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Ars Domesticatus

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Cool water poured down, a curtain of white noise over the misty green background. As a makeshift location for meditation, it would do. Closing her eyes, she ducked again under the spray. This must be what it's like to live in a rain forest, she thought. In her mind, she reconfigured the sound tapping against the shower curtain, then listened with pleasure as it beat a soothing rhythm against palm fronds and lily pads, fell drop by drop from flowering vines.

"Scully, have you seen my basketball shoes?"

With a blink, she watched the rain forest dissolve into a puddle and slide down the drain.

"Next to the couch," she said to the figure hovering restlessly on the other side of the curtain.

"Those are running shoes, Scully. I need basketball shoes."

On days like this, Scully thought, you need Valium sprinkled on your Wheaties. "Did you check your car, Mulder?"

The shower curtain billowed out as Mulder departed, then reversed itself and plastered against her like amorous fly paper. With a sigh, she peeled it off and turned off the water. The slam of the front door echoed through the apartment, and she had the sudden, vivid impression that space inside those four rooms was expanding. Why is it, she thought, that certain people can suck up more oxygen than ten other people?

It didn't help her mood that she stepped out of the shower into a room where the air was one percent shy of saturated. Toweling off didn't seem to have much point except for being part of the after shower ritual, but
she was a traditionalist, so she made the attempt. With reluctance, she slipped on a short silk robe, and began the arduous process of blow-drying her hair. This must be what it's like to live... near an airport, she decided, unable to think of a soothing image to go with the deafening sound. It certainly wasn't helping create the air of calm she needed for the ordeal ahead.

"Found 'em," Mulder said next to her ear.

"Jesus, Mulder." She flicked off the blow dryer and glared at him.

"Why don't you just let it curl? It's going to anyway," he said, reaching over to twist a strand around his finger. As soon as he let go, a perfect ringlet flopped over her eye.

"Thank you, Monsieur Fox. Are you going to do my makeup as well?"

"No. Why do you wear that stuff, anyway? I still know this is here," Mulder leaned down, dodged the ringlet, and placed a soft kiss on the mole above her lip.

"I look better," she said, shutting her eyes against his intense gaze.

"You look pretty good now," he murmured, following a path with his lips from mole to chin to cheek to ear, "although you did look better this morning. At about six twenty-five."

"Watching the clock, were you?"

"Mental diary of memorable Scully looks. I gotta catalogue 'em somehow." He started kissing her earlobe. Ah, with a little nibble every now and then -- for variety, she supposed. That, and the fact that every time he did it, she rewarded him with an embarrassing squeak. He made an exploratory sweep with one hand across the back, then the front, and then a quick foray underneath, the robe.

"M-Mulder..." The wobble in her voice surprised her. "Mulder," she said, firmly, stepping away. "I have to get ready."

He stepped back too, licking his lips. "Wanna ditch the whole thing?"

"No."

"Liar." Mulder grinned and exited the bathroom, leaving behind the faint scent of basketball shoes. They had dangled through the whole interlude from the hand that hadn't been busy rearranging her hair and her mental equilibrium.

Annoyed that he was getting better at seeing through her, and that very little effort on his part was enough to send her self-possession flying out the window, she turned back to the mirror. It wasn't just that it was becoming clear that if she didn't keep a vigilant eye on her person and her surroundings, they would soon be sporting an official Mulder territorial flag, she assured her reflection. What annoyed her most was that it was just too damned hot to be this annoyed.

"Scully, where's the fruit from last night?" Mulder called from down the hall.

"Strangely enough, not scattered all over the counter where you left it, Mulder."

He appeared in the doorway and regarded her with curiosity. "You know, I get the feeling that you really don't want to go to this thing, Scully. Wouldn't you rather play cheerleader than bridesmaid this afternoon?"

"What makes you think I want to play a supporting role of any kind?" she retorted, turning to face him.

He bit his lip. "Does that mean you'd rather be the bride?"

She watched emotions play across his eyes, like the movement of colored glass in a kaleidoscope. A flash of doubt. A sliver of sadness. A glimmer of caution. She decided to let him off the hook. Oh, who was she kidding? She'd let them both off the hook.

"Maybe I'd rather be the basketball player."

