Ditat Deus. God enriches. The state of Arizona claimed it, but the state of Arizona was a liar.
Arizona. In June.
Deus dereliquit nos.
Scully was too tired to be angry, and therefore too tired to do her job. Every time she went to dust off the sand from her jacket, a more startling amount would shake out of her hair. Sandstorm season lifted earth into the sky and hurled it at the cities, whose people, seasoned desert folk (and certainly well done) only rolled their eyes and drew their curtains. Wait just a minute, and monsoon season would put it back in its place.
An orange Mulder fumbled with the keycard in front of her, and she managed a smile. With some glaze and a quality kiln, they could be collectible.
“Only one room left.” Mulder unlocked the door and held it open for her with one hand, wiping the sweat from the back of his neck with the other. “This is the last one not filled with sand.”
“As long as it has air condit–” She closed her eyes and stilled in the doorway, tightening her grip around her luggage. God had officially walked out on them. Hotter on the inside, like human skin. Mulder sucked his teeth and patted her shoulder sympathetically. She cringed at the heat of him on her back.
“They turn off all the units,” he explained. “Because of the dirt.”
“Mulder.” A prayer, a curse, a plea – it showed up at least once per case, never in the same tone, always reliably ineffective.
“People are missing, Scully.” With another touch to her shoulder, he called first dibs on the shower.
The water was cool and the spray was plentiful, possessing a surprising pressure for a place that failed, according to Scully, in every other respect: the sheets that smelled like mildew, despite the barrenness of the surrounding land, the scorpion carapace she fished out of the sink, the lack of A.C. and Mulder, who in this shared space would be as inescapable as the heat.
Stepping out, she watched the water evaporate from her skin. She steamed. Patches of pink bloomed along her face and arms, and her hair was drying fast, every moment receding the pleasure derived from the cooling tresses. She trapped the strands between her cheek and shoulder and pouted in the mirror.
Covering her body, even just a t-shirt and a pair of running shorts, filled her with agony, but she did it, and did not even blaspheme as she did. Back in the room, she nearly stepped on Mulder holding his cheek to the carpet.
“I don’t know why, but the floor is cooler.”
“Ceramic tile is popular in the south.” She dug her foot in the carpet and frowned. Not a thing in the room lacked a protective layer of absolute filth. Mulder would remain alone on the floor. “It’s a better conductor than carpet; it absorbs body heat more reliably. They probably didn’t remove the tile before installing this… covering others might describe as carpet.”
“It’s an impressively crappy motel,” he agreed. Scully hummed.
He rolled over to look up at her, towering above him with her arms crossed and her lips pulled into a fond smile. Forgoing pomade turned a normally rebellious curl into a downright lawless creature, and he wore an imprint of the carpet on his cheek. She was used to him in his undershirts and boxers, more familiar with a Mulder removed from the constraints of public decency than she’d been with former lovers. It could be argued that Mulder was never quite decent, in public or elsewhere. “You’re not getting in that bed without another shower, I hope you…” She stopped.
Moving with the speed of only a guilty man, he climbed onto his knees and out of her way.
Scully glanced down to where she had caught him staring; her shorts had ridden up, sticking to her skin as her body had reacclimated to the heat. Her thighs were bared, and then some… and then some. She hastily tugged the cloth back down.
As a half-hearted joke, he laid down on the bed and rubbed his body along the sheets. But the tone had been set, and Scully couldn’t look at him. She tucked herself into the leather arm chair, well-worn and covered in cracks, and regretted the decision long before the sweat made her one with the seat.
Then all was the silence, and all was the heat.
It was a rightful continuation of the awkward dance they’d been engaged in since they’d begun baking in their shoes on the tarmac at the Tucson International Airport – starting with Mulder loosening his tie, slipping off his jacket and tossing it over his shoulder. One button, then two. Scully’s pantyhose coming off in the rental and her shirt untucked. The weight of his eyes on her bare legs, the speed at which he turned down the window after tearing his eyes away, the ridges of those muscles rippling under his sweat soaked Oxford.
