CLASSIFICATION: S, A
SPOILERS: Tooms, Little Green Men
DISCLAIMER: Not mine; they belong to CC, FOX, etc.
Notes: This part is getting a step closer to closure, but the series isn't finished yet.
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Scully's back was to the door when she heard it swish open, followed by a familiar voice. "Agent Scully, slicin' and dicin'. Just like old times."
She snapped off her latex gloves and took a moment to compose herself before she turned to face Mulder. She didn't waste her breath on pleasantries. "I have a very pissed off medical examiner in Minneapolis who wants to know why the FBI pulled rank on him and shipped a body to Seattle--and I'd like to know the same thing."
He didn't bother to look guilty, just disappointed. "That means you didn't do the autopsy?"
She sighed and brushed past him to get to the sink. "That's beside the point, Mulder. This isn't like 'old times.' I'm at a field office, not Quantico. You can't send me cases that have nothing to do with our geographical jurisdiction."
While she washed up, he leaned close behind her, practically towering over her. "That M.E. examined five other victims before this and didn't find a sliver of evidence on any of them. He refused to hear any of my suggestions about what to look for. You're the only person who could examine this body with an open mind."
She dried her hands and discarded the paper towel. When she turned to face him, she had to lean back against the counter to gain some space. Chewing on her lip, she wondered if there was some way she could tell him what she discovered without proving him right.
He said excitedly, "Scully, you're holding out on me. You found something, didn't you?" Even after all this time, he could apparently still read her well.
She used her best clinical voice, trying not to encourage his enthusiasm. "On the victim's neck, I detected a trace amount of an unidentified biological substance." Sensing he was about to pounce, she quickly added, "But just because it's unidentified doesn't mean it's unidentifiable."
"So, what do you think it is? Ectoplasm?"
She was about to offer a rebuttal, until she realized he was teasing her. "I sent the sample off to the lab and put a rush on it. But even so, I don't know if there was enough for them to analyze, and I wouldn't expect the results back until tomorrow morning--at the earliest."
But her tempering words had no such effect; Mulder was beaming. "I knew you were the best, Scully. God, I miss this."
His eyes on her were intense, making his proximity suddenly feel overwhelming. She wasn't sure what exactly "this" referred to, but she thought it was best to put some distance between them.
Crossing the room as she shrugged off her lab coat, she said over her shoulder, "You didn't need to fly all the way out here just to hear the autopsy results."
"I do have enough sense to realize that I couldn't send a body unannounced without showing up to do some major ass-kissing."
She hung up her coat and turned to look at him. She couldn't read on his face whether there was an intentional innuendo in his statement. "I think the ass you need to be kissing is the M.E.'s."
He shuddered theatrically. "Please, Scully, don't scar my delicate mind with that image. He's a very overweight, very unattractive old man. I really want nothing to do with his ass."
She rolled her eyes and turned to gather up the paperwork for the report. "Great," she mumbled, "what that really means is I'll be left to clean up your mess and smooth things over with him."
"Sorry," he said, but without much remorse. "Can I at least make it up to you by taking you to lunch?"
She glanced at her watch. It was well after lunch time, but she hadn't eaten yet. She was so consumed with this autopsy that she didn't realize how late it had gotten. The report still awaited her, as did a soggy tuna sandwich sitting in the lab fridge.
Her rumbling stomach made the decision for her. "Fine, but let's make it a quickie."
She didn't realize how her words sounded until they were already lingering in the air, too late for her to take them back. To his credit, Mulder kept his mouth shut. She tried not to acknowledge his smirk as she led the way out the door.
* * *
Although Mulder had offered to take her anywhere she wanted to eat--and she seriously contemplated the most expensive restaurant she could find, just to get him back for pulling this little stunt--she settled on the quaint cafe down the block. When she saw Mulder turning up his nose at their mostly vegetarian fare, she felt she had gotten a measure of revenge after all.
They sat at a table by the window, chatting about the case over sandwiches and the view of a fine day outside. After a while, Scully decided it was time to redirect the conversation. She had to seize this opportunity while she could.
Focusing her eyes on her plate, she said as casually as possible, "I'll try to finish up the report before I leave work today. I pick up Anna from daycare a little after five. You're welcome to come by for dinner, around six or so."
At his silence, she looked up. He seemed fascinated by the limp pickle on his plate.
Finally, he said, "I'm still working on this case. I really should get back right away."
Scully tossed aside her remaining crust, digging into her reserves of patience. She thought they had made progress over the last few weeks, but apparently not enough.
Only a week after she last saw him, that day at the park, a package had arrived for Anna. It contained a stuffed zebra and a Nerf basketball set. There was a return address, from Hegel Place in Alexandria, but no note inside. Scully debated for three days whether to contact him, and finally called, only to get his voice mail. She said a simple thank you for the gift, and that if he'd like to call back, Anna wanted to say thank you herself.