She watched the kaleidoscope flip to a familiar gleam of challenge. "You're too short," he said.

"Two words, Mulder. Muggsy Bogues."

"One word, Scully. Testosterone."

"You say that like it's a good thing."

"You thought so at six twenty-five."

She gathered up the edges of her robe and her tattered dignity. "The fruit," she informed him, "is in the refrigerator. It doesn't do well in the heat."

He gave her a long, slow perusal, like a cat who'd won the final round of canary Jeopardy, then reached for a tissue. He carefully blotted the little drops of sweat from her upper lip and patted down her flushed
cheeks. "You know, Scully, it's not just the heat..."

"Finish that sentence and you're a dead man, Mulder."

"Okay," he said, much too agreeably. He leaned down to kiss her still damp cheek. She dropped her head back with a groan as he shifted his target.

Her eyes closed and she let herself drift in sensation. She'd been doing this for three weeks, letting him finish what he had started in the hallway outside his apartment. Of course, she had been finishing what she had started as well. She wondered if she'd ever get used to this current between them, to feeling it zing through her body from the top of her head down to her toes, with some very nice stops in between. She felt his hand on her head, tilting it gently. A sudden notion poked through the cloud of pleasure enveloping her. This must be what it's like at the beginning of a chain reaction, she thought. Her world was peaceful until one of them fired off that first innocent looking neutron, and the next thing she knew, it would be the China Syndrome in the middle of her bathroom. She pulled back.

Mulder's eyes were still closed. "What?"

"I have to get ready," she said, pleased with how steady her voice sounded. "And you have to go."

He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. "Want me to fix you some breakfast?" His voice was steadier than his hand, still caught up in her damp hair.

She smiled up at him. "Then will you let me go?" Her eyes widened as she processed her words.

He gently disentangled his hand, turned on his heel, and left the bathroom. She stood still, staring at the ceiling as if it were a crib sheet that listed all the right things to say. Unfortunately for her, if the words were there they were written in invisible ink. At the sound of his shoes on the kitchen linoleum, she dropped her gaze back to the mirror, and gave her hair a cursory brush. She blew the persistent Mulder-created ringlet out of her eye, and started to rummage through a drawer for a hair clip.

"I found the fruit, but there aren't any strawberries left," Mulder mumbled through a mouthful of strawberries as he passed the bathroom door on his way to the bedroom. "I'll pick some up later."

With a half-hearted pass of a damp tissue at the mirror, she watched her streaky reflection drop its shoulders in defeat. The hell with makeup. She wasn't in the mood for watching foundation slide off her face two minutes after it was applied. She entered the bedroom, temper simmering again, to find Mulder picking raisins out of what she assumed was her breakfast cereal, and peering into her lingerie drawer.

"Mulder, out," she said, not wanting to waste energy on excess verbiage.

He covered his guilty start with a quick leer. "Come on, Scully, if I can't have a say on the dress, can't I at least have a vote on underwear?"

"No, Mulder. Out now."

"But I was going to vote no."

Not wanting to let him know how close his vote was to winning the decision by a landslide, she pulled at the tie on her robe, and let it fall to the floor. "If you don't leave now, I won't come over this evening."

"Yeah, you will." He leaned nonchalantly against the wall next to her dresser, and popped another raisin.

She arched an eyebrow at him. "Mulder, you are overestimating your attraction and underestimating my mood."

"Central air, Scully," came the self-satisfied reply. "Cold and frosty. Something this sorry thing'll never crank out." He gestured to the laboring window unit across the room, folded his arms, and settled back against the wall. "Central air. I got it. You want it. Admit it."

Refusing the bait, she opened the closet door, careful to ignore the pink organza-overskirted monstrosity hanging from the hook on the front. She kicked aside the dyed-to-match, obscenely tight pumps, not wanting to spoil her improving mood. Leaning over to paw through the shoe rack, she smiled as Mulder cleared his throat behind her.

"Mulder," she said, "don't you have a game?"

He shifted against the wall. "Oh, I think I got game right here."

She dropped the pumps next to the bed and opened the bureau drawer that had caught his attention, pulling out a pair of pale, sheer thigh high stockings. Moving back to sit on the bed, she gathered one carefully and eased it over her toes.

