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hook, line, and sinker

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On Saturday, he goes to Target for baby clothes.

John hasn’t shopped for kid’s stuff ever since Luke. He enters the store and forces his gaze away from the toy section, because he’s still not ready for that. Instead, he heads to the clothing aisles and browses through pale onesies and stuffed animals.

He remembers doing this for the first time, only a month or two before Luke was born. Remembers painting a bedroom in light blue and buying pajamas in the same shade. He remembers how the clothes with the little socks attached were always the hardest to button and unbutton.

Something clenches in his chest. He inhales and exhales through his nose, shifts the shopping basket from one hand to the other.

This is for Scully, John reminds himself, and that makes it a little bit easier. He’s good at doing nice things for other people, especially when it’s for Scully, whom he respects probably more than anyone else he’s ever met.

In the end, he heads over to the checkout counter with a few tiny baby shirts and a sippy cup. While on line to pay, he spots a little outfit with a flying saucer printed on the front.

It makes him smile instantly. He buys it.

 

When he gets to Scully’s apartment and knocks at the door, there’s no immediate answer.

Instead, John hears a muffled wailing start up from somewhere inside the place, and he winces, feeling guilty. He must’ve woken the baby. Then there’s a scuffling and a faint crash, and John stands there for a beat longer than he’s comfortable with, just long enough to spark concern. He’s about to knock again when the door swings violently open, revealing a disheveled Mulder wearing nothing but a pair of rumpled jeans.

“Mulder,” John greets him, half-surprised and half not. Because where else would Mulder be, if not for in Scully’s house? Those two are so intertwined that even from the very beginning, they’ve been almost one entity in John’s mind-- not Scully and Mulder, but rather Scully&Mulder, inseparable on a level he will never understand. 

Whenever he thinks about it, his heart twangs.

He doesn’t know why.

But Mulder saves him from his own thoughts with a scowl. “Agent Doggett,” he says flatly. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

John chooses to ignore the sarcasm. “Where’s Agent Scully?”

Mulder sighs irritably. “Not here, clearly,” he snaps over the sounds of William’s cries. He gestures to the plastic shopping bag in John’s hand. “That’s for her, I’m assuming?”

John nods.

Mulder reaches out. “I’ll take it.”

John pulls back, suddenly feeling defensive and unsure as to why. “I can just drop by again later.”

“But you’re already here now,” Mulder counters, lifting a challenging eyebrow. “Unless, of course, you’re just looking for an excuse to see her?”

John narrows his eyes. “I’m not sure what you mean, Agent Mulder.”

“Just Mulder, remember?” Mulder corrects with this sardonic little smirk, and John inwardly kicks himself for forgetting. Then there’s a particularly loud shriek from inside, and Mulder grimaces. “You know what? Just come on in, leave the bag on the table or something.”

With that, he turns, retreating into the apartment and leaving John with a view of his bare back, muscles shifting beneath his shoulder blades.

John hesitates for a moment, then makes his choice and steps across the threshold. It’s like entering a different world, a world that belongs to a Scully he’s never met before. This apartment was once spotless. Impeccable. Now it’s strewn with washcloths and empty bottles and other baby things. John remembers when his house looked the same, when Luke’s presence had invaded anything and everything.

He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed the cozy mess until now.

It’s only when John shuts and bolts the door behind him that he sees other things, too-- traces of Mulder in every nook and cranny. Mulder’s shoes kicked off by the door, Mulder’s jacket draped over the arm of the couch. Mulder’s cell phone on the granite countertop to his right. A wadded-up t-shirt in the corner that’s much too large to be Scully’s.

This apartment, with Scully and Mulder’s things so clearly meshed together, feels like a home. They belong together, John realizes. They really do. And if it wasn’t plain enough to him that Scully was head over heels for Mulder before, it certainly is now. 

John helped do this. He helped bring Mulder back to her. And he may not like Mulder, but he’s glad he did it anyway.

Just then, the volume of William’s sobbing increases, and John turns to see Mulder standing in the center of the room. He’s cradling William in his arms, rocking him gently and steadily despite the expression of pure panic on his face.

John doesn’t laugh but he almost does, choosing instead to let the shopping bag fall free from his fingers and hit the wooden floorboards with a light rustle. “You need a hand there, Mulder?”

Mulder scowls at him for a long moment. Finally, he takes a step forward, holding William out sort of desperately.

John takes the baby, tugs William into the crook of his arm. His face is scrunched, toothless mouth gaping wide. He’s swaddled in blankets but John can still feel the frantic thrum of his heartbeat beneath his fragile ribcage.

“Okay,” he murmurs, shifting a bit so that William’s neck is supported by his forearm. “C’mon, buddy, you’re all right now.”

And then, miraculously, William falls silent. He gurgles quietly, blinking up at John with wide, unfocused eyes.

He doesn’t look like Luke. Not even a little bit. This baby is all Scully, the wisps of hair on his head already a coppery red. But it’s still…

It’s something. It feels like a memory John’s never had before. Feels like a wacky version of deja vu.

Mulder clears his throat, then, and John looks up. Mulder is staring at him like he’s never seen him before.

“You’re, uh--” Mulder rubs the back of his neck awkwardly “-- good with kids.”

John smiles wryly. “Yeah, well. I had one, remember? Practice.”

Mulder’s expression goes suddenly solemn, his Adam’s apple bobbing when he nods. There’s one thing, at least, that John really respects about the man-- that he understands the severity of situations like this. That he doesn’t make light of grief, of loss.

“Do you know when Agent Scully is getting back?” John asks, if not only to break the silence.

Mulder shrugs a little, sticking his thumbs through the belt loops of his jeans like he doesn’t know what else to do with his hands. “I made her take a day off from watching William,” he says, and there’s a fondness in his tone that wasn’t there before. “Told her to meet up with Agent Reyes or something and get out of the house for a bit.”

John grins despite himself. “I’m impressed. I don’t think I’ve seen Agent Scully take a day off in her life.”

Mulder chuckles too, momentarily forgetting his company. “Yeah, well. She deserves it. I’m usually good with kids anyway, so I thought it’d be fine, but--” he makes a helpless motion “-- I don’t know.”

“Well,” John offers without thinking, “I’d be glad to stay for a few hours until she comes back. Just to help out.”

Mulder freezes, the smile dropping off his face. It’s replaced by a suspicion that’s actually hurtful, considering John’s done everything to try to earn this man’s trust. Still, when Mulder’s gaze darts down to William, still nestled in John’s arms-- and sleeping, now-- he gives a short, stiff nod.

“Y’know,” John drawls, “a ‘thank you’ wouldn’t hurt.”

Mulder huffs. “Thank you,” he repeats petulantly. Then he stretches, biceps flexing. John doesn’t realize he’s still looking until Mulder glances back at him, meets his gaze. There’s an indecipherable frown on his face that makes John feel uneasy.

