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When the Ink Dries

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There was nothing of interest to him in this drawer right now but her wrists.  The records of every event he’d ever cared about, and yet there was nothing so  interesting as her ten narrow fingers.  A lifetime of truth-seeking passion, an office built from the ground up on his convictions, a piece of furniture full of all the knowledge he was prepared to die defending while most people turned a deaf ear, and now that he was for once being given a willing audience, being asked to distill it all into a repertoire of hits and highlights, it came down to the simple fact of a woman’s hands.

He was stuck on her hands to the point of immobility, as always a stubborn constant in a forever-evolving set of circumstances and mutating alliances.  How her hands were a part of this mercurial backdrop, how they’d managed to achieve such birth and transformation, he was not sure.  The pads of his fingertips calloused over from plucking at edges of folders and his back ached from the two hours he’d spent crowded uncomfortably into the right angle provided by the open drawer and the body of the cabinet, and he hadn’t even really read a single peeling label.  

But above him, the rest of the FBI toiled with visible and repetitive fervor within the departments that had been created and chosen for them, one eye on the approaching lunch hour, their only freedom.  Below him, packed dirt agreed not to swallow the basement office that housed his life’s work.  The location had been meant as a concession and a punishment by the powers that be, a cloak of invisibility thrown over him in shame and to shame him, those powers typically ignorant of the fact that that their punishment would serve Mulder better than it would them.  There was nothing that suited Mulder’s purposes better than the ability to disappear.  

And beside him, well, beside him, the hands of his partner Dana Scully worked over the file cabinet in a burgundy red blazer, poking out from the cuffs to nimbly hop from alphabetized letter to alphabetized letter like two white rabbits out of a hat.  Under what cloak of her own had they been hiding?  With what had he so unwittingly blinded himself?  Down here in his basement office, concealed from the threats of the rest of the world, things were supposed to be clear.

This had been happening lately, bits of Scully suddenly turning up like a piece of evidence or a shiny pair of lost keys right in the drawer or your glasses right on your nose.  Things could seem new that way - sometimes delightfully so, and sometimes dangerous, like flecks of glass from vase you couldn’t remember ever breaking.  Her hands were an example of one new thing and these lovely - lovely! How was this possible - hands, they were the reason he was still standing there, back aching in an S-shaped slouch over a drawer she had to raise her elbows to reach.  He feared if he moved, she would too, and he needed time to study her, to take apart the mechanism of his own apparent obtuseness, to figure out how he had never noticed just exactly how nice her hands were before, to wonder if maybe she’d somehow changed them, gotten new ones.

A few months ago, had these hands appeared suddenly as noteworthy to him, it would have been natural to say something about it out loud.  Hey, you know, Scully, you have nice hands.  It was a simple and uncomplicated compliment for a friend, a simple and uncomplicated thing between friends to have one to offer.  But now he just stared, waiting for the next time her pinky accidentally brushed his.  He jumped every time, unnerved and thrilled and embarrassed, as if all the secrets of her heart were carried around in her tiniest finger.

“What is a British detective even hoping to learn from us?” she wondered aloud, apparently lost in her own figuring.  There was a certain kind of emphasis on the word ‘us’ he might have taken offense to, had he not been immunized to it by constant exposure.

“Skinner asked me back when you were… out.  I forgot, or I would have told you before today.  This is a lot of work for one guest.”  

His voice had started to trail off down a rabbit hole of complaint.  He didn’t like guests.  He didn’t like strangers.  He didn’t like people who questioned his means or intents.  He hadn’t liked Dana Scully, once, probably.

“Not a big deal,” she said, leaving it ambiguous as to whether she meant the impending visit of the British detective, or his reference to her convalescence.  

She leaned into the drawer to reach further back, her mouth so close to the entrance it looked like she was telling a dull pea-green robot a secret.

Scully had never been a talker, when it came to the deep stuff, the feelings.  She’d offered him her trust and her loyalty early on, and since then seemed to expect that everything else that happened between them or to them would fall under the umbrella of one or the other.  For her, nothing much needed expressing.  Or perhaps it was just that she could do it so easily, so economically with a look, that tapping into her extensive and highly scientific vocabulary seemed vulgar.

There were the looks: tender, disparaging, doubtful, and “get me a brownie.”  Eye rolls, the touch of his arm to stop him or steady him, an occasional kick under the desk.  She could speak paragraphs with her eyebrows.  He had always understood all these expressions, always received her messages and returned the input just as effortlessly (if not quietly).  

But then one day she’d made him aware that he wasn’t always going to be able to read her mind, that he’d been missing something in the code for a long time.  It had come up very unexpectedly one morning as he was going over the details of a case he was leaving her with on his way out to a mandatory break.  It was the first new thing that had turned up in the office, this bit of news, and it was nothing like the lovely hands:  This is not what I want, this is not who I am.  At least that’s what he’d understood her to be saying at the time.

They’d had a horrible fight - not in its volume or its magnitude or even its duration.  They’d called each other worse names in meaner voices before, held opposing positions until one of them dropped.  This was not like that.  It was short and quiet, but in its effect, devastating.  She’d stormed away in pretend-defiance, then done exactly what he’d asked her to do in the first place, only did it so recklessly it almost got herself killed.  Scully was nothing if not practical, logical.  He’d felt betrayed by the very fact that she’d ventured into his territory of emotional impulsivity, betrayed by that before he even got to the other, more complicated stuff.  It was so unlike her to spite herself over another person that he hadn’t been able to figure it out at the time.  He never guessed that it was something much more powerful than him that she was spiting.  

If a picture was worth a thousand words, than the one she showed him after that fight passed was a very valuable picture indeed.  An X-ray depicting brain cancer.  Inoperable.  He was speechless.

He’d guessed when she invited him in her even-est of voices to the hospital that afternoon that it wouldn’t be good, and he’d felt a sinking feeling forming right down the center of his chest, a canyon of fear that echoed his every swallow.  He’d tried to listen as she effortlessly described the composition, the sinister details, pausing for his benefit like a docent at a museum talking about an Avedon, a racy Maplethorpe at worst, while he stared at the bright light board in dumbstruck fear.  Suddenly Scully had so much to say and none of it could be true, none.  He stayed there staring for a long time after she left the room, picturing her repeating the diagnosis over and over to herself until she could say the words without emotion.  This image of her practicing, perfecting her delivery, making sure she could withstand his protests, his outrage, his unreasonableness - it was almost worse than the news itself.

That was the day he’d started carrying around a tiny Elvis figurine in his jacket pocket.  He’d bought it as a souvenir from Graceland while she was in Philadelphia the night of the fight, That Night.  A meager, but he thought endearing make-up token he’d picked up with the clueless impression that a hurricane would blow over with the harmless breeze of time away.  They had been, how far?  He looked up at the foam-tiled ceiling now as he mentally did the math… roughly sixteen hundred miles apart.  But they may as well have been in different universes.

There he was, following the tour guide to a tinny track of “Blue Suede Shoes” as she followed a dangerous stranger home.  And there he was, avoiding overpriced sodas, while she avoided the brink of an incinerator at said stranger’s psychotic hands.  He wasn’t sure whether to think of it as a death wish or a death curse but certainly the fact that she’d learned she was about to die factored in.  There never quite seemed to be a good time to give someone something you’d bought while they were processing that information.

Now, at the file cabinet, he looked down at Scully’s hands again, wedged between two files as she tried to read upside down.  The gift shop clerk had told him Elvis was meant to be a ring holder.  

“Do you ever wear rings, Scully?”

“Not much since med school.  All the hand washing.”  Yes, he should have guessed that.  Three months ago, even, he could have guessed that without asking.   As it turned out, the list of people he would give a wiggling Elvis ring holder to was very short.  So he kept it in his pocket, waiting for the right moment.  Every time he patted for his badge, he got a welcome reminder that he was lucky she was still alive.  Right now, she was alive and waving a hand in front of his face.  

“Mullllderrrr.”

“Sorry, I was…” but he couldn’t finish the sentence.  He hoped the self-effacing shake of his head didn’t communicate what he was thinking as well as it would’ve in the past.  

Her slightly annoyed countenance hung like a shiny, off-kilter Christmas tree ornament below him.  There, he thought.  She’s close.  Maybe he could do it, he could take her chin in his hand just to feel the weight of it in his palm, or maybe he could do more than that.  Maybe he was overcomplicating it.

“I said I’m not mad,” she argued, mistaking his silence as a silent treatment.  He nodded and backed away, blowing cool air on his burning fingers and strolling to the opposite side of the room.  Two steps, is she really not mad?  Four steps, would she have kissed me back?  Five and there was no more room to pace.

“So, she deals with serial killers,” she said.  Scully’s way of moving on seemed to be to… just move on.  Mulder was a guy who’d been chasing the same childhood trauma, the same vendetta his entire life.  How did they manage to get along so well?

“Patterns of repeated violence against women,” he corrected.

“I suppose we should go introduce ourselves and bring her down.”

“You know, Scully, it used to be no girls in the clubhouse.  I’ve already had to make an exception for you.”

“Make one more?” came a smoky English accent from the doorway.  

Their guest had arrived.  She had the steely beauty of an ice field, a pair of blue eyes set like hot springs in a landscape of silvery platinum.  Somehow this had not been what he’d been picturing when they said seasoned British Met officer.  Let the triteness of the surprise be on him, he guessed.

“You must be Detective Gibson,” Scully said, stepping forward to shake her hand.

“Stella’.”  

He watched Scully decide whether to give her first name and he smiled that this had something to do with him.  It was his doing that she recognized her last name more than her first.   Before their partnership, she would unquestionably have answered ‘Dana.’

“Scully is fine.”

Mulder clumsily made his way to shake Stella’s hand and the Coke can that had missed the basket earlier clanged across the floor.  He grabbed the edge of the chair to keep from tripping.  One of Scully’s eyebrows pinged like an arcade game, tuning into a round of something she was already silently accusing him of participating in.  

“We put aside the files you asked for,” he said, trying to ignore Scully and her stupid perfect, insinuating eyebrow.  She thought she knew when he had an instant crush on someone and yet had been missing him staring at her all fucking morning.  

It suddenly occurred to Mulder that he would be spending the whole week proving himself to a third party.  He had enough on his hands with Scully’s doubts.  He had wondered why they’d given Gibson to them and not some other agents.  It was unlike anyone at the FBI to want to show them off, much less to a foreign entity.  Maybe they wanted to keep him from his real work. Well, whatever the agenda, she was already digging in, making herself at home, folding her coat over the chair and sitting at the desk.  She flipped through the pile of cases they’d made for her with a light touch.

“A colleague of mine in England speaks very highly of you, Agent Mulder.”

“Then he probably knew me as a profiler.  But that was a long time ago.  This building is crawling with people who are better equipped to talk to you.”

Scully furrowed her bossy brow at his rudeness and took over.  

“We specialize in cases with… inexplicable… supernatural elements.”  She still couldn’t describe her job without pausing.

“There is no equivalent of this – unit, would you call it? - in England.  Though there are certainly detectives whose behavior I consider inexplicable.”

Mulder strained his neck to see which file Stella was reading and caught Scully exaggeratedly mouthing his name in reproach.  He settled back on his heels in a huff.  “I’m not trying to look down her shirt, you idiot,” he wanted to mouth back, but neither med school nor Quantico had taught her to lip-read worth a damn.

“We of course get our fair share of suspects who claim to be hearing voices, receiving inspiration from the dead, being possessed by demons or coerced through vudu.  We use the same word for all of them: insanity,” Stella said. “I’d like to learn more.  If only so I can argue against them more precisely.”  

“There’s a lot we can’t put in writing.  I’m afraid you won’t learn much from the files,” Scully said cooperatively.

“And what’s your background?  Were you a profiler as well?”

“Medicine.”  Scully always seemed to be expecting a little pat on the back when she said it, and he didn’t deny that she should get one.  She was awfully young to have already done the things she had done.

But Stella just flipped the file shut, looking around the office like Mary Poppins, displeased that the Banks children hadn’t tidied up.  He wasn’t used to presenting the office to anyone but Scully, who would be displeased no matter how it looked and Skinner, who never noticed.  Mulder was now hyper-aware of all its shortcomings - its claustrophobia, its messiness, its distance from everything else the building that seemed to matter.

“What about that case in Philadelphia?”  Stella prompted.  

“Ed Jerse?” Scully asked, picking up the file instantly, holding it in front of her body like a shield.  Mulder had put Ed into the pile while he was daydreaming about Scully’s hands.  It was an accident.

“I thought that would be a good place to start,”  Stella asked.

“Ed’s not a serial killer. I don’t know why he’s in that pile,” Scully said, stealing a cool glance in Mulder’s direction as she leveled the file’s edge against the desk.  Mulder noted the personal pronoun.  ‘He’ rather than ‘it.’

“I take it there’s a difference of opinion on this case,” Stella said, looking back and forth between them with sudden soapy interest.

“Well, there’s a difference of opinion on every case,” Mulder said, trying to lighten the mood. “But yes, particularly this one.”

“Jerse was drugged, hallucinating,” Scully defended.

He was another abusive asshole with an excuse, a psychopath at best.  

Mulder thought of the little Elvis in his coat pocket and said nothing, filing the thought away alongside his compliments.  

“Perhaps we can dissect the matter on the way there,” Stella said, putting out an empty hand.  Scully handed over the file in slow motion, her fingers releasing it one at a time.

Her hands.  Pressed against Ed’s chest in ecstasy.  Wielding a scissor in self-defense.

“What do you mean, ‘there’?” Scully asked.  But Mulder already knew.

“Hang on a second–” he said.

“I was hoping to interview him.”

“Detective Gibson– Stella,“ Scully said, and here,  here was the devoted partner ultimately committed to presenting a united front.  “I was under the impression you were here to study our cases and discuss them with us.”

“I was under the impression we might do more than that.”  

And then something strange happened.  Stella and Scully looked into each other’s eyes with the intensity of people who shared a secret, like they’d known each other in another life, had been lovers or arch enemies.  He would never have shared this impression with Scully, not before and not now, but that was just a matter of being considerate.  She might roll her eyes so hard she’d hurt herself.  

Stella dragged her gaze - reluctantly, he noted - from Scully over her shoulder to him.  

“Which impression were you under?” Stella asked him, cocking her chin in amusement, the queen entertaining the whims of her subjects.  

“I defer to Agent Scully,” he said with smug satisfaction. “If she doesn’t think we should interview him, then we won’t.”

“Okay.  We’ll call to make arrangements for tomorrow,” Scully said.

He looked at her, stunned, tried to ask what she could possibly thinking without asking her.  But her head was bent.  She tucked her red hair behind her white poker chip of an ear.  She licked her lips once, slowly, a nervous gesture, he thought - but then again, he knew she also did it contemplatively, or when her lips were chapped.  He was supposedly the one with an oral fixation but Scully played with her own lips much more than he did pencils or snacks.

When she looked up at him, her face was blank, exposing not so much as a hint of discomfort.  She dealt with emotions like someone cleaning chalk off a blackboard.  A simple swipe, and whoosh, whatever emotions this case dredged up for her were history.  The matter was obviously settled.  They were going to be dutiful hosts and give Stella what she wanted.  Mulder closed his eyes a long moment, swallowing a string of curses.  Of all the ways to waste a week, revisiting the worst moment in their partnership was his last favorite possible way.

“Brilliant,” Stella mumbled.  It irritated him that getting her way was obviously considered more an inevitability than a victory.

Scully gathered up the files as Stella stretched her arms one at a time into her coat sleeves, a glimpse of dark satin visible between the buttons of her pale silk shirt.  


Mulder used the time it took Stella to make her exit to gather all the thoughts that he had not yet vocalized.  He sifted through them, trying to find one suitable enough to say aloud.  When he heard the elevator doors whoosh closed at the end of the hall, he managed just one for his partner.

“Why?”

“It’s our job,” she said matter-of-factly.  “And it’s in the past.”  

Who was it, Faulkner?  Something about the past not even being past?

“You stay here,” he said. “I’ll take her.”

“Nonsense,” she said, clapping erasers together conclusively, and then grinned.

“Nice perfume, hm?” she said.  

He hadn’t noticed Stella was wearing it before, but now that Scully pointed it out, it was true, she had left a trail of it behind.  Night-blooming flowers, unabashedly romantic, capable of calling to mind a thousand tiny memories Mulder didn’t know he had.

Three years ago.  He drove through Arizona while she leaned on the car door in her sunglasses, a prismatic shadow cast across her chest as the painted desert whizzed by…

Thirteen months ago.  They ate breakfast at the counter of a diner in Duluth and she reached over him to get a napkin, brushing the dramatic curve of her waist against his shoulder…

Six months ago.  He walked into her motel room and found her napping, work clothes askew, the thick lacy band of a thigh high drifting from under her skirt…  

And five minutes ago, when she looked at him over the file cabinet.

She was waiting expectantly, a pencil balanced between fingertips like a level, as if she were posing for a new memory.

“What?” he asked a bit guiltily, though not for the reasons she clearly presumed.

“Stunning, British accent and thinks you’re a genius.  You should wear your good suit tomorrow,” she teased, completely oblivious to the menace this topic posed in conjunction with her blue eyes and a light smile.  Mulder looked at her a moment more and thought, I should be wearing my good suit every day.

 

*

 

“Mulder,” Scully said to him via in the rearview mirror, a one word request she expected him to recognize.  At first he wondered what she was complaining about, then realized he’d been shaking a knee against the backseat cup holder.   He wished she would cut him a break and not nag.  He barely fit back there.

Mulder liked to drive when he was anxious, but Scully had requested the keys, and he had felt rather unselfish as he considered the fact that any anxiety she might have on this day should take precedence.  Then she had gotten in and adjusted mirrors with unflappable drivers’ majesty, about as flustered as a lion on a sunny savannah.  If she could face someone who tried to kill her with this much courage, surely he could just sit still for a while.  He shackled the shaky leg with his hands.

“Can you put the baseball game on?”

“Maybe you should tell Stella whatever she wants to know,” Scully counter-suggested.  Him?  Why should he do it?  He didn’t think Stella should have a right to know anything.

He opened his mouth to speak, but Stella looked at Scully instead of him.

“From what I understand, you know it fairly well.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Scully answered.  I would, Mulder thought.

“You didn’t have some personal involvement with it?”

“It wasn’t a case that I became personally involved with.  It was my personal life which became a case.”

“I appreciate the distinction,” Stella said, sounding definitively sincere for once.  

“Ed lured Scully back to his apartment from a tattoo parlor,” Mulder stated, figuring that at least that much was agreed upon.

“I was not lured.  We were on a date at a tattoo parlor.”  

As soon as Scully spoke, he remembered the distance between them That Night.  Sixteen hundred miles.

“Well, you were also on a case at a tattoo parlor,” he said, embarrassed by the unintended sanctimony in his voice.  He also liked to be right when he was anxious.  If he was being honest, he always liked to be right, and in fact, he was always right, but he was seldom proven so.

“Where he asked me out on a date.”

“So it was the tattoo and then the apartment?” Stella asked perfunctorily, checking off boxes with her voice as her two hosts sparred.  Scully glanced at Mulder cautiously and re-stated the full agenda of her evening.

“Tattoo parlor, his apartment, a bar, back to the tattoo parlor, and… back to the apartment.”

Mulder watched Stella’s face in the sideview mirror, looking for signs that she was making him listen to this out of spite… as if there were no other reason an investigator might want to hear it.  He sighed at his own paranoia.

“He was kind, charming,” Scully said with forced emptiness, the same voice she had used to describe her X-ray images.

“They often do appear that way,” Stella said, but it was unclear whether she was agreeing or appeasing.

“He didn’t appear kind.  He was kind.  A fungus was found in his blood that can cause hallucinations.”

“Right, the ergotism. Mistaken for demonic possession in centuries past,” Stella said.

“Yes,” Scully said. “In the tattoo ink. Circumstantially speaking.”

“Were you tattooed at the same shop, by the same artist?”

“Yes,” Scully said again, this time her S hissing conclusively.  No more questions.  Then why didn’t you experience psychosis?  He waited for Stella to ask it, to make Scully see it the way he wanted her to.  Maybe they could wind up on the same team here after all.  But he watched Scully’s hands tighten around the steering wheel, her knuckles going white.  He didn’t know it was even possible for her skin to get any lighter.

“Agent Scully is a woman of many mysteries,” he said, aggressively signaling a wrap-up.

“No doubt,” Stella said.  Scully turned his baseball station on as an obvious token of gratitude.

 

*

 

They got out of the car about forty-five minutes later.

“This isn’t where they had him originally.  He was moved to accommodate his psychiatric condition,” Scully said as they walked toward the facility.

“Was that your doing?” Stella asked.

For three days he had listened to her make phone calls as he said things like, “Do you always give special treatment to people who try to kill you?” and “What do you want him to be, close enough to visit?”  She had paid closer attention to the hold music than to him, repeating her badge number to the necessary parties over and over again.

“We had talked a bit…” Scully acquiesced, as if deciding how much to reveal.  Mulder felt a migraine pump into his temples as his brain tried to get ahead of her, to prepare himself for exactly how bad this was going to get.

“Were there any details about the date you think might have set him off?”  

Stella asked, coat swishing at her knees like a cape.  Scully rubbed the back of her neck under her hair.  Mulder thought of the times he had grabbed her or comforted her there in moments of trauma or tragedy, the way damp baby sweat formed under duress.  She would have been furious to have any part of her infantilized, he thought, even her sweat.

“No.  We just discussed… Childhood stories.  The circumstances around his tattoo.  We were drinking.”  Discussed.  Circumstances.  As if she could fool them, fool herself, into not thinking of her as part of this.

“Scully, you were driving,” Mulder said archly, reeling at the idea that Ed knew things about her that he didn’t.

“How did you get from the bedroom to the basement?” Stella proceeded.

“I blacked out when he threw me against the wall.  I came to downstairs, wrapped in a sheet.”  She said it just like that, just like the cancer, like she went home last night and practiced.  Did she ever think that other people might need just as much practice hearing these things?  The bile rose up in his throat.

“He seemed very vulnerable, despite his size.  I was able to subdue him,” she added, bringing Mulder’s footsteps to a full stop.  He pretended to straighten his tie as he patted his digestive tract, giving it a hard, acrid swallow.  Neither of them noticed and he caught up with just a couple long strides.

“Triangling,” Stella muttered almost to herself as they pressed the visitor’s button.  Mulder and Scully both looked at her self-consciously.

“The victim, the persecutor and the rescuer.  Killers often fancy themselves playing two of the three roles,” she said.

 

*

 

The room resembled hundreds where Mulder had conducted business, but it was only now he noticed how little oxygen they contained.  His nerves were ripening under the fluorescent light, his ears itched with the sizzling ring they produced overhead.  Stella seemed as strong and quiet as granite beside him, and her company about as comforting.  

The door clicked open and just like that, Ed Jerse entered.  It seemed a bit anti-climactic to Mulder.  No build-up, no score of ominous music.  It was just this:  a sad convict with watery eyes.  Jerse looked right at Scully, who was sitting at the head of the table, and Mulder felt his nerves peel themselves raw.  I should leave.  But instead he stared at a circle of table between his thumbs. He pressed them down into the surface until white half moons appeared in his nails.

“Dana,” Ed said in a small voice.  Someone had obviously prepared him, explained they were coming.  He sounded almost simpering, as if she had come to reunite, to forgive him.  Someday, Mulder thought with a sickening feeling, maybe she would have.

“Hi,” she said.  It was not her Work Voice, but the other one, the one Mulder seldom got to hear.  He assumed Ed had heard it.  I’ll have a vodka tonic.  No, I don’t have any tattoos.  Maybe they’re only sexy on you.  Where do you think I should get it?

Mulder felt his throat close, an allergic reaction to his own imagination.  He stirred himself to attention, catching the tail end of Stella’s explanation of her presence.  Ed nodded along seriously.

“When you say cases, you mean murderers, don’t you?” he asked Stella, his left eye twitching.  Even with the twitch and the pallor of misery, Mulder could see how Scully had found Jerse handsome.  He looked like a conflicted, tortured Superman.  If Mulder wasn’t so busy hating him, he would have felt sorry for him too.

“Do you consider yourself a murderer?” Stella prodded.  The way she blended her interrogative and declaratory vocal cues worked magnificently here, actually.  Mulder wished he were in the position to pick up a few new tricks.   But he was currently too in love with his own repulsion to do anything useful.

Ed pursed his lips remorsefully.  “I never wanted to hurt those women.  It sounds crazy, I know that.  You have to believe me.  I heard her telling me to kill them.”  

Mulder felt fury billow up to his mouth.  “What if I hear a voice telling me to kill you?  Should I?”

Stella put a hand on Mulder’s leg momentarily to silence him.  Ed looked at Scully, shook his head helplessly, subtly heaved his shoulders up and back down again.

“I liked you, Dana, I know you know that.”

Mulder studied Scully’s face, looking for signs of her own feelings.  Even at her most impulsive, Mulder didn’t think she would have stayed with him that night if she didn’t like the guy.  He wasn’t sure which possibility was more disconcerting – that she really liked Ed, or that Mulder didn’t completely understand her the way he thought he did.  It felt like hours, days were passing.  

“Just let Detective Gibson ask you some questions, okay?” Scully said finally, relieving them all of the silence.

Stella took over and Ed obeyed Scully’s command, answering the questions readily.  They talked about the incinerator, Scully fighting him off, his attempt to “kill” his own angry tattoo.  Mulder studied the thick, smooth scars on Jerse’s arm, the distorted face of his Sailor Jerry pinup.  He pictured Scully tugging on the other arm, thick as a tree trunk under her grip, trying to save Ed from himself.  His pencil snapped in half in his fingers.

“But you have not had the urges to hurt or kill women since you’ve been here, since your treatment?” Stella asked, giving Mulder a judgmental glance.  There was something funny about it, Stella and Scully stoically interviewing, while Ed and Mulder both seemed on the verge of meltdowns.  Together, the two women might weigh what Jerse did.

Jerse looked around the room suspiciously, his eyes suddenly a solid shade of indigo, his mouth a tight envelope opening.  His face became villainous and frightening when he tightened his eyebrows and tucked his chin.

“I do still hear her sometimes,” he said.

Mulder thought he saw Stella’s breath pattern deepen.  He knew that feeling, the investigative rush.  But it was a remote experience to him right now, an inaccessible one; right now he knew only pure and unadulterated rage.

“It wasn’t the poison.  It’s her, the tattoo.  But in here, she knows she has me to herself.  She got what she wanted already,” Ed leaned forward as he told Stella.

“What makes her jealous enough to speak to you?  For example, does being in the room with Agent Scully make her jealous?  Does talking to me?”

“I’m not hearing her right now.  She comes and goes.  Even that night, with Dana.  I covered her up and when we were out having such a nice time, I wasn’t hearing her, I wasn’t thinking about it–”

Mulder jumped up out of his chair and leaned over the table, grabbing Ed by the shirt with both fists.

“Of course you weren’t thinking about it.  You wanted to fuck her before you killed her.”

He glared at Ed just a few inches from his face, holding him there, bearing his teeth.  And then suddenly, the heat subsided and left his fists tingling, a dull ache in his head, mild shame in his cheeks.  He released Ed and saw Scully watching the table uncomfortably, her hands still folded in calm resignation.

“Agent Mulder, a word?” Stella said, rising from the table.  He began to follow her, slow to the realization that she expected Scully to stay there alone with Ed.

He nervously bit his lip, tried to get Scully’s reaction, but she just sat there with square shoulders, breathing as evenly as a metronome.  When the door was closed and he was alone in the hall with Stella, he spun on her.

“What are you doing?” he spat.

“Give her a moment.”

“I don’t want her in there alone with him.”  

Stella’s voice sharpened, the pitch scratchy now like a record at the higher register.

“Maybe she wants to be alone with him.  If you would stop acting like a jealous idiot and pay attention for five minutes, you might actually find out what she wants.”

Mulder peered through the little square slice of glass in the door.  Ed was crying.  Then Scully looked up at Ed, and he could see she was about to cry too.  He became lightheaded, a hard lump in his throat.  He wished he could have said this was because he hated to see her sad, which he did.  But right now, all he could think was I can’t even tell her I like her hands.  He felt very small.

“Did you bother to think how it might be for her coming here?” Stella piped up.

“Did you?”  He didn’t turn to face her.

“Yes.  But it was useful to me,” she said, letting him scoff. “I thought ultimately it could be useful to her as well.”

“You don’t even know her,” he said through gritted teeth.

She became almost inaudible. “Do you?”  

Mulder watched Scully tilt her palm-sized chin empathetically as Ed reached his giant arm toward her.  Mulder’s heart sped as he pictured Jerse’s spanning Scully’s neck and he tightened his grip on the doorknob, the adrenaline pumping hard into his fingers as they itched to turn it.  But no, she was just taking his hand.

Mulder rolled off the door and ran his hands through his hair.  He tried to do what he did at the dentist.  In an hour, he would be in the car.  In four hours, he would be on his couch.  In a month, he wouldn’t remember it.  But he wasn’t sure any of that was true in this case.  He felt like he’d be living this moment forever, a dull drilling sensation running through his body until he was old and grey.

Suddenly, the door opened. Scully briskly clicked down the hall without so much as a glance.

“I’m going to the restroom,” she said numbly, her voice raspy and echoing off the lime rind tiled walls.  He wanted to follow her, to tell her everything – the file cabinet, the desert and the diner and the lace and the Elvis in his pocket.  But he held back, put his hands on his hips, rooting himself in place to give himself time to decide.  This wasn’t about what he wanted, it was about what Scully wanted, he told himself.  He just had no fucking idea what that was.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Scully flattened herself face-first against the shiny ceramic tile, waiting for the cold to contract her blood vessels and clear her complexion.  She closed her eyes and wondered why the bigger bathroom stalls were always more satisfying to cry in.  

The door to the room croaked open and Scully peeled her face away from the wall.  It only took a few heel clicks to know who it was.  She waited for Stella to step into a stall so she could escape the awkwardness, but there was no such opportunity.  The heels were waiting patiently at the sink.

Scully sighed to herself and tugged her blazer straight as she unlocked the door.  Stella turned to face the mirrors and looked at Scully in the reflection.  The intensity of her gaze was somewhat diluted by the glass, but not by much.

“We’re ready when you are,” she said pleasantly, teasing the interior wave of her hair with her fingers. Scully tried to place the notes of her perfume – musky, vaguely violet?  Cactus flowers.  She thought of a trip she and Mulder had made to Arizona as she ran her hands under the hot tap, rubbing them until the skin was splotchy and raw.  She reached for a joke, conscious that Stella was judging her emotional state with a cautious forensic eye.

“Hopefully I have more sound judgment as an investigator than in my love life.”  She managed a smirk.

“I’ve done worse.”   

Scully swiped at the sooty remains of her eye makeup, peeking out through her fingers.  “You’ve done worse than a murderer?”  

Stella hesitated, squinted, and then spoke with a warmth Scully had not heard before.  “No, you’ve probably got me beat there.”  

“I hope you got what you needed, at least.”

Stella played with the tuck of her slippery shirt.  She twisted the waistline, inching it this way and that, idly killing time.  Scully bit her lip to avoid smiling.  She hadn’t exactly pictured Stella as the girl who would follow you into the bathroom when you ran off crying.  

Usually, Scully was that friend - the supporter, not the crier.  When she was eight, it was for her friend Andrea.  When she was twelve, for her friend Kristen.  In college, for her roommate Maureen.  She was trying to remember a time it was the other way around when Stella reached over and touched the sensitive skin at the corner of Scully’s eye.

“Missed a spot,” she said softly, taking away a rubbery black fleck.

And then Scully remembered. She was seventeen at a sleazy dance club when her friend Robin jumped the line and squeezed into the tiny bathroom. Scully had laughed as Robin yelled back at the people banging on the flimsy door.  Soon the only noise was the distant rumble of music and the scuff of their shoes against the floor, the door, the wall.  It was just a kiss, but Scully could still remember the feeling of lipstick on her mouth that wasn’t her own, the taste of an Amaretto Sour she hadn’t drunk.

“I think we could all use a drink,” Stella said, her voice breaking the deadened hum of the ventilation fan. Scully blushed as if Stella had read her mind, had heard her thinking about the Amaretto Sour.  “My hotel has a rather lovely bar.”

“The Met puts you up at fancy hotels when you travel?”

“They put me wherever I tell them to,” Stella drawled slowly.  It was unclear whether she was kidding or not.

“It’s been a long day. I think it’s better if I go straight home,” Scully said, immediately wondering if it would be better.  She would just be alone, thinking about this day.  “But thank you for offering.”

“How about somewhere closer? Quicker?” Stella asked.  It might have sounded persistent, desperate even, coming from anyone else.  But Stella made it sound like she was giving Scully another chance to get the right answer. Scully nearly laughed at the image of Stella back in London, gathering co-workers for TGIFriday.  Free wings, everybody.

“What?”  Stella asked.

“I guess you kind of seem more like a sip Scotch alone in a silk robe kind of woman,” Scully said with a tiny, shy smile.  As her lips turned up, a ligament in her neck softened.  She breathed into her shoulders and felt them drop, tension oozing out of them, down the middle of her body.  She wondered if it would leave her, if this could be the resolution, this visit the catharsis.  But instead, it all settled somewhere around her ribcage.  There was Ed’s hopelessness, Mulder’s jealousy, her own shame - all clinging to her skeleton like imprisoned ghosts in a haunted house.

Stella smiled too, then licked it off her bottom lip in a way that seemed familiar.

“It’s a simple invitation, Agent Scully.”  Scully rinsed her hands again and dried them on a rough towelette, thinking about the last simple invitation she’d gotten.  It was, of course, the one from Ed Jerse. See, anything that feels good will kill you.   Ed was not the only one who had been hearing voices since That Night.

“Sure.  Why not?” Scully said.  She looked for that nagging voice in the mirror and silently told it to go fuck itself.  Stella placed a palm momentarily on Scully’s lower back as she opened the door.

“Good,” Stella said, enunciating the D so hard that Scully felt the tip of a tongue on the back of her teeth.

 

*

 

“Well, my assumption was half right,” Scully said as she wrapped a hand around her hexagon of Scotch.

“It’s top shelf,” Stella said.  

“I didn’t even know they had a top shelf here.  Always seemed like a place with several bottom shelves, maybe a middle shelf,” Mulder said.

“You have to know what to ask for.”

Scully tipped the glass back, washing down the tannins of the cheap house red she’d been drinking up until now.  As the thick amber coated her throat, she realized she’d been holding her breath all day, maybe for months.  The aftermath of That Night had included her hospitalization, Ed’s imprisonment, Mulder’s attitude, her cancer.  It wasn’t until today, holding Ed’s hand, that she realized she had ignored the personal aftermath, the part that had nothing to do with hospitals, cops, or Mulder.

Ed is the only guy I’ve been with in years, and he tried to fucking kill me.  

Okay, well.  Now she had faced it, she’d cried in a bathroom about it.  When did she get to move on?  She sipped her Scotch again.  It had an improbably nostalgic effect, as if she might look around and find Rita Hayworth, instead of a drab pub drowned in a din of bad karaoke.  

And speaking of improbable, there was Stella, perched next to Scully on a stool, back slightly swayed, legs crossed toward Mulder, an expensive shoe dangling over the gold rod at the base of the bar.  She was scanning the bar with an empty glass in hand, unintentionally catching the attention of at least half a dozen men.  Stella ignored them, spoke only to the bartender.  Scully began to calculate exactly how much Stella would have to drink to be intoxicated.  Mathematically, not much - they were nearly the same size.  But it was impossible to imagine this woman drunk.

Meanwhile, at almost double their size with just half a light beer in him, Mulder seemed unsteady already.

“She’s taking us where?” he had asked as they walked to the car.  She pulled him closer by the edge of his coat, forcing him to lean over to listen.

“She wants to go out for a drink.”

“Why?”

“Mulder shut up, she can hear you,” she’d said wearily as she they approached the car.  She’d taken the backseat on the way home, sat sideways, surrendering to the lull of the highway and letting it put her to sleep.  

Now Mulder was leaning blearily back on his elbows, watching karaoke performers mumble lyrics and shriek at mistakes.   It had been a hard day for him too.  She had had very little tolerance for his bullshit about That Night.  It all seemed like mindless macho nonsense.  So he felt he should have been there, so he felt guilty for giving her the assignment, so what?  It was always about him.

But there was something else.  There was always a mysterious air of betrayal around it, an edge in his voice the few times they had discussed it.  As if she had cheated on him.  As if he were hers to cheat on.  And they could not seem to climb back over that edge to each other, back to where they had been before. 

She looked at him all washed up on the bar and found it hard to be annoyed, or intolerant even.  He looked so soft and gentle, she could hardly believe she had feared he would hit someone today.  He glanced back. 

“The last time we were here was Bigsley’s retirement, wasn’t it?” he asked, raising his voice past Stella. “Wasn’t that karaoke night too?” 

It was normally a Bureau crowd, but the place was also full of young, drunk people already two hours deep into poor life choices.  An odd mix of visible thongs and hidden agendas.  But it seemed fitting.  Where else could they be?  Sitting in the plush booth of a hotel bar, or a speakeasy with a password and a sixteen dollar cocktail?  No, this place suited their day.  Confused demographics and soda water that tasted faintly of old root beer.

Mulder tried to push a lime into his Corona and squirted himself in the eye, loosening his tie as he tipped the beer back.  He looked a bit unhinged, as if he were inching towards surrendering to his environment. She could practically see him flipping through the songbook already.   

“Scully, are you going to reprise Like a Virgin for us?”

“It was one time,” Scully insisted.  “It was a party and I was being a good guest.”

It was not one time, it was just the one time he’d been there.  She almost wished he had caught her performance the night after she took her MCATs, Madonna-ing on her hands and knees in the private room of a dingy Korean bar with four shots of tequila in her.  He would never look at her the same.  Maybe that’s what I want.

She took off her blazer and ran her hand under the bar looking for a place to hang it, retracting her fingers as a hard lump of gum passed under them.  Mulder glanced over nervously, like she was removing a suit of armor.  As if every time she had a drink and relaxed in a bar, someone would come try to kill her. It’s fine, nothing is going to happen, she wanted to tell him, but he was too far away.  Truth was, even if he weren’t, she wouldn’t know how to say it.

Stella bent over to help her look for the hook, her blonde strands falling like satiny ribbon against Scully’s arm.  She realized how little she had said to Stella since they got here.

“Sorry about this,” Scully said into the shimmery curtain of hair.  Three twenty-somethings were belting a Destiny’s Child song at the top of their lungs.

“It’s all right,” Stella said, sounding terribly civilized.  “It’s a nice change.”  From what?  Scully wondered.  Everything about Stella seemed both obvious and mysterious to her.

“Are you going to get up there?” Scully joked.  Stella smirked into her glass as she drank from it.  Her eyelids dropped to half-mast as she tilted her throat up, as if to say, “You have no idea what I might do.” Scully thought she saw Stella’s tongue flirt with the inside of the glass.  Watching Stella drink Scotch was like watching a ballet.  A ballet that made you slightly warm all over.

“How do you know so much about Scotch?” Scully asked. 

“By drinking it,” Stella said.  “We learn by doing.”

“Come on, Scully, let’s go sing,” Mulder said suddenly.

“I’m going to stay here with our guest.”  He was looking at her like he was her bodyguard and needed her permission.  “Mulder, I’m fine,” she huffed, and he shrugged, wandering off in the direction of the giant binder. 

“I’m sorry for whatever is about to happen,” Scully said to Stella. 

“I’m looking forward to it,” Stella said as Scully found herself studying the bones of Stella’s ankles, the crease of her big toe at the front of the shoe, wondering if Stella could even feel pain in her feet anymore.  Scully only skipped pantyhose when she ran out or was feeling especially sexy.  She had a feeling Stella skipped them every day. 

“He’s going to pick something British to impress you,” Scully predicted.

“Why would that impress me? I live there.”

“So then, what impresses you?”

“You do, for one.”

“Why is that?” Scully balked at the sound of her own voice flirting without her permission.  She hadn’t meant for it to come out like that, she had just been talking about her taste in music.

Stella answered by reaching for the cross around Scully’s neck.  A shiver traveled down her chest at the shallow scrape of Stella’s nail lifting it off her collarbone.  Stella looked from it to Scully’s eyes, as if giving her the opportunity to explain, as if asking her to take it off.  Scully did neither and Stella finally left it where she found it. 

“Why isn’t your name on the door?” Stella asked, switching gears.  Scully realized she had raised her own hand to her collarbone, right in Stella’s fingerprint.  She flattened her hand against her chest, trying to tame her pulse, to tell her body that what it thought was happening was not happening.

“Excuse me?” she asked Stella.

“I said, why isn’t your name on the door, or on the desk?  In your office?”

“Haven’t gotten around to it.  We’re not in the office very much.” 

Stella looked at her with a challenge in her sparkling, terrifying eyes.

“Mulder and I are equals,” Scully said pointedly.

“If he wanted you to know that, he’d put your name on the door.”

“You don’t know him.”

“Do you?” Stella asked.  Scully’s nostrils flared as she stared back at Stella.

“He just doesn’t like change,” Scully said  “He’s a creature of habit.”

“Well, it’s none of my business.” 

“No, it isn’t,” Scully said. She reached for her glass, ready for a gulp, but before she could get the glass to her mouth, Stella’s hand was on her arm. 

“I’m sorry,” she said. Her face was softer, more sincere.

“It’s okay,” Scully said. One strong word and she was furious, a gentle hand and she was a puddle.  What is in this Scotch?

“I’m projecting,” Stella added.  “I’ve a colleague back home, a male one, that I have a complicated relationship with.” 

“Complicated?  Oh, ah, Mulder and I… we’re not…” 

“Oh,” Stella said nonchalantly.  “Well, we were.  And now he doesn’t want to go back to his wife.  It’s part of why I came here.  I needed to get away.” 

“You spend your holidays in prisons studying murderers?”  

Stella grinned ruefully, looking at Scully out the corner of her eye.  “You spend yours sleeping with them.”  Scully belly laughed and felt the weight seep down out of her ribs.

“So you wanted him to? Go back to his wife, I mean?” Scully asked as her smile faded.  A pause passed and Scully wondered if she’d taken it too far, seemed prying.  Stella looked her dead in the eye, as if to say, Go ahead, ask me more.  

“I always want them to.”

And then she turned away, sucked at the bottom of her glass with a cocktail straw and fixed her exquisitely intimidating gaze on the poor, lucky bartender.  Scully felt a strange pride at being the person within Stella’s inner sanctum.  Her ally could bring half the people at the bar to their knees with one husky word.  When Stella caught her staring this time, Scully managed not to look away.  Her eyes hovered over Stella’s mouth, watching her coax a drop of liquor off her bottom lip.

“I don’t like to get attached either,” Scully said wondering if too much time had passed in the conversation for it to make any sense.  She shifted around in her seat.  “But I’m not very good at that, so I mostly don’t try.”  As soon as the thought crossed her lips, she looked through the crowd for Mulder.  She found him pulling at his lip as he carefully examined his song options. Stella put a lazy elbow on the bar, folding her torso sideways over it.

“You know, in the Middle Ages ergotism was referred to as St. Anthony’s Fire, after a hospital in France where monks treated those suffering from it.”

Scully realized Stella could have said this earlier, but saved it for when they were alone.  Why?

“They eventually commissioned a piece of art there called the Isenheim Altarpiece to comfort and console them.  It was meant to remind tortured souls that God shares their pain, that pain can bring them closer to God.  Have you seen it?  Photographs of it?”

Scully shook her head no.

“It is quite disturbing. And quite beautiful.”

Scully’s breath was boiling, a drop of salty sweat dripped noticeably between her breasts.  Look away, she begged herself, look away.  But her eyes were frozen in place.

“Where is it?” Stella asked. Scully shook her head, forcing her eyes into compliance.

“Um, what?” she asked, disoriented.

“The tattoo.”

“Oh.  It’s, um, over here – “ She touched one side of her back uncertainly, trying to recall the feeling of the needle.  She thought of how often doctors operate on the wrong kidney. Stella smiled, her lips pressed together.

“Yes, here, this side,” Scully confirmed, tapping her back.   The familiar riff of a Rolling Stones song came over the speakers, something about pretty, pretty girls.  Scully spun expectantly and of course, there was Mulder, cradling the mic and starting to sing.  Stella looked as if she were trying to smother a smile.

“You were right,” she said.

“Maybe I should go get him,” Scully said, turning back to face the stage, trying to keep the secret that she liked the way he sang.  “Half the people in this bar work in our building.”  

“So what,” Stella said emphatically.   A slim hand crept around the back of Scully’s waist, fingers weightless as blown glass.

Scully twisted around to face her, expecting the hand to drop once Stella had her attention.  But it just sat there, lightly cresting the indentation of her waist.  Scully felt butterflies fluttering in her stomach and put her hand to it, trying to ground them.  

Stella’s mouth dropped open a bit, revealing the sliver of darkness between her top and bottom teeth. It was as if she were going to speak, but Scully knew that was not the case.  She knew because she made that face herself sometimes… not when she was about to speak. 

Stella’s fingers crinkled around the hem of Scully’s shirt and the volume of Scully’s heartbeat rose in her ears.  She felt the bottom of Stella’s palm against her bare waist, smooth and disconcerting.

“Show me yours, I’ll show you mine,” Stella quipped.  Scully felt the room spin a bit.

“Ummm…”

“Fine, I’ll go first.” Stella unbuttoned the cuff of her blouse and held the inside of her wrist up, and Scully blinked in embarrassment. The tattoo, she meant the tattoo.  She took Stella’s arm and ran her thumb over the Sanskrit word there, faded black ink rising and falling over her pulse.

“What does it mean?”

“That wasn’t part of the deal.”  Her other hand was still on Scully’s waist.

Scully gave Stella her back. Her skin jumped slightly at Stella’s touch, nails brushing as they lifted her tank top.  Her touch was as gentle as the needle was painful, but all the same, it wound its way through her blood and into the pit of her stomach, her groin.  She knew that her lashes were fluttering, her eyeballs curling up under their lids, and was glad she was facing away.  She closed her eyes and concentrated on finding something normal to say. 

“I’ll never let him live this down,” she said over her shoulder, trying to catch and kill the desire tumbling around her body.  She felt like her body was misfiring, malfunctioning.  The taste of Robin’s Amaretto Sour, the memory of a fishnetted thigh beside her, propped on a toilet.  She had not even touched herself since That Night.

With her skin once again covered, she felt the soft press of Stella’s chest on her back, a warm vibrato on her ear.  “Want to dance?”  The word dance sounded rounder the way she said it, like a different activity altogether.

Scully looked around the bar.  Mulder had the room.  His rumpled, passionate serenade had people dancing, falling madly in love with him.  Scully had the sudden longing to be home, to be alone.  Stella brushed the sharp slope of her nose against Scully’s bare shoulder just as she was turning to say she was leaving.

“Yeah, okay,” Scully said.

By the time her answer came out, Stella was already pulling her toward the middle of the crowd, burying them in the anonymity of other people’s bodies.  Scully felt a panic wash over her.  She wished she had paid more attention to what familiar faces were there.  But soon she was up against Stella’s body and all that vanished.  No one was watching them, and if they were… so what.  Scully was in the inner sanctum.

Their hips fell into sync as their shoes slid beside one another.  Stella’s forearm was firm around Scully’s waist, her fingers wrapped up Scully’s side like a vine.  I wonder what I feel like.   Scully draped her own arm around Stella, startled by the sharp decline off her shoulder blades as she settled her fingers in the silky depressions of Stella’s back muscles.

Stella’s eyes fell on the cross again, but this time she was close enough to put it in her mouth.  She intertwined her free hand in Scully’s, hanging them in a loose basket at their side.   Every time Scully got used to their position, Stella touched her or looked at her some new way.

“Why do you keep looking at that?” Scully asked gently, their noses almost touching.  At first, it didn’t seem like Stella would answer her, but then she gave Scully’s waist a squeeze and placed her mouth against Scully’s ear.

“Just wondering how seriously you take it,” Stella said playfully.  She lifted Scully’s hand and twirled her, pulling her back even closer. Scully’s back was to Stella, and Stella’s face fit perfectly in the nook between her ear and her shoulder.  Scully tilted her head, trying to tuck Stella’s nose closer to her cheek.

Mulder’s voice was losing steam.  Scully glanced up and saw him watching them, a dark emotion that she could not place sparkling in his eyes.  Something had happened to all three of them in that awful prison building, unsettled them, set them all howling like werewolves.

She turned back around in Stella’s arms, feeling like a piece of pottery on a wheel.  Fingers drifted over her tailbone.  Step away, she told herself, but her feet didn’t move until the song ended.

They were still standing very close when Mulder reappeared at their side.  Scully strained to make her voice sound whimsical.  This is just me, in a bar, having fun.

“That was good, Mulder. Hopefully someone in here got it on tape,” she said.

“Room full of people who know how to bug a room, surely they must know blackmail when they see it,” Stella said, looking at Mulder.  “Want to take over?”

Stella made her way back to the bar and Mulder immediately took Scully stiffly in his arms, watching her face as he moved her awkwardly.  A very drunk woman was crooning Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

“Hopefully someone got me on tape?” Mulder mumbled incredulously down to her.  Scully hardly noticed the teasing; she was too busy noting the size of him – his height, his hand on her back, so dramatically different from Stella’s.  He framed her like they were dancing at a wedding, at a supper club.  She let her hand slide from his shoulder down his chest, stared at his tie as she played with it, lining one piece behind the other, twisting them.  How had she never noticed that he felt this good?  Maybe this was how everyone felt when you drank top shelf Scotch instead of cheap house red, she thought reassuringly.

But deep down, she knew she had not had enough to make a difference.

“Scully,” he said softly, sounding relieved, as if she had just walked in the door after hours of not answering the phone.

He rested his chin against her temple and held her a little closer.  Maybe it was finally over.  They had had a hard day, a hard couple of months.  And now it was over.  I’m sorry, she imagined him saying silently with his chin.  I’m sorry too, she said back silently into his tie.  

She looked up at him hopefully, but there was the same ambiguity in his green grey eyes that she had seen on stage.  She felt balmy pressure rise from between her legs, same as had happened when Stella touched her waist.

Her hand absently traced the shape of his arm, and she began to imagine being a stranger, one of the women he might approach in the bar, or Stella, if he had the guts.  Is this how he would look at her if he were trying to get her into bed?   She imagined the strength of his hands, anger turning to passion, placed firmly on her hips.

And that was enough.  She jumped back from him, and he flinched. 

“I need some air.”    

 

*

 

A group of cackling girls had given her a cigarette, too drunk to notice Scully was old enough to have her own.  She felt like a prom night runaway with her blazer over her shoulders.  Mulder came out just as she took a puff, shaking his head and frowning in disapproval.   As they came closer, Stella gave a nod, indicating she wanted the cigarette.  Scully tried to hand it over, expecting her to stub it out.

But Stella just parted her lips and raised her eyebrows.  Scully held the cigarette up to her lips, clumsily catching a bit of Stella’s lip balm on her fingers.  The smoke settled between them as Stella exhaled it slowly.  Mulder grabbed the stub from Scully’s hand and dropped it to the cement.

Scully suddenly felt devastated about the idea of going home.  She used to know how to draw a night out from place to place, from mistake to mistake.  She had forgotten how to do that; it had been too long since she wanted to.  

“I’m going to get a taxi,” Stella said, turning toward the line of cabs.  “Do you want to come back to the hotel with me?” she asked casually, waving at the driver.  Mulder looked at Scully, stunned and confused.  Scully felt like slapping him.  What do you think she wants you to come back for, Mulder?  To have a cup of fucking tea?

She nudged him petulantly in Stella’s direction.  “Go,” she whispered.

“Okay,” he muttered, following Stella like a puppy.

Scully pouted at the ground, trying not to watch them walk away, telling her eyes she would cut them out of they cried one tear.  She looked down at the crumbled cigarette.

“I was talking to you too.” Scully looked up and saw Stella standing inside the door of the taxi waiting for her, platinum hair blowing into the dark asphalty street.

A simple invitation, a simple No, thank you would do, she told herself.  Stella tilted her chin up cockily. 

“Don’t you want to see if you were right about the silk robe?”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The smell of fear was thick as lavender in an English garden.   It was a single overpowering impression in the little silver box of an elevator, but composed of two sets of characteristics, a couple of well-chosen varietals of the same flower paired together down a stone path.  In one corner near the buttons, Agent Scully fiddled with hemlines and touched her hair, leaned and un-leaned on the wall of the lift like a daisy, cleverly masking her nerves with Pantene and perfume.  And in the other corner was Agent Mulder cloaked in aftershave and Corona, moving his mouth around like a fighter putting in a dental guard, staring at the numbers overhead like a kid who just found the Big Dipper for the first time.

They were distinct, though an entity, for Stella.  One of these people, she was going to devour and the other, she was going to let devour her.  The simplicity of it was golden, as alluring as she knew the complexity would be to most.  There was no reason for Mulder and Scully to be afraid, other than that that was what turned them on.  Human beings knew how to serve themselves.

She indulged a set of second-thoughts, for the sake of doing so, for the sake of later being able to say she’d considered it.  Perhaps better to wait until the end of her stay, or, as a therapist or two she’d dismissed would have said, better not do it at all.  But better was a subjective concept and Stella had only one subject to please.  She ran her life this way for a reason; to minimize questions.

It had only been two days, true, but Stella could feel the momentum of five years of Mulder and Scully’s unintentional work.  The idea that they hadn’t slept together seemed so ludicrous she almost didn’t believe it, except that she was good enough at her job to know relevant evidence when she saw it, and this elevator was practically littered with it: the fidgeting and the fright, the shifting weight of past and future and the weight of consequences bearing down on both the left and right pulleys overhead.  In a moment, their inhibitions would unravel and she would be the steady spool around which they did it.

If she’d had to choose… well, she was fairly confident at this point she was not going to have to, but if she were forced, it would have been the woman.  She’d caught Stella’s attention right away.  Painted lips and no first name, like a character in an old film noir, the tight shelf of her ass and her earnest temper, flaring and cooling mercurially, the red white and blue of her face as wholesome and racy as a pinup.  But though Stella was impulsive, she was not insane, and she’d noted the cross around her neck, the unrippled nylons around her ankles.  She’d been prepared to enjoy Scully from a distance, had had no further plans than that.  Stella glanced at her now, eyes set on the crack of the elevator doors, her exquisite profile in a constant state of re-making this decision and she realized with slightly harrowing panic that that was no longer acceptable to her.  

Whether she’d intended to tip her hand or not, Scully had been making concessions all evening.  The way her body had curled around Stella on the dance floor like film on a reel.  The way her heart beat against Stella’s chest, urging her on like a drum.  And when Stella pressed her nose against the clean, hard curve of Scully’s neck, the way goosebumps made the journey from her shoulders to the tips of her breasts.   She’d been sure, in that moment, could have had it overwith by now.  But something had kept her waiting, something had made it seem worth the risk.  Greediness probably, wanting him too.

She let him languish now - aware it was safe to do so, always was safe to do so with a man - and she took a breath, reached out and tickled Scully’s hand with her fingertips and Scully weakly clasped her hand around them.  That was promising, didn’t feel like someone who was about to bolt.   Stella held it there tightly until the nineteenth floor dinged, until the key card gave her a green light.

Mulder followed without a handhold, kindly wasted none of her concern.  That he found her attractive in some basic way, she had no doubt, but she was also fairly sure Mulder didn’t like her, and yet by the time she was done setting the Do Not Disturb sign, he was sitting on the arm of a divan, trying to look relaxed, trying to look like he’d done all of this before.  She didn’t care if he liked her.  She didn’t even care if she liked him.  She cared that he be able get hard at a moment’s notice and that he make Scully more possible to keep interested.

Scully stepped into the art deco renovated room and looked around like she’d entered a portal of some sort, some symbolic allegorical tunnel to the other side of her sense of self.

“Excuse me,” she said quietly and stepped into the bathroom.  

Stella tried to let go of the worry that she was splashing cold water on her face and talking herself out of the room, out of the building, home to her safe little apartment.  She doubly tried to let go of any guilt, an emotion with which she was very frugal, and therefore occasionally found herself having in excess.  Well, no one had asked Scully to look at her that way, touch her that way, respond to her that way.  No one had asked her to - well, yes, Stella had asked her to come back here.  But nobody had, nobody would, twist her arm.  The fate of Scully’s night was in her own hands.

“So this is what the pound can get you on a civil service budget–” Mulder started and Stella put a stop to all that immediately, posing herself between his legs, taking his face in her hands.  He dawdled, seemed at a loss at first, then lifted his arms and circled her waist, a kid at a middle school dance.  She wondered when the last time he’d held a woman was, when the last time he’d held anything but a pencil.

But his kiss was a pleasant surprise.  Lips full of concentration and a lime-flavored tongue.  She wondered how often Scully had enjoyed his mouth before sending him home with protests about friendship and propriety, before stopping it from going any further, she wondered about the soapy starts and stops for which she had never had tolerance.  What will power, she thought, what strength, she thought as she unbuckled his belt and whipped it through the loops.

Scully stepped out of the bathroom, barefoot and bare ankled, just as Mulder’s belt thumped the carpet.  Stella looked her over, a hand resting joyfully on Mulder’s pecs, and felt her equilibrium shift like she was on the platform of a train station.  One going out, another coming in - the one coming in wearing her silk pale pink bathrobe and the smug smile of an I told you so.  Scully moved towards them and the color of the material, which was always wintery and almost white against Stella’s complexion, now picked up the heat of this welcome new climate.

The silence was sticky, the potential for awkwardness and abject failure exponentially more likely as the number of human beings in a bedroom went beyond two.  But Stella knew the procedures for situations; bedroom protocol was her specialty.  She’d kiss him first, then Scully would kiss him, then she could kiss Scully.  But she wouldn’t have to wait long to find out this pair was an exception to the rule.  As she backed away from Mulder’s beer-soaked smack, Scully simply stood still and stared, toyed a bit with her sash.  They gulped, they looked at each other and then away.  Stella realized with an almost visible start that not only had they never fucked; they had never so much as kissed.  She almost laughed.  What was stranger?  That they’d never done it or that she’d so strongly presumed?

“Sit down,” Stella told Mulder, nodding for him to take his place on an upholstered chair.  She turned to Scully, who was standing between her and the bed, staring with frank curiosity, a scientist’s demand to know the unknown in her eyes.  There was a chance that this was the only reason for her doing this, but then, it wouldn’t really matter in the end to Stella if it were.

“You’re really beautiful,” Scully said, her smooth brow knit pulled as though on a threat down the center.  The unguardedness of it caught Stella off guard, made her physically uncomfortable with impatience.  All she wanted was to step forward and tear the robe off, fuck this girl within an inch of her life.  She wanted to do it now and she’d wanted to do it earlier - take Scully into the pub bathroom, lick the unscented Dove from her shoulder, and finger her until Scully’s voice drowned out the sound of Destiny’s Child in the next room.  So why, why on earth was she still waiting…

Yet she waited.

And she waited.  Seconds, maybe minutes, but still, longer than she was used to, long enough that later, she’d wonder if that was what made the difference, or if the difference it what had caused the wait.  And then finally, Scully leaned in, offered her lips with a slight lift of the chin, and Stella snapped at it like a piece of candy.  The taste was lush with cigarettes and Scotch, some sort of just-recently-swallowed cinnamon gum.  It reminded her of the kisses she imagined other people having in their youth, the kisses she hoped Scully’s past were full of, even if they weren’t from dense, dopey Mulder.

Stella smiled around Scully’s tongue, felt the tip of it touch the roof of her mouth, tried to hide how much it tickled.  She covered the side of Scully’s warm neck with her hand, calming her carotid pulse in her palm, and kissed her harder.  The impact went from sneeze to swallow, the way suddenly their faces locked, their jaws unhinged.  Scully stopped for a breath and Stella gave her two, wanting to make sure she was still interested, or probably more likely, to revel in just how interested she was.

She glanced at Mulder:  breathing heavily, arms gripping the chair she usually used to store worn clothes.  The line of his pants went jagged where he was aroused, a promising bulge rising from an otherwise unmarred surface.

“You’re going to stay there,” Stella said.  “And do what she tells you.”  

He nodded in obedience.  He was becoming more likable by the second.

Scully tugged on her shirt, pulling the bottom up from its tucked position and Stella looked back with unabashed delight.  If she hadn’t been sure before it was Scully’s first time, she was sure now, now that it was giving her this feeling in the pit of her stomach, the rare joy of innocence ruined for the better.  She let her hand creep up the back of Scully’s scalp like the roots of a willow, and Scully suddenly went limp as leaves, forehead falling forward and sticking to Stella’s face, lips turning out for more attention.

“Can’t believe I didn’t notice it before,” Mulder whispered.  “The resemblance.”

Stella ignored him, watching Scully’s fingers make the snail-like button-crawl down her front, leaving a trail of her skin with each inching forward.  She peeled the blouse open and beheld Stella like the center of an open storybook, eyes reading her from one side to the other, bottom to top, across her belly button, her ribs, her breasts, her arms, thinking about the beginning and the end, about God-knew-what, but Stella lost her patience for it.

She grabbed the sash of the robe, pushed it altogether off Scully’s shoulders to the floor and pulled her close.  She forced herself to feel rather than see Scully’s nakedness first, wondered if Scully was as wet as she was, how exactly she would feel, what she tasted like, how she would come.  She couldn’t recall ever wondering so much about fucking while fucking and she blamed Mulder and Scully for instigating such pestering pensiveness.

Scully moved her hands on Stella’s body as though she were on a ride at an amusement park.  Waist, shoulders, collarbone, scalp, fidgeting around all the spots that promised safety safer while Stella’s mind spun her upside down.  She pushed Scully down to the bed and sucked her own fingers like a quill before drawing a line down Scully’s abdomen and finally sliding - yes, sliding, almost giddy with the implication - past her clitoris, into her body.  Scully let out a sharp series of breaths, but inside she was nothing but smooth, soaking wet welcome.

“Well,” she began carefully.  No need to embarrass Scully being too blunt about it, but she did wish to throw Mulder a bone for his fine behavior.  “That’s very flattering.”

Behind her, he uttered a wordless murmur that could have been ‘thank you.’

Stella’s finger swirled and dipped like a paintbrush, and she watched the colors come up in Scully’s skin.  Inexplicable splotches of desire across her belly, nipples and mouth turning bright red.  Her hips writhed as she exploited the pressure of Stella’s fingers and her thigh muscle tensed probably accidentally, experimentally, but Stella took hold of the opportunity, hugged it with the strength of fifty meter laps, felt her satin panties slither like water over Scully’s equally smooth skin.

“Oh,” Scully said in wonderment.

Stella poked her nose into Scully’s clavicle, kissed her collarbones, flattened her palm against the front of Scully’s pelvis.  She felt herself stiffen as Scully pulled her closer.  There was only so close she allowed herself to be pulled in any given situation.  But Scully’s voice pushed her just past that natural limit, lubricated the adjustments, slipped all around Stella, inside her, filling the bed like honey in a spoon, alternating long vowels with choruses of occluded nasal consonants.   She was as vocal as Mulder was silent.

Yes, right, Mulder.

She stilled her hand, sat back, tossed her hair over her shoulder.  Scully’s eyes went wide, her little body tapping her finger impatiently.  She looked at Stella as though worried she’d done something wrong.

“Tell him,” Stella urged.  Scully’s face rolled to the side as she looked at Mulder.  “What you want him to do.”

She leaned forward, careful to keep a distance and took Scully’s earlobe between her teeth.  The soft perfume she’d smelled in the lift lived strongest here, tucked between Scully’s hairline and face.  She slipped her tongue into Scully’s ear and produced a shiver.

“I… I want him to take his pants off, take it out,” Scully said, very quietly, just for Stella.

“Tell him, not me,” Stella said and waited a moment.

Stella regretfully withdrew her finger, prepared to wait with her wet hand on Scully’s stomach, but Scully reached down for it, put it in her mouth and Stella nearly forgot all her plans.  Fuck that, she nearly forgot her name.  She looked up, bit her lip hard enough to draw blood and backed off enough to put one foot down on the floor.  I will stop, don’t make me send you both home, she tried to convey in a less-than-authoritative push-up bra, the drenched imprint of her underwear already left on someone else’s leg.  

“Take your pants off and take your dick out,” Scully blurted.

Mulder scrambled to do as he was told.  Stella almost laughed, but she knew better than to laugh at an undressing man.  She let her gaze linger in his lap for a moment; more likable by the second indeed.  He licked his lips.

“Do you want him to jerk off?” Stella asked her.  Scully hesitated, then shook her head no.  

“Scully,” Mulder pleaded.  I am so hard, this is so fucking hot, Stella silently suggested.  Weren’t Americans supposed to be expressive, wear their emotions on their sleeve?  

Scully seemed to enjoy her torment, smirked at Stella like they were robbing a bank together, something Stella would easily have agreed to at that particular moment.  She flirted with the idea of moving her flight a day later, then earlier, then willed herself not to think of what she would do when it was done.  Most likely, when it was done, it would just be done.  This was the way it usually worked for her.

She sucked Scully’s tongue and her nipples sharpened beneath the fabric as they meet Scully’s breasts, the lace peeling away, material rolling down between skin and skin.  Scully slid herself down a bit, centering Stella’s nipple between four gentle teeth.

“Yes?” Stella said.   Scully’s hip bone was right against her clit.   “Tell me,” she clarified.

Scully didn’t obey.  Stella pushed her away, raised her voice.  “Fucking tell me what you want.”  

Scully tried to sit up and reach for her, smiling, playing a game, but Stella held her away.  Scully licked her lower lip in aggravation, looked as though she almost would give up, then looked back with a bit of petulance in her eyes.

“Fine,” she said.  “I want your tits in my mouth,” she said.   She reached for the clasp of Stella’s bra.

“Fuck.  Me,” Mulder said and Stella glanced over her shoulder at him:  oozing, straining, squirming, pitiful and promising at once.  But they all had an agreement to meet here and for now, Scully was getting exactly what she asked for: Stella’s breasts against her lips, lace of her bra occasionally snagging on the edge of her Catholic cross.  Her hands eventually gave up on the proper undoing of the hook-and-eyes and eventually resorted to moving the straps and cups down out of the way.

Scully looked up, desire lending her eyes some sort of planetary radiance and Stella tried to look away, not risk her vision for direct exposure.  Fingers ran under the lace of her panties, moved inside, she felt dizzy, the edge giving way under her heels as as she wiggled her toes and stared down the cliff.  The tendons around her labia stiffened, unsure whether to protect or invite.

“Your friend,” Stella said, rolling her hips up away from Scully’s hand.

Scully’s fingers played on Stella’s ribs, her eyes flashed at Mulder, but she said nothing to either of them.  Stella had no strength left for threats, but she had even less for the alternative.  She knew now why she hadn’t taken Scully alone into the bathroom.  There was no coming out the other side.  She needed him to be involved, needed it to be about them and not her.  Or she needed to get the fuck out of here right now.

“We don’t have to do this,” she said resignedly, resting her weight on one arm as she kissed Scully gently and brushed the hair from her face.

“She’s right,” Mulder said, his vocal cords hoarse.  Well, that was hard not to like.  The sincerity, the earnestness, the convincingness of it, even.

“No, I want to,” Scully said, and gave them each a moment of eye contact that was much harder not to like than all that.

Was there anything more dangerous or threatening than a naked young woman, beautiful and smart and pinned to a bed with nothing but a statement between her teeth?  Stella prepared herself to back away, let Mulder in, even as she felt the soft arches of Scully’s feet wrap around her waist like a tailor’s tape measure, wound her forearms into Stella’s hair, crossed them protectively against her scalp.  Their bodies felt closer than she could remember feeling to anyone in recent history.  There was that pang of guilt once again and now she wasn’t even sure on whose behalf.

“Just tell him to fuck you,” Stella said, trying not to seem exasperated, sensing and liking but not comfortable with Scully’s momentary attachment to her.  It was really just avoidance of him, and Stella knew that.  She knew because she had her own things to avoid.

“No.  You,” Scully said, her eyes hot and sharp enough to slice Stella’s resolve, leave it bleeding on the crisp duvet.  “I want you to do it.  With your hand again.”

“Let me go down on you.  Then let him fuck you.”  She was sure this was the best course of action for everyone.  Positive.

“No, I want you here with me,” Scully insisted.  There was the drama of Scully’s open face, her body flushed and damp against Stella’s from her eyes to her pussy.  Stella took it all in and felt something break inside her.  Or maybe it was being fixed.  She worried for just the shortest moment that she couldn’t tell the difference anymore.

“And I want you –“ Scully continued, finally looking at poor Mulder and his beautiful cock,  “To fuck her from behind.”

Finally, the knot in Stella’s chest loosened, soothed by the thought of fifty percent less of Scully’s attention.  She sighed, hoping the gratitude didn’t sound too much like relief, and put two fingers back inside Scully.  Mulder stepped up behind her, unscrolling a condom over himself and placing his hands to the sides of her panties.  He pulled them down and Scully pulled her closer, blocking the way off with the clutch of their thighs.  He tore the seam of the crotch almost tenderly, and the sound was like that of a slow-cracking back.

“Sorry,” he said just as Scully scolded, “Mulder.”

“Mm, it’s okay,” Stella said.  It was the most okay thing he’d done all day.

His hands stroked her lightly, just enough to make her mouth sloppy against Scully’s.  Up and down, one hand on her ass, a finger inside, testing her or himself, she wasn’t sure.

“Is that it?” she said and within five seconds his dick was inside her.

“More like it,” she said on bated breath.    

His breath was on her neck, one finger impressively locating her clitoris as he fucked her, still a bit elegantly for her taste, though the sensation of him inside her with Scully’s tongue in her mouth was enough to compensate for any other personal preferences.

“How is he doing?” Scully asked her quickly between kisses.

“Good, very good,” Stella said, running her free hand over Scully’s body.  “He’s very hard,” she reported, trying not to sound too persuasive, lest Scully change a single aspect of their configuration.

“You have very nice hands,” she said as Scully squeezed her breast, brushed her neck, thumbed her lip.  She circled Scully’s G-spot with her pointer finger.

“Oh God,” Scully moaned softly and Mulder squeezed Stella’s hips a little harder.

“Scully,” Mulder said, his voice strained.  Scully looked over Stella’s shoulder, eyes panicked, chest heaving.  

“Mulder.”

And they breathed as though speaking but no words left their lips.  It was electric, intimate and full of limitations, and the fact that all of it had everything and nothing to do with Stella made her wetter, made her draw Mulder even deeper into her body.  She closed her eyes, high on the moment of being both needed and unnecessary.  She closed her eyes and subtly jogged Mulder’s dick like a needle full of drugs, the only one of the three of them moving at all.

“Will you please tell him to fuck me like he means it?”

But that didn’t need saying a second time, and Stella got what she’d asked for.  He drove himself into her hard, pushing her body up against Scully’s with each thrust.  There.  Stella clutched Scully’s pussy like the edge of a drawer, her two middle fingers inside her tugging her forward.  There.

And then Scully began to come, her eyes locked with Mulder’s, then Stella’s, then closed.  The word fuck on her lips and a frog in her throat.  Mulder put his lean, sinewy weight into every push, fucking her so hard she wondered if Scully, breathing deeply beneath her, could feel him poking out the other side.  She held her breath as he bucked against her, groaned with his lips pressed to the back of her head.  Scully twitched and came around her, smooth liquid sliding down into the palm of her hand.  Their timing was impeccable, and yet, a gift offered to her more than each other, given the circumstances.

Scully put a hand over her face and Stella worried she was embarrassed.  She kissed her cheek to reassure her, trying not writhe or breathe too deeply, trying not to let on how close she’d been herself.  Mulder slid out of her, rolled heavily to the side, exhausted and curled up like a spent Greek god on Mount Olympus, staring at them both druggily.  But Scully wouldn’t let go, held tight to Stella with her hands, muting the aftershocks of her orgasm against Stella’s thigh.  

“In a minute…” Scully said breathily.

“No, don’t be silly,” she answered.  She already had plans for herself in the shower.  But at the refusal, Scully scrambled to gather her wits about her and sit up.  Her eyes were feral, her breasts perfect and round, nipples stiff against Stella’s skin as she slid down off the bed.  Stella tugged at her arm, trying like mad to prevent the one thing she really wanted.  Scully yelped.  

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Stella said, but Scully reached under knee, picked up the actual offending item - a funny little Elvis figurine.  She looked at Mulder for an explanation.

“Oh… when I took out the… it must’ve…” he stammered.  Stella had no idea what he was getting at.  But Scully seemed to share some basic understanding, and she placed Elvis gingerly on the nightstand, stared at it.  Stella sat up, leaned over to kiss Scully’s head, muss her hair as she walked past her to the bathroom.  

“Come, get up, go to bed,” she instructed.

She locked the bathroom door without ever looking back, had hot shower hitting her back within minutes, her hand between her legs and the steam in her pores.  She thought of Scully’s hair wrapped around her fingers, thick and violent as blood under her nails and a wave curled up through her torso, then crashed, clapped powerfully in her forehead as she leaned against the glass shower door.  The last thing she imagined was coming extravagantly into Scully’s perfect little red American mouth.  She sighed as a foamy sizzle finally swept her back out to sea.  She was safe.  She was on land.

She half-wondered if they’d still be fucking when she re-entered the bedroom, but such worry - or hope - was for nought.  As she tread forward,  half dry, fully satisfied, a towel wrapped up under her armpit, she saw that they were both sleeping, a human-sized space between their bodies left for her on the mattress.  Scully was on her stomach, Mulder curled on his side.

Careful not to wake them, she held her towel and climbed in, and then gingerly laying a hand over the ourobouros painted inches above Scully’s ass, running a light finger in the direction of the tail, then resting as it disappeared into the mouth.  She wondered if this was Scully’s first time since that night, if the significance of that was what had lent the experience such power.  She was completely oblivious to the fact that even if that were true for them, there would be no reason why it should have any power over her.

Chapter Text

 

Mulder was accustomed to waking up in hotel beds he didn’t recognize, that familiar process of needing a moment to remember where he was.  Peoria and New York, Tampa Bay and South Bend, just outside Boston, just outside Seattle, Springfields of every variety - it had happened to him countless times in countless places.  But no work trip motel morning had ever been so disorienting as Stella’s that Wednesday, just minutes from home in the moments before sunrise. 

Consciousness came slow, the events flashing wobbly and rough-edged, still photographs of a moving storm; a long strand of hair caught like seaweed, sticky and swirled between his fingers, too fine to distinguish its color - the desperately eager collision of pale limbs - two voices combed like sea glass into one piece of moving shore under his feet - and four surging eyes, certain and blue as high tide.  How on earth had he found himself caught in it?


An ache barrelled up his neck broke at his temples, a hangover or a crick from the too-soft pillows, or something else altogether.  He had been to bed with two beautiful women, one of whom he loved in at least the most basic sense of the word.  Any man would be celebrating, skipping out of bed with a smirk on his face.  But here Mulder was sweating, pulse racing, stomach turning, afraid to open his eyes.

He moved his foot and found the spot where the sheets were still briny, tempest-tossed and considered getting up to pee.  He stared at the wall until he heard something, the weight of two improbably small bodies shifting on carpet, and turned his head.  Some wreckage was too difficult to resist studying.

And yes, it was beautiful, impossibly beautiful, the eerie glow of an aftermath, the ripple of electricity left behind in the air.  They were there, living proof of what he’d up ‘til this moment suspected he’d dreamt or hallucinated.  Here was Scully, fingers propped on the glass, naked-facing to the setting moon like Artemis, and also Stella, bright as a star, goddess of expensive shirts, pressing into Scully’s back with the urgency of a secret.  

Under Stella’s equal weight, Scully fell – no, willingly sank – to the window until her nose and nipples met the pane of glass.  He watched, his dick half-hard but subdued by respect and loneliness.  With a yawning stretch, Scully wound her neck back around Stella’s like one of those trees with multiple-stranded trunks.  Her face tipped in ecstasy so that he might enter her field of vision and he closed his eyes.  Greek mythology wasn’t really one of his things, but he remembered enough to know that mortal men rarely fared well in stories about goddesses.  He forgot about his urge to pee, drifted off again out of self-preservation.

When he came-to again, the magic had evaporated and it was that same old claustrophobic hotel room feeling he’d had all over the country (though, to be fair, this was much nicer than the ones he was used to.) A white hot shock of sun falling through the drapes, a plastic Elvis figurine on the nightstand, the early morning bake of the rectangular room about as subtle and mythical as the Las Vegas strip.  Stella was gone, there was only Scully beside him, heat coming off her like a piece of just-baked terracotta.  

There had been other occasions of their sharing a bed, all of which seemed to demonstrate the universe’s comic timing.  Sorry, no more beds.  Sorry, budget cuts.  Sorry some terrible thing just happened in her room or his and with very little to-do, they’d give up modesty for convenience.  It was not a big deal.  And in some ways, this was the same as it ever had been.  Scully sleeping as efficiently as if it were one of the things on her to-do list, while he pushed away the covers and wondered what to do with himself.

But instead of a neat, ginger lump of tucked linens he was used to (generally including the neatest of pajamas), Scully here was a mess of pillow-teased hair and smeared eye makeup with a sheet wound and twisted between her limbs, around her naked body, tucked up under her armpits and grasped loosely in her hands.  Her breath was slow and soft, the ghost of a twister having tore through her lungs and then out of town.

She stirred beneath his gaze and her inner thigh appeared, barely distinguishable in hue from the ivory sheet.  He remembered the way she’d spoken to him last night from this very bed.  The voice he’d been hearing for five years, the voice of reason and sanity and skepticism, telling him to take his clothes off for no good reason at all.

Take your pants off and take your dick out.

Her face twitched and he realized how hard he was breathing, each of his exhales fluttering her eyelashes.  Her hip turned upward and seemed to beckon his hand – harder, faster – and for a split second he was even tempted to reach for it.  He thought of waking her with an embrace, but the very feelings that made him want to do it also stopped him.  The fear of losing her was too great.  He envied Stella and even Ed Jerse.  They’d had the luxury of being able to risk.