"Need some help?" he asked.

She looked up and held his gaze as she drew the stocking up. "I don't think so," she said. "It's not that difficult. Just like putting on a really long gym sock."

The other stocking slid up her leg accompanied by the sounds of more restless shifting. She stood and slipped into the pumps. "So much better than pantyhose on a day like this," she said, emphasizing her statement with a subtle side-to-side movement of her hips. "Trust me, Mulder."

His face was blank as his gaze to traveled over her. "'Trust me, These Things Are Better Than Pantyhose,'" he muttered. "Yeah, that works better than 'Trust No One.'"

She returned his stare as she walked past him to the closet, conscious of her breasts swaying with the exaggeration three extra inches of heel put in her walk. The expression on his face was a tonic for both her mood and her self-confidence. "Mulder, you look as if you haven't seen this outfit on a hundred other women, live on tape."

His eyes tracked her across the room. "I've never seen it on you, Scully. There's a difference."

"Shorter legs?"

"Longer odds."

She pulled a navy blue linen sheath from the closet and handed it to him. "Hold this, will you?" she said. "I'll need you to zip it up."

She walked back to the bureau, reflecting on how good it was to have Mulder around for jobs that required long arms. And he had so many other useful and attractive attachments -- it really was worth while keeping him close by. That brought her up short. Just minutes ago, she'd lamented that the big screen of her life was tuned to the channel playing all Mulder all the time. This must be what it's like, she thought, to be an obscure Balkan country. With enough propaganda, you begin to think inviting someone to stay a while is a good idea, and the next thing you know, you've disappeared from the map. It was past time to negotiate a power sharing agreement.

She stretched her arms over her head, twisting sideways to give him a glimpse of what she was about to cover up. "God, I can feel it getting
hotter with every thread I put on," she complained in a throaty murmur. She slipped on a pair of ivory silk panties and a matching bra.

"What time does the wedding start, Scully?" he asked, from directly behind her, his tone dangerously neutral.

She watched the dress fall on the bed, then felt his fingers trail lightly down her back, till they reached the bare tops of her thighs. He traced a swirling pattern over the exposed skin.

She dropped her head and watched one big hand move over the sensitive skin of her inner thigh. "In three hours," she ground out. "And it's in Annapolis, Mulder, and I have to change when I get there..." She drew a sharp breath as his hand settled over its target.

"I think you might be a little late," he said.

"It's already late," she muttered, as her hips rocked back. They both gasped at the contact.

The hair on the back of her neck prickled as his breath washed over her, too warm at first, and then cooler from evaporation. "You don't seem to be in much of a hurry." His voice was flat, but still had enough bite to remind her that this was no tame cat she was teasing.

"I wouldn't know about that," she said. "I don't normally have an audience while I dress."

"Did you enjoy it?"

"The most fun I've ever had putting my clothes on." She turned and placed a gentle hand on his cheek.

His tight lips softened. "The most fun I've ever had watching you put your clothes on," he said. "After this, I'll be dressing you in my mind every time I see you naked."

She closed her eyes against his wicked smile. "This isn't helping me get ready any faster, Mulder."

To her surprise, he turned her away from him. Instead of letting go, he tipped her head back and dropped a series of soft, slow kisses on her mouth, holding her gaze as if to gage her mood. Her sensitized skin registered that he hadn't shaved, and his bristly cheeks had no doubt marked hers. If she wasn't mistaken, she was also wearing a territorial tattoo on her neck. He released her mouth, and she fought a moment of panic as her vision was blocked, until her head emerged from the dress. He tugged at the zipper, and she stifled a groan as her restless body was encased in sober navy linen.

"Your choice," he reminded her, as she turned to face him.

"My obligation," she countered. "She's my cousin, Mulder."

He stepped back, trailing his fingers down her bare arm until he reached her palm. He traced a pattern there, reminiscent of the one he had branded on more intimate places just moments earlier. "It's going to be a long hot day, Scully."

"I've heard about a little place in Alexandria that has central air," she said, twining her fingers with his.

"Meet me there?" He leaned down to kiss her lightly.