“You feel like putting a shirt on?” John asks lightly, his voice remaining steady.

Mulder stares at him for a split second too long before responding. “Nah,” he says, cocking his head like there’s some sort of conspiracy here that he wants to unravel. John doesn’t like that look. “It’s hot.”

“Suit yourself,” he mutters. “Where’s William’s crib? I can--”

“Just pass him to me,” Mulder cuts in, hands once again outstretched. “You already put him to sleep. I can take it from here.”

John hands William over without resistance, holding his breath. Luckily, he doesn’t wake, and Mulder holds him securely against his torso.

There’s another beat of silence. Then Mulder looks between the shopping bag still on the floor and John’s face.

“Make yourself at home, I guess,” he says, too casually. “But I’m taking the couch.”

And that’s that. Mulder crosses the room, draping himself horizontally across the couch cushions, William still pillowed on his chest. John blinks, a little fazed at the rapidness of the whole thing, but finally kicks off his shoes and picks the shopping bag off the floor. By the time he sets it on Scully’s countertop and turns to peer over his shoulder, he finds that Mulder’s fast asleep, his lips parted and his hands still wrapped around William.

John scoffs lightly. Of course. Having a newborn is exhausting work. But now he’s idle, with nothing to do, and Mulder had told him to make himself at home, so…

John casts his gaze around the room once more, taking in the cluttered living room and kitchen.

“There’s one place to start, I guess,” he murmurs to himself, and he bends down to scoop Mulder’s old shirt off the floor.

 

Scully gets home at around six, when the sun is setting and the shadows across the walls are growing long. John hears the doorknob rattle with her arrival as she lets herself in, and he wipes his hands quickly on the apron knotted around his waist in an attempt to make himself look more presentable.

The door swings open and Scully steps into the apartment. She looks lovely, as always, dressed cleanly in her work suit and heels, blazer buttoned up. John’s always admired that about her-- her professionalism, her ability to always look so put-together even with chaos occurring in her home. Her arms are laden with file folders, and John can’t help but smile. He knew she couldn’t take a day off if her life depended on it.

Scully seems to spot Mulder first. He’s still passed out on the couch with William, as he has been for the last two hours. And John watches as her whole face softens in a way that he’s never seen. With pure adoration. With love.

He clears his throat a second later, not wanting to startle her, and she whirls around. “Oh!” Scully exclaims, her features schooling into something more composed. “Agent Doggett! What a… surprise!”

“A good one, I hope,” John says, more earnestly than he really meant to. He unties the apron, draping it over the barstool tucked under the counter. “I--”

“-- made dinner,” Scully finishes for him, inhaling deeply. “Oh, wow, it smells wonderful. What is that?”

“Lasagna.” John leans over the stovetop to check the timer on the oven. “It should be ready in the next fifteen minutes.” 

“And you cleaned!” Scully exclaims in genuine delight, toeing off her shoes and stepping towards him, dumping her files on the coffee table as she goes. In the dim light, her hair looks more fiery than normal, threaded through with gold. “Agent Doggett--”

“Please,” John interrupts, “just John is fine.”

“John,” Scully repeats, her face still bright and open and grateful. “This is-- really, really great. Thank you.”

“Not a problem,” John assures her. He opens his mouth to say more when William makes a timid babbling sound from over on the couch, and Mulder starts to stir with him.

Scully shrugs off her coat, hooking it on the coat rack. “You’re staying for dinner, right?” she guesses. “You have to, after you did all this.”

Before John can answer, Mulder calls out from the couch, his voice still hoarse with sleep. “Hey, Scully. Welcome home.”

Home.

John watches as Scully grins to herself, pressing the back of her hand to her mouth. “Hey, Mulder,” she responds. “Did you know John made dinner?”

There’s a pause. “Did he?” Mulder drawls finally. “What a gentleman.” And then, in a much quieter voice, “Isn’t Agent Doggett such a gentleman, William? Your mom seems pretty satisfied, anyway.”

Scully rolls her eyes and some unidentified emotion prickles in John’s blood, like a mix of irritation and something else. “I’m going to wash up,” she tells him before he has time to reflect. She smooths her palms across her thighs, then gives him another quick smile. “Thanks again for everything. I’ll be right back.” 

As she stalks off down the hallway, John hears her call, “Mulder! Set the table!”

Mulder mutters an incoherent affirmative from the couch, and John has to swallow past a sudden ache in his throat. His stomach is leaden. He feels like an interloper all over again-- the same way he did on the X-Files. An intruder, a stand-in, a man who was not and could never be Mulder. Not what Scully wanted, and certainly not what Mulder wanted, either.

He doesn’t belong here. In their home, in their life. He’s a colleague, and he should stay that way. This dynamic that they have… it was built for the two of them. Not for him.

The realization would hurt more if it wasn’t something John has known for months, whether or not he likes to admit it to himself.

He turns off the oven timer before it starts to beep. And then, before Scully makes it back from the bathroom, he steps into his shoes and out the door.

 

Scully sends him a thank-you note for the baby clothes on Monday. John finds it on his desk in the morning, tucks it into his jacket pocket, and carries it with him for the rest of the day.

 

He doesn’t speak to Scully or Mulder again until Friday. John’s taking one vacation day to run some errands, sort through some old case files, and clean his pistol, but before he can even get to any of that-- just as he’s sitting down to have his morning coffee, still bleary-eyed and groggy-- there’s a sharp knock at his door.

It takes him a minute to actually get up from his kitchen table and stumble through his apartment to the doorway. The knocking at the door hasn’t ceased; in fact, it’s quickly morphed into a steady stream of impatient raps. When John reaches the doorway, he doesn’t even bother squinting through the peephole-- he has a feeling he knows who it is, anyway.

Sure enough, Mulder is standing in the hall outside the apartment, a baby carrier hooked over one arm and smiling brightly enough that John is instantly suspicious. 

“Mulder,” John manages, half-stifling his yawn. “Is everything all right?”

“Good morning, Agent Doggett,” Mulder says brusquely, and then he’s pushing past John and into the apartment too fast for John to even do anything about it. “Scully mentioned that you were taking a day off today.”

John blinks rapidly, trying in vain to make this situation make sense. In the end, all he can do is helplessly shut the door behind him. “How does Scully even know that?”

“Agent Reyes called her in to do an autopsy,” Mulder replies absently, glancing all around the apartment as if he can learn something from it. “Scully asked for you.”

John’s pulse does something strange and uncalled for. Mulder seems to be expecting a reaction, because he slides him a sly glance out of the corner of his eye. Assessing. Like he’s profiling him or something, which John does not appreciate.

“Does she still need my help?” John asks, managing by some miracle not to trip over his words.

Mulder hums noncommittally. “I don’t think she did in the first place, to be honest.”

