Scully glows. Afternoon sun slants through the diner window, lighting sparks in her hair. Mulder studies the contrast of light and shadow like he imagines a painter would, the way light blends into shadow, creating new colors. He wonders if any painter would be able to capture the glint in her eye, to blend that precise shade of green brought out by the direct golden beam. Her pink lipstick, a shade that must have been selected for its subtle uncommonness.
She fills her mouth with salad and glances up as she chews. He’s caught, and he forces himself to look away.
For months, he’d get trapped in that glow, unable to stop his mind from pitching forward, convinced he was seeing evidence that her body was flooded with new hormones. In those moments, he’d want nothing more than to drop to his knees and whisper into her belly, manifesting life.
Sometimes he wonders if that’s why the IVF didn’t take. Maybe the zygote would’ve clung harder to her body if she didn’t carry it with uncertainty. Maybe her body chemistry would have subtly shifted if she knew she wasn’t on her own. He’s lost whole nights to the maybes.
Scully would scoff at his self-recrimination. Babies grow in wombs that don’t want them. They grow without any encouragement, against all odds sometimes.
But not for her.
Mulder captures a chunk of ice from his tea and dissolves it on the back of his tongue, cooling the rising heat in his chest. Scully’s been in good spirits all day, ever since they finally arrested a suspect for a string of murders in upstate New York with no apparent cause of death. In the last couple weeks, she’s thrown herself full-force into her work. If she’s been grieving, he hasn’t seen it.
Scully snatches the longest fry from his plate, dipping it in ketchup before biting it in half with a satisfied grin.
“Get your own fries,” he tells her, as he always does.
She steals another one, and he retaliates by stealing a crouton from her salad. She looks wounded, as he knew she would.
“Hey!” she whines. “I only have a few croutons. They gave you a mountain of fries.”
He shrugs. “You didn’t have to order a salad.”
She pops two more fries in her mouth, baiting him with an eyebrow.
He snags another crouton, crunching aggressively, tilting his head in challenge.
She kicks his shin.
He yelps, exaggerating his shock.
“Sorry,” she says with genuine contrition. The top of her foot strokes his shin where she kicked him, and her touch burns, even through the layers of his slacks and her pantyhose. It takes all his self-control not to lean across the table and kiss the pout off her face.
Her foot snaps back as quickly as it arrived, and she turns her attention back to her meal. The tips of her ears are pink.
“I never asked…” he began, trying to avoid an awkward silence. “How did you figure out it was Jessica Kramer and not David West?”
“She was in love with him,” Scully states.
“Did she tell you that?”
“She didn’t need to.” Occupied by stabbing lettuce with her fork, she doesn’t look up as she speaks.
“How could you tell?” Something catches in Mulder’s throat as he responds.
“The way she looked at him.” She shrugs and puts the overloaded utensil in her mouth.
“That was all?” he asks, waiting for her to swallow.
“And the nature of the crimes,” she goes on. “If David West didn’t do it, it was someone who would do anything for him.”
“But they weren’t lovers. They both said so.”
“No. They weren’t,” she says briskly. Her eyes flash up to him for only a second, startlingly pale in the direct light.
“Let’s celebrate,” he blurts before he can think about it long enough to stop himself.
She raises an eyebrow.
“Tonight,” he specifies, plundering on despite the rising panic in his chest.
“What do you suggest?” As she speaks, she takes her straw between her fingers, twists it suggestively. She has to be doing that on purpose. Right?
He gulps. “Let me take you out.” His heart races so loud, his words sound faint to his own ears. “Buy you a drink. To celebrate you cracking the case.”
The hint of a smile plays on her lips. “I didn’t crack the case. You’re the one that found the blood splatter.” A darkness passes over her face as she finishes the sentence. He can’t read her expression, but he recognizes when their bubble of intimacy pops.
“Excuse me,” she mutters. She wipes her mouth on the paper napkin and slips out of the booth toward the Ladies and Gents sign at the back of the restaurant.
Mulder stares at the folded napkin, the smear of greasy pink from her lips, and wonders what the fuck just happened.
He turns back to his food, but the congealed fat on his burger turns his stomach, and he pushes his plate away. He shreds his napkin, making a messy pile. When she returns—after what feels like an hour—he sweeps it off the table.
She looks pale, her eyes glassy.
“You can finish my fries,” he offers as she slides into the booth.