If only she would wake up.   Well, wait, what if she did wake up?  As of two days ago, he couldn’t manage seeing her hands in a filing cabinet.  Now she was naked.  She’d be laying there telling him it was nothing, clearing her throat and neatly packing up any residual awkwardness with a tidy bend of her hair behind her ear.  It would be unbearable.  He needed time to process this, to be ready for her.

He made his way out of the bed and into his clothes, soft-pawed and light-limbed as a cat, swung his tie around his neck as he plunged his feet into his shoes and looked at a handwritten message on the table.  See you at the office.  Borrow some clothes if you like.  Somehow, he figured that note wasn’t for him.



*



Things didn’t get any easier as the day went on.

At nine in the morning, Scully entered the office, prompt as usual, but wearing a silk shirt and a leather skirt with a slit up the front.  Mulder shuffled his gaze around the desk, where suddenly many familiar little items seemed foreign.  She took her seat, mumbling good mornings and crossing legs, seemingly oblivious to his nervousness, or to what had happened, or to anything one could rationally have expected.  

“Well,” she said with a sigh, the expression of someone who had already exhausted many options, though none had been aired aloud by either of them.  “Should we talk about it?”

He looked up, sure to make immediate eye contact, and yet still somehow noticed the way the lace of her bra brushed the silk of Stella’s shirt.

“I don’t know.  You’re the one who’s been giving orders lately.” 

Why had that come out sounding mean?  How could he manage to come off anything but ungrateful today?  But Scully took it in stride, pursed her lips into a grin, chin tucked, and glared humor and defiance alike with those crayon-blue eyes.  He felt his own glaze over waxily as he got lost in the depth of pigment.

“It doesn’t have to change anything,” she said.

“No, it doesn’t.”  It could, he wanted to say, if we want it to.  

“Because, you know, actually, we…” she stirred the air between the two of them and he knew she was about something that would absolutely drive him crazy, “didn’t… do anything.”  

An epic outing in compartmentalism, even for Dana Scully.

“Scully, you’re acting like this isn’t a big deal.”

“I don’t know, Mulder, is it?”  Her voice had become slightly tweaked, exasperated, as if they were both playing out of their leagues, in over their heads, and a hundred other expressions.

“I’m guessing you don’t go to bed with women all the time,” he said.  

“I’m guessing neither do you.”

Couldn’t help but laugh at that and she chuckled too, the morning’s anxiety turned to a simmer after a period of lid-scuttling boil.

“Fair enough,” he sighed. “So, what?  We get back to work?”

“I think so,” she said in the tone of a convincing why not?  She stood up, came around, and reached over him, picked up a manila interoffice mail envelope.  The smell of her dragged his memory of their morning in bed across his desk.  

She unwound the little red string from the silver clasp and he became distracted by the steady sway of silk on her arm, the way the buttons pulled when she reached forward.  She caught his eye as she turned back to face him and placed a hand on her hip.  He could see already this wasn’t going to work out.

“I’m only wearing them because they’re clean,” she said.  “Get it out of your system.”

He stood dumbfounded and wondered what she expected him to say.  Probably something honest but appropriate, complimentary but not aggressive…  He was fucked any which way and he wished she would acknowledge it.  

She stuck her chin out. “Well, does it look okay or not?”

“Yes,” he confirmed, trying not to let the nervous titter escape his lips as it hiccuped in his throat.  “Yeah, Scully, it looks okay.”

“Fine.”  

But as she returned to her filing, he saw that the zipper of the skirt was misaligned, off to the side.

“Actually–”

“I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” she said into the drawer as her fingertips chirped along the edges of files.  He looked at her slender, strong fingers.  Two days ago he’d watched them do the same thing, but it felt different now, after what else he’d seen.

“It’s not about–your–”

“The sooner we move on–”

Enough already.  In one step forward, he had three fingertips on the waistline of her skirt.

“Mulder.”  It was a gasp and a reproach, but she did wait as he spun the skirt round, silk catching and sticking to the fabric waistline.

“Oh,” she said in relief, and straightened the pearly buttons of the shirt.  “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” he said and pocketed his hands, leaned his butt against the desk.  Her legs were absent the pantyhose he’d seen her pick up in little packages he’d seen her grab at Rite Aid and CVS’s and mom-and-pop convenience shops, the ones she got after following him through a nasty bramble of woods, or when they stayed longer in a place than she’d expected.  Even if Stella hadn’t had a clean pair to lend – he guessed this said something about a woman, though he had no idea what – Scully normally would have gone somewhere to get some.

He didn’t know where to look.  Nothing in the room was safe.  He focused on the scuffed tips of his shoes.  His fingers pinched the stitching of his pockets to fumble with tiny balls of lint.  He suddenly remembered the Elvis ring holder he’d been carrying around in his coat for months.   At one time, it was meant to be Scully’s and then had become his.  Now it would belong to the housekeeper at Stella’s hotel.  Just as well.  Things could only be kept without being enjoyed for so long and seem fair.

Almost three hours passed like this.  Bodies sitting and standing, drawers opening and closing.  It was like they were practicing for how it would be now, how they would learn to get through a day, now that there was a new status quo.  A dress rehearsal for the rest of his life, except only one of them was in costume.  

It was almost a relief to hear Stella’s unmistakable heels clicking toward their door.  She started this; let her make it better.

“Hello,” she said in a fitted black sweater and a pair of slacks.  Mulder wondered if she’d done some calculating in choosing it, purposefully left the sexier outfit for Scully to borrow.  It seemed manipulative of her or paranoid of him or maybe somewhere in between.  But if Stella had had some hidden agenda to see Scully in a leather skirt, she gave no indication of that now, managed a once-over without a single ounce of the awkwardness he’d been managing all morning.

“Good,” she said.  “Glad you found something.”

She was proud of herself, he could tell, and why shouldn’t she be?  She had gotten Agent Dana Scully into a leather fucking skirt.  Into bed, for that matter.

“Yeah, thanks,” Scully said.   

A morning-after clouded in dull basement light, diffused by the presence of a third party, who in this case, was the only reason there was a party at all.  Mulder sat up straighter, as if trying to make himself more present, more permanent, more - yes - the man.


“Did you need something?” he asked Stella.

“No, just wondering if you wanted to get some lunch.”  She looked from him to Scully.  The trick that had worked so well outside the bar the other night.  “Either of you.”

“We don’t usually go out to lunch,” Scully said by way of apology.  Mulder felt suddenly and irrationally defensive.  Why was she apologizing for the way things were before?  Hadn’t they always been fine without lunch?

“Okay,” Stella said, upper body already retreating back down the hall though her feet had not yet moved.

“But we’re not busy today,” Scully said and Stella smiled.  “Are we, Mulder?”

“No.  Not really.  No.”  

Yes.  Yes, he was very busy.  He should have said that.

“Lunch.  Sounds good,” Scully concluded as she got out of her seat, a slight wiggle in her hips as she rippled the skirt straight again.  “Come on, Mulder.”

He’d always found it oppressive when Scully was cheerful.   

“You two go.”  

“All right,” Stella said, not even trying to convince him, not even pretending to!

“Going to use the restroom first,” Scully said.  Mulder fingered a pencil, brought it to his nose to smell his hand-sweat sunk into the divots of ancient tooth marks.  He tried not to look at Stella, who was now leaning on the doorjamb, getting her perfume all over the place.  He tried not to think of her as his nemesis; bad form.  The list of women who’d had sex with him in recent  years was a very short one.

“Don’t worry.  I’ll protect her,” she said suddenly.  

He detected a hint of cruel sarcasm, but when he looked at her, he saw that she really meant well, was just trying to lighten the mood.  Light may not have been her forte, but at least she was trying.

“Good, or you’ll owe me a new partner, Detective Gibson.”  There, manly, possessive.

“You owe me a pair of panties, Agent Mulder.”

Only one of them turned red.  

He wondered what time she’d gotten up to beat them both to the punch.  Stella, he could tell, was an insomniac like he was – machines built to subsist on fumes, vessels for passion for whom sleep was incidental.  Scully was the only one who’d gotten any real rest, she was the only one humble enough to know she needed it.

Stella switched gears, tone of voice taking on the timbre of professionalism, but her expression continued to taunt with merciless suggestiveness:  Are you forgetting we fucked last night?  Are you forgetting I was there?

“You know, something interesting I read this morning…” she began.

Mulder thought he might scream if she started talking to him about the news.  There was only so much redirection from only so many women he could handle in one day. But no, she stepped forward to the desk, and hardly looking at all, flipped open a folder on the desk.  The night-jasmine of her perfume was heavy, personal and intimate now, a smell he’d tasted and held, when only yesterday it had seemed exotic, a brand of unattainable he’d never even been aware enough of to be interested in.

“I’ve been reading about ergot poisoning. There are some factors this report doesn’t mention.  The poison can remain in the blood for longer periods of time than we discussed.  Latent ergotism is different than active ergotism.”  

Mulder felt his stomach turn a little.  He did not begrudge Scully whatever amount of closure about Ed Jerse she may have reached through their visit, but he himself hadn’t gotten a bit.  He maybe never would.  If he never spoke about about the guy again, it would be too soon.  He sighed, hoping to convey as much.  But she looked at him as though she had no intention of abandoning the topic.

“What are you saying?” he asked.

“There’s a chance it can affect one’s behavior more subtly for a longer period of time.”

“Are you talking about Scully?”   

It had, of course, crossed his mind in the first place, way back when, that the ink had affected her as well, that she’d fallen under some similar spell.  But he’d pushed that quickly from mind when he’d seen how keen and focused she was in the aftermath.  Besides, the whole cancer thing came around too quickly to dwell.  There were some ideas even he knew were too crazy to share, but if Stella was saying she believed…

“Possibly, but not necessarily.”

Mulder stared, trying to melt her vagueness away with the heat of his irritation.  

“Not necessarily?  So you just looked it up for no reason.  Sheer curiosity.  You ever hear that saying, curiosity killed the cat?”

Stella flipped the folder shut, quietly rearranged her posture.   

“Curiosity,” she said with a lazy, aristocratic vowel, “is what makes you follow a stranger into her hotel room.”   

She reclaimed her place in the doorway, as if to erase the whole interaction.  Scully appeared behind her.

“Ready,” she said. “You sure, Mulder?”  

He shook his head – a muddle of yes and no that he knew Scully could translate well enough to know he was unhappy.

He watched for only a second as they turned to walk down the hallway, just long enough to spot Stella’s hand briefly on the small of Scully’s back.  The smallest of gestures, but it was enough.  Because it was a gesture that belonged to him.



*



He was playing a game of line up the pencils, one of his favorite time killers, when the phone rang.  It was shortly after noon and Stella and Scully were still on their little lunch break.  His stomach was growling, but he refused to order in.  He was determined to protect the purity of his pouting.  He wanted them to find him this way, martyred and starving, maybe even passed out.  Ah, yes, passed out.

The call was from the prison facility they’d visited yesterday, the one housing his favorite psychopath.   

“This is a call about Ed Jerse,” the administrator said and he put his head in his hands.

“Yes?”

“Mr. Jerse tried to slice a chunk of his arm off last night with a plastic knife.  Following your visit with the other detectives.  He’s in the hospital now.”

Mulder looked up, looked around, waited.

“Okay…”

“We thought you’d want to know,” she said.  “Take care.”

Mulder hung up the phone and twisted his lip between his fingers.  She had to have told them to call when anything significant happened regarding Jerse.  It was the only explanation.  He wondered how long ago this arrangement had been made, how many calls she’d taken without telling him.

Mulder swung on his coat with the fresh energy of a curious development, and packed his pockets with his wallet and the folded papers he needed to find his way down there.  Ed had maintained that his good behavior was not due to meds, but due to lack of triggers, and about at least this much, he seemed to have a point.  

He drove toward Philadelphia with a kick in his step.  He’d had a brief foray into soap opera but now his real life was returning.  Investigating things no one had asked him to look into, a maverick running rogue, unhindered by reasonable colleagues.  It was almost enough to make him grateful for Ed Jerse.  After all, at the end of these beat-up highways was a man currently feeling more jealous about Scully than he was.

The waiting room was stuffy and sterile, the faces of passing people curtained in their personal losses, their burdens of sorrow swirling and settling in the life-vest colored bucket seats.  Here was the wreckage of a different kind of storm, sadder and more solitary than the one he’d pictured this morning.  The kind he was comfortable with.

Propped up in his hospital bed, Ed Jerse’s presence bore neither the malice nor charm of yesterday’s hulking slouch.  Here, he was like everyone else – pathetic and wounded, arm bandaged, blood seeping in gory dots, his face too weak from crying to react to Mulder’s appearance.  Mulder’s hatred went out the window; he had to remind himself what Ed had done to Scully just to keep himself from running out for flowers and a crossword puzzle.

He pulled a chair up to the bed.  Ed closed his eyes as if coping with some radiating pain, and perhaps he was, or perhaps it was the trauma of seeing someone he associated with his most recent outburst.  Mulder produced a bag of sunflower seeds from his pocket, tore the package open, placed one shell between his teeth and the bag in his lap.  He let the seed sit on his tongue, burning off any tastebuds within reach before he cracked it open.  Finally, Ed looked at him almost as if he’d been expecting him.

“I’m just glad no one else was there,” Ed said.  “That they weren’t still there.”

“You mean Agent Scully and Detective Gibson?”  

Ed nodded.  Mulder was glad of it too.  If Ed had hurt Scully again, two of them would have been going to solitary confinement.

“It was the worst time ever.  She was so jealous – Betty, I mean.  Furious.”

“What’s it like when she gets like that?”  Mulder asked calmly.  Yesterday’s emotional blocks to his professionalism were gone.  He wondered if that was because Ed was now hurt or because Scully wasn’t there to stoke his machismo.

“She screams at me, says horrible things about me, about them.  And I want her to stop, I want it all to stop.  I want to be alone.  She’s insulted by that because it means I don’t want to be with her.  It’s a rejection.”

Mulder nodded along.

“I feel this pit in my stomach.”

Mulder sat back in his chair, spat a shell into his palm.

“Like she’s burning me from the inside, like she’s eating me whole.”

“Stomach acid,” Mulder offered weakly.  He’d had a similar problem all day until the warden had called with this reprieve.  The resemblance between himself and this monster unsettled him.  He reached for a question he hoped would provide distinction.

“How is that different from when it’s your own jealousy?”

Ed’s brow knotted and his mouth snarled.

“What do you mean?”

Mulder took Ed’s chart from the table where he’d placed it and tossed it onto Ed’s wide chest.

“There’s no more ergot in your blood.   You’re clean.”

“I don’t – I don’t understand –“

“Your tattoo’s not having any more jealous rages, Ed.  You are.”

Ed closed his eyes and shook his head.

“You know what I think?  I think you always were,” Mulder added and stared hard into Ed’s tunneled-out eyes, ringed with layers of insanity, the promise of the real Ed somewhere deep behind the pupils.  Here was where Scully must have gotten lost on their date.  Mulder wished he could go in somehow, enter Ed’s brain, wrench her from memory if not his past.

“Do you really believe that?” Ed asked.  Mulder’s eyes twitched about.  Just this morning he’d been told it was possible the poison could linger, but now…  “I need to know for sure.”

And now Mulder knew why he was really here.  

“So do I,” he said and made his way to the door without a goodbye.

“Agent Mulder.  Will she come see me again?”

Mulder paused as he grabbed the door handle, then swung it out without answering.  No telling what she would do these days.



*



It was around eight o’clock by the time Mulder arrived at the tattoo parlor where Scully had first met her would-be attempted murderer.  He’d eliminated a few others along the way, not having brought the casefile with him, and while they all were pretty depressing, this one was by far the worst.  Dusty and mildewed, the most generic of signage and flash sheets.

He waited while a young woman with black hair drew a pirate ship on a young guy’s chest.  The door opened and shut behind him, the sound of someone losing their nerve.  It was noisy, a lot of buzzing, and a waft of alcohol that Mulder knew should be reassuring but was not.  He spun on the flat of his heel, chewing his lip to fight the lightheadedness as the tattoo artist dabbed at the man’s bloody chest.  

There was a dive bar across the street and he wondered whether he should kill some time there while the artist finished up.  She was clearly not going to talk to him until then.  He wasn’t even sure she’d be able to answer his questions; he remembered from the file that it was a man who’d done Ed and Scully.  The Russian prison guy.   

So he muttered a peremptory goodbye no one noticed and sauntered out across the street, ordered up a drink before he could change his mind about staying – whiskey, because he saw someone else order it.  He rarely drank, and this whiskey meant that already on Wednesday, it was the most he’d had in a week since college.  He felt funny at the bar, too tall for the stool, and settled instead into a curved booth.  It was a seedy place – all cracked-seats and dim lights.  Poor choices and unfortunate circumstances stuffed into the veins of cushions.  In the air hung a beer-battered mustiness, the midnight tang of shared sin.   

There was something sexy about it.

This was a judgment he immediately regretted.  Now he could see Scully here, in a half-moon of cherry red vinyl, her little feet brushing her date’s shins under the table.  She had made the whole thing seem as antiseptic as she could when she described it in the car on the way up to the psych facility.  It was hard to know now whether that had been a professional courtesy or a personal one, but it had certainly been false.  He could see the truth now.  The slow, sexy smile.  The frank eye contact.  Her body loose and confident, hands impatient with pleasure.  He hated it.

He glanced over into the haze of pool tables, pictured her bent over the edge while Ed watched, golf-course green felt picking up the turquoise in her eyes as she leveled them with the cloudy cue ball.  Her shirt would hang forward, breasts pressing into the surface.  She’d squint one eye to aim, same as she did when she shot a gun, and then slipping the tip of a pool stick through the tunnel of her fingers, she’d smile, make contact…

Before Mulder knew it, he’d downed two more glasses of whiskey and was sitting in a tattoo parlor chair.



*



“I don’t usually do anyone who’s been drinking,” Karen said, though she seemed to Mulder too young to even have a ‘usually.’  

He cocked his head forty five degrees to read a vertical sentence down her neck and sternum.  She lifted his chin to study him - warm, brown eyes.  “And you have clearly been drinking.”

“Your red ink.”

“Yeah?”

“The guy who did my friend told her he mixes it with rye.  They still do that?”

“You a cop?”

“No.”  Even drunk he knew when it was appropriate to lie to this question.

“We got shut down for a while, health inspectors came in.  They cleared us.  My boss, he insists there’s no way the amount of rye he uses in the ink could poison someone. He says it would be impossible.  And he likes the way it looks.”

“So he started mixing it his way again?”  

She nodded.

“He says Philly cops have enough to worry about.”

Mulder detected the slightest hint of a Russian accent.  

“He - your husband?  Boyfriend?”

“Father.”

“Your father lets you get all those tattoos.”

He’d meant it as a joke but immediately regretted it.

“My father doesn’t let me do anything.  I’m a grown woman.”  

He studied her harder and realized she was older than he’d thought.  He’d assumed twenty, twenty-one, but he realized now he’d made the assumption based on the ink, the impression of angst and rage, the immaturity he attached to it.  He almost laughed to think that someone someday might catch sight of Scully’s back and draw the same false conclusions.

She was probably twenty-eight.  Pretty, a full face and a soft body blanketed in images.  His favorite that he’d noticed so far was a message in a bottle tattoo on the cleavage of one breast.  

“I know what you’re asking me,” she said slyly.

“You do?”

“You want to find out if red ink makes you crazy.”  He nodded once.  “There’s only one way to know for sure.”

Mulder was silent.  He hadn’t come for a tattoo.  He had never wanted one in his whole life.  But this woman was right – it was the only way he’d ever really know whether the ink had changed Jerse, changed Scully for that matter.  

“You’re right.”

“What do you want and where do you want it?”

“Somewhere no one will see.”

“No one?”  

She smiled a slow smile with two chipped teeth.  

“You know, in typical circumstances.”

She reached behind his ear and scratched him like a puppy.

“More hidden.”

She touched his belt, right at his hipbone and he stretched to sit up.  That seemed good enough.  Even in a swimsuit, that was covered.  Only someone who saw him naked would see it.  And random ménage-a-colleagues aside, that was not very often.

“Okay.”   

Her hand was still there.

“What do you want it to be?” she asked, tugging his shirt from his pants and handing it to him to hold.

“I don’t care.  Not about that.”

“Stand up.”  He did as told and she unbuckled his belt, unbuttoned his fly, tugged one side of his waistband down to expose his hipbone. She brushed it with her thumb and then an alcohol pad.  He could feel her breath tingle as it met the wet, prepared skin. She glanced up briefly and Mulder realized she liked him.  This was quite a week he was having.

“You come here because of a girl?”

“You could say that.”

“What’s her name?”  

He found it difficult to say, then chided himself.  He’d said it hundreds of times a week since he met her.

“Scully.”

“Cute.”  

Mulder heard the needle begin to buzz and shut his eyes.  Karen’s free palm was gripping his thigh for purchase.

“This is gonna hurt, partner,” she said.  “But probably not as much as whatever brought you here.”

The sensation was not what he expected: painful but not like a needle, more like a rug burn or end of a cigarette.  Didn’t seem to go inside him so much as skim the surface.  His eyes squeezed sight away but all his other senses raged.  There was a rich, fertile scent of ink in his nostrils, the firm press of Karen’s thumb as she periodically dabbed and buzzed, dabbed and buzzed.  

He was trying to remember other circumstances he’d ever been touched there, doctors’ offices, basketball buddies, wondering if he’d ever been kissed in that spot when the needle began to trace the bone itself.   He almost jumped through the roof, muscles tightening and bracing as he felt the pain into the deep seat of his skeleton.  Layers of his own body he’d never even been aware of were revealed to him.

He tried to picture Scully here.  Seated probably, back turned to the artist, shirt up under her elbows.  He wondered where the artist had put his hand to hold her steady.  Her pointy little shoulder, her hip, her waist.  Even that guy would have touched her places Mulder had not yet been allowed.

Scully would not have had to close her eyes, not even if she could have seen him working.  She would have faced it stone-faced or perhaps even smiling.  She would have looked for the blood, enjoyed the sight of it, even.  It was rare that she got to see it without it being attached to some human being hurt or killed.

“There’s a pleasure in this for some people, isn’t there?” he asked.  He’d mumbled but she’d heard him anyway, almost as if she’d been expecting the question, and raised her voice above the din.

“I wouldn’t have forty of them for no reason.”

“So what is it?”

“I dunno.  The sensuality of it.  The heightened awareness.”  Okay, he could see all that.  “And there’s the idea of taking control of your body, your life.  That turns a lot of people on.  Women, especially.”  

Looking back over the past few months he could see it so clearly that he wanted to bang his head against a wall.  She’d been sick and told no one.  She’d had tumors taking up space in her brain, determining the quality and length of her life while every day Mulder determined what they would do, who they would question, what they would solve.

This, of course, was why she didn’t regret the tattoo.  It didn’t remind her of Ed.  It didn’t remind her of anyone.  It reminded her of herself.

“Some people even kinda get off,” Karen said and Mulder opened his eyes.

“What?”

“It’s happened.”  

He knew she was flirting with him, trying to get a rise out of him.  But all he could think of was Scully.  Two days ago, he couldn’t picture her doing any of these things – having an orgasm, getting a tattoo, much less both at the same time.  Ed had been here with her.  Mulder realized that things were probably well under way between them before she even agreed to go home with him.  This was no deer in the headlights during a nightcap situation.  This was Scully driving, making it happen.

He felt the acid churn in his stomach again, this time mingling with whiskey, and feared he’d throw up into Karen’s lovely pelt of black hair.  He reflexively placed his hand on her shoulder and she looked up.  The needle stopped buzzing.

“I’m okay, I’m okay. Finish it.”

“It’s done.”

She handed him a mirror, angled it at his hip.

A gothic font, red and black.  The letter S.  He chortled.  It was all so ridiculous.  Karen led him through the final steps – taking his money, cleaning him up and redressing him.  At the end of it all, she pressed a card into his hand with a post-it attached – her home phone number, he assumed.

“Thank you,” he said with a smile, not knowing what else to say.  I don’t want anyone but the person I can’t have?  I recently had a threesome that has my head all fucked up?  I’m in the middle of an experiment to see if I can lose my mind but maybe some other time?

As soon as the crisp night air hit his face, he knew he was too drunk to drive.  He decided to walk it off, pulled his coat up around his neck, proudly flicking the collar in recognition of his own courage.  The hotel they always stayed in Philadelphia was only a mile or so from here, though the gradual gentrifying block to block made it seem longer.

Somewhere along the way, he got hungry, began to take note of his options, looking for pizza or cheesesteaks, something simple he could eat at a counter without bending a crease into his newly scarred skin.  He wondered if everyone babied a new tattoo this way and somehow doubted it.  Scully, after all, had gone to bed with someone just hours later.

He closed his eyes, trying to block it out, finding it more difficult each time it came up.  

Romance teemed in the rain, couples drawn out like worms by its descent.  Sharing umbrellas and holding hands, parting the drops like a psychic’s beaded curtains, nuzzling one another on front steps.  He scowled, looked away, handed a homeless guy a few bucks.

And then, he stopped cold, his shoes stuck, concrete hardening around them.  It was happening, the ergot had kicked in and he was hallucinating.  Scully was there, walking down the street, laughter playing on her lips and Stella’s arm tangled with hers.  Impossible.

His blood boiled hot in his veins, tattoo beginning to itch beneath its Saran Wrap covering.  He pulled at the plastic and yanked it from beneath his pants, putting his hand between the ink and the waist of his trousers, as if to see if the ink would smear, as if to take its pulse, as if daring it to drive him fully mad.

But he heard no disembodied voices, felt the presence of no imaginary person.  Just his own, loud and clear: she’ll never be yours.  She’ll never be yours.  She’ll never be yours.  He didn’t know whether the ergot had gotten into his blood, just that Scully had.  And he had never felt more capable of doing unthinkable things. 

Chapter Text

Stella posted her plastic fork and knife on either side of her Wimbledon green pile of food and watched Scully try to roll the sleeves of her shirt.  This gripping match of Woman versus Silk Blouse played out across the table with equal measures grace and grunting, easily stealing attention from the sad salad that awaited Stella’s attention below.  Scully didn’t notice her smiling, was too busy herself frowning at her cuffs, fighting the unconquerable forces of fabric-slip and gravity.  

She wished she could tell Scully not to worry about it, that an oil and vinegar stain on her ivory silk blend wouldn’t matter, but that would have been disingenuous.  She didn’t tend to share things, especially clothes, was normally a little territorial about the idea of it, even.  There was little in the world she bothered to call hers.  The things which she did, she didn’t like to loan out and later wonder at their absence.

Scully poured the salad dressing into her bowl, replaced the lid and then shook it.  The entire restaurant - if one could even call it that - seemed to be made of plastic.  

“Spreads the dressing evenly,” Scully said.

“Clever.”  

“What?”

“I said, clever.”

“Oh sorry.  It’s a little loud.”  

So she’d noticed.  

“I don’t really know a lot of places around here,” Scully apologized.  “This is where I come when I have the time.  When Mulder’s not monopolizing my time.

“It’s…” Fine, she considered saying, lovely even, who cared what she said about it?  But she couldn’t bring herself to lie to this near-stranger, even about such trivial matters.   “Efficient, anyway.”

“Dried cranberries.  Wise choice,” Scully said.

The menu had read more like a grocery list posted above like an oversized note on someone’s refrigerator door.  You could say aloud what you wanted, or alternatively, point at the items themselves, which were displayed in rectangles behind glass.  You were responsible for choosing and pairing everything from the type of leaf down to the spiced pumpkin seeds, and for saying each thing twice if you expected to get it right.  Stella had gone directly to the small refrigerated section by the register, full mostly with sugar-loaded “health” drinks, and chosen a Caesar out of the pre-made standards stacked beside some yogurt and gritty-looking rice puddings.

“I find menus here overwrought,” she said now, stabbing some milky-wet leaves.

“We like to keep our options open.”

Scully looked around stealthily, as though for offstage guidance, as though she didn’t quite know what was expected of a colleague at lunch.  Stella was no regular at the school cafeteria either, but this was ridiculous.

“Tell me, what did you think of Jerse’s statements yesterday?” she prompted.  “Things got rather heated…”

Scully began to chew slower and swallow harder and Stella thought she saw a little color in her cheeks.  That’s not the heat I meant, she almost said, but she didn’t want to make Scully more uncomfortable than she already seemed to be.  Stella had actually practically forgotten that part.

“Which statements?” Scully asked finally.

“Mulder seems not to believe the ergot poisoning had anything to do with it.  He suggests Jerse is a common psychopath.”

“Mhm.”  

Without Revlon’s help, her mouth was close in hue to the dried fruit on her fork.  Stella glanced at the crumbled napkin beside Scully’s right hand, rusty red lipstick smacked preemptively onto it like a kiss on an envelope.   She was taking an awfully long time to chew the tiniest cube of grilled chicken.

“You don’t think it really matters, is my sense.”

“I don’t.  Either way, they were hallucinations.”

“Except one way, you were also exposed to the mechanism of those hallucinations.”  

Scully looked her dead in the eye, a subtle warning in the arch of her eyebrows.

“You mean that it’s possible if I were also poisoned, that’s why I slept with Ed in the first place.”

It was subtle and it was unannounced, but Scully, she could tell, was angry.  It had a certain absurdity to it, the unmatched essences of person and place: a jewel-toned, plastic-sceptered dauphine in a cheap lunch spot that would close by four in the afternoon.

“What makes you think I wouldn’t be capable of a one-night stand with a good-looking guy?”

Ah, right, a personal matter which became a case, or however it was Scully had referred to it.

“Nothing does.”

Scully bit her lip and sucked it for the briefest of moments, swallowing her offense and embarrassment.  The previous moment’s hostility had vanished in a saintly snap of a second.  

“So correct me if I’m wrong…” Stella added, impressed with Scully’s management of her own aggravation.  Stella was a very good interrogator, she knew, and she normally didn’t have the advantage of having fucked the subject the night before.  She pushed a little further.  “Your take is that either there was not enough of the poison in your blood or it simply didn’t affect you the same way.”

Scully’s tone now was less a brush off than a full on leaf blower.

“Something like that.  I don’t know.”  

Stella poked at her lunch, trying not to listen too intently to the raw, carnal sound of Scully slurping down peeled oranges.  The little square table took on the scent of a Florida grove.  Finally, Scully glanced at her, blinked several times.

“So.  No ring.  You have any kids?  Or – I don’t think I’ve asked.”

“No,” Stella answered.  

“Me neither.”  

Surely, Stella could afford to indulge her just a little bit.

“I was once.  Married.”

“Oh.”  

Scully nodded a few times as if to show her lack of judgment, her openness.  Stella didn’t think she could bear a day of this, much less three.  It would have been helpful to have had Mulder along, if only to provide some diversity amongst these close-cousins of awkwardness, avoidance, well-wishes.  She would have welcomed his petulance, been happier to observe them talking to each other than to engage herself.

“About last night,” she started and Scully’s eyes went very big, spreading somehow vertically up into her forehead and down into her cheeks.  Stella felt an unnerving sense of responsibility and more than a little anger with Scully for making her feel it.  But she knew that that was not Scully’s fault.  “I hope you aren’t–”

Scully began to wave a hand over her salad bowl as she closed the lid on it, each octagonal corner scraped with greens and seeds.  It looked as though she was silencing her lunch rather than her companion.

“No need.”

Stella blinked back surprise.

“All right, then.”

“We’re all adults.  Things happen.  Finished?”

At Stella’s tip of the chin, Scully piled their combined waste on her tray, stacking cartons, napkins, cups neatly as children’s blocks one on top of the other.  Stella watched, allowing her mind to wander to the way their bodies had fit together so perfectly.  

“Shall we?” Scully said and Stella followed her out, surfing the din of frenzied lunch pairs in office-worthy shades of beige.  It was all so far away from her life.  Far from Mulder and Scully’s, she gathered, too, even if it was just around the corner.  Stella reached to open the door for Scully, admired the borrowed skirt on Scully’s hips as she passed through, noted the way it hugged where her hands had just recently been.  She knew now why she’d been willing to lend Scully her things - it was a way of lingering, a way of owning just a little longer period of time with her body.  But even this was unlike her.

A rubbery screech and Stella gasped, swore under her breath.  She’d forgotten her whereabouts, looked to her right first before crossing.  Scully’s arm came swiftly across her body like a seatbelt, her finger momentarily snagging on a belt-loop as the car slammed its brakes.  The hand lingered a little longer than necessary, past when it had untangled itself from Stella’s trousers, but then it was gone and Scully was up ahead, wrist shaking the sleeve of her trench down to reveal her watch, red waves cusping and bouncing as she led the way back to the office.

Just hours ago, Dana Scully had been in her bed, eyes wet with Scotch, voice blurry with pleasure, thighs so strong they could burst a human heart.  The Dana Scully crossing this street was a different weapon—sharp but distant, loyal but guarded, in need of nothing, least of all pleasure.  Either version would have been clear and present danger, but the combined effect, Stella knew, was just beyond the capacity of her defenses.

*

The basement office was empty by the time Stella and Scully returned.  They hadn’t been gone more than forty-five minutes, but apparently it was long enough for Mulder to have changed his mind.  

“Went to lunch with another friend?” Stella said.

“Mulder doesn’t have other friends,” Scully corrected in a blithe monotone.  She went around the long side of the desk and picked up a note she seemed to have intuited into existence.  There was a certain dark magic in the way Agents Mulder and Scully communicated, a method she almost envied, except that it seemed life-drainingly, sex-life ruinously exhausting.

“He went to Philadelphia.”

“What for?”

“Says he’ll be back tomorrow.”  

Scully creased the note and rounded a shoulder as she screwed her fist to her hip.  The shirt strained across her chest and Stella caught a glimpse of the bra she’d found in her hotel bathroom that morning, hanging on the hook where the bathrobe had been.  She’d caught if the robe this morning on her way out the door, still on the bedroom floor in a puddle of pale peach-pink.

“You’ll follow him there, I suppose?” Stella asked.

“I should.”

“You don’t have to.”

“It’s because of me.  It’s this… case he has some minor-level obsession with.”

“Minor?  He nearly put the killer through a wall yesterday.  He took off in the middle of a Wednesday.”

“You don’t know Mulder’s other obsessions,” Scully said ruefully.  “I never should have brought it back up.”

“You mean I never should have.”  

Scully’s chest heaved, head cocking an apologetic trigger of sighs.

“You’re our guest.  You had no way of knowing.”  

But Stella had known.  She had sensed immediately this was a powder keg of some sort, just from looking over the first few lines of case notes.  That’s why she’d picked it, not to sabotage them, but because she had a nose for intrigue, even when there was nothing to smell but dried ink on paper.  

“You don’t have to chase him around.  Whether it’s related to you or not.”

Scully stared at nothing in particular, propped up her upper lip with her tongue.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said matter-of-factly as she headed for the door.

Stella pinched the edge of Scully’s coat between her fingers, let her voice be edited down to a footnote.  There was a part of her that wanted Scully to have to listen carefully, wanted to make it really clear what she was offering, even though she wasn’t even sure what that was herself.

“I can go with you, if you want me to.”

Scully looked at her, stared, and Stella considered slamming the door and pinning her with a knee, pressing Scully’s hands up beside her head.  She could already hear Scully panting, feel the resistance of the skirt pulled taut by Scully’s spread legs on either side of her own trousered thigh.

“I do want you to,” Scully said, and Stella put all that aside.

*

They started their search for Mulder in a dreary hotel in Philadelphia, the very one Scully had had to revisit to get her things the morning she got out of the hospital from her attack.  Stella wondered where Mulder had been That Night, what exactly he’d been doing while Scully was here in this city full of melancholy, gritty romance.  It was clear to her now that Mulder didn’t often let Scully out of his sight without having a meltdown.  

At the check-in desk, Scully gave her company credit card and a young fellow in a suit jacket – Steve, his nametag said—looked up from the computer.  He glanced from Stella to Scully, trying his Hospitality Major’s best not to betray the fact that he liked what he saw.

“King size?”  He faltered. “Or two doubles?”

“It’s two rooms actually,” Scully said, slightly ruffled by his insinuation.  “I’d also like to know if there’s someone here checked in by the name of Mulder.”

“I’m sorry, we can’t release that information.”

“I’m with the FBI.”  

And here she took out her badge.  Steve stared at it a bit longer than necessary for someone who was turning her down.  “He’s my partner.”

“Sorry, it’s not me, we have very strict practices.”

Scully sighed.

“Make an exception,” Stella ordered and Steve looked around nervously, went into his computer.

“He made a reservation but hasn’t checked in yet.”

“Great, thank you,” Stella said, unable to resist an extraneous, “Not so hard, was it.”

Scully cleared her throat and handed the boy - man - a credit card.  He was nice looking – blonde and jockish, blustery shoulders.  Not very tall, but tall enough.  His eyes wandered over Scully as he ran the printer, flattened a receipt against the counter and let her sign her name.  Stella touched Scully’s waist as they walked away, throwing a meaningful flash of eyelash over her shoulder just to see his reaction.

“Hm?” Scully asked, responding to the gesture.

“Oh, nothing.  I wanted to see if there was a restaurant over here.”  

Scully chuckled in a manner Stella was beginning to recognize as maudlin.

“It’s not that kind of hotel.  No restaurant, no bar.  A couple of sandwiches on the room service menu if I remember correctly.”

“How many times have you been here?”

“Whenever we’ve had to come to Philadelphia.  Several times.”

“Do you stay in the same room?”

“Of course not.”  

Scully looked at her as though this was the craziest thing she’d ever heard, as though she and her partner had not been naked on either side of Stella’s lower body a mere twelve hours prior.  

“Shall we go find a proper restaurant then?  Have a proper meal and wait for him?”

“Our salads weren’t proper enough for you?”

Scully smirked.

“No.”

Scully laughed.

“Shall I ask Steve for a recommendation?”  Stella asked.  There was no point softening it now.  “I’d like to make my choices about dinner sitting down.”

“I might know something,” Scully said.  

 

*

 

The tables were double-clothed in faded bridal ivory, the waiters rolling as though on skates through the dining room in sleek black tuxedo vests, skinny checked ties tied neatly round their necks.  The menu took five seconds to read.   Stella looked over the thickly printed cursive wine list and realized that she would soon have a decent meal in a quiet, pleasant setting, chased by a formidable glass of red, and that was usually enough to put her at ease for the night.

She also realized Ed Jerse had imagined himself quite the gentleman, aside from the killings.  He’d been planning to bring Scully here, for a real date, right up until the moment she put the key in the ignition and headed back to his place.  Stella wondered neutrally what would have happened if he’d had his way about supper.  Would Scully have changed her mind, gotten tired and gone home?  Would he merely have changed the time and location of his attack, moved it up a couple hours into the back alley behind the kitchen, the back seat of Scully’s hired car?  There was no way to know.  But the unanswerable questions were her favorite ones.  This much, at least, she and Agent Mulder seemed to have in common.

“Sorry,” Scully said looking at the menu.  “This is kind of…”

“Kind of what?”  

Stella, of course, knew but wanted to make her say it.

“Kind of, you know…” Scully suggested and Stella shook her head, pretending not to follow.  Scully scratched her neck with two fingers - Stella’s favorite two - then split the stem of her wine glass between them.

“Kind of a date place,” she said quickly.

“Oh, that.”  

Stella played dumb for a moment more, then smiled.

“Yes.  If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were on the make, Agent Scully.”

Scully’s ears turned the color of the Bordeaux tipped at her lips.

“Careful with the wine,” Stella said, though she was pretty good at red wine stains, had learned to be years ago.

“You must have one hell of a weekly dry cleaning bill.”

“Priorities.”

“I’ve been nervous I was going to sweat in it all day.”

“Well, see that’s the trick.  Don’t.”

“Don’t be nervous?”

“Don’t sweat.”

Scully checked her with a quick look, as though to say she knew better than that.  Stella wondered a second if she’d been particularly sweaty in bed.  She backtracked through the high points of her encounter and her underarms dripped realtime, dampened her sweater, settled into the wire of her bra.  Her core went squishy against her underwear.  Her feet melted into her boots.  Her eyes stung when Scully looked at her like that, when they caught each other’s attention like two turning bits of a lock.  She was electrified by it, tasted metal in her mouth and fingertips hot as copper struck on metal.  The quieter she tried to speak, the louder she felt.

“The booth’s very comfortable,” she said.  “Why don’t you join me?  There’s room.”

It’d be easier if they couldn’t look at each other quite so easily, so directly… wouldn’t it?

Scully hesitated a moment, then lifted the white napkin from her lap and edged around, trying not to jostle the table beside them though there was no one occupying it.  As she moved into the bench beside Stella, the buttery leather of her skirt bent and squeaked between her ass and the vinyl seat-covering, then finally melted down the left side of Stella’s outer pant leg.

“This is better,” Scully announced, moving her things into closer reach with the concentrated care of a child at the dinner table - plate, then glass, then utensils.

“Yes, it is,” Stella said.  She, for one, didn’t care what else was within reach now that Scully was.

A moment ago, she hadn’t been sure how Scully felt about what had transpired between them, whether she considered it an accident or regretted it.  It was in the past already, and Scully herself would be there too as of next Monday morning when she showed up to her normal work day in central London.  But now Scully sloped softly in the direction of Stella’s square posture, her right shoulder dipped and her hip half-turned, stenciling out a place for herself in the present and molding herself to it.  

Warm rolls arrived and Scully peeled one apart down its center.  Steam came up off the dough.

Stella took a disciplinary breath as Scully dipped her knife in the little plate of whipped butter, spread it across her bread like she were handling something much more exciting and elaborate like a cupcake or a human scalp.  The solid gold shine melted into the surface in the time it took Stella to cross her legs and squeeze them shut tight, then dangle a foot in Scully’s direction.  

“I’m sure dinner will be out soon,” Scully assured, sensing Stella’s frustration but misplacing its cause.  Stella reached for the wine bottle.

“Don’t get too drunk,” Scully said.

“Why?  Worried I’ll be taken advantage of?”

“No… I…” but she never finished her sentence and Stella regretted the flirtation.  

There was a reason she was avoiding it.  Second times made for burdensome souvenirs; they were hard to safely pack, weighty to carry over a body of water, survived years on either sentiment or spite.  She was irritated with Scully for seeming willing.  She was irritated with herself for even being present.  She unwound her foot from the neighborhood of Scully’s ankle and set her resolve to go home empty-handed.  Enough.  Not avoiding, resolved.

“So.  What do you think Mulder’s been doing all day?”  It ought to have killed the mood.  Men and their selfish quests always did.

Scully covered her lips with the back of her hand as she chewed, face framed by spirals of hair hellbent by humidity.  One such red devil swung into Scully’s eyes as she sipped her wine.  She peered through it at Stella as she gulped, the prep school blue of her eyes twinkling like they’d just spotted the forbidden apple on the tree of knowledge.  Stella loved Catholics.  All that ritual and romance, rebelliousness in the face of high tragedy.

“I have no idea,” Scully answered finally, as though she’d given up on the long speech she’d been preparing to make.

Stella had assumed this morning there would be some feeling-sorting between Mulder and Scully, the untangling of whatever spaghetti-wire of sense they’d made out of themselves all these years.  Maybe they would even have sex, she’d figured, but it would not be the kind she wanted any part in.

The moment she’d seen them in the office again, she knew they’d taken care of neither the housekeeping nor the lovemaking.  Nothing had changed; if anything, the obstacles seemed to have solidified in obstinacy.  He was scared of his feelings, a walking mass of narcissism and self-obsessed insecurity with an abandonment complex.  She was more well-adjusted regarding the possibilities of human attachment, but it would require unlacing the Elizabethan corset cinching her very delicately calibrated sense of pride.  In other words, they were most likely fucked.

The steaks arrived with a civilized double-thunk and blood seeped from the meat on the first cut.  Scully sliced and raised hers, staring at it as though she’d somehow gotten away with something.  Stella wondered when the last time Scully had ordered the actual thing she wanted to eat.  

“I don’t like to eat red meat,” Scully said between gulps.

“I see that.”

Juice ran down her chin, trickled into the napkin on her lap.  In another restaurant, with another woman, Stella would have leaned over to lick it off herself.

But instead, she focused on her plate, feeling righteous as a red baron, dividing and conquering her dinner in martial order, splitting off fat off to the side, making even slices.  She allowed the fly-over whizz and clang of substantial silverware to take over for conversation.  The silence was unexpectedly easy, a respite.  

And even that easiness unnerved her.  

She was nicely buzzed, seated beside a very beautiful woman and pumping iron and wine into her veins.  She should have been happy, should have been carefree, ecstatic even, once she tasted the creamy whipped potatoes in the ramekin between their plates.  But her mood darkened with every breath, every bite.  She ordered dessert almost to spite it, or herself, to prove she could undo her own doing.

It was delivered perched on a doily like a pillowed jewel, a flourless piece of over-fussed chocolate with a sprig like a jester’s hat in one corner.  Stella unwrapped the clean, slim spoons from the singular napkin, gave one to Scully and then took off the point of the cake.  It went down well enough - moist and bittersweet, but drizzled in something like raspberry, maybe pomegranate - unnecessary and ornate.  Scully pushed her spoon aside and took the deep breath of a girl who’d already had some dried fruit in her lunch salad that day.  Stella chided her with a glare and meant it.

“I better not,” Scully begged off.  “It’s late for sugar.  I’ll be up all night.”  

Stella took a sip of water, swallowed the impulse to tell Scully she wanted her to be up all night.  The only way she’d ever found to stop wanting to fuck a person was to fuck them or hate them.  She knew what the problem was here.  She’d already done one of those things and was trying to avoid the other.

She raised her hand, let it drop onto Scully’s thigh, a sudden call to sense memory of the cloudy Saturday morning she’d bought it.  She began to pet it short, slow strokes, telling herself that her ownership of the garment gave her such proprietary rights despite it’s current occupant.  Scully shifted her body this way, then that, then finally settled closer to Stella’s body by just a stitch-worth, tailbone right between two squares of vinyl.  Stella flattened her hand, rubbed the skirt like a psychic’s ball and saw her future: finger-fucking Scully under the table, evil-eying waiters and busgirls until she was done, offering Scully her shoulder to hide her face as she came.  

No.  No, this was the problem.  She hadn’t let Scully make her come.

The spoon struck the cake plate as she took up another piece of cake, pushed it at Scully’s lips, almost force-parting them with the tip of the spoon.  Scully allowed it in with a scolding little glance and Stella’s lips parted to share the experience; empathetic, begging, angling for another taste of the treat she’d just in her mouth or the one she’d had last night.  Can’t have your cake and eat it too, she told herself ruefully.  It was an expression that only made sense to her when the word have really meant keep.

She watched dotingly as Scully’s bottom lip caressed the metal, her tongue pressed up for the chocolate, teeth finally scraping before she closed her lips around it and hummed.  She lost control of her grip on Scully’s thigh, felt it tighten of its own will as her convictions slid to the floor.  She reached for the bare skin of Scully’s thigh, brushed it briefly before her jaw clenched and her wrist collapsed, dropping the spoon to the table.

She wiped both hands on her napkin, pressed one wrist into the palm of the other hand.  She rubbed it casually, invisibly applying pressure to her own pulse point, right over her tattoo.  Scully licked her lips, seemingly oblivious, cooing about the quality of the cacao.

“God that’s good… Do you really eat like this every day?”

“Only on my sweater days.  I don’t eat in silk.”

“Then why am I?”

“That’s a good question.”

Scully looked down and thumbed the top button.

“What are you doing?” Stella asked.

“Taking it off,” Scully said with convincing nonchalance.  Stella stared at Scully’s perfect fingernails poised at the button right between her breasts and was suddenly unaware of everybody else in the restaurant, suddenly unaware that there even were any waiters to keep away.  She was done showing restraint.  She was done pretending she didn’t know where the ladies’ room was or how to lock it.

But Scully checked her with an impish grin.  

“Just kidding.”

Stella re-balanced her weight, folded her hands together across her mouth and shoveled her elbows into the table.

“I think it’s stopped raining,” Scully said with impossible levity.  “Let’s get the check before I don’t fit into your skirt anymore.”

 

*

 

Scully walked with hands shallowly pocketed, seeming to enjoy the freedom of Stella’s ownership of the umbrella as they hugged the shores of Schuylkill Banks on the way back to the hotel.  The river’s cool, indifferent breeze bickered with Stella’s frustration.  This was not what she’d come here for, not to America and not to Philadelphia.  It was all supposed to have been work.  So tidy and simple and riverless.  

Scully seemed to note the reflection of the full moon on the water and looked up, eyelashes pirouetting across the shiny waxed floor of the sky, studying it as if to make sure its existence was not an illusion.  How many things in Scully’s life were like that – there one day and gone the next?  Stella would be another one of them soon…

“He’s always like this, you know,” Scully said.

“Like what?”

“Unpredictable.”

“And passionate?”

Scully shrugged off the intensity of the word.

“Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing here.  I mean there, with him.  Then other times, there’s nothing else I can imagine doing.”

“I know the feeling.”

“You do?”

Stella considered what she was about to say.  Eventually, she would have to talk to someone about it.  She knew that.  A therapist, a friend, a coworker.  Scully was as good as any of those options, or better, for her temporariness.

“I caught someone,” she said.  “Before I came here.  I didn’t just come because of the affair.”

“A serial killer?”

Stella nodded her head on a tilt, bending it side to side.  Scully didn’t press and this was the only reason Stella continued.

“Not so much serial as at the same time.  Stored them in his back room like dry goods.”

“How awful.”

Scully, she knew, was making a point of not prying.  She wanted Stella to talk only if she wanted to.  Stella didn’t want to but she found herself doing it anyway.

“He… starved some of them.”

That had been the most difficult part for her, for some reason, of all the gruesome things they’d discovered.  Perhaps because it was the thing she hadn’t seen before.

There was a loosening in her throat, the untying of a knot made almost a year ago, as she turned her face toward Scully.  Scully pushed her hair behind her ear, exposing a graceful swath of neck that Stella longed to to sink her nose into, ride the indentation of it up to the diamond-studded earlobe above like an escape hatch.  She tried to replace her old memories with this newer one, of having her tongue in Scully’s ear and Scully’s moan in her own.

“I got a promotion. For finding him,” she said.  “Even though they were all dead by the time I got there.”

Her shoulders were around her ears.  She made fists in her pockets, trying to make her joints ache enough to forget the feeling of floating around London, newly promoted Detective, lost and thin-witted, flitting about the streets like a piece of rubbish, ducking into shops to buy booze before they closed.  She may have come all the way to another country, but she had not come far.  

“It’s why I put in to come here and do research.  I needed a break.”

“Everybody needs a break sometime.”

“Mm.  When was the last time you really had a break, Agent Scully?”

Scully looked around and puffed her cheeks.  Who me?  Break?

“I don’t know,” she said as if she’d only just realized she’d become a workaholic.  “I got abducted once, does that count?”  

Stella laughed, unsure whether Scully was kidding.

Scully smiled gently, a some other time kind of smile that made Stella ache for the kinds of friends she used to be better at keeping.

They continued to walk and she looked over at Scully at regular intervals, observing her like a rarefied piece of earth, an unnamed geological specimen, rings of deep blue and lava red formed into the shape of a woman.  Just as she was getting used to it, at the limits and pleasures of observing this beauty from afar, a museum piece or an artifact, Scully stopped.

Her hand came to Stella’s waist, wriggled its way into Stella’s trench coat.  Stella’s mind clicked like a craps machine moving through possible motivations, sexual outcomes, her own discomfort.  She tried to tell herself to relax, to accept the embrace for what it was - a simple thing from a simple person - or, at least, a person who preferred to see herself simply.

The switch from rejection to acceptance was violent, made Stella feel as though she might melt into a puddle of black coat like the Wicked Witch of the West.  She slipped her hand into Scully’s hair, joining herself to the moment by the scent and feel of it between the webbing of her fingers.  Tea tree and mint, American rain, the soft cypress scent of wet wood beneath their feet.

For a second, everything was all right.  

When the hug ran its course, Stella stepped back and allowed a cold sliver of air sneak between them.  She turned to keep walking but Scully’s hand caught her, wrapped around the back of her neck.  She looked at Stella very straight-faced, the bold stab at adventure in her eyes, and leaned in slightly.

“Stop,” Stella whispered, crisp night air coming in a puff off her lips.  She heard it as though it had come out of someone else, like a ghost standing beside her with exactly her pitch and inflection.  Scully turned on a dime and started walking, hands in her pockets.

Stella followed suit a pace behind.  This would be better for both of them in the end, and the end was a quickly approaching Friday afternoon.  

“Sorry,” she said simply.

“No, I am,” Scully said icily.  “I misread.”

Stella reached for her arm but Scully swung it up into the air, waving her away and pausing to disconnect their linked cadence.

“Don’t feel bad, that’s worse.”

“I don’t feel bad for you, Dana,” Stella said, trying to think of some compliment to soothe the rejection, something true that wouldn’t mix her messages too badly.  “I don’t feel bad for people who make me stare at them all through my dinner.”

Scully looked at her shoes, smiled a small, restrained smile, as though out of deference to the stars above.  She didn’t try to touch Stella again until they were right in front of the hotel and Stella was snapping the umbrella shut.  Scully took her wrist, held it out in front of her belly button as they entered, studying it.  Her fingers tapped it as though it might magically turn from Sanskrit to Braille.

 

“Still haven’t told me what it means,” she said as they waited for the elevator to clunk and bing its way to the ground floor.

“True,” Stella said.

“Don’t make me get one of Mulder’s experts over here,” she said, but she dropped Stella’s wrist and the subject dutifully, put her fingers to her lip with a sudden thought.

“What is it?”

“Mulder won’t know we’re here.  I should wait for him in the lobby.”

“Do you want me to wait with you?” Stella asked, hoping Scully would say no.  She could not stand much more of this.  She only now realized what an unbearable time she would have had in the cramped elevator, calling to mind the previous night’s ride as they ascended, how difficult it would have been not to grab her hand.

“No, that’s all right.”

Stella nodded and stepped into the elevator, caught her breath as she went to her room alone.  It was an emotionless place, full of inoperable windows and the stench of stale cigarettes wielding victory over Clorox, plentiful well-folded towels that frayed at the ends.  She could think of no easier place to resist temptation in the world.  She sat on the edge of the bed and thought, for once longingly, of her own bedroom.  

She took off her shoes, tapped the soles against her thighs, then pressed the points in hard enough to hurt.  She dropped them, picked up the leatherette guest book and flipped through room service, amenities listings, as if a health club or a club sandwich would satisfy her currently unanswerable demand for Dana Scully.  She was killing time, waiting for it to pass.  She was failing.

She picked up the phone and pressed zero.  

“Concierge, can I help you?”

She felt all the tension go out of her neck, her voice, her fingertips and her feet already.

“Yes, I left my bag down there at check in, I just remembered.”

“Oh.  We’ll have someone bring it up.  Anything else?”

“Yes, actually.  Steve, was it?”

Chapter Text

She didn’t quite know why she was knocking on Stella Gibson’s door.  Three days ago, as soon as she’d gotten word Mulder was in the hospital, she’d have simply gone to him alone, rushing like both their lives depended on it even when she knew for a fact he was fine.  She was certain there was nothing Stella could do about any of it.  (There was never anything anyone could do about the kind of problems she and Mulder had.)  And she was also suddenly aware that her lower back was damp with sweat.  She put her hand up under her coat to blouse out the silk shirt, try to protect it.

Stella’s cheeks were flushed when she answered the door.  She whipped her hair over a shoulder and knotted the pink silk sash at her waist.  Scully stammered, felt a few of her freckles light up like one of those old toys you could make images on with little colored lights.  

“I’m sorry to – I don’t even know why I’m telling you but um, Mulder’s in the hospital.”

“Where?  In DC?”

“Here.”

“Is he all right?”

“I think so, I don’t know.  I’ll let you know.”  

Scully felt sillier every moment Stella treated her seriously.

“I’ll get dressed.”

She began to back away from the door.

“Thank you, really, I don’t think that’s–”

The slight forty five degree angle away from Stella gave her a slanted glance into the room.  A man appeared with a towel around his waist.

“Is that… the guy from the desk?”  Scully tried to get control of the disbelief in her voice.  There was absolutely nothing surprising about this.  She should be absolutely not one bit shocked.  She knew almost nothing about Stella and what she did know had everything to do with sex in hotel rooms.  So why was she standing here with her eyebrows plastered to her hairline and every pink-red-orange colored bulb on her face lighting up?

“Give me a minute to put pants on,” Stella said without the palest hint of apology.

She shut the door and Scully knew she should be grateful to have the moment alone, should be using it to collect herself and right her attitude.  This was reactionary, immature, childish, it was… time for a candy bar.

The quarters clanged in the machine and she banged on the Snickers tab.  A perfect stranger.  That guy.  Sam.  Simon.  Steve, yes Steve.  She pulled her candy bar and change from their respective chutes, realizing only then she’d somehow managed to miscount a dollar fifty.

I was a stranger yesterday.

Light, graceful footsteps shuffling through the stiff pill of carpet down the hall and Scully kept her back turned, tried to seem busy with the complex task of peeling open a chocolate bar.

“Please have them send up towels,” Scully heard Stella murmur with minimum expended effort on kindness.  

For a moment, Scully wondered if it was a cover, a cartoonish offering to the invisible bodies in the hall who might be eavesdropping.  But when she turned around, Stella looked calm, unaffected, more relaxed than she’d been earlier with Scully.   She was really and truly, with the full intention of being obeyed, telling Steve, a guy she’d just fucked, to service her hotel room.

Scully approached before he’d even disappeared around the bend of the elevator bank.  She did not want to seem afraid of him, found it unacceptable that she might appropriate the shame she thought Stella should have for herself.

“Still hungry?” Stella said, eyeing the Snickers.

“I thought Mulder might want it,” Scully mumbled as she pocketed it, already opened, quickly adding, “You don’t have to come with me.”

“Then why did you come get me, why did you wait?”  It was not a challenge.  Just a question and a good one, one Scully hadn’t been able to answer herself.  But it didn’t seem fair now for her to be the one on the spot.

Scully shrugged as though Stella could do as she pleased.  She held her chin high and led the way out with the most confident swish she could muster.  It was supremely difficult to take long strides in Stella’s skirt.  She should have changed out of it hours ago.  She should never have borrowed it in the first place.  She should never have had reason to borrow it.

“I can’t believe you dress like this every day.  It’s such a pain in the ass.  It’s like wearing a spider web.”

“It’s the only way I can capture my prey,” Stella said dryly.  

“That sounds about right.”

She knew Stella was teasing her but she wasn’t in the fucking mood.

Scully pressed the button and tossed the next bit of tantrum over her shoulder like a lock of hair.

“You know what.  I’d rather go alone.”  

Stella grabbed her arm and spun her around.  They were inches apart and Stella’s perfect bone structure was as still as a painting as it formed its one lonely word of critique—

“Really?”

“Really what?”  

How did her hair still look like this from a day of running around a wet city and fucking people?  She could barely stand the sight of this woman.  She could barely stand not to look at her.

“I was bored,” Stella said, leaning so heavily into the word that it sounded obscene.

“Is that why you did it with us?  Boredom?”

Stella stared at her.  Chilly as Philly’s evening rainstorms and twice as withering.  Her voice slithered and her lashes fluttered with disdain.

“You’re embarrassing yourself,” Stella said.

“You’re the one talking about it.  I’m going about my business getting in the elevator.”

“I’ve offered.  I’m dressed,” Stella said.

“Did you let him make you come?”

She couldn’t believe it had come out of her mouth.  She hadn’t even been thinking about it.  Stella’s mouth twitched as if she was going to smile, but she instead sucked her bottom lip, folded her arms in embarrassment on Scully’s behalf.  

“Sorry, that was - I’m not sure what - just stay here.”

For a moment, Scully actually considered letting herself ramble.  Sometimes the truth was easier, better.  She could tell Stella that she’d felt like a teenager since their… encounter.  Confused, thrilled, and impulsive.  She’d changed her clothes and just like that, become a different person, a person who demanded to know about people’s orgasms in the hallways of upstanding businesses.  But Stella’s arms were still folded across her chest and her face was no longer countenanced by the hint of amusement.  She was apparently not pleased at this juvenile display of jealousy.

Well, fine, that made two of them.

“I won’t beg you,” Stella said with an air of finality, though a sly British question mark hung at the end of it like a test.

“Good,” Scully said as she stepped into the elevator.  “That would be unprofessional.”  

When the doors shut, she let out a sigh of relief, looked up at the mirrored elevator ceiling and stamped her foot, set her head back against the wall and took her forehead temperature with the palm of her hand.

“Shit,” she whispered up at herself.

*

She paused in the doorway of his hospital room when she saw that he was sitting up in bed, feet firmly planted on the floor, buttoning up the cuffs of his open work shirt over his undershirt.  Whatever he’d sparred with, it had only gotten a small piece of him – specifically, a small, deep gash out of his forehead, which was now cleanly bandaged.  Scully picked up his medical chart on her way in.  

“Hey, that’s for doctors,” he muttered.

“I’m a doctor,” Scully said.

“One of these days, I want to see the diploma.”

“Stitches, huh?”

“Yeah.  Fuck,” he said sharply and she looked up to find him yelling at one of his buttons.  She came closer, stood at his knees and gestured for him to give her his wrist.  He did so reluctantly, his eyes glum and watery as he slouched back further into the cot.  Retrieving Mulder from hospitals was like picking up a kid from the principal’s office.  Annoying but endearing… and frequent.  So frequent that it now made her feel like herself again.  The Steady One.  The Rock.  The Good Girl.  She worried he would smell Stella’s perfume on her.  She worried he’d spot the open Snickers in her pocket.

Scully glanced down at the rippled drugstore tank top bunched over his pants and quickly met his eyes again.  

“What happened?” she asked, a tint of routine to it.  This time, she could have added to the end, if she were feeling bitchier.

“I um, I tripped and my head hit the – the thing–”

She dropped one buttoned-up arm in his lap and he tried to gesture while he had both hands free.  

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said, taking his other wrist in hand.  His hand nearly spanned the length of her forearm when she lined them up like this.

“Scully,” he said, hitting the ells extra hard for sympathy, though she did not yet know what had befallen him.  She noticed the cheap, raw alcohol on his breath now.

“What, Mulder?”

He just stared at her, his eyes two perfect obtuse triangles matched up against one another, the green of them thickening and deepening like a basil-based reduction simmering in a pan.

She took his collar in her hands and pulled the edges of his shirt together, carefully moving her hands down from the center collar button.  He bit his lip as he watched her, and she tried not to show the way her breath quickened.  She could see that his had too, the way his chest moved more zealously on the other side of his shirt.  Why were they so the same in these biological, chemical ways, and yet so different in all the functional ones?

“I let you out of my sight for one minute…” she said with a girlish titter she hoped he didn’t notice.

“It’s not your job to look after me, Scully.”

“That’s right,” she said with gentle ruefulness, “Only works the other way around.”

He quieted, stunned and corrected.  Wishing she hadn’t said it, she rested her hands beside his hips on the cot, steadying herself.  The weighted silence fell and drifted like snow, banks taking and moving her, burying her in feet of unmovable cold.  He flinched his right hip from her touch and she looked away, embarrassed.  She stepped back.  

“I’ll let you tuck that in,” she said, turning and putting his medical chart back in its slot.  

*

The car radio crackled top forties under the washing machine whir of the rain-soaked highway.  She parked the car, felt tired as she turned the ignition and unbuckled her seatbelt.  They sat for a second in the stale silence and Mulder fidgeted with every item within arm’s length – skin of straws shed in the cup holder, receipts floating like sky-stained wet clouds over the mats, half-attacked packets of gum.  She hopped up and out, closing the car door behind her with careful force to make sure it didn’t come off as any sort of statement.  They were fine.  They needed to be fine, and no more than fine.

And they seemed well on their way to getting there as they crossed the parking lot, hotel lobby, and pressed the Up button.  But then, in the crusty corporate air of the hotel chain elevator she was swiftly coming to hate, there it was, the thing he’d had on the tip of his tongue since he said Scully like that in the hospital room.

“Stella showed me something this morning.  From Ed Jerse’s file.”

Scully looked at her sleeve, picked at imaginary lint with the devotion of a tailor.  It was a move she’d been mentally practicing the whole car ride.  “Mulder, I’m done with it.  I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

“Are you?”  

She drew up her shoulders, mounting her defenses carefully.  Her bones were so tired and brittle, she felt like a kicked-over stack of Legos.  He waited, she thought, the sonofabitch waited until I was weak and tired to say whatever he’s about to say.  Fresh anger singed her stomach lining over scars from the last flare.  Maybe he didn’t know her well enough to know she’d get an impulsive tattoo, to know she was hiding a malignant brain tumor behind her solid retorts, to know she found some women sexy,  or even well enough to know she found him – well, nevermind – the point was, he knew her well enough to wait for her to be broken to have a serious conversation.

“What does that mean?” she asked, hoping the lilt of challenge in her voice would prevent him from answering.  He held the elevator doors open as she led them onto their floor and handed him a key card.  

“This is yours.  I got you a room before I came to get you.”

“Ergot stays in some people’s blood for weeks, months even.”  

“Do not say what you’re about to say,” she said, still willing to give him the chance to get out alive.  She knew him as well as he did not know her.  

She strode faster toward her door, as if she could shut him up simply by reaching the end first, a child’s game.  He chased after her, picking up speed and quickly gaining on her so that she could feel the tall warmth of him, the pure mass of his stature behind her, and tagged her.  She did not yet turn around.

“It could explain a lot.  You and Ed.  Then you know… last night.  I mean, it’s not exactly you, is it?”  

She spun slow on her heel, gritted her teeth, voice spitting like hot steam out of a hard, cold pipe.  She could have slapped him.

“Fuck you, Mulder.”

She looked deep into his hazel eyes, almost brown under the dim tangerine lights of the hallway.  His pupils dilated, his lips ever-so-slightly turning up at the edges.  He liked it when she was angry; it meant he had her full attention.  It was a fact that stoked her fury, cells of rage multiplying and dividing like a virus.

His hand slipped off her coat onto the bare skin of her wrist, manipulating her like a wizard, lips mouthing her name like a spell.  

Suddenly, she could see a slice the life they might have together. The ways he would both annoy and enchant her, the little daily invocations he’d make by way of simple touch.  She’d ignored it day after day after dark, dreary day – until last night, when he’d looked at her like this, both of them at the mercy of another woman’s permission to act.  They hadn’t taken it.

He stepped forward and reached for her neck in one swoop, scooping her face toward him as he bent his knees.  His lips were soft and powerful, the muscles of his face sucking at her until he pulled her bottom lip between his, took it into his teeth.  She pushed his chest away and almost fell back herself.  He stared, panting about as hopefully as a puppy at the park, as if she might change her mind.  She’d been stopped from a kiss herself tonight and wouldn’t have responded with this look on her face for a million dollars.  This, she thought, this is the difference between a woman and a man.  

“What the hell are you doing?” she asked, hoping to be clearly rhetorical.

“I saw you with her,” he answered, as if that had anything to do with it.  And then she realized, it had everything to do with it.  It was the whole It.  He was claiming her.

“When?”

“All of it.  Last night, this morning, on the street tonight.  I saw it when she first walked into our office.”

This was even more oppressive than she’d thought.  It wasn’t about his feelings for her, it was about her feelings for everyone and anyone else.

“One guy, Mulder.  One guy in almost five years, and you won’t let it go until it has been diminished in my consciousness as something nothing more than a humiliating and meaningless sideshow.  You came down here to investigate my one-night-stand, do you realize that?”

“You chased me down here.”

“Because I knew you’d get yourself into trouble.”

“That’s what you did last time you were here.”

“I didn’t get myself into trouble, Mulder.  I got myself laid.”

She waited for that to settle, sink into his thick, drink-addled, blood-dripping head.

“The trouble was someone else’s doing. It wasn’t my fault.”

“It wasn’t you.”

“You don’t know who I am.  Not really.”

Mulder shook his head in disgust, threw his hands up, licked his top lip.  She wondered fleetingly if he could taste her indignation or her desire, her steak or her Snickers bar.

“Maybe I don’t want to know you any better than I do.”

“Good.”

“Good,” he echoed and then flipped his key card with the glib cynicism of a cocktail waiter, turning to shuffle toward his own door.  She waited, just prickling with anticipation of his second-guess, his turn-back-and-apologize.  Her spine stretched straighter with ever lapsed second.  His door finally shut, the “Do Not Disturb” sign sulking in his place.

Scully turned and looked at the sign on the door three doors down.  She wondered if Stella’s had been there on the knob when she’d come up earlier, when she’d caught her with Steve.  She’d been too naive to even think about it.

She straightened her shoulders and went to Stella’s door, gave a pert, hard-knuckled knock.  Stella came to the door in her sleep clothes – a white tank top and black pants that nearly looked like jeans.  What did this woman wear when she had to, say, paint a room?  (Later, Scully would think of the answer and laugh – Stella Gibson never painted rooms.)

“What’s the matter now?” Stella asked.  

Scully could smell her perfume, weary with the day, sleepy and sexy and alive as a midnight campsite.

“Did you do it on purpose?  Tell him that thing about the ergot?”

“What?”

“You got him going, you’re the reason he came down here.  You could have said something to me about that.”

Stella’s lips were the color of peaches without the glossy sheen she’d had on all day.  She licked them, jutted her chin and re-tucked it.  

“I thought there were still some unanswered questions in the Jerse case.”

“There are unanswered questions in all our cases, Stella!”

“I’m not interested in all your cases.”

“Just the ones I end up getting fucked in.”  

Scully mostly used this word only in anger and ecstasy, and now in two days she’d used it more than she’d normally use it in two weeks.   But it was worth it, the way Stella stared at her, reflecting her plummy anger back at her, eyes wide with something that could either be offense or ador.  Her voice was dark and flinty, full of authority.

“Get in here.”

*

Stella pulled the long shades shut on the cheap glare of night coming off the windows as Scully entered and took a breath, realized, for the first time, she hadn’t even been in her room yet.  There were no buildings in the direct line of sight, but Scully felt safer, more protected and more alone with Stella once it was done.

“Oh, our bags,” she said.

“I only had him bring mine.”

Scully wondered if it were a test; bringing up old Steve again to see if it would set her off.  She was relieved herself to see that her anger - with Mulder, with Stella, with herself - was all dissipating, dissembling like a piece of haphazardly built furniture.  Falling apart and turning her into a heap of exhausted parts.  She feared she’d be too tired to sleep tonight.

Scully sat in a chair and pushed her shoes off, wishing she could crawl out of the trap of her long day’s clothes.  Not even her own long day’s clothes.  Stella’s back was turned, her hands busy with the task of preparing tea with whatever the hotel had provided.

“You drink tea?” Scully asked.

“Did you think I lived on wine and whiskey?”  

Stella placed a pair of mugs down on the desk and turned on the lamp.  Warm light fell on her chest, made it blurry and bright at once, like an empty paperback page.  Scully took her tea and tried not to stare.  She had a habit of looking at things until she had them figured out.  Something told her she could be looking at Stella a long time before that happened - time she wasn’t going to have.

She felt civilized the minute she dunked and removed the bag, lifted the cup and blew on it, let the steam hit her face, mimicked Stella’s smooth sips.  She tried not to slurp.  

“You look sad,” Stella said.

Scully shook her head and acquiesced.

“I don’t know how this happened.  How I’ve become someone for whom sex is so improbable that when I have it, the involved parties assume it’s the side effect of a drug.”

“That’s not what it was,” Stella said in a low voice.  

“How do you know?”

“I was there.”

“What kind of tea is this?”

“Some orange chamomile jubilee ridiculousness.”

Scully reached forward for the honey Stella had brought over, peeling the tiny packet back and then letting the thick amber ooze into her glass and disappear.

“Americans don’t know how to drink tea.”

“By the end of the week, I’ll know how to drink everything,” Scully said, and was surprised to find herself smiling.  She scratched tiny lines into the cork lining the underside edge of the table and began to reflect on her actions of the evening, one more embarrassing than the next.  

“Try to relax every muscle in your body starting at the tip of your head and working all the way down to your toes.”

“Hm?” Scully asked without lifting her head.

“Meditation.  It’ll help you sleep.”

“Okay,” Scully said with a twinge of sarcasm.  She felt a bit guilty, taking Stella’s suggestions so readily when she fought Mulder tooth-and-nail on his woo-woo nonsense.  Sometimes, she didn’t even fully disagree with him; it just came so naturally to her to play his devil’s advocate.  She had assumed Stella would take her side in their battle of reason versus intuition, but she was no longer sure.

And now was not the time to decide.  Under the woozy lull of Stella’s voice, she did as she was told, following the round vowels and sharp consonants as they courted each of her muscles, shaking them loose.  Her chest hitched and tightened.

“Take deep breaths, all the way down to the bottom of your belly.”

As she did so, the hot orange-spice of the herbal tea became more pronounced and she felt Stella’s legs – first one, then the other – slowly slide onto the chair on either side of her, snugly straddling Scully’s hips.  She was slightly confused, wondered even, if she were imagining it.  But no, those were two folded knees just bracing her hips.

Scully held her breath as her heart sped, although something about Stella’s stance did not feel sexual – it was more like she was going to help her put eye-drops in.  She struggled to keep her eyes shut, lashes fluttering in a mix of hope and panic.

“Keep breathing,” Stella said and reached for the top button of the silk shirt on Scully’s body.  Slowly, she made her way down the familiar path, exposing a naked strip of Scully’s skin to the conditioned air of the room.  Scully’s body arched toward Stella involuntarily and Stella raised her hands to Scully’s chest – not to her breasts, but to the flat plate of ribs and skin between them.  She felt her solar plexus light up like an energy source, heat passing back and forth between her body and Stella’s hands. “Now exhale.”

Scully exhaled and Stella’s hands pressed, one on top of the other, compressing and expelling the tension she’d not even realized she was holding onto.  She did it again, and then again, and on the fourth time, Scully felt her lap warm a little, as though Stella had lowered herself, still without sitting.

“Keep breathing,” Stella said again, now leaning into Scully’s parted lips.  

And Scully did, she somehow kept breathing, her body moving into some higher state of functioning.  Blood rushing to the edges of her skin, nerves igniting and fingers tingling out of their numbness, and something else – some rhythmic swaying in her inner pelvic muscles, a private dance of self-seduction.

And then she was not alone.

Stella’s pointed tongue ticked the corner of her mouth, made its way across her bottom lip to the other corner and up to the peaks of her top one.  Scully’s chest rose and fell hard as she tried to decide if she was supposed to be relaxing or responding.  She’d already been rejected once today, and if she counted Mulder’s squeamishness when she stood at his bedside, twice.  

But her body was no longer tethered to her mind or her doubts.  She was aware of them now as free-floating entities, items in the room which she might choose to take with her or not when she left.  Her tongue unmoored itself, slipping out into the sea of Stella’s citrus-sharp mouth.  Stella immediately closed her lips around it, sucking the slithering muscle wholly as a popsicle in dry heat, her hands coming to the sides of Scully’s face to control the speed.  

Scully brought her hands finally from the arms of the chair to Stella’s thighs, smoothed them up the brushed black cotton of her almost-jeans, almost-pajamas to the perfect indent of her cotton-coated waist.  She firmly pressed into the feminine dip of fabric warmed by skin there, delighted by the feel of her, the size of her, the womanly taper and saddled grip of her.  

And then, with Stella still making a meal of her tongue, she moved one hand to the button of Stella’s pants.  Her mouth, ahead of her hands, indulged a memory of the way Stella had tasted last night – fresh and alive and slightly metallic, like a basic life-giving element that had somehow escaped the periodic table.  

Suddenly, Stella pulled away, sat staring at Scully with her hands pressed into the back of the chair.  Scully wondered awesomely at the idea that she could not even know she wanted a thing one day, and the next day find herself desperate for it, on the verge of furiousness at the mere idea of being denied it.  She wondered if this is how it was to be Mulder, to feel emotions so suddenly and powerfully that they could not be ignored but could also not weather being analyzed.

“Why do you keep stopping me?” Scully asked, recognizing the piqued tone in her mostly-mellow whisper.  Stella spoke with earnest discomfort.

“I… don’t know.”

It was the most disarming answer possible, coming from Stella.  Seeing her lose her swagger for even a moment terrified Scully and thrilled her too.

“Don’t you want me?”

She had meant it to come out sexy, but as soon as she heard it, she felt needy and small.  Stella continued to look at her as though she were right-sized and worthy, smoothed Scully’s satiny lapels between her fingers.

“I fear,” Stella began and there was that word: fear.  But this, of course, was just the way British people used language: took a better, more compelling word and filed off its betterness with overuse. “That you only think you want me.”

And Scully saw that she did not mean think or suggest or put forward, she actually meant fear.

Scully sat straight up in the chair, her leathered thighs chafing against Stella’s.  The breeze in Stella’s voice whipped like wind and stung Scully’s cheeks.  Why did everyone think they knew what she wanted?

“Doesn’t it matter more,” she said, her courage gathering momentum, “What I think I want than what you do?”

She sat forward so far that Stella almost fell back off her lap, but Scully put her arm around Stella’s lower back and pulled her closer until their faces were inches apart.  Her other hand crawled down Stella’s lower abdomen, moving under the top of Stella’s pants and passing over a tiny bow at the front of Stella’s panties.  Stella lifted her hips to allow Scully better access.  Her lips were parted, bottom and top teeth in even alignment as her jaw jutted out a little.

Scully used four fingers to touch her, tapping and stroking the satin of her underwear like piano keys.  She let those fingers travel a bit from the target, enjoying the smooth curve of the bone, the sharp crease where fabric met skin, the soft, lush valley of flesh on either side.  And she slipped her hand inside the fabric.

“That’s what I thought.” She suddenly remembered Stevie, Steve, whatever his name was, at the desk, and nearly hissed.  “Is this for me?  Or from him?”