That makes no sense, but John isn’t in the mood to go hunting for some hidden meaning. Instead, he sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. “It’s too early for… whatever this is, Mulder. Why are you here?”

Mulder gestures to the baby carrier. “William missed you.”

“Is that so,” John says flatly, even though he can’t help but peer into the carrier. William is bundled up tight, his gray eyes wide and aware. He looks at John like he actually remembers him-- which is ridiculous, of course, but it still makes the mushy part of John’s heart go stupidly soft.

“Yeah, yeah,” he exhales, stretching a bit. “Make yourselves comfortable. Want some breakfast?”

“Absolutely,” Mulder declares, and from his expression, John has a feeling that Mulder’s not hungry so much as he just wants to give him a hard time. “What do you have?”

It’s like he’s daring John to back down, to admit that his kind gesture was just that-- a kind gesture. But John isn’t the type to offer empty promises, and he does like cooking, so he says, “I’ve got eggs and bacon.”

Mulder turns to him, looking truly surprised.

“I’m not gonna poison you,” John grins. “Relax, Mulder. Sit down or make yourself some coffee or something. Did William eat?”

“I-- uh, I have baby formula in the trunk of my car,” Mulder replies. “I’ll… I’ll grab that.” He hesitates. “Will you wait with him for a minute?”

“Thought you didn’t trust me,” John says without thinking, and then internally kicks himself for saying anything at all. It’s like he’s his own worst enemy sometimes, honestly. “Never mind. ‘Course I’ll stay with him.”

Mulder snorts derisively. “Be careful.”

John rolls his eyes. “No shit, Sherlock.”

Mulder huffs, then sets the baby carrier down on the floor. He pushes past John and out the door with enough contempt that it almost stings. And then John’s alone with William, who gurgles happily up at him when he picks up the carrier.

“Hey, kiddo,” John murmurs, unbuckling the belt that keeps William strapped in. He lifts him up, holds him close. “Want to make some breakfast with me?”

 

Mulder ends up staying at his apartment all day.

It should annoy him. And it does, a little bit, but John is also glad to spend time with William, and Mulder is being less obnoxious than he usually is. John can’t explain it. But Mulder eats his eggs and bacon without complaint-- and even seems to enjoy them, despite refusing to admit it-- and then he reads a few picture books to William on John’s couch while John does the dishes.

Having other people in his apartment is… different. But not unwelcome, even if it does mean suffering time with Mulder. They end up having a spirited debate over matters of the supernatural. Mulder is as steadfast in his convictions as he always has been, and John starts to realize why Scully is so drawn to him.

At around four in the afternoon, Mulder’s cell phone brrrrings to life in his pocket. Wordlessly, he passes William to John, who starts walking in slow circles around the living room in an attempt to put the baby to sleep. Meanwhile, Mulder leans back against the couch, lifting the phone to his ear.

“Hey, Scully,” he says, and John’s breath catches on his inhale at the sound of her name.

There’s a pause while Scully says something on the other line, and then Mulder’s responding, “Oh, no, I’m at J-- Agent Doggett’s place.”

Another pause. Much longer this time, and John watches as Mulder’s facial expression contorts into what can only be described as a pout. “No,” Mulder says into the speaker. “I don’t. And William’s fine, don’t worry. Want to come over?”

John bristles, not at the fact that Scully’s coming over, but at the way he wasn’t even consulted before Mulder extended an invitation to his apartment. “Mulder--”

“Scully’s bringing back dinner,” Mulder interrupts, meeting his gaze with the cell phone balanced between his shoulder and jaw. “We can eat early. Vegetable lo mein sound good?”

John doesn’t get the chance to answer because Mulder is already answering for him, saying, “Perfect, yeah, thanks Scully. See you in thirty.”

Scully ends up bringing not only dinner, but also groceries. One of her arms is laden with takeout bags stapled with restaurant receipts and the other is hanging with plastic shopping bags. They’re brimming with the good stuff-- whole milk, fresh fruit, organic vegetables-- and the moment John opens up his apartment door to let her in, he helps her by taking some of the bags off her hands.

“You didn’t have to do this,” John says, grateful all the same.

Scully’s lips quirk up in a smile. “I figured that you wouldn’t have time to run errands since Mulder was bothering you all day--”

“I resent that accusation, Scully!” Mulder calls from John’s living room.

“-- so I did it for you,” Scully finishes without missing a beat. “It’s the least I could do.”

“Thank you,” John replies, meaning it. He reaches around Scully to shut the door and suddenly they’re close, too close, pressed chest-to-chest in the narrow entranceway and John can smell her perfume.

He pulls back immediately, feeling off-kilter. But if Scully noticed that there was anything amiss she doesn’t say, choosing instead to head into his apartment and greet her son.

 

The four of them eat at John’s kitchen table, passing containers of lo mein and crispy chicken back and forth. William sits between Scully and Mulder in a high chair-- Luke’s high chair. Mulder had helped John dig it up from the back of his storage closet before dusting it off without a word. 

Now William sits in Luke’s high chair. And John may love the kid from the bottom of his heart, but it still feels like he’s doing something wrong. If Scully and Mulder weren’t here to bicker and banter and fill his house with noise, John thinks the guilt might have overwhelmed him.

But they are here, and so it doesn’t. The churning cloud of loss is kept momentarily at bay.

Scully fills them in on the new case she’s working with Reyes, tells them about the body she autopsied earlier this morning. Apparently the dead woman’s skin had been laden with strange markings and eerie symbols. Scully thinks it’s cult activity, and John is inclined to agree.

Mulder thinks it’s witches, and he spouts witch lore for so long that even William looks bored.

After dinner, Mulder surprises John by gathering up all the plates and utensils and dumping them in the sink, insisting that he’ll wash them. Scully, on the other hand, doesn’t seem at all shocked; in fact, she acts as if housework is something Mulder normally does without even needing to be asked.

So maybe it’s just that Mulder is purposefully unhelpful in front of John, just to press his buttons.

Damn him.

Scully pulls William from the high chair, balancing him on her hip. “John,” she says, and John can’t help but feel startled at her use of his first name. “Want to sit with me in the living room?”

John automatically glances to Mulder, though he’s not entirely sure why. It’s not like he needs permission or anything to go sit with Scully. She can make her own choices, and besides, Mulder’s back is still turned towards him as he hums merrily, scrubbing dishes with a sponge.

“Of course, Agent Scully,” he says after hesitating a beat too long.

They go together to the darkened living room, neither bothering to flick the light switch. The only glow comes from the open kitchen doorway where Mulder is still clattering around, and they sit on the couch, side-by-side, half-bathed in the light.

