She watched as he walked past her, not speaking. Her heart ached for him, for another perceived failure on his part. There was no way he could have gotten here faster, done any more to save Patrick Crump.
He stood there, looking out at the sea. He was exhausted, that was obvious, but he couldn't rest. Not yet.
He was in the clothes he'd been in when she'd last seen him. His sleeves were rolled up, his shirt was unbuttoned at the throat and his jacket was missing. She could see the sweat stains on his back. She watched him remove his tie and realized she desperately wanted to take him in her arms, brush the hair back from his forehead, and let her fingertips tingle with the stubble of his beard.
How did he manage to look like that even though he'd been awake over twenty-four hours? And why in hell was she most drawn to him when he did?
He was hurting, but would he let her help him? Oh the hell with it, he needed her whether or not he would admit it. Scully shoved away all of her instincts except the one that would offer comfort.
She approached him and laid her hand on his arm. It was warm from being in the California sun for so long. The texture of the hair silky against her fingers was comforting. "Mulder?"
He shook his head, "I can't."
She didn't bother questioning what he couldn't do, but simply entreated softly, "Come on. Let's get out of here."
After a moment he nodded and let her lead him toward a patrol car. "I could really use a bathroom right about now." He looked down at her.
"I think we can handle that." She gave him a slight smile.
He was silent as they drove back and stopped at the first service station they came to. When he returned to the car, she saw that he had splashed some water on his face and his hair was damp. He sat heavily in the back seat beside her.
"Feel better?" She asked.
He grinned tiredly at her, "Yep."
"We can't do any more tonight. Let's find a place to stop. You need to get some sleep."
"You know, that sounds good." He scrubbed his face. He let his head fall back and his eyes close. He was asleep when Scully touched the officer's arm and pointed to a chain motel they were depressingly familiar with. He nodded but didn't speak in deference to Mulder.
She left her partner in the car and checked them in, then returned to him. "Mulder? Wake up for just a minute. Let's get you inside."
He looked at her and nodded wearily. He stumbled from the car and her arm steadied him, leading him to his room. She slipped the card in the lock and pushed it open. "Get undressed, Mulder."
Even dead on his feet he managed a leer in her direction. Scully didn't comment, letting her raised eyebrow speak for her. He stepped into the bathroom. When he emerged, wearing his boxers and a sleeveless undershirt, he headed straight for the bed she had turned down. He sank into it and then looked up at her.
"I really did it this time, didn't I?"
"Go back to sleep."
He held out his hand and she took it. "I'm sorry." He tugged her down to sit beside him.
"There's nothing to apologize for, Mulder. You did everything you could."
"I mean to you. I know Kersh has to have heard about this." She looked away and he squeezed her hand. He started to speak again, but a yawn interrupted him.
She laughed lightly and caressed his face. "Close your eyes."
"Where's your room?"
He nodded, his eyes closing despite himself. He felt her release his hand and rise from the bed. Heard her step quietly to the door and open it, close it. He sighed in weary frustration.
Agent Scully, taking care of him once more. Finding a room and putting him to bed. He was tired of it; of being the exhausted, stressed, falling-apart partner who stood on shaky legs and had to be guided to the motel mattress. Too bad he couldn't seem to do anything else right now, except obey the demands of his worn-down system. There wasn't any point in trying to analyze it further, not when he was fast losing consciousness.
Mulder turned on his side, and slept.
On the other side of the connecting door, Scully leaned against it and sighed with some of her own frustration. Why, when the man was most vulnerable, did she want him so badly? She was used to strong men, men who made the decisions and called the shots. She was familiar with that type. She understood it. She functioned best around it.
Now, more and more, she was finding herself drawn toward Mulder when she knew he couldn't possibly give her what she felt she needed most. It was too easy to slip into the role of nurse; to want to soothe his aches and heal whatever scars were on his heart. It was easier still to take the one fateful step that would blur the lines of friendship when he was hurting, for whatever reason. She held as much compassion for him as she held love. There had never been any question of that.
But she didn't want to begin an intimate relationship in compassion. Scully had to be honest with herself. She wanted that strong man who would guide her even as he enjoyed her own personal strength. She wanted to be swept up and not have to fix the broken man, first. And sometimes Mulder was just so damned broken.
She raked the hair out of her eyes and trudged off toward the bathroom, determined not to think any longer about it. Better to get some sleep and prepare for the upcoming battle with AD Kersch. With forced determination, Scully put it out of her mind and prepared for bed.
Two days later
Mulder strode out of the elevator and down the narrow hallway, wrenched open the door of his office and flung it shut behind him, so hard that the door bounced open again. He didn't notice. Most likely there were other people outside watching him, but he was beyond caring who might see his anger.
