The early morning in spring, in Alexandria, felt to Scully like a portal to a secret world that was hers alone. A glorious, pink sunrise brought her across the bridge to Virginia. The flicker of gas station neon signs, the thump-thump of poorly laid asphalt in deserted streets, the rustle of the leaves in the wind as she parallel parked across the street from Mulder’s front door. A steaming cup of coffee in her hand, she settled in, regarding the world lazily through half-closed eyes. She could stay here forever, with just the leaves and birds and rapidly warming rays of spring sunshine for company. The future could wait.
The future, dressed in all black like one of those ridiculous art types Langly always wanted to date, emerged from the beaten-up building Scully was staking out. He yawned, patting his pockets one last time, she knew, to make sure he had the necessities. With a trained eye, he scanned the sidewalk. Scully sipped her coffee, watching Mulder jog over to her car with a duffel bag swaying on his shoulder. This was, in some ways, her favorite way to see him, at a distance and behind glass, in his native habitat. She enjoyed observing him in his natural state, the way his left shoe was more scuffed at the toe than the right, his easy smile.
He fit her life best how she’d seen him days before: fuzzy and obscured behind her shower curtain, close enough to touch whenever she wanted, but not so close she felt obliged. She felt, not for the first time, like this was the final moment of calm before he came roaring into her space, claiming all of her as his own.
She wasn’t… unwilling. She was cautious.
“Red sun at morning, Scully!” Mulder’s voice boomed into her consciousness. He opened the passenger door with a tug and her coffee cup nearly tipped over in her lap. Scully flinched and hoped he hadn’t noticed.
“Good morning to you, too.”
Mulder smirked and reached, unprovoked, over to squeeze the back of her neck with his warm palm. “You gotta say it.”
“Sailors take warning.”
Content, he nodded and ran his thumb over the back of her ear.
“You sure you didn’t forget anything?” she said, changing the subject.
“Only my magical shrinking potion,” he said, confused, and made a show of folding himself over his legs before working out how to move the seat back. She had known him as long as she had had this car, and he still hadn’t figured it out. Scully felt the irrational pang of hurt at this realization, acknowledged it, and let it go.
She reached into her pocket and dangled his leather-clad badge in front of Mulder’s face. “Found this in my kitchen the other morning.”
“Oh!” He took the badge from her teasing hand and placed it, looking sheepish, in the front pocket of his jeans.
Scully started the car. “Scully-“ Mulder started suddenly before cutting himself off.
“Hm?” She made sure to give him her most studied look of interest and care.
“Never mind,” he grinned and a million emotions, few of them simple, flashed across his face.
She knew when he stopped talking, the brain goblins were afoot again. The man had an unlimited capacity for self-doubt, for all his cockiness. His most genuine smile, she had observed over the past month, since she’d walked into his bedroom in the middle of the night to find him slumped over a book, snoring lightly, his most genuine smile was at once both ecstatic and deeply, deeply melancholy.
So few things were different between them now, but the newness grew in her hands, overwhelming at times the most easy and familiar. Like sitting in the car, waiting to set off on a mundane work trip to North Carolina.
She felt unsettled. He looked unsettled. She wanted to take him back upstairs and shut the world out. She had promised herself never to look away again, after he’d told her look at me two nights ago, radiating half-naked heat behind her at the counter in her kitchen. She intended to keep that promise.
“You ready?” she said breezily and looked him straight in the eye. They sat there, regarding each other. This wasn’t a standoff. It was a diver’s calming exhalation before she stepped off the thirty-foot platform, hurling herself toward victory.
“Ready,” he said.
With her hand on the parking brake, she leaned over into his space, not breaking eye contact. Her lips met his freshly-shaved cheek in a whisper of a kiss, and then his pouty mouth, still bee-stung from sleep. The muscles in his lips - orbicularis oris, she reminded herself - strained against hers. A complex facial gesture for something so simple, something so strange. She let him go with an audible pop and reached up to rub his cheek.
“Let’s go,” she said.
“If we make a left here,” Scully mused absently as they sped down I-95, “we’ll end up at the Great Dismal Swamp.”
Mulder chuckled next to her, drumming his fingers on the dashboard. “Is that so, Ranger Scully?”
“Yup,” she muttered. “Thought you’d like that.”
Mulder’s stomach growled as the engine rumbled.
Later, years later, she would remember this as the exact moment she gave in to the two of them. Her own ghost reached into her chest, grabbed hold of her heart, held it, intact and alive, and placed it carefully in his lap. She was, indeed, already in love. Keep it, she thought, keep me.
She caught him smiling out of the corner of her eye.
How many times had they sat on a bed, not one of theirs but one for rent, and chewed on pencils and cold pizza while their brains glowed white hot with concentration? A hundred. And none. Not like this.
Mulder, on his back at the foot of the bed in her room at the Innkeeper Premium Motor Lodge, tapped his nail on a photo, chewing his lip. He sighed, placing the picture face-up on his chest, and stared at the ceiling.
“What’s up?” Scully crawled down the bed to face him and saw it, the unlikely defining image of the man who was her love:
Seven years of lines formed on his forehead and around his mouth. His throat, though, was as finely smooth as that first night in Oregon, when they had just met and he had bared his psyche to her, daring her to leave. (Seven years later it had been his turn to listen to her lay herself bare at his feet, and in his bed.) He wore a Nets t-shirt, a contradiction even to himself. His neatly trimmed fingernails rested across his chest, obscuring nothing of the image on which he was meditating: A corpse, its face eaten away by a million tiny teeth. Like it was no big deal.
Scully started to laugh.
“What?” Mulder muttered, opening one green eye to peer at her.
She smiled at him and noticed that it was entirely without reservations. “It just struck me that this is the most bizarre domestic scene.”
A grin spread across Mulder’s face. He propped himself onto his elbows and looked around, at the pencils and files and their disheveled clothing, all bathed in the fiery glow of the North Carolina sunset. He kept chuckling to himself, and turned his head to look out the window. His face, illuminated by the pink light beyond the blinds, was the most beautiful thing Scully had ever seen.
Resting on one elbow and scooting closer to her, Mulder played with Scully’s hair, raking his fingers through the short bits at the back of her neck. His gaze was playful now, and he jerked his head back, indicating the window. “Red sun at night,” he smiled.
“Sailors' delight,” Scully replied and reached for the hem of his t-shirt.