There’s silence. The comfortable kind, though, and John takes a moment to watch Scully out of his peripheral vision. She’s busy looking at Mulder, then back down at William, resting peacefully in her arms. There’s so much sadness in her eyes-- a deep, overwhelming sorrow that makes John feel like he’s seeing straight through her, right to her skeleton. It hurts him. Nobody so beautiful should ever have to feel so sad, he believes.

“You know,” he says quietly, and Scully snaps her head around to look at him, “one of the worst parts of it all?”

Scully blinks, taking a breath as if to steady herself. “Of what?”

John pauses for a moment. “Losing people,” he says finally, and he’s not entirely sure whether he means death or Mulder going missing or both. Probably both.

Scully shakes her head. 

“You don’t get scars,” John murmurs, feeling lost in his own head. “It hurts and hurts but you can’t even see it. So you can’t really heal it.”

Scully doesn’t say anything, but she releases a deep, tremulous exhale that shows John she understands. “I know,” she whispers, pressing William closer to her, as if to feel his heartbeat. She looks ready to say something else, but she doesn’t; instead, she reaches out with her free hand. Waiting.

John’s stomach flips and then flips again. Scully looks at him expectantly, and finally, he takes her hand in his.

Her fingers are slim and cold to the touch. Despite the gun calluses on her palms, holding her feels delicate, in a way. John knows Scully’s not fragile-- far from it-- but her hand is so much smaller compared to his that he practically engulfs her. It makes his heart expand in his chest in a way he doesn’t really know what to do with.

Just then, there’s a cough from the kitchen doorway, and John snaps his head up only to see Mulder leaning against the doorframe, looking between the two of them. His first instinct is to pull his hand away, and he tries, but Scully only tightens her grip, squeezing his fingers in a way that’s probably meant to be comforting.

“Mulder,” John manages, and he’s trying to come up with an explanation for why he’s holding Scully’s hand on the couch but he never gets the chance.

“Do you want cantaloupe in your fruit salad?” Mulder asks boredly. Like he doesn’t even notice. Like he doesn’t have another care in the world. “I’m making fruit salad with the stuff Scully brought.”

“Me?” John asks incredulously, eyebrows shooting up into his hairline.

“Yeah,” Mulder shrugs. “I already know Scully doesn’t like cantaloupe.”

John’s struck speechless. There’s a teasing sort of glint in Mulder’s eyes that he’s not sure if he’s imagining or not, because Mulder’s expression betrays nothing, and Scully looks calm and collected as ever. Still, he feels like there’s an inside joke here he’s missing out on, or that something’s happening that’s going way over his head.

“Cantaloupe’s fine,” John says finally, dazed. Hell, at this point, Mulder could ask him if he wanted frogs in his fruit salad and he’d probably agree. This is just bizarre.

“Mkay,” Mulder nods, and then he turns and walks back into the kitchen.

John turns to Scully, trying not to act as stunned as he feels. He has the urge to question every aspect of their relationship-- are they sleeping together? are they not anymore?-- but he doesn’t, not only because it would be plain rude, but because it’s none of his business.

Scully picks up on something, though, because she says, “Don’t worry. Mulder makes good fruit salad.”

As if that’s what John’s concern is.

He tries to gloss over the incident, then. Because if Mulder and Scully aren’t treating it as a big deal, then it’s clearly not one. They’re all adults, for God’s sake. They can do what they want without it turning into… something. Something more than it is.

Scully keeps holding his hand until Mulder tells them the fruit salad is ready.

 

Two days later, John gets a call while he’s driving home from work.

He answers it on the first ring, holding the cell phone between his shoulder and jaw while keeping his eyes fixed on the road. “Hello?”

“Hi John,” comes Scully’s tinny voice down the line. “It’s Scully.”

John almost laughs, his pulse picking up the way it always does when he hears her speak. As if he wouldn’t recognize her voice. “Agent Scully. What’s going on?”

“Is now a good time?”

“Of course,” John answers immediately. “You need something?”

“Just a little bit of help,” Scully admits, sounding sheepish. “I’m trying to build a dresser for William and it’s not… going so well. Are you good with your hands?”

“I’d like to think so,” John says, tamping down the part of him that wants to take that as innuendo. “I’ll be right over.”

“You’re a lifesaver,” Scully exhales over the phone, and John smiles.

 

John knocks on the door to Scully’s apartment less than ten minutes later. He can’t hear any noise from inside-- maybe William’s sleeping-- and Scully swings open the door a moment later, her expression bright.

“Hi,” she welcomes him, moving out of the way so that John can step through the doorway. She’s not wearing her work suit, dressed instead in baggy jeans that must belong to Mulder and a white blouse. Her hair is swept up in an artfully-tousled bun, revealing the long, perfect slope of her neck.

She looks… relaxed. Beautiful, as always.

John has the sudden desire to press kisses to the curve of her throat.

But the moment that thought passes through his mind, he shuts it down, utterly horrified with himself. Because not only would that be inappropriate and entirely unprofessional, and not only does he value Scully too much to risk losing her friendship, but she’s in love with Mulder.

Get yourself together, John.

He clears his throat, willing himself to relax. “You had a dresser you needed help building?”

Scully chuckles slightly. “About that…” she rubs the back of her neck, and John determinedly does not allow his gaze to follow the path of her fingers “... I may have actually figured out the dresser.”

John blinks, uncomprehending, but then Scully gestures to the corner of her living room-- where, sitting beside the coffee table, is a small, fully-constructed wooden dresser.

“All I really need to do is move it into William’s room,” Scully sighs with an apologetic shrug. 

“Oh,” John says. “Uh-- should I… go, then? If you don’t need--”

“No!” Scully interrupts hastily. “You’re welcome to stay. As long as I’m not taking you from anything more important.”

The gears in John’s brain are turning infuriatingly slowly today. “Nothing’s more important,” he says before really thinking it through, but the way Scully’s blue eyes light up in clear and pleasant surprise makes it worth it.

“Can I get you anything?” Scully asks as John steps further into the apartment. She starts making her way towards the kitchen, and John steps over a heap of William’s baby toys. “Coffee? Water?”

“A coffee would be great, actually.”

Scully nods, busying herself with preparing coffee. Meanwhile, John goes on autopilot, absently gathering up fallen cloth towels and sweeping scattered utensils into the sink.

Scully glances back at him. “Oh, John, you don’t need to--”

“Please,” John cuts her off. “It’s no trouble.”

She smiles at him, quietly grateful. 

“Where’s William?” John asks, if only to fill the silence. Not that the silence is awkward, but just because he wants to hear Scully’s voice.

“Mulder took him to the park,” Scully responds, pulling a mug down from one of the many kitchen cabinets. “It’s a beautiful day out.” 

“That’s nice,” John says honestly, and he’s about to say something more when Scully speaks again.

“So,” Scully drawls, passing him a full mug of coffee. John cradles it in his palms, feeling the warmth of the liquid through the glass. “Did you and Agent Reyes make any progress on that case today?”

