Title: Spectrum
Author: the idiosyncratic stanwyck
Email: theidiosyncraticstanwyck@yahoo.com
Category/Keywords: AU, MSR, A (not too much)
Rating: PG-13; R or NC-17 sections will be marked

Summary: A woman meets a man who opens her eyes to a vast, unexpected spectrum of beautiful, terrifying possibilities.

Please note: My Mulder is *not* color-blind. This is very important; otherwise the story doesn't make sense. Beta thanks to the unflinching Tali and Jen. This is not a WIP; I will post two sections per week for the next five weeks. More notes will follow at the end of the whole damn thing.

Chapter One: Beige

"The color of the universe is not an intriguing pale turquoise, as astronomers recently announced. It's actually beige - and a rather ordinary beige at that." - a report from Johns Hopkins University, March 2002

The District of Columbia had fallen victim to a coquettish late-October heat wave that had lasted almost a week, and had awoken this morning to the renewed chill of waning autumn with a certain half-jaded, impotent fury. An unwillingness to leave home and hearth and fuzzy slippers filled the air, and ribbons of traffic unfurled sluggishly from Arlington and Alexandria and Silver Spring.

He was going to be late.

John looked down at the almost-imperceptibly ticking hands on his knock-off Rolex, and fumbled slightly as he fitted the unwieldy brass key into the lock. A telephone stopped ringing as the heavy wooden door swung inward with a put- upon groan. He had reached for the light switch, fine- boned, well-manicured hands pulling away from immaculately pressed cuffs, when his cell phone rang.

"You're late." The teasing voice of his caller brushed aside the opportunity for greetings. "It's 8:18. Where are you?"

"I just walked in the door. And I might point out that you're not here either."

"You might, but you're too much of a gentleman." From her end of the conversation he heard squealing tires and honking horns, and she hurled a string of softly-spoken expletives. "I'm taking Lola to the vet. That ridiculous, murderous Siamese the Mastersons call a pet attacked her this morning, and this sweet, dumb baby just took it - Didn't you, mutt?" she cooed. "Mom will kill me if I don't treat this dog like a queen. So I'm going to be a little late."

"Sure, no problem. It's a light morning. We've got that writer friend of Melvin's at nine, but I can handle him." More squealing tires. John cringed. "Be careful," he admonished.

She sighed, drawing him a picture of her grim, cool facial expression. "I'm always careful. Bye, Johnny."

Now sitting still in hopelessly snarled rush-hour traffic, Dana Scully ended the conversation and tucked her small black phone into the console. Her compact was trapped between a semi and a minivan. Tip-Top Vegetables, the Capitol's Freshest! bright yellow paint enthused. She couldn't see a damn thing. Lola, her mother's shih tzu, whined pitifully from the back seat.

"It's okay, girl," Dana soothed automatically, sipping her coffee from a silver travel mug. She thought with a mixture of fondness and exasperation of her business partner - he ended every conversation by telling her to be careful, to take care, while she was certainly one of the most cautious people ever to walk upright. Somehow she'd earned a place in John's book as a mixed breed: half sophisticated career woman, half little girl who couldn't take care of herself. The irony didn't escape her.

Traffic pushed forward again, and she followed gratefully. Her mind wandered, picturing her apartment - tastefully decorated, spartanly neat, everything in its place and a place for everything, in a trendy feng shui-esque way. Magazines stacked neatly on the coffee table in chronological order. Her wardrobe color-coded and itemized, leaning heavily toward black and beige-the new black, she thought sarcastically. She folded her underwear, for Christ's sake. She sighed, feeling vaguely annoyed and a little sad, without knowing why.

Traffic. Must be the traffic. It was barely 8 a.m. and she was already in desperate need of a cigarette. She glanced into the backseat and imagined that Lola was eying her reproachfully.

"I know," Dana sighed. "I'm quitting. But just one, huh?" She fumbled in the console, extracting a lighter and one slim Marlboro Light from the package she'd tucked beneath a stack of tissues. She flicked the lighter and inhaled deeply as the end of the cigarette glowed to life, then slumped into her seat with relief. "Dog-sitting, hell. The next time Mom goes out of town, she can board you."