She weighed a brief vision of coming back instead to her own home, and being comfortably alone, against a vision of just being alone. Swaying toward him, she whispered against his lips, "I'll be the one dressed like a pink meringue mushroom."

"At least I'll be able to pick you out of the crowd."

***

After circling block after block near Mulder's apartment building, Scully slid triumphantly into a parking space just down the street, beating out a Ford Explorer with the execution of a perfect one eighty in the middle of Hegal Place. Quantico Driving School -- who knew how handy it could be?

She stepped from her car into intense heat and humidity, unabated though the sun had just set. This must be what it's like to live in an incubator, she thought, starting to feel sorry for bacteria. I'd be toxic too, if this was my natural environment.

Walking into the shadowy lobby of Mulder's building, she sighed with relief and punched the elevator button. The sudden, surprising feeling of homecoming caused her to consider what she wanted more at that moment, Mulder or his air conditioner. No contest, she assured herself. Air conditioner.

She trudged down the dim fourth floor hallway, kicking at the rustling, rose-colored cloud swirling around her ankles. At number 42, her sharp rap got no response. After knocking again, she occupied herself by gathering up as much pink tulle as possible and holding it away from her body. It had been damned hot in the lobby, suffocating in the elevator, and it was sweltering in the hallway. This was not good.

Mulder mouthed the word 'Hi,' as he opened the door, and held up a finger as she opened her mouth to speak. He pointed to the phone glued to his ear.

She pushed past him and flopped on the couch. Toeing off her shoes, she flexed her feet, surprised at the absence of visible tissue damage. "Mulder," she said, "why is it hot in here?"

"Power outage," he said, holding one hand over the phone's mouth piece.

"The lights are on and the elevator's working."

"Um, everything came back on but the air conditioner." He shot her a weak smile, then turned back to the phone. "So how long-- But we have-- Tell me, is it air conditioned where you're working? In that place where you endorse my rent check? No, I'm not implying anything, I just need to know when-- " He held the phone away from his ear and looked at it in amazement. "Same to you, buddy."

"Was that the landlord, Mulder?" Scully asked from her slumped position on the couch.

"Yeah."

"Uh huh. If you have air conditioning by the turn of the millennium, let me know. I'm going to change and drive back home." She pushed herself up. Three weeks of practice notwithstanding, verbalizing these arrangements was still awkward. "You can come with me, if you want," she added diffidently.

"I don't think so." With a wave at the television, he walked into the bedroom.

Stunned at being turned down flat, she stared at the screen.

"That's too bad, Bob," said one perfectly coiffed talking head. "What are those folks in Georgetown going to do?"

"Well, Stephanie, we advise that they stay right where they are, because we don't know how long this blackout will last. Remember folks, drink plenty of water, try to stay cool, and don't do anything in the dark we wouldn't do."

She picked up the remote, and ended the stand-up routine masquerading as a news report. Shooting a glance at the suspiciously quiet bedroom, she kicked at her overnight bag, trying to decide what to do.

"Scully, have they stopped singing 'The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgetown' yet?" came Mulder's voice from the dark bedroom.

"Yes," she replied sullenly.

"Well, get in here."

Picking up her bag, she moved cautiously to the doorway, and found Mulder stretched out on the bed. Considering how damned hot it was where she was standing, he looked remarkably comfortable. His arms were behind his head, his legs nonchalantly crossed at the ankles. She couldn't decide what was feeding the smile on his face -- the air from the fan at the end of the bed, or the fact that he was almost naked -- while she was a bundle of nerves wrapped in a sticky pink package.

"It's a lot cooler in here," he said. "Why don't you take off your clothes and stay a while?"

The only light in the room was filtering in from the living room behind her. The furnishings in here were so anonymous -- plain bed, table, and several boxes -- that nothing detracted from the center of attention. He'd taken off his tee shirt, socks and shoes, leaving only the dark green running shorts. His skin was the berry brown it turned during the summer months, as the time he spent running countered the time spent poring over work indoors.

"Come on, Scully." He waggled his eyebrows at her.

She had a brief, irrational moment of panic, and considered making a mad dash back to Georgetown, into the darkness. At home, it would be quiet, and she would be safe. She'd be really hot of course -- she ran her eyes over Mulder's long form -- and quite alone.