“What do you think?” Stella said in the gravelly timber that had brought her practically to her knees in that bar.

“Have you ever done this?” Stella asked and Scully couldn’t help but smile into their sporadic kisses.

“What do you think?”

Stella tipped her head to the side.

“Dunno, you seem to be doing pretty well for yourself.”

And it was true, Scully had just dipped her proverbial toe into this pond but her fingers were wet to the third knuckle already.  She tried to separate her fingers, feel the stickiness draw them back together beneath Stella’s body.  Her shoulder rose almost to her ear as she flexed her elbow to touch her clitoris.  More than any of this, she was probably most nervous about that, about touching the most sensitive body part she would ever have touched.

She looked for Stella’s eyes, begged for them with her own.  But Stella kept them closed solidly, mouth open as though on a pulley system with her eyebrows.

Her fingers squeezed Scully’s bare shoulders, one set of nails picking to get underneath the strap of the bra.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Stella growled.

“Excuse me, I’m Catholic.”

“I heard quite a few things worth your confession last night.”

Scully dragged the wetness from inside Stella’s body and spread it messily wherever her fingers could reach.  She wanted to touch everything, wanted to experience it all, but she also knew from experience eventually she’d have to settle somewhere to produce any results.  She drew shapes with her fingers and somewhere around the letter G, Stella spoke.

“Keep doing that and I’ll be swearing at every attendant of the last supper.”  

She buried her nose in Stella’s neck, mining it with her face, kissing her neck through strands of spun gold.

“Show me, Stella,” she said.  “Show me how you like it.  Exactly how you like it.”

Stella pulled back.  She’d been very quiet, except for the quips.  No moans and no grunts.  But her whole respiratory system visibly expanding and contracting with arresting depth.  She gently removed Scully’s arm from her body, holding her breath and then deflating a bit, as if Scully’s fingers had been her main oxygen source.  She gave Scully her own fingers to suck.  She narrowed her eyes to watch Scully taste her and bit her own lip until white marks appeared.

There, there was the taste.

 

Stella’s hips rolled and quickened, as if she’d suddenly become convinced, suddenly thrown caution to the wind, decided to ride without a parachute.  She tore the tank top over her head, breasts reaching for one another over a pink satin bra.  The edges were scalloped, lacy almost all the way down to the nipple.  

“Do you always wear this stuff under your pajamas or did you know I would come?”

Stella acknowledged the inquiry with a hum, dabbing her lips along Scully’s neck as she pushed the sleeves of the open shirt down her arms with ravenous fervor.  Her mouth continued to dab and trace down the front of Scully’s body as Stella reached first one foot and then the other for the floor, eventually climbing down to her knees as she pecked at Scully’s navel.  Stella readily found the zipper of the skirt – it was hers after all – and pulled it along with Scully’s underwear to her ankles.  Scully wondered, to the extent that she had the ability to wonder anything in such circumstances, if Stella had even heard her request.  She wanted to be taught.

“Come down here,” Stella said, pushing her pants to her lower thighs.  Scully slid forward in the chair in just her bra, moaning a little as her body brushed Stella’s on the way to her knees.  She was lonely with the sound of her voice only, but she liked it too.  It was rare enough in her life that she heard herself and only herself.

Stella wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her closer.  

“Follow me,” Stella said, dragging the back of her nails down Scully’s chest, over her belly button.

“I remember when my ass felt like this,” Stella said, squeezing her.  Scully smoothed her left palm up the back of Stella’s thigh and slid it back under the lacy satin panties covering almost exactly half of her bottom.  Stella’s ass felt pretty fucking good to her. But she doubted Stella was the type to fish for a compliment.

Stella brought her fingers to Scully’s clitoris, and Scully felt her whole body alight on Stella’s fingertips, these recent acquaintances had become fast favorites.  Stella drew light circles.

“Pay attention,” Stella said.  “Follow me.”

So it was a new game, follow the leader.  She had heard Scully after all.

Scully did as she was told and marveled that she had ever found the blue of Stella’s eyes icy or cool; when Stella fucked her, Scully could feel them branding her soul.  If she ever touched another woman, she doubted she would not think of this.  She worried she could never touch herself and not think of it.

“The color of your eyes is so beautiful,” she said.  “Blue is different from mine.”

“You sweet talking me, Agent Scully?”

Stella swiped at Scully’s pussy in the opposite direction, changing the course of the current, and Scully almost doubled over, buckling into Stella.

“Yes,” Scully said, doing her best to imitate Stella under the current circumstances.

“Firecrackers…” Stella said and Scully realized Stella was looking into her eyes.  “Blue fireworks are the most difficult to create.  The emitter is a fragile copper compound, a gas heated to very high temperatures.  One smidgen off – too hot, or too cold – and the color is gone.”

Scully didn’t know what the fuck Stella was saying but it was making her want to come.

“That’s what I think of when I see the color of your eyes.”  

“Oh,” Scully whispered as Stella’s fingers trilled her like a harp.  Her eyes wanted to roll back into her head but she was meant to be doing something here. She wiggled her fingers against Stella’s smooth, wet skin, trying to play the instrument of her body.  

Suddenly, Stella’s finger entered and then left her and Scully’s free hand traveled up into Stella’s hair, gripping the platinum where it was dotted with darkness.

“Put it back, put it back.”

“You asked me for this,” Stella said.  

Scully grunted at her own stupidity, following along, fingering Stella with the teasing, torturous patterns that were being demonstrated on her own body.  Soon the strong line between Stella’s instruction and Scully’s practice closed and Stella began to blur, her body settling like fine silt into Scully’s hand.

Stella curled two fingers inside her and pressed forward and Scully wanted to weep her name.  Stella did not make a sound when Scully copied her, but her body rocked like a smooth, pale wooden boat into Scully as the straps of her bra fell down her bicep.

“Stay there,” Stella directed and then moved her own fingers back to where they sent Scully’s mind reeling. No one had ever done this to her.  She had never even done it to herself.  Not like this.  She was both unconscious and hyperaware – the room a blurry reverie but every inch of her body from her pebbled hard nipples to her curling toes brilliant and alive.

Stella reached her pointer finger into the crack of Scully’s ass and pressed gently into the sensitive skin at the outer rim of her anus.  Scully almost balked, a reflex.

“I don’t–”

“Follow,” Stella said and Scully returned the gesture, stretching the limits of Stella’s underwear as she found the deep center of Stella’s perfectly round bottom.  They were joined now everywhere, every tip and every opening engaged.  They moved together, swayed together, had no choice but to follow one another’s bodies lest they lose an arm.   Scully wanted to come so badly she could cry.   She had never felt so greedy or selfish.  She groaned as she tried to hold onto Stella’s mouth in the fray with her lips, her hand splashing in and out of Stella’s pussy, her own body rearing and bobbing irreverently.  

“Not yet, concentrate,” Stella said in an infuriatingly hushed tone.  

She spread her hand, pressing a thumb into Scully’s clit.  

Fuck fuck fuck.  

But Scully held on and finally, Stella’s body went loose in her arms and Scully felt a surge of confidence, sinking her teeth into the bone of Stella’s clavicle. Stella dropped her head back with a buoyant whimper unlike anything Scully had ever heard.

Stella’s working hand finally grew sloppy, her firm, flat stomach arching into Scully’s as her spine gave way.  Scully used her left hand to tug at Stella’s right arm.

“Stop.  Let me.”  Stella ignored her, shook Scully’s hand away, but Scully clasped her tighter.  “I’ll make you feel so good.”

Stella looked her in the eye and finally gave in, her hand first going still and then slipping out altogether, moving to Scully’s hip like the night watch taking its rightful place.  Her fingers, sticky and wet, tapped at Scully’s lower back, pinky at the top corner of her asscheek.

Scully finally peeled Stella’s bra away, squeezing Stella’s dark pink nipple between her fingers as she fucked her with the other hand.  She felt mythic and powerful with the weight of Stella’s breast in her hand, her shoulder bearing the weight of Stella’s hand.  As they kissed again, Scully twined herself around Stella, her free hand up between Stella’s shoulder blades.

“Stay still,” she said into Stella’s mouth.  She’s going to come, Scully thought with heady euphoria, a sort of mental orgasm in and of itself.  She felt her whole body go wet and swollen as she waited, panting, for Stella to do it.

“Dana,” Stella gasped as her neck gave out, chin tipping up, finally messy blonde tendrils falling from their self-imposed formation over Scully’s hand.  Other than the one word, Stella was exquisitely beautiful and quiet when she came, her breath hitched and held, one breast half-uncovered against Scully’s own and her hand riveted to Scully’s working arm in gratitude.  But the inside of her body boomed voluminously around Scully’s fingers, clit quivering at her thumb, belly screaming like a siren as it pressed into Scully’s.

And then she was completely still.  Scully held her and slipped her hand out over Stella’s abdomen, trying to flatten and soothe the cramp that had formed in her carpal tunnel.

Stella let out a throaty, knowing laugh.

“You can ice it later.”

Scully sat back on her heels, taking the weight of Stella’s collapsed body with her, letting it fall between her folded thighs.  She waited as Stella’s breath became less labored and jagged, the twitching of her body slower.

“You don’t like to be naked,” Scully whispered, a question peeking its nose into the statement. Stella looked up at her, eyes liquid glitter and cheeks flushed, and reached around her own back with one hand, snapping the clasp of her bra open.  She sat back and let the beautiful little piece of silk slip down into Scully’s lap, then began to peel her panties completely off.  

“No, I don’t,” she said and then pulled Scully forward, gently pushing her face first toward the floor until Scully’s cheek rested in the puddle of silky shirt she’d discarded earlier.  Stella mounted her, straddling her lower back, and Scully could feel Stella’s pussy still mutely throbbing against her tailbone.  Stella traced Scully’s spine with her fingers, brushing them down over the wet, split center of Scully’s body.

“Stella,” she moaned and Stella stalled.  

“No,” she said, “Pretend I’m him.”

“What?” Scully said, irritated.  Stella leaned forward, her bare breasts soft but formidable swells at the shore of Scully’s upper back.

“Pretend I’m Mulder.”

Scully felt her brow furrow and her stomach turn.  

“Sitting in a chair right over there, his dick hard for you.”  Scully’s clitoris twitched at the click of Stella’s hard English consonants, but at the words they were forming.  “I can tell you how it felt.”

Scully felt a simultaneous surge of anger in her chest and desire everywhere else.  She was caught between Stella’s body and her own stubbornness, pressing her palms into the floor.

“Shut up.”

Stella moved Scully’s hair and kissed behind her ear.  

“The way I got wet when he tore my panties…”  A kiss.  “The way it felt when he grabbed my hips… so tight…”  

A kiss.  

“And the way he filled me up.  God, he would split you in two, darling.”  

Scully inched her legs open to give Stella easy access, but Stella gave her one slim finger, just once in and out.  

“Stop talking, just fuck me.”  

“Think of him.”  

At the stroke of another slim finger, Scully’s body inadvertently bent and bounced like a bow and Stella took advantage, sliding an arm beneath, letting a breast fall into her palm as Scully’s weight settled again.

“Oh God,” Stella drawled, their bodies candied with sex and sweat, wet leaves plastered with rain.  “Can’t you feel how badly he wants you?”

And as Stella’s mouth came round the side of Scully’s face, soft, puffy lips toying with her own, she caved.  Yes, maybe she could feel that he wanted her.  In his sad, fertile eyes, his broad shoulders and loose knot of his tie, she felt it – or was that how she wanted him?  It doesn’t matter, she told herself as her mind traveled to the smooth, hard curve of his cock as he stroked it through his fist and watched her lick Stella’s nipples.  She shut her eyes tight.

“He’s in love with you, you know,” Stella said, her hand wiggling between Scully’s tits, tracing the line of her stomach to her clitoris.  Scully tried to ignore it, tried to stop all action and reaction, like a filthy game of freeze dance she was losing.  Stella must be teasing her.  Mulder was not in love with her.  That was impossible.

“No,” was all Scully said.

Scully raised herself on her elbows and breathed deeply, letting her forehead fall into her hands.   Stella pushed one of Scully’s legs wider with her knee, tickled the soft curve of her ass with the cap of her thigh.

“Oh my God,” Scully said, mind spinning, body singing.

“I can stop.”

“I’m not in love with him,” Scully sputtered.

“You sure?”  

“I said stop talking about him.”  

She summoned her strength, began to crawl away, but Stella grabbed her ankle, tackled her as they both laughed in harmonically wicked satisfaction; they were both winning and losing at the same time.  Scully felt Stella, lithe and damp, her imperious little body combing the landscape of Scully’s as she took her rightful throne.

Stella’s nipples were hard against Scully’s shoulders.  Her hair fell and clung to Scully’s sweaty shoulders.  She wondered if any of this wet mess was Stella’s or if it was all her somehow.  Stella held her from behind a moment, playing gently with Scully’s breasts, rolling and squeezing her nipples between perfectly buffed nails.  The carpet scratched her skin.

“Do you want me to stop?”

Scully shook her head no.

“Make me come, please make me come,” she begged.

Stella’s hand lowered and took her, this time her fingers everywhere, stretching and stroking, fucking her very slowly, with long, solid two-fingered strokes.

“Beg me again, I like that.”

“Fuck you.”  

Stella’s hands stilled so that Scully could no longer feel them, was not even sure whether they were inside her, and she banged the tops of her feet on the carpet.

“Please.”

The hand slid and swept, molding Scully into a piece of pottery, and Scully could smell Stella’s come on her own resting fingers, raw and clean as drying clay.  Scully tore bits of carpet up, rug burning her belly as she gambled for more of Stella’s force.  An explosive pressure built against the grip of Stella’s hand.  She his face for a moment.

“I’m going to come, oh my God, I’m coming,” she said, pointless tears releasing from the corners of her eyes, burning her cheeks.  “I’m coming…”

Stella kissed her neck, teeth sinking into her flesh hungrily as she brought Scully to a pulsing, halting, shattering finish.  

Stella rested for a few minutes, weight sinking into Scully’s, and then turned her over.  Scully felt slick and boneless, fresh rising dough on a rack.  Stella stared down at her face a moment and Scully tried to look away, ashamed of the tears streaming down her temples, but there was nowhere to look.  Stella rose unsteadily back to her feet, dragging Scully up to the bed. There they settled, Stella laying down beside her, braiding her legs with Scully’s from hips to toes.

There was Stella’s breath again, steady and slow and eerily controlled.  The rise and fall, the soft and hard of Stella’s naked body.  Scully clung to her, trying to fit her into every tingling square of bare skin on her body.  Stella worked her hand out of Scully’s hair and held her wrist up for Scully to see.

“It means ‘self’,” she said hoarsely.  Scully blinked, lashes fluttering in confusion as she tried to picture Stella needing to be reminded who she was.  She had never met someone so comfortable in their own skin.

Stella’s eyes were now bright, shiny blue, kaleidoscoping from the dark pointed black of her pupils, bursting outward to the outer edges of the atmosphere, a volatile temperature reached and sustained for a specific amount of time, a perfect storm of chemistry resulting in stunning beauty.  By morning, Scully thought sleepily, they would be cool and silver with ash again.

Scully wanted to know more, but she knew better than to ask, knew this was more than most people usually got.  So instead, she took the ink to her lips.  She could almost taste Stella’s past there – there she was, young and wide-eyed, fresh from some trauma, hair hanging, a more natural dusty color, down her back, jeans slung low on her hips as she entered a tattoo shop, eager to pay money to boss an adult around.  Scully opened her eyes, smiling at her own foolishness.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Stella said, eyes fluttering, rustling the sheets with her foot.  “I have to leave in three days.”

The sun was beginning to rise and Stella shut her eyes, pulling Scully close around her body.  Scully remained awake a while, watching the light over Stella’s shoulder as it yawned and stretched through the drapes, the sun poking its curious lashes into yet another dark hotel room, and she wondered how much more her life could change in three days.

Chapter Text

Stella Gibson didn’t make a habit of watching people sleep.  The last time she’d done it was years ago, a prolonged jag that resulted in the purchase of three new sets of bed sheets, a zealous effort to fight memory with thread count.  She’d traded one vice for another, would spend the rest of her life quietly indulging a weakness for pima cotton and crisp corners, a penchant for Italian linen and French embroidery.  But it would be a long time before she settled in beside someone to wait for their eyes to open, the sleep-boiled scent of peaceful slumber coming off their hair, the fragile spot on their neck pulsing with life.  There were some luxuries she simply couldn’t afford.

It still brought Stella a twinge of private embarrassment to recall it so well.  Bridget sleeping on her stomach, dark hair always parted around her pear-shaped ears, clinging to the mattress like a frog in a rainstorm with her lean swimmer’s leg zig-zagged across the mattress.  Stella would stay in bed tiptoeing her fingers up the crease of a quadricep, stroking an ear to its sylphan point.  And long after the woman was gone, the lightning bolt imprint of a leg split the bed down the center, the new sheets continued to bunch in an invisible hand -- fleeting images mistakenly committed to permanence by an overly ambitious pair of eyes.  It was a nuisance but not a surprise.  The only other bedroom vigil she’d ever kept had left an even more indelible impression -- a child standing graveside, puffy lavender rings sprouted like violets around her eyes, watching her father be put in the ground.

So by the time Stella woke up next to Dana Scully for the second time in her life, she was so practiced in her abstinence that it took hardly any discipline at all to direct the day’s first glance upward, aim her plans at the ceiling.  Shower alone.  Allow guest to wake and begin gathering own conclusions.  Emerge dressed, provide tea and friendly conversation, make end as forgettable as beginning was not.  

She licked her lips before turning over, sealing her resolve like an envelope.

But hours passed; the shower stall remained desert dry and Stella a captive audience to Agent Scully’s feature-length performance of unconsciousness.  Spotlight-white skin behind a thick opera-house curtain of hair, eyelids fluttering like fringed balconies, bottom lip folding down like a red velvet seat on the exhales.  Stella leaned in to whisper Scully’s forbidden first name into her ear and felt something like suspense.  Maybe she didn’t know how this would end after all.  Scully stirred, her fist rippling, her nose turning, and Stella felt something in the center seat of her chest shift in discomfort.  She could easily go broke here.

“Have you been up long?” Scully asked innocently, less a question than a corrupted yawn.  She twisted at the neck, angling to read the alarm clock, a wooden box with grooves on the top that apparently made it impossible even for professional cleaners to dust properly.  She covered her face with her hands in horror.  “Oh my God, it’s so late.”

Stella lifted the little gold cross that had snuggled up into the pillow overnight.  She dragged it across the neat hem of Scully’s collarbone and dropped it in the pocket of her clavicle, wondering how long it would take for her to get tired of playing with it.  Whatever the answer, most likely, she wouldn’t be around for it.

“You won’t go to hell for it,” she said.  “But I am starving.  I’m going to call down.  What’ll you have?”

Scully chuckled.

“I don’t think they have room service at this hotel.”

“They do.  I checked.”

Stella had known a lot of these women, the ones who were more likely to eat a granola bar in traffic than breakfast in bed.  She enjoyed converting them almost as much as she enjoyed fucking them.

“I don’t know…” Scully mused, eyes drifting up like she was trying to remember what breakfast tasted like.  Stella didn’t wait.  She propped herself up on an elbow and reached over Scully’s head for the phone.  Pancakes for two.  With berries.  Ice water and juice.

“I’ve had time enough to decide for both of us,” she said as she placed the phone back in its receiver, dawdled over Scully’s face on the way back to her side of the bed.  

Stella had only grabbed a few basics to bring to Philadelphia, and her favorite robe hadn’t made the cut.  But she had found a (presumably) clean white one hanging in the closet here, the hotel’s humble insignia stitched upon its chest pocket.  There was something sad and sweet about it, imagining the proprietor who assumed this touch would elevate his institution to great heights.  The bleach-ragged arm, too long for Stella, now draped Scully’s bare shoulder.

“Could’ve woken me sooner if you were hungry.  So polite.”

“I’m a nice English girl.”

“Mm.”  Scully pawed at Stella’s waist as she gathered her energy.  “I don’t know about nice.”

Stella traced Scully’s lips with a knuckle.  This was something else she didn’t do in bed anymore.  Her cheeks burned with the obscenity of the affection, her palms grew sweaty when their feet wiggled together in the same warm spot on the mattress.  But Scully seemed undaunted.  She pushed Stella onto her back and lifted the barricade of sheets between them so that she could roll naked on top of her.  Heat melted their bodies together through Stella’s fluffy white robe until they were one rare indulgence, a layered confection of fresh-whipped terry cloth and skin. 

Scully moved her hand down Stella’s chest, smoothing the cotton loops down like stalks of wheat in the wind, then ruffling them when her thumb moved in circles against the grain.  Stella felt her body come up off the mattress like a bridge and Scully smiled at the first real sign of Stella’s interest.  Morning-after sex was not far behind watching people sleep on her list of things not to do.  She tried to focus on something less charming, less sexy, less red-headed than the person making figure eights between her breasts.  

But Scully had not doled out the cash for those overwrought sheet sets, had learned no lessons about dangerous extravagances.  So now she nudged her face along the vertical hem of the robe, spreading and dotting her confidence down Stella’s body like icing.  And when Scully finally reached her first slice of thigh, Stella forgot about her plans, her pancakes, forgot everything but the tip of Scully’s nose.

“How long do I have?” Scully asked as she carefully folded the robe up to kiss Stella’s leg.  Stella bent her knee up, letting the pleat fall open in encouragement.  She liked clothes and she liked watching people try to get underneath them.

“As long as you like.  If the food comes, I’ll tell him to leave it out there.”

She rolled out her fingertips across the back of Scully’s head like a welcome mat and Scully licked her way from pussy to belly button with a lascivious, lazy bottom lip.  And there was the feeling worth a thousand bikini waxes, that first moment of tongue-on-skin contact like the first prickly suck of a freshly unpackaged creamsicle.  A drop of Scully’s saliva traveled from her clitoris down her center and up the crack of her ass.

The way Scully fucked was earnest and eager, level-headed as a judge as she balanced wet with dry, hard with soft.  Someday, Stella might have told her this, but too soon would seem simpering, and any later – well, she wasn’t going to be there any later.  So instead she said nothing and sighed through clenched jaws, tongue forming the silent shape of curses at the back of her teeth.  The food was going to be there any minute; a certain kind of woman would have felt it was too much pressure, let Scully off the hook.  Stella was not that woman.

“Touch yourself,” she demanded.

She looked down over her breast as Scully reached her left hand between her legs.  Her right hand, the good hand, worked Stella like a sewing wheel, nimble enough to earn promises of firstborn children and spin biology into gold.  Stella’s teeth began to chatter, hips and legs bucking against the confines of Scully’s straddled legs, toes grasping for bedding, and the fabric of Stella’s breath caught and dragged, then at Scully’s behest finally came loose, an exhale splitting down a newly-made seam and leaving Stella in frayed pieces.

Scully dropped her forehead against Stella’s thigh, her arms spread to the side like wings.

“I’m getting better at it, aren’t I?”

“It’s not an Olympic sport.”

Stella’s leg reached around Scully’s body and nuzzled her with the arch of a foot, pulling her closer.  This was contentment -- sexual satisfaction, food she didn’t have to cook coming, a woman with a tongue as sharp as her mind proudly hugging her hip.  

But then Scully gulped against her leg.  The cold, curt feeling of a doctor’s thumb replacing a lover’s, tracing a straight line across Stella’s inner thigh, opening new wounds even as it sewed up the old.  Stella knew the little line well, could find it blind and spinning in the dark.

The finger found another line.

And then another.

Stella breathed evenly, determined not to flinch as Scully passed over each white raised rail of skin, knowing if she did so, a conversation would be more likely to follow.  She felt a strong, hot surge of anger as she pictured the near future -- Scully with her brow knit and cheekbones shadowy with worry, lecturing and shaming her.

Finally, Scully relaxed her hand and, seeming to have made a decision, came to lie directly beside Stella.  Stella’s heart skidded as Scully looked her in the eye.  She had been forced to tell these stories to therapists, emergency room nurses before, but she had never had to do it looking into a pair of eyes as blue as Billie Holiday.

There was a knock at the door.

“Leave it there please,” Stella called out, her voice loud but level, a trigger inside her trembling while she waited for Scully to draw.  Scully searched Stella’s face like she’d just found her outlaw, her eyes pacing the length of Stella’s nose like she owned it.  

“Finish me,” Scully said.  

Stella undid the belt of her robe without looking and shook it off, left her panic in a pool of terry cloth as she pressed her body against Scully’s, one thigh between Scully’s legs, her old scars covered in Scully’s fresh skin.

 

*

 

They ate at the room’s tiny table, the cumbersome silver warming hats stacked on the nearby heating vent.  Stella had always felt a sense of connection to other people when she sat at a hotel room table.  Here was their shared site of awkward morning-afters, lonely resting wallets and illegally doled out wads of cash.

Scully was wrapped in a sheet and squinting aggressively.  Stella reached behind her to pull the gauzy inside drape shut.

“Thank you.”

Stella swallowed a bite of lukewarm pancake and tried to figure out how to begin to say goodbye to someone who looked like that, who hummed as she ate, scooped shrinking ice cubes from the water glass and dropped them into her juice before she sipped.  Stella thought of the scars on the soles of her feet.  Scully hadn’t found them yet, but she would if this continued any longer.  Now that she’d gotten a taste of Stella’s secrets, she’d be bloodthirsty for more, always looking.  She would ask questions -- didn’t they bleed when you walked on them?  How did they ever heal?   

She surprised herself as much as she did Scully when the words left her mouth.

“I made them.”

It was a simple thing to give a person – an answer, the truth.  But Scully received it like someone who rarely got it.  She put her fork down like it was an infant, as if any noise she made might make Stella change her mind and clam up.

“I would cut myself.  In my teens, my twenties.  Once about five years ago, but that was aberrant.”

“Why?”

Stella shrugged.

“Just an urge I got some bad night.”

“No.  I meant why in general.”

Stella forced herself to scrape a piece of pancake onto a raspberry, dip it in the congealing powdered sugar.  Both the plate and her stomach had grown inhospitable to food, but her hand happily suffered the journey just to have something to focus on other than Scully’s growing disappointment.

“I was lonely, angry.  The physical pain seemed soothing by comparison.”

Usually, Stella thought of it distantly, if she thought of it at all.  But as she described it for Scully, it came alive for her again, made sense again all of a sudden.  She caught the glint of the butter knife under her hand and thought of her friend Mike, a former smoker.  Most of the time, Mike told her, when he walked by smokers on the street, he felt smugly superior for having quit already.  But every so often, the thing was fresh lit, orange-tipped and reeking of nicotine and as he walked through the cloud of smoke, he’d think of every bus stop, every bedroom he’d ever been in with one.

What then? she had asked.

I walk faster.

“But it didn’t replace the other pain.  It just distracted me.  A far less magical feat.”

“So you stopped, then.”

“Of course,” she said, more pridefully than was necessary.  “There are much less dangerous and damaging things with which to distract oneself.”

Stella was still expecting some sort of outburst, a selfish display of hindsight’s concern, a nodding speech about her braveness, a wobbling exclamation of horror that masked secret mouth-watering for the sensational.  But Scully looked up and leaned forward, silent and sturdy as a stable.  She bridled Stella’s face with iron cold hands and made a horseshoe of kisses there.  Stella wanted to accept her kindness, but the touch was so light that her skin bristled and then ached.  She bucked back into the chair and gripped Scully’s wrists, the sound of reigns still snapping in her ears as she finally turned on the shower.

 

*

 

Stella held the phone between her ear and chin as she ironed her sweater.  The steam came up smelling like yesterday --  red wine and river embraces, sex on a hotel room floor -- the residue of which Stella intended to leave here on the floral-covered board.

Scully came out of the bathroom in Stella’s clothes and Stella realized she’d never brought her things in from the car, she’d been so distracted with Mulder’s adventures and Stella’s mixed messages.  She fixed herself in the full-length mirror, glancing over at Stella under a thin veil of nonchalance.  

“Aisle seat is good, yes.  Thank you… no that’s all.”

When she hung up, Scully marked time, trying to get a crisp M shape out of a silk collar as she waited for Stella to explain.

“What was that about?” she finally asked.

“I’m going home sooner than expected.”

“How soon?”

“First thing tomorrow morning.”

Scully nodded, mouth pursed as she looked down, eyebrows making a single hop as she tried to hide her disappointment.  It was almost enough to make Stella pick the phone back up.

“Oh.”

“We’ve had a nice time,” Stella said with the sigh of an inconvenienced shopper.  Scully’s reflection disappeared and when Stella turned, slipping her warm sweater over her head, Scully was posed at table, one hand on her hip, the other gripping the back of the chair she’d eaten breakfast in so joyfully not an hour ago.  Stella pretended to concentrate on the button of her pants, chewed the inner tag of her cheek with her pointiest tooth, and then looked up, finally prepared to be the person who chased that other Scully from the room.

“We were never going to see each other again anyway.  It’s better this way.”

Scully kept looking at the floor, spoke like she was talking to herself.

“This morning you weren’t acting like someone I was never going to see again.”

“And how do they act?  Besides trying to kill you.”

Stella regretted it the moment it left her mouth, but she held steady, chin lifted.  Scully looked up with hard, hot eyes, ferocious and justice-seeking, ready to storm the castle with her simple kindness and decency, no matter how Stella treated her.

“What were you expecting?” Stella continued.

“I was expecting you to stay until Saturday because you said your flight was on Saturday,” Scully said evenly.  “Maybe Sunday or Monday if we were having a good time.”

“It’s one day’s difference.”

“It’s not the amount of time, it’s the fact that you’re doing it.”

“Did you think we were going to have some kind of relationship?”

Scully pressed her weight off the back of the chair and began to gather her things.  Stella picked up the tiny travel bottle of perfume she’d brought with her and then put it back down, the smell suddenly turning her stomach.

“No,” Scully said.  “I don’t think you could have a relationship with anybody.”

Stella blinked, choking a bit on her own speechlessness as Scully grabbed her coat, whirled it around her shoulders, sending the industrious scent of the dry cleaners wafting around the room.

“You’re acting like this because you scared yourself.  And you’re not even brave enough to admit it.”

“Maybe we’ll stay in touch,” Stella said.  She wasn’t one to offer friendship as a breakup concession.  But Scully’s bleeding pride and fussy hair-tossing was too much, a sort of glamorous temper tantrum, a beloved old movie star having a meltdown.  She ignored the offer and reached for the hotel door handle without even a glance back over her shoulder.

“Where are you going?” Stella asked, hoping to get a look at her face one more time.  It would do her better to remember it this way – reeling in hatred – than, for example, in profile over a glass of wine, or tipped back asking for Jesus Christ.  Scully did not grant her the favor.

“Home.  Alone,” she muttered and then stepped into the hall, door swinging open and lifting the back of her coat up.

“Shall I go back with Agent Mulder?”

“Do whatever you want, Stella.”

Stella folded her arms across her chest as the door slammed shut with one last petite gust.  Fine.  Doing whatever she wanted was Stella’s specialty.  She intended to do exactly fucking that.

 

*

 

Stella sat up suddenly, not yet feeling like herself, but unable to face the faded glory of the popcorn ceiling another moment.  The place had seemed kind of romantic last night, an appropriately vintage backdrop to Scully’s late autumn complexion, her hourglass figure, her cedary voice.  Now Stella saw only decay.  She’d been lying on the bed for an hour in her clothes, proclaiming her faith in her own performance.  But just a few inches away, just a few hours ago, Scully had melted beneath her in a self-sacrifice to Stella’s pride, offered her body when she saw that Stella had shed blood.  She needed to get the fuck out of there.  She needed the cold pagan temple of her room in DC. 

Agent Mulder was the only person left in Philadelphia she knew, and he happened to have a car.  

She pulled herself together, gave her sleeve a brisk tug as she knocked on his hotel room door.  

His tie was askew, shirt untucked, when he answered.  He reeked of something halfway between mouthwash and aftershave and his neck was dotted with bloody bits of toilet paper like a kid who’d just learned to shave.

“I’ll be right behind you guys,” he said.

Stella took a breath and made a concerted effort not to heave it back out.  She had not accounted for the energy she’d expend trying to recount it all to Mulder.

“Agent Scully left.  I was wondering if I could ride back with you.”

Mulder looked surprised.  He opened the door wider and backed away.

“Come on in, I’m dressed,” he said, though that was obvious.

The air in Mulder’s room didn’t smell of half-eaten pancakes under silver covers, wasn’t haunted by the ghost of a woman swaddled naked beneath a sheet.  It hadn’t ever held charm for Mulder, but instead had been rough and unfriendly from the start.  Stella wondered now which way was worse.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Nothing happened,” she said with instantly regrettable edge.  She did not want the conversation to continue, much less intensify.

“She get pissed off at you?”

He sounded hopeful, amused even.  Should she choose to share it, the truth would wipe that dopey half-smile right off his face.

“You could say that.”

“What’d you do?”

She said nothing.

“Fine,” he said, throwing his hands in the air.  “You don’t have to tell me…”  

He turned around to put his shoes on, bent to tie them, and his shoulder muscles stretched the fabric across his back.  Stella felt a wave of relief, a steady spot on a carsick road.  She looked down at his ass -- so tight that her fingers toyed involuntarily with the coin in her pocket.  When he stood, her eyes slid down his back to the strong plateau where the sway of a woman’s would usually be.  He’d been behind her when he fucked her and she hadn’t much taken the time to appreciate him.  (Then again, Scully hadn’t found time to appreciate him in five years.)  Perhaps Stella should have.  Perhaps she should have been smart and put Mulder between her and Scully to begin with, protected herself.

There was Scully in her head again.  How’s Mulder doing?

She stared at him hard, trying to replace the image of Scully’s top lip caught between her teeth with one of Mulder’s hands on her hips.  He glanced at her nervously as he tucked his shirt into his pants, hapless and impossible to objectify.  She began to wander around the room impatiently.  

The pointy toe of her shoe sanded the tile of the bathroom floor. She felt some relief in the dark room as she transferred the coolness of the counter to her hands and then her neck.  A hotel-sized bottle of mouthwash sat empty, reeking as if it had come from the minibar.  Its cheapness was magnified by its companion -- a man’s travel bag, thick, worn leather, half-zipped.  She toyed with it, comforted by the weight of it, the sandalwood smell of it, and idly sifted through it -- an old-fashioned razor and a box of Gillette single-blades.

“You didn’t have time to pack clothes but you stopped home for your shaving kit?”

“It was my father’s.  I keep it at the office as a spare in case of last minute travel.  I’m not so great with it.”

That explained the toilet paper.  Stella shook a razor out of the little matchbox-type encasement, ran her thumb along the safe edge, thinking of the nimble line of Scully’s collarbone against the tip of her nose, Scully’s lips on her temple at the breakfast table, the way the sheet beneath her armpit rustled as she almost lost sight of it and dropped it.  She turned the blade absentmindedly, tapping the sharp edge against the counter and then the safe one, the sharp and then the safe.  Her thoughts ran amok, but the blade’s focus was narrow, unforgiving.

“Guess she’s still pissed at me too,” he said, pouting from the next room.  Stella envied the routineness of it for him.  Mulder knew that Scully would get over it, that their relationship would be restored to its comfortable (if deluded) state in no time.  He wasn’t going anywhere.  He didn’t have to forget her.  He didn’t have to decide if it was better to be kind or cruel.

“What are you doing?”

He appeared beside her in the mirror.  She tossed the bottle of mouthwash and zipped his bag, pushed it at him.

“Nothing.  Are you ready?”

“Yeah, we can go apologize together.  Strength in numbers.”

“I don’t think she’s angry with us for the same reasons,” Stella said.  She didn’t know why she’d done it, given it that inflection.  She had to have known intuitively that he wouldn’t miss it.  And of course, he didn’t.  He stared at her, a dazed look in his eyes, shoulders broadening for a fight.

“Was she…”

He gulped and she sighed, emotional fatigue setting in before he even finished the question.  How many people’s days could she be expected to ruin in the course of one hotel checkout?

“With you… last night?”

She slithered through the narrow passage between Mulder’s body and the doorjamb to escape and his tie caught on her coat collar.  For a second, she thought he might grab her by the elbow, force her to look him in the eyes while she answered.  The thought of tossing that back and swallowing it, chasing Scully’s anger with his, sent a thrill up the back of Stella’s spine, goosebumps down her arms.  

But Mulder was not a grabber.  He lingered at the bathroom counter, looking at his fingernails as they wiped the edge of the sink.  She pitied him his imagination.  Look what that had done to Ed Jerse, and to his victims.  She decided at this point that an ounce of honesty at this point would be better than a lifetime of wondering.

“It didn’t mean anything, Mulder.”

He looked at her as he began to shuffle back into the room.   His pupils dilated and spun, green and gold pinwheels, carnival souvenirs of betrayal and jealousy.

And something else.  Love.  He loved Scully so much it was almost like he could put her in the room by sheer will.

Why hadn’t she thought of it sooner?  This could be easy.  It could feel good.  It could feel like Mulder’s body beneath her as she rode him raw, his eyes fluttering shut so he could think of Scully.  It could smell like Mulder sweating away the loss on Stella’s behalf, sound like him moaning the name she wouldn’t let pass her lips.  

“You mean, it didn’t mean anything to you,” he said sharply and then opened the door, holding it for her with mock chivalrousness.

She paused beneath his gaze, placed a loose hand against his chest, the steadiness of his heartbeat bordering on melancholy beneath the heel of her hand.  He seemed to have no trouble posing for her, bottom lip pouting inimitably, as she quickly examined the perimeter of his face, the line of his jaw and his raw-cheap-shaven neck, felt his mournful spearmint breath tickle her ear.  If he wondered what the fuck she was doing or thinking, he didn’t let on, just stood there, his doe-eyes unreadable.

Her palm curled and her nails took a diver’s start, poised on their tips, ready to take him head first, drag him to a depth where neither oxygen nor forgiveness could reach them.  She paused as she imagined how comfortably distant, how sure-footed her escape from Washington would feel then, with Scully safely rooted in the past.  How much easier it would be to leave it all here, not have to pack it up, shove it in the overhead compartment and drag it back across the ocean.  She could just fuck him.  It was really that simple to be free of it.

But Mulder seemed to have no interest in freedom.  He waded past her into the hallway, one hand jingling the car keys in his jacket pocket, one eye on the elevator button that would take him back to Scully.

Chapter Text

An empty soda bottle scuttled back and forth between the sedan’s center console and passenger side door the entire ride home, a constant reminder to Mulder of the frenzied state in which he had come.  There were still skeletons of sunflower seeds in the cup holder, rattling over every pothole like salty little ghosts.  Reminders so silly that his impulsive dash to visit a Philadelphia murderer twenty-four hours ago felt more like something dumb he’d done years ago at a high school graduation party.

The orange fuel light announced itself with a dramatic ding.  On the way up, he’d been a jetliner on course, a fuel tank full of testosterone, junk food, jealousy.  Now all that was gone, all of it except the jealousy, and that was losing its potency in the process of being recycled and redirected at his co-pilot.  Stella leaned in a little to see the dashboard for herself and he waited for her to say something about the gas the way Scully always did, as if she’d been the only one who’d heard or seen the stupid warning.  But Stella looked back down at the soda bottle.

“Agent Scully always let you keep the car a mess?” she asked.  

They were coming down the exit ramp now.  The din of the highway faded and the dull whooshing of speed slipped out from under them like a faulty safety net.  She had only asked him one thing up until then – if he minded her turning on the heat.  He’d said no only to have to slouch his coat off and cuff up his sleeves an hour later.  Scully would have noted his discomfort, even without him saying anything, and turned the dial back down in empathy.  She would’ve put her scarf back on rather than watch him sweat.  But no, she wouldn’t have let him keep the car this messy.

“Yes,” he lied.

“What did you do to your head?”

Mulder thought of the way Scully had stood between his knees at the hospital, buttoning him up.  He’d longed to put his hands into the warm space between the silky inside lining of her coat and the home base diamond of her waist, cling to her and feel safe at last.

“I didn’t even tell Scully.”

“She doesn’t make it easy to act like an idiot, does she?”

Mulder smiled, surprised to hear Stella cutting him some slack, even as she insulted him.  There was rarely ever anyone to break the tie between him and Scully, and when there was, they generally didn’t take his side.

“No.  She doesn’t.”

“We’re all idiots sometimes.  Even Agent Scully,” she said, and then mumbled with some uncertainty, “I’m sure.”

Here was the unexpected thing about Stella:  he liked her.  She was sharp, honest, unexpectedly caring.  She was not afraid to make an enemy, and that meant her friendship was worth something.  And, like him, she was a loner.  Scully wasn’t really like that -- her alienation from the world was unintentional, an unwelcome side effect of her loyalty to him and their work.  He kept hoping at some point, she’d figure out a balance, get back the things she’d sacrificed.  If she always had to choose, eventually she might not pick him.

“You never get to say I told you so to a person like that, not even if you’re right,” Stella continued.

If she was trying to earn an answer to her question, she was doing a good job of it.

“I got in a fight.”

He glanced over as he said it and caught the precise moment her eyebrows rose and fell, a remarkably Scully-like gesture.  The comparison unsettled him and he looked back at the road to shake it off.

“Not like your fight with Scully.  A good old-fashioned fist fight.”

“Make a habit out of that?”

He was slightly insulted at the doubt implied.  He could fight.  He could fucking fight anytime he wanted to.

“I got drunk and got a tattoo from that place.”

“The one with the ergot poisoning.”

“Yeah.”

“Surely there was a better place for that kind of impulse purchase.”

“No, it’s why I got it.”

He realized she was looking at him.

“Oh,” he said.  “You were kidding.”

“You were testing the poison, I gather.”

“Yeah, I wanted to see if it would have an effect on me.  I wanted to know for sure whether Jerse was making it up.”

“And?”

“Instead, I saw you.  Together.”  She made no indication that this surprised her.  “Walking.”

She breathed softly and he saw her wet her lips with her tongue.  Mulder thought of that saying about your secrets keeping you sick.  Maybe they both had some getting well to do.

“I was jealous,” he said, feeling some relief already. “You have some kind of personal connection with her.  I’ve been working with her for years and it… it’s not the same.”

“You wouldn’t want it to be the same.  A personal connection is by definition unique.”

“Yeah… well… I tried to distract myself from it by thinking about Ed Jerse.  I went to the bar he took her to, started asking the bartender questions, trying to see if he remembered them.”

“A random couple on a date?”

“He said as a matter of fact, he did remember her.”

It was kind of thrilling to have her engaged like this, following the story with interest, her elbow up on the windowpane, her forehead fretting.  He could tell that Stella was a woman who was not easily entertained.

“He started telling me about how drunk she got.  Said he saw them having sex in the hall by the bathroom and actually, that he had a turn with her himself.”

What?”

“And so.  Yeah.  A fight.  For no reason.”

“He was putting you on.”

“Yes,” he said, almost sorry to end on such an anticlimactic note.  “That turned out to be the case.”

The bartender hadn’t remembered Scully at all, had thought Mulder looked like a corporate asshole in his coat and tie, and felt like messing with him.  City of brotherly love.

“So what was your conclusion?”

He glanced at Stella, trying to find the thread he’d dropped, lost in thoughts of his own foolishness.

“About the ergot.  Did it cause you to be violent?  Did you hear voices?”

Mulder had been on futile quests all his life, but only this one had been memorialized on his skin.

“Just my own.”

A moment passed and then he felt her hand on his bicep, reassuring him.

“We all do things when we’re jealous,” she said, taking her hand back, “We’ve all been guilty of letting our emotions dictate our actions.”

“You put the idea in my head,” he said at a risk of starting another argument.

“I know,” Stella said.  “I shouldn’t have.”

Maybe that meant she’d never really thought it was possible that Scully had the ergot latent in her blood.  Maybe it meant she had considered it and had changed her mind.  In any case, the apology sounded genuine.  He glanced down and saw that her fingers were fiddling very subtly with the pleat of her pants.  All women were mysteries to Mulder, but this one could have had her own dedicated basement office.

“So you do too?  You get jealous?”

Jealousy implied vulnerability.  Even with her panties torn and her hips in his hands, Stella had seemed aloof, indifferent.  Well, not indifferent, exactly, because she’d been… responsive.   But whatever it was, it was not vulnerable.

“No, not really,” she admitted.  “I don’t usually give anyone the chance to make me feel that way.”

Her voice trailed off, dulled by the steamed window glass as she turned her face over her shoulder.  She started sounding almost sleepy, as if narrating a dream.

“Usually.”

He couldn’t tell if she was trying to convince him or herself.  The fidgeting spread like a rash from her fingers to her leg.  There was a sharp noise, the bottle rolling and crunching under her shoe.  Mulder startled, not so much because it was loud but because it was very disconcerting to see Stella like this, fidgeting like someone who was trying not to be sick on a plane.

“Sorry,” she whispered, her voice somewhere far away.

*

Mulder was taking up an awkward spot in the circular driveway of Stella’s DC hotel, creating havoc among the otherwise obedient line of valeting cars.  It was the second time he’d been there that day, having already dropped her off ten minutes ago, and the valet kid was staring at him.  Mulder ignored him and toyed with the scarf as he tried to make up his mind about what to do with it.  He wound it like boxer’s tape around his hands, fluffed it on the passenger seat like a pet cat, wrapped it around his neck and pretended to strangle himself (the valet kid rolled his eyes).

It was silky and smelled good, though the warmth from Stella’s body heat was rapidly fading.  He had always been fascinated by the way women’s scarves smelled -- shampoo and perfume, the sweat that contained the excitement and fear of many days put together.  As a little boy, he had once asked his mother why she didn’t wash her scarf as often as her clothes and she told him never to ask a woman that again.  It seemed like figures of authority had been telling him to stop asking questions ever since.

He hadn’t asked what Stella’s plans were and he didn’t have a phone number for her.  It was possible she’d never see this (probably expensive) scarf again if he didn’t bring it up to her.  Or it was possible she’d come to the office the next morning and he could give it to her then.  Leaving it at the desk for her seemed hostile.  Giving it to Scully and asking her to deliver it was… out of the question.  He sighed at the indignity of mandatory valet service and handed the car over to the stink-eyed kid.

He felt like he was standing outside his body watching himself as the elevator doors opened and shut, dungeonlike.  The kind in the last act of a movie where the hero infuriatingly and willingly goes back into the fray for some noble cause (in this case, a scarf).

Stella opened the door barefoot and coatless, but otherwise still dressed.  The room was clean, sheets pulled taut, smelled of shady-spot flowers.  It was hardly a dungeon of any kind and Stella, loose-limbed and tiny without her shoes, was hardly a dragon.

“Oh.  Thank you,” she said.  “Do you want to come in for a drink?”

She seemed lighter somehow than she had in the car, breezier, as if she’d gotten a contact high just walking into this place.  He wondered how she’d even survived the other one.

“I…”

“You’re not going in to the office, are you?”

Mulder thought of their idled case files, all the things that had been interrupted and stalled by Stella’s visit and – depressingly -- suffered no consequence as a result.  He was pretty sure Scully was already home drinking a glass of wine in symbolic mutiny.  And it only felt early to him – for normal people, the workday was officially over.  Three days of basically doing nothing had somehow inflicted more exhaustion than any multiple-victim, cross-country case he could remember.

“I guess one drink.”

She went over to the pair of stout tumblers hotels always put out, the kind Mulder usually used to rinse his toothpaste, and took both between her pointer finger and thumb.  With the other hand, she reached for an already-open bottle of bourbon.  He imagined Stella walking in, kicking her shoes off with a sigh, swigging right from the bottle.  Whatever blows Stella had suffered during her fight with Scully had affected her more than she’d let on in the car.  

Now she held the glasses out, offering him one, and caught him looking at the cracked seal on the bottle, the gulp-sized empty space. 

“Luckily, company arrived to civilize me,” she said and he stepped closer to take his cup.  

Scully’s beauty had the majesty of an Indian elephant.  Intimidating at a distance, it softened and welcomed him as he grew nearer, put a hand on her back or whispered into her ear.  But Stella’s gained strength with proximity, a white tiger coming down from its rock, pressing its nose against the protective glass.  When she tipped the bourbon to pour him some, his hand shook and the lip of his glass clanged with the bottle.  The tumbler cracked and a palm-sized dagger promptly fell into the center like a novelty ice cube.

“Sorry,” she said, though he knew she knew it was his fault.  He put the glass down and traded it for one of the coffee mugs.   

“Gently now,” she warned as she raised her glass to toast.  “I hate drinking out of coffee cups.” 

“To our wives and sweethearts,” he said as they clinked, a Royal Navy toast he’d picked up while at Oxford.  He wondered if she’d know the reference.

“May they never meet.”

He smiled.  

She swallowed and sat on the bed beside the nightstand, her back pushed up against the headboard, her elbows on her knees, drink dangling over her ankles.  

“You going to sit down while you nurse that?”

Mulder looked around.  Not a lot of seating options.  There was, of course, the chair next to the bed.  But that seemed even more suggestive than the bed considering the last time he’d sat in it, he was watching Stella and Scully have sex… That’s right.  Stella was just a person who had sex and lost scarves and sometimes drank right from the bottle.  And she didn’t want him, she wanted Scully.

Still, he kept the studious distance the length of a marble notebook between them as he sat up against the headboard.  

Stella looked at him amiably, two neighbors sitting on the stoop after dinner.  Evening had burned off the low-toned husk of her voice and turned it girlish and summery in time for small-talk.

“Been a long day?”

For a moment, he didn’t answer her, distracted by a raging internal debate as to which tone of voice was the affectation and which the reality.  But this was of course the same mistake he’d made with Scully when she came home with her tattoo.  Some people were not one thing or the other.

“Long couple of days,” he said.  “Long couple of years.”

“Mm.”

“I’m looking forward to getting back to a regular workday.  Whatever that is.”

She tipped her glass against the bridge of her nose, and looked deep into the bottom of it, a sip she intended to follow to the ends of the Earth.


“I didn’t mean I was looking forward to your leaving,” he said.  It was a lie at first, a white one, meant to spare her feelings, until he realized he believed it himself.

She half-shrugged, a move that involved more blinking than shoulder movement, but somehow a lock of her hair traveled from her clavicle to her back anyway.  Had her eyes changed color since she started drinking?  Or did it just seem like that because he’d been drinking?  Were they more like Scully’s now or less?  Would there ever be a time when Scully was not the standard by which he measured the quality of an eye roll, the intensity of a primary color?

He realized Stella was watching him watch her and he looked down at his tie, loosening it.   

“How long have you been in love with her?” she asked.

He was silent.  He’d been thinking about it so often lately that the question seemed predictable, manageable, like running into someone at the store after you happened to have imagined running into them at the store.  He calmly considered his options, mentally organizing the excuses and lies he’d been making to himself and others for years.  He’d been running around looking for truth for so long that the prospect of one single lie now exhausted him.

“Scully,” Stella clarified.  As if he even knew any other women.

“Sometimes I think it happened the moment I met her.”

Stella mm’ed quietly.

“And sometimes I think it just happened yesterday.”

“Mm,” she hummed more audibly, this time singing it like a lullaby.  She looked up at the ceiling like there was an atrium above them, a cloudless sky, the tiniest hint of a romantic under all that hydrophobic fabric.  He wanted to meet that version of Stella -- the one who maybe liked flowers and surprises, who looked you in the eye when she shook your hand not because she was determining whether to fuck you or not, but because she was checking for mutual recognition.  He shared a secret with that version of Stella and he suddenly wanted the camaraderie of it.  Two schoolkids arguing about who the little redheaded girl liked better.

“How long have you been in love with her?” he asked.

But no knowing chuckle came, no coy wrestling with an admission.  Stella’s face went white with shock and she turned wet-eyed and pink-nosed, the victim of sudden bad news.  Her chin trembled a bit, threatening to shake tears loose from their scaffolds.  Sometimes he wondered if they pulled all the women aside at the academy and taught them how to cry in mixed company – reluctantly, ladies, kicking and screaming the whole way.

“I’m sorry,” he said, wishing very hard that he could unask his question.  If she kept looking so sad, he would start crying himself, and without a single kick or scream.  Why did everyone make love seem comfortable and easy when really, it was this?  Strangers drinking and crying in a soulless hotel bed together.

She looked into his eyes and he let her latch on there, two forgotten satellites rattling around in space together, both orbiting the same little planet, each photographing it through a different lens, each carefully measuring its own threat of collision.  She placed her lips on his and then they were speeding together at seventeen thousand miles an hour as his mind struggled to catch up.  He felt the pull on his upper lip as she inhaled hard, acknowledging the thing barreling toward them, the thing that would destroy them both, and maneuvering to avoid it.  A little more pressure here, a little more speed there, and they might have a chance of surviving the inevitable explosion.

And maybe her plan was a good one.  With each uptick of activity, his heart hurt less, his awareness dulled, his brain’s permanent backdrop of Scully at the desk pulling a pencil like a tightrope faded.  So he took the glass from Stella’s right hand, placed it on the side table.  She stood to take off her pants, left them on one calf as she climbed into his lap, ready to undertake the mission.   When she began to unbuckle his belt, he took her wrists and held them against his chest.

“Not yet,” he said.  She nodded once and wound her hands around his wrists instead, guiding them to her body, placing them at ten and two, giving him the steering wheel as she aimed the car at a cliff.

His fingers tightened and then went slack again, tingled with the heady anticipation of a steep fall.  But Stella’s hips made for an unexpectedly short trip down, a softer landing than he’d expected.  This was one of the places he’d traveled with Scully, one of the few trips she’d initiated, seemed wholly enthusiastic about taking.  They’d been closer there, at the hairpin juncture of Stella’s hips, than they’d been at any midwestern motel, any desert crossroad.  

So he held those hips a little tighter, reclining as they turned over and settled into the tracks of his body, aptly finding the right grooves, churning forward a little faster with each rotation.  She had taken him to Scully once before, and maybe she could do it again.

And so he didn’t stop her when her hands went to the zipper of his pants again, but he didn’t look either.  Instead he pictured the hands he watched rifle through the file cabinet each day, parting folders and picking up paper cuts as if it might finally be the day his righteous mission would make sense.  Now, finally, maybe they were onto his real cause, tending to the clear chronicles of his wildest fantasies, plucking at the tiny piece of copper responsible for  containing all those desires.

“It’s okay,” Stella said, peeling his fly to the edge of the bulge but not touching it.  She rested her hands on his chest.  “Say her name if you want to.  I don’t mind.”

She was like wandering into a dream, soft and warm, thoroughly convincing of her own inconsequentiality.  He let his hands drift to her lower back, rest under the tail of her shirt, exploring her aimlessly as he promised himself he would wake soon.  Stella made no noise at all, hiding like the morning, successfully disappearing even as she spread her thighs and pressed harder, even as she moved his hand to her breast, even as she ran a hand through his hair, scraped his scalp with her nails --

Mulder suddenly sat up, jolted awake, a sick feeling in his stomach.  He placed his hands on Stella’s waist and held her still.  So long as she was doing things Scully had never done, it was easy to suspend belief.  Though he assumed that in the throes of ecstasy it would be different than when she was checking him for head trauma, still, Scully had run her fingers through his hair countless times.

“I’m sorry.  I don’t want to do this.”

She blinked, looked at him like, well, like someone who was currently sitting on a sizable erection.

“I know.  I’m human,” he said.  “But I don’t want to do it.”

His lap was empty as suddenly as it had become full.  Stella calmly dismounted the bed like she’d just had a bad ride in a rainstorm.  He closed his eyes tight with embarrassment, unsure whether he felt it more on her behalf or his own.

“It’s fine,” she called back, her only concern the mud on her boots.  “I’m going to take a bath.  Let yourself out whenever you like.”

The bathroom door remained half-open in a gesture of indifference as the water ran and guzzled.  Mulder sighed.  He was used to following his instincts, using his intuition.  But he had made one mistake after another this past few days, done nothing but chase bad money with good, bad tattoos with… other bad tattoos.  Now, against every gut feeling he had, he got up, made sure his dick was sufficiently shamed into retreat, and followed the waft of steam.  

It was more of a poke than a knock.  Stella’s clothes dotted the bathroom floor, a shirt and bra and panties dropped like pebbles on a wayward girl’s trip into the forest.  While he doubted Stella gave much of a shit about being rejected by him, he also doubted she experienced much rejection at all, ever.  Mulder knew it was not an easy feeling to get used to.

“I’m sorry,” he said, unable to think of much else.  Are you all right would have sounded too patronizing.   He stepped further inside, dramatically averting his eyes from Stella’s body.  “I’m really sorry.”

“What are you looking at?”

“Nothing.  I’m just trying not to look at you.”

“That’s fucking ridiculous.  Look at me if you’re going to talk to me.”

He turned toward her, stubbornly cutting his gaze off at her neck.  She sighed and the water rippled, caught on the sails of her breath.

“It’s not you, it’s not that I don’t find you attractive, I mean – obviously, I can see – but--”

“Stop talking.”

He nodded.

“It was a mistake,” she concluded with a curt shrug, water parting over her shoulder like a smooth rock in a pond.  But she hadn’t asked him to leave.  And he didn’t want to.  He was used to making his mistakes as a team and had come to appreciate the comfort in recovering from them as a team as well.

“Can I… come in and sit with you?  Not in the bath, just next to you?”

She blinked in disbelief.  As if a grown man had never asked her if he could sit on the floor while she took a bath.

“You’re serious.”

“I kind of was, yeah.”

“Does it mean you’ll stop standing there looking at me like a pitiful puppy?”

“Yes,” he allowed, because sometimes it was better to admit you were pitiful than to run around getting tattoos and punching people and fucking inappropriate people.  He sat down beside her, the altar of porcelain-enameled steel between them a holy reminder that some things were kept out of reach for a reason.  Her arm had been resting there since he came in the door and now he reached out to place his hand around hers, but her fingers clamped down.  He wondered if she was angrier than she was letting on.  But when he took his hand away, he saw that there were white spots on her fingertips and knuckles, evidence of excessive pressure.  She was hiding something.  

“Leave it alone,” she said.

Mulder had never left anything alone in his life.

“What – what is that – ?”

Stella was wet and bound to the tub and it took little effort to peel her flexed fingers back at the knuckles.  There, beneath them, was a jagged piece of glass, the one from the cup they’d broken earlier.  At first, he stared at it as if it might suddenly come to life, explain its own presence and defend its usefulness, and when it didn’t, he finally looked at Stella.  She kept her eyes on the bathtub faucet, sinking her chin below water level with an open mouth, letting the wet surface play with her lip in a pantomime of boredom.

“What were you doing with this?”

“I thought you were going to leave.”

He waited for her to say more but she didn’t.

“Did you break that glass on purpose?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”

“Then what --”

“Sometimes it feels good to hold it.”

It sounded like half an explanation -- frustrating, even if it was probably the more reassuring end of one.  Mulder had no way of knowing whether she was lying, no way of knowing how serious a crime she’d be willing to commit against herself.  Suddenly he realized his instincts may well have led him into the bathroom, maybe even up to Stella’s hotel room.  Maybe they’d been spot on after all.

His eyes wandered, numb to the false threat of her nudity now that a real one had presented itself.  

The scars appeared to him like an image suddenly obvious in one of those psychedelic paintings.  One minute, they’d been invisible, the next, they were impossible to ignore.  He took one look at her face and he knew she’d seen him notice, maybe had even wanted him to.  

“Well.  We’re all detectives here, aren’t we,” she said, tossing the question mark over her shoulder with severe Englishness.  But he had a feeling that first person plural included Scully and wondered if for once, they’d had exactly the same take on something.  Whatever Scully had said, it couldn’t have gone that well.  It was possible whatever he said would go over even worse. 

So he said nothing.  He thought of all sorts of things to do with the piece of glass, finally settling on the wastebasket.  When it shattered at the bottom of the metal can, he noticed she did not flinch as he did.  The wall behind him suddenly felt cold and sweaty and his socked feet flexed up to the ceiling.  Stella’s head inched around ever so slightly toward him.

“It’s all right, Mulder,” she said in a voice as round and temporary as a bubble.  “Really.”

And this time, with nothing else to hide, she turned her hand up for him to hold.  

 

*

 

Mulder woke up with a poisonous film on his tongue and a ringing in his ears, an automatic alarm set off by the taste of fermented alcohol that a bad decision or five had been made.  He looked down for other signs of disaster.  His socks were sweaty, his shorts and t-shirt twisted and flipped like a rubberband around his waist.  But Stella lay curled in her robe beside him like a perfectly coiffed kitten, in exactly the position he’d last seen her.  She snored very quietly and he reached for a pillow, stealthily lifting her head and sliding it underneath for support.  He remembered now how they’d wound up there.

He’d gone back to the bedroom when she said she was done with her bath and he'd waited, using the guise of privacy as he tried to figure out what to do.  Surely, she’d tell him to leave and then he’d be up all night wondering whether she’d chase that piece of glass to the bottom of the garbage pail, or create another, or find a toenail scissor or a tweezer or a pencap...  Stella is not weak.  She does not need me.  Whatever rendezvous she had planned with the glass shard was between her and it.  He could not save everyone, as Scully always said.  But maybe, in this case, she wouldn’t have said that at all.

To his surprise, Stella had either wanted him to stay or lacked the energy to prevent it.  She’d seemed almost oblivious to him as she tied her pink robe on and shook the water out of her hair.  But when she laid down next to him, she turned toward him, scrubbed face resting on praying palms before she closed her eyes.  She was even prettier this way, he’d thought, but was afraid if he said it to her, she’d think he wanted to fuck her or kiss her or keep her.  He just wanted to stay, look at her until he felt she was okay.  Well, what do you know? he’d thought.  It had taken a risky sexual encounter, a broken heart, several drunken escapades, a tattoo and a fight, but Fox Mulder had actually made a new friend.

It was dark on his way to the bathroom.  No doubt the sun was up, but the blackout shades kept any of it from getting in.  Stella kept her sleeping quarters like a bat.  He stubbed his toe on something, inhaled sharply to avoid waking her up.  He closed the door quietly and took his shirt off at the sink, trying to keep it dry as he splashed water on his face.  He didn’t even know Stella was awake until he turned off the faucet and heard her voice.  Housekeeping, he figured.

“Ask if they have any of those little bottles of mouthwash?” he called.  “Stella?”

When he came out, Stella was looking at the floor, blocking the view into the hallway.  She reluctantly stood back and caught in the widening jaws of the door was Scully, staring at the space between them, a close-mouthed underbite, shoulders frozen to keep from heaving.  There was that stubborn, wet look in her eyes, the one Stella had had last night, except on Scully it didn’t just make him want to cry too, it made him want to die, disappear.

Everything he could think of to say sounded fake in his head.

“It’s not what you think, Dana,” Stella said.

Which was exactly the kind of fake-sounding thing he’d been trying to avoid.  

Scully scoffed at them both, but it was more like a feeble cough, devoid of its usual sand and grit.  The color began to drain from her cheeks like California daylight.  She shrunk back away from them, going down below the earth one thick, dramatic stripe of color at a time.  

“It’s really not, Scully,” he echoed, feeling backed into a corner by Stella’s approach.

Scully pushed a folded pile of what must have been Stella’s clothes at her.  

“What’s the matter?” she seethed.  “Concierge busy?” 

And then she turned and walked down the hall like she’d gotten the wrong room number.  Stella shut the door softly and leaned a hand against it.

“Fuck me,” she whispered.  

“You think you’re fucked?  I’m the one who has to stay here.  I have to keep working with her.”

“It’s not a competition to see who can be the most fucked.”

“It seems like that’s exactly what you think it is.”  

“Don’t go back to being a child now.”

There was a fresh little retort right on the tip of his tongue, but he realized she was right.  Quipping and arguing wasn’t useful to any of them.  This wasn’t only her fault.  It wasn’t even only his.  It had taken all three of them to make the mess and would take all three of them to clean it up.  Stella ran her fingers through her hair like she was late to a meeting, then pulled it back in such a way that suddenly it looked as if she spent all morning on it.

“What – what do we do?” he asked.   

“I’ll go talk to her.  On my way to the airport.”

“You’ll go talk to her.”

“Yes.”  

“Now?  Run after her?”

“No.  Give her some time to calm down.”

“What do we say?  You know what to say?”

“The truth, I suppose.”

He nodded.

“I’ll be leaving out the part about the bathtub,” she said and licked her bottom lip as she leveled an intense stare.

“You mean the glass.”

He took her silence to mean yes.

“Okay.”

“It’ll be all right,” she said.  “I think.”

He felt a little cowardly as he got dressed, knowing Stella was going to fix this for him, that with all his knowledge and experience of Scully’s feelings, he was letting a perfect stranger take the hit.  But none of the things he knew about Scully had prepared him for this.  He wouldn’t even have known where to start.

“Will I see you again?” he asked as he watched her pinch and zip a skirt the color of a healthy human heart.

“Not on this trip,” she said.  “But who knows what the future holds.”

He came to stand behind her and waited in vain for her to look at him in the mirror.  Finally, he threw his arms around her shoulders, squeezing her and pressing his cheek to her hair.  Stella was stiff, spared only a pat on the arm.  But as he went to back away, her fingers tightened like ropes around the cylinder of his forearm, and when he looked in the mirror, he saw two wells of gratitude where her eyes used to be.

 

*

 

He waited at the office.  The office was home base.  Every argument they’d ever had on the full spectrum of silly to serious had ended with them shuffling in that door like a locker room, dusting themselves off, shaking hands over the desk.  If Scully forgave him, she’d come in.  

He’d hear the elevator doors squeak open and chug shut, hear her sensible shoes humble the hard basement floors.  She’d come through the door -- the door.  Goddamit, why had he never put her name on the door?  Well, it didn’t matter now.  He’d been not doing things for years with regards to Scully.  A nametag was hardly going to fix it.

She would come in, if not for him, than for herself, just to make a point, just to keep things moving along.  He practiced believing in things for a living, was one of the best in his field.  Surely he could put his faith in this one earthly concept.  But that one day of waiting for Scully -- of organizing and cleaning and pretending to read for so long that real words started to seem fake -- seemed longer than his entire career at the FBI. 

She was going to come in.

But if she wasn’t, then Stella would call.

Alas, no one came, and the only person who called was Skinner, sounding annoyed and bewildered, as if he’d just read a case file Mulder didn’t remember turning in.

Scully had called in sick.  To him.  

Scully didn’t call in sick.  Sometimes she called in other things -- abducted, wounded, hospitalized, sure.  In those cases, Skinner was the last to know.  Why the hell was Scully calling him?  Mulder began to stammer.

“Well, sir, we uh, we’re both trying to follow protocol more.  In fact, she may have even stayed home sick just to practice it.  Like a drill.” 

Skinner hung up on him.   

So went the pretense of reading and began the very real practice of freaking out.  Mulder began to strip everything that had a protective surface.  He scraped the yellow off his pencils, chewed the cuticles off his thumbs, peeled the aglets off his shoelaces.  He considered calling Scully, but he was worried it would make it worse.  He considered calling Stella but he had no way of doing so.

Suddenly, it occurred to him.  They were still together.  Stella had been plotting it all along.  She hadn’t offered to go to Scully on his behalf, she went on her own.  She was going to whisk Scully away to England with inside-baseball orgasms and promises of regular hours and clean cars and never having to hunt aliens again, all because he hadn’t had the balls to explain himself.  He broke a pencil in half, then spent the rest of the afternoon wiping ink off of everything when he realized it wasn’t a pencil.

At some point the sun fell and whatever meager outdoor light had been coming in the tiny window disappeared.  He turned on a desk lamp to drown out the bleakness of the overhead fluorescents and the little dollar-store bulb Scully had once bought showed off, turning tricks, picking up shadows of dust particles three at a time and juggling them.  

He took out a file but found his eyes hurt when he tried to read.  He opened the desk drawer to look for his glasses, but it stuck, and when he shook it, a tube of lipstick rolled forward like a shiny penny.  He took it out and pulled off the cap, ran the perfumed wax scent under his nose, perched it at the center of his desk like a tawny monument, a postmodern statue of liberty.  Give us your tired, your poor, your aliens yearning to breathe free. 

So this is what it was like before Scully, this is what it would be like after her.

He’d fallen asleep on the desk when the phone rang again, the tube of lipstick clutched in his hand and an alarming streak of color across his palm.  

This time, it was Stella.

“I’m at the airport.”

“In DC?”

“No, in London.  I got in and missed you so terribly I had to call before I even got home.”

He didn’t appreciate the sarcasm.  And he would appreciate even less in a moment.

“I thought you were long gone.”

“I decided to take the redeye instead.  I needed more time.”

Mulder gritted his teeth and steeled himself not to ask what she would need so much time for.  He wasn’t exactly the king of apologies, but even he knew they didn’t take all goddamn day.

“She’s not angry with you anymore,” she said in a tone that referenced the debt he owed.  She had told him she would calm Scully down and she had.  It was none of his goddamn business what that involved or how many hours it took.  “Or me, for that matter.”

She couldn’t help herself.

“Thanks,” he muttered.  “Thank you.” 

“Have you gone home, taken a shower, changed your clothes yet?”

“Yeah,” he said.  “Although…” 

He glanced down at the ink all over his shirt, the lipstick on his cuff.

“You need to leave the office and go to her.  Go now.”

“What do you mean?  Is she okay?”

“Tell her how you feel.”

“I –-“

Mulder, listen to me.  Stop wasting time.

Mulder heard a voice on the airport’s PA system.  Next thing he knew, he was humming and mumbling as Stella rushed them through their second goodbye.  He got the feeling she wasn’t used to having to issue more than one per person.  There was a moment’s hesitation, and Mulder waited to make sure she had nothing left to say, no more advice to bestow, something more than just stop wasting time.  He would take any of it, all of it, even considered begging for it in the split-second that passed.  But there was nothing left to hear.  Stella was already gone, presumably forever, and she’d taken all her secrets about Scully with her.

 

 

Chapter Text

*

 

The first time Mulder came close to telling Scully he loved her was not the night Stella told him to do so.  It was also not over a bouquet of flowers at a candlelit restaurant, the two of them smiling nervously at a wobbly table as a waiter placed a plastic pie slice under the leg.  It was not on a navy blue night beneath the stars, backs against the warm hood of a car, her gaze following his finger in awe as he pointed here and there.  It was not sitting side by side in a movie theater, her little hand reaching over to place pieces of popcorn on his tongue while he pretended to be annoyed that she wouldn’t let him hold the tub.  It was none of the times or places Mulder had been telling himself he was waiting for.  

Instead, it was in a standard-issue Ford Taurus the color of a curbside TV screen, seats that stunk of the four-month-old coffee spill that was still holding a grudge over its gruesome demise.  Mulder was driving under the influence of a splitting headache having lost a coin toss.  It was one of those days they’d come up so short, run in such perfect circles, that neither of them could face the finality of turning that key, pulling up that emergency brake.  

Of course, sometimes Scully’s mere presence, her sticky red lips and stiff-postured strut, was enough to make unromantic settings seem romantic.  After all, that’s how he’d fallen in love with her in the first place.  Freezer lockers in Alaska, rocks in the middle of monster-infested lakes, sometimes even his crusty basement office went pink and fuzzy late at night when she looked up at him a certain way.  This wasn’t like that either.

Yes, he’d almost gotten high on a single toke of her perfume when he leaned over her shoulder to study the gravesite earlier, but that cautiously applied dab had long faded.  And yes, he’d pretended this morning that the umbrella was narrower than he knew it to be just so he could hook his arm around her waist and iron the curve of it against him, but that drizzle had long since dried up.  By the end of the day, she was just his partner, someone who argued with him compulsively and who always had to pee and yet still never wanted to stop when he did, someone he’d have been happy to hand a bus pass had there been any buses to take.  

She slouched beside him performing a symphony of chap-lipped sighs as the radio station -- the one she’d decided was her best and only hope about ten minutes ago --  failed her with its sorry static and decades-old songs, the stubborn soundtrack that belonged to every dark, lonely stretch of land he’d ever been to.  The last thing he expected, fifty miles from the nearest sign of civilization and twelve hours from the nearest decent mood, was to remember he loved her.

It wasn’t that he hadn’t taken Stella’s advice to heart.  He’d actually hung up the phone that night, locked the door, grabbed his coat and driven to Scully’s, chanting affirmations all the way, determined to become a devout convert in the religion of Seize the Moment.  But he’d left Scully’s place without so much as a knock on the door, then spent all weekend nursing his pride, quietly holding Stella accountable.  She had played a major role in wounding his ego and then taken off with slick instructions to be bold.  Easy for her to say.  Where she was going, she’d have nothing to worry about but military time and minding the gap.

But when the following Monday came, Scully showed up at work as she always had, the wave of hair round her ear patient and perfect as ever, dressed once again in responsible opaque rayon blends, her hands once again focused on touching bodies that would not touch her back (unless, zombies, but anyway).  For once, Scully’s ability to pretend things that had happened had not actually happened would serve him well.  She would make the days pass anonymously, make each little bit of the future look more like the past.  She would make him think he could live with that.

Inevitably, fuzz once again overtook the radio signal and Scully half-whined, half-groaned as her city-mouse optimism suffered another defeat.  She leaned over, coat pooled at her lower back, clasp of her bra showing through her blouse like a second spine.  His brain sizzled in chaos as she started to fuss with the seek button or the tuner button or whichever fucking button it was she kept playing with, each time changing stations mid-musical-phrase, cheerfully surfing the foam between wavelengths.  Mulder rubbed his forehead with his fingers.

“Scully, just pick something.”

“Don’t be snippy.”

“There’s no way you can even hear the songs going that fast.”

“I can so.  I have a skill.”

“You’re giving me a headache.”

“You already had a headache.”

“Can we just shut it off?”

She clicked once more and paused for effect.  

“Sure.”

“No!”

She sat back with a satisfied grin on her face and an Elvis song on the radio; it was one Mulder knew well, a ticklish bassline and a sneakily romantic bridge.  Two verses away, his stomach was squishy about what was coming, afraid to hear that slow dropping drawl in her presence -  honey, you know I’ve never lied to you.  Why couldn’t it be Hound Dog or even Heartbreak Hotel, one whose lyrics had been rendered meaningless and lustless by familiarity.  

He could feel her looking at him.

“Magic touch,” she said.  “Admit it.”

He tried not to smile but failed.

“You don’t believe in magic.”

Hero of the night, conqueror of both bad signal and bad mood, she dropped her head against the window for a well-earned rest.  She began to sing along, so softly that every now and then, a word glitched away on her inhale as Mulder gradually melted like a teaspoon of sugar into the coffee-stained seat.

Why can’t you see what you’re doing to me, when you don’t believe a word I say...

“You know ‘Suspicious Minds,’” he said, forgetting she was self-conscious about her singing voice.

She cleared her throat and switched to a stifled hum, but her knees still skipped from side to side.  He glanced from them to the road, from her pale left cheek to the dotted yellow lines.  And as he began to tap his left toe, he remembered the Elvis figurine he’d once planned to give her, the way it had initially meant nothing, come to mean everything, and finally disappeared altogether.  And suddenly he wanted so badly to tell her he loved her, loved her more passionately than he hated channel flicking, loved her with every single one of his moods, even the bad ones, maybe especially the bad ones, he loved her the way people now made fun of Elvis for singing about loving people.  

But then her knees slowed and when he glanced over, his mouth open and important words on the tip of his tongue, he found her staring out the window like she was afraid they were being followed.  Her breath was caught in a hopeless jet stream between her open lips and the glass and her eyelashes drew pictures between the stalled raindrops.  Perhaps feeling his eyes on her, she turned her face toward her shoulder, confiding more privately in the passenger side door, hips shifting in her seat.  Of course, he realized, she would remember the little Elvis figure too, would remember how it turned up under her knee that fateful night.  It had only been a few weeks, even if they had been pretending it had been longer or never... 

Her chin reaches over the seatbelt, a threshold between the present and the past, and then she is in a shiny hotel room where a lonely ring holder is being held hostage by three people who will probably never have use for such an item.  But for now, there’s no future, just the moon and her, standing naked and satisfied beneath it at a full-length window.  And of course, Stella, sheathed in silk, standing behind her, close and soft as her own shadow, arm shaking the cuff of the robe down as she reaches around Scully’s hip, ducking the curve of her wrist into the indentation of Scully’s pelvic muscle, finding it a perfect fit.  Scully stands up a little straighter, then leans back as two fingers test her body like a swimming pool, dipping and coming out wet and doing it all over again, warming themselves to the idea of a longer stay.  Scully presses her fingertips into the glass, trying to protect the sensitive skin of her breasts and belly and even the jaded palm of her hand from the shock of the cold.  It’s no use when Stella begins to kiss her behind the ear, whispers things Scully later somehow won’t remember though she’ll remember every detail about the way her body gives way and sinks like an anchor into Stella’s right wrist.  When she starts to pant, Stella’s forearm pads the windowpane, one half of an X in front of Scully’s face as her nipples tap the glass beneath it, still fighting the force of gravity that is Stella’s sway, and and for a second, she feels guilty that he’s not awake to see it.  But then her mouth is against Stella’s arm, sucking and biting to avoid speaking and she is absolutely sure that this is no one else’s, not even his, the way her brow furrows for Stella, the way Stella holds her afterwards like a bulletproof vest.  It’s only for the moon and for her to see… and see… and see... 

“You okay?” he asked.

“Hm?  Mhm.”

This was the expression, the mood, he began to associate with Stella Gibson, the countenance of a person trying to shake something off, untaste and unsmell it and unfeel it.  It was quite similar to the way Scully acted when she realized she’d started to believe in one of his theories, that he’d gotten in her head against her wishes.  And to her, he knew, Stella was just as absurd, just as factless and illogical as any of those theories.  We only spent a few days together, she would be thinking.  We don’t have anything in common but a dress size (and, he would have argued, a powerful right eyebrow).  The most irrational of things had happened to the most rational of people.  And now that person sat trying to wish and reason it away, a knuckle against her lip and a far-away look in her eye.  For once, even if she didn’t know it, Mulder’s believing in nonsensical things was going to serve her well. 