Scully rested her eyes and simply willed herself to feel cooler, and Mulder leapt about the room in the way of a particularly restless cat. He found a place, and sunk into the momentary respite – each new surface unsullied by his own body heat. But then he’d groan and move on again, recycling the limited space like the hands on a clock.
“Scully,” he mumbled into his arm, having returned back to to the bed. “I’m taking this shirt off.”
“Wait, no,” she whined. “That’s not fair. What am I going to do?”
He huffed, wrestling his undershirt over his head and falling back to the bed with a sigh of deep, fleeting relief at the removal of the oppressive object. “Just take yours off,” he tossed a hand and closed his eyes. Then, after a silent moment, he sat up again. “Wait.”
“That is so misogynistic–” He rolled his eyes and scooted up to the edge of the bed, settling into his standard thinker’s pose. “You can’t expect me to just – “ he waved at her again, and she contemplated throwing a pillow at his back.
Two minutes passed before his face flashed eureka. He beat his fist against his palm. “Listen, this happened to Jerry and I once. We were in the Keys investigating the murder of a whole house of drag performers – get this, the perp was another entirely separate house of drag queens, and I saw a side to Jerry I considered rather freeing and delightful – but the day before we were about to fly back to D.C. and get our party on, comp’d by every superior set up to benefit by us solving a tredecuple homicide, the Keys got hit by a huge Tropical Storm.” He folded himself in half, nodding. “Took windows out, cut the power, everything. And that heat was much worse than this, Scully. I mean, we were basically swimming in it.”
He tilted his head toward her, cheek in hand, and pinched his lips together unpleasantly. “Yeah. Dead Jerry.”
She looked to the window and folded her hands in her lap. “How did you ever manage to resist him?”
“We’ve been working together for what, five years now?” They shared a look before she turned back to the window. “It was bound to happen. It’s happening. We’re partners, and more than that we’re friends. So go ahead, Scully. Take ‘em out.”
She cocked her eyebrow at him and it killed his teasing smile. But she could tear up from just the thought of removing another layer.
Shuffling in her seat, the seal of her skin to the leather broke apart and she yelped, reaching down to rub at the clammy back of her leg. Screw it. She shot up and grabbed the hem of her shirt, working quickly to yank the thing over her head. God, that felt good. Holy moly that was so – but with her stomach exposed, and nearly the rest of her, she remembered she had taken off her bra before showering.
“You okay, Scully? If you’re uncomfortable…”
“No, I just did something silly. I’m not wearing a bra,” she said plainly. Without much thought his eyes flickered down, fingers clenching tight in the bedspread. It wasn’t that she let him look, it was that she didn’t move away. His gaze simultaneously turned her to solid metal and melted her down. The heat it inspired was uncomfortable and so, so unnecessary, but it roiled, from her cheeks to between her legs, raising the hair on her arms, pebbling her nipples; flushed and damp, just from looking at him, and now she was soaked. Because where he went, she followed: his eyes on her breasts – and his focus did flatter her, never had she experienced the sheer interest he then exuded, the singular track of a rapid, precarious mind – her eyes on his chest, already bared to her, nothing new but entirely unfamiliar. His body was artfully defined, every part etched out with purpose and such power.
Shit. What was she doing? What had gotten into her? She stepped out of his line of eyesight and reached for her bag near the bed, fishing out the needed garment and marching into the bathroom.
Studying herself in the mirror, she had half a mind to not only keep her shirt, but also put the bra back on as reinforcement. She’d sizzle, but she wouldn’t be stupid. That’s what this whole thing was – it was all so gloriously stupid. Five years of working with the man and she had managed to keep her hands to herself. Despite his fits of shirtlessness and all of the devotion she felt toward him.
She imagined Mulder, her friend, a man who was honorable to a fault and who had not made a single move in all the time she had known him – and looking back… there were times it could have happened, times she would have gone for it, all those desolate moments she had needed, fiercely, to trust him and be trusted by him – he would not suddenly eschew all those components of his character that endeared him to her and made their partnership work.