Years ago, she'd convinced herself she lived alone by choice, because she needed space and peace. But recently she'd realized that her life alone was a facade that covered a solid connection, shared with someone -- with this annoying, brilliant, amusing someone -- for years. Where would she be now, she thought, if she'd been alone in the Antarctic? Lost in space, according to him. Peacefully dead, according to her own memories.

She walked slowly toward the bed and turned her back to him once she got there. He reached up without comment and unzipped the dress, and she watched it land in an obnoxious heap around her feet. She kicked it aside, then sat down on the bed. The cool air from the fan washed over her heated body. The only part of her not instantly chilled was her back, bathed in radiant heat from Mulder, who moved to sit just behind her. He wasn't as cool as he looked.

"This is starting to feel familiar," he said, running his fingers lightly down her back. "Do you want to take the rest of this off?"

"Yes," she said.

"Good, you'll be cooler."

Oh, I think I'll probably be the opposite, she thought, shutting her eyes and concentrating on the cold wash of air and the warmth of his hands. He unsnapped her bra, and she tried and failed to stifle a groan of pleasure as he rubbed what must be ugly red marks across her back. The bra fell at her feet and she opened her eyes long enough to kick it across the room, next to the dress.

His hands traced over her lower back, something he took the time to do every time they were together like this. "You know, I'm still thinking about getting a tattoo."

"I've got to warn you, Mulder, a NY on your ass would look an awful lot like a 'kick me' sign to me."

"No, I'm thinking just one little word, in 12 point type."

"You're going to leave yourself a message?"

"Yeah. It'll say pear."

"Mulder, most people put grocery lists on paper. Pear?"

"Only when you're not around. When you are, it'll say perpendicular."

She dropped her head to her chest and shuddered with silent laughter, watching his hands reach around to cup her breasts. Long brown fingers contrasted sharply with her pale skin. She supposed it could be the cool air that made her nipples peak like that. But she doubted it.

His hands dropped down to the tops of her thighs. "Lift up," he whispered, and she murmured in tired protest, then raised each leg in turn so he could begin rolling the stockings down. His breath was warm against her neck, fighting for influence with the humming fan. He leaned closer, and the soft voice in her ear blocked out the fan altogether.

"These are the coolest gym socks I've ever seen, Scully. I've been thinking about them all day."

"Have you?" she said, concentrating more on the circles his fingers were tracing on her thighs than his words, remembering their morning encounter.

"Yeah," he said, kissing her ear. "During the game, I couldn't set a pick to save my life. I had this vision of you moving the ball up the floor in high heels -- just high heels. I tried to concentrate on some work, you walked across my brain like you did across the bedroom this morning."

Her eyes were wide open now. "What were you working on?" she asked.

"What difference does it make?" he growled. He turned her head and his eyes locked onto her startled gaze. "All I could think of was you. Haven't you been listening?"

He tipped her head back with the hand she suddenly realized was grasping the hair at the base of her skull. Her gasp was smothered by his mouth, open and hot and hard. A harsh sound of possession from him shivered its way through her head and down her spine.

She met the kiss passively at first, simply enjoying this sensation that still had the power to rattle her, even with three weeks of familiarity. He'd shaved since morning, and his skin felt smooth and soft against hers. Her feeble brain tried to make sense of what he had said, thinking that perhaps she had staked some territory for herself in that nimble mind after all. Then she gave up thinking altogether for several pleasurable minutes.

She opened her eyes when he finally pulled back, and listened with satisfaction to his hard breathing.

When he opened his eyes in turn, his expression was neutral. Obviously, he had decided that he'd given enough away. "Are you thirsty?" he asked.

It wasn't what she expected, but it was certainly a welcome question. "Yes," she said.

He reached over to the bedside table, and retrieved a tall glass of ice water, covered in condensation.

"Good," she said, sipping the water. It was too cold to drink fast, but it tasted like heaven. Almost as good as him.

"How was the wedding?" he asked, removing the glass from her hand and taking a long swallow. He put it down and reached around her to finish the task at hand.

"Huh." She jumped as his cold fingers stroked the tops of her thighs.

"Sorry," he whispered, though he didn't stop.