Her gaze is sparkling with mischief, and it takes John a moment to get it before he starts to laugh.

“I see how it is,” he grins. “The dresser was a false pretense, is that right, Agent Scully?”

She shrugs, pretending to be bashful. “Maybe.”

God. This woman. “Skinner practically ordered you to take some more time off work.”

Scully makes a face. “I don’t need any more maternity leave,” she insists, “and besides, Mulder and I have a sort of bet going here.”

John raises an eyebrow. “Yeah?”

“About that case,” Scully elaborates. “I know it has to be cult activity, but Mulder still thinks it’s the work of witches. He’s been leaving me voicemails all day, badgering me to call you asking for case updates.”

John feels oddly flattered. “Well, nothing is confirmed yet. Agent Reyes and I spent the day questioning the victim’s friends-- who, by the way, were a bit… off. Strange folks. But the shadiest part of the whole thing is that the victim’s mother, her last living relative, just skipped town a few days ago. We have a search going for her as we speak.”

Scully exhales slowly, brow furrowed. And then she starts interrogating John about the dead woman’s friends, and about her relationship with her mother, and the two of them are still animatedly talking about the case when Mulder arrives home with William an hour later.

 

Scully invites him to stay for dinner.

John stays.

 

The two of them start coming over to John’s place more often. They arrive without calling beforehand, showing up at his doorstep at various times in the mornings and afternoons. Usually, Mulder comes with William tucked in a baby carrier under his arm, and Scully shows up with either a box of case files or a bag of groceries. And John always ends up cooking for them while Scully rocks her son in her arms and Mulder rants about conspiracies.

There’s one day where John invites them over for dinner just after stacking some of Mulder’s books in his bookshelf (because Mulder had left them on the coffee table the last time he visited) and folding Scully’s laundry (because she had forgotten her clothes in the dryer the last time she stopped by). He dials Scully’s apartment phone and it’s Mulder who picks up, saying, “Hey, Agent Doggett.”

“When will you be--” John begins, and then he freezes, tripping over his words “-- hungry?” he finishes lamely. “I’m making chicken parmesan.”

He had almost-- almost-- said home.

 

John kisses Mulder on a Wednesday.

It starts-- as most things do, when it comes to them-- with a fight. But even before the fight, there’s an unusual, blessed moment of post-dinner peace between them, something that doesn’t exactly happen often. Scully’s busy putting William to bed, and after having cleaned the kitchen, John and Mulder are sitting side-by-side in Scully’s living room, leaning back against the couch-- the couch cushions are still soaking wet from where Scully accidentally knocked over William’s bottle an hour before-- and watching the flickering TV from the floor.

There’s a movie playing on-demand, something in German that John couldn’t really care less about, but he has a feeling that neither he nor Mulder are watching the movie anyway. They’re both silent, lost in their own thoughts, and John only snaps back to reality when Mulder tenses beside him.

He looks to the TV. On screen, there’s a picture of a little girl playing with a dog, her dark hair braided in two plaits. Mulder is staring at her, jaw clenched and eyes sort of glassy.

She looks like Samantha. 

Without saying anything, John reaches for the remote on the coffee table and switches the channel.

He feels Mulder glance at him, still not saying anything, and John keeps his gaze trained resolutely forward. It’s only when Mulder doesn’t look away that John turns to face him.

“Want to talk?”

“Not really,” Mulder replies immediately.

John narrows his eyes. “You sure? I’m here if you need.”

“Yeah,” Mulder says carefully, “you’re here.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” Mulder says, mock-nonchalantly. “You’re just here a lot, aren’t you, Agent Doggett?”

John blinks. “What?”

“You’re always coming over,” Mulder continues. “I wonder why.”

His tone of voice makes it sound like he knows exactly why, like he’s asking a rhetorical question and expects John to be too dumb to know the answer. And his words grate on John’s nerves like never before.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he repeats, voice dropping low. A sting of shame erupts in his chest, that sense of being unwelcome-- something he hasn’t felt in quite a while-- returning full-force.

“Well, we both know you’re not stopping by to see me,” Mulder chuckles, bitter and without humor, “so it’s gotta be that you’re here for Scully.”

“I’m here to help,” John says slowly, “and because you and Agent Scully are my-- friends.”

Aren’t they?

“Friends,” Mulder scoffs. “Sure.”

John grits his teeth. “Agent Mulder--”

“I’m not an agent,” Mulder bursts out, “and I know you like Scully.”

John is speechless.

“You,” Mulder says again, pointedly, “have a thing for Scully.”

“For Agent Scully,” John says numbly, clarifying. Making sure he’s understanding this whole thing right before he goes and has a heart attack.

“Are you denying it?”

John doesn’t answer. He can’t; the words stick in his throat, smothering him. And then Mulder leans in, his green eyes glimmering with the challenge. “Admit it,” he mutters.

Distantly, echoing down the hall from William’s room, there’s a faint clatter. John’s chest seizes, his blood running cold.

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” he manages.

“Sure I do,” Mulder shoots back. “You have the hots for Scully.”

“Don’t say it like that,” John growls, glancing up automatically to make sure that Scully hasn’t appeared in the living room doorway.

Mulder laughs again, the sound dripping with scorn. “What? You scared she’ll hear us?”

John’s hands are shaking. With anger or with panic, he doesn’t know.

“You can’t possibly think she doesn’t already know,” Mulder spits. “Of course she knows. She’s not an idiot.”

“No,” John agrees quietly. “She’s not.”

“So say it, then,” Mulder demands. “Can you just admit--”

And then John interrupts him by reaching forward, grabbing him by the collar, and hauling him in for a kiss.

It happens so fast that John doesn’t even have time to think, barely registers that he even moved, except he must have because his eyes are already closed and Mulder is kissing him back, releasing a sound of pure, desperate relief into John’s mouth. Like he’s wanted this. Like this is what he’s been waiting for.

And maybe this is why Scully likes Mulder so much, among other reasons-- because Mulder is wicked with his tongue, a goddamned expert when he catches John’s bottom lip with his teeth, bracing one of his hands on John’s jean-clad leg and gripping hard enough to bruise. 

Mulder breaks briefly apart from him with a gasp, mouth already swollen and gaze wild. “I love her.”

“I know,” John chokes. There’s a knot of feelings in his chest, expanding and expanding and soon it’s going to explode and soon he’s not going to be able to think straight and soon he’s going to be overwhelmed by the reality of this. But he has time until then, and so he rasps, “C’mere,” and slides his hand up to wrap loosely around Mulder’s throat, tugging him back in.

He can feel Mulder’s pulse flying against his fingertips, and when John shoves at him lightly, Mulder just lets him. He leans back, bracing his elbows against the wooden floorboards so John can shift to hover over him, looming. And then John bends down to kiss him again, and again, nudging Mulder’s thighs apart with his knee and pressing closer. 