So it was settled. Off went the shirt, on went the bra. She ran a washcloth under cold water and pressed it to her face and chest, and picked her brain all of the times in her life she had ever been cooler than she was right then: from that morning, reading her paperback in the overly conditioned Dulles International terminal, to the Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido… how Ahab’s nose would get so red, and the ice sculptures, so delicate as to make one think of soap bubbles…
It made her shiver. She felt better already. Mulder, alone in that room, had probably come to the same conclusions she had.
Rejoining him proved her point; the tension had been severed. When she climbed into the bed he merely lifted his cheek from his new spot on the wall to acknowledge her.
It all felt so normal again. “Explain to me more about this case.” She settled her head against the pillows and closed her eyes, fighting the urge to cover herself. The bra was cotton and blessedly breathable. She could not afford to smother it.
“Whole group of travelers went missing in the mountains straddling the border.” He pressed his forehead to a cooler patch of plaster. “We were handed the case because it’s assumed they were taken into Mexico. NPD didn’t want to handle it.”
“This can’t be an abduction. I was under the assumption you didn’t believe in those anymore. And Mulder, I did read most of the file. These weren’t just travelers, they were vagabonds.”
“Vagabonds with an extremely tight schedule. There’s a newspaper article in there that covers it – they’re referred to as ‘modern nomads,’ kindred spirits who’ve renounced the hustle and bustle of clocking in and clocking out, of carpools and smoke breaks, only truly living when the clock strikes five–” He paused, lifting his face and looking back at her. “Are you turned on yet?”
She glared at him. He bit his lip and nodded, shoving his nose back in the corner. “Their goal is to travel the whole of the United States. They want to make a statement – America has more to offer than minivans and rolodexes. Mexico was not on the itinerary.”
“So kidnapping, Mulder. Cartel activity. Hell, if they were tan enough they were probably brought in for questioning by border control.” She turned her pillow over and kicked down all of the blankets. Just her and the scratchy sheet set. “But, the easiest explanation here might very well be the truth. They are travelers… who are traveling. What’s the X-File?”
“It’s where they disappeared,” he mumbled. He always got so sleepy when the temperature rose. The urge to call him into bed with her was only mildly tempered by her annoyance. “The Tumacacori Highlands. Doorway to the Gods.” Scully waited for him to continue. “File,” he grunted, turning and slumping himself into the chair.
The file was all the way over by the other side of the bed where Mulder kept his bag. She hissed, rolled over, and strained to reach it. She was also taken over by lethargy. Her bones grew heavier, like she was sinking into into the arid climate, her blood becoming sand.
She skimmed over the relevant information, her rising blood pressure doing nothing to help cool her down. “You think… they disappeared. Through a time portal in the mountains. Based on two accounts, which are… a word-of-mouth folktale credited to the Yaqui tribe from the Sonora state over… two hundred years ago, and two young treasure hunters who… from what I’m reading here, had an interesting relationship with tequila. Who have also claimed to be abducted by…” She squinted as she read. “Ghost coyotes.”
“I didn’t want to lead in with my ghost coyote theory.”
“Mulder, nothing I’m reading here possesses an ounce of credibility.” Lowering her voice, she added: “I thought you didn’t believe in this stuff anymore.”
He lifted his head. The presence in his gaze alarmed her, since for some time he had seemed on the edge of drifting off. It was alert, feverish, hot for her but full of regret. She had been a fool to think their moment had come to an end.
“Scully, I’m questioning my faith in a lot of things. But something that I have always found to be true… is that there are thresholds in this world that you can cross, and they will take you to other places. Places that not even your dreams will transport you to, that are beyond all that we know, and certainly beyond our imagination. There are too many stories, too many first-hand accounts for me to believe otherwise.” Entirely too earnest, he kept his eyes above her chin. She stared at his lips. “But some of those thresholds will never, ever let you go back.”
At times, the need to disagree with him was akin to a natural reflex.
But she found herself nodding, unable to blink.