Actually, he was past anger. Past fury. Rapidly edging out sane reason, too.
He'd been furious with Kersch before, and no doubt would be again. Typical AD bullshit, and wasn't the man particularly good at stirring it up! But this was different; this was more than his usual feelings of Kersch-hatred.
Jesus, he was just so sick of it. Mulder sank into his chair and dropped his head into his hands, all his fury deflating as he scrubbed fingers through his hair. Shit detail. Constant dressing-downs by a self-righteous, pompous asshole, who got some kind of strange kick out of keeping him and Scully down and under his thumb. The man was on a power trip and it didn't seem to matter to him whether the projects under his control succeeded or failed. The Crump disaster was just another by-product of it all; just another dust-pan full of irritant that would be swept under the rug and made to disappear.
He raised his head and looked around the office. He hated this office like poison. He hated the way he'd been feeling ever since he and Scully had returned from Antarctica. Like he'd just begun to gain a little, win something, only to have it slip through his fingers all over again. The basement office. The X-Files itself.
Scully. Most of all it felt as if she was slipping away from him, too. He hated that more than anything.
The gap was widening and he felt helpless to change it, turn it. And it went far beyond the current inhabitants of his old basement office, beyond past acquaintances and colleagues who may or may not instill confidence and trust in him once more. Scully might be the first to say that was the main problem, but Mulder knew better.
He stood, tugged off his jacket and tossed it over the extra chair, loosened his tie and pulled it off as well. It was stuffy in here. The air conditioning wasn't working properly and Mulder refused to call anyone in to fix it. Calling it in meant that he was accepting the office, claiming ownership of it, caring for it. And fuck that, he thought to himself, as he unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled up his sleeves. He'd rather sweat.
He couldn't sit and relax; he couldn't just stand still. The office wasn't by any means small but it felt like a stifling box to Mulder as he paced in a circle. He rubbed a finger over the surface of the desk, clenched a fist on an abandoned piece of scrap paper, crushing it into a tight ball and tossing it into the trashcan on the far side of the room. He stared out of the window, not taking note of the sunny day but instead seeing again Scully's tense expression when they faced down Kersch in his office just a short while ago. The bastard had enjoyed baiting both of them, and as usual Scully had remained composed, while he'd wanted to reach across the wide expanse of desk and pull Kersch's testicles out through his nostrils. Walking out before he opened his mouth and said anything that would further crucify them was the smartest thing Mulder had done. He couldn't stomach the thought of dragging Scully down any further.
In the open doorway Scully paused, her gaze flickering over Mulder as he stood at the window with his back to the room. She hadn't been sure if he'd headed for home or had come back to his office to stew. Her instinct had led her to the office, however, and once again that instinct had proved correct. When Mulder was particularly furious he seldom hit his apartment first; usually he'd go somewhere else to blow off steam.
The office was overly hot. In this section of the Hoover the main thermostat was always wiggy. A simple phone call to Maintenance would fix the problem right up, and she'd have bet money that Mulder would refuse to make that call.
He looked as if he hadn't had any decent sleep in days, although she knew he'd slept for hours that last night in Loleta. Scully sighed softly; it wasn't a specific amount of sleep that Mulder needed. It was quality. Deep, uninterrupted by disturbing thought, unencumbered by emotion. Sometimes she wondered how few and far between those episodes were, of the right kind of sleep that Mulder was able to lock in for himself. Probably not many, judging by the set of his shoulders.
He reached behind him to pass a hand over his neck in a stress-easing massage, and his forearm muscles tensed with the movement. Scully's eyes widened and she sucked in a silent breath. Here again was the look of him that she had such trouble resisting... a slightly damp dress shirt that clung to his back, rolled-up sleeves showcasing those tanned, strong arms. Hair that stood on end from the raking he'd given it with all ten fingers. If he'd been wearing his shades the image would have been complete. But from her angle it sure wasn't anything to sneeze at.
He shifted his weight from foot to the other and she clenched her hands into fists in reaction to the way his buttocks and thighs flexed and bunched. At that moment she'd have liked nothing better than to unclench her fists and reach out with ten fingers and two eager palms. Damn it all, why did she have to be noticing this so minutely, now? Now, when she should be pissed off at him for more than the jeopardy he put himself into just a few short days ago. Now when there was an interloper in their midst and Mulder was blind to her obvious machinations, which drove Scully to new heights of frustration.
Now when the singular image of his eyes gazing deep into hers, of the residual feel of his hands cupping her face and the memory of those full lips, barely touching hers, brought back to her in frequent replay the kiss that almost materialized in his dim hallway. It seemed to have happened so long ago instead just several weeks. Another arrested moment in their general development as something more than partners, more than friends.