He never knew he wanted this.

He has no idea how long he’s wanted this.

Mulder suddenly moves, holding both arms above his head as if to get them out of the way from where they were trapped between their bodies. But John pulls back just enough to meet Mulder’s eyes-- and his pupils are blown to fuck, the green of his irises completely swallowed up by black-- and, tentatively, John reaches up with one hand to take both of Mulder’s wrists and hold them down against the floor.

Mulder swallows hard, his throat bobbing. John knows that Mulder could throw him off in a heartbeat if he wanted to, but he doesn’t, just lays beneath him obediently with his lips slightly parted. There’s a deep flush climbing up his neck, and he mutters an emphatic “fuck” that makes John’s breathing hitch. There’s not enough oxygen in the world for him to stay level-headed right now, and when he leans back in to capture Mulder’s mouth again, Mulder is so goddamn pliant that it makes him feel drunk. He’s going to lose his mind, right here and right now in the middle of Scully’s living room--

Scully.

Her footsteps are suddenly loud and clear down the hall and John jumps back from Mulder so fast he gives himself whiplash. He tries in vain to straighten all of his clothing at once, but it’s too late-- Scully is already standing in the doorway, staring at the two of them with wide eyes, her perfect mouth dropped into a shocked O.

John’s blood turns to ice in his veins, a stone of lead dropping into the pit of his stomach. He tries to say her name, tries to explain, tries to apologize, but his face is on fire and he can’t grasp the words.

Instead, it’s Mulder who speaks. “Scully,” he drawls lazily, like he doesn’t have a care in the world. He hasn’t moved an inch, still lying flat on his back, his wrists crossed above his head as if he’s forgotten them there, his shirt rucked up to reveal a sliver of tanned skin at the waistband of his jeans. The only way John can tell he’s at least a little bit affected by what they just did is by his voice, which is about two octaves lower than usual and rough. 

Jesus.

“Okay,” Scully says, steadying, like she still hasn’t quite grasped what she’s seeing. John immediately stumbles to his feet, his tongue feeling thick in his mouth. 

Would the term homewrecker apply to him right now?

Nausea tumbles in his stomach. He’s going to lose them. He can already tell. These two people-- Scully and Mulder, Scully&Mulder, who manage to make him feel human-- 

He’s ruined it all.

And so he walks, stunned at himself and horrified, out of Scully’s apartment without another word.

Neither of them try to stop him.

 

John doesn’t sleep at all that night, but that’s really no surprise.

He sprawls across his bed, staring up at his bedroom ceiling in the dark. He feels feverish. Sick with guilt.

You’re just here a lot, aren’t you, Agent Doggett?

It’s true. Mulder hadn’t been wrong. John strains his memory and suddenly can’t remember a day that he didn’t spend with Mulder or Scully in some capacity, can’t remember what his days used to be like without them. He can’t remember when he stopped feeling like a third wheel.

Did he break up their relationship?

The worst part is, once upon a time, in the deepest, darkest part of his heart, there would have been an inkling of wanting Mulder and Scully to fall out of love. Not because he didn’t want them to be happy-- John doesn’t think he could wish unhappiness on anyone, least of all these two agents who have sacrificed everything for the greater good-- but because every time he looked at Scully, he wouldn’t need to feel…

You can’t possibly think she doesn’t already know.

… pathetic. Hopeless. Pining after when she could never, ever return the feeling, when she could never do anything other than devote all of her affection to Mulder. Because they’ve been through hell and back together, something that John will never have with either of them. They are closer together than John could ever be. And he shouldn’t be jealous because they deserve each other, they really do, especially after all they’ve been put through, but--

He isn’t sure what he’s feeling is jealousy.

Well, we both know you’re not stopping by to see me.

John sucks in a breath, his heart stuttering.

When had that stopped being true?

Because perhaps it once was, but it’s not anymore. Because somewhere along the line, John had started smiling subconsciously at the phone when it was Mulder calling, too. Because watching Mulder murmur high-pitched nonsense to William made his house feel like a home. Because for Mulder-- despite how obnoxious he is, and despite how paranoid, and despite how obsessive he can get-- John would do anything. And the way Mulder said fuck when he was coming undone is going to haunt John’s dreams for the rest of his life.

They seduced him, somehow, completely by accident. The realization makes John feel weak. They seduced him through grocery shopping and baby bottles and case files and fruit salad. And they didn’t know what they were doing, of course not, because two people so beautiful and strong just have this way of drawing others towards them, and it’s not their fault that John fell, hook line and sinker.

John goes to work the next morning. Agent Reyes meets him in their office to go over case updates.

Scully doesn’t show up that day, and John doesn’t know if he’s more relieved or crushed.

 

Their stuff is everywhere.

John physically can’t get away from it all. Their things are scattered all through his apartment, the X-Files is their lifeblood, and it’s-- it’s everywhere. Just everywhere.

He tries to throw himself into this case, lets Reyes be the buffer between him and Scully. He goes as far as to turn his cell phone off-- which is why he misses Scully’s first call. And her second, and her third.

 

“John, it’s Dana. Um, Mulder and I were wondering if we could talk to you. Call back whenever you can.”

 

“No, Mulder, he didn’t. How about you talk to him, hmm? Mulder, take the phone from me-- you started this-- Mulder--”

 

“Hi, John. Dana again. I… I’m sorry. About what happened. Um, Mulder’s sorry too, and he’ll tell you that in person if you could just… call back. Or, better yet, stop by. Please.”

 

John listens to the voicemails at one in the morning, hunched over at his kitchen table in his empty, empty apartment, a fist pressed over his mouth.

Then he grabs his keys, gets in his car, and drives.

 

As he walks from the parking lot up to Scully’s apartment, he feels like he’s about to enter a crime scene.

There’s that same apprehension tightening his lungs, the same instinctual urge to pull out his gun and brace himself for danger. But at the same time, he’s over the moon that this is finally happening. That they can get this conversation out of the way. That this will all soon be over, no matter the outcome.

After all, despite how he’s been acting for the past few days, he’s always preferred confrontation to avoidance.

John takes the stairs instead of the elevator. He walks down the darkened corridor and develops a sudden headache, but he ignores it, because now he’s at Scully’s door and he’s knocking.

And he’s knocking, and knocking, and nobody is answering--

Then the door swings open, and it’s Mulder standing in the doorway, illuminated by some dim light emanating from inside the apartment. He’s wearing plaid pajama pants and a black t-shirt, one that stretches taut over his shoulders.

Seeing him again is an electric shock. John doesn’t know what to do with his hands. And for the first time, he realizes that he’s actually taller than Mulder by an inch or two, even though it’s never felt like that before.

Mulder has a way of commanding attention, of calling all eyes towards him.