There was no return call, but another package arrived a few days later. Some coloring books, featuring unicorns and trolls, and a 48-pack of crayons. Still no note, but this time he answered when she called. He explained that he'd included no card simply because he didn't know what to say. She understood. Was he supposed to sign it "Love, Dad," or "Yours truly, Mulder"? She didn't know what to tell him, so she handed the phone over to Anna.
If three times made a habit, then this pattern had developed into a ritual. A package arrived, Scully called, and Anna happily chattered at her father until she ran out of breath or attention. Scully was hoping this visit to Seattle was an excuse for him to take the final step and come see Anna in person. But if it was, he was still reluctant.
Scully poked at her rejected potato chips and decided to try the indirect approach.
"Did I tell you we still have the flowers you sent?"
"After two weeks? I thought they would've wilted by now."
Scully smiled. "Well, Anna learned how to press flowers during their craft time at preschool. After I started finding flowers tucked into all my medical textbooks, I decided to introduce her to drying them instead. I think the pink stains in my organic chemistry book are permanent."
"Oh, so that's what she was talking about."
"Anna. She told me that her flowers were smooshed. I thought she meant something happened to them."
"No, they're preserved indefinitely and proudly on display."
They fell silent and both went back to playing with their napkins. Scully was willing to take one more stab at the conversation.
"You know, she only needs so many stuffed animals."
"Well, they're good for hugs, but they're no substitute for the real thing."
He sighed. "Scully, I can't stay. I think it's better if she didn't even know I was in town."
Scully wanted to ask petulantly why he'd bothered to come in the first place, but she held her tongue. She was trying not to be frustrated with him. After all, this was a mess of her own making, and she bore no small amount of guilt for that. By telling Mulder the truth about why she had left, that she was trying to spare him the difficult choice between his daughter and his sister, Scully had only given him ample reason to doubt himself. Now, she was attempting to undo not only four years of absence, but several weeks of uncertainty and self-recrimination.
She was trying to pave a path between father and daughter; but rather than starting from scratch, it seemed that first she had to jackhammer a row of ill-laid stones. It was hard work, and she was beginning to weary of it.
Scully tossed her crumpled napkin onto her plate and pushed back her chair. "You know where we live if you change your mind."
Mulder nodded noncommittally and pulled out his wallet. They hadn't gotten their meals to-go, so he still needed to pay the waitress. Scully rose from her seat. After only a brief hesitation, she headed for the door. Mulder could find his own way from here--wherever he decided he was going.
* * *
When the knock sounded on the door a little after six, Scully thought it was their neighbor. She was genuinely surprised to see Mulder standing there, smiling sheepishly. She hadn't heard a word from him since she left him at the cafe, and she honestly didn't expect to see him again tonight.
"Hi," she greeted, hearing the disbelief in her own tone.
"Hey," he said shyly.
Recovering from her surprise, she moved aside to let him enter. Anna was glued to the TV, a fact that embarrassed Scully since she hated the thought of using it as a babysitter. But she doubted Mulder would care.
They stood there silently, watching Anna across the room, her back to them and face upturned toward the set. When Mulder made no attempt to move beyond the foyer, Scully had a horrible flash of memory and felt compelled to ask, "Are you staying?"
He winced as her jab hit home. "Uh, yeah, for a while. My flight leaves at 8:30. I need to get back tonight."
She nodded, understanding that he was already pushing the limits of turning this business trip into a personal excursion. After all, there was a killer on the loose, and Mulder was their best chance at catching him.
"Can I take your coat?"
That seemed to shake his inertia. He removed his overcoat and jacket, yielding them to her outstretched hand, and took his first tentative steps into the living room.
He hadn't made it very far by the time Scully finished hanging up his garments, and she realized she would have to take the initiative. The ice shouldn't seem so hard to break now, except they kept letting it freeze over again.
"Anna?" she called. There was no response. Suddenly, Scully had never found Sesame Street so annoying. She picked up the remote from the arm of the couch and swiftly silenced the television. Anna's head swung around to seek out the offender, but her eyes made it no further than the unexpected visitor standing next to Scully. It took no more than a moment for her to adjust.
"Daddy!" Anna leapt up and flew at him, wrapping her arms around his knees before he had time to react.
Scully blinked away the water welling in her eyes and headed back to the kitchen. These two could handle things from here.
* * *
By the time Scully finished washing the dishes and checked the clock, she was startled to find it was almost eight. She hurried into the bedroom, where Mulder was still awkwardly crowded next to the child-sized table, helping Anna to color in one of the books he had sent her. Scully hated to disturb them, but if Mulder didn't leave immediately, there was no way he was going to make his flight. And that would only be with some badge-flashing and sprinting for the gate.
He looked up from his intense concentration on the picture, his eyes a little unfocused as they settled on her.