She shakes her head. “I’m ready to go if you are.”
“Something wrong?” It comes out louder than he intends, accusatory. He winces, knowing he’s pushing her away. Old habits die hard.
“Nope.” She enunciates the word sharply, not meeting her eyes.
The server bounces up to them, her pin-straight ponytail slapping her back.
“Doing alright over here?” she asks too-brightly.
“Just the check please,” Mulder responds.
Scully pulls out a lipstick and compact from her blazer pocket. He’s not used to seeing her touch up in public; she must usually do that in the bathroom. Is she deliberately trying to distract herself from him? Was the idea of going out with him that repulsive? Jesus. Maybe he is just a sperm donor after all.
“So…about tonight?” he ventures.
“Another time, Mulder. I’m exhausted.” She rubs her lips and pops them, studying the end result in the mirror. He fights the urge to knock the compact out of her hand and demand answers.
Scully manages to occupy herself with her makeup until the server returns with the check. Mulder slaps a twenty on the table, and they wordlessly get up to leave.
In the car, Scully puts her head on the passenger side window. As Mulder drives, he peaks at her out of the corner of her eye. Sometimes her eyes are closed, sometimes she’s staring at the blurred trees. He doesn’t bother turning the radio down and cracks the window to flick sunflower seeds on the road.
As he drives, he glances at his partner and wonders if it’s too late for them. Can you begin a romance when you’ve already tried to create a child together? How do you go from the prospect of parenthood to a first kiss, a first date, and all the other firsts? Perhaps in their circuitous path to love they’d obliterated the path, they’d lost their chance to find their way to each other.
He stops in front of her apartment building, and she yawns and stretches for his benefit.
“I’ll see you Monday,” she says with her hand on the door handle.
“Monday,” he repeats hollowly, popping the trunk.
He watches her haul her suitcase up the stairs of her building, giving him one quick backwards glance before disappearing inside. It takes minutes before he brings himself to depress the gas pedal, some absurdly hopeful part of his brain expecting her to run back to him with an apology and a ready explanation.
At his own apartment, he can’t settle. He unpacks his suitcase, feeds his fish, half-heartedly tidies his desk. He dribbles his basketball until his long-suffering downstairs neighbor pounds on the ceiling. He considers calling the guys but it’s been so long since he’s dropped in on them for purely a social call, he’ll need to explain himself. He contemplates going for a run.
Fuck it. Before he can stop himself, he’s picking up his home phone and dialing her. He’s going to be edgy and distracted all weekend unless he gets some answers. Even if the answers would be painful, they would be answers.
Scully’s cell is off, directing her straight to—“you’ve reached Dana Scully”—voicemail. Her landline rings and rings until it reaches an almost identical message.
He doesn’t give himself time to think it through; he slings his leather jacket over his shoulders, grabs his keys, and drives back to Georgetown.
On the drive, he turns off the car radio, deciding his impending heartbreak doesn’t need a soundtrack, and drums the steering wheel to no particular beat. His irritation with her flares as his brain whirrs, replaying their conversation on a loop. She had to know he was wearing his heart on his sleeve back in that diner, right? And after everything, she dismisses him so coolly? Goddammit, Scully. Goddammit.
She doesn’t answer when he knocks on her door. So he tries again. And again. As he waits, new fears take hold of him—she’s taken again, she slipped and hit her head, he’s about to discover her body. But just as he pulls out the key to her apartment, he hears her call “hold on” from the recesses of her apartment. The annoyance in her voice is a comfort.
The door opens, and there she is. Still pale, frowning at him. She’s so small in her stocking-feet, he could tuck her under his chin. Wrapped in a terry cloth robe, her hair is pinned up with damp tendrils escaping to frame her face. He hears the sound of water down the drain.
Mulder states the obvious. “I interrupted your bath.”
“I was just getting out. What’s going on?”
“I…uh…” All his frustration has evaporated, seeing her concern and vulnerability. He hasn’t even worked out what he was going to say to her, and he realizes he’d been expecting to react to her anger at having her evening interrupted.
The crease between her brows deepens. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come.” He shifts on his feet.
“Why did you?” She doesn’t sound angry, only curious.
He sighs, runs a hand through his hair.
“Come inside.” She steps aside to allow him entrance, gesturing to the couch. “I opened a bottle of red. Want a glass?”