“You came,” Mulder says, voice low. His face betrays nothing, but his eyes hold a sheen of relief.

“Yeah,” John replies stupidly, at a loss. He wants to press his fingers to the underside of Mulder’s jaw to feel the pulse there.

“Come in,” Mulder coughs lightly, and then he’s stepping out of the way and letting John through.

Like a crime scene.

John thinks back to his boy’s body in a field, face buried in the grass. This is nothing compared to that. No loss will be anything compared to that.

The apartment is quiet, most lights off except for a few scattered lamps in the kitchen and living room. John must’ve entered Scully’s apartment at least a hundred times by now, but this time feels different because it might be the last.

No loss will be anything compared to losing Luke, but this one’s still going to hurt like a bitch.

Behind him, Mulder shuts the door. John hears the locks click shut and tries to fend off the impending claustrophobia.

“Hi, John,” comes Scully’s voice, and it’s like she’s appeared out of nowhere because now she’s leaning carefully against the wall right ahead of him, braced in the entrance to the living room. She’s also wearing pajamas, a too-big shirt of Mulder’s that exposes her sharp collarbones and a pair of shorts beneath. There’s a lot of skin showing here-- her delicate hands, the long stretch of her legs, her bare feet with her toenails painted red. Her hair is the color of new pennies.

Mulder brushes past John, then, to stand next to Scully. He positions himself behind her, pressing a hand to the small of her back. They move like planets, John thinks, or maybe magnets, or maybe like the moon and the tide. There should be a million metaphors for them, but they’d all be too deep for him to really understand.

Standing next to each other, they look like gods.

John clears his throat. Better to just come out with it, apologize for disrupting the peace they’d manage to build between the three of them, but Scully beats him to it.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen that way,” she says. “We were supposed to talk about it first, obviously. Maturely.”

For a second, John wonders if she’s even speaking English. “Huh?”

“Ménage à trois,” Mulder blurts, and Scully immediately elbows him sharply in the ribs, looking exasperated.

“Ouch, woman,” Mulder mutters, that same sullenness that John’s grown to covet showing through. 

“You promised you’d behave,” Scully hisses back. 

“I’m a little confused, here,” John admits. A little is an understatement. His vision has tunnelled, down to just the two of them. There’s no apartment surrounding them, no walls, no doors. “I didn’t mean to--” say it “-- kiss Mulder.”

Mulder snorts. Scully winces apologetically.

“I thought you were straight,” she says.

John could almost laugh, but there’s too much tension in his throat right now. “I’m not.”

Definitely not. His sexuality’s just never been a thing for him, never something that he had trouble grasping and not something that he ever felt the need to talk about. He doesn’t know when he first discovered he wasn’t heterosexual; it was always just sort of there. A topic he hadn’t touched since the days immediately following his divorce, when he found himself in seedy bars, drunk enough to pick up strange men and women and barely remember the encounters in the morning.

“Are you bi?” Mulder asks, tilting his head.

John shrugs. “Dunno.” In truth, any label would seem stifling. All he knows is that there are certain people that make him feel a tug in his stomach, and Mulder, with those lips and the way he had peered up at John through his eyelashes, was one of them.

No matter how much John disliked him at the start, he had always been able to see what Scully saw in him.

“I’m sorry,” John says before the silence has a chance to stretch. “I didn’t mean to ruin anything between the two of you. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“Obviously you weren’t,” Mulder jokes, but Scully doesn’t even berate him, too busy blinking up at John with those very blue eyes.

“You’re not the one who ruined anything,” she says slowly. “We’re the ones who scared you off.”

“Scared me off… from what?”

Because John doesn’t think there’s anything these two could do that would make him want to leave.

Mulder sighs, running a hand through his hair. “We’ve been trying to get you into bed with us for months now, Doggett.”

The world stops turning on its axis.

“Not just into bed,” Scully follows up hastily. “But everything’s just… better when you’re here. We want… you.”

She seems embarrassed when she says it, as if she had a whole speech planned out but her words failed her. John knows the feeling. 

“We know it’s a lot,” Scully continues, “and none of us really know what we’re doing--”

“John knew what he was doing,” Mulder murmurs under his breath, and John’s name on his tongue sounds sensual. “Trust me, Scully, I thought I was about to get fucked right there on the floor--”

Scully slaps a hand over her mouth, barely managing to muffle her hysterical, shocked bubble of laughter. Mulder grins sideways at her like making her laugh is his life’s purpose, and John suddenly can’t tell whether he’s stunned, turned on, or just really goddamn in love.

Maybe all three.

“Are you screwing with me?” he asks, needing to check before too much wanting flares up in his heart. He doesn’t feel awake right now, despite all the adrenaline pumping through his veins.

Mulder answers first. “Of course not,” he says seriously. “Never about this.”

John swallows, then swallows again. “What are you asking me, exactly?”

“Date us,” Scully says simply, hopefully. 

John sucks in a breath.

Hook, line, and sinker. And he can’t even bring himself to be upset about that.

“Yeah,” he says on his exhale, and Scully lights up and Mulder’s eyes go wide in delighted surprise.

Scully moves towards him, almost like she’s tipping over, almost like she’s falling. John knows what’s about to happen when he reaches out to catch her, draws her in close against his chest. Her heartbeat is wild; it mirrors his own.

When Scully tilts her face up, the moment feels tremulous. Sacred. And John slides his hand to cup her cheek, his thumb skimming along her skin. This is Dana Scully in his arms, brave and loyal and brilliant beyond belief. Dana Scully, who deserves the world and he would give it to her if he could. But for now, he just wants to kiss her like she deserves to be kissed, the way he’s wanted to for too long to remember.

He threads his fingers through her hair, strands falling against his palms like silk.

Scully is the one to bridge the distance between them, to kiss him like she wants to melt into his body. John thinks he groans into her mouth, his eyes fluttering shut, and he feels Scully smile against him when Mulder wolf-whistles teasingly. 

Scully presses closer, pinning him against the wall with a strength John isn’t even surprised she has but admires all the same. And his abdomen feels like it’s full of melted glass, glowing and liquid and malleable, heat dripping down his spine. John slides a hand down to Scully’s waist, lets his fingertips slip just beneath the hem of her shirt. Her skin is soft, so soft, and he strokes her there in slow circles until Scully shivers with her entire body, something that’s so overwhelmingly attractive that John isn’t even sure he can handle it.

When Scully pulls back, Mulder is standing behind her again, looping his hands around her hips to turn her gently towards him. John just watches, still leaning against the wall so his legs don’t give out, as Mulder takes Scully by the chin. He trails his thumb against her lower lip, still slick from John’s mouth, and Scully looks up at him with huge eyes as he pushes his finger against her tongue. They stare at each other like that, two silhouettes connected by the strong angle of Mulder’s forearm to the soft curve of Scully’s jaw.