So he let the song end uneventfully, let her get out of the car without saying a word that night.  He began to work more, work out more, jerk off more -- anything to keep him from picking up the phone.  Anything to keep him from thinking about what it would be like to have Scully hovering over his body instead of a dumbbell, or hear her whimpering instead of some false videotaped professional (would Scully whimper?).  He tried not to consider that it was possible, remotely possible, that just once, when it was time, something good might happen.  So far, that had happened to him exactly once in his life – the day Scully walked into his office.  What were the chances lightning would strike the same two people twice?

He came close to telling her a second time, this time on their way back from Leon County, Florida.  He’d almost died twice in two days: once, of boredom had he been successfully transported to the FBI retreat, and then again, in a place called Apalachicola National Forest.  She’d kept him alive by singing Joy to the World off-key while in his head, he heard Stella’s voice saying stop wasting time stop wasting time.  He’d spent a lot of time wondering what she meant by that, if she was talking about some specific inevitability or about him generally growing a pair.  But standing at a stuffy airport gate amidst Hawaiian shirts and Mickey Mouse ears, awaiting an already delayed flight, he thought well, thatthat was probably exactly what she meant: stop wasting time or one day you’ll be kicking the bucket in a place called Apalachicola National Forest without ever having been happier than you are in her arms shivering to death.

There was that rush people spoke of, the thing he’d seen in movies over the years where someone ran around a city, a party, and yes, an airport, in order to tell a woman he loved her before another minute was lost.  He was going to do that, and he didn’t even have to look further than the sunken blue vinyl seat beside him, but someone from American Airlines tapped the mic with something more important to say.  It was going to be another four hours.  The crowd groaned collectively, but Scully, queen of irritable groans, was silent.   

“Guess we have to kill four hours,” he said but she didn’t look at him.

“Mm.”

“How are we going to do that?”

She is leaning, almost sitting on her kitchen table, her jeans around one ankle beside Stella’s bare calves.  She spends very little time at this table, and has never spent any of it this way before.  She is thinking of the way the seams of Stella’s skirt stretch and curl with Stella’s flexing thighs, she is thinking of the little rosy spots Stella will have around her kneecaps when this is over and she is thinking nothing at all.  Both of her hands are gripping the beveled wooden edge and she wants to move one to the back of Stella’s head, but she can’t bring herself to do it.  She knows this is supposed to be goodbye, and she’s afraid if she tangles herself in the dark roots of Stella’s hair, she won’t be able to let it go in time.  She’s afraid if she can still smell Stella’s scalp when she locks the door and goes to bed alone, she won’t sleep.  She’s knows Stella’s scared of things like this too, so scared that she would rather hurt herself before those things beat her to it, but they must not be exactly the same things because Stella moves Scully’s left hand to the back of her own head, glances up in encouragement.  The fast flick of first-place ribbon blue startles Scully’s fingers into a trophy-winner grip that hugs Stella’s mouth a little closer against her body and she knows it’s what Stella wanted because she can feel her smile.  After she comes, she lies back on the table, managing not to cry by thinking “four more hours, we have four more hours.”

He held out a pack of Twizzlers to get her attention, bit his tongue when her cheeks flushed the color of the pack in his hand, and wondered how he’d know when enough time had passed.  How long did it take someone to get over a person they’d known for four days?  How long would he have to monitor those quiet moments between chasing shadows and questioning witnesses, knowing she was thinking about the register of Stella’s voice, the octave it took in pleasure, the temperature of the skin behind her ear, the way she looked when she listened?  That day Stella called from the airport, he’d thought she was gone.  But she was in fact very much present in their collective memory, just like one of the files in their drawer, one more phenomenon they’d both seen but seen so differently they couldn’t quite talk about it.   She was right there in that pack of Twizzlers, in a cloud of American car condensation, inside a car stereo.

One day a couple weeks later, she was even on their answering machine.  They’d come in tired and hungry, poorly armed with the low expectations their phone calls generally inspired.  Mulder pressed the button and Scully began to set out some take-away cartons, not prepared to delay the intake of fried rice for Langley or Byers or some hysterical MUFON member.  But when the tape started spinning, all other movement ceased.  Stella’s voice came into the room like a sparrow, fluttering and beautiful, inappropriately captive.  Both Mulder and Scully froze, watching it hit the walls and ceiling, trying to stay out of its way.

“I realized once I settled in back here that I never properly thanked you for sharing your work with me,” she said with improbable ease.

Mulder held the corner of his mouth between two teeth as he anxiously glanced over at Scully.  Her hands were laid flat on the desk like she was playing a game with herself, wasn’t sure which hand she’d hid the Ace under.

“And I realized,” Stella continued somewhat breathily, “that I never gave you a way to reach me.  My number here is five – you’ll have to dial the country code first, which is -- I forget, some nonsense combination of ones and zeros you’ll have to look up –”

She rattled off a string of digits that seemed longer than a social security number.  Mulder watched for movement out the corner of his eye, but Scully didn’t reach for a pencil, didn’t do anything.

“That’s my personal number,” Stella said,  the tone of her voice slightly slipping in its certainty. “You can use it for any reason.” 

A pause.  

“Either of you.” 

And then her voice slid up a notch from its steady dial tone register.

“Any reason at all.” 

And with that, she vanished back into the air, a narrow escape through a crack in the window.  Scully went back to separating packets of black and orange, back to parsing out fair plots of rice.  He watched as she folded a set of chopsticks open and rubbed them together evenly.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“What?  Yes, of course.  I’m ravenous.”

But ravenous Scully usually approached lo mein with the enthusiasm of an athlete, a tennis player locating her best grip.  This was a straightforward nibble, a ball boy creeping out to the net.

“I’ll listen to it again later to write the number down,” he said, wondering if she was afraid he’d erased it.  She gave him a look as though he’d made a wild change of subject.  “Just in case you need it or… want it.”

She shrugged, shook her head.  And then she shoved her lo mein aside like it had passed its expiration date, turned her attention to ripping apart a plastic packet with her teeth.

 

*

 

The next time it occurred to Mulder to tell Scully he loved her, it would not be because of the way she smelled or felt standing next to him, or the way she grinned when she teased him over the car radio, or even the sounds she made in his wildest fantasies.  It would be something even more incongruous than a deserted highway or a packed airport terminal full of aggravated travelers that inspired him.  It would be because he was super fucking pissed off.

It was a Friday night, the end of a really bad week in which they’d had to go to Texas.  Twice.  He’d almost killed a vampire who was almost not even really a vampire (he was).  They’d spent an entire fucking day arguing about every single thing that did or did not happen, unable to complete a report that didn’t make one of them sound like a liar.  If only they could have turned in a report about how cute Scully thought the loping Sheriff was; that would have been a quick piece of business.  He felt mean for telling her that the Sheriff hadn’t returned her admiration, but there was only so much a man could be expected to take in one week.  

When the report was done and turned in, it was well past five.  They shifted around on their respective sides of the desk, two creaky old computers powering down.  Couples didn’t go to bed angry, and Mulder and Scully didn’t like to leave the office angry.  He looked up intending to make small talk, be the bigger person, send her off into her weekend with a clear conscience.  He thought about apologizing for his shitty attitude about the Sheriff, telling her that of course the Sheriff had noticed her (and of course, if he was being honest with himself, he had).  Scully must have sensed it coming, felt him look up, because she lifted her chin and waited.  A streak of blood, thick as nail polish, slid down her upper lip.  She raised her eyebrows, oblivious, as the wind went out of his chest.

“What?” she asked as he stepped around to her side.  He said nothing as he took his tie off and wiped her lip with it.  She took it from his hands, tipped her head back, he assumed to hide the fear in her eyes.  Any minute now she would run off to the bathroom.

“Shit.”

“Scully,” he whispered.

“Mulder,” she said up into the tie.  “It’s fine.”

His heart began to race, his stomach lurching as she pinched the bridge of her nose.  She seemed to have expected this somehow because her voice had none of his panic. Had she known she was sick again?  Had she told Stella?  Is that why Stella had told him to stop wasting time and if so, why the fuck had she been so cryptic about it?  What kind of sick Hallmark greeting card message was that?

“No, no, no,” she said, as if he’d asked it out loud.  “It’s just from flying so much in such a short period of time.”

“What?”

“Barotrauma.  Used to get it as a kid.  Been a while.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

He closed his eyes as he sat back against his chair and breathed at the ceiling.

“Shit,” she muttered.

“What?”

So long as it wasn’t cancer, he didn’t really care what.

“I’ll have to cancel.”

“Cancel what?”

She patted her nose dry and looked straight ahead, but her eyes darted off to the side. 

“Nevermind.”

“Cancel what?”

Maybe he did care.

“Nothing, I just.  A date.”

“What?”

“It’s a first date.  I don’t want to take the chance I start bleeding into my plate on a first date.  Talk about traumatic.”

Mulder used every muscle in his body to pull his jaw off the floor.  His eyebrows were still up somewhere under the flop of his hair but he was willing to let those remain there the rest of the conversation.

“You have a date?  With whom?”

“Um.  The guy who fixed the car last week.”

“The FBI mechanic?”

“The new one.”

“The mechanic?”

“Don’t be a snob.”

He didn’t give a shit what the guy did for a living.  He just needed something to repeat while he figured out what the fuck was going on.

“What about the Sheriff?”

“What Sheriff?” 

“The one you spent all week making eyes at.”

“What are you, protective of him all of a sudden?” 

“No.  Look.  Listen.  Go on all the dates you want.”

“Well,” she said with a sigh.  “Not going on this one.”

She dug into her pocket and found a business card.  She eyed the phone and tapped the card on her thumb, flicked it with a fingernail.

“Go ahead.  Call him.”

He had begun to search his memory for the key interaction he must have missed between Scully and the mechanic, begun to wonder where he was, what exactly he was doing while this random fucking guy so easily did what he had not been able to do for years.  He tried with perverse effort to remember the tone of voice Scully had spoken at the garage, her mood when they’d left.

“I think I’ll... I’ll wait til you go.”

 

*

 

Mulder fumed all through his workout, the eating of his frozen pizza, the length of his shower.  Standing naked in his bathroom mirror, he gave himself a resentful once-over as a figment of Stella Gibson sadly shook her head over his shoulder.  Go aheadtake a long hard look at the ball-less, soaking wet bastard who let her say yes to the FBI mechanic.  And he did take a long, hard look at that guy.  He stared that motherfucker down, stared down past his own pouting lips, his new arm muscles and respectable six pack, stared right at the idiotically large, red, gang-font letter that tagged his pelvic bone.  He had a tattoo of her last initial and she was flirting with a fucking buck-toothed sheriff in Texas and saying yes to dates with mechanics.

At some point, she’d decided it was time to move on and she hadn’t even had the decency to tell him?

Well, fuck that.  He towel-dried furiously and brushed his teeth twice.  He put on a clean t-shirt and his lucky jeans (though he had never gotten lucky in them or any other jeans he presently owned).  He sat in the car a few blocks from her building for a half hour, working up his courage, planning his speech, branching her various possible responses like he was writing the code of a very sappy, very boring, and potentially very depressing video game.  He chewed his lip until his saliva tasted like medicine.  And finally, he stepped out into the world.  Ready.

A block into his walk, rain began to fall.  No, not rain, but rushing, stunning, Asiatic gusts of water, the likes of which he’d never seen in Washington.  He was not turning back now.  He was brave.  He was a man in love.  He was at least as good as Sheriff Hartwell and the mechanic. 

And he was standing on Scully’s doorstep shivering like a wet chihuahua, drenched to the bone.

“Mulder,” she gasped, a line of concern stapling itself between her eyebrows.  “Come in.”

He pushed his shoes off at the door with opposite toes and stood with his shoulders at his ears, afraid to move.  One move could douse her whole apartment.

“Is everything okay?” she asked as she moved in and out of rooms, getting him a towel.  “Other than the fact that you’re soaking wet.”

There was wine and an open book next to the couch, her glasses playing the role of bookmark.  His time off was spent so arbitrarily, was often woven into the anxiety of what to do with it.  When Scully’s Fridays came, she read the book she’d been planning to read all week, drank the wine she’d been saving up to drink.  He could never spend his free time like that, would never feel he deserved it.  Come to think of it, he didn’t deserve her either.

“Yeah, everything’s fine.  I just came to talk about something, but I can do it another time.”

He dried everything a towel could dry and as he handed it back, finally got a good enough look at her to make him grateful and remorseful at once, like looking at the Eiffel Tower and knowing you would never get to see it again.  

She was wearing a tight little t-shirt that had the name of some sort of camp on it, the letters cracking where her breasts stretched it.  There was a hunter-green colored set of felt pine trees across the belly, and dark spots from years of laundered deodorant under the armpits.  She was also wearing sweatpants.  No buttons, no ties, no matching patterns or monogrammed silk.  The only adornments were her nipples, hardening visibly under the thin fabric, maybe, he micro-fantasized, because he was staring at her.  

But he didn’t want that either – to begin his confession of undying love by staring at her in a tight shirt.  He tried to sound like himself.

“All the good PJs in the wash?” 

And had instead come off sounding like a mean big brother.

“Everything else smelled like Texas or forests or mud or slime.  I’ve been busy.”

“Going on dates with mechanics." 

She sighed.

“We didn’t have any slime this week.  The Sheriff do something to you I don’t know about?”

“God, Mulder.”

“Sorry.”

“Did you come over here in the rain to keep arguing about it?”

“No.  Whose camp shirt is that?”

“Mine.  Used to come down to here,” she said, pointing to her thighs.  He resisted the urge to make a crack about growth spurts and wondered how he hadn’t seen this shirt before.  Maybe her fancy pajamas were only for work trips.  The idea was almost too cute to bear.

“Well, I like it,” he said, backpedaling furiously, feet flailing for the kickstand.  “Just want to get that on record.”

“Noted,” she said, making that face she made almost every day, that brave sane person in the loony bin expression.  “Are you staying?”

“Over?  No – I – what?”

She further compromised an eyebrow and smirked at him sideways.

“I meant, for now.  ‘Cause you can’t sit on my couch in those wet jeans.  I’ll have to find you something to borrow.”

“I don’t think any of your camp clothes are going to work.”

Her back was already turned but he heard her cuff and drag a little laugh back to the bedroom.  He smiled, feeling slightly encouraged, and fidgeted on the tiny doormat, trying not to give her any reason to put him out in the yard.

She returned with a neat stack of clothes that smelled like her.

“The, uh… shirt is yours anyway,” she said.  “I swiped it.”

She sounded less sorry than she did worried that he’d take it back.  He had often suspected her of stealing his t-shirts on the road after “borrowing” them.  But if she were borrowing shirts, it was usually his fault – some creature had taken a bite out of them, or they’d been singed in a fire, or a monster had slimed them, or he’d just spilled a cup of coffee on her.  So he never requested them back.  Still, he sometimes wanted to tell her she could just buy t-shirts in that size.  Then again, he thought as he glanced at her little capped sleeves, he’d rather not.

“And the shorts are…” she said, seeming sorry she’d started any kind of explanation.

They were a pair of boxer briefs, new-ish looking, probably a size too small for him. He’d certainly never loaned her any underwear.  

“Well, they’re clean is all you need to know.”

“All I need to know?  Really?”

“I bought them for someone else and then we broke up.” 

He felt his stomach churn and tried to blink away the dizziness.  

“It was a long time ago, a very long time ago,” she insisted, perhaps noticing that he’d gone temporarily insane at the idea of someone leaving underwear there, a further insult to the injuries he’d witnessed that day.  

“I kept them just in case.”

“In case what?”

“In case…you know,” she said blushing.  “Someone came over sopping wet and wanted to sit on the couch.  So just put them on.”

He realized he was not the only one who was nervous.  He suddenly felt the urge to tell her he wasn’t here to start shit about the past, make her feel bad about any of her ex-boyfriends, girlfriends, lovers, murderers, what-have-you.  They had both had enough of that for a lifetime.  But it seemed like a weird way to start things off, apologizing.  Come to think of it, all the ways of starting off he’d planned seemed stupid now.

She was smiling at him, closed-lipped, hip out to the side.

“What is it?”

“I was just thinking about Billy Miles, that night you had me standing in the rain in the middle of the woods screaming at you.”

It was hard to picture with her cheeks all rosy now from what he guessed must have been a bath.  But he could -- the translucent shade of parchment paper grey she’d been, her voice screechy as a rusty old rolling pin.  He’d wanted to kiss her so badly it had caused a giggling fit.  Standing in a torrential downpour getting yelled at by a virtual stranger on the brink of hypothermia was the first thing that had turned him on in years.  

“You must’ve thought I was crazy.”

“I did.  But I also thought you were cute all wet too.”

Was she flirting with him?  Was she retroactively flirting with him on behalf of her past self?  He took his bottom lip under consideration, trying not to think about whether that meant he could have kissed her then and there, their very first case -- and oh my god, how many pushups he’d done for nothing, and shit, the perfectly good hipbone skin he’d ruined – and instead tried to be hopeful that maybe tonight was going to be easier than he thought.  He inched closer, mussed his damp hair to inspire her.

“Here I am again,” he said.  “All wet.”

But she was already turning and walking to the couch.

“And still crazy.”

He tried not to sound too sulky.

“I’ll go put these on.”

Her bathroom was dripping with tile-sweat, lights like plastic peaches around the mirror, air hot with the subtle scent of burnt marshmallow made by a recently active hair dryer.  He felt like a giant human with his foot stuck in a dollhouse.  Surely the apartment had not been built to scale Scully.  But all her things were there.  Her little bottles, her little slippers, her cosmetics and hair bands scattered about.  He never thought of Scully as delicate, never, and he had of course seen many of these things before, but not altogether like this, not collected and posed together in a room where she must have stood naked not thirty minutes ago.  

He hadn’t meant to pry or be nosy; he didn’t even open the medicine cabinet.  But the bathtub was right in his line of sight on the way out.  And what he saw stopped him.  A piece of beige fabric lazily draped and dripping over the bathtub faucet, a bra just fancy enough to warrant the term lingerie, and beside it a washed-out pair of pantyhose with a seam up the back.  A fucking seam up the back.  He’d seen her do this in motels before, knew it meant she’d been wearing this stuff under her suit at work that day, maybe because she’d planned to go directly to the date, he thought, and the thought of that, not of the confounded date but of the seam tickling the back of her thigh, cupping her ass under her pants as she fought and frowned and crossed her arms at him was enough to make him want to relive the terrible day all over again.  He hesitated, bit his lower lip and then ran long, guilty fingers under the nylon, tested the firmness of the satin underwire with his thumb.

“Shit,” he said under his breath, forearms hot with testosterone.  This was going to be a serious conversation between two adults.  It was going to require a lot of sinking in, a lot of thinking over, a lot of weighing options.  He would not need the services of a stiff dick at all tonight, not even in the best-case scenario.  

She was sitting on the couch when he came out, pressed into the corner exactly the way he’d caught her with Eddie van Blundht.  She looked less freaked out than she had that night, but the natural ease she’d had about her earlier had dissipated.  Whatever time he’d taken ogling her stuff in the bathroom, she’d had to wonder what this was all about.  A pained smile came across her face and she twisted the cuff of her pants in her fingers as he slowly walked past her and sat in the space she’d left him, generously allotted proportional to size.  

This is what he’d waited five years for – to make an ass of himself in his underwear, trembling across the couch.  So be it.  So it wasn’t what he’d imagined.  Well, maybe once or twice he’d imagined being in his underwear, but then she was too, and also, these were not actually his underwear.  Fuck it.

“What I’m here to talk about, it’s kind of a difficult…” he interrupted himself with a hard gulp.  “Kind of a difficult…”

He shook his head once like a gnat had gotten caught in the back of his throat on a jog.   Her chin was dipping lower and lower, mouth like a resting marionette, the face she made when trying to decodify nonsense.

“Mulder?”

“It’s nothing bad.  Well it could be bad, depending.”

“Have some wine, maybe.”

He reached for the glass on the coffee table and sipped, and as he did so, Scully lurched forward and reached for his hip, apparently spotting the northern tip of the red iceberg that was his tattoo.  

“Mulder, are you bleeding?”

He grabbed the wrist she’d almost touched him with and held it halfway between them.  She’d scared him and he’d done it harder than he meant to.  But when he looked in her eyes -- a warning and an apology -- there was no annoyance or fear, just blue and more blue, an ocean playing cool witness to his storm, yes, disturbed by the wind, but nevertheless confident of the sovereignty it held in its permanence.  Her lips parted and he had to drop her arm before he got sucked in by the riptide. 

“No,” he said.  Now there was no turning back.  Scully would never let him walk out without explaining something she’d mistaken for blood.  “When Stella left, she told me to come here.  Do you know why?”

“You came here to talk about Stella?  After all this time?”

“Scully.  Please.  I’m trying,” he begged.  She took a breath, humoring him like he was showing her one of his slideshows.  Perhaps that would have been a good idea.  Here’s me staring at you in the car.  Here’s me staring at you across the desk.  Here’s me staring at you in the diner.  Are you noticing any patterns?

“Yes,” she said.  “I think I know why she told you to come.”

“You do?” 

Scully was up off the couch in a flash and then he could hear her rummaging around the kitchen.  A question he didn’t think had an answer not only had one, but also required a prop of some kind.  She returned with it in the palm of her hand, sat next to him – a little closer, this time, he noticed – and handed it to him. 

It was the Elvis figurine he’d bought her in Graceland.  He thought it had been lost forever.

“She said the hotel’s housekeeping staff found it.  She said I should ask you about it.”

“It’s yours.  I bought it for you.”

“You had it the night – that night we –”

“I would carry it around in my pocket.  I never gave it to you.” 

He paused, took a deep breath.  This was the humbling part, or one of several humbling parts, of his story. 

“I was angry with you when I came back and found out about Ed Jerse.”

“Okay,” she said carefully.  “But why didn’t you give it to me after that?”

“Why didn’t you ask me about it when Stella told you to?”

Scully looked down at her lap shyly.  

“So you just carried it around?  Every day?”

“In my coat pocket.”  He looked up without lifting his chin.

“Mulder,” she whispered.  “That’s very sweet.”

“You’re not disgusted that I would withhold a gift from you out of petty jealousy?”

“No.”

She put her hand in his and he thought she was trying to hold it but he wasn’t quite ready, wasn’t nearly through what he had to say, so he resisted.

“What did I do now?” she asked, smiling. 

He laughed as he realized she was just trying to get Elvis back.

“Nothing, it’s all yours.”

She studied it, poking it to make it wiggle, twirling it like a ballerina.  It had been in her house for six weeks, and she’d given it a hard look at least once before that when she’d knelt in that hotel room at Stella’s waist.  He blinked hard – no need to summon that image at the moment.  But right now she was looking it over as if she’d never seen it before, was seeing it in a new light.  It was only now that it had come to mean something to her.

“So my jealous spree didn’t end there.”

“Oh no.  Don’t tell me.  Pencil case?  Bumper sticker?”

He was not in the mood.

“Sorry.  Go ahead.  You’re making me a little jumpy,” she admitted, then reached for her glass of wine, placing Elvis like a bullseye in the red ring it left behind.

“When I went to Philadelphia, the night after – our night with Stella – the night we – you know, the night that ah-- “

“I know the one, Mulder.”

“I went to see Jerse again.  And I went to that tattoo shop…”

He couldn’t say it.  So he waited for her to do it for him.  Come on Special Agent Scully. Put it together.  

She gasped, hand to her mouth, glancing down where she’d tried to touch him a few minutes ago.

“Oh God, Mulder.  You didn’t.”

“I did.”

“Out of spite?  I don’t even --”

“I wanted to see if the poison was real, if it had made you do the things you’d done.”

She began to unwind her legs, seemed to be about to jump off the couch.  He pressed his hand into her thigh.

“I know now it was really you.  I’m okay with it.”

“You’re okay with it?”

“I can accept it.”

“You can accept it?” 

He could practically feel the soil of the grave he’d begun to dig, sifting between his cold wet toes.  He wished he could just crush her body to him and kiss her like in the movies, but if it had been the movies, they would have done that part out in the rain, not in here, wearing ill-fitting pajamas of dubious origin.

“I like it.  I like it because it’s you and I like all of you.”

“Tread lightly, Mulder.”

“Goddammit, I’m trying to tell you that I have feelings for you.”

Her mouth closed and then opened again, lips zipping and unzipping like a puffy pink sleeping bag as she tried to figure out what to say.  Her eyes went wider and her tongue came straight out for a second, seeming to resist an urge to try to touch her nose.

“I bought you a gift and didn’t give it to you and I went to Philadelphia and got drunk and got a tattoo and got in a fight with a guy over you and slept in Stella’s hotel room but did not fuck her because I was miserable and scared to be alone and because I have feelings for you.”

It was the best he could do.  More of a rant than a confession, really.  But it would have to do.  She looked around the room like one of his possessed bats or summoned spirits was supposedly flying around.

“Who’d you get in a fight with?”

“Fucking Christ, Scully!  Did you hear me?”

There was a pause.  She looked at her lap.

“I’m sorry.  Give me… give me a minute.”

She stood up and began to pace the path between him and the coffee table, bending her fingers back with opposite hands, occasionally looking at the ceiling as if she were counting in her head.  Her toenails were painted red, same as that one time she had slipped her heels up out of her shoes in the car and massaged her shins with the arches of opposite feet. 

Okay, so he’d given this some thought.  He’d had six weeks to plan this, longer.  It was possible she hadn’t spent any time thinking about it at all.  Scully thought about the things that were real and possible, like the book and the bottle of wine and apparently women who pulled her close the first moment they had a chance.  Until this moment, he had made himself -- the man part of himself, not the partner -- as much of a figment as she believed their cases to be.  He let out a little breath, trying not to seem impatient, trying to appreciate her cramming all that time into just a few minutes.  Suddenly, she stopped pacing.  She’d made it to the other side of the coffee table.

“Well, what is it?” she asked.

“What?”

“The tattoo.”

“It’s just.  It’s nothing really.”

“Can I see it?”

“I don’t think so.  Not now.”

“You’ve seen mine.”

He sighed, waving a hand at her, but she waited.  The fate of this whole thing, the biggest gamble of his whole stupid board-game of a life, now seemed to rest on her impression of his infernally ridiculous quarter-machine tattoo.  He stared at her for a moment, begging with his eyes for her to let it go, and then knowing that she wouldn’t, he lifted his ass from the couch, pulled the waistband of the shorts down, and showed her the gaudy red S just below his belt line.  She squinted.  This, he knew, was for effect.  With or without glasses, no one could miss the fucking thing.

“S.  For your sister?”

He could see that she meant it.  She really meant it.  She wasn’t getting it.  Maybe she didn’t want to get it.  If so, this was his out, he could turn this ship around now, bail himself out.  But someday, he might find out there was an afterlife.  And he might meet Stella there.  And he’d want to die all over again from the shame when she asked if he’d done what she said.

“No, Scully,” he said, and sat back down.  She stared at his hip through his clothes like she could still see it.  “It’s not for my sister.”

She took a quiet, sharp breath 

“Oh my God.”

Yes.”

“For Stella?”

“What?  No.  No, Scully.  What’s wrong with you?”

She breathed out, shrugging her shoulders in her own defense 

“You started this whole thing talking about Stella so…”

“No.”

She looked down and bit her lip.  Oh, to be that lip.

“Superman?” she asked and the font was close enough that he couldn’t tell if she was kidding. 

Her eyebrows were rounded like child-drawn rainbows, her tongue testing the downward point of her upper lip like it was a baby tooth, wiggling and ready to fall out.  Her shoulders went back in a way that made her breasts harder to ignore.  She wasn’t hiding her nipples with her arms anymore.

“No,” he said.  “Not Superman.”

And that’s when she began to walk back toward him, dancing rather than pacing, a slow-motion box step round the coffee table.  When she got to the couch, she raised one knee at a time to the cushions on either side of his legs.  Her hands went to his shoulders, ready to waltz him straight out of his mind.

“Sexy?” she asked with one eye narrowed, and he almost said yes because, well because she was now in his lap in a tight little shirt, smelling like wine and those things hanging in the bathtub.  Suddenly, it seemed that everything about the way this had happened – the weather, the outfits, the pointless banter – it was all kismet.  One of her hands was dribbling down the front of his body, over his chest, down his stomach, lips busy rephrasing and repeating her latest guess.  “Does it stand for sexy?”

“No, it doesn’t,” he said with hitched breath.  He had rarely if ever heard her use that word, and when she did it was meant figuratively, as in sexier theory, this kind of science isn’t considered sexy...

The heel of her hand was turned to line up with the fish-bodied top of the S, her fingertips tucked into its tail.  She took her hand away and let the elastic snap as she raised herself above his eye level, took his face in her hands with her thumbs over the tabs of his ears.

“Stupid?” she asked.  There was a buzzing sensation, radio static like those nights in the car, those nights he could never just pull over and suggest they make out until they felt better. It was the frequency that connected them even when they were on different pages, in different cities, on different planets.

“Yes.  It was stupid,” he agreed softly.

“Very stupid,” she said, nodding, pleased he was finally falling in line.

“Very stupid,” he slurred, his lips almost paralyzed by the nearness of hers.  She leaned in closer, the pert teardrops of her breasts just under his chin, her narrow stomach warm and flat against his.  

“Incredibly stupid,” she said in labored syllables, executing consonants that had done nothing to deserve their fate.

“Yes.”

“Tell me what it stands for,” she said, honey-voiced.

“I think you know.”

Her eyes were all sleepy, resting on this spot of his face and then that.

“I want to hear you say it.”

He could almost taste her lips as he licked his own.  It was an appeal as well as an answer.

“Scully.”

She nodded as if he’d been the one guessing, and not her.  

She served him pieces of her mouth like a sloppy homemade slice of apple pie, warm and unruly.  Her top lip was juicy and sweet, her tongue syrupy, her bottom lip crumbling against his teeth.  He bit into it to hold her there and kissed her more deeply, swallowing her. 

Her thumbs made circles over his ears like pencil erasers.  She moaned softly each time his hands etched a line from here to there.  The backs of her thighs, split bottom of her ass, the small of her back -- the small of her back, that spot he’d searched out over overcoats and blazers and button-down blouses, the one he’d nearly lost his damn mind over the day Stella escorted Scully out of his office – that one made him moan too.

Her lips vibrated like the skin of a plum when she approved, so perilously delicate he feared piercing them, and yet pressing the curves of themselves desperately against his teeth, begging to be peeled. 

She tore his shirt up over his head and lowered her face over his like a crane, her hair falling forward and casting his face in darkness, so that even with open eyes he couldn’t see her.  With his hands full of her and his mouth wet with her, he was almost sure he was dreaming.  But as she slid back down, she rolled her hips against him.  Ever the one to let the light in, ever the one to offer hard evidence. 

Her breasts pressed easily through her warm decades-old fifty-fifty blend, rubbing the soft pine trees against his chest hair.  He placed his thumb over the word camp and squeezed the nipple in the round white space of the letter P.  Her head rag-dolled to one side as she grabbed his shoulders and tried to stand up, wobbling at the ankles as the cushion sank under her feet.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Trying to get my pants off.”

He pulled her knees to his chest, letting her rest her weight against him as she balanced her hands on his head and laughed.   He took over with the pants.

“I’m not wearing underwear,” she murmured, as if he needed a warning.

And perhaps he had.  Perhaps he’d needed a warning the length of a carnival ride sign, a carton of cigarettes.

Because in a moment he was looking right at the soft apex of her thighs and his fairly healthy heart almost stopped.  He wrapped his arms what seemed like three times around her legs and stared as she pushed her hand through his hair, then grabbed a tuft of it and pulled it, finally showing him what it felt like when she wasn’t looking for blood.

“I was going to come back down there,” she offered, leaving the other option deliciously unverbalized.

“Later,” he said and moved his mouth toward her center, his center, the center of the Earth as far as he was currently concerned.  

When his tongue touched her, she groaned like a fault line splitting up the middle, turning over fresh soil, heat rising visibly off the newly revealed surface.  Her ass sank back into his hands as her legs failed to hold her and she surrendered the wet weight of her body to his mouth.  Her hands wilted down the sides of his face, fingers butterflied out in shock.  He curled his tongue inside her as deeply as he could, trying to get the purest possible taste of her, name it and mentally bottle it.  But it was sunflower seeds and hot chocolate stuck to his skin and tree roots and French food and wet forests, nothing that really made sense, and he could either spend all night trying to place it or he could make her come.

He wanted to make her come.  He thought of the one time he’d seen her do it, squirming and pinned beneath Stella.  He wanted to make that happen like he’d never wanted anything.  What would Stella do, he asked himself, and slowly slipped a finger up into Scully’s body, taking aim at the skin just at the other side of his tongue.  Scully gasped and bucked her hips, nearly toppling over the back of the couch.

She ran one hand up her stomach, taking the hem of her shirt up the narrow valley of her abdomen, pulling it round a fist and tugging it upward, but she seemed to lose motivation, because she put her hands to her head instead, began to play with strands of hair in ways that would scar him for life, prevent him from having peace in his office and in cars and airports and anywhere else Scully might get bored.  With the t-shirt flipped up halfway, her breasts were suspended in perfect semi-circles, bottoms peeking out like lazy half moons.  And the sound of her panting with the softest part of her breasts exposed and her hands rooted in her own hair made him so hard he wanted to pass out.

He pulled his finger down and then pushed it back up, pressing forward a bit and shining the inside of her body like a cherry while his tongue played with the stem, let a few drops of moisture drip down his chin.  The way her grip tightened in his hair, he thought she was about to come, but then he realized she was pushing his forehead away, pulling at his ears for his attention.  He looked up, annoyed.

“What?”

“I said, tell me.”

“I love you.  I’m so in love with you.”

“I know that, you have my initial tattooed to your hipbone,” she said, breathless.  “Tell me how you want to fuck me.”

He hesitated, wishing he could give her an honest answer appropriate for first-time soul-mate sex.  Missionary style, with you tucked safely beneath me, spilling my seed gently while weeping tears of joy into your hair.  But the fact was, her pussy was holding them both at the edge of mutual destruction two inches from his mouth, her tits were half-uncovered and as-yet unsucked over his head.  He’d been thinking about her for years.  And he had an erection that could inspire a thousand pages of kama sutra.  Every way.  Six ways from Sunday.  Up, down, right and center.  So hard.  So, so hard.  In other words, nothing he was willing to say outloud.  

Luckily, Scully was willing to say something.

“Take your pants off and take your dick out.”  

Their eyes met and he knew he was not alone in thinking of the only other time she’d ever said that (or anything like that) to him.  She hesitated a moment, an apology taking shape in her eyes, perhaps afraid she’d accidentally referenced a sensitive subject in the most sensitive of moments.  He hastily pulled his shorts down, just to show her how far under the bridge that water was.

She looked down, mouth wide enough to --

“What do you want me to do with it?” he asked.  Somehow the idea that she wanted him to fuck her still seemed implausible.  She rubbed up against it.

“What do you think I want you to do with it?”

She wrapped her right middle finger around the head of his dick and guided him underneath her body.

“Oh,” he said, gulping.  “I thought you might tell me to masturbate while I --”

“You want to jerk off, you can go home to your tapes.”

“Of course I don’t want to jerk off, I just --”

“Mulder, shut up,” she said, sounding almost as if she were in the middle of a fistfight.  “And let me do this right.”

“Let you do this right?”

She paused, gave him that calm, smug look that meant she was about to win an argument.

“Let me fuck you right.”

And then he was quiet.  Because even if he thought she’d done everything else wrong that week, he had to agree she was doing this right, she was doing it so right, taking him inside her body slowly, her breath hitched, her eyes going white as a sheet before her eyelashes came flitting down and reproduced the blue like bunnies out of a hat. 

She inched him in slowly at first, and then less slowly, gathering oxygen to feed the fire until she was riding him like a flame does a wick, hugging him and melting around him, determined to burn them both to the ground.  

Stella was the only woman he’d been with recently enough to compare, and he’d liked how she felt more than he remembered liking anyone else.  But Scully was different - tiny and tight and hot around him and he had never put his dick inside anything so perfect, not even his own expert hand.  His cock parted her anew with every landfall, the dense cloud of her body settling around him and then lifting again.  

“Are you okay?” he managed to ask, trying to remember that under the raging urge to pound into her was a little thing called love.  She smiled wickedly, loving him back and gripped his neck with angry fingers, reminding him who exactly he was dealing with here.  

He reached up to take off her shirt and watched her hair fall in a mess around her face.  He had dragged her all over the country on foot and in bad weather, and seldom seen a single strand out of place.  But now, right here in the safety of her own living room, he had it thick and tipsy, sticking together in wayward strips.  Through the twisted ribbons of red, her eyes flashed purple, face lit up like he’d spun the wheel and landed a two-week Caribbean vacation. 

He had one hand spanning her breasts, the other around the back of her head.

“Go ahead,” she dared.  And because he wasn’t sure if she was referring to her nipples or her hair, he addressed both, pinching at one and tugging at the other.  He held her tight and shimmied his ass to the edge of the couch so he could slouch over and lick her, squeezing her breasts together and then pressed them apart again with his tongue.  For five years, she’d rolled her eyes every time he put something in his mouth and played with it, but now she leaned back on his thighs for him, unwrapping herself like a bag of sunflower seeds, a soda straw, a brand new pack of pencils, and this particular kind of concession was so much better than any other he’d ever fought for.  Her head dropped back, hair tickling his knees his much-maligned oral fixation sought its redemption on the crowns of her nipples, in the creamy white cushioning of her cleavage.

“Oh goodGod thatfeelsgood.”

And amidst the overwhelming feelings of heat and pressure and wetness, his dick found a ridged spot along the front of her body that brought her back upright on her knees.  Her ass was firm against the sensitive insides of his quads, her breasts sliding against his mouth.  She let out a lightly vocalized breath, and he felt her body open, the whole length of him now inside her.  Nothing moved but her lips, slowly parting at their rosy hinges as he returned his attention to mouth-fucking her breasts.  It was easier to be precise now that she was still.  Let me do this right, he thought.

“I don’t even understand… what you’re doing… with your tongue.”

He smiled, took a nipple lightly between his teeth and tapped it with his tongue.

“Oh, fuck me, Mulder, stop showing off.”

She began to fuck him again, weary and desperate now, vaguely annoyed in a way that he thought would forever taint the integrity of her annoyance.  

He leaned further forward and held her against him, suddenly glad for all the angry workouts he’d done over the past several weeks.  He thought he felt her clitoris twitch and she sighed, and yeah, whimpered, as if she’d been running a long race, finally been given a glass of water.  She swore, asked for God in three different ways, then swore again, her nose against his lips and his chin occasionally in her mouth.  And then she said his name and he nearly came, but as always, he wanted her, needed her with him.

And just as he was about to ask, her brow knit up like the front of a ballerina’s leotard, her heart-shaped mouth frozen open like a carnival lovers’ lane ride.

“What – Scully, what -- does that mean?”

“It means I like that,” she said, high-pitched outlines of words.  “Don’t stop.  Please.”

He raised his hips, bucking into her with all the power he could muster in such a position.  She took one hand from his leg and clawed at the muscle in the arm that was working to bear his weight, marveling at it, then pulling his face forward to her body.  When his lips touched skin, he didn’t even know what part of her body it was, but it didn’t matter because he loved them all equally, was sure he always would no matter how they changed.  Finally, her silence and swearing turned to one word, hoarsely delivered right into the canal of his ear.  He knew now, had known since Stella’s visit, that Scully said a lot of things during sex that she tended not to say at the office. 

But this word, this word he never got to hear in the course of a workday.

Yessssss.”

“Do that again.”

“Yessssss… yessssss.”

“I wanna make you come so bad, Scully.”

She almost lifted all the way off him and he thought she was playing with him.

“Scully, fuck… come for me,” he said.

She closed her eyes and held her finger over his lips as she flashed him a naughty red-licorice smile and hissed his new favorite dirty word through her teeth.

Yesssssss.” 

Her mouth fell to his neck, her fingernails embedded themselves in his skin and he raised his hips once more as he said her name, this time long and low, coming and crumbling as she flickered and turned from blazing fire to wisp of smoke, fragrant and weightless in his arms.

“I love you,” she whispered.  He smoothed a hand over her hair, covered her back under the span of two arms.  He kissed her.  These things which had seemed like superhuman feats a couple hours ago now so simple, necessary even.

“I love you,” she repeated as he did so, as if she hadn’t even said it the first time, or as if she’d known this is how he wanted it, deposited directly into his mouth so he could swallow it, hold it and have it forever like a hoarded key. 

He nuzzled his face in her collarbone, sturdy and straight as the mast of a sailboat.

“Thank you,” she said and he didn’t know if she meant for coming over or for the orgasm or...  “For The Elvis thingie.  For keeping it all that time.”

She looked at him and blinked a couple times, awfully coy for a woman who’d just let him tear her apart.

“I don’t think anyone’s ever done something like that for me before.”

“Not given you a gift?”

“Thought about me hard enough to not give it to me for five months.”

He thought of Stella’s voice that day on the phone.  He could play it cool, but why bother?  Who knew where they’d be in twenty years or ten or next week? 

“Scully, I’ve been thinking about you that hard for five years.”

“Mulder,” she answered softly.  She pressed her cheek against his like they were the last couple left on the dance floor, her ragged breath like a country song in three-four time. 

“I didn’t know there was a right and wrong way to fuck someone,” he said.

He felt her smile against his neck.

“Now you know.”

“Now I know.”

“You’ve probably been doing it wrong all along,” she mumbled.

“I haven’t really been doing it at all.”

Her body shook silently against him as she laughed, a feeling so perfect he wished he could bottle it, shake it out of a packet into his coffee and get drunk on it at night, a mood stabilizer the world had saved just for him.  How could he ever be unsatisfied again when he knew that beneath her well-tailored shirts, her nipples blushed the same dusty rose as her lips?  How could he fixate on the past when, sometime in the future, she’d smile again the way she did when she came?  Who gave a shit if there were aliens or not when her slightly sibilant S could bring him to his knees?  How could he ever feel lost when he was able to find his way to the dimples on her lower back?

This was his happy place, his vacation and his home, he thought as he held her tightly and looked down.  Her back was a lush valley of scattered freckles and rolling vertebrae, a postcard stamped with the circular red, green, and gold emblem of her ability to survive anything, run from any threat.  He swore to himself he was never going to be one of those things again.  Never. 

Chapter Text

 

Scully had been having the same kinds of nightmares for a long time -- stories hot with life, crafted in poet’s detail by a subconscious spoiled for choice.  The bone-crack of brush underfoot in a thick forest chase, the particular pitch of black created by a slamming trap door, unsolvable mysteries with incomprehensible faces.  For years, the dreams had ended the same way the experiences that inspired them had – with a mix of confusion and relief, and Mulder close at her side. 

But lately she’d been finding reality more frightening than her dreams.  Come morning, the high definition of night would be replaced by hazy, indifferent facts of domestic existence -- the curtain pattern she herself picked out, the slightly dead smell of the dinner she herself had made the previous evening.  In place of the monsters and villains would be the person she loved best, willingly chained to his computer, drugged on the adrenaline of another all-nighter, buried alive in paranoid illusions and useless information. He’d haunted her like a confused sort of ghost, his corporeal body doing the work while his spirit sat in some motel drawer, some field under the stars.  Morning after morning, he’d proved invulnerable to her mortal efforts, her anger and adoration, seemed almost eager to pare away her nerves.  And in the end, like any good ghost, he’d chased her from the house.

One morning just a few weeks after she’d moved back to the city by herself, she woke in a room she didn’t recognize, a place that felt familiar though separate, like walking into a friend’s closet.  Ancient history waxed into the crevices of the solid oak floors, the linens so white they teased blue along the creases, her shampoo clashing with the one previously left on the pillow.  Out the window, a grey sweater of fog wrapped around the tips of buildings soft and thick as cashmere.

London.  That’s right.  London.

She stretched as she passed through the living room – did British people call it a living room or something else? -- and found the couch had already been evacuated, blankets sloppily folded and placed in a chic oversized basket beside it.  She smiled at the lump of feathery wool, alpaca, and mohair, whiney weaves that demanded they never see the inside of a dryer.  So Stella.

Scully had tried to insist they split the bed down the middle.  Over the fifteen years they’d been friends, the bed-sharing conversation had become something of a ritual.  There were many different versions of it, but Stella was always on the same side of the argument, and the significance was always the same – something about the purity of their friendship.  Scully often thought that it would probably say more for the purity of their friendship if at least once, they didn’t have to have a conversation about the bed at all.  

It was generally accepted that Stella knew her way around this kind of modern friendship best.  But for all its indefinability, there was an old-fashionedness to it as well.  The unexpected subsistence of loyalty between two long-distance confidantes who existed safely outside the Venn Diagram of one another’s daily lives – no mutual friends or spin classes, nothing shared but an ocean… and occasionally, for a weekend, a nightstand between hotel double beds.  

“You’re being silly,” Scully had told her the previous night as Stella fluffed her spare duvet, the one now most likely at the bottom of the basket.

“I’m being respectful.”

“Of whom?”

“You.  Mulder.”

Mulder had never checked in when she and Stella spent time together chatting and drinking wine.  He never asked her about sleeping arrangements, had always treated those mysterious weekends the way he’d never treated any mystery -- with respectful incuriousness, undisturbed and uninspected.  A few times, all three of them had had dinner.  Scully would get all worked up trying to figure out a place to eat that fit both Mulder and Stella, but of course Stella thought she fit anywhere, and Mulder didn’t care whether he fit.  Pitcher of Pepsi or crystal champagne flutes, Scully would be the only one shifting awkwardly in her chair those meals, feeling like she was holding her fork in the wrong hand all night, thinking of the picture they must make – an Irish Catholic in a sweater set, a bombshell in a leather skirt, a misanthrope in a wrinkled suit, and at least two out of the three packing heat.  But that would not be the situation on this visit.  Mulder would not be joining them.

“Stella, you have a head injury.”

“No, I don’t.  I have injuries that happen to be on my head.  Aren’t you a doctor?”

Scully opened a defensive palm out to the side.

“You haven’t given me a chance to look at them yet.”

Stella looked up at her with heavy lids and an effortlessly sassy hand on her hip.

“You can sleep in the bed or you can go to a hotel.”

Scully had been too tired to play the scene out any further, and besides, Stella stole the show every time.  She was just as good at keeping people out of bed as she was at getting them into it.  So Scully had suffered a princess’s defeat, falling into the deep plush mattress, feeling like both the protector and the protected, deep-breathing Stella’s shadow off the pillowcases.  She drifted off smiling, thinking of how many weeks she’d once spent missing someone who was such a stranger she wouldn’t have known what kind of candy to get her at the movie theater.  

If only she’d known then that she would someday pad into Stella’s kitchen and find her merrily slouching on a stool, peering into a cup of tea as if it were a jar of butterflies.

“Morning.  Want me to make you a cup?”

“No, I can do it,” Scully said, eager to re-establish the tone of this trip.  She was here to take care of Stella, not the other way around.

She successfully found herself a cup and spoon, then dug out all kinds of things from the fridge that Stella said didn’t belong in tea.  But when Scully turned to the stove, she found a fancy steeper waiting instead of a regular old pot.  She glanced at the microwave.

“Don’t even think about it,” Stella said and slid down from the stool.

The kitchen was sleek and clean, identical wine bottles balanced like uniformed cheerleaders beside crystal clear wine glasses.  Scully wondered if Stella had had a dinner party before she left for Belfast, left the glasses out to dry, and still not gotten around to putting them away.  But more likely, she assumed, this was their usual place, right here out on the counter.  Stella liked to keep pleasure within arm’s length, even if it meant things were going to break more often.

Even with the lights on and the sun theoretically out, the room was darker than what Scully was used to, both in the old house and her new apartment.  But the shade here was a relief rather than a disappointment, an umbrella on a too-long beach day, a welcome break from the pressure to be happy even as she chewed sand.  There was always plenty of light so long as there was Stella, a few more lines under her chin when she checked the flame, but otherwise exactly the same, body wound up sinewy as a birthday candle, skin so radiant it threw a dim glow across the grey surfaces whenever she moved.  

It wasn’t until Stella’s first phone call that random Wednesday afternoon that Scully realized she needed that kind of relief:  her warm, relaxed just calling to voice rolling off the receiver like a palm-warmed rubber ball, her confident silences padding every remark.  It was upsetting for Scully to think about, but once, she had been the thing Mulder consumed night and day, the thing that kept him up all night.  And even as she loved him back with the heliotropic intensity he demanded of all things and people, she had unwittingly kept a little room like this kitchen for herself, dark and sexy, Stella its only light.

Now Scully mentally slipped on her white coat as she took Stella’s chin in her hand and studied the stitched abrasion on her forehead, the hematoma on her cheek.  She tucked herself into the counter corner nearest Stella’s body, brushed Stella’s hair back from her face.  She felt a remarkable sense of calm as she glanced at the dark patches of scabs on Stella’s cheekbone.  There was comfort in having something to offer.  

“It’s nothing to worry about,” Stella said.  

“I know, I’ve heard.”

It’s nothing to worry about, but… is how Stella’s phone call from the hospital had started.  The words Belfast and serial killer and hospital had come at Scully all out of order, moving around like those kitschy refrigerator magnets until they formed a cohesive sentence.

“I’m getting a flight to London,” she’d said, hanging up before Stella could even finish protesting.  It was what Stella would have done for her, had in fact done for her during that miserable time Mulder was missing… dead...

Gone, is what she’d subtitled that whole period of her life, because any more fine-tuned explanation raised questions that were too painful and difficult to answer.  Stella had been the only person Scully could look in the eye after William, the only person she’d let comfort her.  And so she’d let her stay a couple times, would hide her away like a secret drug, a fairy godmother or an imaginary friend, while she went to work and watched everyone wonder how, how is she doing it.  Stella was how she was doing it.  Stella would tend to the apartment like a garden of roses, letting the sun in and casually collecting tiny blue socks, pruning for thorns until it was safe for Scully to pass through.  She’d order dinner when Scully said she was on her way home and prattle off seemingly gruesome investigation stories or scandalous gossip at the table, anything that was distracting enough for Scully to forget herself and eat something.  She’d hold Scully the nights she cried herself to sleep, hushing and soothing the back of Scully’s neck or the wrinkles between her eyebrows with her silvery voice and the sky-ocean smell of her shower-scrubbed skin.  Her one condition in exchange was always that she didn’t have to say goodbye when she left.  Scully would think it a small price to pay, until of course she’d have to actually sit down at the table alone and unfold the I’m off, darling note.

Scully knew just because Stella had done it for her didn’t mean she’d be able to easily return the favor.  She had been prepared to ignore all the text messages that would follow their chat --  I’m fine, Really don’t come, I overreacted by calling -- as she went about the process of taking a short leave from work, putting a hold on her mail.  It wasn’t until she was taxiing down a runway that she realized the only thing Stella had messaged her was a reminder of her address.  The realization of how bad Stella’s condition must be turned her so green that her neighbor asked if she hated flying too.  At the front door, Stella had shrunk against her cautious embrace and Scully had had to stretch the hug out an extra ten seconds just to make sure she could face her dry-eyed.  

“Not now,” Stella had said, pushing Scully off as she felt her fingers lightly feeling around the back end of her rib cage for misalignments.  “Come in.”

She’d gone in.  Made small talk.  Had a piece of a cake.  Left out her troubles with Mulder.  And conducted the bed argument.  Now, the sun was up and she was feeling sturdy enough to resist both Stella’s stubbornness and her own tears. 

“Don’t move,” she said as she held Stella’s shoulder still and studied her, grazing the edges of each bruise and cut so as to feel where the swelling stopped.

“They did a nice job on the stitches.  Did you ask for a plastic surgeon?”

“What do you think?”

“I don’t think you’ll scar.”

Stella said nothing as she stepped away to pour the tea into Scully’s cup.  The cup rattled slightly in its dish.

“Real tea, my little American.”

Scully rolled her eyes and Stella smiled as she walked away.  This was part of the fun, Stella’s indulging her with her Britishness.  She made a show of hopping up nimbly onto her stool, but Scully didn’t miss the way she slightly braced herself as her tailbone hit the chair.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“About what?”

“Paul Spector.”

“Not especially.  I’ve already spent many hours of my life talking about him that I can’t get back.”

Scully was half-relieved.  She didn’t need to know the gory details if Stella didn’t need to say them.  She took her seat beside Stella, rounding her shoulders to form a cave around the steam.  Stella was already dressed, and in the unlikely combination of t-shirt and jeans.  It was a bit like seeing something you’d always found beautiful photographed in black and white for the first time.

“I like your pajamas,” Scully said.  

“Thank you for coming,” Stella said, ignoring the joke, swinging a bare foot out to gently tap Scully’s shin.  

“I’m surprised you let me,” Scully said.  “I’m actually surprised you even called.”

Stella took a breath like she’d agreed to lead storytime.

“Well, I met a doctor there.  He was trying to keep me awake in case I’d been concussed.  And while chatting, he asked if I had any real friends.”

“That seems a bit personal.”

“Mm.”

“And?”

“I said I had a few.  And then…” 

Stella looked slightly shy, slightly pleased with herself. 

“I decided I might as well call one of them.”

Scully felt the hot tea solidify in her throat, turn from liquid to tennis ball.  Cry about the beauty of friendship and she will fucking throw you out right now.  

She stared down into the cup and patted Stella’s leg, then brought her hand back into her own lap, oddly aware of the shape and size of Stella’s kneecap, how familiar, how concrete it seemed.  They didn’t touch often, and when they did it was not intimately.  And yet, certain parts of Stella’s body could still send Scully’s muscle memory into overdrive. 

She reached for a topic that would be easy for Stella.

“Are you dating him?”

“What?” 

“Are you sleeping with the doctor.”

“No.  What ever made you think such a thing?”

“You said ‘met.’  People don’t ‘meet’ doctors when they’re in the hospital, they’re treated by them.”

“I resent the idea that we can no longer use the word met without meaning fucked.”

“Mm.”

“Though he did send flowers.”

“Oh Jesus,” Scully chuckled into her tea.

“I’m not interested,” Stella said, and tapped Scully with her foot again, this time a bit harder.  “At the moment.”

It was a harmless remark, but nonetheless, it tweaked Scully somewhere in the pit of her stomach, tuning her like a piano string, plucking so hard her voice went a half step sharper.

“What do you want to do today?” Scully asked, clearing her throat.  “If it’s nothing, I can do nothing.  I’ve got a book.”

“I can’t remember what I usually do for fun.”

“I can tell you off the bat that most of the things you usually do for fun are out of the question.”

“I’m not going to stay in staring at the walls.”

“Then stare at me instead.”

“Slightly more appealing.”

“Only slightly?”

 “Mm.”

“What do you have in mind?”

The corner of Stella’s mouth twitched and she kicked Scully’s shin again.

“Get dressed,” Stella said.  “We’re going out.”

“Fine.”  Scully got up, glanced over her shoulder.  “Are you going to get dressed?”

Stella smirked.

“Fuck off.”

Chapter Text

 

The strident echo of Stella’s boot heels grew humbler come late afternoon as they clicked down the damp concrete sidewalks of London’s shopping districts.  All morning long, she’d walked arm-in-arm with Scully in a mood seemingly unscathed by pain and weather best described as a permanent cold sweat.  But now Scully could feel Stella’s arm growing heavy, leaning a little rather than leading, and beneath the buttery leather of Stella’s off-day civilian jacket was a tightly clamped fist, the humps of four bracing fingers visibly knuckling the black calfskin.  Scully asked if she needed another painkiller.

“One last stop,” was Stella’s indirect answer.

“Are you sure because -”

And then Scully saw it.  Secretive and svelte, a door tucked trenchlike down four wrought-iron steps--a place that looked as likely to sell James Bond his spygear as it did his girlfriends their racy underwear.  Scully had been watching Stella fight to feel like herself all day, and one look at this shop said it was meant to be the pièce de résistance in that carefully drawn battle plan.   

“Nevermind,” she said.

The first time Stella ever suggested they go shopping together, they’d just arrived in Chicago, one of their early girls’ weekends when they’d managed to make their paths cross amidst conferences and con artists (psychics, was Mulder’s word for them).  A  wicked midwestern wind had whipped past as they stepped out of the taxi and Stella promptly announced that she hadn’t packed appropriately.  A bit of a rash declaration for someone who’s just arrived, Scully had thought, a bit like someone who, say, wanted to go shopping.  In an effort to act fast, she’d offered to sacrifice up her own warm coat.

“Don’t be silly, what’ll you wear then?” Stella had asked as she slipped her shoes off and claimed the bed closer to the window.  She liked to control the amount of light that got in.  Which, during sleeping hours, was none at all.

“Your trench is fine for me.”

“No, the weave is too flimsy.  Wasn’t built for this.”

“We don’t have anywhere we really have to go anyway.”

“All weekend?” There’d been an unusual lilt in Stella’s voice that Scully disconcertingly identified as glee.  She’d kept her back conveniently turned to Scully’s pouting as she swanned into the bathroom.  “Call down and ask the concierge where the nice shops are.”

Scully had closed her eyes and thought of the circumstances in which she usually went shopping: when a barbecue stain on her favorite shirt valiantly fought off a third tour of spot treatment, when the soles of her shoes disappeared into puddles of mysterious green acid, when she accidentally lost weight on Mulder’s diet of sarcasm and chewable seeds.  Shopping did not represent release or self-expression or feminine bonding to her; it was a pilgrimage of debilitating necessity, a quest guaranteed to humble and shame her into austerity until the next time it needed doing.  

Huffing loudly as she disappeared into the sound-proof vacuum of the rotating doors, she’d trudged out of the Chicago hotel that afternoon a martyr.  But a few shops, a glass of wine, and a piece of cake later (cake!), and she was following Stella in and out of jangling doors with the slightly giddy buzz of a first-time rebel in a John Hughes film.   

Now they were about to enter a lingerie shop decidedly more slick film noir than Breakfast Club.  Scully found herself holding her breath a little as she opened the door for Stella.  Stella took a step in and folded the umbrella behind the door.  The clerks stopped what they were doing and smiled demurely, folded their hands patiently across their bellies.  It was as if the Queen of England had just walked in.  Did Stella come in here that frequently?  Or was it just a trade secret the shopgirls had, a way of spotting a certain type of woman?  

Once, in New York, she’d picked out a pair of jeans for Scully without her even trying them on.  Scully had stood in the art deco hotel bathroom, pulling them up with the tags still on, stunned as she zipped and ran her hand over the normally denim-defiant curve from her waist to her ass.  If she were patient enough for scheduling to permit, she’d realized, she might never have to suffer the agony of buying jeans--or anything else--again.  All she’d have to do was keep a running list of things she needed in the back of her mind and save all her shopping for Stella’s weekends. 

“Would you mind that?” she’d asked.

“No.  But the list-keeping is part of your problem, you know.”

“What do you mean?”

“You tell yourself you need something too many times, it’ll start haunting you.”

“That your big shopping advice for me?”

Stella had come into the bathroom for a little bottle of body lotion from the countertop.  Scully’s suit was hung over the back of the door.  

“My advice is stop buying up a size.  You’re not going to grow into anything.”

She’d swatted Scully’s bottom on her way to the minibar.

Wherever they went, they always visited at least a couple stores.  Stella would shoot withering glances at snot-nosed salesgirls while accepting their free glasses of champagne, criticize craftsmanship at twenty feet through a tinted window, effortlessly translate sizes from US to UK to Euro and back again.  “You’ll get the hang of it,” she’d tell Scully, but Scully knew the implications of this were false.  She’d never known Stella to, say, flip through a copy of Vogue, had never actually heard her entertain fashion as a topic of conversation.  It wasn’t a learned skill for her.  Some combination of confidence, pragmatism and hedonism had bred (among other things) a shopping savant in Stella Gibson.

And the clerks in the posh lingerie shop knew a master when they saw one.  Scully watched them bat their eyelashes in Stella’s direction, biting their tongues with admirable restraint, knowing their help was neither needed nor wanted.  Scully wondered how they even found the time to get ready for work--each one of them made up like Brigitte Bardot in the role of a French maid, little black dresses and heavy eyeshadow, veritable mission statements across their well-brassiered chests regarding the pursuit of fantasy.  She felt compelled to stay close on Stella’s heels this far from realm and country, but that meant being included in the glow of their interest.  Could they pick out the people who didn’t belong just as well?  She began to fidget, play with her hair, clear her throat.  A bell rang out relief and the Bardots turned their heads in unison, a kickline of painted pouts.  The new customer paused under the doorway and shook water out of her hair with her fingertips.

“Is it properly raining now?” asked Bardot Number Three and Scully watched the customer smile and answer, but her mind saw something else entirely.

She’s in her grade school camp t-shirt, slightly preoccupied with her bralessness.  Mulder stands soaking wet at her door, nervous, tall as a tree without her heels on.  She’s thinking she should go change, grab a sweatshirt, but it seems presumptuous that she’d need to, or vain, or overly demure, or maybe she’s just too curious what he’s doing here to take the time...

Scully turned back to Stella, who had set her sights on a deep indigo piece of satin and was shoving it under her arm for future reconsideration.  Then she picked up a simple black balconette bra, unadorned and unpadded, convent attire by this brand’s standards, and handed it over her shoulder to Scully without looking.  

“Stop following me around and go try this on.”

Scully stepped into the bordello lighting of the dressing room, yanked open the black velvet curtain and pulled it shut behind her.  It was more formidably weighted than she’d expected it to be, rooted like a native jungle plant, waving the past away as it welcomed her into its midst.   She hung her coat on a hook, feeling slightly on edge, but she had yet to regret buying anything Stella had picked for her.  Neither, for that matter, had Mulder, she recalled.  One button on her sweater and he’s taking a pair of stilettos out of the box in awe, another button and he’s smoothing the wool felt of a pencil skirt over her hips as she marvels barefoot at its perfect length.  

She began to move more quickly to shake the memories off, a driver who’s suddenly concluded she’s being tailed.  She tore the sweater over her head half-buttoned and her long hair fell in a mess around her face.  Slightly breathless, she grabbed the bra off its hanger, glanced in the mirror to see if she’d lost him.

His mouth is on her chest and she is taking off her t-shirt, the waves in her hair multiplying exponentially with every moment he stares up at her...

The bra seemed to clamber of its own will up onto her torso and she did the rest, quietly fastening her grip on the present moment as she tightened the straps, pinching each cup like the edge of a piece of spinning pottery, determined not to be spooked off course.  Her hand automatically went over her belly-button, a tic she had at mirrors that Mulder sometimes teased her about, but he wasn’t there.

Yes, he is.  He is holding her from behind, a hand on her breast and she is breathless…

Her throat suddenly tightened and her tongue went as thick as the curtain, feet sinking into the floor like quicksand.   The air became too thick to breathe.  Her skin boiled but her fingers froze, and her hands tingled as they thawed against the mirror.  Leaning forward, she looked away from the surface, sought the solace of reason--panic attack, panic attack.

But his hand is here, tight…

Anger and terror swirled in her belly as she pictured herself stuck there overnight and forever, becoming one with the flora like the Amazonian curtains and dim lighting, forgotten and forsaken, and she tried to suck in more air but his hand--

“What’s taking so long?”

Scully tried to answer, but her mouth had gone dry, her teeth just beginning to fall into a rhythmic chatter.  

“Dana?”

She managed to swallow and some saliva flowed again.  The word came out hardened with effort.

Yeah.

The curtain opened with a sharp thwap, and in the mirror Scully could immediately see understanding scrawled in the ballpoint blue ink of Stella’s eyes.  The tension in her shoulders began to release and her ankles wobbled free as Stella bent creakily to the floor and handed Scully her sweater.  Scully held it up against her chest like a shield and Stella snapped open the back clasp of the bra.  

“There,” she said softly, pushed the straps down Scully’s arms a few inches.

“I couldn’t breathe.”

Scully could see the effort it took Stella to lie.

“I was off on the size, probably.”

Scully nodded.

“Too tight.”

Scully thanked her the way she knew Stella liked her thanks best--quietly, refracted through as many insignificant elements as possible.  It was exactly how they’d looked at each other in Ed’s psych ward bathroom, surrounded by 1940s kitchen-appliance-green tile and maniacs.  There, in that pause, was the tiny satin ribbon of intimacy between them, a tight little bow, pulled evenly in both directions, a knot sewn securely through the middle.

“I’ll be waiting out there,” Stella said.

And when Scully came out, Stella was standing behind another customer at the register, true-to-form, as though nothing had happened.  The violet piece of lingerie was now out from under her armpit and splayed fondly over two hands.  Scully cleared her throat, relieved to have a lecture to offer.

“I thought you said you weren’t interested,” she said.

“I’m not interested in the doctor.  I didn’t say I wasn’t interested in sex, period.”

“You’re not exactly in fighting shape.”

“I take offense to that.”

Bardot Number Two was wrapping and stickering a set of garters with the speed and gravity of a beknighting.  

“You’ve got hairline fractures that could become clean breaks,” Scully pressed.  

“I promise, I’ll tell them to be gentle.”

Scully lowered her voice to a modest decibel.

“When was the last time you asked a guy to go softer?”

Stella laughed, a low, evil chuckle that meant never and you know it.

“Why do you assume it’s going to be a man?”

Scully tried not to sound too curious, too invested.

“Aren’t they usually... these days?”

“Usually and unmemorably,” Stella murmured.  

They both shuffled a little closer to the register as the customer ahead finished up.  Bardot took the purple thing from Stella and gave her best now-here’s-a-woman-who-knows-how-to-buy-underwear hum.

“Sorry, I know you don’t want to hear it,” Scully said.

“On the contrary, Dana,” Stella said.  “You know I like it when you play doctor.” 

Bardot’s eyelashes twitched a couple times.  Only Stella could scandalize someone who sold crotchless panties for a living.  

“Anyway, I would be remiss in my duty if I didn’t say it,” Scully continued, swallowing her warning with a lick of her lip, scratching her scalp in quiet defeat.  She’d have all day to negotiate exactly how long Stella was going to wait before she started taking strangers to bed.  She’d rather do it without an audience.

“It’s not for me,” Stella said with an exasperated sigh. “It’s for you.” 

Her eyes twinkled with mischief, her hand out to the cashier as the receipt chattered into existence.

“For Mulder, rather.  He deserves a little something for letting me borrow you on such short notice, don’t you think?  Why are you looking at me like that?”

And that’s when Scully started to cry.

 

*

 

The late afternoon light fills their bedroom with a penny jar haze, the sun picking up speed as it rolls into their old house and then spins to a stop on the stuffy closet floor where Scully is seated.  She’s wearing a pair of faded blue track shorts, baking on a peel of of wood floor turned Mediterranean orange as the panels make stripes on the bottoms of her thighs like a beach chair.  It feels like summer inside.

Outside, it’s light-jacket autumn, a day meant for reading with your head in someone’s lap, a Golden Retriever-led jog, taping leaves into notebooks.  It’s the kind of day that represents the occasional success of the universe despite its many known faults--the kind of day you’d feel lucky to get if it happened to be your birthday.  But Mulder hasn’t acknowledged the concept of luck in a long while, and Scully’s universe has been narrowed to the confines of their house’s termite-gnawed walls, its moth-infested closets like pock-marked moons round every corner.  The things she needs to see die and be reborn are all here in her home. 

They have a longstanding tradition on his birthday that he can talk to her about any one topic, anything he wants, for any length of time, and no matter how boring or ridiculous she finds it, she may not shut him down, ask him to stop, even politely change the subject until twelve midnight of the fourteenth.  It began after a few years of Scully’s watching him mope through cakes and picnics and concerts, feeling like a failure as he willed the day to be over with.  She had always felt deeply responsible for the success of people’s birthdays and he seemed to deeply relish hating his; this put them, as always, at a crossroads.  

“You think you’re the only adult in the world with a birthday?” she’d ask crossly sometime around September twenty-eighth, the time of year she’d begin suggesting possible plans.  Sports events and restaurants, desserts splashed up with promises of lewd frosting-themed side-events--none of it welcomed.  

“Mortality and unmet expectations, I get it,” she’d say.  “We’ve all learned to deal with it.”

“I’ve hated it since I was a kid, though,” he’d say with an edge of competitiveness in his voice.

When he finally told her what would make him happy, it was an accident, a bit of snark during his morning slideshow.

“Come on, Scully, act like it’s my birthday and humor me,” he’d said.  

Yes.  She would humor him.  Come October thirteenth.  

Initially, Mulder had doubted her ability to follow through on her offer, even for one day.  But Scully proved herself that first year, regarding the eight lives of octopuses, no less (an obvious test).  Her low tolerance for pseudoscience was outweighed by her determination and respect for birthdays; she’d nodded patiently with her best Red Riding Hood face, every so often asking a relevant question, and if Mulder could tell she was faking interest, he didn’t complain.  Maybe it was that he liked her suffering for him, or maybe he was just that good at deluding himself - but either way, she knew he knew it meant she loved him enough to do it.  And that, she would have lectured if given the opportunity, was the very point of a birthday.  

After the success of that first octopus birthday, Mulder was sold.  He spent the next October and the next making lists on the back of napkins and magazines in waiting rooms, carefully narrowing his options so as to choose wisely, make the most of his chance to fill her brain with the best of the nonsense that inhabited his own.  Over the years, Scully perfected a series of false reactions.  Last year, when he revealed the morning-of that he’d chosen something “cosmic,” she’d tittered cheerfully about Mercury in retrograde and Venus in her rising house.  Astronomy, he’d corrected, you know, science, and she’d squealed science?  Is it MY birthday? as he buried her in a smattering of toothpaste kisses.   

Specifically, the topic was sun outages:  the phenomena of communication disruption during periods following the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, when the sun’s apparent path puts it between Earth and a satellite, the power of its radiation hoarding and burying the signals.  It could be happening, he said, right then. 

“Imagine, Scully,” he said with typical Mulderian awe.  “How powerful that is.”

And for the first time since they’d begun their tradition, Scully almost failed.  She folded her arms across her chest, leaned back on the arm of the couch.  Rain was pounding the roof and the house reeked of pizza as Mulder idly pulled at her socks.  The day was almost over, she was almost in the clear.  He had, of course, spoken of many more far-fetched things than solar episodes, but this was science and she, a scientist.  It sounded fake to her.  He leaned forward as she struggled to control her right eyebrow during the part about the effect of such outages on the Bombay Stock Exchange.  

“You--should see--your face,” he laughed.

Really, but no, really she asked over and over, squinting and dubiously cocking her chin, and she learned that the only thing that delighted him more than her succeeding at her game was losing it.  She was subjected to a punishing foot massage, wherein she moaned exaggeratedly when he squeezed a good spot.  He mimicked her, making silly noises back.  Each time she made her sound, she felt it originate a little lower down in her body, and then heard his response a little further up, and soon he was kissing her neck and sucking her earlobe and telling her she was the best girlfriend in the history of the world. 

“Mm, I think you’ve found your topic for next year,” she told him.

“Hard science,” he mumbled and she didn’t even mind the wordplay when he used that voice and put his hand on her waist.  It had been a hard year but a very good day. 

By the following year, Mulder’s depression had deepened with the same steadfast intensity he applied to all things.  She requested the day off anyway.  Their tradition would revive him, and if he couldn’t get off his office chair, she’d spend it in his lap purring at him while he talked about forest fairies or vampires or anything really.  As the day approached, he drew no lists on napkins, gathered no topics.  Instead, he made clear his wish not to acknowledge another year’s passing at all.  And come this morning, he banned her from so much as taking the ice cream cake out to thaw.  

He doesn’t want her attention but she can’t leave because it’s his birthday.  He’s given her no choice but to spend this perfect autumn day off like an accident, a misfiring smoke alarm or a snow flower, and now she sits with her legs crossed as she reaches into the closet and roots out the rot, makes piles she hopes will somehow make their life grow come spring.  The leafy breeze momentarily muscles its way into the room, mulches the smell of her cotton-distilled sweat as it licks the underside of her hairline and the creases of her thighs, reminds her just how ripe she is--twenty seven hours since her last shower and four months past picking.  She swallows the fresh perspiration off her lip, sinks a little deeper into the floor.  She’s lonely and sweaty and Mulder is unshaven and in another room that might as well be another continent. 

This is the state of things when she comes upon a man’s toiletry bag buried under a heap of shoes she doesn’t wear anymore, an archaeological strata that places it somewhere around the year they bought the house.  She remembers Mulder used to keep something like this in the office for emergencies--the same place she kept her lipstick and sometimes a plastic egg of cheap pantyhose.  The idea is bitterly funny now, of Mulder having ever cared that much about shaving, or for that matter, she about pantyhose.  They have both stopped even turning the lights on in the bathroom most of the time.

Thin rolls of dead animal skin peel off into her lap like a bad sunburn and she almost tosses it directly into the ‘out’ pile, but there’s a vague whiff of sentiment about it.  And what doesn’t have sentimental significance to Mulder?  He is a walking collection of grudges and past associations, a pantry closet full of expired tea bags and spices still holding onto their spot on the shelf in case of the future.  It is only the present he undervalues.  This is the tiny, spiteful part of her that wants to throw the bag out anyway--the part that has turned her nostalgic as well.  There are certain bottles in the bathroom that remind her of him, entire drawers of her dresser, types of chocolate bars and bottles of wine and dozens of songs she’s taken out of daily rotation.  She keeps the kit in her lap, knows by now that these little spasms of cruelty pass quickly.  She unzips it as she gives herself time to determine its fate kindly.

There are razor blades and a brush and a dark blue velvet-coated box.  Its color is doubled, tripled, quadrupled in depth by the clamoring reflective surfaces around it, though the edges of the blades have gone dull from years of sifting against thick leather and a closet floor.  It’s a color she might buy a sweater in to match her eyes, a classic soft-edged cube that snaps open and shut along a gold stripe, jaws threatening fingers like an alligator.  The diamond it holds is modest in size though it shames the silver razor blades in luster, twinkling like a star in the sun.  At first, she feels nothing, assumes it’s something he’s inherited, that it has nothing to do with her, an artifact.  But when she turns it in her fingers, she sees an inscription inside the band.   “S.  My partner always.  M.”

And then all the dust in the room is in her throat at once and she begins to cough, a single and then a series, a speeding treadmill of hacking she can’t seem to slow.  She snaps the box shut and holds it tight in her fist as she moves to the bathroom, unable to drop it as she splashes cold water on her face with one hand and sips like a desert traveler right from the faucet, choking and spitting when it won’t go down.  She is still doubled over the sink, catching her breath, when Mulder appears in the mirror over her shoulder like a phantom.  She wipes her mouth with the neck of her grey t-shirt and notices the ears of dark sweat all over it.  She becomes acutely aware of her shorts riding up her ass.  These are things he might have liked sometime, but now he’s here for his ibuprofen or to pee, and she’s self-conscious about how she looks.

Except he doesn’t excuse himself or reach for the medicine cabinet.  He raises his eyebrows in concern.  This still happens, where she’s still aware of the stubborn and unconditional love between them, but the moments have become less frequent and more ephemeral.  So she tries to hold on to this one with the grip of her eyes, a muscle once taut and toned from use in their partnership, now a bit atrophied.

“You okay?” he asks.

She nods.

“Dusty in there.  Should take a Benadryl when you do that.”

And he turns to go. 

“I was cleaning,” she says.  This alone, when he was himself, would have started a conversation.  Mulder rushing to her piles, quick to make sure she hasn’t discarded anything he considers important, which is everything.  Was everything. 

“I know.”  He’s already down the hall.  She’s alive.  She doesn’t require CPR.  He doesn’t realize yet the stakes are actually much higher than that.   

“I found something.”   

She can tell he’s heard the urgency in her voice in the way he looks over his shoulder.  No signs of extraterrestrials here, just a velvet box held out in her open palm.  She doesn’t care about the ring, not really, but she needs it, is counting on it, to get some answers.   

Still he seems unruffled, saunters back with the mild interest of someone who’s just spotted a spider, still deciding whether to kill or it save it. 

“What is this?” she asks. 

He sniffs, both lips folded into his teeth, then pops them out. 

“Come now, Scully, you haven’t been out of the FBI that long.” 

“You know what I meant.  When did you buy it?  Were you planning to give it to me?”

“A year and a half, two years ago,”  he sighs.  And yet, at some point, he sat in some jeweler’s shop, discussing the circumference of her finger with a swooning saleswoman.   Is it this small?  Or more like this?  No like this, but it’s slender.  I don’t know, I’m torn, she’s very small but she has strong hands.

“But then this stuff came up.”

He always refers to it this way, his depression, like it’s a case or an event, a busy calendar, and not like something he has to own and admit to.  She licks her lips, shakes her head.

“I… don’t know what to say,” she says.

“Guess I’m glad I haven’t asked then.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she says, eyes up, glare powered by the red circles forming on the apples of her cheeks.  She is angry, not embarrassed now, and she hopes he damn well knows the difference.

“Mulder, ‘this stuff’ isn’t a thing that’s going to just go away.  You have to address it, let people help you.”

Let me help you, is what she really wants to say, but say that and she might as well chase him from the room.

“That’s not what it is!”

He can’t even say the word.

“What is it then, Mulder?”  

It’s not just August now, it’s August inside a volcano, August on Mars, and the sweat beads even faster on her cheeks, sends rivulets running down her sides and the back of her calves, but she doesn’t care.  Whether he still likes it, whether it’s his birthday, whether she should have showered, whether she should be ashamed.  This is the closest she’s come to solving the case in months and the only thing she cares about is not going home with an empty report.  

“What--if not depression--could be so powerful you’d change your mind about that?”

“You want to get married, I’m sure there are plenty of guys better suited who’d be willing.  Still got your looks, Scully.”

Before she can hear him finish her name, she throws the box at the wall like it’s something she’s trying to break; neither of them grants it so much as a glance when it lands on the floor in one piece.

“You know I don’t give a shit about that, Mulder.  I have never asked you for a ring.  But I am asking you for us.”

“I’m fine.  We’re fine.”

“No.  You’re not and I’m something you put at the back of a closet and forget about,” her voice is cracking now and she lowers it in order to glue it back together.  “When was the last time you looked at me--”

“I’m looking at you right now--”

“Talked to me, really talked to me--”

“Stop it, Scully.” A sense that it’s coming.