He sits on the couch, leaning back to appear casual. Like he belongs there. He wonders if there will ever come a time he doesn’t feel like an intruder in her home. He fights the urge to flee.
Scully returns in a grey Georgetown sweatshirt over black leggings. It’s baggier than anything he’s seen her wear in years. Probably from a college boyfriend, he thinks, his stomach clenching.
She’s holding two glasses in one hand, the bottle in the other. One glass has a drop of wine at the bottom, like blood. She pours, hands him a glass, and crouches in front of the fireplace, taking a match to the crumpled newspaper under the prepared fire. The flames quickly overtake the kindling.
“What’s going on, Mulder?” she asks as she tucks herself into the opposite corner of the sofa, her legs beneath her.
He takes a sip of liquid courage. “I…uh…I didn’t like how we left things earlier?”
“How we left things?”
Mulder clenches his jaw. He shouldn’t be surprised she’s being deliberately obtuse, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. He decides he needs to be direct. “After I asked you on a date. I didn’t think—”
“That was a date?” she interrupts, her expression brightening.
“That’s usually what getting drinks means.”
“You said it was to celebrate cracking the case,” she points out.
He rubs the back of his neck. “That was to give you an out…which I guess I’m not letting you take.”
“I didn’t say ‘no.’ I said another time.”
“Oh,” is all he can bring himself to say. He’s afraid to give in to the hope flaring in his chest.
She sighs. “I didn’t want to announce to the entire diner that I was experiencing intense menstrual cramps.”
In the not distant past, it would have been jarring to hear her talk about her period, but her body and its cycles had become a topic of regular conversation through the last two treatments, updates about her uterus rattled off as afterthoughts at the beginning and end of work days. He wasn’t sure if it was a sign they’d been growing closer. With her, he can’t always tell the difference between a personal admission and clinical detachment.
And then he sees the set of her mouth, the way her lips press together. Her grief is cracking open.
“ Oh ,” he repeats.
“They warned me it would be…heavier the first time…” Her voice trails off. She twists her fingers around the stem of her glass, staring into the fire.
“So you planned a nice soak in the tub, a bottle of red, and some alone time without being bothered by your intractable work partner.” He tries to keep his tone light.
“I don’t mind the company,” she says, taking a pointed sip. “But it’s not a good night for a date.”
She darts a glance over to him, her lips quirking in a brief smile, just enough to convey her meaning. Mulder chokes on his wine, suppressing a cough. She doesn’t seem to notice; she’s back to staring at the fire. A log falls, sending up a flurry of orange sparks that die as quickly as they appear.
Eyes still fixed on the flames, she extends her arm across the couch, her palm raised. He takes her hand and squeezes. She squeezes back, and from her profile, he sees unshed tears glittering in the firelight.
The light through the window starts to dim, darkness spreads through the room. Eventually, Scully removes her hand from his and empties the remaining wine into their glasses.
She sits close to him this time, his thigh burning where it touches hers. Her chin starts to tremble, and she hides it with a long swig of wine. She lowers her glass, staring at it as though she couldn’t remember how it got there in the first place. The quaver extends up to her lower lip, and she sets her glass down with haste, startling herself at the sound.
“Mulder?” Her voice cracks around the name.
“Yes?” He’s holding his breath, making himself dizzy.
She doesn’t need to finish her sentence; he can tell what she’s asking from how difficult she’s finding the words. He sets his own glass down, kicks his shoes across the room, and waits for her unspoken indication that he’s interpreted her correctly. She nods faintly.
He stretches out on the couch, turning to his side, his knees bending to fit his long frame. It doesn’t seem possible they could both fit on her small sofa, but she tucks up against him easily. She takes up such a monumental space in his psyche, sometimes he forgets she’s tiny.
She gathers their hands in front of her sternum, and he feels her racing heart. He wonders if she can feel his own heartbeat from his chest pressed to her shoulder-blades.
They fit together perfectly, he realizes with a swell in his heart. He’s held her countless times, after escaping death, while facing death, but never like this. He kisses the crown of her head, hears a hum of appreciation from her. She smells floral and fresh, the scent he catches fleetingly now filling his nostrils.
She releases a long breath, holds their hands closer.
“I thought it would be easier,” she admits, breaking the silence. “I tried not to think about it, what it would mean for my life. How it would change everything.”
