being. And she loved him, at least on some level. She wasn’t entirely sure she was in love with him, although she was definitely attracted to him. Who wasn’t? He was absurdly handsome, and after everything they’d been through together, she felt a connection to him she wasn’t sure she’d ever felt for another person. She couldn’t define it, certainly not after this much whiskey.
Rather than try, she pulled her tank top over her head. Now she was standing before him in a flesh-toned bra and black knit capris. He was kicked back on the blanket, leaning on his elbows with his legs crossed at the ankle, watching her undress.
“You’d better get your ass off that blanket and strip,” she said, cheeks warming as she heard the words leave her lips. On any other night, this would be absolutely ludicrous. But tonight…
“Okay.” Just like that, he scrambled to his feet and shucked his T-shirt, revealing the too-perfect expanse of his chest and abs. The glow of the tent behind them cast long shadows across his body, accentuating every dip and curve of his chiseled physique.
“Jesus,” she muttered, staring unabashedly at him.
“What?” he asked, planting his hands on his hips in a way that emphasized his six pack. The bastard.
“When do you find time to work out?” she asked, genuinely curious.
“Oh, you know.” He shrugged as he shucked his shorts.
She didn’t, actually, but this wasn’t the time. Carefully, she reached down and unbuttoned her pants. They’d seen each other naked before, of course, covert wardrobe changes in the back of a van or decontamination showers after they’d been exposed to who-knew-what, settings that were the opposite of sexy. This was different.
She pushed her black knit pants down her legs, hoping she was wearing nice underwear. Certainly, she’d had no idea when she got dressed this morning that she’d be stripping on a moonlight beach with Mulder tonight.
His gaze dropped to her panties. “Scully!”
She looked down, and oh God, she was wearing the neon green underwear with an alien face on the front that Melissa had given her as a gag gift a few years ago. She’d meant to throw them away. She really had, but they were so comfortable, and they reminded her of her sister, and…
Mulder was staring at them like they were the sexiest thing he’d ever seen.
Her cheeks burned. “They were a gift, a joke. I…”
“I love them,” he said reverently before lifting his gaze to meet hers. “I’ll never look at you the same way now that I know you wear alien panties under your business suits.”
“It’s only one pair. I hardly ever wear them,” she said, exasperated.
“My imagination says otherwise.” He slid an appreciative gaze over her body, and she let him look.
She knew he wanted her, especially tonight, under the influence of whiskey and their own impending mortality. She wanted him right back, and tonight maybe she’d act on it. Why not? They were consenting adults who could have wild sex on a beach on what might be their last night on earth and go back to being respectful partners tomorrow if by some chance they survived.
But first, skinny dipping in the ocean. For whatever reason, she’d always wanted to. She reached behind her back and popped the clasp on her bra, letting it drop to the sand.
A rough sound escaped Mulder’s lips as he looked at her, and she felt it in the pit of her stomach. It rolled like a heat wave over her body, settling into an ache between her thighs. God, it had been so long since she’d been touched by anyone but herself. That was another regret, but she wasn’t ready to voice it out loud…yet.
Before she could lose her nerve, she slid her underwear down her bare legs. Despite her intoxication, she didn’t look at him now, not ready to know whether he was still watching or what he thought of her naked body. “Come on, Mulder,” she said instead, infusing as much impatience into her voice as she could manage. “You’re falling behind.”
There was a soft thump, the sound of clothes hitting the sand. “Caught up.”
She looked without thinking, and there he was…naked. Yeah, she’d seen him before, but not like this. Not on a moonlit beach and definitely not semi-erect, looking at her like he wanted her every bit as much as she wanted him. The ache between her thighs intensified.
“You know what they say,” she told him. “Last one in’s a rotten egg.”
He was off in a flash, racing toward the surf, and she was running after him, a giggle on her lips that she would have been mortified about if she were sober, which she definitely was not. The water was colder than she’d expected, nipping at her toes as she sloshed into it at a full sprint. It splashed in her face, making her blink and splutter.
“No backing out now, Scully,” he called, already a dozen feet ahead of her, waist deep in the ocean.
She plunged after him, sucking in a breath as a wave surged against her, cold water washing over her overheated skin. It felt good, though, after she’d gotten over the initial shock, so good she had the irrational urge to dive beneath the waves and just swim…swim away from this island with Mulder beside her. But she wasn’t a strong swimmer, even when she was sober. They didn’t stand a chance without the life vests he’d found in the tent.
She staggered toward him, her body swaying with the push and pull of the waves. Her right foot landed on something prickly, and she lunged sideways, tripping just as the next wave hit. She didn’t even have time to suck in a breath before she went under. Sand scraped her body while the ocean tossed her, rolling her until she couldn’t tell which way was up.
In a panic, she opened her eyes, but she only saw inky blackness in every direction. She kicked out, and her leg collided with something solid. She held in a scream, but then big, warm hands closed over her arms, yanking her upright. She surfaced with a gasp, slamming into the firm expanse of Mulder’s body.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah.” She held on to his forearms while she found her balance. She’d only been underwater for a few seconds, but the tumble had left her disoriented. The moon spun dizzyingly across her vision. She blinked, sucking in deep breaths as the world came back into focus around her.
Mulder reached out to tuck a sodden lock of hair behind her ears. “Scared me there, Scully.”
“Scared myself too,” she admitted. She rubbed her eyes, which were stinging from the saltwater. She was still a bit dizzy, a combination of the whiskey and her fall, and when the next wave hit, she stumbled against Mulder, grateful for his warm, solid presence while the ocean swirled around them.
His arms came around her, and she leaned into him. Everything was the right temperature now, his warmth balancing out the chill of the water. Her heart thumped hard and fast, residual adrenaline flooding her system, but she wasn’t scared anymore. The water was waist deep on her where they stood, surging to her breasts with each wave.
She was aware of the press of their bare skin, both above and below the waterline. They swayed with the waves, and she could feel him hardening every time the ocean pushed her into him. It was just a physiological response brought on by the friction of their bodies. She knew that, and yet, it lit a fire low in her belly, an ache that made her yearn to feel him inside her.
“Sorry,” he murmured, shifting his hips away from her.
“Don’t be.” She pushed herself against him, his cock pressing firmly against her belly, and she’d never wished for more height as fervently as she did at that moment. Getting involved with Mulder would be messy and complicated, and if the FBI ever caught wind of it, as a woman, she’d bear the brunt of the blame.
But they might not make it off this island. Really, where was the harm in one hot night together? People did it all the time. And it would be hot. She didn’t have to be a scientist to know the statistical probability of Mulder being an amazing lover.
“There’s something else I would regret not doing if I died tomorrow,” she said.
“Oh yeah? What’s that?” But by the glint in his eye, he already knew.