She watched him slide one stocking carefully down and off. It didn't fly as far as the other items, but fluttered in silky ribbon across the floor at their feet. "Wedding," he prompted.

"Three people asked me why I wasn't married yet. Fewer than last time."

They both watched the other stocking float down next to the first.

"How's your mother?"

"Fine," she said. "She asked how you were."

Because she didn't have anyone else to ask about. She wondered, not for the first time, what her mother thought of the strange state of her daughter's personal relationships. Like the fact that there weren't any, anymore, other than the all consuming one with the man sitting behind her. So her mother didn't ask, Scully didn't tell, and she had yet to figure out was going on in Mulder's head. This must be what it's like to be on Oprah, she thought. Imagine the ratings we'd pull.

She came back to the present with a start as Mulder moved off the bed. She watched him walk out of the room, enjoying as always the confident lope, graceful under sharply cut suits, tempting even more with the long muscles of his legs and back exposed to view. She took another sip from the glass then reached into her overnight bag for shorts and a tee shirt.

Reluctantly dressed, she scooted back on the bed, and lay down in front of the cold wash of air. She peered through the whirling blades, and realized he had placed a bowl of ice on a box behind the fan. That was why the air was so cold. She closed her eyes, stretched her arms over her head, and curled her toes in relief. Lying with her head in the indented pillow where his had rested, enveloped by his scent, felt both strange and familiar, like trespassing in her own home.

"Hey, Scully, heads up."

She rose up on her elbow just in time to catch the peach he lofted toward her. "I thought you were going to get strawberries, Mulder," she said, inhaling the scent of summer and nuzzling the soft fuzz.

"Yeah, well, I got a little busy," he said, sitting next to her. "I swiped the rest of your fruit instead. Scoot over."

She rolled her eyes and complied, then immediately regretted it as the air temperature around her rose ten degrees. "Too hot over here, Mulder," she complained. You scoot over."

He propped the pillow against the headboard, then leaned back against it. Gesturing to the area in front of him, he said, "I should have gotten another fan. I never thought I'd need more than one."

They regarded each other silently for a moment. "You should have sucked up to the landlord and gotten your air conditioning fixed," she said.

She pulled his bent leg down and propped her head on his thigh, then bit into the peach. Sweet juice ran down her hand, and she licked it off with a hum of approval. She felt his hand in her hair, pulling it to the side, exposing her actions.

"Want a bite?" She reached behind her blindly, offering the peach.

"No. I was thinking today about getting some blueberries. They were my favorite thing in the summer on the Vineyard. Besides, they remind me of you." He stroked her hair again.

Well, this is going to be interesting, she thought. "Why?"

"They have that little prickly thing on the top that makes you think twice about taking a bite. Always worth it though."

"Is it?" she asked, listening to the question float around the room on a wave of cool air.

His hand came back to rest on her hair, then tugged gently. "Scully," he said.

She took a meditative bite of the peach and chewed slowly. Turning on her stomach, she rested on her elbows and looked up at him. "What?" she asked, while wondering why it was that even when they were lying down, she was still looking up at him.

"What..." he began, then tightened his lips. "Do you want to go to a hotel?"

She blinked. He was full of surprises this evening. "You want me to leave?" she asked.

"No, I was thinking about going with you." He grimaced, then added softly, "Neutral territory."

She pulled herself up on her knees to face him. The air from the fan brushed against her neck, and blew her hair into her mouth.

"Cool, neutral territory," he said, starting to smile, and reaching up to help her brush her hair off her face. "Where you won't be able to hog the fan."

He reached over and took the peach from her, then placed it on the bedside table. Placing the pillow flat, he lay down on his side with his head on one half. Getting the message, she stretched out, facing him. The air from the fan did a wonderful job of cooling off the foot of space between them.

Their eyes met, and he moved forward two inches. She moved about three. He shifted again, closing the gap by another inch. She drew in a breath of surprise as he reached down and pulled her leg up over his hip, and began to rub her sore foot.

"Do you want to?" he asked again.

"And check in under our real names?"

"What difference does it make?" he asked. "Anyone watching wouldn't be fooled, anyone else couldn't care less."

"I don't know," she said.

After a pause, she said, "Can I ask you a question?"