His chest aches. He’s afraid if he speaks, it will break the spell, she’ll slip out of his arms and back to the other side of the couch, the conversation closed forever. He pulls her closer.
“I knew the odds,” she continues. “I thought I was…protecting myself by not letting myself hope. But sometimes…sometimes I think if I let myself hope…maybe it could have been different.”
“You’re not to blame, Scully,” he murmurs into her hair.
“I know it doesn’t make any sense.” Her laugh is dry, bitter.
“Sometimes I feel the same,” he admits quietly, knowing this might be the only chance to tell her.
“What do you mean?” Her voice is almost a whisper.
“Letting you feel you were alone in all this…”
She twists her neck to look at him. “You’ve been here every step of the way.”
“I mean, after. I shouldn’t have let you feel alone in that too.” The wine has loosened his tongue. He’s amazed at how easily the words slip out; they’ve been stuck on his tongue since the night she told him the final attempt failed.
“I knew you’d be supportive. You told me as much.”
“More than that, Scully. I’m here.” He puts his lips over her ear, his breath shifting her hair. “However you want me.”
She inhales sharply. From her silence, he can’t tell if he’s gone too far, until she turns to face him, still wrapped in his arms. She’s so close he can barely make out her features, their noses brushing against each other. She’s a kaleidoscope of beautiful features, impressionistic smudges of blue and red and gold. Her eyes are still wet, but her cheeks dry. He’s never understood how she does that.
She reaches to cup his face, her gaze shifting down to his lips. He barely has time to register her intention before he feels her lips against his. Hot, electric, softer than he could have imagined. She doesn’t linger long enough to deepen the kiss. She pulls back, her face brightened by a closed-mouth smile, dazzling in the firelight.
He can kiss her again, he realizes. The final pretense between them is gone, and there’s no misinterpreting the raw desire in her expression, the way her body shifts against him gently, like she’s trying to control herself from a more overt display. He feels the desire between them, thick and heady and impossible to ignore.
Another shift in the fire, a hiss and crackle.
He runs a hand up the back of her neck and tangles his fingers in her hair, mussing it like he’s always wanted to, some primal instinct wanting to make her messy for him. He secures a fistful of hair and pulls her head back towards his. This time, when her mouth meets his, it’s open, her tongue darts out to slide against his. Her body slides against his, her breasts pressed to his chest. She tastes like red wine but sweeter.
He wants to slide his hand up the front of her shirt, but he doesn’t dare cross any lines, not until she’s made it clear he’s allowed. He feels like a goddamn teenager again, awestruck by the smallest female carnal offering.
She pulls back, relinquishes his lower lip pinned between her teeth. He wants to flip her over, fuck her brains out, fill the apartment with her cries of pleasure.
She plants one more closed-mouth kiss to his lips, a bookend, and twists back over, assuming her earlier position with her body tucked against him. He slips his hands just under her sweatshirt and rests them on her lower stomach. She releases a puff of air and places her hands over his to seal them in place.
He imagines her stomach swelling with life, the two of them holding it just like this, feeling the baby kick together. He can feel her visualizing the same. And now, lips still tingling from her kiss, he knows with certainty he wasn’t chosen for his spotless genetic makeup. She wants his child. She wants him . Images flood him with perfect clarity, a peek into a universe he hasn’t allowed himself to explore.Fixing her disgusting pregnancy craving snacks and rubbing her feet. Getting snapped at and cried at and—if he was lucky—reaping the rewards of her pregnancy libido. He imagines making love to her by the fire, just like this, and his spine prickles with deja vu. That will happen, he knows. It will.
He imagines her giving birth, cursing him, holding her hand so tightly that he thinks she will break his bones. Beaming as she hands him the tiny bundle for the first time. He imagines sleepless nights, spit-up on every item of clothing. Furtive, stolen sex. Trips to the park and temper tantrums and inexplicable tears. High chairs and carseats. Family breakfasts and family dinners. Tripping on toys and the same goddamn movie playing ad nauseam. PTA meetings and arguments. Christ, they’ve had plenty of practice for the arguments.
He imagines a tiny human looking up at for guidance, for protection. It used to be a terrifying thought. But with her at his side, he wouldn’t fuck it up. He could even be a father the child deserved. God help him, he wanted it. He wanted it all.
Hands folded over her flat stomach, they lay in silence and watch the fire die.