Suddenly, she couldn't stand it. Not another second of it; of obstacles tossed in front of them as they struggled to move onward. Yes, some of those obstacles had been thrown in by her; Scully freely admitted it. And in admitting it, she felt a new freedom, as if some invisible chain had been cut loose. She moved silently into the room; advanced until she could rest the palm of her hand against the small of his back. The feel of him there sent a shiver through her body, as if he were claiming her as well. She had no idea what, if anything, her actions would accomplish; she only knew the need for something to happen.
At her touch Mulder stiffened; he hadn't heard Scully come in. Usually his instincts where she was concerned were much more finely honed. Her scent always preceded her; he could find her in the inkiest dark of night. This time, however, she'd slipped under his radar. He'd been too immersed in his own black thoughts to register much of anything. He took a deep breath but kept his back to her, afraid she'd read too much into his face if he turned to her.
"Mulder." Scully's tone was soft but firm. Her hand pressed him, demanding what her voice refused to reflect.
"Don't worry, I'll pay you back the money." When he didn't turn to face her Scully let out a huff of impatience. That wasn't her concern right now. She pulled at his arm, forcing him to swing around. He spun in a half-circle, a frown on his face; he moved too fast and before either of them understood what was happening he'd pressed her up against the wall right next to the window. Full body contact, chest to hip. Two sets of eyes widened at the feel of it, of male pressing into female, and in that spilt second of awareness neither chose to back down, to move away.
"Scully, I'm not fit company right now. You don't want to be hanging out with me." His voice was a harsh rasp of sandpaper in his dry throat. The feel of her against him, closer than she'd ever been before, was rapidly punching holes in what little composure he had left, yet he couldn't seem to talk himself into being the first to step back.
She kept her eyes focused on his as she pushed forward, one tiny half-inch. "Well, Mulder, I'm not exactly Miss Sweetness and Light at the moment, either. It's been a long morning and our little reunion with Kersch was the cherry on top, so to speak. I want out of this damned building and I think you'd better come with me before you go back up there and say something I'll regret later."
She slipped her hand up between their bodies until she could reach one of his, still clutching at her arms. She grasped at his hand and Mulder let their fingers twine together, but he didn't budge an inch. Instead, he pushed even closer, until Scully was aware of every hard muscle, every ridge and plane, his very bone structure. She caught her breath on a soft gasp and Mulder flashed a grin at her, all white teeth and predatory intent.
"What makes you think I want to endure another bout of that bastard's condescending shit, Scully? Maybe I just wanna stay right here and kick a little ass. Maybe I'm content to play along and see how far you're willing to take this... whatever it is... that you think you're doing." He wasn't about to question her motives. He knew what they were, already. But it was suddenly as arousing as hell to see where she'd lead both of them. Mulder couldn't resist pushing a few final buttons.
Her nails bit into his hand and her eyes flashed at him. "Finish it."
Mulder assumed incomprehension, just for the hell of it. "Finish what, Scully?"
"You know. Do it, Mulder. Finish it. You've been wanting to, for weeks. Finish what you started." Blue and hazel collided, clashed, burned together.
He leaned into her, right into her uptilted face, a mere breath away from her lips. Growled a low, "Make me."
What the hell. In for a penny or a pound, this was Mulder. She wanted this, had wanted it forever, it seemed. She'd started it as well, regardless of her brave words two seconds ago. Scully rose up on tiptoe, sliding right up against all of Mulder's tight muscles. He felt every inch of her. She licked her lips. Bottom, top. Before she'd finished outlining her mouth with her tongue, Mulder swallowed both lips, her tongue, her gasp, her breath. Her moan...
Her moan. He had made Scully moan. His arm pulled her closer but he didn't allow her hand to release his. No, not here. Hell, the door wasn't even locked.
He nipped at her jaw. "You're right; we need to get out of here."
She nodded. "Let's get out of here."
"Where to?" He demanded.
She only hesitated an instant. "Your place."
"Fine." With one hand he grabbed his jacket. His other hand wasn't gentlemanly on the small of her back. Instead he was gripping her upper arm as though she was a prisoner ready to make a break for it. It irritated her almost as much as it excited her.
He took her to his car and opened the door for her, but again it seemed more to keep her from escaping than any politeness on his part.
The drive to his apartment was silent and she forced herself to look out the window away from him, away from the tense and release of the muscles of his arms as he alternately tightened and eased his grip on the wheel.
