The outside looks promising enough. The neon light blinks Vacancy. A low-slung roof over a festively decorated door, wreath shimmering with silver tinsel and tiny jewel lights twinkling. He chances a look over his shoulder. She’s round-shouldered, down-in-the-mouth, pale like the frost just starting to crackle over the motel windows.
“Still with me Scully?”
She stuffs her hands deep into her pockets and he imagines those fine fingers squeezing the life out of him, her cold eyes glinting as he gasps her name, an apology and a declaration of love all wrapped up one final exhalation. It’s been a bad case. Really bad. Silent treatment for the hours lost on the road. Face turned to the grimy roadside all the way; surely, she has a cricked neck and yet another excuse to beat him up, down and sideways.
The door creaks open and the smell of pine, sawdust and years of lost souls hits him. “Looks all right,” he says, mustering some cheer that isn’t exactly Christmassy but definitely holds a note of the hopefulness that comes at this time of year. The end of something, the beginning of something. A chance to reset. She doesn’t respond, merely checks out the tree in the corner with its bright decorations. He follows her gaze and his eyes rest on a golden bauble in the shape of a teardrop. Of course.
The clerk flumps open a dusty ledger and peruses the listing, umming and ahing ostentatiously. Any minute she’ll explode; he can see the blast brooding in her flaring nostrils and her half-rolled lips. The eyebrow is shooting up and up. Ladies and gentlemen, we have lift off.
“Only one room left,” the clerk declares. “It’s out round back.” He turns and unhooks a loop of keys and gives them to Mulder. “You and the missus’ll be nice and cosy, though. There’s a bucket of firewood in each room. Matches are on the sideboard. TV don’t work but I’m sure you’ve got other ways to keep yourselves occupied. Storm’s coming.”
Yes, it is, Mulder thinks as the keys feel like stone in his hand. He turns to face his partner and swallows. “Um. You still with me, Scully?”
The teardrop on the Christmas tree wobbles and falls to the floor as she lets the door slam behind her.
The room is…cosy. But not in the rich timber panelling, mellow lighting, roaring fireplace, fleecy quilted bed linen and luxurious drapes at the windows kind of way. More the six foot by six foot, dingy broom cupboard way. A single, square window the size of a postage stamp is opaque with dust not frost. The curtains hang limply from a bent pelmet. The sideboard is more like a child’s school desk. He guesses the tv hasn’t worked since colour came in. The fireplace is the only saving grace. Mulder gets to work straightaway, striking each flimsy match from the small book as a penance prayer. Finally, the penultimate redhead catches and he protects the small orange flame of hope with his cupped hands.
“I’m so sorry this happened,” he says to her. She’s on the bed. Or in it, perhaps, because it’s folded up around her making her look like a young orphan fresh off the train at Miss O’Leary’s Home for Young Innocents. She grunts at him and sighs forever.
The fire take hold and he lets himself smile at the small victory. “Ta-da,” he declares with jazz hands that he hopes are conciliatory, but from the raised eyebrow and averted gaze are probably more fuel for her inner fire. How can one be simultaneously icy and fiery? Scully is the enigma of all enigmas.
“I’ll take the…” he looks around for another item of furniture. There is none. “Floor?”
She tuts and rolls the small opal earring around in her right lobe. It catches the reflection of the fire and an amber glow emerges from the pearlescent surround. It’s Scully in an earring, he muses. “It’s okay, Mulder. We’re grown-ups.” She offers him a curt smile, one that says, ‘well at least one of us is’.
“I promise not to play footsie,” he says as the fire licks and spits. “If you promise not to drool on me.”
Between her fingers, she’s made a knot of the coverlet. She drops it, straightens it out and slides him a smile, somewhere between a white flag and a red flag. He can’t quite work out which it is, but the room is warming up and maybe she’s thawing a little too.
The fire burns out some time during the small hours. His feet and the small of his back are exposed and his brain is unhelpfully supplying all the dumb things he’s ever done during their partnership. It’s quite the extensive playlist. He can’t move, because he’ll wake her. But he does lift his head to see her nested in the pillow, face like an angel, a russet halo framing her forehead. The delicacy of her snoring is somewhat comforting, the salve for the burn his mind is meting out.
There’s a weighty silence around them. The profound quiet of a snowfall. Through the slit in the curtain he thinks he can see the rising accumulation on the window sill. The blind face of the tv screen is visible in the strange light. He stares at it like he might on one of his usual insomniac nights. What’s the difference between a blank screen and a movie he’s seen a hundred times? The mind-stultifying effect is what he’s seeking.
She shifts. Turns to him and the tip of her nose brushes his. She blows out a slightly acidic breath and it warms him more than she’d consider medically possible. But Dr Scully doesn’t know everything. They’re both as uneducated when it comes to affairs of the heart. True affairs of the heart, not the hormone or power fuelled relationships they’ve both endured in the past. He loves her. She loves him. It’s as clear as the pure snow that’s undoubtedly settling outside. But it’s easier to plough through life without acknowledging the build-up, without gritting the paths to make their way through safer. No, they’ll be wading through knee-high snow for a while to come.
His sigh is louder than he anticipated and her eyes flicker open. “Sorry, Scully,” he whispers and she twitches her nose, wets her lips. She wriggles her hands between her legs and her knees boop his groin. Now it’s her turn to apologise. Although it’s debatable who’s more embarrassed. “Do you want me to start the fire again?”
“Too early for coffee, too late for coffee. Want coffee?”
She nods and he gets up, starts the fire first time and fumbles for the kettle and supplies. She’s found an extra pair of woolly socks and slips them on. Her crumpled appearance makes him almost fold in half. She’s a glorious sight to behold. His eyes take her in and he finds his breath again. He realises in that moment he would dearly sell his soul to the devil to wake up with her every morning and make her coffee. He hands her a cup and crawls next to her, so their feet are both flat to the flames, thighs pressed together.
“Thank you,” she murmurs, and his heart lights up.
“Think you could bear another night here?”
She dips her mouth to the coffee. “Seems to me there won’t be much of a choice if the car’s stuck.” She takes another sip. “Everything is working against us, here.”
“Seems that way. Can’t win a trick.”
“But you do make a good fire, Mulder. So consider that a win.”
He does. He considers it the win of the century. Up there with the Knicks smashing the 76ers in 94.
“So you’re still with me, Scully?”
She rubs his ankle with her fuzzy socks and he lifts his foot so that hers slips under his. “Always,” she whispers and the coffee suddenly tastes like a promise of something better to come.