“Fucked me.”

He nods, bites his bottom lip for an extended second, eyes coming into a scowl, vaguely self-righteous and jealous, and she feels a single cold tear steal down her cheekbone like an angry runaway out a window.

“That’s what it’s about,” he says. 

Scully breathes deeply, a slight relief rippling through her.  Stella has told her she should say fuck more often and in this moment, Scully understands why.

“This passion you feel for whatever you’re doing in there?”

“I’m--" 

“I don’t care what you’re doing.  You once had it for me.” 

She can feel herself shrink with every emotionally impoverished word, sees her stores of dignity running lower each time she gives him another glimpse into her heart.  He still knows her well enough to notice and cares enough to lower his voice a little, wipe the gleam of irony off his face.

“Scully, I just need a little more time.  I’m right on the edge of something and it’s taking up all my bandwidth.”

She steps a little closer.

“Fuck your bandwidth, Mulder,” she tries and feels strong again.  It’s a jackhammer, this word, and a lifeline.  “You once had so much passion for me that you walked into a tattoo shop and had my initial painted on your body knowing it might make you clinically insane.” 

Suddenly, he smiles--not sarcastic, just soft and familiar. 

“Maybe it finally has.” 

She steps closer, reaches into the sagging waistband of his pre-depression jeans, skating her hand down his lower abdomen.  She hears him lick his lips and knows it’s more likely impatience than desire--how irrational that assumption would have seemed to her ten years ago--but she keeps her eyes on her own wrist, sliding down the rightmost edge of  his red boxer briefs.  She’s doing it blind but there’s a tendon that has always twitched under her fingers and if it’s still there, if he’s still him at all… and it does.  She peels her face back up the sheet of his chest, but she’s not yet ready to risk seeing the dead look in his eyes, so she puts off identifying the body and scratches his beard with her fingernails, looks at it the way she did when it first grew in.  Like it’s a novelty, like she could have some fun with it before she demands he get rid of it. 

Kiss me, is what she would have said then, if she had to say anything at all, or just done it herself.    

“You don’t fucking get it,” he says, but he’s whispering now and his muscle is settling against her hand and he’s grabbing her shoulder so that their chests sway together and apart as he talks.  “You don’t understand.” 

“I don’t fucking get it,” she agrees and takes his hand, puts it up the inseam of her shorts, rests it on her inner thigh, waits for him to make the rest of the journey on his own.  It is a mere two inches, unobstructed by underwear, simple and straightforward, and if he can’t go that far for her-- 

“You think I’m not furious about the fact that I can’t make love to you anymore?” 

But his fingers do travel. 

“Then don’t make love to me.” 

And one of them is inside her before she even finishes the sentence.  She gasps, rises up a little onto her toes.  The floorboards creak under her feet, pliant with the last of the year’s heat.  He locks his knuckles and pumps her for moisture as she closes her eyes, afraid to look for him, afraid he won’t want her back.  She’s ashamed that that matters to her, that it isn’t enough if he’s willing to devote his time and attention--that she needs his desire as well. 

“That what you want?” he asks.  “That what you want from me?”

“No,” she says, at the risk of losing her chance, of losing everything.  But by now, the word is rolling off her tongue and she is reckless in her vulnerability.  She can be rigid and distant again tomorrow, at work, or when she comes home to find him ensconced in his research, eating with her back against the refrigerator, going to bed alone.  “I want you to fuck me.” 

His finger slips away as she tears her shirt over her head, drops it to the floor and toe-heels backward toward the bed.   Sweat molds her wild hair in one sloppy instant to her shoulders, her waist, her lip. 

“Come on, old man,” she taunts even though they have agreed in the past not to make those kinds of birthday jokes.  All bets are off, have been off for longer than she cares to admit.

His feet shuffle closer, and she finally finds the courage to look into his eyes.  They’re following her too, nervous but hungry as she sprawls out on the mattress like the bride he’s never made of her.  She runs her tongue slowly between the top and bottom edges of her teeth, drops her chin open when he finally planks his body over her like a starved wolf, bends on his haunches to kiss her tentatively on the mouth.  Yes, he’s tentative at her mouth but he’s hard against her leg and thank God, she whispers aloud.

He laughs, and this fills her with such intense momentary joy that she feels she might float up off the bed.  It is over.  How many times has she has told herself it was serious, that it would need professional treatment.  But she was wrong, it is over now, he will be fixed with this one simple physical reunion.  The hope is weighty and uncomfortable, makes her breathe harder and writhe in the swooshes of sheets that lately only smell like her. 

“It’s not because I can’t get hard,” he says and she can tell this is not one of his boyish jokes.  “Or that you don’t make me hard.  That’s not why I don’t come to bed.”   

She hears the word hard and watches her fingers twist his shirt. 

“Then why?” 

He strokes the apple of her cheek and disappears behind his eyes for a moment.   

“Forget it,” she says quickly. “Doesn’t matter.” 

“It does.  Dammit,” he says to himself rather than at her.

“Stay with me, Mulder.  Stay, please.”  But he’s shaking his head no and she can tell that her neediness is making it worse, but if it could be dismissed, it wouldn’t be need.  Need, she has found, can only be shared or passed back and forth, never vanquished.  “It’s just me.  I’m right here.  I’m right here.” 

He angrily bounces the mattress under his weight, but she is not afraid of him.   

“Don’t say that to me when you’re going to leave!” 

“What?”

“I know your patience is growing thin with me, Scully, I can feel it.  And it’s just like that time, with Philadelphia.” 

She can hardly believe her ears, cannot believe he’s dragged this broken record out, and frankly is almost relieved.  This?  Not the absence of their son or the petty, pointless end to his life’s work, or the times she has accidentally but thoughtlessly embarrassed him in front of her family or the million shitty things they’ve said in passing to each other since he started pushing her away, cruel little lockboxes they’ve been too tired to bother springing open.  No, this stupid thing, the faded tattoo on my back, let’s dust that one off.

“I was in Philadelphia because you made me go.”

“I know and you were right, I make everything about me.  And I was right too, to hold onto you so tight.  Because when I don’t, you leave me and you find someone else.”

“We weren’t even together then.”  She’s landed safely in the past now, feels safer with every second she stays, is willing to pull up a chair and pour herself a drink there.  And how ironic that at the time, it was the least safe she’d ever felt.

“You didn’t even try to be with me.  You put it on me but you didn’t try either, you didn’t tell me how you felt.”

“I was dying,” she seethes.

“You were miserable and you’re miserable now.” 

“Is that what you’re waiting for me to do?  Fuck someone else?”  She lifts her hips and rubs up against him, chooses her words carefully.  “Because I can do that if you prefer.”

She turns over onto her stomach and turns out her hips, feels his straining jeans scratch peach splotches onto her salt-sticky skin.  She wiggles the band of her shorts down to her hips and pulls her hair over her shoulder to make sure he can see the whole of her tattoo, the head eating the tail, going round and round as it intends to do her whole life, and she almost snickers at the appropriateness.  How clever, how deep she’d thought herself the night she picked it out of a book of cheap designs.

“Fuck me like this so you can see it.  Show me how much you hate it.  Show me you think I deserve what happened to me.”

She is really gambling now, breathing hard into the mattress as she tosses her chips.  He doesn’t touch her, but breathes harder too--she feels it travel like a hot steam iron up her spine.  A drop of his own sweat falls into the valley of her back and she swallows with her ear to the bed, a decades-old fight held tight for dear life between her gritted molars as she speaks.

“I swear to God, Mulder, if you don’t do it--”

And his arm comes around so suddenly and lifts her off the bed with such force that she loses her breath.  He squeezes her nipple so tight she knocks her head back against his shoulder.  He fumbles with his pants with his other hand, his weight on his knees between her legs.  She tosses her hair back between them and tries to look over her shoulder, but the sun glints a hard edge through the window, for a moment right into her eyes, and she thinks of the sun outages, of whatever has been standing between them for two years, powerful enough to suck the signal not only from their conversations but their silences, their touches, their pencil taps, eyebrows arcs.  Then he leans forward with her packaged under his arm and the glare is gone, he fixes it just like that, a simple tilt on an axis, a shift in perspective.  

“You belong to me,” he growls in her ear, and though this is the game they’re playing, she knows in the moment, he means it and in the moment, she wants him to.

“That’s right.”

“This how you want it, Scully?  Pissed off and hard and rough?  This what’s been missing for you?”

And then he’s smooth, so smooth, and straight against her thigh, poking at the white edge of her shorts and it has been so long she’d like to look, except that it’s too perfect, him holding her to him in one arm and pressing the bed away with the other.

“Yeah, hard,” she says.

“That how that homicidal asshole fucked you?”

The homicidal asshole was shy and careful with her in bed, a sweetheart right up until the moment he decided to try to kill her--but this, of all times, is no time for the truth. 

“So hard.  So much harder than you ever have.”

There’s a crackle of elastic losing its give as he tears her shorts down to her thighs with both hands.  He grabs her hips and pulls them, dragging her back onto her knees.  He pushes one rough hand into her hair and sharply claps her on the ass with the other.  She moans and stretches her ribs as his giant hand travels from her scalp down over her face, capturing strands of hair in the swoop back to her breasts.

“Just fuck me, Mulder, I’m ready.”

And she continues to try to keep track of both his hands; a thumb down the center of her abdomen as she sucks it off the mattress, one kneading her hip and now one on her lower back as the other disappears and is he wrapping it around himself, she hopes?  She exhales hard and spreads her knees a little.  But no, he collapses her to the bed and starts to trace her tattoo, tickling and torturing her, making her wetter and wetter as she gets flashes of that finger inside her just moments ago, flashes of Stella’s hand up the back of her shirt in a bar their first night and she doesn’t even feel guilty for borrowing a little extra arousal there or stealing friction from the mattress because this is the most functional thing they’ve done in months.   

The finger goes round and round and round, eventually too many times to be a tease.  She ceases to squirm and moan and just waits, not sure what else to do, beginning to tremble as the air grows cold and the down stands up on her arms and legs.  An angel passing, her mother used to say.  His hand is casket-heavy the next time it flattens itself on her lower back.

“I can’t,” he says wanly.  “I’m sorry.”  He strokes her hair once, like she’s an oil painting he’s not supposed to touch, and not someone who just begged him to take her. 

“You should go, Dana,” he says now.

And he says it with no more flair than if he meant to bed or to the store or to work so you’re not late.  But she knows exactly what he means because he calls her what her mother calls her, and her teachers and her priests.  The bed trembles when he leaves it, and she stays but just for now.  This is where she’ll mourn the last of her resilience, cry quietly with her shorts around her hips.  There’s a cake in the freezer.  There’s a ringbox across the room.   Yet another thing she never asked for, never had in the first place, and still managed to lose.

 

*

 

“Why didn’t you tell me before?”  Stella asked.

They were sitting at the only the two-top in a self-consciously rustic pub, a place that had undergone a makeover and tacked on the word gastro to seem fancy.  Most of the patrons were concentrated at a long communal farm table splitting the room in half.  In the back, at a rickety little thing where waiters probably stole meals between shifts, Scully could smell the parts they couldn’t reclaim--lime rind-swept kitchen floors, the slightly stale, slightly oversexed glaze of beer-soaked blonde bartop.   One whiff took her back fifteen years and a body of water to where Stella, in a halo of gold liquor, first fingered the cross around her neck and silently absolved her of responsibility in any of the recent events that had almost killed her.  Now here they sat, another country and another split brow bone, a penitent lingerie bag between their feet.  Scully crunched her salad.   

“I hadn’t really been thinking about it,” she lied, gulping.

Stella stared into her ketchup as she dipped three French fries at once, a miniature silent treatment.  Scully was aware they came in various sizes; best not to upgrade.

“I didn’t want to make it about me,” she admitted.

“Does he know where you are?”

“I haven’t turned my phone on since I’ve been here,” she said.

“Mm, mature.  He’ll be a wreck.”

Scully scoffed at this and Stella looked piqued.  

“And by that you mean, what?  That he wouldn’t notice you’re gone?”

“I moved out.”

“To come here?”

 “No, before.  I’ve been out of the house a month now.”

Stella balanced an uneven bit of lettuce and tomato in her burger before biting into it again, then wiped her cheek with a knuckle.  She squeezed the last of a lemon rind into her Diet Coke and gulped it down, dropped one hand like a hockey puck in the center of the table as Scully waited to see which way this was going to go.

“That bad,” Stella mused.

Scully nodded and Stella took a measured breath, slightly louder than the others but not quite a sigh.  She watched Scully eat, a reluctant referee.

“It’s not that I don’t love him anymore.”

“Then what is it?”

“He’s very difficult.”

Stella crumpled a napkin in frustration.

“Of course he’s difficult, Scully.”

Scully looked up at the sound of her last name, the realization dawning that Stella was going to take his side.  Scully hadn’t even thought of it that way, as a thing with sides to be taken, until the moment Stella introduced the concept.

“What did you think you were getting?  Somebody easy?  Steady?  Bloke who puts a ring on your finger, comes home at five-thirty and watches the game with his mates on Sundays?  You’d scratch your eyes out in boredom.  You like to think you’re traditional but you’re not.  Or you wouldn’t be sitting here.”

Scully didn’t know if that meant here with me or here in the existential sensehaving made all the choices you’ve made.  

“He’s not there,” she said, wondering if this was how couples therapy would have sounded had Mulder not refused it.  Reductive little phrases they could bear to send forth into the room, unfairly burdening them with the significance of a much wider range of emotions and events.  This could have summarized, for example, the way he’d begun to spin like a wayward compass after years of being her due north, how confident she’d been at the beginning of the spiral that they’d find their way out together, how sometimes she was so lonely and lost that she wished he’d just take her with him. 

“Sex?”

Scully flickered her eyes up at Stella and back to her plate.  Over the years, Stella had almost never asked anything about her sex life with Mulder.  It was unclear whether the perceived danger was sadness or arousal.  Either way, this was different, a metric.

“No sex,” she said softly.   This, for example, would have summarized the events of his birthday last year.

“He’s depressed.” 

Mulder had never allowed her that simple concession, the peace of having something to call it, something to treat.

“Yes.”

It was strange for Scully to have the focus lifted from persuasion.  The lens turned inward and sharpened her guilt.  Even in the worst of times, like the ones Stella had helped see her through, she had cried, screamed, shot things, wished she could shoot more things, prayed.  But she’d still gotten out of bed, she’d still felt like some version of herself, still loved the things she loved and hated the things she hated.  Her depressions had reasons, beginnings in horrific events and endings in coping mechanisms.  She had no idea what it must feel like to have them start and stop nowhere.  

“I didn’t know what else to do,” she said, the shame in her chest bubbling up into her throat in the form of  defensiveness.  “I’m not going to apologize for saving myself.”

“Of course.  I understand.  So you’ve moved out of the house then.”

Ah yes, the impossibly passive aggressive custom of wrapping up unwanted bits of conversation by reiterating something previously mentioned.

“Yes, I got a furnished place.  It’s fine.” 

She shook her head at her plate as she picked over the carrots she’d parsed aside when she realized they were (inexplicably) pickled. 

“Sorry.  I’ve ruined our day.”

“That’s silly.”

“Keep that lingerie,” Scully said. “I’ll just get upset every time I look at it.”

“If you wish,” Stella said at a clip that indicated she found this kind of self-prescribed sentimentality patently absurd, but not worth arguing.  She began to smolder across the table.  Scully put her elbows on the table, hands clasped at her nose.   I haven’t done anything wrong.  I haven’t done anything wrong.  The clues to Mulder’s moods were neatly filed away, but Stella’s were buried under centuries of breeding.  There was no way to know what exactly had tripped the wire--was it that she’d left Mulder in his time of need, or simply that she’d put Stella through an unpleasant lunch?

“I’m getting dessert,” Stella announced brusquely as she waved a hand at the waiter.  “I’d advise you to get your own if you want something.”

Scully bit her upper lip and raised her eyebrows, shook her head helplessly at the waiter as Stella ordered a dish of mousse and then formed a pensive letter L with her arms across her ribs, stroking her lips with her thumb.  It was as if Scully had left the room.  The shadow of Stella’s disengagement fell as cold as her attention did warm.  Scully looked out the window and began to count the cobblestones in the street, starting over three times as she tried to develop a more organized method of keeping track.  She didn’t look when she heard the mousse arrive.

A kick under the table, like the ones during breakfast.  Eighteen cobblestones, Scully noted, for when she started counting again.

“You should have told me when you arrived,” Stella said, and then she paused significantly, as if to indicate how unnatural, how forced this kind of open communication felt to her.   She raised a pinky and waved it in the direction of her stitches.  “Regardless of this.”

“You’re right,” Scully agreed in a small voice.

Stella nodded, generally as uncomfortable lording any sort of moral high ground as Scully was mining the low.   

“Sorry,” Scully said as Stella swallowed.

“I wouldn’t have had to sleep on my fucking couch." 

Scully sucked her cheek a second, not sure if she was meant to laugh yet.  Stella scraped the mousse with her spoon.

“Did you see that he brought me an extra spoon?” Scully asked.

“Don’t you dare, I said get your own.”  She took a breath and flashed her eyes across the table. “Fine.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Scully rested her chin on her arm as she watched the city go by from the cracked-open black taxicab window--the mighty Thames, rushing the past away and away, the windy little be-lanterned streets desperately holding onto it.  This was, Scully told herself, as good a place as any to find yourself crying in public; stoic but generous in its sharing of burdens.  Stella’s lunchtime tough love had softened into evening easy silence and about halfway home, she took Scully’s hand at a traffic light, folded it into her warm palm and held it there on the cool leather center seat between them.  As the car lurched into green again, Scully let her fingers go slack beneath the weight of Stella’s wrist and looked back out the window, let herself be comforted by the lullaby of older and wiser.

“I’m getting hungry already,” she said absently as they rounded the corner onto Stella’s block.  There was an old pub tucked into the end of the street, the kind with a crest and an animal in its name.  Scully wondered how often Stella went in there to have her Scotch, her after-work  glass of wine.  It was possible this was too close to home for her to spend much time there at all.

“That’s what you get for eating salads,” Stella said.  Their voices were sunrise rusty from the long lull in conversation.  Stella paid the driver and looked past Scully at her front door, brow furrowing.

“You may be in luck,” she added curiously.  “I think that’s a container of soup waiting for us.”

Scully turned and saw not only soup, but a person attached to said soup.  She held her  questions, worried the answer would take longer to give than the walkway would allow.  She hesitated outside the taxi and waited for Stella to lead the way up to the door.

“Dani?” Stella asked, though she was clearly sure.  The girl--actually, she was a woman, but young, no older than thirty--squinted and smiled close-lipped.   Maybe thirty-two, now that she was second-guessing herself.

“Ma’am.” 

She held her free hand over her eyes, though there was not--had not been all day--any sun to speak of.  She seemed to hug the tub of soup a little tighter against her hip.

“What are you doing here?” Stella asked.  Dani’s accent was different, though Scully couldn’t quite have described how.

“I thought you lived here, Ma’am,” she said.

“I meant in London.”

“Oh.  Yes, Ma’am.  I asked for a transfer.  My girlfriend and I broke up and um.  Yeah.  Gonna be living here now.”  The way she said ‘now’ almost sounded like it had a letter I in it somewhere.  

If the news that this girl had moved to London meant anything to Stella, she didn’t show it.

“This is Dana Scully.  She’s an old friend.”  Scully caught the way she looked down, knew she was slightly unnerved by having to define it.  “Dani and I worked together in Belfast.”

Dani shifted the soup from one hand to the other to offer a handshake.  Her eyes were deeply hooded and soft-rimmed, squinted into narrow, friendly crescents when she smiled.  She was nervous. 

“Did you want us to take that?” Scully asked.

“Oh.  Yeah.” 

Scully reached for the soup and held it up like a lab specimen, mouth watering as she watched the noodles swish around in the cloudy broth behind the plastic.  

“Looks perfect.”

She smiled at Dani just in time to see her looking back at Stella, a little sigh rising and dying on her chest.  It would have been impossible to spot, had Scully not at some point also looked at Stella that way.  Stella, oblivious or indifferent to any sighing or gazing, simply waited for further explanation.  

“I thought you might like something easy,” Dani finally offered.  “Recovering and all.  I made it, act-u-ally.”   

The girl looked down at her sneakers, pride and embarrassment and courage all funnelling down to the pear-shaped space between her Converse.  Her pin-straight cinnamon colored bob poked forward past her ears.  Scully bit the corner of her bottom lip to keep herself from smiling too broadly. 

“But I can see that you’re fine,” Dani said. 

“It was very kind of you.  Thank you.” 

Dani sucked up a breath, desperately trying to seem casual and failing. 

“Right.  I’ll be goin’ now.” 

Stella nodded and smiled and Dani looked at Scully one last time, a plea for help, Scully thought, or an apology, she wasn’t sure. 

“I hope you don’t mind if I steal some of it,” she said.  “I’m starving.” 

“Course not.”  And with that, Dani backed down the walkway with her chin held up.  “Bye.” 

Scully had barely had time to grin when Dani turned back from the sidewalk. 

“Ma’am.”  

Stella turned stiffly on her heel and suddenly Scully was eternally grateful she’d never been put in the position of being Stella’s subordinate.

“Maybe we can have a coffee sometime.” 

Scully could not imagine how long the pause felt to Dani--a bus ride, a lifetime... 

“That sounds nice.”

Scully waited to make sure Dani was out of earshot.  Stella unlocked the door and entered a code into an alarm system. 

“I didn’t even used to set this thing,” she mumbled.  

“Hey.  Stella.”

Stella pushed her boots off and threw her jacket onto the staircase railing.  She headed up the steps and Scully followed.

“What?... No, I did not sleep with Dani.”

Stella unbuttoned her jeans, tossed the little black bag to the furniture and collected her robe.  Scully’s feet were street-swollen, and when she leaned on the bed and shifted her weight forward, the soles burned.  

“How do you feel?  Do you want me to bring up a glass of water and a painkiller?”

“No,” Stella mumbled almost inaudibly.  “I have to be careful with them.”

“Oh,” Scully said, looking down to hide the surprise in her eyes.  This is how she had always learned important things about Stella.  Accidentally, in passing, and if she was smart, without further questioning.

“Soup then?” 

“After I wash up, yeah?  Need to get the city off me.”

“She’s awfully cute, isn’t she?”

Nothing from Stella.

“She made you soup,” Scully said.  “You must admit, it’s cute.”

“She felt bad for me.”

“She asked you out.  And risked hyperventilating doing it.”

“She’s a child--”

“Thirty is hardly a child--” 

“And she’s a cop.” 

“You’re telling me you haven’t slept with lower ranking police in your employ.” 

“She’s a woman, it’s different.”

“Oh,” Scully laughed.  “These are your principles?” 

“Yes,”  like she was being asked if she had milk in the house, or if she knew how to play the piano.  “Don’t mock them just because they’re not the same as yours.”

Scully hadn’t meant to nudge any soft spots.  She was here to tend to them.  

“I know you have principles,” Scully said with careful earnestness.  “But you can still be flattered.”

Stella shooed her out the door and Scully took no offense.  This was something Stella did on all their weekends together, occasionally hid in the bathroom for twenty minutes or disappeared into the hotel bar alone for an hour.   

“I mean, is it that all young women look at you like that or what,”  Scully muttered rhetorically as she headed back down the stairs.  Stella’s tossed-off reply was almost swallowed by the gulp of the door shutting.

“Only the redheads.”

 

*

 

Scully lay on the couch with bent knees, hands holding her ankles, a glass of red wine on the Persian carpeted floor beside her, book open face-down on her chest.  She’d tried to read it and gotten distracted thinking about the conversation she’d just had with Stella.  Was it Dani’s innocence that was sticking with her?  A woman in her early thirties would have been through things, been broken by people and broken others.  Certainly, Scully had.  And yet, she’d seen nothing at that point, nothing at all compared to what was coming.  

There was another possible explanation.  She and Stella spent their time together in near-isolation, partially out of circumstance, but also because they were protecting their relationship from anything which might challenge it.  She’d seen fawning shopgirls and cowed bartenders admire Stella dozens of times.  But she had never seen Stella get a hug from a sibling or a parent, had never watched her friends laugh at a dinner party.  Through Dani, she had gotten to see with her own eyes that Stella had other people who cared for her, and that felt good.  At the same time, old friends was a very approximate categorization.  Scully knew she’d been just a little relieved that Stella hadn’t returned the girl’s interest.

She finally got up and made her way to the microwave, hit the stop button before it beeped in case Stella had fallen asleep.  The room filled with the scent of coconut, maybe lemongrass.  She was sitting on the living room floor with her legs out and crossed at the ankles, blowing and slurping at a spoon when a pair of cloud-grey pants stepped into view.  She hadn’t even heard Stella come down the stairs. 

“I think it’s tom ka.  Want some?” she gurgled, looking up.

“Is it any good?”

“There’s no steak or Scotch in it, if that’s what you’re asking.” 

Stella smirked and strode past Scully to the spot beside her, leaned one hand on the sofa and inched down to the floor.  Scully moved to take the other hand, but saw it was already occupied with a half-full glass of Scotch.  The deep V-neck t-shirt she’d put on shifted to reveal extra freckles as she settled in.  Sometimes Scully forgot Stella had them.

“I was going to watch something,” Scully said, nodding up at the blank TV.

“It’s been broken for months.”

“I can put something on my laptop,” Scully said.

“Let’s not be desperate.”

“Months?  What do you do when you’re alone?”  

Stella bit her lip and looked up to furnish a good, if obvious, answer.   

“Nevermind,” Scully said with a smile.  “Don’t answer that.” 

She thought a moment, eager to avoid slipping back into her own thoughts.  The room hummed with silent, important questions she didn’t want to ask or answer.  Paul Spector.  Dani.  Mulder.  The comment about the pills. 

“But talk to me,” she said more seriously.

“Okay,” Stella said.  “What would you like me to tell you?”

“Anything frivolous.”

Stella sighed, as though Scully were purposefully being difficult.  Scully gave her a gentle, blinking nod. 

“No, really.  I’d like it.  Just tell me things I don’t know.”

Stella looked at Scully hard enough that Scully knew she was on her second round of Scotch.  Scully, armed with only half a glass of red and some vegetarian soup, looked at her lap, pleased as  Stella began to tell her things she’d never told her, things that didn’t matter at all and presently mattered the world to Scully.  About the lush hills of Northern Ireland, so green after it rained that they looked spray-painted.  About trying to manage bureaucracy amongst centuries’ old battles about bloodlines.  Her voice was like stained glass, split into colors and slightly translucent, a window into the church where Scully had once briefly gotten the chance to kneel.

Scully stroked the carpet in varying patterns as she listened, turning the color over from its patted-down charcoal to the bright space-black hidden in the interior pile.  When she was little, she would draw pictures in the rug in her bedroom sometimes--hearts and eyeballs and her name - and eventually, her fingers would go numb with carpet burn and--she accidentally brushed Stella’s hand and the electrical charge nipped them both.  Scully startled and sucked her finger for a second as Stella gave a jungle cat’s grin, eyes doing all the work.  She lifted her glass and let the ice cube graze her teeth, then tongued it, teasing it with the possibility of entry before she sent it on its woeful retreat back to the bottom of the glass.  The glass landed on the floor and the ice cube spun like a time machine.

“Do you remember that first drink we had together?” Scully asked.

“That awful karaoke thing.  How could I forget?”

“You were drinking out of a glass just like that and I was--I was…” 

Scully reflexively touched her collarbone and squeezed the back of her neck.  More than a decade and she still couldn’t explain whatever she’d felt in that bar dancing with Stella.  The ice cube in Stella’s glass grew rounder as Stella swirled a current around it.  It clinked when the uneven shores of carpet set it slightly askew.

“You thought she’d remind me of you, didn’t you?  That’s why you were so interested.”

“Hm?  Oh.  Dani.  Well…” she looked around and plucked at the rug again, now focusing on one of the tiny cartilage-pink rosebuds.  “You know, the hair and… yeah, I guess so.”

She hid her embarrassment over her left shoulder, but she could hear Stella’s lips spread, wet and slow against her gums.  It was the smile she’d been pushing for earlier, not a huge smile, but a smile worth feeling foolish over.  She turned and caught the end of it just as Stella raised her drink and then eclipsed her teeth behind it--glowing, gone in seconds, not back for years.  Her tongue made a noise like a can of soda opening when she finished her sip.

“I did meet someone who reminded me of you,” she said.  “A forensic specialist.”  

Scully brought her eyebrows to a suggestive half-mast.  There was that word again:  met.  

“More redheads?”

“Actually, it was the reason I agreed to go.  Ireland, I said, they have gingers there, don’t they?  Plenty, Ma’am, they said.”

Scully chuckled quietly.

“No.  Her hair was dark.  But it was long like yours is now.”

She reached for Scully’s ponytail holder, hooked it under her nails, and dragged.  Color spilled like a tipped can of paint:  Crazy Crimson or Ruby Riot or Crisp-Apple Cranberry all over Stella’s muted living room.  Stella stroked it a couple of times and then patted her leg as an invitation.  Scully slouched down to put her head there and looked up at the ceiling as Stella’s fingers straightened ropes of hair across her lap, scratching lightly at the scalp and wiggling underhanded through tangles fermented by wool coat collar and cross-Atlantic morbid humidity.

“I meant she was like you, not looked like you.  She was good like you.”  

Scully would once have been able to accept this kind of compliment gracefully, but somewhere along the way, somewhere on the run or in their home in the middle of nowhere, she’d lost the ability.

“And what happened?” she asked, unsure whether she was rooting to hear a win or a loss.

“We had drinks a couple times, I got to know her.”

“And?”  Scully’s fingers were picking at one another across her stomach.

“And she told me she was brought up in Croydon.”

“Should I know what that means?”

“It means she’s straight.” And then, before Scully could interject – “Straight, straight.”

“That’s bullshit,” Scully blurted, inexplicably irritated.  She could not seem to decide tonight if she wanted Stella to have everyone or no one. 

Stella started to laugh, but then gasped like a knife had gone through her chest.  Her hands went to her ribs to apply pressure, her eyes blinking shut in agony.  Scully kept her eyes on Stella’s hand, memorizing its placement as Stella tried to keep the pain from radiating.  When the worst of it had apparently passed, Stella once again reached for her drink and Scully reached for something to say that didn’t involve nagging or MRIs.

“Noticed you didn’t bring me a glass.”

“You have wine.  That’s enough for you.”

“You’re always so strict about how much I get to drink and you get to drink as much as you want.”

“You have the tolerance of a virgin on prom night.”

“Come on, just a--what’s it called with Scotch again--a little bit,” Scully said. 

Stella’s hand went to her glass and in a moment, there was an amber-dripping knuckle over Scully’s mouth.

“It’s called a finger.”

Scully hesitated a moment, glanced at Stella to be clear what was being offered.  A drop fell to her lips.  She opened them and Stella’s finger hooked the roof of her mouth.  Scully cushioned it with her tongue, closed her lips around it.  The smoky brine of the liquor quickly gave way to the mine-salt taste of skin, and then Stella slowly began to pull her finger back.  Scully playfully tightened her lips, held on tighter and lifted her head as Stella tugged the line.  Scully finally dropped her head back to Stella’s leg.  Stella placed both her hands on the floor beside her.  This, Scully knew, was not usually how Stella worked--tossing the first one back, giving it a chance to swim away.  

“Still want a glass?”

Scully shook her head no and licked the cocktail of grape and Scotch and Stella off her mouth.  She rolled over onto her side to face Stella’s body, pressing her ear into the soft material of Stella’s pants.  She lifted the cotton t-shirt slowly and began to trace the bruises along Stella’s ribs like a child learning a map, watching the evenly-charted abdominal muscles puff and contract at her touch.  A boundary broken but easily mended, a doctor’s exam, if in a moment they decided they needed a lie to believe.  Stella didn’t stop her and Scully had lied to herself enough for one lifetime. 

So her face followed her fingers and she brushed her lips against the battered coasts of Stella’s ribcage.  Irregular deep blue centers, ringed in violet and yellow, radar plagued by tropical storms.  Fury rose in her heart at the person who’d done this to Stella, and a string of Latin terms scuttled across her brain, proper names and recovery estimates, all quickly washed away each time a wave of Stella’s breath pushed her skin to Scully’s mouth.  This was the smell she associated with Stella--not the curated clouds of perfume that stuck to the cables of Stella’s sweaters and even made their way into Scully’s suitcases, but her skin--clean and alive, a warm, teeming turquoise waterfall, an unpredictable climate all its own.  She breathed Stella in and felt a helpless collision of affection and desire barreling up her throat.  She steadied that and spoke softly so as to protect Stella from the impact.

“Am I hurting you?”

“No, I like it,” Stella said in a whisper, the pace of it grave with responsibility, but the pitch sugary with pleasure.  

Scully sat up, dragging her hair up across Stella’s lap until she once again felt the weight of it on her own back.  She swept her hand around the side of Stella’s neck, searched her eyes for a yes, a no, anything.  But none came.  The side of Stella’s breast pressed into her arm and made a warm spot on her sweater.  She blinked, moved her face closer, blinked again, spread her fingers, flexing up into the base of Stella’s hairline.  Hovered.

“This is not up to me,” Stella began, eyes traveling over Scully’s nose, her top lip.  “So either kiss me or knock it off.”

And so Scully kissed the first person ever since she’d first kissed Mulder, the only person she and Mulder had both ever kissed.  This kiss was the reason she and Mulder had found their way to each other, it was the reason the room was spinning, and for the moment, she wanted to let it be the reason she was so far from home.  No sad stories, not hers or Mulder’s or Stella’s, just this beautiful, perfect thing on a living room floor.

Her hand moved up Stella’s shirt, this time past the bruised territory, a little higher to soft, safe ground, and she smiled as she felt the satin of what she already knew to be the bra from the shop. 

“Careful now,” Stella said.  “You said you’d be upset to see this.”

It had been so long.  So very, very long.  She had always believed loneliness was a choice, and she couldn’t bring herself to choose it another second.

“I think maybe I’d like to be upset.”

Stella put her arms up and Scully pulled the shirt off.  The color was even deeper here in the boat cabin light of Stella’s living room, and it set Stella’s eyes swirling like the innermost curve of a rainbow.  

Scully whispered, didn’t want to have to hear herself say it.

“Sometimes it hurts to look at you.”

“Sometimes it hurts to be looked at,” Stella said and placed the heel of her palm in the hollow of Scully’s cheekbone.  “But not by you.”

Stella’s kiss was as Scully remembered it, but more so--lashing and lush, elusive lips and a strong tongue.  Scully allowed it, enjoyed it, patiently moving her thumb up and down the center seam of the bra cup, and when she caught the satin silhouette of a prickled areola, Stella paused long enough for her to take over.  With Stella’s tongue sedated between her teeth, she fit their lips together like two bits of a lock, each more secure with each bit of torque.  Stella swallowed the change of pace with a gracefully defeated hum, a sound that went down Scully’s throat just like the soup, warm and welcoming, the home she currently lacked despite the two actual residences held in her name.

Stella pushed Scully to the floor, but instead of joining her, knelt at her ears.  She bent at the waist, breasts spilling forward into an upside down kiss.

“Take off your pants,” she whispered, then gently pecked Scully’s nose, her cheekbones as Scully wiggled around with her clothes.  She was nervous, unsure what was coming next, but fairly certain she wanted whatever it was.  And when she was at last lying still in her cotton panties and Jackie-O cardigan, Stella’s hands began to crawl ever-so-slowly down the front of her torso, working the pearly buttons of the tidy blue top open.  Scully waited, kissing Stella back with her eyes open to take in the strange and disorienting view of Stella’s collarbones over her forehead.  Perfectly constructed but fragile from this angle, a limestone statue, shadows settling into each lovely dip and even crease of bone.  And then Scully’s belly was bare, her sweater peeled to the sides and Stella shifted forward.  There was a rush of soft and strong and black and blue over pale everywhere, a phoenix from the ashes--breasts brushing Scully’s eyelashes and lips, fingertips diving head-first down Scully’s waist, tongue winging into Scully’s belly button.  Nothing was where it belonged and it all felt right.

“You deserve this,” Stella said.

“Deserve what?”

Stella’s answer was a lick under the elastic of Scully’s simple cotton underwear, a pluck at it with her teeth.  Scully’s hands went to her forehead to steady herself as red and black and gold bangle bracelets clasped and opened behind her eyelids.  A few moments ago, Scully had felt as though she could simply kiss for the rest of her life, if only someone was kissing her like that, like there was no other room in the house they’d rather be in.  Now she needed more, needed everything, and Stella was going to give it to her. 

“So innocent,” she said and Scully could feel Stella’s bottom lip stick momentarily to her abdomen, a hand go down into the wet center panel of her underwear.

“And then this,” she said.  Her knees came up against Scully’s shoulders and Scully grabbed them, both because she had been needing something to hold onto for a long time now, and because she wanted that thing to be Stella.

It was one finger and then two, and it was Stella’s body combing Scully’s with easy tempo, lips parted as they stroked her stomach, the well-mannered satin bra rolling over in the fray of skin-searching-skin until both Stella’s breasts were mostly undressed, one and a half straps falling down her arms, and all of Scully was buzzing and humming like a bumblebee.  The back of Stella’s hand pushed against Scully’s underwear, eager to get it out of her way, and her nipple brushed over Scully’s pubic bone.

“Fuck,” Scully whispered.

“Mhm.”

It was nothing, a noise, a verbal tic used often in daily conversation, but it was also a glimpse of the relief that was coming, the way it would wash over her.  She wanted it so badly her fingers dug into the tendons of Stella’s knees, wanted it so badly she almost felt sick.  She’d come here to offer relief, not receive it.

“Lift your hips,” Stella ordered and she did, allowing the damp cotton panties to slide down her thighs, but she also reached up to the waistband of Stella’s drawstring pants and pulled them down, her fingers strumming the black satin triple T-straps over Stella’s hips.  Stella shook one leg to get them off, grunting a little with the effort of balancing on three limbs instead of four.  Once they re-framed Scully’s shoulders, they were strong as Greek columns, scars of various wars etched into them, soft and smooth around the curves, held together by a tiny flag of deep blue satin (a matching set, of course.)  Scully ran her fingertips over the warm strip of fabric, thick enough not to betray any moisture.  She smiled a little as she recalled Stella admiring it in the store and traced the lace pagan’s cross across the front with her thumbs.  Smoothing her hands back down the outsides of Stella’s thighs, she then snuck her fingers back up under the triple black satin straps that held the panties to Stella’s hips.  She watched the bands tighten around her fingers, the matching strap thong lifting a little as she played.  She couldn’t decide whether to take them off or not. 

“I’ve never done this before,” she said.

Stella had Scully’s cotton underwear around her knees now, and she crawled forward a bit for the next push.  Her breasts brushed the tops of Scully’s thighs, the perfect, round split-center of her ass hovering right over Scully’s sternum.

“Done what?” Stella asked, clearly trying to make her say it as she stepped Scully’s now useless ankles out of her saturated cotton bikini briefs one at a time.

“I’ve tried it--you know, with men--but--mmm--good God, you feel nice--”

“You’ll figure it out.”  She kissed her way back up Scully’s legs.  “You’re a medical doctor.”

A low blow followed by a tongue jab to the clitoris strong enough to bring Scully gasping up onto her elbows.  Scully laughed her cardigan down her shoulders a bit, dragged her nose up and down the Stella’s panties, then, decision made, moved them over with her fingers and replaced them with her mouth.  Stella sighed and tiptoed into her like she was getting into a hot bath.  

Scully had forgotten the taste, had told herself there wasn’t a distinct difference between men and women, that they were all just sweat and soap and human hormones, a single brand’s line of musks so similar they were not worth naming.  But as she got Stella wetter, sunk her tongue deeper, it came back to her, a flavor she couldn’t imagine anyone else in the world having, part metal and part dessert, the remains of a bittersweet chocolate souffle stuck to a fork.  She knew why she’d made herself forget this now, that she would never have believed herself if she remembered Stella tasting like cinnamon off a piece of aluminum foil, the sugary powdery inside of a bubble gum wrapper.

Scully’s hand looked for Stella’s waist and squeezed, wanting to pull her closer, wanting the weight of her whole body.

“I promised someone that I’d tell you to be gentle,” Stella said and Scully nudged Stella’s clitoris with the tip of her nose, kissed it in apology.

“Just testing you.”  

Stella reached around and snapped open her new bra, shimmied it down her arms until it trapped Scully’s thighs under a tight band.  The bottoms of Stella’s breasts hung soft against Scully’s belly, the rolling weight of them sending a moan straight up Scully’s center into her mouth, where it came out vibrating against Stella’s wet skin.  Stella’s breath went backstage-curtain quiet as she sat her hips back a little further and dropped her chest a little deeper.  Scully moaned again once for Stella, and then again for herself, and then lost track of who she was doing it for.  Stella rolled her hips over the short distance of Scully’s tongue and reached for Scully’s breast, fingers sneaking under the slim cotton triangle bra she wore only on vacation.  She rolled a bit harder against Scully’s mouth and at the same time took a nipple between two nails.  Scully’s legs came off the floor momentarily.

“I’m going to come,” she said, consonants disappearing into Stella’s body, eighty bucks worth of satin cinched at the left side of her mouth.  She tried desperately to hold out, tried to remember what Stella liked best.  She liked Scully’s dirty talk, but that was currently impossible.  A sharp, withholding tongue, was it?  A puffy, swollen lip and the flat of her chin, and then oh yes, a finger up the crack of her ass, slipping it under the single strap of silk there.

Stella nearly collapsed, caught herself with a hand pressed hard into Scully’s sternum, heavy as the one Mulder had placed on her back as he sent her away, but this one called her back to herself, energy and desire charging into Scully’s heart through flexed, shaking fingers.  Even with her arm trembling beneath her weight, even with her face bruised and her serial killer unpunished and her companion crying in underwear stores, Stella didn’t give up, kissed and sucked her, finger-fucked her G-spot like both their lives depended on it.  It was possible, Scully thought, that theirs did.

Scully’s tailbone began to dig into the carpet so hard she thought maybe she could feel the grains of wood beneath it, and Stella’s knee crept almost over her shoulder, angling toward her armpit.  She was just barely managing to keep the bruised, tender parts of herself from the friction, and she let her breasts dip deep into the hollow of Scully’s pelvis while Scully’s face reached up into Stella’s upturned hips.  They were perfectly matched swoops of human being, a pair of slick cream-colored come-fuck-me high heels fit together in a box and separated by a single sheet of tissue.

Dana.”

Anythinganythinganything she wanted to say but didn’t dare talk over this rare bit of feedback.

“Your mouth…”

Scully swallowed a groan to make sure she heard the rest, kept her mouth doing whatever it was that Stella seemed to like so much.

“It’s perfect, it’s so fucking perfect,” Stella continued, tip of her upper lip just under Scully’s clit, finger firmly circling that spot, oh god, that fucking spot is it even the same spot I don’t even know this spot perfect you want to talk about perfect.  Her hand flailed from Stella’s waist to her thigh and landed on the arch of Stella’s foot, squeezing it tight overhead in lieu of a queen-sized bed frame as her back strained and stretched.  She was trying very hard not to arch it into Stella’s ribs.  Stella breathed like a ceremonial drum into Scully’s body, pussy fluttering like a snare at Scully’s mouth and finally, finally she was moaning and Scully’s body gave and gushed around Stella’s fingers and they were both coming in a closed circuit of electricity, each of them giving life and each of them swallowing it, end to end to end to end.  

Fuck,” Scully said and buried her face against Stella’s leg.  There were tears puddling in her ears. “Fuck.”

Scully looked up to see Stella half-laughing, half-wincing, balanced like a wobbling sheet cake on her hands and knees, hair melting like butter frosting around her shoulders.

“That was fucking unbelievable,” Scully said, boneless as dough, spotting Stella’s thigh and calf with kisses. 

“You’re fucking unbelievable.” 

“The rug…” 

“Don’t worry about it.”

Stella gathered her breath and began to move gingerly, losing the tangle of the bra, bringing one leg back over Scully’s face and inching toward the sofa on her knees, slithering out of the remaining pant leg like a second skin.  She swore under her breath and sucked her stomach in as she pushed herself up onto the couch and scraped the cashmere throw off the back of it.  Scully watched and waited, feeling helpless as she prepared to be sent to the bedroom.  But once Stella had settled into the back crease of the sofa, she held the blanket open and Scully sat up on her elbows.  She slipped in carefully, filling the spaces left by Stella’s body as she tried not to press against any of them.

“If you say I told you so, I’ll kill you,” Stella said.

“Sssh,” Scully said.  She’d located at least one of the misaligned ribs earlier, and now she placed her fingers strategically around it, compressed it just-so with the palm of her hand.  

“Exhale.”

Stella did, and her lungs went completely still.

“You can still breathe.”  And Stella gradually let her breath return to normal, trust growing as Scully caught each exhale.  Minutes passed, full songs worth of breath.

“That feels so good,” Stella finally whispered.

“Better than what we just did?”

“Nothing is better than that,” Stella said, moving Scully’s hand so she could tuck her face under Scully’s chin.  She slipped her arm around Scully’s waist.  “Except you coming like a rock star on my two-thousand-dollar rug.”

“Oh my God.”

But her body had cooled to match the perfect temperature of Stella’s and as it turned out, it was difficult to blush at Stella’s temperature.  

“Should we move to the bed?”

“I cannot move.  You can go if you want.”

“Okay,” Scully joked and moved a couple of muscles for show.  Stella’s arm tightened around her waist.

“Promise you’ll tell me if you need more space,” Scully said, but Stella was already drifting off.

The next time Scully heard Stella’s voice, it was already morning.  Somehow, Stella had managed to climb out without waking her.  Her voice was low and soft in the next room, a one-way conversation Scully could only hope, half-naked on the couch, was a phone call.  Her sleepy brow furrowed.   Mulder, she was almost sure she’d heard Stella say.   

*

Chapter Text

Mulder was on the porch when he got the phone call, the shrill landline ringer pricking the post-midnight air from behind the screen door like a chorus of crickets.  Out here in the middle of nowhere, it seemed a new species of bug came into existence once a week.  They used to refer to the place where he was sitting as Scully’s spot - now, like it or not, all the spots were his.  He’d been watching the driveway like a Golden Retriever every night since she moved out, faithfully expecting his vigilance to bring her back sooner, full of self-pity and priding himself in his loyalty.  The past couple of years, it seemed like he was busy anytime she was sitting out there.  But the tasks on his to-do list which were once so important only held his attention so long as the smell of her shampoo still hung in the doorway over her empty coat hook.  Once that was gone, there was nothing left to do.

In the rush and hush of it all, Stella’s smooth, silvery voice sounded even more illicit than it did any other time - so much so that at the beginning, he’d had a moment of panic where he wondered how he’d wound up on the phone with a nine-hundred-number.  

It was a very brief conversation.  She said she was calling so he wouldn’t worry.  He wasn’t worried, he told her.  Not mentioned was the fact that he wasn’t worried because he didn’t know Scully was gone in the first place -  that’s how little they’d spoken.  And “speaking” had really only consisted of text messages.

Where’s the dustbuster?, he’d type unceremoniously.  And she:   Under the kitchen sink, are you okay?

- or -

Are there working batteries anywhere in this house or do we just keep circulating them from appliance to appliance to see which can operate with the least juice?  

In the fridge, are you okay?  

Her question marks ended every conversation and he let them. He’d stare at them for long minutes, aching as he studied their upper curves.  He’d picture her face, the one he’d watched puzzle over mysteries of the universe for so many years, and think with sorrow and nostalgia of how stoically she coped with never getting any conclusions.  No, he wanted to say to these question marks, he was not okay, he couldn’t fucking find anything and he felt dead inside, and at least one of those two things was her fault.  But that was not a conversation to have in text messages.  So he’d just go get the dust buster or the batteries and feel satisfied that somewhere, she was feeling guilty, and guilty that that satisfied him.

When Stella hung up abruptly, he stared at the arched plastic back of their archaic telephone and thought of the few other times he’d spoken to her on the phone.  Most of the time, it was because he’d answered and was saying hello before he passed her off to Scully.  Or because Scully had handed it to him to explain his own latest confounding endeavor. Most of the time.

*

He’s holding her right hand with both of his and his legs press against the side of the hospital cot.  His palms have gone clammy and the pleats of his trousers have been smoothed at the knees from hours on a plane, hours in a taxi, hours in this chair.  He ignores his buzzing cell phone for the eleventh time and bends to kiss the top of her head - it seems to be the only bit of the building that smells unruined, unbroken, in need of no fixing.  She closes her eyes frequently as she speaks, as though she needs to rest them, or as though she feels put out by this whole affair, but he knows she’s really just making sure she doesn’t start crying.

“It sounds like he was able to somehow die in your place.”

“Mulder, that’s…” And here her eyes open as she prepares to scold him, and then close again.  “I don’t know.”

“It’s not a sad story, Scully.  For once.”  Jesus, this woman doesn’t know how to take a win.  “He got what he wanted and you’re still here.”

She shakes her head, swallows and he realizes, as he often does, even now, even six years into their partnership, that he’s missing the point, that he’s many steps behind her.  Someday, he daydreams, he’ll give her a ring and promise to be one step ahead or one step behind, but no further.  He knows this with some amount of certainty and zero anxiety.

“What if… I’m…”

And then he sees it swirling in her eyes, the blue softening helplessly, rims filling like violet bulbs in the rain to match the little spots on her hospital gown.  He knows what she’s thinking about and he has to work to subdue the automatic glee he feels whenever she’s been forced to consider fake things becoming real.  She needs reassurance now, not gloating.

“What if you’re immortal?” he assists.

“Like that psychic said.  I mean, I always thought he was being sweet and never gave it much thought but then… Felig made it sound so awful.  And then he shot me and I’m still here.”

Mulder doesn’t know what to say.  It’s possible.  Anything is. But he knows, in this moment, she doesn’t want that to be the case, so he reaches for what he thinks she would say to him instead of what he wants to say to her.  The cell phone buzzes against his hip again.

“You’re not immortal, Scully.”

She nods quickly, four times, but then licks her lips.  And if you were, Mulder wants to tell her, you wouldn’t be like Felig.  You’d just keep finding people to love you, over and over and over again.  You would never be lonely, you would never be bitter, and the world would have done one thing that made sense.  But he decides to stay on-message.

“No one is.”

“Then what was going on with Felig?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” he says and smiles, priming to tease again. It’s the only way out he can think of. “You’ll have to ask your new partner.”

She blinks and passes a corrupted laugh through her teeth.

“I hope you weren’t too hard on him.”

“I would’ve killed him if anything had happened to you,” he says more seriously and she bites her lower lip, twitchy.  Though she likes - maybe is even addicted - to his passion, the reliability of it, she also doesn’t like to be reminded of how thoroughly he can lose himself or his mind.  It scares her more than it scares him, scares her more than maybe all the other stuff does.  “Luckily, he’s a bad shot.  Or you’re immortal.  Or whatever.”

“Don’t you want to get to the bottom of it?”

“No, Scully.  I really don’t give a fuck.   You’re okay.”

She cocks her head, a coy little smile at the corner of her lips and it’s the first time he’s really convinced she’s okay.  

“You might actually be experiencing growth, Mulder.”

And suddenly, the cell phone’s buzz seems louder, or maybe it’s just that they’re both ready to hear it.

“That’s Kersh, isn’t it?”

“I’m sure.  My supervisor’s probably complained by now.  Backgrounds aren’t going to check themselves.”

He’s been doing a requisite amount of sulking at his desk since his life’s work has been taken from him.  He’s been professionally frustrated and permanently aggravated, but it’s also the happiest he’s ever been.  Whatever inane questions he’s forced to ask all day, however miserable the hours between nine and five, they’re preceded and followed by Dana Scully’s warm, de-suited body (and he is making an effort to think of her as Dana) pressed and sometimes writhing and sometimes, when the stars align in his favor, slamming against him. She makes up for everything.  She is everything.  

Which is exactly the kind of thing that unnerves her to hear. He needs balance, she tells him.  

“You can’t piss him off if we’re ever going to get our work back.”

He doesn’t know whether she cares more about the X-Files than she ever meant to, or that she cares on his behalf, but either way he’s moved by it.  He knows there’s a part of Scully that would be happy to do what they’re doing right now for a while.  He has never met anyone else who is perpetually tempted by boredom but always returns to adventure, instead of the other way around.

“I know,” he says, though he feels like grumbling.  This part is their fault, not Kersh’s.  They can’t seem to bring themselves to address what’s going on between them, and for that, they suffer.  This is a good love, by far the best he’s ever had, better probably than he deserves, but it’s also a fucked up love, a weird love, a love that seems to function on its own terms like one of those sushi restaurants that doesn’t have a menu, closes for hours at whim.  He follows a long kiss on the mouth with an ear to her chest - th-thump, th-thump, yes okay.

“Still alive?” she quips and he wishes he could squeeze her, pull her into his lap.

“Far as I can tell,” he says and grips her hand tighter, settling for it in place of a full body tackle.

He really only has Stella’s number for emergencies, he doesn’t ever call her himself, doesn’t dare tip the scales in any way.  But his finger finds her name as soon as he steps out of the elevator, the revolving doors whipping him like a frisbee into the city that never sleeps.  It chugs caffeine out of blue and white paper cups, churns raw meat into magic meals, spins pretzels in squalor and spotlights, makes him feel alive in the way the hospital interior made him feel dead.  How nice it would be to stay here with Scully, get her out of there and spend a few days recovering in some beautiful hotel they can’t really afford.   Watch barges pass under periwinkle bridges at twilight, go shopping.  

This is why Stella is doing it, he knows, to be there for Scully, not as a favor to him.  But it doesn’t matter.  Three thousand miles away, someone is dismounting some poor schmuck with a hard-on and packing a bag, dropping everything for the same person he would drop anything for.  That, he thinks, has to be its own kind of love.  

 

Chapter Text

Scully sat up with her hand pressed into the cleft of the sofa as she gathered her bearings.  She felt like she’d slept with one eye open, cupped gently around Stella at the edge of the couch like a human seatbelt, worried she’d crush Stella if she really let her mind rest.  Now the cushion was cool already, almost as though Stella had never been there, as though Scully had imagined the warm wounded body inhaling and exhaling its tacit trust, as though she’d drunk-dreamed the scene on the carpet. She knew she could not blame the drinking.  She’d only had one glass of red wine and a finger of Scotch.  The finger itself had done all the damage.

The youthful thrill of a rebellious night ran up her spine as she looked herself over:  blue sweater split down the middle over her bra, the skin on her lips raw under the pads of her fingers, and bottom half bare but for a mauve mouth-shaped welt on her inner thigh (so much daintier, more delicate than the ones she was used to.) But Scully had never been very good at breaking the rules, and in her stomach was the past-curfew pleated-skirt emotional hangover that promised consequences for her actions.  How many years they’d tiptoed around the invisible boundary set up shortly after their first encounter to protect their friendship as much as to protect Mulder… and last night they’d tripped it like an electric fence, taking the hard jolt it gave off again and again like adrenaline junkies, proving how flimsy it had really been all along.  

She could not lose her.

Scully took a deep breath and dragged the fluffy white robe folded affectionately over the back of the couch, sash tied like a welcome ribbon around its front.  She shimmied out of her clothes, blushing a bit at the ripe cocktail of sex and sweat the fabric gave off, and replaced it with the bright Fairy brand detergent scent of the bathrobe.  Somewhere upstairs, Scully knew, was a collection of these things in silk and lace - colors so faint they feigned nudity, cashmere so rich you’d be afraid to drink your morning coffee.  This had to be the most innocent of them and Scully was half-offended, half-flattered that Stella picked it for her.

“Stella?” she called softly, hopefully, as she rose to her feet with her back to the kitchen, robe wrapped tight.  There was the sound of a teaspoon twinkling like a wind chime as she turned, a faucet whispering like an intermittent breeze and suddenly her anxiety seemed ludicrous.  Stella was leaning belly-first against the sink, looking out the window, her back to Scully as she watched her city slowly stretch itself awake.

It was a treat to see Stella here amongst her things - her shiny, voluptuous espresso machine and her svelte heavyweight silverware.  Watching Stella perform her morning routine was like going to church, setting things on the altar, spacing them accordingly, sipping with reverence.  A room full of people who’d seen it a hundred, a thousand times, would do it one more time;  she was certain she could watch Stella drink her first cup of tea and butter her toast one bite at a time every Sunday til the end of time.  This is the body, this is the blood, and this, well this is my new religion: Stella Gibson, poured into a charcoal grey sweater dress, bare legs balanced on possibly the highest black heels ever made.  

“I didn’t realize we were dressing for tea this morning,” Scully said, but she felt the smart-aleck go right out of her as Stella turned to face her, placed a backward-fisted hand on her hip so that her shoulder jutted forward. The dress was quite tight, covered skin from neck to knee -- appeared to be wearing her rather than the other way around.  Scully stepped a little closer and found herself under a jungle canopy of musky jasmine perfume.  She knew Stella only wore it when she went out.

What am I, chopped liver? Scully had teased once or twice from her double bed as she flicked the remote at the TV.

Unless you intend to put your name in my little black book, yes .  

A tiny, ridiculous, starved-adolescent piece of her wanted to think Stella was wearing it for her this time, that she was preening and posing for her.  But she knew even before Stella told her that that was not what all of this was about.

“I’m going to go into the office for a bit today.”  

“Were you on the phone?  I thought I heard you...”

“There’s been a homicide and I don’t want to be terribly out of the loop when I return.”

Scully cleared her throat.  This was not going to be easy.

“And how are you this morning?” Stella asked with a hint of impatience, as though observing a quaint Victorian social grace she didn’t personally adhere to.  “Any rug burn?”

“I’m fine.  Stella--”

“It won’t be the whole day,” Stella said, returning her cadence to its bright clip, honing the edges of her accent into slender cliffsides, fresh-ready for a tumble or a jump.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Scully said.

The sweater dress twisted, wringing itself at the tiny black belt banded around Stella’s waist.  She pushed her hip deeper into her hand, waiting out Scully’s censure like an aggravating little rain shower on a summer day.  Scully pressed on, stepping forward, snaking an arm around Stella like a second skinny belt.  Various beauty product scents lapped at Stella’s neck like spring’s first bloom, nauseatingly sweet but sublime.

“Wouldn’t you rather stay and play house with me?”

Stella granted her a tiny kiss on the neck and then:

“No.”

The chill of it whipped Scully off her feet and took her all the way back to a dingy hotel in Philadelphia where they’d spent their first night alone together.  The kettle of tea might well have been a sticky, lukewarm plate of pancakes, the neat brow bone sutures a spate of scars up Stella’s thigh, and Scully was as light-headed about the former as the latter.  (A student had since asked whether she’d ever gone weak about slicing up a human body.   Once , she’d said.   But I wasn’t even there when it happened. )  

What she’d done - what they’d both done - that time in Philadelphia was panic and Scully was determined not to do it again.  She poured and sipped her tea.  Ankle deep in silence, she waded toward a bulletin board that reminded her of a police station, gave her the eerie impression that Stella was running her kitchen like an open homicide.  Amidst pilates class schedules and receipts was a twenty-pound note, neat black-markered writing across it.   He that loves not abides in death .  It was from the Bible, Scully was pretty sure, John maybe.  She listened to Stella tapping the neck of her teaspoon against her glass and she took the piece of money down.

“What’s this?”  

It seemed like safe-enough territory.  After all, the things saved up here were the things Stella was willing to put on display.  And the thought of Stella quoting and framing Bible quotes was too curious to ignore, like finding out your math teacher had a hobby - tennis, jazz music, archery - when all you could picture them caring about was prime numbers.

“I found it.  Outside the psychiatric hospital where they were holding Paul Spector.”

The detective in Scully stirred and she couldn’t help herself.

“And you kept it?”

“Mm.”

“Brought it all the way home from Belfast?”

“Yes,” Stella snapped.  

“Little sentimental for a multiple homicide case, don’t you think?”

“Is this an inquisition?”

“It just doesn’t sound like you.”

Stella turned and placed her cup in the sink, ran the water hard enough to wash Scully’s voice down the drain.

“Perhaps you don’t know me as well as you think,” Stella said.

A blind shot over the shoulder, but a bullseye nonetheless. Scully looked at the floor and then quickly forced her eyes back up, though Stella was not facing her anyway.

“Don’t do this,” Scully said bravely, or foolishly.  “I’m sorry I crossed the line.  Don’t disappear on me.  I’ve had more of that than I can handle.”

Stella’s shoulder blades rose and fell on either side of the teardrop shaped hole that buttoned the dress at the nape of her neck, her bones slithering into place beneath the snug wool weave - sometimes it was easier to see her softening than to hear it in her voice.  It still sometimes bothered Scully that Stella had to work so hard to trust her.  But it was not news that she had a weak spot for people who made her feel worth the effort.

“I picked it up and kept it without much thought at first, and then after, it seemed too meaningful to get rid of it.”

Scully could tell by her tone of voice that she had permission now to ask.

“Why would you want to be reminded of him?”

Stella turned on one hand, replaced the other one on the counter at her side.  She was like a ballerina in a jewelry box, pinned and spinning in a fixed spot as Scully wound her up.  She held her chin high, eyes bright as diamond studs.

“Do you know what he did to me?”

Scully had of course drawn her own conclusions based on what she could see, based on the way Stella moved and responded to touch, but she knew this wasn’t a test of her forensic savvy.  She shook her head no and locked her jaw as she braced herself.

“He hit me, close-fisted.  Here,” Stella said and brushed her fingers along her temple.   “There was a table, here.  I felt it dig into my hip.  That’s the last specific moment I remember, but there’s video of the rest because it took place in an interview room -  interrogation room.”

Scully looked down so as not to provoke Stella with the elevation of her eyebrows, the jutting of her chin.  What the fuck, why the fuck would she...

“So you watched the tape.”

“Yes.  I’m sure most of the team did.  Dani. All of them.  Wouldn’t you?”

Scully scrubbed the discomfort from her lips, took a breath out of the room that she intended to keep.  Stella continued.

“And it was quite a show.  There were several more punches.  Here… here… here, I think… and I fell to the floor.  It was cold, concrete, I remember that part, the shock of it after the heat of the blood bursting at my cheekbone.”

The evenness of Stella’s voice, the poise, was unnerving, like listening to one of her own autopsy recordings, the sound of her own voice discussing death with such indifference.

“He kicked me.  I was caught between him and the wall.  I was trembling when the other officer came to me.  Like a little dog.”

“Stella,” Scully begged, but there was no room for her sympathy here.

“It was the worst physical pain I’ve ever felt, and do you know what I thought when I was lying there?”  Scully shook her heavy head as gravity tugged at her whole body.  Any minute, her knees would buckle, but she had to finish listening.  “ This is nothing compared to what he did to them.  Nothing .”

Scully crossed her arms over the robe in a self-embrace and swallowed, digging her nails into the fabric to feel the pile under her fingernails, root herself in something tangible and present and good.

“And do you know what I thought when he killed himself?”

Yes, Scully thought, she did.  The two people she knew best were similar this way - the darkness, the self-loathing, the ability to take responsibility for things that had nothing to do with them, and the tendency not to take responsibility for those that did. The pattern on the kitchen floor blurred as all her concentration flowed toward the goal of not becoming hysterical.

“I thought, I deserve this.  I told him exactly how to beat the system, how to beat me .”

Scully allowed a breath, bit her lip and blotted her face quickly with the inside her wrist.  She had one responsibility here, had come to London for one purpose, she reminded herself - Stella’s recovery.  None of that stuff last night mattered, nothing she’d been worried about this morning.

“It’s awful.  All of it. But it’s not going to avenge anything to refuse yourself the time to heal.”

She turned to re-clip the stupid banknote to the board, though she wanted to tear it up and burn it.

“Do you think I’m capable of love?” Stella asked as Scully turned back to face her, placed both hands on the island in front of her.

“Sure,” Scully replied.  “I almost got you to love me once.”

“I don’t think I almost loved you,” Stella said.

“Oh no?”

Scully kept looking her in the eye to show that she could take it. She walked round to the other side of the island so that she and Stella faced one another over the moat of kitchen tile.  Her bare toes, polish uncharacteristically chipped, met the smart points of Stella’s shoes. The whole morning had been wild, flooded with emotion and Scully was comforted now by the idea of Stella’s characteristic grit drying it up.

“No,” Stella reiterated.  “I think I did love you.  I still do.”

Scully blinked several times, her breath caught somewhere at the bottom of her throat.  

“Why are you looking at me like that?”  Stella asked.

The day Stella visited before taking her plane back to England, her knees rubbing the kitchen floor, Mulder’s arrival weeks later in the rain.  All of these years...

“I don’t understand.”

Stella licked her top lip, cocked her head as though considering a gallery portrait.  She hadn’t expected this to be a surprise.

“I couldn’t do it the way he could.  I didn’t think it was what you’d need.”

Scully gulped, trying to control the tears welling up at the corners of her eyes.  She could feel the tip of her nose turning red.

“But occasionally, like when I look at that thing,” Stella said with nod at the banknote,  “I wonder if something’s wrong with me.”

Scully wanted to reassure Stella, but she wasn’t even sure of what.  So she nodded, dried her cheekbones again, for a moment unable to remember the last period of her life she had cried this much.  When she remembered the answer, she cried more.

“Please stop crying,” Stella said.  “You’re supposed to be taking care of me.”

Scully smiled, shuffled forward, closing the space between them without squeezing, by now aware of exactly where to press and where to protect.  She buried her face on Stella’s shoulder just long enough to recompose herself and then glanced at the marks on Stella’s face, so similar to the ones Ed Jerse had given her years ago.  She’d given Stella the play by play of it with her eyes on the road and a console between them, but by the end of the night, Stella would close that distance. And then some.

“Have your turn, then,” Scully teased with a nudge to the hip. “Cry.”

Stella blinked with the weight of five thousand pairs of eyelashes.

“Make me.”

Scully snuck her left hand into the dark roots of Stella’s hair, licked two fingers on her right hand.  Stella tugged her hem up with the nonchalance of a puddle jump as Scully kissed her.  Their mouths were hot, tingling with English Breakfast and caffeine.  Scully grinned as she found smooth-shaved swimmer’s thigh and simple seamless underwear, and then the wet part of her hand disappeared into the wet part of Stella.  She pinned a knee between Stella’s legs, tacking her to the sink like one of her bulletin board items.   Here is something you may want to attend.  Here is something worth remembering.   Stella’s neck tendons strained against her hand.

“You wear this dress to work, Detective Gibson?”

“Detective Superintendent,” Stella said in a slightly pitched voice, a tone like a meringhe, one that made her regular voice seem put-on, one that made Scully’s tastebuds dance, her hips grind.  Stella held onto the lapels of her robe like she was an airline pilot or a soldier, uniformed and disembarking.  And then she suddenly realized why Stella had chosen this particular bathrobe for her.

“You took this. From that hotel in Chicago.”

Stella half-smiled, pleased at her own rare display of nostalgia.

“Had to purchase it, actually.”  She licked a small section of her top lip and Scully kissed where it left off.

Below, Scully’s fingers slipped and pulled and Stella breathed deeply, winced from deep inside her ribcage.  Her hands seemed small and gentle as they clutched birdlike at the sagging sleeves of the robe.  What would she keep from this visit, what would she flash winkingly at Scully in another fifteen years?  Scully wanted to keep nothing so much as this, this skull breathing into the palm of her hand, this pair of knees going weak between hers and this smooth unclothed calf muscle rattling the cabinetry.  She pulled away to watch Stella’s face -- eyelids dancing like dervishes, honey-sweet beige lips parting like buttercups, the hills and valleys of her brow deepening.

“Look at me,” Scully coaxed.  Then firmer, “Look at me.”

Scully waited until she had Stella’s attention, waited till her breath was hitching and dragging, waited because fifteen years plus one more breath seemed like exactly the right amount of time.

“I love you,” she whispered and Stella dropped her nose against Scully’s face, coming and crying in tandem. Her body sucked at Scully’s fingers, her face wet against Scully’s cheek, shivering and then still.  

The silence simmered.  A clock ticked loudly.  The Bible verse loomed.  Outside, a plane soared by, yawning across the grey sky toward brighter places. Scully summoned some authority into her voice.

“You’re not ready to go back to work.”

Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson did not let go as she stepped out of her heels.

*

She has been taking the stairs up to her apartment after work. If she were to take the elevator, she might meet a neighbor, and if she met a neighbor they’d ask how William was. She doesn’t like questions she can’t answer.

It begins to smell like Stella just a few steps into the corridor. Halfway to the door, Scully smells the fresh coat of adult-colored paint they applied over the weekend, and then the scent changes to that of a smoldering pack of East London incense on one of the cheap plastic cake plates she keeps around. (Not the 26-pack of first birthday ones she purchased prematurely.  Those have mercifully vanished since Stella arrived, along with lots of other things. The sprinkle of baby powder she’d find otherwise on a dark blazer here or there.  The drawer full of clothes she didn’t give the Van de Kamps.  The stores of formula and diapers that used to live at the bottom of the linen closet.)

She turns the key and finds the homey sizzle of shallow-panned garlic.  The warm breath of pasta water still hovers over the sink as Stella sets the table. Scully doesn’t know how Stella plans this so well, one foot in the door and hot food on the table.  One moment later, and Scully knows she would make it alone to her room, empty stomach, no shower, and fall asleep in her clothes. But instead -

“Sit with me while I eat?”

It’s the only question Stella ever asks.  She already knows how her day was, how she feels, and it won’t do either of them any good to have it declared aloud.  Scully manages a tired smile for her friend and sits, rests her weight, her day, her misery on her elbows.  Her seat is free of a place-setting, as it is every night, and she is grateful for the lack of expectation.  No one else understands her well enough to do - or omit - things like this, not her mother, maybe not even Mulder.

Mulder.  Where the hell are you.   She barely has the energy to wonder.

Stella swirls spaghetti over her dish between a fork and spoon.  There’s a larger serving bowl at the center of the table, a decorative and deceptive thing that makes it look like they’re celebrating.

“I heard from my idiotic sister today,” Stella says.  “She wants to race horses now.”

“What do you mean, race them?”

“Sponsor one.  She wants to know if I want to put any of my portion of the trust into it.”

Scully postpones a blink, waiting for the punchline.

“I told her I could imagine better ways to buy sixty seconds of pleasure.”

Scully can’t quite bring herself to smile, but she does reach forward for a strand of spaghetti hanging over the side of the painted ceramic bowl. It goes down easier than she expects and she licks the sweet, tangy tomato off her lips.  

“She’s older, right?” she asks.

“Yes.  The pretty one.”

Scully frowns as she takes another strand of spaghetti stranded on the side of the bowl.

“Everyone’s sister is the pretty one,” she says and of course, Melissa comes to mind.  These days, there are a lot of spare sad thoughts, like wet umbrellas under restaurant chairs on a rainy day.

“She was my mother’s favorite,” Stella says, leaving her father’s favorite unspoken.  Her attempts to be chatty and distracting make Scully well with gratitude. “However, now she’s bored and angry so I practice tolerance when she calls.  Even when she’s a cunt.”

“That’s a strong word, isn’t it.”

“No.”

“What does she do that’s so bad?”

“It’s just a lot of passive aggressive criticism, negativity disguised as helpfulness.”

Scully picks at another strand of pasta and Stella pushes the serving bowl at her for her convenience.

“I still can’t believe you can cook like this,” Scully says.

“That’s exactly what my cunt of a sister would say.”

Scully finally laughs briefly and then immediately wants to cry. It’s as though all her smiles still belong to William, as if they all remind her of him.  

After dinner, Stella runs the water in the bathtub and sets out a towel, waits for Scully to pass by on the way to her bedroom.

“Come here.”

She closes the bathroom door behind them as though for privacy.

“There’s no one else here,” Scully says.

“Keeps the heat in.”

Scully waits limply while Stella undresses her:  sexlessly unbuttons her shirt and pushes it back off her arms, unzips her skirt at the side, holds a hand out for balance. Scully steps into the flat, bubbleless water.  It has been years since Stella has looked closely at her naked and a few selfish, superficial thoughts cross her mind, immediately followed by guilt. How can she have vanity about her stretch marks when she’s abandoned the child who made them?

She has a stray whim to pull Stella in with her, clothes and all, just for company.  She doesn’t want to be alone in there tonight.  Somehow, Stella knows this, and kneels at the side of the tub, reaches for the loofah, squirts soap onto it and begins to lather bit by bit - arms, chest, belly.  Scully sucks in her waist a moment at the tickle of it and blinks hard.

“Mulder used to make fun of the pouf.”  

She watches Stella hear this, hear his name, and she knows what she’s thinking, what everyone is thinking.

“You think I know where he is,” Scully says.  “I don’t.”

“You shouldn’t have to do this alone.”  

“I’m not.”

Stella is watching some vacant spot in the bathwater.

“Dana, when we first met, the night you thought Mulder and I had slept together…”

Scully waits.  She’s not worried, but has enough sense to wonder if she should be.

“What about it?”

Stella shakes her head.

“I was taking a sad bath.”  She smiles gently, gulps.  “Like this. And  Mulder walked in.”

Scully licks her teeth, mild surprise registering.  She can picture Mulder blushing and stammering.

“That’s all.  It was very embarrassing for both of us.  He never told you?”

Scully shakes her head no, tries to show some appreciation for Stella’s trying to make her laugh. She closes her eyes and lets her whole head sink like a boulder as Stella sends the soap down her legs.  Stella takes her hand, holds it atop the ledge as if to remind her that eventually, she must come back up to dry land.

“Shall I leave you?” she asks.  Scully shakes her head no, feels the heavy, wet weight of her thoughts roll against the sloped ceramic back of the tub.   She half expects to leave a dent there.  

“I don’t think you’re ready to be back at work,” Stella says.

“I have to.”

“No you don’t.”

“I don’t want to look like I’m feeling sorry for myself.  It was my decision.”

Stella nods.  There are tiny tear-shaped drops of water polka-dotting her blouse, rings of suds round her wrists.  It occurs to Scully that this is how she would have bathed Emily, how the Van de Kamps will bathe William.  The words feel like toothpicks pricking her tongue.

“I had a daughter too.”

She’s been trying this lately, being cruel to herself just to feel something, just to have a reason to keep her head above water.

“I didn’t know that.”

“I know.  I’ve never told you because I didn’t really feel like it was fair to call her mine. I only knew her for a couple of days. But she was my biological daughter.”

“What happened to her?”

“She’s dead.”

And she looks at Stella, wanting to catch the glimpse of judgement - it can be very fleeting on Stella and Scully is adamant about getting her fair share of shame.  But Stella only licks her lips and swallows.

“Have you ever had an abortion?” Scully asks.

“Yes.”

Scully waits and stares at Stella, her eye makeup so smudgy she can see black out her peripheral vision. She wants to hear that Stella knows, or she wants Stella to think she knows, so she can tell her she doesn’t.  She wants to tell her fuck you for getting rid of something I would have wanted so badly.  She wants to be angry.

“It wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t anything like this,” Stella says.

And then Scully just wants to go back in time and be there in the waiting room for her.  She wonders if anyone was.

“I’m sorry,” is all she has to offer.  It’s precious little, but few people have even given her that much.

“It’s all right,” Stella says with a little melody in her voice to prove it.

“I went right back to work then too, after Emily.  And it seems only fair that I do it now.”

Stella chooses this moment to pull the plug and the water begins to senselessly chase itself, clinging to Scully’s body momentarily before it’s sucked down into oblivion.

“Do you think I sound foolish?  Wanting to treat my two absent children fairly.”

“I think you probably weren’t ready to go back to work then, either. No sense making the same mistake twice.”

“I make them over and over and over again.”

Her body cries before her mouth does, her back convulsing off the floor of the bathtub.  She used to be able to tell what William wanted by the way he was crying.  She wonders if he would be able to do the same, what her voice would sound like on a monitor.

Stella takes her arm and pulls her to her feet, wraps a towel around her and holds her, pressing her wet head down as she waits for the sobs turn to shudders, and then the shudders to grow further apart, kernels of sadness popping at slower and slower intervals.  She’s quiet by the time Stella leads her to the bedroom, pulls the covers back and guides her in.  Scully stares at the spot where William’s cradle used to be and remembers how difficult it was when it came time to move it into his own room, the separation anxiety she felt then, just that tiny distance.  What a fool.

“Move over,” Stella says and climbs in behind her, sets her fully clothed body around Scully’s naked one, twisting her ankles around Scully’s like a candy wrapper as she she rests her head on Scully’s ear.  The room goes quiet as a womb.  Scully marvels for a moment at Stella’s patience and wonders how long it’ll last.

“The dishes,” Scully says, unable to tell how loudly she’s speaking with her audience so close and her acoustics so distorted.  A hot drop of water falls from her ear canal onto the pillowcase and feels like a pool deep enough to drown in.  

“I’ll do them when you fall asleep,” Stella says and moves her face to the back of Scully’s neck, parts her hair with her nose.

“My hair,” Scully says, and wants to cry again.  “If I’m going to work tomorrow, I have to dry it.”

There is a pause and she can hear the mechanism of Stella’s brain moving through the impetus to argue the larger point at stake.

“You’ll be up early.  I’ll do it for you in the morning.”

“Are you sure?”

“Ssssh.”  

There are no vowels to drag and no consonants to pinch and so it sounds country-less, sounds the same as when Scully said it to her son, or when her mother said it to her, how the Van de Kamps will say it.  Scully is warm now as she borrows heat and breath and even life, rebooting off the rhythm of Stella’s thumping, whirring body.  An inhale and then an exhale.  Her crying-headache melts away a bit.  She catches a glimpse of herself in the future, okay.  

“Stella,” she whispers as she feels her body finally settle into the mattress, the weight she’d been putting on her elbows, or in Stella’s palm, or against the back of the bathtub, now anchoring her, promising her imminent numbness.  She has never felt so heavy, not even nine months pregnant.  “How am I ever going to repay you for this?”