Once inside the apartment he locked and bolted the door. She had that impression again of a prisoner as the metal door slammed shut. He approached her, looming over her. Smoldering, hell; he looked like he'd burst into flame if she moved so much as a muscle.
One step, then two, closer, closer... and suddenly all Scully could hear was the last argument they had in this room... over the woman in his past that had come back and was the main bone of contention between their partnership. If they didn't get that bone settled between them, there might never be a friendship, much less romance... much less love.
She didn't want to get into it. She wanted to get into HIM. His eyes, so dark and intent, staring at her. His hands, tensed and reaching for her; his body, tight with desire; the outline of that desire discernable beneath his well-cut dress slacks. And here she was, talking herself into throwing a large monkey-wrench into the works. She had to be insane... but she could see no other choice. They had tangles to smooth out before this went any further.
Finally she reached out a hand, placing it in the center of his chest. It was symbolic only, for she didn't think her full clip would slow the man down... but he stopped, watching her warily.
"What about Diana?"
A bomb would have had less affect.
"What?" He wasn't sure he'd heard correctly.
"I think you heard me," she said, sounding cool, distant even though the fire inside her was growing out of control.
"Diana?" He stepped back then, somewhat confused, his hand raking through his hair. She waited. "She has nothing to do... tell you what, why don't we talk about Jack?"
Her defenses reared up. "Jack's dead."
"Well, Diana is -"
She interrupted him without apology. "What? History, Mulder? I don't think so."
"She's not... important," he qualified lamely.
"She used to be." Scully pressed.
Now Mulder's defenses were firmly in place. "So was Jack. So was Ethan."
She was startled. Ethan had never been mentioned. They had broken up almost before she'd met Mulder. She didn't think he'd known about Ethan. And she was damned if she'd get into it right now; this wasn't about her past relationships. Both were long gone in her life, but Diana Fowley was very much in evidence and in their way... in the Hoover and in their old office, their old jobs.
In Mulder's personal affairs, that's what it seemed to her, most of all.
"She IS important, Mulder. She has your regard and that makes her important. She makes you listen to her, whether she's right or wrong, and that's also important." Scully held her ground.
He placed his hands on his hips and took one step back, head tilted a little, staring at her. "I suppose it would be too easy to retort that this sounds like basic jealousy to me. Although I'd bet that's part of it. Right?"
She shook her head. "No. Not jealousy, Mulder. Worry. She's playing you and until you realize it, I don't know if it's wise to take our relationship into new vistas."
He'd heard enough. He wanted to explode. Mulder shouted, "Oh, bullshit, Scully! She has NOTHING to do with us right now, this instant! Neither does anyone else we've shared a past with, okay? Forget I mentioned Jack and Ethan; I was just trying to piss you off. Forget everyone! It's just us."
He stepped close, right up close, and grasped her upper arms, dragging her hard against him. He pushed his face into hers, lips a scant breath away, and muttered, "You were standing in the doorway, staring me up and down. Jesus, do you think I couldn't feel your eyes all over me? I swear I could smell your need. It's the same need as mine, Scully. Just as deep. Just as powerful. I've been pushing it down for weeks because I thought that's what you wanted. You just stood there in that shithole office of mine and told me differently."
His lips locked to hers and he kissed her, one long gulp of heat and greed. He dragged one hand into her hair to keep her head still and his other arm clamped around her waist, pulling her up to her toes. When she moaned into his mouth and kissed him back, teeth nipping at his tongue and hands clutching his back, his hips, then his wool-covered cheeks... Mulder lifted her off her feet and carried her into the bedroom he rarely used.
He set her down in front of his bed and ran his lips down her neck, hands loosening her clothes, unbuttoning what he could reach. While she tugged at his shirt, Mulder framed her face in his hands and his eyes glittered down at her. "You said to finish it, Scully. That's what we're going to do. Nobody gets between us, no past memory or current intrusion bothers us and takes our focus away from this. Do you agree?"
When she didn't answer right away, Mulder leaned back and used his thumbs to urge her face up to his, forcing her heavy-lidded eyes to meet his. "I said, do you agree?"
She stared at him with a combination of naked want and irritation, that he was talking when he should be using that mouth for something better, something that meant more to both of them. "Yes, damn you! I agree. We'll set it aside... for now. It's tabled, Mulder. But we're coming back to it, you understand?"
She wound a hand into his hair and tugged hard, and Mulder bit off a curse at the sharp, brief pain. He let her pull his head down; let her fasten her teeth into his bottom lip. Managed to growl, "Understood, now stop fucking talking, Scully..."
She stopped talking.
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Mulder, Scully, the Lone Gunman and Skinner all belong to Chris Carter, 10-13 and Fox. No infringement intended.