It’s the most erotic thing John’s ever seen, and when he looks at them, he can’t breathe.

Then Mulder slides his hand away from Scully’s mouth and looks to John, invading his personal space the way he always has. John can smell his old spice cologne, and he’d never admit it but he loves it, and Mulder braces an arm on each side of John’s shoulders, effectively boxing him in.

“Come on,” Mulder says hoarsely, his voice a taunt. His gaze dips to John’s lips, his absurd eyelashes casting shadows on his cheekbones. In this moment, he’s feminine and masculine in a way John’s never seen before, pretty despite his broad build and cleanly-cut biceps.

John feels himself smile, notes that Mulder’s eyebrows raise.

“You come on,” John mutters, and then Mulder laughs and leans in, kissing him like he’s dying, and he’s familiar and new all at once. 

John can’t believe he hated him, once.

But then Mulder does that terrible, awful, amazing thing with his tongue that makes John want to drop to his knees and he thinks, okay, maybe he still hates Mulder just a little.

 

Once, months ago, John had a beer and a conversation with Reyes after work.

Isn’t it weird, she had said, how we’re working on the X-Files?

Weird how? John had asked.

And Reyes had said, Because Agents Scully and Mulder are… real people, now.

It had taken John a second to understand, but then he did, and it all made sense. Because Mulder and Scully had begun as an urban legend-- Mr. and Mrs. Spooky, theorizing and muttering in the basement of the FBI-- and now they feel immortal, almost, and untouchable in their knowledge and experience and years of history.

Like Icarus, Reyes had continued, and we tried to follow them to the sun but we’re going to burn and fall and they’ll still be up there in the sky.

John had lost her right about then, because Reyes gets even more philosophical than usual when she drinks, which is saying something. But tonight, Mulder and Scully aren’t some mirage in the desert.

Tonight, in the heated dark of Scully’s bedroom, they are not untouchable. They are real, and they are human, and they are his.

 

In the morning, John wakes in a bed that is not his own to the sound of a child’s whimpering. The pale, lemon-yellow rays of dawn sunlight are falling across his eyes from a window somewhere far above in the hazy world of consciousness, and for a moment, John just thinks, Luke and pancake Sunday and he’d better get up and start cooking before--

-- before.

The realization hits him the way it does every morning-- like a trainwreck, or a punch to the gut, or a stab through the heart, or a bullet hole in his lungs. The pain has been muted with the years, with the passage of time, but it’s still there.

It’ll always be there.

This morning, though, the sound of a baby crying isn’t just in John’s imagination, and so he tries to sit up. Only he can’t; there’s a weight on his right shoulder, heavy and warm, and John turns his head as far as he can only to find Scully curled up on his arm, her face tucked towards his chest. Her hair is an auburn halo fanning around her head. She’s also drooling.

Oh, John thinks, and this realization hits him slower, sinks into place with a click. Oh.

He blinks. Gives his eyes a second to focus. Scully looks vulnerable in sleep, and it makes a lump form in John’s throat. It makes him ache, but in the best possible way. Tentatively, he reaches out with his free hand to brush against her bare shoulder, and her locks of hair tumble down over her collarbone.

In the morning light, she looks like a painting. She belongs in a museum. And there’s a part of John that wants to roll over and pin her down into the mattress and just hold her there until he knows she’s really real.

Instead, he settles for stroking lightly at her elbow until she shifts closer to him, her body radiating heat.

On Scully’s other side is Mulder, sleeping on his stomach with one leg and one arm dangling off his edge of the mattress. All John can see of him are his messy tufts of hair and the muscles in his back, his shoulder blades marked with hickeys. Scully did that last night.

John suddenly feels like he should be hungover. Because sex with Scully and Mulder is not something that happens one night while everyone is sober.

Except it did happen. It did happen, because sometimes good things do happen. Because not everything has to end in tragedy. 

At least, he hopes.

He becomes aware of a staticky sound and he glances to the bedside table. The baby monitor is plugged into the wall there, and through the speaker, he can hear William whine.

He should get up.

John tries to shift as minutely as possible, trying to gently slide Scully off of him without waking her. He can’t, though; she’s clingy in her sleep, and he’s only halfway sitting up when Mulder stirs on the other side of the bed.

John watches as Mulder pushes himself up, nearly losing his balance while he’s at it. He’s disheveled and drowsy but looks very self-satisfied when he blinks his eyes open, holding his arms high above his head to stretch. 

Then he turns and catches John looking.

“Morning,” Mulder says, softly enough so that Scully isn’t disturbed. His eyes are green, green, green and John suddenly wishes he were wearing clothes so he wouldn’t feel so damn exposed. Mulder has a way of looking at people and seeing them. Once a profiler, always a profiler, John guesses.

“Morning,” he replies, voice like gravel.

Mulder’s gaze flicks down to Scully, lips tugging up into a fond half-smile. When he glances back to John, he says, “I’m going to go check on William. Stay with her.”

“Yeah,” John manages as Mulder slides out of bed, utterly naked, and rummages around for some clothes. John tries not to stare because even though yesterday Mulder had sucked him off so well that John had seen stars, everything feels different in the morning.

Stay with her.

Maybe not everything, then. Because that thread of trust that John was so worried about breaking hadn’t snapped. It encircles them like spider’s silk, invisible and strong beyond belief.

“Hey,” Mulder says from the doorway, just as he’s about to step out of the bedroom.

John looks up at him, dressed in shorts and a soft cotton shirt that looks suspiciously like his own. And Mulder swallows sort of uncomfortably, shifts uneasily, his hand coming up to rub at the back of his neck.

“I, uh,” Mulder begins hoarsely, “love you.”

John instantly feels like he’s had three shots of espresso. “You do?”

Mulder shrugs, his discomfort clearly growing. “It’s never taken me long,” he admits sort of sheepishly. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t mean it.”

That… makes sense. Even so, it takes John a moment to respond-- because he doesn’t love Mulder, not yet, not the way he loves Scully. He’s loved Scully for a long time. He’s wanted her for even longer. But that’s not to say that Mulder doesn’t fill a space in John’s heart that used to hurt, a space that John didn’t even know he had. John wouldn’t be complete without Mulder, without this.

“You don’t have to say it back, Doggett, but if you could say something, that would be--”

“Soon,” John interrupts. It’s a promise. “Soon, Mulder.”

Mulder pauses. And then he nods, seeming satisfied. “Okay. Now go back to sleep or something.”

When he leaves the room, John does lay down again, even if he doesn’t close his eyes. His heart is beating faster than normal but he’s still relaxed, somehow. Still at peace.

Peace. Jesus. He never thought he’d find peace again, not after everything, and certainly not with the self-proclaimed FBI’s Most Unwanted.

Except apparently he wants them, and they want him, and he’s not an outsider anymore.

He’s exactly where he wants to be.