Stella’s nose is against her shoulder, her lips soft.

“You’re not,” Stella says.

*

Thunder shook the stiff clouds by their shoulders and lightning cracked the proud chest of the old sky open.  Scully had so far only seen the English rain dither and retreat, and this sudden show of decisiveness impressed her.  Below the window, umbrellas flared like nostrils, people scurrying and drains opening.  Commit and the world conspires to assist, said somebody.  Goethe?  Now that was the kind of thing she might have expected Stella to tack to a bulletin board, some broad-backed German sturm and drang, even some British keep-calm-and-carry-on would have been more appropriate than a Bible quote.  Scully took her book and went back to the bed.

Across the room, Stella suffered her mandatory day off with dignity, ironing clothes with her closet door propped open, racks of newspaper-toned blouses and skirts and pants neatly lined up.  She had a tank top on now, some pajama pants, a hoodie, of all things.  

“Looks like a piano in there,” Scully said.

Stella gave a restrained smile as the steamer cleared its throat and dropped a silk sleeve.  She changed one white item for another slightly-less-white item with childlike concentration, a taskmaster’s peace of mind.  Outside, May raindrops spangled the streets while inside, clean, wet heat spoke sense to silk collars.  Eventually, Scully’s eyelids begged off into a nap, and when she woke, the streets were quiet, the sky returned to its thick impenetrable flannel texture, and Stella was lying awake beside her with her hand on Scully’s stomach.

“What’s the matter?” Scully slurred.  “Run out of things to press?”

“Yes, give me what you’re wearing.”

Scully laughed quietly and tried to blink the sleep away. It was hard to recognize the waking world when it looked and sounded like Stella.

“Want to go for a walk?” Stella asked.

She felt like an old couple on the walk, like they’d done every day after dinner together for years.  They passed a flower stand with a dripping awning and bought bluebells and hydrangeas.  Stella pointed out things in the neighborhood, the shops she liked, the house that had had a small fire last year, the solid granite side of a building she’d once let a second date press her into in the dark and lift her skirt.

When they got home, Stella set the flowers down.

“There should be a vase here.”

Scully laughed as Stella clipped stems.  Not a single broom in the house but a whole pantry full of flower vases.  She filled one with water and felt a space inside her fill as well - this had felt so abstract before, so impossible to articulate to Mulder.  It wasn’t that she’d needed him to Do Something.  It was that she’d needed for them to do be able to do nothing at all together.

They ate dinner in easy silence and Scully looked over Stella’s injured eyebrow with a sharpened squint, reached for her glasses.

“When were those stitches put in?”

“Oh right, I missed the appointment to get them out.  It was in Belfast but I couldn’t stay there any longer.”

“The skin is starting to grow over them.”

“Won’t they just dissolve?”

She blinked and cocked her head cheekily.

“Did they say they would dissolve?”

“Well, I had my medical doctor coming to visit, didn’t I?”

Scully smiled.

“After dinner.”

They set up the urgent care at the breakfast island - rubbing alcohol and clean towels, the sterilized hot pink tweezers and sharp nail scissors.  The patient perched on a barstool, hugging the doctor rather inappropriately between her thighs as she fingered the stem of her wine glass.  

“Hold still.”

“Bedside manner please.”

Scully gave her a little glance down the bridge of her nose.

“You’re good at this.  Taking care of people,” Stella said and Scully would have been annoyed at the implied surprise in her tone, except she knew that it was a surprise to Stella whenever someone was good at things like this.  She knew what Stella really meant was that she was better at accepting it than she’d expected to be.

“Thank you,” Scully said.  

“Are you worried about him?”  Stella asked and Scully re-sterilized the tweezers, shifted her weight. “It’s okay, you can still talk about him to me.”

Stella’s eyes moved like water, following Scully’s wrist this way and that as she tended to the partially embedded stitch.

“Not in a physical sense.  He wouldn’t hurt himself.  He’s too driven.”

“Toward what?”

Scully knew the question was rhetorical, or if it wasn’t, should be.  Stella knew as well as anyone that Mulder had never really known what he was looking for. That was part of his brilliance, his readiness to find whatever there was to be found.  But it was also his deathknell.

“Break, please,” Stella said sweetly.

There was barely anything to take a break from.  Stella was drawing it out on purpose.  Scully pulled her hands away and waited while Stella sipped her glass of wine.  When she was done, she turned her chin back up to Scully and placed her hands on Scully’s waist.

“Distracting,” Scully whispered.

“That’s all right, I think,” Stella said in her huskiest voice. “You’re not putting them in, you’re taking them out.”

“Bossy patient.”

“That surprise you?”

“I’m on the last one.”

“This morning you mentioned the line we crossed.”  She folded the sides of Scully’s t-shirt into ripples between her fingers. “I don’t want you to worry about me when it comes time to cross it back.”

Scully pulled the final stitch through and dabbed Neosporin on the freshly mended skin. The eyebrow glistened like otter fur, swam up her forehead as Stella raised it.

“Are you hearing me, Doctor Scully?”

Scully rested her hands on Stella’s shoulders, searched her face. She missed Mulder, she did worry about him, but the idea of giving this up again -

“What if I don’t want to cross it back?” Scully asked.

“Let’s stay in the present.”

Scully turned and began to clean up, ashamed of her own confusion and the havoc it might be wreaking.

“Which present?”  she asked with a self-conscious snicker.  “The one where I take out your stitches and attempt to make a proper cup of tea or the one where we have sex on the living room floor?”

Scully stumbled as Stella hooked four fingers under the hem of her shirt and tugged her back to the spot between her legs.  The stool pressed into her lower back as Stella held her round the waist, aimed her voice like an open vent at Scully’s ear.

“The latter.”

Stella lifted the back of the shirt, drew an apple-sized circle on her lower back.  After all this time, Scully still had trouble remembering there was something there. She had only ever seen it clearly, straight-on, up-close once - in a photograph she’d taken from her own case file. Otherwise, it took a lot of twisting or multiple mirrors and she had simply never cared that much what it looked like.  

Stella’s hand circled it aimlessly as her chin drifted past Scully’s shoulder.  Scully could feel her attention settling off to the side and something about the mood, the meditative tone in Stella’s voice, made Scully reach out for the shiny, sharp nail scissors still there and cover them with her hand.  Stella kissed her sleeved shoulder.  There was a long pause, a river of Bordeaux breath tickling her neck.  

“It’s not why I have them,” Stella said.  “But I did used to like them for that, once upon a time.”

Scully said nothing, embarrassed at her own transparency.  She was glad she had her back to Stella.  She lifted her hand off the scissors.

“I’m sorry, that was silly.”

“No.  I like that you look out for me.  It’s sweet.” And Scully could hear the slow, drawling smile in her voice.  “You cover my scissors and hide the painkillers… behind the coffee grinder.”

“Not very well, apparently.”

Scully hesitated.  She took a deep breath and measured the question like the well-formed circle of cigarette smoke she would have made similar use of at fifteen or seventeen or twenty-three.

“Do you get tempted still?  When something really horrible happens?”  Like this, she meant, like lately.

For what felt like hours, Stella didn’t answer.  Her chin and lips seemed frozen to Scully’s shoulder, the edge of the stool wedged permanently between two vertebrae on her lower back.  She worried Stella didn’t really want to be holding her anymore but didn’t know how to let her go.  Of course, Stella probably knew how to let go of people better than anyone.

“Will you go somewhere with me?” Stella asked.  

“Anywhere,” she said, and then picturing all manner of international dens of iniquity, “within reason.”

*

The tattoo shop in Shoreditch smelled more like a department store than Scully thought it should - its diligently practiced irreverence dripping away over the wax-pool edge of an expensive amber-glassed candle.  The walls were tastefully decorated and serenaded at a reasonable volume by a female folk singer over the sound system. The proprietor was disappointingly unintimidating -- a naughty-smiled, meticulously professional twenty-four-year-old woman with a string of lovely lavender and blue planets up her arm and an innocent name (April).  Dainty jewels dotted her face in various big dipperish coordinates.  Scully wandered the perimeter like a health inspector, trying to find something wrong to make things seem right.  Not a single sheet of wholesale sailors’ sparrows and pinups for easy drunk customers, not so much as a crack in the paint job.

“You’re lucky you caught me here this late.  I was just cleaning up,” April said.

Stella was flipping through a portfolio while April slowly churned her hands, trying not to seem nervous.  The Stella effect.  Scully looked at her watch.

“It’s only 8:30.”

“They’re all like this now,” Stella murmured.  April looked on with indifferent miscomprehension, as though they’d been conversing in another language and she was waiting to see whether it concerned her.

Scully felt partially responsible for whatever would or would not happen here.  Generally, she felt entitled to play Responsible One, but she wasn’t exactly the posterchild for well-planned tattoos.  She turned to face them and crossed her arms.  April leaned her flop of dark hair into Stella’s frame of view, watching with self-conscious pride as her work was examined.  On her arm, the planets moved, a meteor inched its way from her sleeveless band t-shirt to her wrist.  It made Scully feel irreversibly old to picture April discovering Fleetwood Mac for the first time, hearing them on a playlist or a movie soundtrack and digging up all their songs, a dollar ninety-nine at a time, pushing each one through little white earbuds.

The plastic page-turning was peppered with all sorts of questions that Stella seemed uncharacteristically happy to answer. They were multitasking - flirting and making decisions - this could be done now, yes there was room in the schedule, yes she’d like it to be covered at work.  On the one hand, it seemed to Scully like cheating to get a tattoo in a place that closed at the same time as a bank.  Where was the risk, the stakes?  On the other hand, somewhere on Stella’s body, there was a slice of skin Scully was never going to see naked again.  

“Stella?” Scully nudged like the spoilsport she was accustomed to being.  “Do you want to think about this a little longer?”

“No,” Stella said and absently patted the column of Scully’s shin beside her.  April smiled at Stella and cocked her head coyly up at Scully.

“Your girlfriend have any?”  

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Stella said.  “But yes, you should look at it.”

Stella’s face was still buried in the binder, making it difficult to glare at her.

“Lemme see,” April said brightly.

Scully turned at the waist and quickly lifted the back of her shirt so as to make as small a deal of it as possible.  She could only imagine the judgment she was going to get from this stylish little -  

“Mm.  Very nineties,” the artist said as though there were nothing more delightful than the nineteen fucking nineties.  “I can do one of those, if you want, so you match.”

A little knot in Scully’s chest (of what - concern? jealousy?) unwound into a laugh.  Stella smiled and licked her lips.  

“That… won’t be necessary.”

“Sisters?” April prodded.

“We worked together once,” Stella said and Scully felt herself blink an extra time.  She should have been used to it.  She and Mulder had undersold one another in introductions for years.  My partner’s in there, my partner’s been shot.  Such a small, peremptory word to describe so much. Ironically, it only got worse once they finally were together.  Girlfriend seemed trivial and partner made them feel like they were still at the FBI. Sometimes, they’d joke, roommate.

“What are you thinking?” April asked.

“A rose,” Stella said simply.  “I’ll leave the style to you.  I like your work.”

April beamed.

“What ya have in mind for placement?”

Stella lifted her arm up in the air and pointed at a spot on her black silk crepe shirt.

“Show me how big.”

Stella spread her fingers right… exactly… where her ribs were cracked.  Jesus Christ.

“Just a couple of centimeters, okay,” April said and went to prepare her station.

“Stella,” Scully said, now quite comfortable issuing warnings. “You can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Unimaginable pain, that’s why.”

Stella gave her a clear-eyed, short-tempered look.

“Wait until it heals a little.  Please,” Scully begged.

“Why don’t you go get us both some coffee somewhere?”

A few feet (or meters) away, April sound checked the foot pedal on her stylus.  Scully sighed out her nose.

“Okay, ready.”

They got up and went to where April was reclining a lounge type chair into the shape of a table.  Scully remembered the thing she sat on in Philadelphia as a scraped up stool that wobbled so badly the artist had to slip cardboard under a leg.

“I’m going to have you take your shirt off and lie on your side with your arm folded up over your head, like this,” she said, demonstrating. Scully watched, trying to calm her nerves by focusing on Stella’s shiny, capable fingernails on her buttons.  And as Stella’s body met the leather surface, Scully felt a strange sixth sense swoosh through her, a vivid memory of what it felt like to finally be expecting something permanent to land in her life. If she’d known then how few things she would ever get to keep, she might have gotten more than one.

April flicked a lamp and light fell in a hot, bright circle on Stella’s ribs.  

“Oh my God,” April gasped.

Scully looked at the floor, embarrassed for all their sake - for Stella’s pride, April’s shock, for her own failure to hit the brakes on this. None of these emotions concerned Stella. She slunk down as the artist had instructed, hip up to the ceiling, almost exactly as she’d slept on the couch.

“Sorry, I wasn’t expecting… hm,”  April said, trailing off, her mouth making a noise like an engine struggling to turn over.  “Listen. I can’t do this.”

“Yes, you can.”

Stella’s translucent skin wove between pink and purple blotches and her breasts spilled from her day-off black bra against the leather table. Her eyes, when they met Scully’s, were calm and satisfied, twinkling night-sky blue as she tossed her moon-white hair up over her ear.  Scully gulped as she tried not to be taken by the beauty of it.

“I’ve never had anyone ask me for something like this. And I’ve been asked for some crazy shit. I tatted an eyeball once.  I don’t…  I don’t know.”

“I’m going to have someone else do it if you won’t.”

A long pause and then April glanced at Scully, as if for permission. Scully saw no benefit in making the girl feel any worse than she did.  It wasn’t poor April’s fault Stella was psychotic.

“She has very high pain tolerance,” Scully said.

“Not that she knows first hand,” Stella said and then winked. “Just friends.”

Winking.  Really, though.  April looked at Stella with a dropped jaw and wet lips, one eye nervously twitching as she rubbed her hands on her torn up skinny jeans and half glanced back at Scully. She shifted her focus back to the canvas at hand.

“Put your hand exactly where you want it again,” she said.   Scully knew that she and the girl were thinking the same thing - just a little to the right or left and it wouldn’t have been so bad.  But Stella placed her hand right in the middle of it all.

“Okay, I’m going to undo this,” April said with a cleansing breath, and reached back for the clasp of the bra, folded it forward carefully, so as not to expose too much, and then placed a sketched piece of parchment on Stella’s skin.  Her ribcage rose and fell under April’s hand, striped beneath the light.  “That all right?”

“Yes, feels nice.”  

“Compression.  Like I showed you last night,” Scully said with the pointless insouciance of a hostage. “Just so it’s clear, that is not the same as a needle burning through bruised flesh.”

“Dana likes to play doctor,” Stella said, thoroughly amused with herself.  April was staring the spot and wiggling her fingers, as though mentally proceeding through the whole thing to a successful finish.  Surgeons did this before a procedure sometimes.  

April reached for a drawer, hesitating only a little.

“You mind?” she asked, and took out an already rolled joint. Now, this was a tattoo parlor.   “Don’t normally, but…”  

She offered it to Stella, who took a drag from April’s fingers, eyes closed.

“Mmmm.”

April held it out to Scully.  She started to shake her head no, but to everyone’s surprise, her hand reached out to take it.  It tasted strong and peppery, nothing like what she remembered, almost too smooth. People knew too much about weed now for it to be any fun.  Not that she’d really had that much fun with it before.  She handed it back to April, shoulders finally slumping down from her ears, belly going soft.

“Thank you.”

“I’m going to place my hand here while I work, is that okay?” April asked, her hand hovering over Stella’s side just under her arm.  Stella nodded and April’s palm rested itself on the soft, intimate spot beneath the armpit.  The bra slipped a bit further forward toward the table.  Scully felt warmth spread from hip to hip like melted butter, her heartbeat speeding to a telling pace between her legs, her mouth watering.  She cocked her head, jerking the leash on her facial expression, embarrassed.  But Stella was staring back at her, angling her jaw like a jungle cat with dinner plans.  Scully heaved and dropped a tiny sigh.

“You’re crazy,” she whispered, and for a moment felt like they were alone.  Stella licked her lips, shrugged the shoulder closer to her ear.  April threatened with a few more buzzes of the pedal and Stella looked down at it, lips parted, hungry for it.

“Ready?”  April asked.

Stella nodded and Scully realized she was holding her breath. Stella’s ribs hurt when she laughed, sneezed, hugged.  Even just now, when she had to touch the spot to show April, she was ginger about doing so.

The pen began to buzz, at first high pitched, and then growling lower as it met Stella’s skin.  Stella closed her eyes, swallowed a grunt, held her breath a second.  The instrument went quiet as April hesitated. Scully wondered how many people jumped ship at this point.

“No, no, just do it.”

And the sound resumed, ink guzzling its way toward the tip of the needle and braiding itself into Stella’s flesh.  Stella’s closed eyes twitched.  After a while, the muscles of her abdomen began to tremble, fatigued from resistance, and Stella’s facial expression sharpened.  Scully stepped behind Stella’s head and and took her hand, watched her fingers turn purple in Stella’s grip.  She pulled a spare chair over to sit.  April paused and switched tools and Scully watched Stella try to catch her breath.

“This is going to be a motherfucker,” April said and Scully sighed. Right, the color.  “But it’s almost done.”

Stella keenly watched as April dabbed sweat and blood.  The buzzing returned and grew louder like a treadmill pumped from walk to run.

“Fuck me,” Stella whispered.  The artist glanced up but this time was strong-stomached enough not to turn off the needle. “Don’t stop, don’t stop.”

Scully bit her lip, put her free hand in Stella’s hair, found it damp, raked her fingers through the same few inches over and over without moving the heel of her hand.  

“It feels good,” Stella assured them and Scully knew this was mostly bullshit but a little bit true, that there was a kind of purity to the pain, the way it made things like tumors and bruises disappear, the way it made you new.  And… at least, for her… yes… Stella’s eyelashes were fluttering, mouth going wide, a little croak escaping her throat.  Scully felt like she might slide off her chair, tried not to fidget as Stella moved her head slightly to make contact with Scully’s nose.  Her head smelled like gardenias and salt, shampoo and sweat, mortal.

Finally, the buzzing stopped.  Each of them began to breathe normally again as they suffered the postcoital awkwardness of it all.

“No bras the next couple days. It would be uncomfortable, not that you seem to much give a fuck.  But you also want it to heal nicely.”

Scully tried not to smile as she watched Stella register a lingerie ban, surrendering the bra down her arm and covering her breasts with her forearm as she sat up and turned to the mirror to get a good look.  April looked on with wide knees, one bouncing, her black-polished nails picking at one another - a kid who’d just shown her mom her coloring book.  Stella’s expression was unreadable, as ever.

“It’s beautiful,” Scully jumped in, unable to bear April’s anticipation any longer.  For a moment, she pictured herself living here full time, following Stella around just to reassure the admiring young women she held in suspense on a daily basis.

Stella made some noises of sincere agreement and turned her back to both of them, folding her bra into her back pocket, holding out a hand for Scully to hand over her blouse.  When she put it on, there was the uncommon sight of fabric falling like water over the natural shape of Stella’s breasts, stopping to ripple only at the twisted-up points of her nipples.  The shirt was collarless, but Stella shook her hair like there was one anyway.  April was collecting a palmful of spotted towels.

“Here,” April said and handed Stella the rest of the joint. “You might want this later.”

“I don’t think we--” stammered Scully.

“Thank you,” Stella interrupted.  She put it in her front pocket.  She left the cuffs of her blouse undone and the hem untucked.  As though, with no bra, there was no point polishing the look.  “What do I owe you?”

The girl’s face twitched as she feigned nonchalance and shrugged.

“Fifty?”

“Fifty?”

“It says your rate is one-fifty an hour,” Scully said with a glance at the time.  Her reflexes felt a little slow and blurry, but she could still tell time.  “This took what?  Almost three.”

“Fifty’s all I’m going to take for it,” she said, appearing to think of a better, more conspiratorial argument.  “I’m off the clock.”

“If you say so.  Thank you,” Stella said and April shifted her weight from one Doc Martened foot to the other. Her tongue played with the ring on her lower lip, toying with the possibility of  one final question.

“Who was he?” she asked.  Stella looked down as she counted the cash.

“No one important,”  Stella said and April nodded like she’d already known the answer.

*

Young people crowded the sidewalks outside every bar and restaurant in the neighborhood, talking loudly in harmonized accents, passing cigarettes and laughing in the face of their own futures.  The rain had turned the concrete the color of spinning pottery and their heels sounded wet and messy when they landed.  Scully hugged Stella’s arm a little tighter as they passed a drunk couple making out clumsily.

“You didn’t have to tell her I wasn’t your girlfriend so many times.”

“Hm?”

“You heard me.”  Stella smiled.

“I believe it was once,” Stella said.

“I didn’t like it,” Scully admitted shyly, she hoped, playfully, watching her shoes.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t use that word for people I only do things in private with.”

“Is that the rule?” Scully teased weakly.

Stella huffed and stiffened, feathers clearly ruffled by the topic at hand.  She turned and spoke, voice now on ice.

“You’re going back to him, Scully.  You’re always going back to him.”

“How do you know that I’d mind it in public?” Scully asked.  

“And when you do go back to him, I think you should apologize, frankly.”

“Stella.”

“And then tell him to fuck you, for fuck’s sake.”  Her cheeks were turning pink, and Scully wondered if she’d ever seen Stella truly angry before, if every other time had only been aggravated, perturbed, mildly inconvenienced.  This was altogether different.  “This is an inane conversation.”

Scully finally allowed the levity to leave her voice.

“Admit it, it isn’t what I’d have trouble doing in public, it’s what you’d have trouble doing in private.”

And that did it.  Stella grabbed her arm and stopped them both in their tracks, took her face in hand and kissed her like they were back on the Persian carpet.  Scully felt strands of cold hair, sticky as summer lemonade, brushing past the hollows of her cheeks as they coke-bottled inward, tangling between their noses and people wove their way around them like a parade of ants round a suddenly fallen branch.  Someone whistled.  

They came up for breath, remaining close to study one another’s faces.  Maybe the answer to this situation was somewhere in the wet corners of their eyes, sitting like pollen on their eyelashes.

“You feel all that blood rushing to your cheeks?” Stella whispered, distracted, but still intending to make a point.

“Not all of it.”

Stella smiled, dropped her eyes to Scully’s lips and back up.

“Do you mind if I blush when you do it?”

Stella thought a moment.

“No, actually.  No, not a-t’all,” Stella said, vowels tearing from their syllables like meat from a bone. “Let’s go home.”

Scully tried not to look away from the people who stared as they made their way forward through their audience.   It was a couple blocks before she spoke again.

“Why the rose?”

“The name of the last woman.  The one we got back.”

*

The monitors hum and the ventilation system cranks beneath the squeak of soft-soled shoes on clean linoleum, a familiar song Scully spent her twenties losing sleep to.  She cradles the morphine pump loosely in her left hand and slips her right one under the blanket to preserve the warmth where Mulder had squeezed it.  She is somewhat sorry there is no justifiable excuse for Mulder to be at her bedside rather than work.  They have never reported their couple status officially to the FBI.  She’s not even sure they’ve reported it officially to each other.  They’ve only just started, though it doesn’t quite feel like a beginning.  It is impossible to picture an end.

When she hears the high heels, she assumes someone’s gotten the wrong room, and when she turns her head and sees Stella approaching the bed, she thinks she might be hallucinating, might have accidentally hit the button under her thumb.  

“What are you doing here?”

Stella kisses her forehead and sits to her left.  The morphine gun rolls onto the crinkly hospital sheets as Stella takes her hand.

“Are you high?” Stella asks with a standard touch of naughtiness, eyes on the little black button.

“No.  I’ve barely used it.”  This statement is not without a bit of regret.  There’s a part of her that keeps hoping she’ll need it so this would make some sense.  A shot in the gut should hurt more.

“You look exhausted,” she tells Stella to take the attention off herself.

“I just got off a plane. Mulder called me.”

Scully feels her eyes go wet immediately.  They’ve been brimming for days – Felig’s morbidness, his loneliness, her own confusions and ultimately, fear.  She hopes if he really was able to “take” death for her, that it suits him as well as life does her.

Stella intertwines their fingers, careful not to disturb the IV, brings their joined hands up to her mouth. Scully can feel Stella’s lips trembling against their combined knuckles, her teeth setting playfully there as she pretends she’s going to bite Scully.  She’s hiding.

“I thought you were dead,” she croaks, nose between Scully’s second knuckle and one of her own. Scully knows Stella is not embellishing about this. Mulder has a way of starting a conversation at the wrong end. Scully-got-shot-long pause is how he would’ve put it, waited for Stella’s stunned what to share the fact that she was fine.  Stella swallows and her regular voice returns.  “I’m going to kill him when I see him.”

“I know that feeling.”

Scully weighs the next part, doesn’t want to have to explain it all right now.

“I don’t really need to be here.”  Stella doesn’t need to be told twice.  Her hair looks slightly green under fluorescent light and her shoulders go high and tight whenever she looks at the IV stand.

“Then let’s go.  I’m at the Royalton.  There’s a fireplace.”

“I don’t know… how to ask them to leave.  I got shot yesterday.”

“Don’t ask.  Tell.”

Scully licks her lips and chews a bit of chapped skin there. Stella reaches into her purse and hands her a luxe ginger-flavored lip balm to apply.  She looks more tired than Scully knew she could, blue eyes draining grey into the collar of her white silk shirt.  She seems to melt toward Scully’s bed, slowly lowering her head to the cot, drapes herself over Scully’s body.  The chair howls against the floor as she moves it closer.  Scully takes her right hand from under the blanket so that she can wrap both arms around Stella, clasp her hands between Stella’s shoulders. Her spine rises and falls beneath Scully’s forearms.

“I’ll tell them for you,” Stella says.  “In a minute.”

Scully knows this will make no difference.  The only people they’ll listen to are wives and husbands and parents and children, the official relationships of the world.

“A fireplace?  A real one?”

“Mm, they come up and light it for you.”

She doesn’t have official relationships.  But what she has might be even better.



Chapter Text

Chapter 15

Mulder waited on Stella’s stoop with his knees wagging over a haphazardly-packed bag.  He’d gotten the address out of the little throwback tabbed book Scully still kept in a drawer.  She used to grumble at him for putting names in by the first initial when she was trying to keep it by last initial, and then he would argue the whole thing was pointless in this day and age, and then she would tell him all the reasons they might still need a bound paper book with people’s names and phone numbers written down in it.  The fact that she didn’t bother to take it when she moved out could have seemed like a victory, but instead it just made him sad - a symbol of the fights she no longer thought were worth having.  

The concrete was imperially hard and frigidly damp and he missed the pounds he’d lost recently from his ass.  He thought of their porch back in Virginia, its creaks and cushions and catnappy sunspots, the way the whole construction of it bent and swayed with you as you moved.  Or at least, when he did.  Scully was small enough that she could pad out quiet as a wanderlusting house cat. She’d find the hottest spot on the bench and angle herself so her face got the shade.  He wouldn’t know she’d been out there until he heard her pull the door shut past its usual windy, squeaking sweep.  

The purchasing of a plane ticket had required more energy than he remembered.  (Didn’t they used to do this weekly, sometimes daily?  Buy a ticket, hop on a plane.)  But he’d gotten through it, made sure that he did.  If he was right, if Scully had come to London because the cancer had returned and she needed support, then he needed to be there too.  And he was almost sure he was right.  On the plane, he’d nodded off and dreamt of her in the hospital.

He stared at his sneakers and pictured the look on her face when she saw him, how surprised, how proud of him she’d be, how relieved that they knew each other again like this, could cross an ocean on instinct for one another.  And then a black car pulled up and four feet clicked the asphalt, two jaws tensed very similarly.  

“Scully,” he said, suddenly feeling the exhaustion he’d been holding at bay in order to get himself here.  Stella was looking at the ground, lips pursed and puckered as she engaged the world’s longest blink.  She hesitated behind Scully with what seemed like world-altering reluctance.  The idling of the cab unnerved him, why wouldn’t he just pull away already?

“I don’t… understand,” Scully said and he took her in his arms anyway but she pushed him away.  Stella subtly eyed a neighbor’s wavering blinds.

“Come inside,” she commanded and brushed past to put the key in the door.

The tension bustled, moving at sharp angles from one person to another and Mulder was not quite sure what the fuck was going on.  Stella hung her jacket up, then took Mulder’s from him and hung that, then held out a hand to Scully and was rebuffed by a glare.  

“You told him I was here?” Scully finally asked.

Stella stretched her fingers at her side and then made fists, tried to look defiant, almost failing as Scully’s eyes pulverized everything within sight.  She was set on high, full spin, no pulp.

“I didn’t expect him to come here,” Stella said calmly, and glanced at him.  

“I would have done that myself if I wanted it done,” Scully said.

“Don’t blame her,” he said, wanting in on this admittedly not pleasant conversation.  But Scully kept her eyes on Stella.

“And you just went ahead and took matters into your own hands.”

It crossed his mind that he could apologize, but what was he going to be sorry for?  Being here? Paying attention?  Fighting for her?  Doing any of the things she seemed to have wanted him to do before she left him? And anyway, she wasn’t paying him enough attention to deserve an apology.

“Scully,” he demanded and she looked at him finally, her long hair twisting around her shoulders, falling into her face.  In another version of their life, he would be thinking that it was now long enough to tickle his fingers if he held her by the waist, but the idea of fucking her was even more absurd to him now than it had been before they’d started dating.   “You’ve been telling me to get off my ass for months and now that I do --”

“The moment I’ve indicated a need for space!”

“I know why you came here,” he said.  “It’s okay.  We’re going to figure it out together.”

Stella tucked one forearm around her waist and dropped her head into a hand.

“What on earth are you talking about?” Scully asked with a snarled eyebrow.

“The cancer.”

Scully shook her head slowly, breathed angrily out her nose.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“Scully!  Of course not!”

“You would.  Look at you, this is the best I’ve seen you in years.”

“I - I - “

He had nothing to say.  She was right.  He was feeling pretty good, especially now that Scully wasn’t actually going to die.

“I do not.  Exist. To give you purpose,” she seethed.

She climbed the stairs and her shoes made loud thunks against the old wooden planks.

“You two can have the bed,” Stella said tightly as she made her way into the kitchen.

“Fuck you, Stella,” Scully said, bouncing a glare over the bannister.  “I know why you called him.”  

Mulder looked at Stella for some clue as to what this meant. Stella ran her tongue along her molars and jimmied her teeth into an underbite.  His options were rapidly narrowing - stay down here or go up there - and both involved a woman who was furious with him.  At least he had twenty years of experience pissing Scully off. He began to move toward the steps.

“No.  I’m taking the bed alone,” Scully said.  “You two figure the rest out together.  You’re good at that.”

*

Stella’s living room had turned into the site of the saddest sleepover party of all time.  Scully had been upstairs for hours, no doubt having conked out upon contact with a pillow. Her ability to use sleep as emotional self-defense was practically ninja-like.  Mulder lay wide-eyed on the couch with a seductively soft blanket tucked under his arms. Across the room, Stella molded her tiny body into the shape of two armchairs and read a book under an attached bulb.  There was a mopey bit of Scotch in her cup on the rug.

“Sorry,” he said for the first time that night.

“Perfectly all right.”

This was how Scully would try to act angry with him sometimes. Cool-headed and ever-distant, above-it-all.  But her skin, her voice always betrayed her.  With lower stakes - say mothman low or lake monster low - he enjoyed it, watching and waiting to see how long she could hold it together before she exploded.  

But there was none of that the day she left.  That day, it was all lukewarm tears and pauses, fingers tapping crumbling surfaces.  There was nothing surprising left to say; they’d dress rehearsed it so many times. Even the suitcase had been packed before, had been standing waiting by the bedroom entryway, a warning he knew she intended; in actuality, a promise, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“You’ll be better off without me,” he’d managed to say aloud as she packed the car.  He remembered how they used to take turns saying this to each other in crisis, passing it back and forth like a game piece.  It was the climax of any argument as well as the sign that they would recover from it.  That phrase had led to some of the best sex they’d ever had, but not the day she left. Best she’d seen him in years? Well, this was the best he’d seen her in a while too:  engines firing, freckles warming like spark plugs until they burst red on her cheeks. This would be good for them in the end, he was almost sure of it.  

“I really thought she had cancer for some reason.”

“Perfectly understandable.”

“Sometimes I’m right. I get this sixth sense about what people are doing or thinking.”

“Oh?” She finally looked at him, her clip-on book light glinting in her black plastic-framed glasses.  He noticed for the first time she had very faint freckles across the bridge of her nose, beige, the color of sand.  “What am I thinking now, Mulder?”

He sighed and she tucked her nose back into her book, point made.

“You have a nice place,” he tried, and turned on the small lamp next to the couch.  

“I’m not really in the mood for small talk.”

“Come on, Stella.  I’m sorry.  I misinterpreted the call.”

“You were being a jealous idiot,” she said, sounding bored and tired.

“No, really, I was worried about her.”

“I said trust me.  And you didn’t.”

“I should have.  We’ve always had that much.”

She looked up tentatively, quickly, testing his sincerity like a rope bridge.

“I was trying to do you a favor.  And this is how you repay me?  I’m going to be sleeping in my fucking armchair.”

“You’re the one who said I wouldn’t fit in it,” he said and then quickly added, “I said I’m sorry.”

She looked him over a little longer and this time closed the book, leaving her finger in it for good measure.  She folded one arm of her glasses into her cleavage, lifted her nose high.  

“Accepted,” Stella said finally.

“Anyway,” he mumbled, sensing an opening for a little sympathy. “I think I’m the one who should be pissed off here.  She left me.”

Stella stared at him, expressionless.

“She did, she left me, did she tell you that?”

“Mulder, don’t.”

“I’ve been going through a bit of a rough period and she just up and leaves?”

“Let’s not play who left whom.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

She was silent.  He shook his head at the ceiling, feeling righteous as rain in a desert.  Stella’s voice was chilly and direct.

“You left her with a newborn child once.”

Mulder’s eyes widened enough that the whites burned.  His nostrils flared.

“No one told her to give him away,” he whispered and it felt mean and good to say it, this dark thing he stored in the most desperate, raging places.  “Unless you did.”

“What I did?  What I did was sit in your dinner chair and throw out your son’s toys and make sure the mother of your fucking child had something to eat.”

“And sleep in my bed, I’m sure.”

The book’s sharp binding hit him square in the shoulder, pages fluttering past where Stella’s finger had been as it dropped to the floor. Stella got up and walked toward a cart full of liquor.  

“It was a parent’s decision to make and you left her to make it alone.”

He shook his head gravely at her and lowered his voice.

“It was the only thing she could have done.  I’ve gone over and over it.  I really think it’s true.”  It had to be true.  The only way they could both live with themselves was if it were true.  It was awful, this relying on your only child’s being in grave danger in order not to plunge into the depths of despair.

The accusatory edge wore off Stella’s tone as she saw his shoulders slumping, but she wasn’t about to let him focus on William, turn this into a wallowing session.  

“She left you once.  You’ve been leaving her whole adult life.”

He licked his lip and slowly scraped the saliva off with his teeth, the exhaustion settling back in again.  Why was it that these days he could only feel tired or exhausted, fired up or weighed down?  Sorrow, sadness, anger, love, desire - all of them fell under one or the other heading. He sat up and rubbed his forehead, pushing the blanket aside.

She turned to pour more Scotch and sipped.

“She still hates me for it,” he said.  “I can see the way she looks at me sometimes.  She hates me.”

He wanted to be ashamed but didn’t even have the bravado for that.  Stella turned to face him, tipped her chin down emphatically.  Her eyes were very kind set on this wide, Disney-princess-esque angle.

“How did we get here?  I mean, I can’t believe she had to come this far to get away from me,” he said.

Stella padded slowly over to him and stood at his knees, held the side of his face to her body, petting the hairs on the side of his head. He wrapped his arms around her. It felt good, better than he remembered a hug feeling.  And it felt good that it was her, too.  Once, for a couple of nights, he had felt very close to her, and once was further than he’d gotten with almost anyone.  He squeezed tighter and she spasmed at the waist.  What was that about?  He looked up at her.

“She didn’t come to get away from you,” Stella said, sounding like she was abandoning her own voice.  “She came because of me.”

The sickening sense of foreboding Mulder had had since the call, his hospital vision returned.  It was true, something had been wrong in her voice when she called - but it wasn’t with Scully.  She turned her face slightly toward the light, moved her hair, and he saw that she had faint bruises her makeup had been covering up.  She picked up the hem of her shirt and folded it up just beneath her breasts.  His stomach turned.

“Stella.”

She raised her Scotch, slurping over his horror.  Car accident, he wanted to think, bicycle snafu, he hoped she’d say, glad I was wearing a helmet at least.  But he knew better, had seen enough things in his long-lost career to know what he was looking at.  Even if she’d lied to him he wouldn’t have believed it.  His eyes burned.

“Who did this?”

She shook her head at some mysterious series of unfortunate mistakes and closed her eyes.

“Who is he?  Did you report it?  You have to report it.”

“Stop.”

“No, don’t report it.  Tell me where to find him.”  He meant it - was going to kill this guy when he found him, and it was going to feel really good.

“Dead already,” she said with a wish-granted raise of her eyebrows.

He sighed abruptly and very lightly ran a finger around the perimeter of the bruises, holding her hip tight in the other hand, as if she might slip away, might disappear under the intensity of his gaze.  What he’d initially thought was a bandage for a wound, he soon realized was something slightly less upsetting.  He looked up at her with the half-smile of a chronically failing savior.

“Is this what I think it is?”  

It was impossible to comprehend.  He’d almost passed out getting a small letter imprinted on a perfectly healthy slab of manskin.  She peeled away the bandage.

“Fuuuuck me.  Jesus Christ,” he said.  She seemed to enjoy his wincing.

“Well,” he said, giving her hand an affectionate tug. “Better than the business end of a broken hotel glass, I guess.”

She smiled softly.

“You never told her.”

“No.”

She nodded in a way that gave him a small surge of pride for having done something right for a change, handled the situation aptly.  It had been a very long time since Scully had given him that sort of nod.  He pulled her hand, urging her to sit beside him on the couch.  She did so stiffly, unfolding as rickety as an unwieldy beach chair, first bringing her legs up, then leaning to let him wrap an arm around her shoulders and clasp it in his other hand.  Eventually her head fell against his chest and then her knees collapsed toward him too.  He’d forgotten how calming it was to have this (almost exact) amount of weight against him, a great mind and large heart ticking and circling beneath his.  He’d forgotten how it could make other things dim in importance.  He pulled the blanket around her.

“I’ve thought about you over the past couple years, you and that piece of glass.  I’ve wondered if it worked... if it would work for me.”

“Did you do it?”

“No, I’m not really one for blood.”

“So you took the slow way around.”

He thought for a moment.

“You isolated yourself,” she clarified without making him ask.

“Mulder,” she murmured then.  She had a voice like a piece of cake when she was tired, sweet and frosted and moist.

“Hm?”

“I can’t nod off here with you.  You’re too big, you could hurt me in your sleep.”

“I don’t sleep anymore,” he said and took her drink and then her glasses, set them both on the table beside the couch.  “And I would never hurt you.”

He’d meant it to come out as a joke, but he realized instantly that it sounded like he meant it, and an instant after that, he realized that he did.

“Do you think she left us down here to test us?” he asked.

“Has anyone ever told you you’re paranoid?”

“I’ve heard that once or twice.”

There was a slight, ephemeral tremble against him as she laughed and sent his mind sliding through space to the past, to a place on Scully’s couch where thanks to Stella, a grade school camp t-shirt lay in lovemakers’ waste beside his head and a small Elvis ring holder lay knocked on its ass on the coffee table.  

He missed her, he missed her more than ever, and she was right upstairs.

*

Scully edged down the stairs the next morning like a cold front, a cloud of silent treatment enveloping them all over breakfast. Mulder made pancakes and served them with little expectation, cautiously eyeing her as she made a little face of stifled approval.  She quietly insisted on doing the dishes while her companions discussed the weather, their spines planted stiff as tree trunks on their chairs.  Most of the morning, she read while he calmly tapped at his laptop and tried to pass placating glances to Stella like paper airplanes behind the angry teacher’s back.  But Stella ignored him, antsily wiggling crossed ankles over the arm of the living room chair, seeming like she might burst with indignation.  It was difficult, almost funny, to see her behaving this tiny bit uncool.

“Dana,” she said around lunchtime, seams of her faded olive t-shirt splitting with irritability.  Mulder looked up from his screen, tried to give her the signal to stop there.  He knew when Scully’s anger was like this, it seemed as though it could last years, a can of peas in the cabinet just waiting to be popped open and then the lid would be so sharp, even after all that time, that it could slice your chest open.

“I’m reading,” Scully said and Stella got up in a huff, a muted rebellion.  She went grocery shopping, made frisee salads, blinked hard and chewed her cheek like she was eating off the curse words while Scully politely thanked her for the food and cleaned up.  She seemed not to want to grant Scully the satisfaction of seeming to wait for her.

But by evening, there was nothing left to do but wait.  

“If I could just go to work.  Or go swimming.  Or anything,” Stella complained.  “What do you think she’s doing up there?”

They sat in the living room while Scully became mysteriously busy upstairs.  Mulder knew this was bullshit.  

“She’s not doing anything.  She just tired herself out acting tough.  She needed a break.”

Stella laughed and then she made small talk about his “work,” managing to even take the quotation marks off the word that Scully had planted there when they left the FBI.  They fell into a pattern of naps, and then rotated positions, took staggered bathroom breaks.  It felt like the longest day ever, like doing jury duty but the whole judicial system boiled down to one pissed-off redhead who felt unheard.

Eventually, they heard footsteps coming toward the landing. Scully emerged showered, in a sweater and tight jeans (were those hers?  God, she looked good.)  She posed halfway down the staircase, looked from one to the other, Juliet to her two ill-fated Romeos, took a deep breath and burned up the last bits of her anger one sunny syllable at a time.

“Let’s go to dinner.”

The chair felt ridiculously small around Mulder, though it had looked like a piece of the Mad Hatter’s furniture around Stella.

“All of us?” he asked.  He wondered if one of them was getting off sooner than the other.  That seemed unlike Scully; even in anger, she liked to be fair.

“Yes.”

This did seem to surprise Stella, who raised an amused eyebrow.

“Pick a place,” Scully told her, really warming up to the bossiness she’d earned.  “And you, shave.”

He could only assume this meant him.

“I didn’t bring a razor.”

“Oh,” Scully said.  “Well, I’m sure Stella - has some.  Or it doesn’t matter, don’t shave.”  It was the slightest of pauses, but the nature of it, the placement of it, gave her away.  He’d never even been sure before if Scully knew about Stella’s… thing.

“For fuck’s sake,” Stella said with a sigh, as though she’d been holding it in all day.  “Come upstairs, I’ll show you where they are.”

And one by one, they made their way up in awkward procession. Mulder’s eyes followed Stella’s feet as they pressed up onto each step, pretty and pale as white sailboats around the ankle, and then ravaged below deck, much more so than Scully’s.  He wondered if anyone had ever bothered to tell her she didn’t need the come-fuck-me heels, that she could just as well convey that message in sneakers or fuzzy bear slippers.  Then again, he’d just hours ago seen fresh ink over a set of fractured ribs.  What was a blister or bone spur here and there?

Landing safely on the second level, he looked around as Stella and Scully shuffled around the bathroom.  The style of Stella’s bedroom caught him by surprise for some reason, though it was sensual and simple and sultry-smelling as her wardrobe.  But it also looked lived-in, well-loved, sanded down at the edges.  He had never quite pictured Stella staying in one place long enough to make a crease in the mattress or a ding on the wall behind where the door swings open, to fling specks of toothpaste miraculously at the medicine cabinet mirror.  But of course, she had a life here, always had. Illusions always wore out their stay on him.

Stella came out of the bathroom and went to her closet.

“Go ahead,” she said.  

Scully was waiting for him in the bathroom.  As he sat on a small chair in front of the mirror, he saw a towel folded over the lid of the toilet, supplies laid across it.  Scully leaned against the doorjamb, as if to make sure he didn’t cheat, didn’t get away.  He eyed the razor, the girly shaving cream, the awkward old-fashioned faucet, trying to avoid his own face in the mirror.

“They do cold and hot on the same sides as us?” he joked, stalling and not entirely sure why.  He wondered if this was how people felt when they cut off a long ponytail.  It had taken almost no thought at all to let his beard grow in, but it seemed like a loaded gesture to remove it now, and one he possibly had not yet earned.

“You don’t really have to do it,” Scully said quietly, her voice finally evening out to neutral.  “If you don’t want to.”

“No, no, just forgot how,” he said and chuckled, combing the hairs, saying goodbye.  “Want to help?  Like the old days?”

There was a sour sort of smirk, but then, to his great surprise, she took the cream (turned out to be foam) in hand and squirted it into her palm. Her hair hung like a psychic’s curtain between her face and the mirror as she rubbed his cheeks with white puffs, strings of orange and red and pink capturing light like colored beads and promising him the future.  She took her first stroke.  It was a short one.  She ran her thumb over the blades under the sink as short hairs clogged the trough and stuck to the sides of the sink like confetti.

“There’s a lot here.  Stella, you don’t have an electric?”

“What?”

“Come in here?”

“I’m trying to find something I can wear without a bra.”

“Don’t ask,” Scully muttered to him and Mulder thought it better not to mention he’d seen the tattoo.  

Stella appeared behind Scully in a pink silk robe he recognized immediately.  He sucked his lips to avoid smiling and caught a twitch on Scully’s face in the mirror. “I said, do you have an electric razor?”

“No,” Stella said.  

“This could use up a lot of blades.”

Stella reached past him for another razor and came around his other side.

“I’ll help.”

The coppery shadows around his face took on a golden tone, a floral scent like jacaranda petals scattered at dusk.  Their fingers stroked at his cheeks, ten alternatingly firm, slender brushes as the razor pressed and slid.  He kept his eyes down to avoid looking at any of the breasts at eye level.

“Sasquatch would be less work,” Stella muttered and he looked up for a second to squirt foam at her chin.  Stella grinned, wiped it off and slapped it on his forehead.

“Careful what you say, Sasquatch is one of Mulder’s best friends,” Scully said, sitting on his right leg, and he squirted her neck as she focused on a little swipe by his ear.  There was a cloud of warmth around his face where they both hovered, a slim-necked, fragrant heat like a just-wet forest.   He felt safe and… something else which he tried to ignore.  

Safe was plenty.

As Stella passed around the back, he saw his skin emerge in an ever-widening halo around his mouth.  The air felt cold and threatening where his skin had not met light in so long and he feebly remembered he used to do this every day - by himself.  He suspected if they hadn’t been there, he would have given up halfway through, leaving a villainous donut of hair in the middle of his face.  Water dripped down his neck and into the neck of his t-shirt.  Stella reached for a towel and patted at it.  

“Much better, don’t you think?” Scully asked and Mulder wasn’t sure which of them she was talking to and he wasn’t sure he agreed because he was having trouble looking.

“Mm,” Stella murmured.  He realized he was unconsciously pulling Scully closer on his leg to embrace her, trying to hide behind her hair once again.  She rested her head on his shoulder as though she understood everything she’d ever told him she didn’t understand about him.  His facial hair, his inability to focus, his sadness.  Stella went to leave but Scully grabbed her hand and for a moment, his heart raced.  

But Stella just stepped forward and put a hand on each of their shoulders.  He marveled, even now, after so much time, that there was a third person in the world fluent in their silences, their gestures.  It was something he’d never get over, like having two close friends with the same birthday.  

“Look up, Mulder,” Stella said after a few moments, her voice crushed velvet and her hand cinched tight as a belt round his jaw to do what Scully was too gentle to do.  She waited as he finally looked at the mirror and took himself in.

“There you are,” she said.  As though he had not been in the room really until he recognized himself. In the mirror, he could see Scully looking at him looking at himself and for a moment, he felt like he had earned the right to shave, that he was himself.

“Dinner,” Stella reminded them finally and left.  Scully kissed his cheek without looking him in the eye and silently followed her out.

*

The restaurant Stella picked was allegedly a pizzeria, although with its caramelized orange peel lighting and fancy bottles of wine, it was unlike any of the garlic powder and parmesan powdered countertops he was used to. But, hey, he wasn’t here to complain. He had his two favorite people, a clean face, some pretty good pizza.  He and Stella were just about through a prosciutto-covered pie (what he got when he asked for ham) while Scully slowly made her way alone through a vegetarian one. There were greasy fingerprints all over his wineglass.  They were on their third collective bottle.

“Food’s good here now, huh?” he asked as he crunched on a piece of crust.  “I remember it being… not like this.”

“You think it was bad at Oxford, you should have seen boarding school,” Stella replied.

“You went to boarding school?”

“I’ve seen pictures of the uniform,” Scully said and he could almost swear he detected a hint of sexiness there.  That had always been part of her allure - she was flirting with you, she was castigating you, or she was simply stating a fact.  Anyone’s guess.

“Is it common to find cops here who went to boarding school?” he asked.

“My mother sent me after my father died.”

“Did you put up a fight?” Scully asked.

“No.  I didn’t care where I lived.  I could find things to smoke and people to fuck anywhere.”

Mulder wiped his mouth with his dark green fabric napkin and sat back in his chair, crossed his feet beneath him.  Scully sipped her wine and Stella split her fingers around the stem of her glass, swirling the bit at the bottom.  It looked black at the center, purple and then red where it made rings like a mountain range in the distance.  Her lips parted.  Though she had certainly had more to drink than either he or Scully, she was the only one who still looked completely fresh, her posture sleek and cheeks unflushed. It was only this softening of her guard that gave her away.

“The night my father died, I went to a pub with his best friend.”

Scully’s eyes went wide as she licked her lips nervously - hold steady, hold steady, he knew that one meant - so she’d never heard this either. He could see Stella weighing how much to say as she watched her wine culling in the nipple of the glass.  

“I was fourteen.  And a virgin.”

Scully gave a long, slow blink and Mulder leaned forward in concern.

“I think I wanted to feel closer to my father.  Or maybe show him how angry I was with him for leaving me behind.”

“And what did he want?  The friend?” Mulder asked.

“What do you think?”

He shook his head and made a noise he hadn’t intended to make. Scully was as still as an empty carafe, her shoulders tensed at her slim, strained neck.

“It was a very long time ago,” Stella said as though that would be enough to put them both at ease.

“So, you were willing to go to boarding school in order to get away from him?” Mulder asked.

“Maybe.  But I also did my damndest to get thrown out.  I never could manage it.  Much to my chagrin, my mother’s connections were very formidable.”

“And then what?  Did you drop out?” he asked.

“No.  I went to university to spend as much of daddy’s money as I could and then settled into the only profession I could think of where I wouldn’t get bored.”

“That’s why you do it?  Cause you’ll get bored otherwise?” Scully asked, a sincere W-shape forming between her eyebrows.

“And so I can punish people,” Stella said and met Scully’s gaze. “It was this or dominatrix.”

Scully finally smiled and Stella licked her lips and Mulder immediately spotted the sated desire on both their faces.

“You’ve been together,” he said delicately.  “While you’ve been here, I mean.”

Scully looked at her pizza and took a deliberate bite as if to show she was still capable of reviving that silent treatment from this morning, should it be necessary.

“I’m not mad.  I understand,” he said softly.

Scully looked at him and then Stella did too.

“I do.  Really.”

“Then why are you asking?” Stella said.

“I don’t know, actually.”  And he wondered himself.  There was no anger, none of the sense of possession he might have expected to feel. Maybe deep down he trusted Scully’s love for him that deeply.  Or maybe he was simply too depressed to give a shit.  The latter possibility frightened him to his core.

“But before, when I’d go away with her, we didn’t --” Scully started to say.

“No, you don’t have to do that,” he assured her.  “Forget I said anything.”

There was silence then and the din of the restaurant took up the space it made -  the digestion of pizza and conversation, the noodling of a piano.  Mulder rubbed his fingers wide against his jeans.  They were both watching him now, he could feel it. Scully’s eyes tore through him and Stella’s narrowed.  The dim first-date light placed shadows on both their beautiful, sharp-boned faces. He felt woozy; he was not used to focusing on more than one thing at once, that was not how he was built.

“Just thought, you know, Stella might as well skip sleeping in the chair tonight.  That’s all,” he said and tried to smile as innocuously as he could.  

When they got home, Mulder opened the coat closet and held out his hand to hang them all up.

“Thanks,” Stella said, and made a beeline for the Scotch. Scully, pressing her boots off with toes to opposite heels, followed her.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her grab Stella’s arm as though she’d forgotten something.  It was meant very nonchalantly, and it was very subtle - the way her hand slid ever-so-slightly toward Stella’s wrist like a caress.  She put her other hand in Stella’s front pocket with a grin and Stella laughed.  

“Well, well, well,” he said, approaching them as they settled in the chairs.  “What have we got here?”

Stella reached for a pack of matches on the table.

“You’re going to smoke that?” he asked, trying not to smile too wide.  He’d seen Scully high just a few of times, mostly in the middle of nowhere with no hope of going home -- cheap, terrible stuff he’d buy from some kid by the motel pool. She wasn’t changed much by it; in fact, he couldn’t remember one thing she did or said differently.  Now, her eyes sparkled and she shrugged.  He laughed and put his hands behind his head as he leaned back.  Stella was the one to light it, took the first drag and hummed, passed it to Scully. A short, soundless hit and she handed it back to Stella, who leaned over with it to Mulder.  

“I can’t--”

“He can’t,” Scully chimed in.

“Why not?”

“I just get… weird.  Weirder,” he said.  Stella chuckled.  “Why? Why are you laughing?”

“Just, to look at the three of us, I don’t think anyone would have pinned you for the biggest control freak,” she drawled as Scully took another puff.  Her laughter simmered a little too long and Stella put the joint out.

“That’s enough.”

For a while - ten, twenty minutes - they sat like that, mostly quiet.  He leaned his head back on the sofa, watched Scully begin to play with her hair. That’s right, that’s what she did when she was high, she played with her hair.  He watched the ends flip like mermaid tails between her fingers. Stella hummed occasionally like she was thinking of something nice or eating a piece of chocolate.

“I think I’m going to go up to bed,” she finally said.  Mulder swallowed, stared at her in the lamplight and then looked at Stella, who was suddenly quite shy.

“I’m tired too.”

But she stayed put while Scully paced slowly toward the staircase.

“Really,” he said, looking at Stella.  “I meant it.  You should sleep up there with her.”

Scully stopped and looked awkwardly over her shoulder at them as though she didn’t know them, as though they were some strange couple arguing on a train platform.

“All right, then,” Stella said.  “If you’re sure.”

He nodded, then watched as they moved toward the staircase, turning in his spot to keep them in sight.  The stairs sighed beneath their syncopated footsteps, their hips moving like trees in a breeze.  Mulder felt his heart double beat and he cleared his throat.  He allowed himself, just for this moment, to think of them hovering around him in the bathroom, their breasts at his eyeline and belly buttons framing his mouth.  He recalled the way Stella had brought them back to her hotel for that first time. It had spun them all around for a few days, a few weeks even, but in the end, it had been good for them.  And before he could reconsider, lose his nerve, he blurted--

“Can I come up?”

His voice was small and scattered as their footsteps paused. Scully looked down at Stella first, lips parting and spilling as gravity tugged.

“I think it’s a mistake,” Stella said carefully, but in her eyes, the lust shimmered like sun on a blue ocean.  He knew for Stella, that would be enough.  “But I’m willing to make it if you are.”

Scully nodded bravely and took Stella’s hand as they continued their climb.   His footsteps landed much heavier behind them.

Like a coven, they gathered in the navy moonlit bedroom, the name of the spirit they were trying to summon on everyone’s tongue, though no one dared to speak it.  Scully sat on the edge of the duvet and nervously gripped it with her fingers, swinging her legs over the side of a bridge as she contemplated the jump. Stella unbuttoned her shirt slowly as they both watched.  Broken starlight tumbled over her breasts and down her bruised ribs and for a minute, she let her arms hang at her sides, letting them stare.  

Then she grabbed Mulder’s arm and tugged him toward the bed, sat him down next to Scully, as though she were preparing them both for bad news.  Positioning herself between Scully’s legs, she leaned down and kissed Scully on the mouth. When Stella’s blouse moved under the friction of her arm, he noticed tiny holes beside her nipples where they must once have been pierced.  

Her hands slipped around Scully’s neck and disappeared into her hair as she paused the kiss and looked at him.  She tossed her hair over the side of her face so she could see him better.

“This time, you’re going to tell us what you want,” she said and he looked into her eyes, praying she knew what she was doing.  He knew for sure that neither he nor Scully did.   “Understand?”

They all waited and then Scully’s hands went to Stella’s hips, measuring them in her palms.  The way Stella swayed into Scully’s fingertips, the familiarity there, made him hard even as it put a little dagger through his heart.  He knew what Scully’s hands were capable of and so did Stella’s hips. Stella licked her lips.

“Come on, Mulder,” she urged softly.  “Tell us what you want.”

“I want you to put your tongue in her mouth,” he said because it seemed like the only place to start.  Had he been much drunker the first time they’d done this?  Or had it been his youth that had made him so bold? Or the fact that he’d had nothing to lose?  He’d been wrong of course, had had everything ahead of him then, everything that mattered. It was only now that the desperation was real.

His heart beat a little faster and his breath deepened as he watched the silhouettes of their faces part and meet at the forehead, the bridge of the nose, the chin, all the nicest bones he’d ever laid eyes on dancing to the sounds of a comfortable kiss.  There seemed to be centrifugal force between Stella’s lower abdomen and Scully, but Stella resisted it, taking one of Scully’s hands and entwining it in her own to slow things down.  He still remembered how badly Scully had wanted it the first time, how beside himself with desire he’d been over that.  Now she was calmer, less panicked, more assured that release would come, but the intensity in her blooming blue eyes was the same, always the same every time, for him too.  It was one of her gifts, this ability to give herself fully over and over.

“I want you to press her onto the bed,” he said, voice rasping, and Stella did as she was told.  He lay on his side to watch as Scully’s hand crawled up Stella’s body, over her breast, and Stella grabbed her wrist, held her at bay.  

“Yes,” he said. “That.”  The fingers he’d watched grip him so many times framed the very pale skin of Stella’s breast and squeezed, moving just enough to provoke a nipple.   Stella’s body seemed to finally sink and a sound finally, from his beloved, a seduction and a whine - Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou - his dick stiffened as his chest melted at the tragedy of it all.  Oh god, how he wanted to be taken into this story wholly enough to could forget himself. But this would not end well, nothing would, nothing ever did for him.  His heart beat muffled and waxy and suffocatingly and he heard the friction of Scully’s jeans as she hugged Stella’s gently pulsing thigh between her legs.

“Touch her, Stella,” he said.  “Tell me if she’s wet.”

Stella slipped her hand down Scully’s pants, peeling them back and down just enough that he saw a triangle of skin below her belly button, the bones of her hips.  

“Mm, yes,” Stella said.

Scully panted and then released a soft moan and Stella returned it with a hum.

“Push her shirt up.”

Stella did, took the liberty of taking the bra with it. Scully sucked in a hard breath, back arched so that their breasts met, and her pelvis piked up, seeking a deeper connection to Stella’s hand.  She was inside the story now, obeying him but separate from him.  And he was hard, as hard as she must be wet, but he felt indifferent to his erection, focused only on the desire to give Scully whatever she wanted.  

As though sensing his angst, she reached a finger out a bit blindly, tapping his face till she found his lips.  He kissed it softly and then ignored the urge to keep it, suck it, returning it instead to Stella’s waist.

I’m here, Mulder , she’d said, begging him on the bed that last birthday, right here , and he’d put up an argument but not said the one thing that was probably true: I’m not .  The day he said goodbye to her as she stepped down off the porch had been the worst day of his life.  But he hadn’t stayed long enough to see it.

“Make her come for me, please, I… I want to see her come,” he said, and his voice cracked as he tried to change the word to “you,” speak directly to Scully, and found he couldn’t.  Tears streamed in earnest now, but neither Stella nor Scully seemed to notice. Stella tore at the side of Scully’s pants for more leverage and her wrist buckled as she fucked a little harder. Scully’s chest rose and fell over her abdomen, stretched with desire like kneaded dough.  He had waited to watch her come enough times to know...

But then, Scully choked into Stella’s mouth and Stella raised her face, wiped Scully’s cheek with her thumb.  The sight of Scully crying broke him fully and he covered his face so he could cry too, listening to Scully’s wracked sobs on the other side of his muffling forearm.  The bed shifted as she got up, closed the bathroom door behind her.  Not a slam, rather, heartbreakingly soft.

“Mistake,” whispered Stella, quoting herself with a hard, echoing K. She backed off the side of the bed and grabbed her shirt off the floor, swung it swiftly overhead.  “I can’t do this,” she said in a fuller voice as he tried to collect himself.  She was taking things out of her closet and putting them in a bag.  “You have to go home, Mulder.  It doesn’t work like this, you can’t just decide you’re better.  You don’t just get off on your messiah complex and suddenly all is well.  You have to work at it, get help.”

“What if I can’t do it?  What if she doesn’t come back, ever?”

“You can and she will,” Stella snapped and for reasons he could fully imagine and understand, some tears formed in her eyes as well. Scully opened the bathroom door and peeked out.  

“I’m going to a hotel,” Stella said to no one in particular. “Please be out of my house tomorrow.”

“Both of us?” Scully asked, her voice small and wounded and Mulder marveled at Stella’s ability to do it, to turn her back on that particular sound.  But then, he’d been doing it for months, hadn’t he?  It was easier in the moment than it should be.  He knew that better than anyone.

“Both of you, either of you.  I just can’t fucking be in the middle of this.”  She left before she finished her sentence, words tripping and disappearing down the staircase.

Scully, still in her pizza clothes, moved heavily to the bed and lay down, curled on her side toward the window.  She stared, the glare of moonlight making clouds on her glassy, bright eyes.  He knew it was possible she was angry with him, that she didn’t want his comfort, but he laid down behind her anyway, waited to make sure she wouldn’t send him away. When she didn’t, he wrapped his arm around her, containing her arms and all, and sunk his head closer to hers. She smelled of garlic and Stella’s perfume, but beneath that, like herself.  He steadied his body, trying not to quiver when hers did.  For so long, they had lived this way, reacting to one another’s fears and suspicions so strongly that it was impossible to find a moment altogether free of suffering.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“For what?” she said emptily.  Like there were so many things it would be comical to even try to figure out. Or like there was nothing.

“I’m not sure,” he said.  “But I’m going to go home and figure it out.  I promise.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Mulder.”

“Have I ever?”

“Always.”

There was a sad little pause as he let her have that. There wasn’t much else to say, not much other than what everyone said, what anyone would say, and normally he and Scully were above such vulgar things, but they’d been humbled...

“I love you,” he said and squeezed tighter.  She rolled over and rested her head on him.

“I love you too,” she said.  “So much, Mulder.”

“So much,” he echoed.

She’d taken almost nothing with her when she left, not even the hair dryer, but the house had emptied itself the moment she stepped out of it, become devoid of meaning without her love.  The items inside ceased to mean anything - the closets where her clothes and coats hung meant nothing if she wasn’t going to wear them, the coffee pot meant nothing if she wasn’t going to stand and watch it percolate every morning, desperate and sleepy-voiced.  He would look around the house and see nothing.  It was as though there’d been an estate sale, the sadness giving over to relief.  Just him and the floorboards  - nothing left to break.

Now, in this room, there were colors and smells and sights. But none of them were his to keep. There was a reason Scully had come here, he reminded himself, and it had nothing to do with him.

“You stay here with her for now,” he said.

“I don’t think she wants me to.”

“She does.”  Mulder had fucked up when to stay and when to go enough times to know this.  “She needs you.”

And then, suddenly, in doctor’s code blue, tearless and memoryless, she sat up in bed and swung her feet to the floor.

“Shit,” she whispered.

“What’s the matter?”

She left the room and he hesitated only a moment before following, quickly hopping down steps until he found her in the kitchen sighing.

“She took it with her.”

“Took what?” and his heart lurched as he glanced at the knife rack, as sharp object after sharp object flashed through his mind, a bloodletters’ card deck.  Scully moved the coffee grinder.

“The bottle of painkillers,” she said.  

Well.  Some of the most dangerous things in life, he knew, were actually round at the edges.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

The room did not so much spin as it did pulse, a throbbing fish-eyed glob of ceiling and wholesale art.  In this building, Stella thought, are two hundred other ceilings like this, a thousand identical light fixtures, probably fifty of that exact same shaped water stain.  This is how she’d always acted when she was stoned - a counter, an observer, a reality tether-former - though it had been a while.

She’d taken her pants off already, stumbling out of them on a trip to the bathroom, and now, as the Scotch pumped the drugs to her fingertips and toes, metabolizing sulfury tablets into nothingness, into numbness, she grew hot, felt a sweat break in a clean, even sheet all over her body.  She squirmed and flopped on the bed till her shirt was off.

Scully’s warm, strong stomach touching hers through a sweater. Scully’s fingers spread like wings around her nipples.  A pearly button between her fingers, sliding through its narrow slit to make more peach skin.

She closed her eyes, felt quite smart as she replaced Scully with thoughts of the various cocks she’d touched and politely sucked and impolitely fucked in her life and put her hand between her legs and rubbed.  She would be loud when she came, because she’d be high and because she could and because she wanted the neighbors to be embarrassed when they saw her leave in the morning, when she’d go down to Continental Breakfast like she belonged among them - normal, sane, healthy people who coupled and mortgaged and reproduced.  She grunted, or thought she did.  There was a buzzing sound.  Her vibrator. Pink and thick and battery-warmed, slipping inside her.  Had she brought that here?  Had she taken it out of the drawer, moved around Mulder to get it?  That seemed unlikely.  There would have been seven steps to the drawer, seventeen back to the closet.  But here she was, wet, and there was buzzing, buzzing.  A thump.

No, it was her cell phone, rattling itself off the dresser. She pressed herself up, crawled to the edge of the bed and poured more booze into her glass.  The bottle was half full now.  Bottle half full or half empty, depends how you look at it, she thought and dangled an arm laughingly down the edge of the bed for the phone. She pitched it overhand at the wall.

It cracked and thumped and boy was she having a good time now. She rolled onto her back with some satisfaction, ran two hands over her breasts, her soft nipples, pinched them where they were once punctured at the back of a seedy head shop in New York. It had turned her on, of course, the searing pain through icy numbness, and she’d fucked the piercer afterwards on his table, just to make sure someone knew it.

“Fuck,” she grumbled at her nipples as they keenly ignored her touch.  “Come on.”

Testing for some sort of sensation, she poked at her ribs - nothing - whined at herself, pushed harder with her knuckles.  Did she take too much maybe she took too much, but not so much she couldn’t get great ideas, and she had one now… she raked her nails over the raw tattoo, gasped and shuddered.   There, there it is.  Fuck Jesus, yes, and dragged them softly back up to feel the pain evaporate into shivers.  Let me give you chills, her father’s friend had said.  You like that? the piercer had asked as he pulled at her freshly punctured nipples.   Yes. Yes, in both cases.  Shame came later, if ever, for her.

She brought her hand over her eyes to see if there was any blood on her nails and the pale half moons of French manicure doubled and tripled as the tattoo throbbed where she’d promised not to even lay a sweet, soft, satiny piece of clothing.  She did not recall being given any precious instructions about her own hands so goddammit she’d do whatever she wanted with them.  Come back and see me, go back and see her, bend her and her cocky little haircut over her workbench.  No, because Scully would be there - even if she wasn’t there, she was there - and to Stella’s dismay, as she attempted to fuck that short-haired artist from behind, a red and gold snake appeared on the skin.  Hissing the S in her name, it wound up Stella’s leg, slithering, tight, squeezing and she might have been scared sometime, but tonight it felt like a hug, a perfect fit, a snug fuck.

Tighter, she whispered or thought she did.

Her arms dropped to her sides and her head rolled.  There was a chocolate wrapped on the night stand and she wanted to reach for it but a calm roar overtook her like a jet on a runway, the steady rumble of the engine reaching altitude, blocking out the world below.  I’ll be home soon, she thought.

I’ll be home soon, Dana, she said aloud, or thought she said. Did she bring that gun home from Belfast?  And then the room went black.

*

The first thing he says is, “Scully got shot” and the room goes quiet.  The man - not the one who said it, but the one behind her with his belt buckle undone and his hands on his hips - disappears.  People say they feel their heart stops in moments like this, but Stella feels nothing but, hears nothing but her heart beating.

And then she hears her breath crackle like cold cereal in the phone.  Feels herself swallow.

“Stella?”

“What?” she finally asks and Mulder repeats it but this time gets quickly to the other end of his sentence. “She’s doing okay, but I thought you should know.”

“She’s alive.”

“Yeah.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, Mulder.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to –“

“You begin with that. For fuck’s sake.”

She turns.  The handsome man,  Eliot was it? Erik? from the restaurant is looking at her with a concerned face.  His Good Samaritan on the street face, his divorced dad face probably.  She cut her peaceful solo dinner short for him, but she’s cut him short for Fox Mulder, and would cut anything, anyone short for Dana Scully.  She holds the phone between her jaw and her shoulder and buckles his belt for him. Picks up his shoes and hands them to him, ignores the growing confusion on his sexily scruffy face.  Mulder is babbling something about immortality and photographic negatives and she’s holding the door open.  She covers the receiver to tell the man she’s sorry, he has to go.  She’s just shut the door when Mulder gets to his next important point.

“I can’t stay here with her.”

“Here, where?”

“The hospital, in New York. They’re going to want to keep her.”

“I see.”  She wants to make sure she’s hearing what she thinks, doesn’t want to intrude.

“Will you – I mean you’re in another country – but there isn’t anyone else she’ll let hold her hand here, you know what I mean?  I could call her mother but that would probably just upset her and be exhausting for Scully and you would cheer her up… It’s not a big deal if you can’t, probably, she can take care of herself.”

She didn’t mean to let him ramble, it’s just that she’s already busy packing, wiping the man from the restaurant off her mouth.

“I’ll get on the first flight I can.”

He thanks her, sounds relieved, but she doesn’t get a bit of relief herself for several hours, not until she’s standing outside Scully’s hospital room window, sees all five feet and three inches of in one piece.  Not even really until she takes Scully’s cold hand and feels it solid in her palm, fingers gripping back despite the IV sunk into the top of her hand.  Whatever piece the bullet got of her, Scully obviously didn’t need.

She’s disappointed that Scully notices she’s exhausted, not because it offends her, but because she’s trying hard not to need any caretaking. She changed her clothes at the hotel. She put on a fresh coat of mascara in the car.  She paid for the showiest room they have.  She’s here for fun, she’s here because it works for her.  But Scully looks at her over their knuckles and sees her, Scully can always see her no matter how hard she hides.  There is no point pretending she doesn’t have to catch her breath, no point pretending her heart hasn’t been on a treadmill for nine hours.  She makes a career of preventing people from getting killed, but there are very few human beings she personally cares about keeping around and yesterday, while she was eyeing a stranger over chateaubriand, one of them got shot.

Her spine is warm where Scully’s hands rest.  They are rarely ever this close for this long. And though she has always expected Scully to wind up with Mulder, has even encouraged it, something about the tone of his voice echoing in her head, about the warmth of Scully’s chest through her hospital blanket, drives home that a threshold has been crossed.  This is it.  She’ll never get to kiss her again, never get to wake up naked and safe beside her.  It is over. It was over before it ever even had a chance.  That’s how she likes it… isn’t it?

As her mascara runs onto the hospital gown, she thinks of her father’s sick room and she’s momentarily angry she ever got herself into this, let herself love someone.

“In a minute,” she tells her, and she really means in a minute I’ll get you out of here, in a minute I’ll take you to my hotel suite and put you in front of a fireplace, order you room service, offer you the Jacuzzi if you’re allowed to take baths, I’ll give you both chocolates from the pillows, I can be just a friend, I can be anything you want but don’t you dare ever fucking do this to me again.

“Have you out by cocktail hour,” she says instead and rather looks forward to that drink herself.  

 

Chapter Text

 

Stella’s numberless clock kept its wire-rimmed watch like a grade school teacher as Mulder waited alone at the breakfast counter, hands folded like a child trying to prove his virtue.  He’d lived a life of perpetual self-imposed broken-heartedness; now here was the silver lining.  When bad stuff really happened, stuff outside the control of his paranoia, his imagination and his self-loathing, he could withstand it, was built for it, had been stockpiling resources for years.  Or at least, this is what he hoped as he clasped his fingers together a little tighter and thought of Stella’s expression as she walked out the door - swollen and slightly wet, like a bath bubble waiting to burst.  

He  stole a glance at the spot Scully said she’d put the pill bottle for the third or fourth time since she’d pointed it out.  This small and otherwise insignificant object, one he hadn’t even known existed a half hour ago, had suddenly taken on immense significance.  Stella Who Storms Out was intimidating and bold, swinging a coat around her shoulders and clicking down the hall to leave him and Scully flinching in their uncertainty on the bed.  But this bottle he’d never even seen retroactively transformed the moment.  She’d picked up that bottle on her way out and become Stella With the Scars Up and Down Her Thighs, Stella From the Bathtub Incident, Stella We Have to Wait Up For.  

A possible reprieve: maybe Scully had made a mistake; maybe she thought she’d put it there but actually put it somewhere else?  He considered searching the flat, but he knew it’d be futile.  Scully always knew where she put a thing.  Her side of the file cabinet was alphabetized.  Her keys were in the dish, unless they were in her coat pocket, but she always knew which it was.  Her socks came marching out of the laundry in well-drilled pairs.

Out the window, the drizzle breathed at the glass, a misty sort of rain they didn’t even bother to qualify as rain here, but it’d be enough to mess Scully’s hair out on the porch.  He could hear her periodically jingling the set of keys she’d grabbed in the foyer, but he knew she wasn’t going anywhere.  There was nowhere to go.  They were on Stella’s turf here, foreign territory.  Somehow, it had never come up before - the idea of visiting her in England.  Perhaps it’d seemed impractical, perhaps they’d been selfish, perhaps Stella really just happened to be one step ahead of them all the time, always on her way to them before they could think to be on their way to her.  Now it seemed entirely by design:  the day would come when she wouldn’t want them to know where the fuck she was.  She’d been aware all along that sharing her life with them meant giving them leads she might later regret.  

He took an umbrella from the corner behind the door and popped it up over his head as he stepped outside and sat beside Scully on the stoop.  Stella’s perfume wafted up under the dome of shadowy navy blue fabric and he wondered if she spritzed her things with the overtly feminine bottles he saw in the bathroom, or if it was an accident they smelled like this, a sin of proximity.  Surely, Stella had changed perfumes over the years - even the current bottles she had came round and angular, jagged, prismatic, choked with ribbons round the neck, so many for one person - but somehow the scent of her had always seemed constant.  Dark, floral, and vaguely spiced.  In his mind, the umbrella today smelled exactly like the scarf he’d run through his fingers the week he first met her.

As he stepped outside, Scully bit a straggling piece of dry skin off her upper lip, body pitched forward over splayed knees, hair clumping and separating in ways he knew would drive her crazy if she had the luxury of being driven crazy by such things.

“She’s just blowing off steam somewhere,” he said.  “I’m sure.”  Tiny drops of water ticked the plastic protecting them from the most fragile precipitation available to planet Earth.

Scully nodded, her nose pink and wet around the nostrils.  Cried-off mascara tire-marked her cheekbones.

“I know she’s a person who… she can be a little reckless.  But she knows how to handle herself,” he further surmised.  

She looked at him with heavily hooded eyes.

“Do we know how to handle ourselves?”

No.  They’d been mishandling themselves, and each other, for years.   Mulder had sometimes looked at other couples in their comfortable domestic routines, people he passed picking up grated cheese in the grocery store or arguing over who should drive home, with pity - they could not possibly love each other as much and as deeply as he and Scully did, no one could.  But maybe with less love, he thought now, they’d have messed it up less.

“We know how she is,” Scully continued.  “We know how she is about… about sex.  And do you know what happened?  The Spector guy?”

“I do.”  He’d googled after seeing Stella’s bruises.

Scully’s voice started to waver so that he could hear the love wheezing in and out of her heart, escaping the narrow strangle of her throat.   “How could we just... use her like that?”

Mulder tried to rewind by a few hours to the moment he’d watched Scully and Stella walk up the stairs, trailing weed and wine and something else he’d allowed himself to view as mysteriously, mystically feminine.  He couldn’t remember how he’d thought sex would solve things, he couldn’t remember what he’d thought, if he’d been thinking at all, if the date-y tenor of the evening had reduced him to thinking about nothing more than sex.  He liked to think of himself as having deeper motives, of being above such crassness but then again, he’d once been a guy who received twenty percent off postcards from nine hundred numbers at Christmas.

“I don’t know,” he said and stared at the side of her face.  He could tell she was trying to swallow away a sob, squinting and straightening her eyes to focus through the blanket of nighttime wetness.  This is what she looked like truly in pain.  This is what she looked like when she hated herself for a hard-fought decision.  This is what she looked like faithless and lonely and fearing for someone she could not single-handedly protect.  This is what it would have looked like when he left.

“I’m so sorry,” he said.  She shook her head no.

“It’s more my fault.  I’ve made things such a mess.  So dysfunctional.”

“Not for this.”

She looked at him as though this were not the time for any other subject - it wasn’t - but he’d been using that excuse, and excuses like it for too many years.  And she’d let him.

“I’m sorry I left you with our son.”

Scully’s face turned to granite, her body still as stone, as though she’d been poured into a mold of the position she’d up til then been choosing of her own will.  Had he really never simply apologized?   Could that be?  

“I should have stayed.  Or I should have taken you both with me.”

“Well, you were scared that - that --”

“Yeah.”  There was no point trying to let her finish it, explain it.  He’d been scared to raise a child, that he’d ruin it.  He’d been too much of a coward to even face up to that fear.  The rest of it, the murderers and government conspiracies, the outside dangers, were maybe real and maybe not, but they’d certainly been convenient.