"You can ask me twenty, if you want." He gazed solemnly at her.

"If the arrangements hadn't been made ages ago, would you have come to the wedding with me?"

"I don't know," he said, sounding like an echo.

Well, I guess we both know how we feel about putting some sort of official stamp on what's been happening for the last three weeks, she thought. We don't know.

"What..." He stopped again, then spit out, "What was the temper tantrum about this morning?"

She moved back, and stared at him. "I do not have temper tantrums, Mulder."

"Scully, you were slamming drawers and stomping. For you that's a full blown tantrum. What did I do?"

She noted that he sounded more curious than repentant. "Mulder," she said, "sometimes... I've lived alone for a long time."

"So have I."

"So you should appreciate that sometimes, when a person has lived alone for a long time, it's strange to have to accommodate someone else... to share space."

"Scully, the only person I've ever known who was less willing to share space than me is you. I thought we had an okay arrangement. Never spend too long in each place, never leave more than one article of clothing in the other apartment, keep the toothbrush in the overnight bag, not the other bathroom. You know, the perfect drive-by relationship."

She listened with wonder as his voice got increasingly bitter. "Ouch," she said, as his fingers dug into the arch of her foot.

"Sorry," he muttered, and went back to rubbing gently.

"Do you want more than that?" she asked tentatively.

"I don't know."

She wasn't sure where it came from, but a burst of laughter pealed out of her. She glanced up at him, realizing his hand had stilled, almost afraid of what she'd see on his face. He was regarding her in amazement, as if she was the X-iest X-File he had ever seen. That set her off again. "M-Mulder," she said. "How many years and how much money between us did we spend on school?"

"Off-hand, I'd say too many and too much," he answered, speaking in the way one does with the mentally unstable. He shifted up on his elbow, released her foot, and pushed her gently on her back. "Are you through?"

She blinked up at him. Always up at him, she thought, irritation overcoming mirth in a flash. She struggled up on her elbows, until their faces were only inches apart. "This is it," she said.

"What?"

"It's not just sharing space, it's sharing control," she ground out. "I already have to share control of my life with some faceless, soulless group, of God knows what origin, and I don't want to share any more."

He looked at her with amazement, and pulled back. "You think I'm trying to control you?"

"Yes!" she said, then blinked again. "No." She lay back down, and gestured to the bed. "It's just.... This. This has made everything different, Mulder. Even before, you were never out of my thoughts, but there was some breathing space, occasionally, some time to regroup. All of a sudden, I feel like I need to consider your reaction for every action I take. I've been in control of what I say and what I do for so long, that losing it, even with you, is too much like...."

"Shit." He rolled off the bed, moved to the door, then turned and headed back to the bed. Who's stomping now? she thought.

"Sorry," she said softly. "I'm working on it, Mulder. But I can't forget."

"Do you think I can?" he asked glaring down at her. "Do you think I don't have to fight off the memory of you, floating in that green stuff with a tube stuck down your throat? Or you sprouting tubes and wires during the cancer? Do you think I can forget that the only reason the damned cancer hasn't killed you is the same reason I had to go looking for your burned body on that bridge? Not to mention that now I get to mix it all up with memories of you naked, for Christ's sake. Walking, talking, living, breathing, laughing, coming, naked. How the hell am I supposed to get any work done?" He turned and sat heavily on the bed.

She watched his shoulders shake for a moment, then knelt behind him and placed a hand on his back.

"Jesus, Scully." He turned and she saw that he was laughing silently, just as hard as she had earlier. "This is perfect. If they'd planned it, they couldn't have done a better job. You can't stand to have me around, and I can't stand to think about anything but you. Perfect," he ended in mutter.

"Mulder...." she began, then paused, trying to think of a better description for their situation, and failing miserably. She watched his grim smile fade, watched him turn back around. Watched his shoulders slump. Watched, just watched, as he got off the bed, and walked into the living room. She flinched as she heard a crash.

"Mulder," she called, scrambling off the bed, "are you okay?"

She stopped in the doorway, and watched again as he carried a small table top fan over to his desk, plugged it in, and turned it on. Only one fan, Mulder? she thought. He sat, ignoring her, watching the computer boot up.