"Have you checked the time?" she asked.
He glanced at his watch, then back at her, showing no reaction.
Apparently, he'd forgotten. "Your flight. You're going to miss it."
He shrugged, unconcerned. "There's another flight out at five a.m. I won't be able to do anything else on the case until the morning anyway. Besides, our biggest break right now is that slime you found, so there isn't much we can do until we get the lab report." Then he turned to Anna and said, "Can I have the red, please?"
Scully was totally unprepared for that answer. "Okay," she said, feeling a little stunned, and left them to their coloring. Only then did it occur to her what eight o'clock usually meant in their household. But the pair seemed so contented, there was no way she was going to interrupt again to tell them it was Anna's bedtime.
Half an hour later, Anna figured it out for herself. With droopy eyelids, she wandered out from the bedroom to where Scully sat on the couch.
Anna handed over her pajamas. "Help me with jammies, Mommy."
Scully glanced toward the bedrooms and saw Mulder hovering in the hallway. She could tell he was uncertain whether he should be helping with the bedtime ritual or not. It was a long way to go from playmate to parent. They had labeled him "Daddy," but they had yet to define what that meant. For the progress they had made, there was still so much ground left to cover.
But, one thing at a time. Scully gathered her sleepy girl into her arms and rose from the couch. "C'mon, let's get you ready for bed."
It was obvious Anna was tired when she didn't put up much of a fight about going down for the night. She didn't even beg for a bedtime story, but she did insist on Mulder tucking her in.
Scully waited in the doorway while he sat on the edge of the bed and leaned over to kiss Anna goodnight.
The little girl said around a yawn, "Can you go swing with me tomorrow?"
Mulder cast Scully a forlorn look. Stroking Anna's hair, he answered sadly, "Not tomorrow, sweetheart. Maybe some other time. I won't...I won't be here tomorrow. I have to go away."
"'Cause you live far, far away?"
"Yeah," he said softly, "'cause I live far away."
"Then will you come back?"
He paused, then said with assurance, "Yes, sweetie, I'll come back someday."
"Okay. Say night-night to Bear." And just like that, she had accepted his promise.
Scully said nothing to him as he slid past her into the hallway. She could tell that the exchange weighed heavily on him. She slipped in to kiss Anna on the forehead, then exited, leaving the door ajar behind her.
In the hall, she found Mulder leaning against the wall. He let his head drop back against it with a soft thud. "Shit."
She didn't reprimand him for his language, so close to Anna's door, but she did gently push him toward the living room.
"What is it?" She was almost afraid to know.
"I don't have my luggage. Or a hotel room. I wasn't planning to stay this long."
"Oh," she said with relief, fearing his comment would be something else entirely. "You can sleep on the couch. Use whatever you need in the bathroom."
He smiled a little. "Including the Disney Princess bubble bath?"
She smirked. "Just try not to use the last of it. Anna might not be too happy."
He blinked at her innocently. "Oh, I thought that was yours."
She slapped him playfully on the arm. "C'mon, I'll find you some blankets."
* * *
When Scully rose at six a.m., she wasn't surprised to find the couch empty, a neat bundle of blankets and pillows shoved off to the corner. But she thought maybe there would be a note of some kind, on the coffee table, in the kitchen, even the bathroom. But there was nothing. She tried not to be disappointed. After all, this was the man who never said goodbye on the telephone. Who sent packages without a card or a name. It was one of Mulder's communication skills they still needed to work on.
They were in the middle of breakfast when the phone rang at a little after eight. Scully hoped it wasn't the preschool calling with a last-minute cancellation, like they had a month ago when Jordan Lucas came down with the chicken pox.
"Hey, Scully, it's me."
She was almost speechless. It had been a long time since she'd heard that greeting. All of their recent calls had been initiated by her. In fact, until now, she didn't even know for sure that he had her new phone number.
"Mulder. Did you make your flight?" she asked, just for something to say.
"Yeah, we just landed. Taxiing as we speak. Hey, I know you need to get to work, but I wanted to call and wish my girls good morning."
Girls? He didn't use the plural, did he? She must not have heard him right. Surely, he was only talking about Anna. At least, that's what Scully chose to assume.
"Hold on, she's right here. But we do need to keep it brief."
Scully handed the phone over and let the two talk for a moment. Before she knew it, Anna was already handing the phone back.
"That was quick."
"Short and sweet, Scully." There was a slight pause, and somehow she felt he was holding back a joke about her height. "They're deplaning now, so I need to go."
There was another pause. But he hadn't hung up yet. "Call me when you get the lab report."
And then she heard a click and a dial tone. She sighed. It wasn't quite a goodbye, but for Mulder, it was close enough. But maybe she shouldn't be disappointed at that, she realized. They'd already had enough goodbyes.
"Until next time, Mulder."
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