“I was scared too,” she said and he placed a finger over her lips, trying to protect her from getting to the next part, the part where she took the blame for giving William up for adoption.   Her lips closed like a gate at his skin, and after a moment of considering resistance, pursed into the shape of a kiss.   He tucked his hand into his pocket, as if to preserve that kiss for later, some time he could better appreciate it.  

“Have I ever really apologized before?” he asked.

“I don’t know.  I was too angry to hear it if you did.”

They both gazed down the walkway, their chins turning at a similar angle toward the small spattering of stars marking victory in the fray of fog and light pollution.  He stretched an arm around her and she sank heavily into the crook of his armpit, the way she used to do when they’d take walks near their home, or even when they were just friends and he was teasing her about something.  There was nothing to laugh about tonight.

“She’s okay,” he said with foolish authority, glad for once that he was an easy believer.  He could not have lied to her right then.  “She’s okay, I promise.”  

He kissed her hair, rubbed his nose in the oily zigzagging patterns of her scalp, these sandy copper pathways he knew like a shortcut home.  The London water didn’t strip it quite as clean and the rooty smell made him think of the scuzzy motels they’d slept at, the times she’d skipped showers just to spend twenty fewer minutes in a place she hated.  Her hand inched like a spider across his shirt, and her head lolled as she weakly lay her body like a flag across his torso.  They waited like this, hiding in plain sight as the sense of danger passed and he began to formulate a plan - they’d see if they could get a track on her cell.  They’d call the hospitals, just in case.  And probably Stella would walk back in the door in the middle of all of that, shake off her jacket with a stale Scotch-and-soda buzz, roll her eyes at them for making drama out of nothing.

Inside, the phone rang.

*

Her eyes feel glued to one another across the bridge of her nose.  It’s a sticky and peeling feeling, that of a rotting synthetic compound holding her bones barely in place.  Her eyelids are gauzy and weak, letting in light, colors of a crime scene at first and then white, a blinding, stunning, bad news kind of white. There are voices, abrasive and inquisitive and instructive and she remembers something factual, useful amongst so many useless observations - her phone is broken.   It feels good to know at least this much without having to wait for someone to tell her.  

Something else.  They’re at work on her body, these people, and she doesn’t like it.  She’s never been the kind of person people make a project out of.  She’s been in ruins as long as she can remember.  Paul Spector was the most recent to chisel the paint job, but others had been fucking with the foundation from the beginning.  None has ever been able to do the kind of damage she can do herself.

There’s pressure, hands - or is that a machine - on her body, and she’s melting in the hot blast of satin-in-sunlight white and it’s her wedding day.  Twenty-one years old, she walks the aisle like a plank while people stare in their best suits and frocks.  She watches the carpet disappear beneath her feet as the drop approaches, feels everyone listening lustily for the splash.  She doesn’t want to smile but tries to look regal, at least - they want her to be beautiful while she falls, this much has been made clear to her since the day she was born.  And then she looks at Henry standing there, waiting for her with a smug smile and a tear in his eye and she well knows what a mistake looks like, but she’s seldom met a mistake she wasn’t willing to make.

A sound - deafening, fate-splitting, a chorus of screeching machines - and she’s in Bridget’s beat-up Corolla, catching a ride home from the swimming pool, her daddy’s old BMW dying its British automobile death back in the car park.  She can’t bear to call a tow for it, not yet.  Bridget is comely and kind, eyes that shine like patent leather, a stranger who pats her old Japanese workhorse on its sturdy chest, says I like driving something I know will never let me down .  Stella says Well, where’s the joy in that .  The way Bridget laughs resonates with her as strong the engine under her toes.

And then an American car and an American girl, and she’s thinking it’s the safest ride she’ll ever take.  Straight and straight-laced and separated by a continent’s worth of water.  But Scully persists like weather, warm and cool at once, gathering strength over the Atlantic year after year, waiting to be given a first name.  

Stella, the doctors plead.   Stay with us , they say with their hands pressing on her chest, something poking down her throat, something squeezing her hand, pinching her skin.   Stay they say - it’s what everyone says when they’re trying to change her, make her  worth the effort they’ve spent.

Stella.

Stella...

*

“Stella?”

Mulder swung faux-casually around the doorjamb.  She was awake, looking out the window as the English sun crept up, feeble and sage in its seniority.   The light fell sharply on the tops of her hands and across her face, threading shadows under bones and between tendons that made her look, for once, her age (and then some).

He’d already been to see her once, twelve hours ago, after the first phone call - the one from the hospital administrators.  But Stella had been unconscious then.  The nurses had simply been trying the land line, hoping Stella didn’t live alone, hoping to find a worried husband or teenage son or boyfriend.   

Yesterday had been relatively easy.  He’d had Scully to lead the way and Scully knew her way around a hospital cot.  She’d gone in alone when they first arrived, and he’d watched her whisper into Stella’s ear like an adult talking to a tantruming toddler.  He knew in desperate times, Scully became a magical thinker, a bargainer: if she promised enough goodies, Stella might come to her senses.  

The doctors had assured them she was okay, and no one trusted doctors like Scully did, but the way she’d patted Stella’s chest, listened to her breath, taken her pulse, all in slightly manic succession, you wouldn’t have known it.  They’d wanted to keep Stella for a psych eval once she was awake.  He’d had to squeeze Scully’s hand to keep her from protesting in the name of Stella’s sleeping pride.

Alone with her now, he was nervous, unsure how much responsibility he should bear for all this, and if not responsibility, animosity.  If he were Stella, he’d want someone to hate - and it was better him than herself or Scully.  He wasn’t sure if this was a suicide attempt or something less acute, but he’d been there a few times himself and the only thing that had ever stopped him was the fear that he’d fail at that too.  She looked at him, but only obliquely, turning quickly back to the window.  Her hello seemed like it was meant for someone who wasn’t there.

His fingernails dug into the lint at the bottom of his pockets as he struggled not to show any discomfort.  He waited, paced in a semi-circle in the moat of linoleum between Stella’s bed and the empty one.  What was he doing here?  What was he doing alone with her?  He wished Scully were there.  He wished he’d taken Stella’s advice already, gotten his plane ticket back, started trying to get his life together as he’d been instructed to do.  He almost said as much out loud, but finally Stella tilted her head toward him ever-so-slightly, her bleary grey eyes blinking like they were trying to summon back the color.  It was a universal expression, or at least one that Scully also happened to have in her repertoire, a look he wished he had learned to identify years ago.   You can go, but I’d rather you stay.  

He came around the other side of the bed, the one she seemed to prefer looking at, and sat down, pecked his mouth against his clamshelled hands.  “You look like you could use a drink, kiddo.”

“I’d love one.”  Her voice was like chalk on a sidewalk, dry and smooth and vanishing.

“Well, let’s see,” he said and tugged the IV bag.  “This is all we’ve got on tap.”  For a moment, it looked like she was going to laugh but then her face folded like a piece of tissue paper, and there was a polite pop of pained air from the back of her throat.  

“Let’s go find something stronger,” he said.  “Passed your psych evaluation, high-five.”

She shook her head irritatedly, looking more like herself as she did so.

“They have to discharge and give me my clothes back.”  She grimaced.  “God, I don’t know if I want to see my clothes.”

“You actually weren’t wearing them when they picked you up.”

“How did I get here?”

“You dialed an emergency before blacking out.”

“How responsible of me,” she seethed, then began to swear on the exhale.  “Jesus Christ, did they know my fucking ribs were broken when they pumped my stomach?”

“Scully would be able to answer that better.”

She closed her eyes, for the first time showing the embarrassment, the humiliation he’d heard in her voice over the phone.   Come alone , she’d begged.  He’d been so delighted to hear her awake that he’d already waved Scully over.  The conversation that had followed in Stella’s foyer had not been fun.

“She honored my request?” Stella asked.

“Yes,” he said, trying not to hesitate.  He was pretty sure Stella could guess what kind of scene it had caused.

“Is she going back to America?”

“You want to make her cry, you do it.  I’ve done it plenty myself.”

“I don’t want her to see me like this.”

“She’s seen it, she was here for hours.  She’s seen worse.   She’s seen me worse.  Although… you might look worse because you’re paler and smaller, it comes off more pathetic.”

One half her mouth almost grinned - almost.

“So she’s going to be there when we get home?”

“Yes, tied to the chair where I left her.”  It was just barely a joke.  “She’ll still be very hurt and somewhat furious, but probably too happy to see you on your own two feet to tell you that.”

“Fuck,” Stella whispered, as though just remembering some new unfortunate detail in this series of very unfortunate events.  “Did I wear heels?”

“I don’t know, but I’ve never seen you in anything else.”

She nodded again and several moments of silence passed.  Her breath sounded like a faltering window fan and the corners of her eyes twitched as inhales turned to exhales.

“We were worried, you know,” he said.

Her deep-set doe eyes shifted downward.

“How long will it take for them to come?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Want me to go get you some sneakers or flip flops or something while we’re waiting?”

She wet her lips with two swipes of tongue that only made them redder and rawer.  He’d grab her a Chapstick while he was at it.  

“Yes,” she said, as though no one had ever offered to do something like that for her before.

*

It was half past midnight in the sleepiest big city in the world when Scully skipped down the wooden staircase like a woman late for an appointment.  He waited, unmoving, one arm pillowing his head, pressed against the sofa arm.  His feet were similarly dug into the other end, packing him in tightly so that his knees bent up in the middle like a warped two-by-four.  Stella had clearly not bought this piece of furniture with the idea that she might ever want to have a man sleep on it, and come to think of it, why would she?  Scully stood at his feet with her hands on her hips, her formal short-sleeved peach-colored pajamas setting off the pink in her cheeks - anger or an orgasm.  Considering the circumstances, he assumed it was the former, although where Stella was concerned, one never knew.

“Can I watch TV here?” she asked.  “I can’t sleep.”

“She snap at you again?”

“Yeah.”

“Sure,” he said.  She  looked at the flat-screen, sighed.  “Whats’a matter?”

“She never set it up.”

“You want me to play man of the house?”

“I took my contacts out.”

He got up, patted the couch for her.  

“It’s too small for me anyway,” he urged, masking his delight with grumpiness.  Scully in her pressed pajamas watching movies with him.  Stella safe and alive in her bed.  Maybe his standards had been lowered by recent events, but it felt like a good night.

“She likes baths.  I thought it would make her feel better.”

“Maybe she doesn’t want to feel better yet,” he said, fiddling with some wires.  He turned the set on and found a remote, clicked.  BBC.  Another BBC.  Another.  How many fucking BBCs did they have?  “How many of these do they need?”

“It’s fine,” she said.  She made room for him on the couch but he grabbed a throw pillow and blanket from the chair and set himself up on the floor beside her.

“Go ahead, get comfortable,” he said and she took the direction to heart immediately, snuggled down into the couch cushion, this thing that had just moments ago been cramping his style suddenly looking deep and soft and marshmallowy around her tiny frame.  He lay down on the floor, his head just below hers, and pretended to watch the news along with her for a few minutes.

“Was it hard for you, the idea of me sleeping up there with her?”

He rolled over.

“Not so long as I know all she’s doing is yelling at you.”

She gave her sloe gin-fizzy smile, the one he’d always found particularly worth treasuring all the more for how quickly it vanished.

“Am I incapable of doing this?  Caring for someone?” she asked and he wondered if he had ever loved her more.  “Why am I always failing at it?”

“You’re not failing, Scully,” he said softly.  “We’re failing you.”

Her forehead wrinkled like she might cry and she hung her hand down the side of the sofa.  Behind him, crisp accents spoke of international atrocities with such poise it bordered on indifference.  It occurred to him that almost everything that was ever done in America was a pale imitation of what was done here.  

He hooked his fingers under her dangling ones and played them like piano keys.

“I don’t know that it’s so dysfunctional, you know.  I mean, maybe the whole sad threesome idea.”

An embarrassed sniff, her eyes closing on the long blink...

“But you know.  The whole thing.  There’s a lot of love here.  More than most people have.  What’s dysfunctional about that?”

And then the tears streamed down her cheeks onto the expensive brushed cotton fabric of Stella’s dollhouse-sized, cheerleader-sized, jockey-sized sofa.

“Thank you, Mulder.”

He kissed her hand before she took it back to wipe her eyes, tuck it under her face, and pretend to watch the news again.

*

The next morning, he folded his blanket and quietly placed it on the chair, careful not to wake Scully as he climbed the stairs like a man going uninvited to the queen’s court.  His back groaned from the beating it had taken in his sleep.

The bedroom door was closed, but he knew Stella didn’t sleep much.  He rapped on it with one knuckle, summoning his confidence.

“Come in,” she said froggily.  She was staring at the ceiling, looking like a captive in her own house.

“What are you doing?” he asked, taking the liberty of perching himself next to a potted plant on the windowsill.  There were layers of grey and white and beige silk and cashmere draped over her desk chair and almost every edged surface of the bedroom.  He would’ve expected her to be neater.

“Thinking.”

“I ordered you a new phone.”

“Thanks.  I could have done it.”

“I know that.  But I did it.”

“Would’ve given me something to do.”

“Stella.”

“What?” she snapped, at least looking at him now.

“I know you don’t like this, needing people, helplessness.  I’m going to go back home, and it’ll be fifty percent less of that shit to deal with.”

She took a deep breath, a sigh, winced.

“I’m being an awful bitch, I know that.”

He sealed his lips and raised his eyebrows.  Not the word he would’ve used, but yes, he’d been planning to get around to an accusation to that effect.

“It’s just… it’s embarrassing.  I did this to myself.”

He waved his hand in protest.

“No need, really.”

She looked appreciative, rubbed her ribs with the heel of her hand either to self-soothe or to check they were still there, he wasn’t sure.

“What about Scully?” she asked.

“I’ll tell her I’m going when she wakes up.”

“No.  I meant take her with you.”

He communicated this was out of the question with a simple look and she stared back up at the ceiling, recalcitrant in her icy brand of stoicism.

“Why don’t you just let her love you?”   Stay he’d meant to say, but now he guessed the two words almost always meant the same thing.

She looked back at him, eyes blooming like violets.  The pigment had restored itself to the couple of places on her face it normally existed and he recalled the day they’d talked on the hotel bed, the day she’d climbed into his lap and held his gaze, sunk her lips, pillow-soft and syrupy with liquor, into his.

“Because I don’t want to become you ,” she answered matter-of-factly.  He cocked his head to encourage her to explain.  “You just let her love you and love you and love you.  There’s no end to what she’ll give.”

His eyes burned.

“You don’t think I deserve her?” he asked.

“That’s not what I said.  It was just an answer to your question.”

The tension hung in the room like a contagion and she broke it by naming the scene he imagined they’d both always think of when they had tension between them.

“That time I tried to fuck you?” she asked, seeming to read his mind.  “Why didn’t you?”

“I felt like I was betraying her.”

“That’s the difference between us.  You felt you owed her when you didn’t.  I can’t feel I owe someone even when I do.  She needs that.”

He nodded.  Maybe.  He wouldn’t presume to know what Scully needed, could never read her like that, no matter how well he knew her, not like she could read him.  All relationships required some inequalities to make them work, and this seemed to be one of theirs.

“So you have to get your shit together,” Stella finished.

“I’ll try,” he said. “But you have to try too.”

One side of her mouth quirked upward, amused.

“And then may the best man win?”

“Something like that.”

He pushed himself up from the windowsill and made for the door, but Stella interrupted, unexpectedly opening her arms.  Her ribs were too sore to contract her torso the little bit that was needed to sit forward, so Mulder had to peel her lower back forward in order to hug her.  Her body felt as though she might break at the slightest infraction.  But he knew nothing was further from the truth.

*

He pressed his forehead to Scully’s the next morning in front of the refrigerator as he handed her a glass of orange juice.   He’d brushed his hair back, shaved again, put his duffel by the door.  He wanted her to feel like he was going off to become someone better than whom she’d left, and he thought he was making a good show of it.  He rested his hands on her shoulders, smiling a little as his fingers drifted halfway down her back.  She loomed so large in his life, he tended to forget how small she was.

Just past the concrete arches that separated the rooms, Stella sat sipping tea in the armchair, her first foray down the steps since she’d been home.  She’d said she wanted to see him off and he’d known this meant she’d be there to distract Scully in that hateful moment of silence and uncertainty that always follows a significant exit - the kind of exit you’re not sure will ever reverse course.  The idea of Scully in need had given Stella back some of her kindness, her generosity.  But now, as Scully put her hands on either side of his neck, two warm starfish sticking to the sandy stubble left by Stella’s cheap disposable razor, he wished she weren’t there.  He felt both selfish and selfless for feeling this.

Scully kissed him gently, insignificantly, on the cheek.

“Take care of yourself, Mulder,” she said and though Stella knew everything wrong with him, and maybe more, he was embarrassed that she could hear.  Scully’s lips trembled a little, chapped and parted, the upper lip unconsciously sneering the way it did when she didn’t try to tame it into a smile, frown, or pout.

“Stop being silly,” Stella said hoarsely without looking at them, barely the outline of a sentence and still with the authority of a general.  “Kiss him goodbye.”

And Scully did kiss him - steadily, sturdily, tongueless and guileless on the strong upsweep of an inhale - he could only hope it wasn’t goodbye.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Stella guessed it was morning, though the ambivalent grey London sky made it difficult to tell.  A thin wisp of cold air draughted through the tiny, neat crack in the window, whistling through the frame like a nine year old’s pair of front teeth.

The room lacked the white-noise whirr of Scully’s sleep.  At first, Stella had feared it would be difficult to sleep with Scully there - it had been a long time since she’d slept with anyone she hadn’t also just fucked.  The one seemed to somehow earn the other.   A sleepover without sex was like a treat without a workout.  But the night Mulder left, she’d thought of his suggestion-cum-challenge, tried to think of some sort of caretaking that wouldn’t make her skin crawl, and finally landed upon asking Scully to read to her in bed.  She’d fallen asleep three paragraphs in.  She woke in the middle of the night that night and almost panicked at the pain she felt - how much sharper, how all-powerful it always seemed in the dark - but then she closed her eyes and listened to the tilled soil quality of Scully’s recycled breath feeding leaves so green they were almost blue and bowing under the dew.  Stella imagined herself curling under those leaves, into the trunk of a tree, as her body found Scully’s arched, bowing spine.

It seemed like ages ago now that they’d taken their second-ever foray into the menage-a-trois, an attempt that had bared zero resemblance to the original and instead lived up to the activity’s oft-hailed reputation as something that fared better in theory than reality.  She knew empirically it had been less than two weeks ago, but she felt like she’d been on a long-haul train ride.  Stasis for hours on end, and then suddenly, her life was days and miles away.  She bore no ill will toward either of them for the outcome of the bedroom disaster - when it came to fucking, they were both too clueless to hold responsible - but she was glad Mulder was gone.  Having him around only disoriented her more, like a much-loved landmark placed on the wrong side of the tracks.  

There was a paracetamol on the nightstand, some careful robin-footed fidgeting on the bed behind her.  More morning evidence.  This was how Stella told time now, using Scully like a sundial, watching and listening to her move around the house, waiting to see where the shadows fell.  Scully had begun each day since she’d come home from the hospital by clearing away the previous day’s mostly shunned ministerings - water glasses, medicine, books.   Then, Tylenol was offered in appropriate milligrams at nine, one, five, nine and midnight - a remarkably lifelike infirmary-themed cuckoo clock.  Stella never accepted any of the capsules, but come the midnight showing, Scully would place one beside the bed anyway.

“This is okay to take, you know,” Scully would say as she coupled a small white oval with a glass of tap water.  Stella would watch the remnants of heavy metals and minerals float to the surface, earth chasing air through water.  Stella would tell her there was something stuck in her throat.

“That’s a ghost sensation.  From being intubated.  It’s not an actual obstruction.  You should take it if you’re in pain.  I wouldn’t lead you astray.”  Some version of that, every night.

Now Stella stared at last night’s pill so hard, with such desire, that it began to stare back, asking to be taken, tempting her with the idea of a step out of bed, offering her life back.  She closed her eyes to steel herself.  Scully, brilliant though she was, didn’t know that for some, feeling worse had to come before feeling better.  Scully was the kind of woman who could keep a pack of cigarettes in a nightstand and touch one every three years.

“You ready for your tea?”

The first of many questions Scully would ask that day.  What kind of tea did Stella want, twelve times a day every day, or was she feeling okay, or did she want a bath.  It was only a matter of time before she wondered aloud what the hell Stella been doing blacked out at the motherfucking Holiday Inn.  Every time Scully spoke, Stella would watch with a sense of dread as Scully’s lips parted and her little healthy pink tongue wriggled its way around Earl Grey or camomile - lemon or sugar ?   One of these days, it would be, Did you mean to do it or not?   

“No tea today,” Stella said.   She was nauseated - in fact, could not remember what it felt like not to be.  It was hard to imagine that a day would ever come when she’d wake up and feel like diving into a pool or doing downward dog or even eating a piece of cake.

Scully’s voice melted like a sugar cube tucked into a cheek, the sweetness growing tart:

“Well, you have to drink something.”

Stella pressed herself up to sit, humming to drown out the pain.  She felt a chill run up one arm and down the other - realized her loose t-shirt was damp in a semi-circle under her hair and then a V down the center of her chest, like a character who’d been jogging in an eighties movie.  This, too, was part of mornings now.  Soon, Scully would produce another clean t-shirt, joke that she didn’t know Stella even owned so many casual garments.  Stella hadn’t had the energy yet to tell Scully she was right; these shirts all belonged to people she’d slept with.  Accidental souvenirs.  Eventually there’d be a pair of boxer shorts in the pile and Scully would figure it out (she knew well enough those were not the kind of open-crotched underwear Stella would keep on-hand).

“You all right?” Scully asked vaguely, more of a milestone in the silence than an actual question.  

“Mhm, I’m fine,” Stella said.  Scully’s fingers tugged very gently at the back of her shirt.

“Lie down, I’ll go get you something to eat.”

“I can’t,” Stella said, more sharply than she’d intended.

“What’s wrong?”  

“No,” Stella said, putting her ring finger to her temple.  “Nothing physically, nothing new.  I just can’t lie there any longer.”

And just as she went to stand up, she felt Scully’s hand begging at her lower back.  Scully’s face landing like the body of an aircraft between the winged blades of Stella’s shoulders through the wretched salt-soaked cotton.  Stella could picture how cold and damp she must feel to Scully’s cheek, but Scully didn’t budge, and Stella was tired, too tired to protect herself from such brute-force kindness.

“Lie down, come on.  I’ll get you some tea and we can discuss the next step of your recovery.”

There, with the fucking tea again.  Stella stared at her knees, listening with envy as Scully rose and brushed her teeth, got her permanently borrowed grey cotton jersey robe - the one that cast a pretty X-shaped shadow between her breasts.  Stella was a spectator in her own bedroom, forced to watch someone play out her everyday life for her.  There was a little rug under her wiggling toes that Scully had moved from the foot of the steps the day she complained her feet were cramping.  She hated when people moved her stuff.  

That first day, God, it must have taken her twenty minutes just to walk to the bathroom, pee, and get back into bed, the arches of her feet on fire the whole way there and back.

“Dehydration,” Scully had said that morning, a warning that would become Scully’s hourly incantation.

Stella closed her eyes as she listened to Scully patter down the steps for the tea.  She steadied her temper, breathing mindfully as she rose to her feet, sending air to all the places in her body that most stubbornly refused it.   This is the temperature of the room that I am in.  (Warm, from an overactive radiator.)   This is how it smells.  (Like a woman who washes her hair more often than she has to.)   This is how I feel.  (Like hell frozen over.)  She stood, lit the two candles at her bedside to burn the scent of her own pain, and began to tear the sheets off the bed - sweat and nightmares swirled with the cedar and sandalwood smoke.  But changing sheets proved to be much more difficult than she’d remembered and when Scully returned, Stella was bent over mess of bare mattress and linen trying to catch her breath, trying to burrow into the present as her mind takes her into the past.

*

She waits in the lobby rather than retiring to the room, legs braided and bouncing from trunk to tiptoe.  It’s been over a year, almost two.  Today’s date and the name of the hotel are jotted across a torn-off envelope that once belonged to a piece of junk mail in her left hand.  She pinches it tight between her fingers like a receipt or a party invitation, as though she needs to keep proving to herself that she belongs here.  Not a day has gone by since Mulder and Scully took off for New Mexico in some bulky American SUV that she hasn’t wondered what the hell was going on.  There were two obvious answers: either they were truly in danger or Mulder was truly out of his mind.  And then there was probably the truth, somewhere in between, resting on some unholy southern state line no one had ever even bothered to mark.

The people working at the desk glance at her periodically in their stiff branded polo shirts, and she wonders if they play the game she does when she’s waiting in public, watching people pass.  What is this person doing here?  Why are they doing what they’re doing?  Who are they meeting?   She arrived early - has been here over an hour and.  It would make her a good subject, someone sitting long enough for her to really draw out a story.  She’d probably ask for her number if she was one of these observers, try to take herself upstairs, she thinks with a grin, not because she thinks she’d fancy herself, but because knows she’d see the desperation written all over her face and interpret it as an open invitation.  That interpretation would be mistaken.

She’s passing up an advantage or two, of course, in not beating Scully to the room.  She usually likes to claim a bed, pour herself a drink, stake out space for her makeup in the bathroom, verify the quality of chocolate in the minibar and set the thermostat.  She likes to know what she’s working with, she likes a running start.   But this time, she has more to worry about than sweating in her silk or phoning down for some extra pillows.  It’s been a long time.  Road trips change people, even and maybe especially forced journeys.  People pick up new favorite songs and new favorite wines and new colloquialisms and new needs they find new ways to meet.  She pictures Scully moving at highway speed, one half a rebel insurgency, a red bandana rolled and tied around her wind-tossed hair, a cigarette dangling in the face of the sideview mirror.  The newly minted Scully of her imagination is hard  and calloused, the glare of a painted desert in her eyes, skin sunburnt and steeled against the world, against even her.

Mistaken again.

Flesh-and-blood Scully appears pale and fluid in the glassy hotel entrance reflection, taking a deep breath as she enters the revolving doors, quick-stepping to make them spin faster, confidence running up one arm as she touches her hair and self-consciousness speeding down the other as she evens the line of her lipstick and then spots her long-lost - no, long-abandoned - friend.  No hard feelings here.  Stella rises and moves carefully, flanks herself with stiffened arms and little fists of self-restraint, but her purse has been left behind on the sofa amidst a sea of untrustworthy strangers (a redundancy, really) and the strike of her footfalls are more wavering, less sure than if she were approaching any crime scene.  Here, she is the least safe she’s ever been.  How foolishly people enter relationships - with no backup, no weapons drawn.  

Behind the desk, heads turn like synchronized swimmers, the workers eager to have their questions answered, see who’s won today’s game, and Stella feels a passing sense of satisfaction that none of them will have come close.  Try, she urges silently, to nail this relationship down, I dare you.  Scully ignores Stella’s reserve and walks right into her arms, clings like a magnet pressed from corner to corner against a refrigerator door.  Though Scully is the one who’s been gone, and though Stella is the one with a foreigner’s passport, she feels as though she’s the one who’s just come home.  

Words make way for more important sounds - jostled chunks of thick hair and testy friction of mismatched fabrics forced together in a tight embrace, the jittery click of nervous jaws.  Stella

turns her face inward, relieved to have some cover as she makes her way around the perimeter of emotion.  Scully is just as she remembers:  the canal of her ear the same temperature, the cadence of her heartbeat a familiar tempo, the smell of her hair perhaps a little different but in the same predictable vein of drugstore girliness.  She can just picture Scully, pleased to be back in her hometown pharmacy, popping plastic caps with her thumb to get a whiff, holding bottles at a safe distance to let the salesperson know she’s not doing anything untoward - because rules or not, Dana Scully would pull her badge before she had to buy a bottle of shampoo without knowing what it smelled like.  Steadier now, Stella pulls back and kisses the hollow beneath Scully’s freckled cheekbone, notes that it used to be not-quite-that-hollow.  Funny how much running away from home ages a person, no matter what the stage of life.

“Your hair is so long,” Stella observes as her hand gets caught unglamorously in a knot.  “Very Blue Lagoon.”

“Yes,” Scully says, unexpectedly twitching, a nerve struck somehow in the soft, untamed waves.  She pulls away, sucks a dormant piece of pink-smelling bubble gum.  “It was blonde for a while.”

Stella doesn’t ask for a picture.  She knows there are no pictures.  

Scully called once early on, in the beginning, to let Stella know what was going on, explain why she’d be out of touch.  She played it down over a crackling payphone line, discussed it as if it were something that would blow over while an SUV idled in the near background.  Stella remembers little of that conversation except, vaguely, that she asked Scully to let her help and less vaguely, that Scully said she loved her.  Postcards dripping with tired, forgotten bits of Americana began to arrive at her flat shortly after that about once a week, every other week sometimes.  There was never anything written on them except “xo” in Scully’s handwriting.  Stella got the message - they were alive, there were still there, somewhere in the pitch-black plains staring up at the stars, or dripping sweat over an overheated dashboard in the desert, or pummeling their way through ear-popping mountain ranges.

Stella would put these mementos up on her board in the kitchen one at a time, last week’s No Vacancy motel exterior replaced with this week’s rolling creek, and over glasses of red wine try to picture her friends in such places.  Mulder with his well-meaning head up his very fine ass and Scully pulling things together, plotting some sort of end to the nonsense while trying not to strangle the source.  It was a confused activity, looking at those quarter-postcards faded by international travel and reeking of petrol, to imagine her friends harried and raw-gutted, taking suspicious rearview glances in deep-brimmed baseball caps.  There was a part of her then that wanted to believe it was all just one of Mulder’s silly games.  This was not the same part, necessarily, that made her call in every extended favor she could think of with royal and global law enforcement in search of an extra safety net.

Now, Scully has left behind all those muted three-by-five places and Stella steals a glance as they wait for the elevator.  She’s morphed from forties movie star with curves that could roll a strip of film into a waifish latter-day hippie, but her hand feels the same in structure and style, the close-fingered grip of a pet, a favorite friend.  The elevator’s only a few square feet big but Stella holds on when the door closes as though Scully might wander off.  She won’t be left behind again, not this soon.  

Scully looks at her with a note of shy flattery, caught off guard perhaps by the intensity of Stella’s attention.  What exactly does she think a plane ride, three thousand miles of flight to spend two day weekends in one of the world’s dullest major cities is for?  Scully used to tease Stella that she’d go anywhere for a decent set of hotel toiletries, and now Stella wonders if it was even a joke, if Scully has been missing the point all along.

“What’s that look for?” Stella asks because she is most certainly getting a look.

“I thought maybe you - I’m surprised that you still wanted - ”

“Don’t be silly.”  She’s the one who asked, but didn’t expect an answer, and now she won’t hear one, any of them - that you’d forget me, that you’d be angry, that that that anything.

“When I walked out to the mailbox that day and found your letter, I was so relieved,” Scully says instead and Stella wonders for the first time just how far outside the city this new house outside the city actually is.

“Are you still… in hiding?”  One of the silliest phrases she’s ever had to use with a straight face, but she doesn’t want to mock Scully, not after everything she’s been through.  If it feels this ridiculous to say, how much more ridiculous must it have felt to live it?

Their footsteps fall silent in the steep purple pile of the corridor carpet.  Picked-at trays of food litter the doorways like carcasses and her heart skips a beat at the sight of the paper upside-down crowns sitting askew atop water glasses and the ravaged pink steak bones poking out from under silver lids.  These are the things that turn her on, she thinks, miniature bottles of salt and pepper, and white cloth napkins pock-marked with lipstick.  Why does she sometimes go so far for it when it actually takes so little?  Or maybe it’s just Scully’s nearness that heightens her sensitivity to such things.

“I don’t know,” Scully says, but it’s clear the answer to Stella’s question is no.  Scully is done to death with the hiding, no matter what.  “Lying low I guess.  I’m going to get a job at the hospital, I still have contacts there.”

“Good,” Stella nods.  She’s always assumed Scully makes a better cop than a doctor.  So restless, so curious, so tough.  But maybe it’ll be different now that she’s put down some roots.

Stella gives the key card a smooth swipe and turns the handle with confidence.  She knows how to get a green light on the first try.  They each pause as they enter, eyes lingering where the two double beds should be.  The one King is the hotel’s idea of an upgrade - and Stella would have to agree.  But it’s not the right thing.  Usually one of them calls down right away when it happens, or about-faces to go down and take care of it in the narrow window before Scully feels compelled to unpack.   

“It’s okay with me,” Scully says.

“Great, I’ll switch it in a little while.”

“No, I mean it’s okay-okay.  We can stay here,” Scully says, definitively sitting on the edge of the bed to pull off her boots.

Stella turns away toward the closet, movement measured as she takes off her coat and haphazardly hangs it.

“The whole weekend?” she teases gently, looking slowly over her shoulder at Scully.  She steps out of her shoes.  Sometimes it feels like she’s coming down a flight of steps or off a throne when she does this, losing so much more than three or four or five inches.  She hasn’t had sex in two weeks and she’d like nothing more than to put a smile on Scully’s newly narrow face and one of those room service trays on her naked lap, if that’s what Scully’s talking about.  Sometimes she forgets it’s not this simple, and has to trick herself into thinking of Scully not as a person but as a bit of exercise or hygiene or secret-keeping, borrowing discipline from an easy area and applying it to a hard one.

“Not like that,” Scully says, eyes blue and clear as a lap pool Stella’s about to tear up and now the analogy is not quite serving its purpose, is it?  Bare skin meets water, enveloping, arm hairs and nipples on alert, lungs emptying heavily on a hum as the body makes itself light enough to float.   The temptation to let it fill her lungs every time just to see what it would feel like, to test the theory that she’d survive.  She watches her own hands with fixed determination as she takes off her belt.

“Like what?”

“I just… it would be nice to be closer to you after all this time,” she says and blushes.  “That’s stupid.”  

Scully shakes her head at herself and this makes things worse, deepens the color and spreads it,  like one of those sand packets that warm the hands.  Doesn’t she know by now to hold still when her face gets hot?

They take their places atop the comforter beside one another, lying prone with faces up to the the ceiling, staring like there’s something there beyond a three-year-old renovation, some godly or sciencey sign of higher powerdom.  They pick out constellations in white paint, the bright late-afternoon light striped across their knees.  Stella feels suddenly sleepy as Scully takes her hand and clutches it like a bicycle handle, drops it over her heart so that Stella can feel the awesomeness - not of life, but of this particular life - rumbling under her knuckles.

“There were days I thought I’d never see you again,” Scully says after a while.  “Or anyone else I knew.”

“That would have been unacceptable.”

It’s a big thing actually, someone you love managing to stay alive day after day, but there’s only ever one way to celebrate it - humbly, unremarkably, quietly, lazily.  After an hour, they decide they’re hungry and for once, neither begins to list the restaurants in the area.  Stella passes the leather bound binder after a perfunctory glance at the menu that locates an overdressed burger, orders Scully’s Caesar salad in the same voice she she uses for sex - trying to spend it, lose it, get it out of her system.  The chit chat makes the sun set slowly, stories of car trouble and shifty characters out by the pool and the jagged arc of argument she tugged along for months until finally Mulder agreed to turn the damn car around.  

“I’ve eaten more M&Ms in the past year than I ever thought I’d see,” Scully says.

“Doesn’t look it.”

Scully acknowledges the remark with flattered smile and Stella chews a French fry and decides to let it slide.  It wasn’t meant to be a compliment, actually, but this is one of Dr. Scully’s more inane American qualities, her incapability of equating weight loss with anything but self-improvement.

No card games, no movies, no plans for tomorrow.  An entertainment system and in-house gym - a whole city, in fact, is eclipsed by the simple but rare phenomenon of their companionship.  They leave one another to move trays around, use the bathroom, change into robes and pajamas, but they return quickly.  It is as though the bed is an axis and the whole evening turns on it.  At one point, Stella waits in bed listening to the water run, rubbing the warm spot where their food was with her leg, drawing an invisible boundary with her mind and her toe.  Scully climbs in just the other side of that line with her book and a pair of glasses thickened by night driving and cheap Motel 6 lighting.  But Scully gets second thoughts about both book and glasses, places them both aside when Stella sidles up to her.  Soon they are facing each other like gemini twins, almost touching at noses and knees, still as stars in their place for the night.

*

“What are you doing?” Scully said upon re-entrance to Stella’s bedroom, manning a breakfast tray with two hands, solid as a ship captain.

“These are sweaty.”

“I’ll move you to the couch and do that later.”

Stella sighed, let her hands sink into the mattress.

“You’ll move me?”  

“Lie down so I can put this over you.”

Scully moved closer, cornering her against the edge of the mattress, and Stella tried to level her  with a stare, a tactic apparently rendered ineffective when she was bare-legged and ill, dehydrated, dehydrated, so motherfucking dehydrated dehydrated dehydrated.  Stella took the tray and allowed Scully to seem satisfied a moment.  It wobbled as though it had been placed on a stormy sea rather than in a pair of hands; the teacup rattling its matching dish, spoon sliding way across the deck.  Scully crossed her arms and covered her mouth - a smile? - in one sideways palm, monitoring this ridiculous display of pride.  But Stella pressed forward and eventually, with great effort, set it down on the dresser.  Scully kept her eyes resting on the same spot, somewhere between the sugar and the steeper.  A smug and motherly sort of pause.

“I’m done with bedrest,” Stella declared.  

“You’re too weak, your system is fatigued, your lungs are compromised…”

“Don’t do that doctor thing, I hate it.”

Scully pitched her chin a bit.

“It’s not a thing, it’s a profession, it’s knowledge you may as well make use of.”

“I’m not interested in making use of you.”

“You’re not drinking enough fluids and you have to stay in bed!” Scully near-shouted.  Her cheeks turned pink with aggravation and she licked her bottom lip almost immediately in regret.

Stella felt like a person for the first time in days and nodded just once, slowly.  Here, finally, was something she was willing to swallow over the lump in her throat.  She inched her ass backward across the rumpled, half-pulled sheet and moved the comforter further to the side.  Scully took a breath that seemed to say, There.  I won.

Not so fast.

“You want me to stay in bed?” Stella said.

And then Scully looked nervous, laughed.  Stella sat up a little straighter in her sweaty t-shirt, arched her back to make the best possible advantage of her tits.  The lingerie drawer was too far away and a sweaty threadbare t-shirt had its own merits.

“I’m in bed.  Keep me here,” she said.

Scully sat on the bed, defeated.

“Oh my God,” she sighed and lesser libidos would have shriveled.   “Stella.”

But Stella’s sex drive lived to conquer other people’s disdain, grew fat and healthy on other people’s shame.  Adrenaline coursed to her hands, the backs of her thighs, her feet, as she tried to get up again, so much so that she was almost able to do it as smoothly and quickly as a normal person - had Scully not grabbed her forearm with the precision of a sniper.  Stella looked at her, felt her eyes flashing and crackling to life, but Scully softened her grip, docked Stella to the bed, fist over fist down to the mattress.  

“Stop treating me like I’m made of porcelain,” Stella said pointedly, eyes drifting to Scully’s waist.  She pinched the sash of Scully’s bathrobe between two fingers and took it with her as she slouched against the headboard, the sash ribboning down her arm and Scully’s robe pooled open.

“Keep me in bed if you want me here,” Stella said again, this time eyeing Scully’s hardening nipples.

Scully’s face split like a Venetian festival mask.  One half you’re out of your fucking mind and one half I adore you - equally lovely and equally dramatic on either side of the split.  And then the two expressions blended into one as she turned on her hip and leaned over, hands framing Stella’s shoulders.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” she said.  She kissed Stella gently - sick-bed kiss, a coffin kiss.  Stella eyed the shiny fork points on the tray over Scully’s shoulder, the metal glinting attractively.

“I want you to.”   

Scully gulped and her focus scattered across the headboard, down Stella’s body.

“I just… your lungs and - ”

“Yes, well, there’s nothing wrong with my cunt, Dana.”

Considerable visible effort was expended at not flinching.

“Fine,” Scully said in an eerily enlightened tone.  With an uncertain expression, she took Stella’s wrists, one at a time bringing them up to the headboard rails.  Stella held them there while Scully got the sash, gently wrapped it this way, that, tying Stella up like a pair of old-school rollerskates to a hook.  Stella’s heartbeat panted in her hollow, hungry, sweaty-shirted chest.

“Tighter if you loop it that way first,” she said.

“I’m a sailor’s daughter.  I don’t need you to tell me how to make a knot,” Scully answered crisply.

Stella tried to take her arms down and felt the loops cinch tighter around her wrists.  She looked down the length of Scully’s body before her, above her, the ivory runway of skin down the center where the robe parted into rippling crowds of bunny-grey fabric, the tight knot of her navel and the graduated lines down her inner thighs that separated muscle from softness.  She became aware Scully was letting her look, no, not only letting but getting off on it.  She kissed Stella again, and this time it was with the force of a woman who was very picky about the people she allowed to look at her that way.  Stella let herself moan a little as though to keep Scully’s attention from wandering back to her health.  Scully tucked the errant red wave behind her ear and moved her mouth slowly down Stella’s neck, her chest, finally pushing the t-shirt up and sliding her lips over one nipple.  Robe hanging open, backing away on all fours, points of her nose and chin taking turns making contact with Stella’s torso.

“You look so fucking good in my bathrobe,” Stella said.

“You look awful,” Scully returned.  Nothing turned Stella on more than permission to say what she meant.

“Too soft.  Teeth,” Stella ordered.

“Ssh.”

“Harder, Dana, please.”  

Scully sucked with her lips, withholding the gold-standard clip of her teeth.  But it was still many notches above a cup of tea, a sincere confession, a gentle embrace, and the crying, Jesus Christ all the crying...  This morning, Stella did not want to be loved and she did not want eucalyptus drops or arnica gel or soup or even jello.  She wanted something that could not be bought at the chemist’s, like a blood cleansing or a human sacrifice.

“Not like that,” Stella whined as Scully moved past the waistband of her cotton underwear, touched her with feathery fingers, parted her labia through webbed wetness.

“I’m not going to hurt you, so you can forget it, okay?”

“There’s a whip under the bed.”

Scully laughed with full-throated indifference, as though she didn’t care whether this was true or not (it was), and Stella wished she had the strength (and freedom) to shake her.  She shut her eyes very tight, bounced her knees in a mini fit.  She needed to be fucked good and right, she told herself threateningly, pretending to herself it didn’t matter who did it.  She felt parched and starved and desperate… dehydration , she thought, and wondered if that was what she had to say to make Scully understand.   I am so very thirsty.

“I don’t let people do this unless I trust them.”  Her hands were going cold and numb as the circulation pooled down her arms.

“You don’t trust anyone  you fuck.”

“You’re the closest I’m going to get.”

“I’m flattered,” Scully deadpanned.

“Fuck me like I taught you to fuck.”

Scully placed a hand flat over Stella’s lower stomach as though it were her mouth, as though capable of shushing someone from the navel.  Slowly, she dragged her warm touch, light as a scarf, down the center of Stella’s lower abdomen as she peeled the crotch of Stella’s underwear to the side, tossed her hair to one side and bent to put her mouth to Stella’s clit, matching her wickedly shaped top lip to the hood of Stella’s pussy.  Stella loved the way Scully liked to be watched when she pumped Stella for an orgasm.  The color of her eyes became more saturated with pigment the moment her tongue came out.

“Dana, I’m begging you.”

“You’re still very vulnerable,” she murmured, licked, nose-nudged.

“I am.  Not.”  She hadn’t meant to kick but she must have done so because next thing she knew, her knee had caught Scully in the gut and Scully was biting her on the hipbone.  Deep, rushing, exhaled relief… the edges of Scully’s teeth… her skin like fabric in a broken zipper… Scully’s pretty little mouth along the hard bitter jut of hipbone and Stella sighed.  She had forgotten such pleasure existed.

“A hickey,” Stella teased, and in doing so, noticed she was smiling.  It felt awkward and stiff, she was so out of practice doing it.

Scully’s lips closed like and sucked, and Stella thought she felt the burst of a blood vessel or two.

“Child’s play,” Stella whispered but it had been a good hickey, very good.

Scully slithered up, robe falling down her shoulders like snowfall on a mountain and resting in the valley of her lower back.  She tried to look mean as she inserted two fingers into Stella’s body, but the effort was so plain on her face, the facade of pretend so flimsy in the sincerity of her computer-blue eyes that Stella could have laughed - could have, but didn’t.  She wasn’t in the habit of laughing at someone who was about to make her come.

“One of these days when you’re well,” Scully began, now face-to-face, body to body, and the heat of her all over made Stella nearly forget what she was seeking, mind losing track as it wandered down from point to point, hard to soft, hard to soft, collarbone to breast to hip to thigh, and oh, how badly she wished Scully would drop that pelvis against her own quivering thigh.    How badly she wanted Scully to squirm there, rub there, make Stella beg for it.  But Scully tipped her ass up even higher toward the ceiling.   

“One of these days?” Stella prompted.

“I’m going to give it to you so hard.”

“Is that a promise?”  

Scully raised her eyebrows matter-of-factly.

“No.  You don’t like promises.”

With a straight face and a slow arm, Scully reached for one of the candles, the one that smelled like a snowy winter day, held it up in front of her a moment as if to show how the flame matched her hair.  And then she turned the candle on its side, tacked the tip of her tongue to her teeth as she poured.  

“You like that?” she asked.

Stella nodded, watching her own skin prickle and dampen, holding moisture like a just-washed peach as the candle tipped to its side and the hot wax dripped.  There was a sizzling ecstasy as it creamed the tender peak of her nipple and she focused on just that small section of her body, the tingling practically making her shake as the hot liquid simmered and thickened into a buttery reduction, coated her breasts and melted its excess until it dried down the side of her torso.  

“Fuck,” she said, rubbing the top of her head on the headboard.  “Fuck me.  Like a man.”

A flash of resentment - or was it recognition? - in Scully’s eyes, and she promptly put down the candle.  She wiggled her fingers inside Stella, wrangling, preparing her for a ride.

“Which man?”

She added a finger and then right away another, four altogether if anyone was counting and Stella just barely was.  Eyelashes fluttering and aching ribs disappearing like magic, she buried her face in the withered muscles of her right arm.   Where were those muscles - her swims and her bikrams and her motherfucking pushups - the day Paul Spector beat her?

“You mean like him , don’t you?” Scully said, stealing the thought.  “Like he would have?  Is that what this is all about?”

Stella stared back at her, suddenly very still, very calm, and very powerful.  

“Fuck you.”  

Saddled in the dip of Stella’s thighs, Scully swayed forward and backward a bit, moving with the cantoring action of her wrist, holding Stella’s body still with a flat hand pressed into her pubic bone.

“You thought of him fucking you.  Some night at home alone?  Or with some stranger you’d pick up?   He’d just pop into your head, you couldn’t help it...”

A tear sped down Stella’s temple and disappeared out of sight, evaporating in the heat between their bodies before it reached the bed.

“Yes,” she whispered with a tightly screwed jaw, and she could see her own shame hissing in the air like steam.

“I know.”

Scully leaned forward, nibbled on Stella’s bottom lip and Stella bit her back, hard, groaning as Scully took one finger from her pussy and slid it up the crack of her ass, molding Stella to the shape of her hand.  

“You make me wish I had more hands,” she said and this, this was closer to how Stella had taught her to fuck.

“Or a cock.”

Scully smiled, lowered her weight and Stella felt nothing else - not her skin, her pain, and not sweat and not the air - nothing but the firm imprint of Scully’s body making her new.

“Ready?” she asked.

Stella nodded, finally the right kind of weak, winding a leg plaintively around Scully as her entire being, her thoughts and her feelings, her past and her future, shook loose from the unforgiving concrete foundation of who-she-was and she melted into quicksand, sucking Scully’s fingers and spitting them back out only in tiny increments before sucking them back whole.  Scully smiled broadly, a sound almost like a laugh, but singular, lonely, barely a syllable, escaping her lips.  She raised her free hand to Stella’s throat, hooked her thumb under one ear and wrapped it one finger at a time around her neck, like a string of pearls winding its way to completion, so light Stella could barely feel it, but it was there.

“Tighter.”

“No.”

“Goddamit, Dana.”

“Stop.”

“Fucking squeeze it already.”

“Stella, shut up and come.”

Before the sentence was even out of Scully’s mouth, Stella began to obey.  She heard herself breathing harder than she had breathed in days, more breath than she thought herself capable of tendering ever again.  Her clit throbbed in the wrinkle of Scully’s wrist.  Scully kissed her on the mouth, so strongly now, she sucked Stella’s heart to a stop a few inches below the hand around her collar. Her feet cramped and her knees buckled upward and the energy radiated where Scully split her and then put her back together.  The only doctor who could ever fix her.  

She shut her eyes tight and came and came and came.

Scully reached up to untie her before Stella had even caught her breath.

“There,” Scully said, laying the sash aside, and only then did Stella realize she was crying.  “Oh…”

Stella shook her head, rolled onto her side to fully face Scully.

“I didn’t mean it.”

“I know,” Scully whispered, stroked her hair.

“He got everything he wanted…” Stella managed.  Her voice sounded squeaky to her own ear, but she had to say it or it would keep haunting her in the dark, staring back at her from the cap of a pill bottle, winking at her in the tips of toenail scissors and fork prongs.  “He won.”

Scully quickly put her arms around Stella and pulled her close - much more at ease as safe haven than predator, however well she’d managed to pretend.

“No he didn’t,” she said emphatically.  “You’re still here.”

Stella smelled her shower products in Scully’s hair, her come on Scully’s fingers, but when she buried her nose in Scully’s neck, there was the smell Scully owned, the one she could still remember taking home on her clothes after her first visit to DC.  Innocence, cleverness, expansiveness, mercilessness.

“I have to get back to work, to my life,” she mumbled to Scully.

“I wanted to take care of you,” Scully said.  Stella was both relieved and empathetic toward the use of the past tense, and also to the note of inadequacy.

“We work,” Stella said and took Scully’s hand, cupped it between their bodies.   “That’s who we are.”

Scully nodded mostly with her eyelashes, no doubt remembering the mornings she’d dragged herself to the office after William was gone.

“Okay, but no pool yet.  Your lungs.”

“Fine.  I’ll go to my boxing class.”

“That’s not funny.”

She could feel Scully’s eyes still on her but she kept the lids down - she was afraid if she looked back, she might ask for all sorts of things she didn’t know how to accept once given.

*

“Are you jetlagged?” Scully asks, voice almost disappearing between the crevasse of the two hotel pillows.  Stella examines a fingerful of hair, wonders what the box of dye said.   Painted desert red.  Don’t fuck with me, Mulder red.  I want my life back red.

“No,” Stella says.  “You tired?”

“So tired,” Scully answers as though she’s been waiting for someone to ask her that for two years.  “I’m so tired it hurts to lie down.”

Stella resists the urge to criticize Mulder.  She knows he probably had some anxiety on the road himself, but anxiety for Mulder is validation, an excuse for insomnia, not its cause.  It doesn’t work that way for Scully.  And yet, it’s too dangerous to aim any anger at Mulder with Scully in such close, such delectable proximity after so long.  He’s not the only reason she doesn’t touch Scully, but he’s one of them, a lovable and well-worn crutch she takes into every single hotel room they enter.

“Go to sleep, then,” she says, for the sake of both those present and not.

“I’m afraid I’ll sleep the whole weekend away.”

“Would that be so bad?”

Scully smiles, suddenly lifts a hand to stroke Stella’s face.  She follows a line here, a bone there, taming this newly unfamiliar terrain and Stella closes her eyes.  When she had scarlet fever, her grandmother did this, dipping her fingers into cool water before each touch.  She waited with Stella when her father was working and her mother was having nervous breakdowns at regular intervals in the master bedroom down the hall.  Does Scully know this anecdotal material about her?  Does she need to?  She is too tired to run the cost-benefit analysis of sharing this particular bit of her life.

*

“Do you need me to iron anything for you?” Scully asked in her most lovely post-coitus voice, and even this Stella couldn’t give her --

“No.  Thank you.”

“I’ll get a flight back home this weekend.  Give you some space.”

Scully sat up and dropped her legs over the side of the bed.  Her hair dusted the tattoo on her back like a foxtail.  Stella liked the mountain range mess of it, the layers growing out at separate paces, each racing the next to the finish.  It made her look more like a forest nymph than either doctor or detective.

“I’m going to take a shower,” she said.  Stella poked at the illustration of the snake, traced it with a finger.  Scully giggled, arching her back over the tickle.

“Mulder hates it, even now, I think, although he started lying about it at some point.  You’ve always liked it, to touch it, though…”

*

“We lost the ring holder,” Scully says abruptly and Stella thinks, for some reason, of the things restaurants use to clutch cloth napkins.

“Hm?”

Scully’s lips are plum-colored in the dark, wet to the point of distraction.  

“The little Elvis thing.  Remember?”

She looks as though she might cry, and though it wasn’t Stella who gave Scully this item, she feels compelled to reassure her.  

“That’s okay.  It’s just a thing.”

“I took it when we left but there was so much moving around… I can’t stop thinking about it.”

“I understand.  I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s silly.  I don’t even know why I’m telling you,” Scully says in a shrunken voice.  Stella touches Scully’s mouth, traces both lips with her thumb, peeling them dry as she asks herself certain questions.  Scully asks one of her own aloud.

“Have you ever lost something and cared more than you should have?”

Stella thinks maybe this is about the ring holder, but could be about anything.  Scully has weathered more loss than anyone and it shows in her eyes as they churn now,  violent and wintry, darkest in the curl, irises breaching into solid white.  All that travel, Stella thinks, and as far as she knows, no water, no beaches, no seaside town postcards with pink bubble letters arched over palm trees to put up on her board.  What a miserable, thirsty, tired two years it must have been.  Stella holds herself very still, staring and resisting the stormy call of Scully’s eyes, fathoms deep.  There are certain conditions she can’t swim in no matter how strong she gets.

“Almost,” Stella whispers and closes her eyes, accepting with bitter clarity that the peace she knows now can never last longer than a weekend.

*

Stella inched forward and pressed her lips right to where the mouth of the snake swallowed itself, stamping the ink with the impermanence of her saliva.  

“Conquest becomes the conqueror,” she murmured, fairly certain Scully would figure out which of the two she was supposed to be now.  Scully picked up the robe, slipped back into it and Stella tugged its tail, completely unconfident of what she was about to say.

“Stay.  Stay as long as you want.”

*

TO BE CONTINUED...

 

Chapter Text

Scully waited in the parlor room armchair wearing borrowed clothes, winding a chunk of overgrown split ends around her finger like late autumn weeds, the fur hem of Stella’s wool pencil skirt prickling her thighs. She picked at her nails until one cuticle bed split open and bled. Stella was still getting ready - had spent almost the entire day getting ready - for the fallen officers’ memorial event, but Scully’s impatience was levelled squarely at herself.

First thing this morning, Scully had promised herself she would get it over with. In retrospect, she could see that her plans were doomed the moment she sunk against the bathroom door jamb and set her eyes on Stella. Stella had been studying herself in the mirror, squinting, shoulder blades knitted together under her t-shirt, weight back on her heels. Holding herself as she held everyone - at a distance. Scully crossed her arms over her chest and cleared her throat in an effort to be acknowledged. Her secret was an accidental one, born as a simple piece of information, an unshaped piece of wet clay. Using nothing but time and cowardice, Scully had shaped that harmless blob into a weapon with a shortening fuse. She had never considered herself an artist, except in the field of avoidance.

“My first work event since I’ve been out of commission,” Stella said with a self-mocking smile. She looked down at a jar of cream and she swiped a glob across her forehead. Scully hesitated - she’d get to the secret in just a minute - and reached for Stella’s hand, caught two of her fingers. Stella’s shoulders swiveled and her hand swung with Scully’s like a trapeze act without a net, eyes flickering and then meeting her partner’s in the mirror. Traveling forty feet in an instant of eye contact.

“Will they find me… as I was before?” Stella asked, a forced comedic lilt to her voice that reminded Scully of when she had to resort to asking Mulder how some skirt made her butt look. She was embarrassed that she cared.

“A couple months older, maybe,” Scully teased, then re-capitulated. “Yes, they will. Better, even.”

The secret began to smolder the minute Scully decided to put it off until later, foolishly leaving it to eat the silence like a fire eats oxygen. Now it was hours-stronger, solid as cement, an extra story of the flat inserted between the two existing levels that they occupied.

Scully looked up from the armchair and felt her chin drop when she heard the typewriter click of Stella’s shoes on the staircase. Stella descended slowly, dangling pauses like pronouncements, each patent leather heel hovering over its next step like she expected it to rise up and meet her rather than the other way around. Blouse nipped at the sides pinned by seams to her body like a cloud to the sky. Blacks so deep the gold seemed to swim in it, whites so new they shaded her face pink. On her, a police uniform was a fantasy of authority and sex so pure that it seemed more like a costume than a mandate.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Scully said, forgetting both her secret and sucking of her bleeding nail a moment.

“Bring that finger over here and let me do that for you.”

If they’d had more time, it would have been a good idea, actually, a way of getting through it… Run her fingers over Stella’s body between sentences, feel her out like a bit of Braille on smooth, sure stone, fingers placed here and there along her pulse, her spine, her hips, and yes one in her mouth. Stella had an aptitude for nuance in physical contact that she lacked in conversation. Would it have been exploitative to talk to her that way? Or an act of kindness?

“That’s your real uniform?”

“I can’t tell if you’re judging or leering,” Stella said. “If it’s the latter, please make that clear and let’s skip the party.”

“You keep calling it that. Party.”

“Because it is a party, darling. We’re having alcohol and we put on high heels.”

“You partake of both those things every day.”

“You don’t.”

Scully smiled despite herself. Stella was square-shouldered in the foyer mirror now, one lazy eye on Scully in the reflection as she fastened the little black tie around her neck and tossed her hair. As she did so, the blonde picked up the shine of the embroidery on her collar, a crystal casting the sun for a rainbow.

“Are they all going to look like this? Your colleagues? Underlings?”

“Why?” Stella teased. “Looking for a replacement?”

“No, of course not.”

Had that come off as overly serious? Defensive? Later, in a childish game of what-if, woulda-coulda-shoulda, Scully would wonder how much sooner Stella would have read her, caught her out, had she not been in an unusual state of self-surveillance, so vigilant of her own vulnerability with the “party” that she could miss something to obvious.

“I have them tailored,” Stella said with a sheepish so-what of a smile.

She slow-stalked the kitchen like a jungle cat, stroked the cylinder of a water glass and placed long, inexplicable glances on various inanimate objects in the room, as though deciding whether to consume or spare each thing. Then she sipped her water, made tiger stripes on the rim with her lipstick. There was silence to fill here, but Scully’s mouth had gone dry.

Finally, Stella reached for her jacket and slipped into it as though she’d been recently painted and was trying not to smudge herself.

“How should I introduce you?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“People are likely to assume we’re fucking no matter what I say.”

“Only you assume that about everyone.”

Stella grinned into her last gulp of water and murmured, letting it echo and bubble as she slurped, pausing to swallow in the middle of her phrase.

“This is for your benefit. I’m making sure you’re prepared. People will whisper.”

“I’ve been whispered about that way at work my whole life.”

“There are worse things to have whispered by colleagues.”

“I know. I’ve had those whispered too.”

Stella was unsatisfied. She didn’t want jokes, she wanted confirmation that this evening would come off without a hitch. It was not for Scully’s benefit, not really, and that was okay. Scully spoke as though by rote, repeating her lessons.

“I am prepared for them to assume we’re a couple.”

Stella circled her and collected a small clutch purse she’d left open on the barstool, nudged Scully’s jeweled earlobe with her nose. She tucked her phone into the bag, a bed of tissues and lip gloss, and then held it under her armpit as she put both arms around Scully’s waist. Her face now rested on Scully’s shoulder, the carefully-applied layer of cosmetics wafting like spring flowers sealed in wax, a semi-edible decoration atop a birthday cake. For a moment it seemed unlikely that anything else scheduled for this evening could hold as much weight as that shoulder did.

“I didn’t say couple. I said fucking.” Her jaw had dug itself a permanent residence in the posterior delta of Scully’s clavicle. Scully worried for a moment that the makeup would come off on the sweater, but it was Stella’s sweater after all. “Be a lamb and say it for me.”

“Fucking,” Scully murmured.

“Mm.”

Scully turned to face her. Her neck spasmed where Stella’s chin had left a dent.

“You look nice in my things,” Stella said.

Scully nodded, the guilt traveling like a heart attack up her arm from where Stella held her wrist. She’d always been shit at accepting compliments, so Stella didn’t notice.

“You look perfect,” she countered.

“Thank you,” Stella said with the quiet, simple grace Scully could never seem to muster.

Scully braced herself. She had Stella’s attention, the intimacy of a couple’s last moment alone before a party. She battled the sickening rush of temptation as she considered what to do with it, whether to speak or keep Stella close, to stay here on the safe side of things a little bit longer.

“Come, darling.”

She took Stella’s arm and followed her out.

*

It had been a long time since Scully had observed Stella in a professional setting and she was mesmerized during the ceremony by her focus. Hands and limbs kept to herself throughout the ceremony, occasionally lifting her chin, a sort of reverse nod of approval at something a speaker said or did. Scully wondered if Stella’s mind was wandering, if she let herself think of the fact that she could have been one of these names, if she felt guilty or lucky or strange for having narrowly escaped a place among these unfortunate honorees.

At the end, everyone was directed to the back of the room where tea lights sprouted on pale blue cloths tossed over coin-sized tables. The room let out a collective sigh of relief, moving en masse toward the promise of small talk and wine. Cocktail waiters emerged from swinging doors like crumple-vested spiders, drawing invisible webs around arbitrary clusters of people. The mourners took part at once, moving easily between grief and relief. Everyone knew their ghosts would be holding their coats for them at the door. It was a party, like Stella said.

And for Stella, it was turning out to be a pretty good one. Her posture was already soft with victory. She’d appeared here in one piece, as herself, had reclaimed her reputation as reliable and invincible. Scully’s ankles wobbled in her shoes as she thought of the car ride home, the living room where they’d step out of their shoes and wiggle sore toes, of how she’d begin to spoil a perfect night. She wondered how many drinks Stella would have in her by the time Scully finally said what she needed to say. One or two and it wouldn’t make a difference, three-plus meant a sloppier tongue and quicker wrists, the sum-total effect of which was generally more auspicious at the end of a night together.

Stella took two glasses of white from one of the passing trays and handed one to her date.

“Chardonnay,” she grumbled with the pout of an adult equally well-versed in self-abuse and self-care. “I spoke to them about this last year.”

Scully laughed.

“People are grieving for Christ’s sake,” Stella went on.

Scully sucked her stomach in on a deep breath and Stella noticed, misread it as self-consciousness. Scully let her, sins of omission multiplying like the empty plastic cups on the tables. Stella leaned in, put her lips against Scully’s ear and Scully wondered if there would be marks on her skin like the water glass, little bands of metallic pink across the cartilage.

“Do you want to go? We can go,” Stella prompted. She fiddled with the knot of the bow on Scully’s wrap sweater and freshened it in a shorter amount of time than it had taken Scully to do in the first place.

“No, no. I just… think I should have worn my own clothes,” Scully said because she needed something true to complain about. “Or borrowed a uniform.”

“No one would have known the difference, two thirds of these people are idiots.”

“They seem nice.”

“That’s the third I’m willing to talk to. You could have had mine. Uniform, I mean. I hate wearing it,” Stella said, righting herself beside Scully.

“You do? Even after all that nipping and tucking?”

Stella’s face darkened as it often did when her memory retraced certain steps. Scully felt obtuse for needing time to understand the tailoring – it was an act of control, not vanity.

“It reminds me of school.”

This was always how getting to know Stella had been, like picking up items on a scavenger hunt: school names here, siblings there. There had been times she was tempted to sit Stella down and ask questions for three hours, take notes and turn on a journalist’s tape recorder to get it all down. It had never much bothered her much; she’d told herself she knew all she needed to know. How to read Stella’s temperature from across the room, hear the switch flip from silent-at-peace to silent-in-turmoil with music blaring and a bar full of people. That Stella likes to be touched, but only by people she trusts, that she likes innocent-faced men and women with purpose, that she brushes her teeth in the shower and leaves cabinet doors slightly ajar, that she likes to dance but only when she asks, that she washes her face wearing a red polka dotted headband sometimes. She knew she could call her for any reason, at any time, and not be judged or turned away, and that when Stella didn’t answer a question, it meant Scully would find it out eventually, out of nowhere, in some other empty space between two moments, when Stella was finally ready to share it, and then Scully might wish she’d never asked it at all. But she didn’t know how Stella was going to react to what she had to tell her tonight, and that made her feel like all that knowledge was for nought.

They were moving now, Stella in front and Scully in tow, sailing the crowd shoulder to shoulder, Stella billowing in and out of conversations with impressive ease. Her fingers trailed behind when she walked, or at her side when she stopped, left an infrared wake for Scully to follow. Scully felt freer than she was used to feeling as someone’s date. And feeling good while she deceived Stella was unsettling. Stella’s trust was a limited fund, one she was using up with every moment she held her tongue.

Stella had stopped now, but the crowd continued to move, and Scully had the sensation of standing still on a boat. She felt her temperature rise and pushed up the sleeves of the sweater. Her forearms turned pink from the friction. She couldn’t do it anymore.

“Stella, I have to-”

Stella turned, pinched a crepey pastry off on hors d’oeuvre tray and supported it with a cocktail napkin on its way to Scully’s mouth. Scully lowered her eyes but obediently nibbled, licked the flakes off her lips.

“Stella-”

But she needed time to swallow and in that time…

“Oh. You remember Ferrington?”

Of course. The girl who had “door-stepped” Stella with the soup. She’d had to twist Stella’s arm into a thank-you phone call, but Dani hadn’t picked up anyway and the voicemail got it. Dani had a date tonight, presumably a girlfriend and Scully wondered whether Dani had assumed the same about her - presumably girlfriend.

“Hello again,” Dani said with a gracious first nod to Scully. “Dana, right?”

“Hi there. How are you?” Scully said, trying not to sound angry. None of her worries was Dani’s fault. “I don’t know if Stella told you but I loved your soup.”

Dani beamed and the conversation split, Stella taking on small-talk with the girlfriend and Scully entertaining Dani.

“Still here in town?” Dani asked.

“Yes, still here,” Scully said and tucked her hair behind her ear.

A warm hand on her lower back, one of Stella’s fingers segregating two lines of cashmere ribbon around her waist, a gesture of concern, of care, of – Scully put her hands to her cheeks to cool them - possession.

“Warm in here, is it?” Dani said to Scully, head cocked in empathy. Her face must be the color of an apple. “So, how long before you go back?”

“May only be a few more days,” Scully said under her breath, wiping her brow. She didn’t think Stella would hear and she didn’t want to lie - had not actively lied yet about it.

But of course, the room went silent the minute she mumbled it and her voice seemed so loud it was as though someone had inadvertently passed a microphone under her lips. Stella dropped her hand from Scully’s back, turned with such eerie cool that for a second Scully wondered if Stella had known all along, had eavesdropped on the phone call last week. She searched Stella’s face for some emotion - forgiveness or fury, anything other than the punishing granite wall of indifference suddenly being erected inches from her nose, limiting her view of all else.

Scully glanced at Dani, swallowed, squeezed her lips together before she spoke.

“I - I got a call from my work and I can’t extend the leave any longer so–”

“Always… hard to see a… friend go after a long visit,” Dani said, turning to Stella, unsure what exactly was going on but perceptive enough to know she should take Stella’s side.

“Mm. Excuse me, this wine is abominable,” Stella said. “I’m going to talk them into coughing up some liquor. Anyone?”

And Scully had no choice but to let her go.

*

Scully found Stella ten minutes later in a screen-porch-faded bathroom with chipping yellow paint. Familiar in the manner of a fever dream, more unwanted and disorienting for each recognizable reference point - a pallid iteration of the psych ward restroom in which Stella’s consolation had begun their friendship. Stella leaned on the sink with fighters’ fists, blister red with white spots at the bones, staring with chilling remove into the ceramic basin. Scully’s instinctive relief at not finding Stella in hysterics quickly transformed into the panic of finding this instead. She glanced uneasily at the walls, as though to make sure they wouldn’t close in on her.

“Stella -”

How many times had she said her name like that tonight, trying to get to more? So many it was starting to seem detached from Stella the person. A word became meaningless and foreign if you said it enough.

Stella held a hand up and caught her eye in the mirror a moment and then a toilet flushed. A waitress emerged from one of the stalls and embarrassed, fumbled through the hand-washing process. Stella’s stare was unforgiving and lasted the duration, and Scully waited, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, trying to absorb the awkwardness with micro movements.

“Lock the door,” Stella said when they were finally alone.

“What if someone has to –”

“I said lock it.”

“I’m sorry,” Scully said as she flipped the bolt. It was heavy and hard to push, left a line in the middle of the pad of her finger. The irritation she was beginning to feel in reaction to Stella’s behavior was something of a relief. Anything to avoid the self-reproach she’d been bearing up under all day. “It’s not like I want to leave you. But I have to unless I’m going to, I don’t know, move here.”

Stella’s glare set into her like a machete, cleaved her right between the eyes.

“You think I care if you go? I care that you just made me look like an idiot.”

“You don’t care if I go?”

“Don’t be a cliché.”

“What does that mean?”

“You don’t want to stay but you don’t want me to let you go either.”

“I just… I didn’t know where this was going… and my life…”

“It’s not going anywhere,” Stella snapped.

Scully licked her lower lip and swallowed, trying not to cry.

“Well, that’s what I assumed.”

“I sound angry but I don’t mean to. I don’t like surprises.”

Observing Stella’s process of calming herself was one of the more disconcerting experiences Scully could summon to mind, on par with the mid-ride plateau of a rollercoaster, helpless between two loops, listening to the engine click and collect the momentum it needed to throw you off the next drop.

“I don’t want anything to go anywhere,” Stella said, gaze softening but not warming, falling like sleet into the sink. Scully followed it, gripped the drain with her eyes before it could swallow her.

“You haven’t been happy having me here?”

“That’s the present. You’re talking about the future.”

“You know, this is a version of the same conversation we had fifteen years ago after the first night we spent alone together,” Scully said.

“Maybe we’re fools for needing to have it again.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t have had it in the first place.”

Stella scoffed.

“Come on, Dana. What? And just been together?” She looked at Scully. “You wouldn’t have had any of your life with Mulder, your child.”

“I lost them anyway.”

One of Stella’s eyes flinched and she licked her bottom lip, swallowed whatever bit of gloss she’d picked up there. She turned back to the sink.

“Well, I guess I make for a decent consolation prize.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Scully said, “and you know it.” She hated the way her voice sounded, wounded and will-less.

“You speak to Mulder recently?” Stella asked and ran her tongue in front of her teeth.

“Yes. Why?”

Stella tossed off a look that landed like a punch in the chest.

“Don’t you dare,” Stella said and her voice rattled like a stick.

“Dare what?” Scully finally asked. But Stella didn’t answer because she knew Scully knew. Don’t you dare pretend he’s beside the point.

Cold air suddenly puffed from the vent overhead. Scully crossed her arms and shivered with the recognition that she was taking part in an overreaction. She had made many fights in her life worse this way, by trying to manufacture the end before it had lived its natural course, diminishing a drama before it had played out its denouement.

“Listen. I don’t know what you want from me,” she said. “What was my alternative here?”

“Bring it up sooner.”

“And then what? You would’ve said stay, quit your job, move to England, and we’ll go to a party next week? You’ve had this thing on your mind for days. It would’ve ruined it.”

“I don’t want anything from you.”

Scully took a step closer and Stella stepped back.

“Let’s talk about this later when we’re calm,” Scully said, reaching for her. Stella swatted her arms back out of reach.

“Let me be,” she said.

Scully looked at her feet as Stella edged past her, avoiding her like the pit of a natural disaster. The thought of staying in this bathroom one second longer than necessary was unbearable. The thought of not following Stella out made her feel lost and scared and alone in a foreign country in a way she had not felt switching trains on complicated tube lines, not felt getting lost on runs around ungridded alleyways of gory murderers.

She spent the hour rationalizing and emerged hungry and thirsty and calm, her tailbone sore from the plastic toilet bowl cover seat. This would blow over quickly. She and Stella had been through too much. There were advantages to spending most of your life arguing every day with someone you loved. You knew what to do with an hour alone in the bathroom. (Not that Mulder had ever given her an hour alone in her life.)

The lights had gone darker, the crowd had grown louder and there was music she didn’t recall noticing before. She searched the room for Stella’s golden head, eager to make things right. The bar came into view as the crowd parted and Scully stopped short, felt a few bodies stiffen and pile behind her. A couple drops of something cold splashed her calves. People doled apologies or sought them but she didn’t care.

There was Stella on a high stool with an arched back and a strategically crossed leg, talking to, or rather, listening to, or rather, pretending to listen to a male officer in his thirties. Bored and sloping as the moon, leaning on one elbow over the bar, forearm waving its half empty glass of Scotch like a loose clock hand. The shoe on her crossed foot clucked on and off her heel and she was absent behind the eyes, already living in an event to come within hours, the furthest future she was capable of embracing.

Scully threw a sharp glance down at the floor, then moved forward, thinking of the courage of crime scenes past. She tried to imagine the comfort of a flashlight in hand, a gun in its holster, a walkie promising backup.

Stella looked at her as though she were one of the cocktail waitresses carrying substandard table wine and she might as well have murdered her.

“Hi there,” the idiot man said, chipper, swingy, a lucky guy having a lucky night, and Scully allowed herself to hate him deeply and irrationally as she waited for Stella to introduce her. Nothing.

“I’m going to head back to the flat,” Scully said at last.

“I’ll be there eventually. Few more things I want to do here.”

He beamed with pride, the man did, in the periphery of Scully’s view; he was that thing she meant to do! But Stella ignored him for the time being, fixed Scully with a hunter’s stare, eyes empty as the viewfinder of a rifle, Scully filling in the space between the crosshairs, fur up on the back of her neck under a string of pearls. She felt Stella’s focus sharpen, watched her trigger finger wiggle around her glass. And Scully turned while she could still get out alive, bolted through the human foliage of widows and revelers toward the exit.

*

There was comfort in the predictability of it: Stella going home with some random man to escape reality. Scully managed mostly to put the details of it out of her mind and wondered instead what her role here was, what Stella would be expecting of her. This, she thought, was as apt a description of love as any – wanting to give another person exactly what they expected of you, even when they weren’t looking, even when you were furious with them.

She’d left her shoes in two different spots on the staircase, clothes in three distinct heaps. She’d hidden her phone from herself, hoped she’d had enough to drink on an empty stomach to fall for it, then cried and taken a shower and sipped wine from an open bottle. Not knowing what else to do, she’d resorted to tackling the contents of two junk drawers and a spice rack on the kitchen floor. She’d done this with Mulder sometimes too, reorganized his (overbearing, overwhelming) spaces in their home and office. It made her feel closer to him then, and to Stella now, trying to safe-crack her logic from the inside out, determine why one thing was on the same shelf as the next, or why condoms were in the kitchen at all (though not wonder too hard). It took a great deal of energy she would have otherwise used on self-pity to frame things the way Stella would, distinguish complex system from misplaced item; everything with Stella fell into one or the other of those categories.

It wasn’t until she heard the thick poplin-gabardine swish of uniform sleeves in the foyer that she realized that Stella might view the innards of cabinets splayed across the hard grey floor as a provocation. But it was too late to undo what she’d already undone, so she kept her eyes on the bottle of cardamom, weeded out a yellow potato chip clip, thought of Stella wiping her hands on a pair of overpriced sweatpants while closing a bag of kettle chips she’d stash in a corner behind the red wine.

She slumped a little deeper, expecting any minute to hear strident stilettos making their way to the fridge, to feel Stella’s triumphant glare on the back of her head. She braced herself for the smells, the sights, the evidence of spite-sex. It was Stella’s right to go home with whomever she wanted, with or without the impetus of a fight. Scully had never asked her for any sort of exclusivity. She was good at not asking people for what they couldn’t give, but bad at accepting the fact that they didn’t offer it up.

But there was something other than gloating triumph going on. Stella stood still under the arc that separated the kitchen from the rest of the house. A truce had arrived, or at least, it was within Scully’s power to provide one. Scully picked up a plastic container of rainbow nonpareils and shook them weakly.

“What are these for?”

“Ice cream. Fairy bread.”

A smile ached across Scully’s teeth.

“Fairy bread? How am I supposed to keep arguing with you when you say stuff like that?”

“I’m sorry. It was rude to send you off that way,” Stella said. What she didn’t say was for fucking somebody else.

Scully put one hand on the floor and pressed herself up to stand. The eye makeup hadn’t budged, of course, and the lips were red from rubbing rather than taupe from painting, but the cheeks were splotchy, and the bottom rims of her eyes sagged until the red part showed, as though they’d been stretched beyond repair. She wondered where Stella could have cried. Surely not in the presence of that strange man. In his bathroom? The cab ride home? On some street corner between here and there, hiding in a shadow with her palms pressed into a row of brick? Her heart sizzled like an antacid dropped into a glass - sadness competing with jealousy and anger. Mulder had never tried or tested her in this particular way. The first time they’d had sex, or maybe sooner, she got his undying faithfulness in return. She’d only ever lost him to ideas, thoughts, to himself, never to another person.

The uniform skirt was wrinkled at the hips and the blouse sagged so that it was almost unrecognizable from this afternoon. Scully felt a twinge of sadness remembering how the day had started; stiff fabric and affectionate glances, innuendo in a foyer mirror.

“I didn’t expect you to be sorry,” Scully said.

“That’s two of us then.”

Scully rolled a row of unsharpened pencils that were waiting to be organized on the counter. They seemed so clean and useful absent the frustrated chewing marks she was accustomed to finding in her and Mulder’s office. Stella found other things to sink her teeth into.

“It’s your prerogative,” Scully said.

“I know that. But you’re standing there looking at me like that and it makes me want to die.”