So this is it, she thought. This must be what it's like to come down from a three week high. No wonder rehabs stay in business.

She watched him pull up several files, and realized that, unlike most junkies, they still had jobs to fall back on. A working relationship, she thought. At least I know what that's like. "Are you ready for the meeting?" she ventured.

"Are you?" he shot back, not turning around.

"I didn't get a chance to tell you, but I want to run some of the tests again," she said, keeping her tone brusque. Business-like. "There are some anomalies."

He swung around to face her. "But you are going to be able to give them proof for what we saw, right?"

"I will tell the truth, Mulder, you know that's what I always do," she fired back.

He raised an eyebrow at her, and for a second, it was like looking in a mirror. "Remind me of that again, the next time you tell me you're fine," he said, voice so dry there was dust in it.

She felt it again, that current between them, though now it was crackling with deadly force. "The next time we talk about whether you try to control me, remind me to bring up the subject of something personal and private about my body that you knew for months and never saw fit to tell me," she snapped back. "Not until you decided to do it in front of a perfect stranger in San Diego."

Turning on her heel, she stalked into the bedroom, pulled a pair of sandals from the overnight bag, and slipped them on. Grabbing the bag, she headed for the door. "I'm going in to work," she announced to his rigid back. "I want to run some of the assays again myself."

He stood up so fast, the chair rebounded off the edge of the rug and slammed to the floor. He remained still, back to her, hands gripping the edge of the desk.

She turned and stopped short of pulling open the door, wondering if she was about to face another loss, as she had so many times on one side or the other of this damned door. A series of memories projected themselves on the solid brown surface. Inviting Skinner in and putting her gun to the base of his skull, nothing left to lose. Walking through it, sure she had lost Mulder, and her future. Getting both for an instant, then seeing them yanked away again, in a haze of pain.

Pulling Mulder back through the door, three weeks ago, both of them giddy and intent, absorbed in each other. She remembered wanting to bottle that moment so she would never lose it.

Good bye seemed like a dangerous thing to say, so she walked in silence through the door, shutting it softly behind her. She made steady progress down the hallway, not allowing memory trip her step.

She paused at the main door of the building to catch her breath. One hallway and four flights of stairs, but she felt as if she'd just put a marathon's worth of distance between herself and the man she'd left behind. She exited the building, then stopped, damning her teary eyes for playing tricks on her. A swarm of flickering lights pierced the velvety darkness.

Fireflies, she realized, with relief. They buzzed around her, blinking in a random pattern. She walked slowly to her car, then sat motionless in the dark, taking in the spectacle. This must be what it's like, she thought, to walk in space. Surrounded by a sea of stars, tethered by a fragile cord to a ship that was hurtling forward a thousand miles per second. How many ways could disaster strike? A poorly judged tug from either side, a sharp blow from an outside force, would send both walker and ship tumbling out of control, through all the space they would ever need.

The chirp of her phone cut through the silence. She flipped it open and watched cold, starry space coalesce into a muggy night on a dark street in Alexandria.

"Scully," Mulder's voice echoed down the line, no longer dry but shaking with the kind of emotion she had grown used to over the last three weeks, "I told you three weeks ago to get as far away from me as you could. You wouldn't do it then. I want to know what you're going to do now. Are you coming back?"

Swallowing the lump in her throat, she said, "I don't know." She started to turn the key, then paused and asked, "Do you want me to?"

The three word phrase that seemed to have become their mantra hummed in the space between them.

"Yes," he said.

She closed her eyes and considered the implications of that single word. "Mulder," she said, "I have to think about this some more."

The line was silent.

Dropping her head, she continued, "It may take me a while, and it's very hard to for me to think as clearly as I need to with you... with you in the room, Mulder. Do you know what I mean?"

Another long pause, and then, "Yes," he said.

Still not prepared for the consequences of saying good bye, she was about to just hang up, when Mulder's voice froze her finger over the end button.

"Scully," he said, "I've been giving you a lot of space for a long time, trying not to push you. I guess I screwed that up more than once, and... you may think I don't deserve it, but I still want an answer. Are you coming back?"

She turned and looked across the shadowed lawn, searching for one last glimpse of the fireflies.

"Yes," she said.

***