Something in the phrase or in Stella’s voice resembled a distant generic concept of couplehood. This was how most people behaved. They belonged somewhere at a certain time of night, they were sorry when they weren’t in that place, other people who expected them in that place got jealous, everyone felt guilty. That was what a relationship was… wasn’t it? How could she have gotten to this point in her life and not known?

“Maybe we could go to therapy,” she said and almost laughed at herself. Somewhere she’d heard people talk like this. “You know, figure it out.”

Stella looked at her with something like gentle reproach. Or sympathy. Or pity. Or apology. Whatever it was, it was not cruelty.

“But you’ve come so far,” Scully said, turning her face away, giving in, letting it fold like a pile of shirts on her shoulder.

“Please don’t ask me to come any further.”

Chapter Text

Stella respected endings. She had always known one was coming, and she’d also known that she’d one day want it to come. With any luck, the timing of these two inevitabilities would align, two planets in perfect eclipse once every some-odd years, making for prime conditions, creating a cover of darkness for hearts to escape unnoticed, unscathed. She was no Fox Mulder, but she dabbled when necessary in the setting of intentions, communion with the universe. Planets. Moments. Best chances.

The perfect ending to Scully’s visit would go like this. Stella would wake that morning feeling like herself, Paul Spector just one of many fast-fading, scrambled-memory monsters of her distant past. What doesn’t kill you etcetera, etcetera. She’d orate a heartfelt goodbye to Scully at the door, or maybe even at the airport if she was feeling sentimental, swim it off and then be off to work, where she’d spend the morning preoccupied by fresh kills and thievery. She’d be distracted only for a moment by the welcome realization that her bed was cooling in her absence rather than being warmed by an extra body. There’d be no mail waiting with the corners accidentally torn up when she arrived home, no unread magazines already split at the spine, no more how did I wind up on the last bottle of wine without realizing it, no more ice cream gone missing out of the freezer. She would know what she had when she had it. Even if that meant having nothing.

Now Stella saw that she’d slept on the job. She’d been lulling herself with excessive denial while Scully was noting the broken routines, the gaps in Stella’s days, placing bits of herself into each of them, rooting her existence deep in the cracks so that they would mend around Stella’s regular life like a tree trunk, make it necessary to cut the whole thing down in order to save anything at all.

She thought about this in the lemon and human-scented WC of the event hall, self-exiled, stoking her anger. She thought of the fact that people just outside the door had lost husbands, mothers, children, spouses, lost them for good, lost them in many cases to brutal and unnecessary cause. Their grief was earned, deserved. This, well this could have been prevented at any time, had Scully simply restrained herself from sprawling like ivy, strangling all other existence. Or by Stella doing what she’d always done in the past - demanded that restraint.

Case in point against herself: any of those nights Stella had come home from a yoga class and found Scully waiting with a half-ironic apron cinched around her waist (once with nothing else), setting out wine and food, an elaborate single-gendered game of house. Stella had played along, teased, “Honey, I’m home.” She’d moved Scully’s meticulous blow-out and kissed her neck, toyed idly with the button of jeans and been shoved away with hips and observed dinner times like a child or a pet or a wife. She’d looked at rotisserie chickens like she didn’t know they’d been bought that way at the market. She’d wondered whether Scully even knew the difference between making food and heating it up and not chastised her aloud. She’d untied the half-kidding aprons and taken seats at a breakfast counter that because of Scully had lost its innocence with the bloodshed of lunchmeat and dinner steaks.

And one night last week, instead of saying, stop this charade, stop it this instant, or even, perhaps more usefully still - who were you talking to on the fucking phone just now when I came in - she’d instead said:

“I found out there’s a work party next week.” She’d divvied up the last of a bottle of red. “They’ve been keeping it from me.”

“Oh.”

“They didn’t think I’d be up to it, I guess.”

Scully had pulled at her chicken with two fingers, swallowed and sucked the grease from her nails, oblivious as to where it was going. Sometimes Stella was reminded that it had taken five years and her interference to get Scully and Mulder into bed.

“Fancy accompanying me?” Stella had asked.

“As your date?”

Scully looked up, the crown jewel point of a smile nudging her left cheek in a sly, uneven slant.

“Well, you have given me sex and dinner fairly regularly this past several weeks. Seems you ought to be treated to a night on the town now and then.”

Scully had nodded, smile deepening, and this was the most humiliating part of all: all those months of fantasizing about the perfect day for Scully to leave, and that night a week ago at dinnertime, one crooked smile made Stella think that she’d instead like to prolong certain inevitabilities indefinitely.

*

By the time he gets her to his place – and she is letting him think he’s doing the getting - she’s almost changed her mind. That makes her even more dedicated to the doing. He’s a bachelor - she can tell by the claustrophobic mess of his one room apartment. There are photographs magnetted to the fridge, a girl, probably an ex, something he’s getting over. It’s an occupational hazard to note the particulars, not a desire to know him the tiniest bit before she fucks him.

She’s too old for him, which is how she likes it; she knows more than him, will be in charge of everything except the size and the strength and she expects he’ll handle these elements just fine. Yes, she thinks of Scully a bit as she first kisses him, because she is human. She compares the disjointedness of his technique to the synchrony to which she’s become accustomed. She misses the smoothness of Scully’s chin when his scruff brushes her skin. But then she reminds herself that all of that is already gone, was gone the moment Scully made her decision to go, or maybe sooner, maybe was gone the moment Scully arrived.

It’s a stupid thing that she’s doing but it is less harmful than the other stupid things. Some people don’t have the luxury of avoiding the category altogether.

By the time she pulls her skirt up to her hips and places his hands instructively on the outsides of her thighs, she is more computer than flesh and blood, a system working a programmed flowchart. Four of her could build a bike. Thirty of her could organize a safe trip to Mars. Two thousand of her could conduct a hostile apocalyptic world takeover.

He lifts her, tosses her onto the bed on her back, doing exactly as she wishes without knowing, like an application within her operating system. He leans forward and brushes her hair with a clawed hand. She shoves the gesture away and grabs him by the shirt, sticks her tongue out when her lips can’t reach him. He fumbles for his dick sooner than it would be polite in most circumstances but Stella is not most circumstances.

She’s wet from the long drive over of heavy breathing, roaming hands, and a few other excuses for the driver to flinch in the rearview. He is technically a subordinate but works somewhere else. She’s unlikely to see him again, or at least not until the next memorial function, and by then they’ll have reason enough to pretend not to know one another. Enough new people will have died. Any luck, she thinks with haphazard macabre, one of them.

“Are you clean?” she asks, taking the back of his neck like a cat. She looks him hard in the eye as he tells her he is, explains he had a long-term girlfriend, that she’s the first since - he’s hedging. He’ll get the rubber if she wants him to. He’ll avoid it if she lets him. He thinks he’s being clever, working his way around looking like a bad guy while getting what he wants. But it’s her idea, actually even more than an idea, an act of self-aggression, executed swiftly and stealthily with his assistance.

“It’s fine,” she tells him.

The rush is predictable but dependable as he begins to thrust. The more she treats sex like a drug, the more it behaves that way, tossing her hard in the direction of a bottom, requiring more work each time to crawl back up. So long as she doesn’t wind up embarrassed and hooked up to an IV the next morning, she’s willing to accept the similarities.

The flaps of his uniform shirt fall to either side of his cock. Her blouse has been drawn open down to her cleavage - the cab ride - but he hasn’t even put his mouth there. By her design he has touched, seen, even, very little of anything –the bare minimum in order to make him functional.

Scully would never do what I’m doing, she thinks (her pilot program forgetting the conditions under which they met.) It is why we aren’t the same. It is why we don’t work.

“Fuck,” she whispers, but it’s less the way she usually would and more like she got her finger caught in the snap of a seatbelt. He hurts. Her hair gathers static from the duvet, makes a mockery of the ninety minutes she spent getting ready. Those minutes were for someone other than the person inside her. She thinks of herself eyeing Scully in the foyer mirror and feels a steady red iron press of rage in her chest. But wetter too, less uncomfortable.

“Too hard?” he pants.

“No,” and she laughs at him.

So he gives it to her a little harder. She’s been clutching her shoes with Scotch-swollen toes, and now they drop to the floor. When harder doesn’t elicit the reaction he was going for, he puts his hands around her waist like a vise to freeze her in place. He’s insignificant. But he makes her the one thing she can never seem to manage to be on her own, not even for people who would be well worth the effort: Still. Stagnant. Steady.

“You like that?” he asks as her jaw clenches. She closes her eyes to avoid his overeager invitation into the moment, swallows her breath to discourage him from saying any more. “God, you’re so fucking hot.”

“Sssh.”

She pulls his face towards hers to occupy his mouth.

“Oh. You just want me to fuck your brains out?”

She hates him and she’s grateful to him for that.

“You want me to call you my little slut?”

She hooks the bottom of his mouth with her thumb, digs her fingernail into the flesh below his tongue, reeling him to her face like a big dumb fish. He stares at her wide-eyed, slightly amused, tail still flailing in the water. She eases her finger out of the way.

“Talk to me like that and you will lose a fucking tooth,” she seethes without losing even a touch of arousal.

“Yes, Ma’am,” he says and she doesn’t even detect any irony in his voice. How can that be? He acts like this is meant to happen, like it’s some little-known class at the academy.

She unbuttons her shirt and shakes down one strap of her bra to coddle his ego. He stares at her one exposed breast and she watches his eyes, uncommonly green, a lumberjack, Irish Spring green that brightens as he fucks.

Caution makes no sound as it throws itself into the wind. It’s not like the shatter of breaking glass or the slap of scissors slicing flesh like a piece of unwanted denim. Not like a clattering bottle of painkillers on a bathroom floor, or even the disconcerting scatter and slide of the pills themselves. It is nothing like a siren. If only he could hear the dirty talk in her head.

“Don’t pull out,” is how it is translated to the unfluent.

Her body melts like a sweat stain into the mattress as he grips her tighter, his fingers widening the space between her recently-healed ribs, making room for new bruises to bloom and be cherished, be displayed like the pins on her uniform jacket. It is by no means the perfect moment and it’s not a cosmic alignment, but it does do the trick: it is time for Scully to go.

*

She arrived home to find the kitchen a disaster, the contents of several drawers vomited about the floor. Her brain had trouble registering it and thought for a second the house had been burgled. This fresh chaos bore no connection to the other chaotic events of the night, and yet there was Scully, sitting calmly amidst the mess, crumpling like a child. The red rims of her eyes were a harrowing sight, made ten minutes of talking feel like ten hours.

“Please don’t ask me to come any further,” Stella said and prayed Scully would not take offense. She got her wish for once, and Scully tried to sneak a deep breath as she nodded.

Stella eyed a path through the contents of her cabinet across the floor before she tiptoed through it. “Stay with him this time.”

She poured them both glasses of water.

“For all our sake.” Having said the things she wanted to say, not needing a separate phone call in two weeks for it - that would be the difference between losing a person and losing herself.

“Stella…”

“No. It’s all right. It’s not a bad thing. Just let me say it.”

Scully still - even after all this time - liked to pretend she had only ever loved one of them at a time. How this lie was better or easier for her, Stella would never understand. But it was also what she envied – the simplicity Scully was capable of.

Stella handed her the glass of water and it wobbled as though they were standing on top of a volcano. She felt much calmer now, post-fuck, but her hand was shaking. Scully’s eyes set into her own like a knife peeling an apple, slipped the thick protective skin off and let it slide back down Stella’s throat. It was a look that made her sorer than any man’s body ever could.

“So what do we do now? I mean tomorrow, the next long weekend, whatever?” Scully asked. Stella forced herself not to blink for a couple minutes, savored the raw salt in a wound feel of a difficult question. “We just go back to what we were before?”

The further Stella drifted, the harder Scully would look for her.

“We were okay, then, weren’t we?” Stella said, suddenly so tired she felt like she could fall asleep right there beneath the open refrigerator door. She waved it back and forth, cooling herself in the dry cold light, killing the bacteria of sweat and sex on her skin, and then she let it suck shut. “It was just a few weeks ago.”

“More than a few,” Scully muttered. “You’re happy about it. You’re glad I’m going. My hands smell like onion powder.”

She turned away, paused over the sink and Stella thought of her grey dress, wondered if she’d ever wear it again, ever be able to do so without remembering Scully fingering her to tears and telling her she loved her. The sink began to run. Stella believed in the power of water, its ability to part evenings and heartbreaks and anxieties and regrets from the molecules of the skin like soot or sand.

Stella came up behind Scully and took each hand in one of her own, all twenty fingers spread under the lukewarm water. Stella soaped them, watched Scully flex and curl her fingers. Stella had shed anger and sadness in bathtubs and pool filters, sink drains and even the gutters outside under the rain. Just walking sometimes, she’d pass by and glance, hear it call to her, gurgling in the gut of the city like a clog of hair in a pipe. Before she learned about water, she needed blood to wash away.

She turned the knobs tight and then spoke firmly into the back of Scully’s neck.

“I don’t want to know what it’s like to be sick of you.”

“How sweet.”

Scully ducked under her arm and rubbed her wet hands on a towel. Stella had let herself forget. She could have love or water. New habits or new people. There was no keeping everyone at her pace. They were not all following along in the survival workbook.

“For fuck’s sake. I wasn’t trying to be sweet,” Stella snapped. “I was being honest. The truth is all I have ever had to offer you.”

And at that remark, Scully smirked ruefully, telling herself some private joke.

Stella escaped up the stairs. She had forgotten. You didn’t just end relationships like you ended a job or sold a car. You ended them over and over for hours, days, years. This one had been ending since the day they met.

Stella was lying on the bed, uniform clinging to her like a self-inflicted punishment when she heard Scully on the stairs. She stared at the ceiling, dreading Scully’s arrival. This time next week, she wouldn’t have to do this anymore - talk to people when she wasn’t in the mood to talk to them, fight when she was tired of fighting, fuck when she was done with fucking. There would be no one to please and no one to spite. She was looking forward to it. There were many things she was looking forward to in Scully’s departure. Tomorrow, perhaps, she would list them for herself.

Scully swung around the door and fluttered her lips in a sigh.

“Don’t worry, my shoes are on the floor,” Stella said dryly.

Scully knelt and took Stella’s shoes off, but somehow it was clear that it was not an admonishment. She pulled Stella to sit up, slowly began to unbutton the uniform shirt. Pushed the shirt back off Stella’s shoulders, helped her get her arms out. Laid the shirt gingerly on the back of the chair and whispered:

“Lie down.”

Stella turned onto her side, embarrassed at the care Scully was applying, embarrassed that her instinct was, for once, to accept it.

Scully unzipped the back of the skirt, pulled it off and then curled her body up behind Stella’s, pajamas soft against Stella’s bare skin over and below her bra, against her legs.

“Don’t you want to ask me anything about him?” Stella asked.

Scully didn’t answer.

“Don’t you want to yell at me, call me things?”

“No, I don’t,” Scully said as though this very idea was repellant.

“Let me take you out tomorrow night, one last night,” Scully whispered. But Stella wasn’t done.

“Don’t you smell him on me?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Stella wondered if maybe, under some other circumstances, had they made better plans, had they gotten around to sorting out what it was each person wanted, had they been perfect people in a perfect time, it could have worked out.

“Tomorrow,” Scully insisted. “Eight? I’ll text you an address when I figure it out?”

“Do you want suggestions?”

“No,” Scully said with the smallest, sincerest of laughs. “Let me do it just once.”

“All right, yes.”

Stella swallowed away a hard lump in her throat as her mind sped past tomorrow night straight into the safety of Monday morning when Scully would be gone. Scully sniffled behind her, the last of her tears drying in Stella’s hair.

She hadn’t cleaned herself up yet and that was on purpose. Now was when he would most serve his purpose. So that she’d think of him, think of the fact that she did want to live her life having to fuck people to make herself feel better about loving other people, so that she’d get up instead of turning over and changing her mind.

“I need a shower,” Stella said and pushed herself up, trying as best she could to believe the habit of having Dana Scully could be replaced.

Chapter Text

Mulder heard the landline ringing all the way from the front fence, where he was fiddling with the broken… thingie. He’d have to fix that. He’d have to look up how to fix… things like that. This was how he’d decided he was going to get better, by fixing things that needed fixing.

He charged toward the porch steps, twisting his lip between his fingers like the end of a water balloon, knees aching and endorphins pumping from his early morning run. He and Scully had been on better terms since his visit to London, but not phone-calls-before-coffee terms. Once he made it to the porch, he widened his stride and let the door slap shut, reached for the old cordless, trying not to pre-invent any catastrophes which would validate the occasion of a dawn phone call. (This was also how he’d decided he’d get better, by doing the opposite of whatever he would normally do.)

“Hello?” came the voice of the non-catastrophe. It was strained and sleepy, although not as sleepy as it should have been for what - two in the morning?

“Hi you,” he said.

“Did I wake you?” she asked but the Britishness sucked the inquiry out of it.

“No, not at all.”

“You sound out of breath, what are you doing?”

“I was jogging.”

“You jog?”

He did now.

“What’s up, Stella?”

“Is it a bad time?”

Her tone was furtive, uneven, a little timid maybe, though this word seemed ill-at-ease in a description of Stella.

“No, it’s fine,” he said, giving her a minute to fill in the blanks. “So…”

Still nothing.

“You want to tell me what you’re wearing or what?” he said.

The absence of chuckling was no surprise - Stella rarely laughed, or at least rarely at his jokes. But in this case, her silence embarrassed him. Mulder was occasionally reminded that no matter how hard they all tried to forget, there would never be a day when he and Stella had never had sex. It wasn’t exactly regret, more like a discomfort with the past and its meaning.

“Don’t answer that,” he clarified.

“I wasn’t planning on it. She’s coming home.”

Like it was one thought, running the words together so fast it took Mulder a moment to register the meaning. He turned as though he might find someone else to talk to, make a face at, and put a hand on one of the kitchenette chairs. Scully had picked them out at a flea market. He’d thought they looked too shabby and she’d called him a snob. But she was right, they were perfect for him, perfect for this house. He’d never told her that. Perhaps that was one of the things he’d do when he was better, tell her all the things she’d been right about.

He sat and scraped the chair back to lean on his elbows, scratch his chin. He’d been shaving regularly ever since he got back from London, but not quite regularly enough to keep the scruff from itching every few days.

“Oh,” he said finally. “Here? To me?”

“I assume.”

His heart pounded like footsteps in a cement stairwell.

“She hasn’t told you, I gather,” Stella said.

“Not yet. Thanks for the warning.”

“It’s not a warning.”

Mulder looked around his kitchen as though Scully might show up to counsel him through this, tell him precisely what this woman was asking of him.

“Fuck,” Stella said. It was sudden enough to make him flinch but also clear she meant the curse for herself.

“You okay?” he asked. “Are you okay?” more urgently, remembering certain things she was capable of doing.

He heard her swallow, hard and wet, a suffocating lump that produced a well-bred but weathered sound of affirmation.

“Yes.”

He was very familiar with that sort of yes. He looked up at the door that Scully had once walked out of for good, felt a deep ache in his chest, and looked away (This was how he was going to get better, by looking away). Stella’s saliva crackled on the other line and he could picture the tears streaming silently down her face. She didn’t laugh for him but she would cry for him and in Stella’s case, that said more.

“I don’t know why I called you,” she managed to say, wavering and then strengthening again, as though she had unreliable reception in her mouth.

“Because you know I know how you feel. How many people can say that? I mean we can usually imagine how other people might feel, but in this case, it’s different. We’re talking about the same exact person. You find someone who can share that with you and not want to kick their ass, you call.”

Her breath sped to tiny half-beats and he knew she was crying in earnest now.

“Which is not to say I don’t want to kick your ass sometimes.”

No, this was not the right tone at all.

“Shit. I’m sorry. Flying blind. It’d be better if I could just hug you.”

“I don’t like hugs,” she said.

“A hand job then, you like those.”

She may have laughed then, but it only sounded like she was crying harder.

“That was supposed to be funny.”

“This is so ridiculous,” she said.

“No, it’s not.”

He wished he could hold her like he had in London, or take her hand like he had in Philadelphia. He could talk almost anyone in the throes of lunacy into putting the gun down, climbing down from a ledge, not flicking the switch on the bomb. But Stella knew those tactics too, and she’d see right through them.

For a moment, he considered telling her to go wake Scully up. However their conversation about this departure had gone, Scully was not the sort of person to turn someone she loved away in the middle of the night. But who was he to talk? He’d spent a year sleeping on the couch to avoid having to go tell Scully he was sad, and not even, at that time, about her.

“Where are you right now?” he asked.

“In the bathroom.”

“In the tub? Or on the bowl?”

“Floor.”

“What are you wearing?”

She tsk’ed.

“No, really. Not like that.”

She didn’t answer. He looked at the ceiling, gathering his maturity so that he could mean what he was about to say.

“I couldn’t care less if you were naked. Not weird at all.”

“A bathrobe and a pair of pants.”

“Okay, good. I want you to close your eyes and open your bathrobe –”

“Mulder,” she sighed.

“No, trust me. Open it and then wrap it all the way around your knees and pretend those are my long monkey arms, holding you just like that.”

There was a pause.

“Okay,” she whispered.

“You’re doing it?”

Another pause. He wasn’t sure if she was hesitating because she was actually taking instruction or because she wasn’t. But either way, she’d stopped crying.

“Mm.”

“I’ll stay on the phone as long as you want me to. You don’t have to talk.”

“Mm.”

Mulder sat back and settled into the chair. He stared at the refrigerator, pictures of Scully’s unreasonably photogenic face that he’d magnetted in spite of her protests and one of Queequeg she’d put there in spite of his. Also tacked up was a fresh piece of paper - the phone number of his new therapist.

“I’m surprised you called me,” he said, picturing the very distinct alternatives ranging from morning-ruining to life-threatening that Stella must have considered before picking up the phone. He could still remember the way her fingers gripped that shard of glass as she sat like a thawed ice queen in the bath, the way the water splashed up like upside down teardrops when she struggled to defend her realm.

“So am I,” she said. Her voice sounded clearer and louder, as though she had the phone couched in the space between her knees and chest.

“I’m glad you did.”

He still wasn’t sure if she was lying to him about doing the virtual hug thing. He wasn’t even sure if she was really wearing clothes. But he knew she was telling the truth about this part.

“I’m glad I did too.”

He got up and took one of the pictures of Scully down. In it, the bed covers were tucked under her arms, her mouth gaping open as she slept. Her arms and chest were bare, barely a Benjamin Moore shade warmer than the sheets themselves. Scully hadn’t wanted this photo out because, what if someone came over? Well, if someone ever comes over, I’ll take it down, he’d teased, and now he realized it was a cruel joke to have made when she was so isolated because of him. She had pictured herself at this stage of life with a house full of irritating teenagers letting the door slam and slamming basketballs against stoops, dinner parties with colleagues and obnoxious sister-in-laws doing dishes for brownie points. He went to put the photo in his pocket, remembered he was sweaty and put it in a drawer for safekeeping.

“How long you been on that floor?” he asked, holding the phone between his chin and his shoulder.

“Hours.”

“Sounds uncomfortable.”

“And cold. I’m actually in my underwear. I had to pull a towel down to do this asinine monkey hug thing.”

“You lied? What’s the matter, too ashamed of your granny panties to tell me about them?”

She was silent.

“You don’t own granny panties, what am I saying… I’m not asking you to describe the panties now, just so you know.”

“Stop saying panties.”

“Do you want me to ramble about something you don’t give a shit about for a while?”

“No,” she said, sounding more reliably like Stella, though she was still whispering, voice powdery soft. Scully must be sleeping close-by. “I’d rather you tell me how you are.”

He resisted the urge to make a joke about being sweaty, being smelly, or maybe about what he was wearing, and felt the dawning of a real answer.

“I don’t know. I’m trying.”

Maybe this was how he was going to get better too. By believing people when they insinuated that they gave a shit about him. You’re so good at asking questions, his therapist had been telling him. Learn to start answering them.

“Something happened, actually. Well, I did something. Didn’t just happen. I haven’t told her yet. I didn’t know whether to tell her. Tell her in person, probably. If she was going to stay there, with you, I thought maybe, maybe I wouldn’t tell her at all, I didn’t want to do anything if she was happy.”

“Are you going to tell me what this thing is or prattle on for eternity?”

She sounded genuinely curious, maybe pleased to have something to distract her, though perhaps not prepared for the magnitude of the news he was about to share. I’ve been to therapy, he could have said, I’ve thrown out all the bottles of booze in the house, I’m running again, I’m journaling, I’m thinking, I’m shaving, I’m making plans for how to better deserve her. All true. But there was something else he’d decided he’d have to do, a question he was pretty sure he could get an answer to, and he’d gotten one.

“I found our son.”

Chapter Text

The entrance to the hotel was at first glance nothing more than a minor intersection of busy sidewalk, a tongue-shaped alleyway tucked into the mouth of the main street. A glimpse to the right revealed a swallowed-up shadow of grey sparkle, slinky lettering and glittering glass. A twinkly knockout, but also a prideful grand dame - she only beckoned to people already paying attention.

In Stella’s first memory of the place, she was walking past with her parents, having just seen her first West End play. Her father had called out to her to hurry forward but she’d lingered, the revolving doors creating a powerful vortex for her attention the way gates and fences and doors often did when she was small. As an adult she’d avoided coming here - it was a little too much for her taste, a little too much pressure to enjoy oneself. But whenever she walked the Strand in a certain mood, she’d still feel the southerly tug at her ankles.

Tonight she wasn’t sure of her mood. She appreciated Scully’s attempt at a goodbye gesture, but she wasn’t sure this moment in their relationship would be helped by a velvet-coated art deco national landmark with twenty-pound drinks.

“I can get out. I’d like to walk a bit,” she said to her driver as he queued up behind other taxis and dark-windowed town cars. She needed a minute to collect her thoughts. She hadn’t seen Scully this morning and she hadn’t quite decided what to do with the information Mulder had shared. What could she do? Mulder was an innocent incompetent, even at being a confidante. It wasn’t her news to tell, and it wasn’t her responsibility to hide it either. Scully would be home soon enough. Stella needed to forget she heard it.

She traversed the rest of the walkway, her heels hammering pain and pleasure up the back of her legs. Two valets waited at the entrance in top hats, making eye contact as though they’d gotten all dressed up and come down just to wait for her.

“Evening, Ma’am,” said one as the other spun her inside.

The minute she entered the lobby, she turned into a giant chess piece - black and white floors, stately wood moldings, broad-shouldered people moving all around. There was a large painting front and center, classical in style with a wink subtle enough that Stella wondered if the subtext was in her mind; the subjects were two women, one with an arm around the other’s waist, pulling her close.

Stella tiptoed up a set of red stairs, swaying her hips to keep her shoes from slipping and suctioning. Photographs of classic movie stars studded the walls and a curio case displayed a personal check from Ava Gardner, a handwritten note from Sinatra. This part of the hotel was called the American Bar, so named for the style of cocktails it served in some earlier decade, but from now on, the nickname would have other implications for Stella.

A well-combed host in a white jacket stood up a little straighter, folded his forearms behind his back like a kid caught smoking in the bathroom.

“Evening, Ma’am,” he said. Sometimes she wished she lived in New York or Chicago, anywhere they were less likely to mind their manners and make her feel a hundred years old.

“Reservation is under Scully, I think.”

“Ah yes, Dr.Scully,” he said, as though she’d undersold his closest childhood friend. Dr. Scully must have been particularly charming on her way in tonight.

“That’d be the one,” she said. The host shuffled some thick menus, as though to lead her inside, but Stella took one from him. “I can find her, thank you.”

At a distance, Scully almost blended into the room. The natural glamour of her posture and the color of her hair made her appear almost like another piece of nostalgic forties decor. But when she turned to face her friend, Stella bit the inside of her cheek so hard her mouth went salty. She had gotten used to Scully borrowing her clothes, but that was usually jeans, sweaters, t-shirts…

“Well,” Stella said into Scully’s unusually direct stare. “This is… unexpected.”

Black pants and the matching suit jacket, white shirt buttoned all the way up beneath a skinny black tie. Hair deeply side-parted, loose over the shoulder in a single-bodied wave. Her cheeks were bare, lips cactus flower pink, eyes lined like one of the movie stars on the wall in a thick wet black marker that Stella would not have expected her to know how to operate. It was a look that made Stella think of a famous fashion photograph, though she couldn’t remember which one.

“Can I help you?” Scully asked coolly.

Stella needed a second to catch on, and then another to ask herself whether she had this in her tonight. Scully’s eyes fluttered and she looked down finally, second-guessing herself already.

“I was meeting someone here,” Stella said, taking pity. “But I suppose…I’ve been stood up.”

“Oh. I am sorry to hear that,” Scully said with the modest gleam of small victory.

She looked Stella up and down in a macho pantomime, lips parting slowly over the low neckline and tight satin bodice of the dress Stella had thrown on behind the gritty Venetian shades of her office. Stella couldn’t tell how much of it was exaggeration and how much was merely the way Scully normally wanted to let herself look at a woman and failed to allow it.

“I don’t think you should be alone looking like that,” Scully said and Stella tried not to laugh. “Can I get you a drink while you find us a table?”

Stella sat at a corner booth with purple pillows, patted the one beside her to prepare it for Scully. There was a piano at the middle of the room, a jazz pianist playing standards, half a dozen businessmen on the other side of it staring at her and clucking like excessively hormonally treated chickens out the sides of their mouths. Scully arrived, slid in close, and the men went quiet. Stella silently gloated as the last of them looked away.

“Didn’t know what you liked,” Scully said. She handed Stella a neon colored drink that contained what appeared to be a sugar-cored ice cube - a headache in a glass.

“Whiskey usually, but you wouldn’t know that.”

She took it and sipped.

“So, what brings you here?” Dr. Scully asked.

“I was meeting someone,” Stella said. “Remember?”

“Right,” Scully said. “Um. What do you do?”

Bad liars made for bad role-players and Stella doubted Scully had ever tried her hand before. She glanced at the piano where a few people had gathered to dance halfheartedly, hugging the silhouette of the baby grand for protection. Someone was singing now.

“Dance?” she suggested. Scully would get by better with less talking.

Scully led, hand around Stella’s waist, jacket enveloping them both, Stella’s dress rubbing between their knees. Scully’s supporting arm was convincingly strong, the opposite thumb in Stella’s palm certain as a crucifixion. Stella had already risen from this particular death once.

Scully’s manliness had added no inches to her flat-footed height and she had to lift her chin to whisper into Stella’s ear.

“Are you going to tell me your name?” she asked.

“Stella.”

Stella was annoyed by her own impatience. She sent her hand up under the collar of Scully’s jacket and squeezed the base of her neck, pressed it like a game-over button. Scully didn’t know enough to have asked her for a safe word.

“You don’t look like a Stella.”

“I’d rather not do this, darling.”

“Why not?”

“Not in the mood for a stranger.”

The piano trilled. Stella undid the button beneath the knot of Scully’s tie, as though this might release the real person inside. She wondered how long it’d taken Scully to make this Windsor knot, wondered if she was quick at it from years of helping Mulder un-dishevel himself. She poked a finger over the gully of Scully’s clavicle, then ran two fingers down the tie, inspecting it like a hairdresser does a wet lock of hair. The men’s clothes were fun. Men were fun. But in moments like this - the pad of her finger tracing the freckles that danced along Scully’s collarbone, the scent of oiled and spritzed and lotioned skin blossoming between the heat of two bodies, she could think of nothing more perfect than a woman. This one, in particular. They could still have a perfectly good night. As themselves.

“That’s too bad,” Scully said, her voice like the simple syrup dripping at the bar, smooth and lovely.

“Is it? Why?”

Scully tightened the arm around Stella’s body. Her breath was already heavy with alcohol - vermouth, Stella guessed. She was taking the Clark Gable thing as far as she could.

“Because the stranger has a river-view room upstairs. But if you’re not interested…”

And then Scully, either because it was part of the act or because it was something she always wanted to do and didn’t allow, looked over her shoulder at another woman.

*

Stella and Scully had shared many hotel elevators over the years, but the one at the Savoy was only the second they’d ever ridden as strangers. And it was a hell of a second place - rouged walls and mirrored panels, a leather bench at the back and a little bronzed plaque announcing its role as the first electric “ascending room” in London - a red beauty almost deserving of the one standing beside her.

It moved slow and easy to the seventh floor, its gilded buttons and curved corner moldings taking Stella back decades to the time she’d had to hold Scully’s hand to make sure they both made it to the room. Now Scully was all grown up and wearing suits, practically threatening to fuck her right there on a moving antique.

But the threat was a silent one. Both women were wordless on the ride and then the key-tap, all the way until Scully tugged Stella by the hand into the room. She spun at once and pressed Stella against the door, kissed her with one arm supporting her weight against the wall, the other heavy against the front of Stella’s neck. Stella slipped her hands into the gap of Scully’s jacket and rested them on her waist, both thrilled and annoyed by the knowledge that she was meant not to pull or direct at all. Her stomach flipped, then flipped back as Scully’s hand dripped from her neck to her nipple, fingering the edge of the dress for a minute before reaching around to unzip it.

Stella knew now why she’d been struggling with a sense of overwhelming irritation. Goodbyes were a time for more control, not less. She closed her eyes, wanting to let go of all that, meditative as she listened for the sound of her dress gasping to the floor. She was not ashamed that she, like anyone else, had issues. But unlike anyone else, damn if she was about to let those issues ruin a night in a hotel suite. Especially a night with some significance.

When she opened her eyes, Scully was looking at her with wide eyes, as though she’d never seen Stella’s lingerie collection before. This piece was one of Stella’s favorites - a beige mesh and black lace one-piece, deeply plunging from spaghetti straps to unlined cups, lace up the belly and high on her hips.

“Special occasion?” Scully asked, smiling, almost a giggle, almost losing her cool.

“No. Just wore it to work.”

That was half game and half true. It had seemed like a better idea to suffer all day under her work clothes than to have to wiggle into it behind a closed office door at the strike of seven.

Scully, still in a state of either mock or real wonderment, ran a finger over one of the seams that tracked from her side to her belly button. Stella swallowed, tightening a fist at her side, glancing past Scully’s shoulder into a checkered bathroom. Scully guided her attention back with a nudge to the nose. It’s just me, her eyes said, missing the fact that was the scary part, not the stranger.

Stella pushed past the voices in her head and brushed Scully’s jacket back and down, skiing it down her arms with a crisp fresh-snow sound. In a minute Scully was on her knees, holding tight to Stella’s waist and ass as her lips warmed the fabric of the bodysuit, following the intricate floral patterns that wove around the set of snaps. She met Stella’s eyes briefly before she dipped her chin, reached her tongue through an enclosure. The snaps popped open one by one, Stella’s heart rate ratcheting with each click.

“Fuck,” she said crisply over the smack of the licking because she knew it would undo her. One of her hands curled, nails making hilly indentations in the wallpaper. Her other hand wandered to the back of Scully’s head and pulled her closer. Scully looked up, amusement in her eyes. Well, you want to be treated like a man…

Scully’s tongue worked her open, warmed her in the overzealous hotel room air conditioning, melting her down to the knees. Her muscles, once resistant, now oozed in the palms of Scully’s hands. When Scully rose, she left the tickle of saliva dripping down Stella’s thigh. Stella tore open Scully’s shirt (her own, really). They breathed at each other, eyes locked, listening to the soft landing of the buttons on carpet.

“One more surprise,” Scully said. Stella looked at the ceiling and breathed deeply, watching Scully round a corner into the bedroom, visualizing all the things she would normally do to feel comfortable. Push Scully face forward onto the bed, pull her hair, kiss her neck, fingers inside her before she could think better of it, before she could complain about ruining the game…

The bedroom window sparkled, the Thames in all its complacent beauty, the moon reflective on the city’s monuments, the quiet hum of the biggest city in the world with a sensible bedtime. Scully had her hand on the night-table drawer.

“The Bible at a time like this?” Stella teased but she was beginning to have an idea what was going on.

“Come, turn toward the bed and close your eyes.”

Stella’s stepped forward, head a little woozy from the cocktail of anxiety and arousal. She rested her fingertips on the mattress. This place was as old and impenetrable as the Tower of London, but her heart beat so loud she worried someone would hear it. There was a rustle, a slight commotion behind her, clothing adjustments. One of Stella’s knees locked and loosened, locked again. She reminded herself of the luxuries she had with this pretend-man - knowing with certitude, for example, that she knew wouldn’t have to manage an uppercut and reach for her handgun. But there were other dangers, less tangible, more lethal.

Scully leaned forward to kiss her shoulder, then lightly tapped each of Stella’s heels with the oval toe of her shoe. Stella spread her legs, as told and two of Scully’s fingers went inside her for the briefest amount of time and then Stella could hear Scully doing something with them, lubricating something. Dear fucking Christ what kind of goodbye was this?

She gasped, fell to the heels of her hands, her hips in Scully’s grasp, bodysuit riding up her waist. Her eyes rolled back into her head as the cock entered her, stiff, warmed and wet. Scully worked it in until her pelvis pressed against Stella’s skin. Air escaped her throat as though pushed up by the pressure, the sound of an ice cold cola can cracking open.

She could feel Scully’s eyes on her back, her ass, could sense Scully watching herself with the same satisfaction as a man would. Stella had done this before, but only on the giving end.

“Good girl,” Scully purred and Stella smiled as she pressed her cheek to the mattress, catching Scully’s eye to let her know she was going to let her get away with this, with all of it. “You just bend over like a good girl and take it.”

Stella laughed in a single huff and then went quiet as Scully raked her hand through her hair , brushing it back over her ear to watch her face as she fucked her. Stella felt herself disappear, the last of her anxiety oxidizing into a heady rush, her defenseless aging well from hangup to asset.

“Hurt?

Stella blink-nodded against the bed.

“Good-hurt?” and there Scully sounded like herself - concerned, straightforward, just-checking.

“Yes. So good.”

“Now tell me. Who were you meeting tonight?” Scully pressed, back in character.

“A woman, I told you.”

A very hard thrust, there.

“What’s her name?”

“Dana Scully.”

“Hot?”

“Uh huh.”

Scully rubbed her clitoris and Stella sunk so deep into the bed she had to strain her neck to keep from suffocating. Ask me how hot, you fucking amateur, ask me.

“How hot?”

“I love her.”

When Scully leaned her face forward to whisper, the dildo slipped out a little, but Scully allowed it - Stella knew she’d been waiting to deliver this kind of punchline all night:

“But you’re here with me instead.”

“Don’t tell her,” Stella said.

Scully’s fingers tightened on the front of her hipbone and Stella squeezed the toy deeper. Scully made a convincing noise.

“I wish this was really my dick,” she said.

“No, you don’t,” Stella said, fingers cramping, thighs shaking. “If it were, I’d have thrown you out with a bloody nose already.”

Scully helped Stella peel herself up archingly from the bed, hand slithering up and back around Scully’s neck. Her thighs burned from the friction of the duvet under their combined body weight.

“I’m going to come,” Stella said, and she was, but she felt like she might cry first.

“Good girl, that’s my good girl,” Scully cooed, and this time neither of them thought it was at all ironic or funny. “Come for me.”

Scully put her thumb up in Stella’s mouth and Stella held on first with her lips, then with her teeth, feeling the tiniest flame of anger - at Scully? Herself? - awareness that she was giving something away, probably. She hummed and it vibrated off Scully’s bone like a tuning fork. The dick pulsed and Scully’s high-proof breath bore heavy on her neck, lips spread, silently pleading for her to give over. Stella nodded as though Scully had said something aloud and then she did say it:

“Yes, that’s it,” and she kissed Stella’s cheekbone. She lowered one finger from her clitoris and slid it up inside Stella along with the toy, curled it forward to meet the pressure being applied to her clitoris, hugging the G-spot from both sides as the toy thrusted.

Stella saw colors on the backs of her eyelids, a sunset-hued camera flash that vanished into violet spots. She wound her fingernails into the roots of Scully’s scalp, felt hair snag and skin turn up like soil underneath them. Scully held her breath so that there was nothing to hear but Stella’s voice. The sound of letting go.

The toy thudded to the floor when Scully was done and she clasped her arms around Stella, the come on her fingers sticky against Stella’s left arm. Stella caught her breath, licked the sweat off her lips. She wanted to turn and taste Scully’s - not yet.

“Where did that come from?”

“A shop in Soho,” Scully deadpanned. “There’s a clawfoot bathtub. I’m going to run it for you.”

“In a minute,” Stella said, clenching her grip on Scully’s arm, and Scully stayed put behind her.

“I booked it for the weekend,” Scully said. “ I’ll leave from here. We both will.”

A neutral exit. She had thought it through to make it easier. Stella turned in Scully’s arms to face her, rested her head on Scully’s shoulder with her nose against Scully’s neck. She stuck the point of her tongue to Scully’s skin for a moment.

“I can be all the things, you know,” Scully said. “Whatever you need. I think.”

Stella understood now. This was not a goodbye, but an invitation. And Stella might have been more tempted to accept it, beg for it even, and then figure everything else out later, prolong that inevitability just a little longer… Except that she had Mulder’s voice in her head - our son. Our son.

“I’m sorry, you asked me not to… do this,” Scully said. She swallowed, ramping up to say something she’d clearly thought over, mentally rehearsed. “But I’ve done a lot of being silent and regretting it in my life and I didn’t want it to be that.”

“I can’t.”

Scully took a deep breath and exhaled evenly.

“I’ll miss you, starlight,” Scully said.

“Don’t be silly, you’ll still see me.”

“Especially when I see you.”

“You have to go home, Dana.”

And she forced herself to stiffen so that Scully would let her go.

“Okay. Monday,” Scully said. She placed a quick kiss on Stella’s shoulder and stepped away.

And then Stella heard Scully running the water for her.

Chapter Text

The vinyl upholstery crackled as Mulder shifted his weight and looked out the diner window onto the expanse of knotted beltway. FM radio scattered particles of music around him like dust that moved with the swoosh and capture of twin glass doors. It was a busy morning in the restaurant, but for Mulder, there was only unleased space and silence, the room Scully’s voice and body would soon take up across from him, where her new reality would be borne, where time would reset itself for them as it had so many times already.

The waitress dropped menus and clicked her gum, winked as though she knew what he was about to do. New realities, a zero on the stopwatch - these were things of science fiction, sexy from afar, terrifying up close. He turned down the coffee, he was jumpy enough.

He had run his finger up and down the coiled spine of the menu for the fortieth time when she finally slid into the booth, brushed back a front-leaning strand of hair from root to end, an impractical gesture that had never really seemed to serve any purpose except to distract him. Saturday brunch sunlight pierced the window like a bullet and Scully chose her spot carefully, taking redheaded cover in a shadow. He fidgeted in parallel, wanting to be directly opposite her when he said what he had to say. She laughed, as though he was making fun of her, and reached across for a quick squeeze of his hand. He fumbled the gesture, his grip still favoring the safety of carefully-named omelets over human women. She didn’t seem to notice his worriedness. Maybe in her mind worriedness had become his natural state.

“How was London?” he asked because he didn’t want to say you look so good, I missed you, please come sit next to me, and these exclusions limited small talk. And yes, because he wondered if she would tell him what happened with Stella.

“Nice,” she evaded, scanning the menu. They both knew she would get two eggs scrambled with an avocado instead of bacon, tell them to hold the home fries but on-purpose-forget to tell them to hold the buttered toast. Looking at the menu was mere formality. “How are you, Mulder?”

And now she flicked her eyes up to note the quality and integrity of his answer, a doctor assessing a patient, if the doctor and patient had spent many years being in love. And so he could assess back, could see now as she studied him was that though she was happy to see him, there was sadness too. No doubt this sadness had something to do with Stella’s phone call from the bathroom floor. The realization was bittersweet - a poignant comfort on Stella’s behalf that the heartbreak she’d nursed was shared by the silent party, the dizzying disappointment that that other party was the person he himself was still heartbroken over.

“I’m good, Scully. You were right about the therapist.”

“Well–”

Normally, she was happy as anybody to accept an I-told-you-so, but she demurred here, waving him off. He persisted.

“I should’ve gotten help much sooner. You were right.”

“Okay. Good. You look well.”

She turned the menu over, pretended to consider a milkshake. He’d only seen her actually order one once. It was as memorable a diner moment as they came - glow-cheeked and kohl-smeared, she’d asked for it with a sigh of relief, as though the night they’d just spent together had earned her some sort of bonus. Relief.

It had been like making love to her all over again, watching her gaze into the frothy glass, the Redi-Whip level and locking like a canal as she sucked her cheeks in making pinwheels of her cheek and jaw bones. He had reached over to take it, slurp the remains from the bottom of the straw and she’d slapped his hand away. When she finally chose something, she possessed it, devoted herself to it. What happened when there were two competing items on the table?

“Any good cases lately?” she asked.

Strawberry, chocolate, vanilla, her finger physically skimming the plastic cover over these joyful words.

“No… well, some,” he said. “Hospital good?”

“They’re still a little sore over my long leave, but they’ll get over it. I’m starting to think about retirement. I think I could do more good that way, volunteering on my own terms… It’s not like I’d do nothing, but…”

Myriad were the hypothetical topics Mulder loved and Scully hated, but this was one of a few that went the other way around. She could pass hours daydreaming aloud about what she’d do with free time. It incited a sense of panic in Mulder, made some voice inside him start chanting, I will work until I die. He muffled a sigh by coughing into his elbow, trying not to sound annoyed, and waited for her to take a short pause before interrupting her.

“I actually brought you here to tell you something,” he blurted.

She looked up, eyebrows at a two percent incline that indicated she was in no way prepared for this moment. He picked up the file folder on the seat beside him, but the waitress came by with her pad. Scully made Mulder go first, buying time she didn’t need, and then ordered her usual.

“And a black and white with whipped cream,” Mulder tacked on at the end.

“No, I’m on a cleanse. London was all red meat and chocolate and alcohol.”

London, not Stella. As though she’d been in a hotel somewhere alone.

“I’ll have it, then,” he said.

The waitress nodded as she jotted and Mulder wondered how many people used places to set a scene. Should he have done it in private, where she could cry or scream or do something else (he didn’t know what)? It was true, he’d been counting on the fake-leather booth and egg-pan breeze to undercut the drama, but now that he was here with her it seemed more likely to exacerbate the situation.

“Sounds like big news,” she said but lightly, a benign reduction - you, the boy who cried aliens. She folded her elbows on the table and leaned forward. “Come on, you’re killing me.”

No sooner did the sarcasm settle than she spotted the mustard yellow folder under his hand and her technicolor complexion went grey. This news was not we’re going to a basketball game, I’m getting a dog, or I found your favorite sweater, here ya go. This news required a folder with a standard bureau label on it.

He placed it in front of her on the table, laid his hand flat on top of it so that she’d have to look at him before she opened it. She knew the moment their eyes met.

“How?” she demanded immediately. She regarded the folder itself like a bomb, waiting for him to tell her which wire was which. His heart raced and he tried to remember his patience, tried to quell the urge to rush her into feeling any one specific thing.

“I wasn’t sure we’d be able to find him at all. That’s not how we set it up,” he said to stall, and to explain why he hadn’t told her he was looking into it in the first place. He hadn’t wanted to get her hopes up.

“And… how?” she repeated, now sounding light headed, shallow-breathed.

“Working for the FBI for a hundred years has to come in handy at some point, right?”

“Is he…?”

He reached for her hands, bending forward like a branch, an unexpected gale of guilt curling his back. Generally file folders appeared when a body turned up. Of course he should have led with this:

“He’s fine, honey. Just fine. Sorry. I should have…”

She nodded quickly, let out a breath.

The waitress arrived with the milkshake in a deep old-fashioned glass, a spoon, two straws and the stem of a cherry sticking up out the top. For the first time, he understood Scully’s gravitas around ordering these things. There was a time and place. Celebration could turn to sorrowfulness, expectation to terror quickly. Sometimes you’d be sorry or embarrassed you had a milkshake in front of you. Neither of them touched it.

“There’s a picture,” he said. “Pictures.”

In slow motion, she registered this development, licked her lips, straightened up as gradually as a puppet, pulled her hand from under his and placed it on her stomach. Air shifted visibly within her ribcage, rippling her fingers as she tried to support her diaphragm externally. Condensation began to encircle the base of the glass.

“I know, it’s a shock. I’d half been hoping Stella told you, even though I asked her not to.”

Her face twitched in confusion.

“Stella knew?”

He shook his head quickly.

“Just for a couple days before you came back. It came up.”

Color reappeared in her cheeks and her fingers went to her temples. The kind of face she normally made when she found herself in the middle of a desert in a suit in hundred-degree heat, chasing down one of Mulder’s hunches, her how the fuck did we get here again face.

“Sorry -I -? When did it come up? How?” she stammered.

“She probably didn’t think it was her place.”

“Why do you talk to each other behind my back?”

“We weren’t talking behind your back, we were talking and it came out, Scully.”

This was a coping mechanism of hers, to bicker through a loss of control, but sometimes mechanisms malfunctioned, caused damage. He knew that ‘cause he went to therapy now. Sometime - definitely not now - he would tell her she should go too.

“I hate feeling like I’m the last one to know things,” she said.

He leaned forward and lowered his voice.

“I hate that there’s someone who can make you come faster than I can.”

She startled, almost laughed, but couldn’t - that folder was still here, in the room, staring her down, just like the milkshake.

Her eyes moved over the edge of the piece of cardboard, as though it required planning - how does one open a file folder that contains the son you gave away? He tore it open for her, a Bandaid off a scab.

Mulder wasn’t there the first time Scully laid eyes on their son. He’d had to guess at the way she must have marvelled, the beauty, the awesomeness of it. No telling how he might have held up then, how that experience might have toughened his tolerance so that now thirteen years later he might not fall apart watching this second first-time.

His chest tightened, tears freezing somewhere between his eyebrows to avoid falling. Across from him, Scully shed them with sensible abandon, weeping as science intended, peeling the surfaces of her eyes away like dead skin, leaving behind something new and unprotected, something healthier but easier to wound.

There was a school photo of William, a close-up, and then a few surveillance photos that had been taken at a distance. Mulder had insisted they take no chances disturbing the boy, so these were a little blurry, taken at odd angles, slightly refractory images. You had to use your imagination in order to piece him together. But Scully stared, tracing a finger over his profile like he might pop up from the paper and sit with them. What would he order if he could join them, Mulder wondered?

He was tall for his age and pouty-lipped, possessed of the pronounced Mulder brow. But he had Scully’s eyes and his skin was so fair he looked like he’d get a burn just turning the lights on. And there was one odd thing -

“He’s blonde,” she said finally, mystified.

“Yeah. Tell Stella I want a paternity test.”

She smiled and laughed, held a napkin to her upper lip to blot the snot.

“There’s some information, too,” he said. “It’s mostly, well, you’ll see.”

She flipped nimbly through, taking it all in like one of the old casefiles she’d had to cram before she got out of the car. As in those cases, there was little to go on. A tonsillectomy. One school change to enter a gifted children’s program, a broken arm when he was ten from falling off the edge of a staircase, climbing up the wrong side of the rail, an activity which had almost gotten him kicked out of the fancy school.

She looked up, topmost edges of the papers trembling over her knuckles. Her fingers were ripply at the knuckle, but her hands were still lovely, expensive looking - little blown-glass figurines that would outlast every piece of furniture in the house.

“He’s fine?”

“Yeah. He’s fine.”

William’s life was average in the extreme. It was regular. It was everything they could have hoped for.

She put the photos down in a neat pile, straightened her shirt, her lipstick, her hair, pushed the file folder closer to the center of the table beside a ceramic bed of sugar packets. In a moment, food would arrive and they’d have to pack everything up, put it on a seat to her left or to his right, but for now it sat evenly between them. Just as much his as it was hers.

She scratched her lips thoughtfully, tapped the other set of fingernails on the table.

“He’s fine,” she said, this time quietly, talking to herself, or to the folder, or maybe to God.

And then her gaze settled on Mulder. It lingered there as the waitress balanced their food on her shoulder, placed down little dishes of overly cold butter and plasticky jam. A few feet away, a newly minted middle-aged couple joined hands for the first time ever beside their forks. Behind Scully, an aide helped an old woman into the booth. Two college girls cooed at the counter, full up with things to tell each other. Time moving forward and backwards, borrowed and stolen and still and running in circles at every table.

“Fine,” Scully repeated and tugged the cuff of his sleeve. She mouthed the words thank you, bottom lip grazing her teeth. She did it again, this time forehead collapsing into the center of her face to make that vertical wrinkle she’d had above her nose since she was twenty seven.

He nodded, reached his foot under the table so that it rested against hers, his rubbery arch warming the sharp edge of her shoe and he pushed the milkshake across the table.

She laughed and then took a sip. Relief.

Chapter Text

As a biology major, Scully had sometimes been warned she was signing up for a life of disappointment. Satisfaction would be fleeting. Few of them, if any, would make grand discoveries in their careers. The earth was already round. The miracle of penicillin had already been witnessed, sprouted hundreds of other little miracles that bore an ever-less-impressive resemblance. A scientist, Scully was told, must learn to love the question, not live for an answer.

William had been a hypothesis for most of these past thirteen years, and though that was sometimes painful, it was familiar. It was a circumstance Scully had come to accept. She’d given him up because she’d firmly believed it was better for him. Conclusions: none. Control: none. It was how she’d assumed things would always be. But now there was an answer. William existed once again. He looked a certain way and sounded a certain way and lived a very certain life and she would always miss him. This was harder than she’d ever expected or allowed herself to imagine. The earth is round - think what that had taken for people to get used to it.

She rationalized things like the thing she was doing by going over this, comparing the unfamiliar emotions associated with her son to the familiar territory of science. But Stella was no scientist, and she was no poet like Mulder. She was an answers person. And now she was here, involved in Scully’s experiments, and was not particularly happy about it.

They were seated on a cool-slatted autumn park bench, Stella draped in cashmere and reluctance, the chilly peach East Coast air settling on her cheekbones like stains of faint embarrassment. It had been eight months since their parting ways - eight months of silence. Stella had granted Scully’s request for a visit without knowing specifically what it would entail. Now she clasped her brown butter leather gloves over a tightly crossed thigh, pulled the cuffs of her sweater down closer to the edge of her gloves to warm her wrists.

Had this once come easier? The restraint it took to refrain from touch and mentioning the effect of light on the color of her eyes? An evening they’d spent in a hotel as just-friends came to mind.

“Did you color?” Scully asks, her surgeon-steady hand poised over Stella’s, light pink bottle of Chanel nail polish in place of a scalpel.

“Color… my nails?” Stella asks and blows a stream of air across her other hand.

“No, you know, like, crayons.”

“Oh. No, not that I remember.”

Scully glances up quickly to make sure of two things – first, that Stella’s not touching her hair, her spaghetti straps, her Scotch, anything that would smudge the half-finished work, and secondly, that she hasn’t overstepped Stella’s bounds by asking questions.

Stella smiles, quick, casual, disappearing. It’s hard to tell if it ends quickly because there is no reason to force it longer or because some shadow of the past has swallowed it.

“Isn’t that the sweater you let me keep?” Scully asked, eyeing the grey marled drawstrings on the hood.

“Bought myself another one.”

“And here I thought you’d made an ultimate sacrifice.”

“That would be unnecessary when I could just re-purchase it.”

“You could have just asked for it back, it was expensive,” Scully says, feeling the sting.

“And now it has dog hair on it,” Stella continued.

A stranger’s Golden Retriever had brushed up against Scully’s leg and she’d kept him there for a matter of seconds

“It’s barely noticeable. You and the dog have the same color hair,” Scully said.

“I don’t shed.”

“We all shed.”

“I don’t like dogs.”

“You just pretend not to like them.”

Perhaps this had been a terrible idea. Perhaps she should have waited for Stella to call first.

“Are you certain he’s coming today?”

“No, not certain. I haven’t really established a pattern.”

“That’s good to hear. Aren’t you freezing in that denim jacket? What have you got under it?”

“A t-shirt. I’m fine.”

“I’m not pretending, I truly dislike dogs. They’re jumpy and they stink.”

Suddenly, Scully thought of some version of her life not lived, pictured Stella in their home, going stone cold as she brought in this or that mutt home from the pound.

“You’re a cat person, is that what you’re telling me?” she asked.

“I’m not an animal person, I’m a people-person.”

Scully double licked her lips as she waited for a punchline that never came.

“What?” Stella pushed back. “I’m good with people.”

“You’re good at making people do what you want, that’s not the same thing.”

“You should know.”

Scully looked away, scanned a group of children without guardians - not the right group of children.

“I should have told you this was where we were going, but I thought you’d say no.”

Stella looked at her hard - her hardest countenances were reserved for her kindness.

“I think you know me better than that,” she chided softly.

“Did you swim?” Scully asks with eager intrigue, that new friendship glee still fresh even after a few years of knowing one another.

“No. I learned when I was older,” Stella says.

Scully nodded, dug the heels of her hands into the bench as she shuffled her feet - uncrossed and then recrossed. She tossed her hair to the other shoulder so the wind wouldn’t pin it to her lip balm. Maybe it would be better if he didn’t show up.

“How many times have you done this?” Stella asked.

“Five or six times. Seven.” Eight, nine, if she counted the times he hadn’t showed.

“Long drive coming from your place, isn’t it,” Stella murmured.

Scully said nothing. She had never even noticed how long. She had spent exactly none of those hours considering the moral quandaries involved. It was only talking to other people about it that even made her aware of them. Alone, driving here, she wondered about his favorite color, his favorite food, if he could play any instruments.

“Mulder go with you?”

“Just once.”

He’d thought it was weird, said it felt wrong. She’d pretended to agree.

“What did you do then?” Scully presses.

“Horses. Everything was my horse. Riding, being with him, sitting there staring at him leaning on a fence, anything.”

Scully laughs and mumbles something about how very English this is and still Stella’s cuticles stay clean, not a stray stripe. Steady fingers, doctor’s fingers.

“Look at that,” Stella says in a soft, appreciative voice, eyes hot and hard where their hands are occupationally joined. “Even better with your hands than I remember.”

The flirtation is a change of subject, a subtle warning, and Scully licks her lips, doubles back for a second coat of the other hand, prepared to drop the topic of the horse. But Stella keeps talking.

“My father would take me.”

The father, yes. Somehow always comes back to him, somehow always seems like the best and worst of what Stella remembers. Scully paints, carefully considering her next question. The color on Stella’s nails thickens so that it goes from a translucent skin color to a ballet pink that matches Stella’s satin slip camisole top.

Stella had turned slightly to watch a crowd of nearby teenagers approaching the skate park. She slipped off a glove to scratch her lip with her nail. This was the kind of thing Stella remembered to do that Scully wouldn’t have - all her leather gloves were marked with pink, red, mauve colored wax.

“How did you and I wind up friends?” Scully asked, eyes on her son, voice going wistful against her better judgment Sometimes she wondered why they’d had to break up (was that what it was?). Other times, she wondered how they’d started in the first place. She caught Stella’s profile for a moment at such a perfect angle that she had to look the opposite direction to catch her breath. Perhaps eight months had not been enough. “Two not-people-people from separate parts of the world sitting on a bench together.”

“We almost didn’t.”

“And?”

“And I have irrepressible impulses to fuck beautiful people I know for certain I’ll never see again,” Stella said, pronouncing the F so hard it produced pulp in the air. The playground moms turned to look.

“Blonde, you said? How’s he blonde?”

“Mulder said to ask you.”

“Idiot,” Stella murmured absently, busy separating the boy out from a crowd, putting him at the crosshairs of her attention. Scully found him at once. She knew his walk by now. His carriage. She could spot him a mile away. She didn’t worry when he didn’t come. She didn’t think about talking to him or touching him. It was just this, watching, at a distance, periodically. Still there. Still there, watching him like he was an infant sleeping in a cradle rather than an almost adult riding a skateboard.

“There, yes?” Stella said, a voice like a long hooked finger, the drawl so sustained the word could have reached across the Atlantic Ocean. “That’s him, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” she hissed to herself without Scully saying anything at all.

He was wearing a hat today, a striped beanie and a pair of Ray-Bans, trying to look cool, Scully thought, but the rest of him was still sloppy and silly, lecturing at his friends about something. Like his father, she thought, and still she felt no angst, no sadness, only peace. It was like bird-watching, only it was her son out there in the wild. And this lanky creature here is known as a young human.

“Not what I expected,” Stella murmured, as though a voice any louder might make him flit away, all the way across the park. Stella said. “All you.”

“Why is that unexpected?”

“They say the first child always resembles the father, to keep him from wanting to kill it, eat it or abandon it.”

Scully looked at her knees.

“That’s not what I meant,” Stella said quickly.

“I know.”

Ten, it had been ten times.

“Were you pretty? You must have been very pretty.” Scully is flirting and she knows it but it seems harmless enough.

“I don’t know.”

Scully gives one of Stella’s fingers a little tug, bats her eyelashes to let Stella know she’s teasing, overdoing it. She doesn’t know how to pay compliments without turning them into jokes.

“Did people tell you you were pretty, fawn over your golden hair while you relentlessly questioned them?”

It’s Stella’s turn to laugh.

The kids were moving closer, William looking at his phone as he smoldered leaves underfoot, swiveling on the balls of his feet with each step to make the crunch and sizzle. Who was he texting with? His mom? Maybe a girl. Or boy. She lost herself in the last of the questions she could dredge up - imagining his turns of phrase, his favorite emoji and soon he was closer than he had ever been, just a few feet away, kicking a ball as he walked. Scully felt her breath quicken as one of the boys got William’s attention, asked him something. She had heard his voice only a couple of times, from much further away.

Stella nudged her in the side, drew her attention to the map on her phone.

“Here look,” Stella said. “Says they’ve a good Caesar salad. I’m in the mood for that.”

Scully nodded, her ankles brittle as weak stemmed flowers succumbing to first frost. Stella tugged her up from the bench. She suddenly was very cold and shivered as she wrapped her denim jacket tighter. She knew Stella’s instincts were right, that it was too strange, too risky for them to just sit there, so close to him. Don’t turn back, she told herself. And:

“Don’t turn back,” Stella echoed aloud.

Stella’s hands were in her pockets as they walked, eyes sympathetic but stern. Scully imagined it was how she looked when she brought someone in to identify a body, tell someone their sister had been strangled.

“Mulder’s right about this, you know that.”

Stella’s mention of his name, even in this context of William, or maybe because of it, angered her. Stella pulled the scarf from her neck and forced it around Scully’s neck. Loving Stella was no more or less painful than loving someone else, but it was more embarrassing, like loving a ghost or a phantom limb.

“How did you know I asked lots of questions?”

“Most children do. And you’re a detective.”

“So are you.”

“Not like you, not a born one.”

“Well you do have a second profession to fall back on.”

“A doctor?”

“A manicurist.”

Scully fake-raps Stella on the wrist and a bit of paint splatters on the crests of her knuckles.

She was grateful that she was not alone, that Stella’s footsteps were falling right beside her own, Stella’s musk-heavy floral scent bedded in the fabric beneath her own chin.

“I’m glad I got to see him this once,” Stella said. That’s it, William was in the past again, at least for today.

Would she have disliked him as she disliked other children (and dogs?) She would have been good to him, spoiled him, refused to stop cursing in front of him, probably?

“You and Mulder doing all right?”

“I don’t really want to talk about that.”

“You’ll have to get used to it again at some point.”

“So you’re not going to fight for me,” Scully said, meaning it as a joke, but her voice cracked.

“Fight for you,” Stella repeated dubiously, deciding whether to enter a game or a boxing ring.

Scully was glad they weren’t facing each other now. She had things she wanted to say. A fireplace burned somewhere in the neighborhood, the smell of a family gathering around it.

“You sent me back home because of William, didn’t you? Mulder told you. That’s why you made me leave you and now I’m home and you don’t think I should see William but you’re not going to try to get me back either. It doesn’t quite track for me.”

She stopped only because her breath ran out. Stella was silent a moment. Walk, keep walking.

“I don’t fight for people.”

If not people, then what, Scully wanted to say. But she bit her lip instead, trying to keep it from trembling as she faced the chill, keeping time as though accidentally, side by side like strangers just off the same bus.

“You can’t keep doing it. This was the last time. All right?”

Scully pursed her lips, shook her head, looked at the sky. Stella was not going to use her son to change the subject.

Or were they the same subject?

“You could do worse than Mulder,” Stella said, sharpening the edge on her voice, her weapon of choice, that vicious casualness. “You love him. He loves you. You’re best friends. He’s very well-endowed, from what I remember. He can reach things. Kill bugs. He found your son for you despite absolute impropriety and deep ethical and legal breaches.”

“Stop,” Scully said, looking away over her other shoulder just to keep from crying. A cadre of barren trees was ready to march off into winter, leave their dead, once-treasured leaves at their feet. “Please stop.”

“Fine.”

This was how Stella faced her fears, she knew. Laughed in the face of murderers, memorized her nightmares, re-read them like fairytales, salivated at the sight of blood, sneered at a plane nose-diving with a slug of Scotch.

“You aren’t supposed to tell little girls they’re pretty too often,” Stella says with slow, deliberate breaths placed mid-phrase, as though she regrets having to tell anyone this, having to spoil an innocent, unruined worldview where a compliment to a child is merely a compliment, where little girls can be pretty and not suffer for it.

“Why not?”

“Because it makes them think they’re nothing else.”

“Mm,” Scully says and caps the polish. Stella sits still as stone, hands out in front of her on the magazine, watching the polish dry with more patience than Scully has ever seen her muster.

“Sometimes you just have to let a person go,” Stella said as a boy - not her boy - on a skateboard sailed by.

“Which of you are you talking about now?”

Yes, the same subject.

Stella stopped abruptly, took Scully’s chin in one hand. Rough enough that Scully might have objected except that it was stopping the incessant spinning she’d felt since they got up from the bench.

“I can’t do what Mulder can do, Dana. And Mulder can’t do what I’m doing right now, and I don’t live here, so you need to let me say this right fucking now and tell me you hear me.”

Scully tightened her jaw stubbornly. She felt small but safe here in Stella’s one hand.

“This is the last time you see him until he’s eighteen and you can ask. Or you’ll regret it.”

Scully nodded, gulped away the tears in her throat, but they were tears of embarrassment, not sadness. Stella’s grip loosened but did not release her.

“Tell me you hear me.”

Stella finally dropped her hand and held Scully’s. The skin was bare. Where was her glove?

“I wish I could have known you then,” Scully says, replacing the fancy second square cap over the little ridged round one.

“Take this,” Stella said and handed her one glove.

“Why?”

Scully heard the footsteps before she saw him and she saw the slightly sad, slightly satisfied smile in Stella’s eyes. It could be any of them, Scully told herself, any of those kids.

“Excuse me! Lady!”

But it was him. Stella nodded for her to turn.

“This yours?” he asked.

He held the abandoned glove out at arm’s length and Scully choked the sob in her throat. Despite Stella’s impression, he looked just like Mulder the first day she met him. First day of school science lab boy, nerdy and needy, sanguine and sweet and unaware of his charms, willing to cut open anything you didn’t want to touch even if he had to hold his breath to do it himself.

“Yes, yeah that’s mine,” she forced herself to say finally, knowing that once she did it would be over. Her pause made him laugh for some reason. When she stuck her hand out to take the glove, she must have still looked dazed, lame, because he frowned at her as though she’d made a silly mistake, then stuck his tongue between his molars and held her wrist with one hand, pretending to struggle to put it on her like a toddler. She laughed, counting the seconds until she could collapse. She’d have to make it out of the park, clear the area, she knew.

“Thanks,” she said and he nodded, licked his lips, and yes that was all her, turning them chapped to the wind and jogging off to meet his friends, a thirteen year old interrupting his afternoon to return a single glove to two middle aged women he’d never seen before.

Stella immediately took her arm, keeping the pace steady but consistent. Scully kept up but would not stop looking until Stella looked back.

“What if he didn’t return it?” Scully managed to whisper.

“Why?” Stella asks.

As in why would anyone want to have known a four- and six- and eight-year-old girl like her, freckle faced and quiet eyed, brushing a horse’s back as she stands on a stool, proud and kind and a little strange, inconceivably wise beyond her years.

“Because,” Scully says and picks up Stella’s hands, squeezes her palms between thumb and middle fingers. “Then I could have told you you were everything.”

“I was willing to lose a glove today.”

Chapter Text

He realized he’d left the door unlocked by the way the early November candy corn breeze whistled through the first grade teeth of the patched screen door, winter dragging autumn out by its ankles. The kitchen was as clean as it had been when Scully lived there, back when she’d tidy it every night before bed, caring for it like she cared for her teeth or her skin.

It had taken him some time to figure out how to do this. Time plus a therapist, two bottles of pills on the bathroom counter, and experiments with various citrusy smelling liquids in spray bottles. Toxic, non-toxic, lemon-mint, gingerberry, when to hit the hard stuff - bleach, served neat. Certain things like mental health and spotless surfaces had always been Scully’s area of expertise, but in her absence, he’d learned about both.

He’d done this often over the years, sat with William’s baby picture, forearms resting on the kitchen table, staring at it the way most people had learned during those years to stare at their tablets and phones. He only ever did it alone - waited for Scully to leave and go home, which she always did. When she lived here, he’d had to wait for her to go to sleep. He had never told her it wasn’t all research and computer screens wrestling him from their bed.

The photo paper was pliant from age and attention and it took only ten minutes or so for it to warm between his fingertips so thoroughly that he worried the colors would come off on his fingers, that baby William would disappear from prosperity into the temporariness of his skin. He used to think of old world boy-things - model rockets and baseball caps, the stuff of fifties sitcoms and Norman Rockwell. He used to think you belong here.

He used to wonder if William would look at him the same way Scully did when she was thinking aloud, the little line forming between her eyebrows, the squint, the lips tightening in distaste and restraint, or if William was more like him, a dreamer and a rambler. He knew himself. He knew Scully. That William possible, knowable. But now he was a third thing - himself.

 

The screen door hinge cracked and smacked behind him. He’d recently tightened the screws and she wasn’t used to its newfound snap. Stella must have gone back to London. He had not asked for dates and times - had never done that, not even when they were together. He’d always had plenty to keep himself busy while Stella was in town. He more often had trouble stopping that busyness when Stella had gone. He always made Scully re-announce her presence.

“Just me, Mulder.”

“I know.” I can tell by the way the gravel crunches under your tires, can tell by the tone of the wooden moan in the porch floorboards, by the way you breathe on the other side of a weight-bearing wall. You belong here.

“So clean,” she marvelled quietly, as she often did when she stopped by these days to say hello or drop off some pizza or check on him, he knew that’s what it was. He wondered if someday it would sound like superiority. He wondered if he’d ever learn to take her for granted again, just a little bit, just enough to relax.

“How’s Stella?” he asked, and considered shuffling the photo out of view as he normally would, but for some reason, this time, he did not.

“She’s good, I think. You know, Stella doesn’t say much.”

She dropped William’s folder on the table. She’d had possession of it since the diner. Now she leaned on the back of the chair over him, her fingers snuggling between the wood and his back as she saw the baby picture. She petted his hair from behind, rested her chin on his head so that her voice came out funny. He wondered how long she’d been watching from the door.

“I didn’t know you still had that,” she said and her voice sounded strangled by the lump in her throat.

Someday something like that might feel like a vote of underconfidence, a dig… he wished for that someday to come.

“I don’t know what’s harder, having information about him, or when we had nothing,” she said.

“I was just thinking that.”

“Were you?”

For years, they’d resisted this. Done everything else together while they mourned the loss of their family in private. Like they’d had separate roles in that crime. Like they weren’t serving the same sentence. Just minutes ago, he’d been making plans to keep doing it forever. Why?

“I spoke to him,” she said. “Heard his voice.”

He tried not to look alarmed.

“No, not like that, not about anything. Just accidentally left something behind and he… he was… good, he’s good.”

“Of course he is, Scully. He’s yours.”

She came around the chair and leaned her behind against the edge of the table, half-smiled.

 

“Maybe it’ll be better if we put them away,” she said. “For us. And for him.”

Someday this might sound like she was couching her own self-correction in a criticism but tonight it sounded like thank Christ, Stella had talked sense into her.

“I think you’re right.”

“Regular people with normal jobs wouldn’t have even gotten this much.”

“No.”

“But I’m glad you did, Mulder,” she said and this would always mean what it meant tonight.

She picked up the photos - the baby one and the new ones, stared at them as she shuffled to the drawer next to the fridge and laid them in there with their love notes, blank birthday cards, Scotch tape. Sometimes junk drawers weren’t for junk, they were just for the things you didn’t know what to do with.

She hesitated, then pushed it shut, and then, leaning back against it, hands still behind her on the pull, she looked at him, really looked at him. Sweet and sexy and yes, a little sad. Her lips shined, caught the glow of the single source of light in the room over his head. He held his breath.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me,” she demanded softly. “That you were sad about it?”

“I didn’t think I had to.”

He waved her over and she came, held his hands like the holster of a carousel horse. In her eyes, shades of blue spun as she tried not to cry.

“Hard to say goodbye to him all over again.”

He nodded, swallowed, and put one arm around her hips.

“But this time I’m here.”

Her belly shook at his ear, though he heard nothing. He kissed the hem of her sweater, leaned his chin into the dip of her navel. She wiped her cheeks dry and then took his face in one wet salted palm, bent to kiss him on the mouth.

Her hands crept around his throat, thumbs at his Adam’s apple. The room stopped smelling “clean” and smelled instead like her, like the perfume she’d been wearing since the day she first walked into his office, something he had never heard the name of, never heard her mention having to replace. She was only good at keeping the silliest secrets.

He put his hands around the trunk of her right thigh and tugged her towards him. More need than want is what it was up until then.

But now her body swayed toward him and she climbed into his lap in her sweatpants. It had been years and her lips dripped with salt. She tasted like love and sadness and the future. He was hard for her, hell, hard for all of it.

“I’m here this time,” he said, pulling his mouth just far enough from hers to speak, letting her tongue catch the chap of his lips. “I’ll always be here.”

She stopped then and something passed behind her eyes, a shift of color behind blue-tinted glass, a sheet in the wind, a wave of blonde hair, a silk shirt. Would she think of Stella whenever they kissed, when he made love to her on this table? Would he ever not wonder?

“Always is a long time,” she said without hiding the hint of mournfulness, of missing something, and he nodded.

“I didn’t say she’d be gone. I just said I’ll be here.”

She frowned, breath quickening even as her mind slowed.

“Mulder?”

“We’re too old to give up things we love,” he said and meant it. Who cared what she thought of when he kissed her?

She unzipped her sweatshirt, pushed it back off her shoulders.

He placed a kiss on her neck, stripped her naked from the waist up. She moved his lips back to her own and dropped her weight deeper into the cusp of his pelvis. With their noses pushed together and her shoulder blades clipped toward one another over the table, she breathed into his mouth.

“God, I missed you,” he said.

“Fuck me, Mulder.”

Her hair frizzed in his fist as she pulled her hamstrings tight atop his quadriceps. The grace of youth was gone but it was replaced with something better. This is what age looked like. This is what fixed mistakes looked like.

One hand on her lower back, hooked into the back of her pants, the tag silky between his thumb and her skin, he pulled her closer and tighter, sucking her into his mouth, savoring her like a sublingual pill, like he was waiting for her to melt under his tongue and be absorbed into his blood.

She arched and stretched, placing herself over him with such anatomical precision that he might as well be inside her rather than on either side of four layers of clothes. Her body was hot and impatient against his belly as his fingers slipped into her pants and under her thigh, past the cotton seam of her underwear. She hummed in his ear, fit her body more closely over his hand.

He lifted her at the waist, laid her back on the table, pulled her bottoms off in a swift but clumsy motion. He leaned over to kiss her cheeks, her neck, her chest. She bent a knee and brought the top of her foot to brush his cock through his pants, rubbed the sharp crest of her instep against him until it hurt.

“Fuck me, Mulder,” she said again, the solid edges of her voice absorbed by the wood at her back. She squeezed his arms.

“Easy, baby,” he said and as he entered her, her eyes watered and a tear rolled out onto the table, crystal clear. She’d come over for dinner and television, sweatpants and chopsticks, but he had trapped her with his clean surfaces and exposed wounds. Her body shuddered, shoulders convulsing, shrugging off the past, making herself new for him. “So tight. How are you still so tight for me?”

She grinned wickedly.

“She only has so many fingers.”

And he laughed, bit her neck as he fucked her slowly.

They’d made their baby just like this, in a bed rather than on a table, but just like this, with this much love and intent. He’d known right away that it had worked, known just looking at her collapsed on his torso.

“Oh my God,” she whispered as the edge of the table met the back of her knees. She pinched his t-shirt to her in both fists, then slammed one hand down hard next to her hip. He moved his hands from table to body, alternatingly bracing his weight and cupping her breasts, aligning her hips and brushing her lips, fucking her until she white knuckled the slab he used to eat his depressed dinners on.

She pulled herself up against him, gripped his neck and pushed her feet against the seat of the chair behind him for leverage. Sometimes it upset him how little he had to do to make her come. Sometimes but not now.

“Look at me like you used to,” she said and he spun around to sit on the table, let her put her knees down on either side of him. “Look at me so I can make you come.”

They did it together, like they did most things, their work and their driving and their arguing and their meals and now their goodbyes to their son. Soft staccatoed moans and her pelvic muscles squeezed and tugged him and he peeled the cheeks of her ass so that she’d take him deeper and then the rhythm of their bodies broke like a fever, madness taking over, breath tangling, toxic and medicinal at once, words all nonsense and undictionaried. If she was thinking of Stella too, that didn’t matter, that was not a bad thing, because nothing associated with this could be bad.

He held her until he went soft inside her, and she smiled - her favorite magic trick, his dick going from hard to soft and back again, biology and anatomy in motion at her whim.

When they got up, she picked up her clothes, tucked them under one arm, and led him up the staircase naked, her rear silhouette incarnadine with freckles and friction. He followed her three steps behind, watching each calf raise each heel carefully on the edge of each plank, soles searching the wood grains for the stamps that showed where her footsteps belonged.