She jerked to attention just in time to slam on the anti- lock brakes. The lid of the travel mug came loose and coffee sloshed down the front of her beige jacket. Lola barked furiously, and Dana swore.

She reached the two-story Arlington brownstone that housed Over the Moon Image Consulting and Public Relations a little over an hour later. Lola's paw was bandaged and she was safely ensconced in the vet's kennel, and Dana, feeling considerably more cheerful, had stopped to pick up a fresh batch of artery-clogging pastries and lattes from the corner coffee shop.

"Good morning." Her quiet greeting carried throughout the studio. John looked up from his desk and smiled. Langly, their resident computer whiz kid, was immersed in something - probably another round of Doom - and didn't spare her a glance. "I brought food," she added, which really got their attention.

"Coffee, Mistress?" Langly asked hopefully.

"Of course, Ringo." He slithered over to claim his cup, looking like a rejected surfer boy in his Green Day t-shirt and straggly blond hair, rather than an Ivy League grad.

"Don't call me Ringo," he said, digging for a jelly doughnut.

"Don't call me Mistress," she returned calmly. "Here's yours, John."

"Flavored?" he asked distastefully, holding the cup with two fingers as if it might contaminate him.

She nodded firmly. "Hazelnut."

"I don't like flavored," he pointed out in his patient, long-suffering, "I've-said-this-a-hundred-times" voice.

"You'll have to learn. All gay men like flavored coffee," she reasoned simply, only the tiny quirk of her lips belying her serious expression. "Besides, they messed up my order. It's all hazelnut." She set her briefcase down on her own desk and shrugged out of her overcoat and stained blazer. "How did the meeting with the writer go?" "He had to reschedule, actually. He's coming in at 11:30. I've got that lunch with Jack Porter, but I told Luder you'd be here. He shouldn't be any trouble - sounded like a nice guy."

"Nice, or nice?" She suggestively arched one copper eyebrow.

"Nice, Dana. Personable. Simpatico. Oh, you've spilled on your jacket, and I'm all out of Shout wipes. It will stain."

She waved his mothering away, looking emotionlessly at the forlornly crumpled blazer. "It's all right," she said. "I never liked the color anyway."

Langly never left the office for lunch. He put on a pair of headphones and brought out the day's disgusting foil- wrapped concoction, usually something involving strong cheese and greasy meat. Liverwurst, Dana thought, sniffing the air. Her cast-iron stomach shuddered with repulsion.

It was 11:33. Melvin's friend was late - John, manically punctual John, wouldn't approve. Dana was on the phone with Senator Ajacks, who was angling for a cabinet appointment if the president was re-elected for a second term.

"Five hundred thousand," she counseled, idly toying with the edge of her blazer. The trendy name for the shade of the linen fabric not marred by coffee was oatmeal. Dark brown liquid the color of tobacco juice spread out unevenly, edges jagged like torn flesh. Oatmeal, ivory, wheat, she reviewed mentally. They were all the same goddamn color, give or take a fraction. You never saw an oatmeal or ivory crayon, not even in those huge boxes with eighty-four different colors.

"A million would be too flashy, with all the talk about campaign finance reform in the news. You could do seven-fifty, but it might be pushing it. Make a Wish Foundation. They'll love it, Greg. Think about it - no, don't think about it. Just do it. ... That's right, I do know best."

She heard the outer door opening and looked up to see a man silhouetted against the pale sunlight. He began the routine of taking off coat, scarf, and gloves, and Dana forced a laugh at one of the Senator's asinine jokes. "All right. Yes, we'll talk soon. Good-bye."

She repressed a sigh of relief as she replaced the receiver, and turned her attention to the new arrival. He lingered hesitantly in the doorway.

"Come in and have a seat," she invited, rising. "You must be Mr. Luder."

He shook her hand, his expression doubtful. "Mulder, actually. F.M. Luder is my pen name."

Dana got her first clear look at his face and felt a pleasant warmth spreading across her skin. He was beautiful, in a unique, intriguing way. "Would you like some coffee?"

"I'd love some."

"It's toxic," she warned, but he merely grinned. "Here - cut it with this." She handed him a mug and an eclaire.

Instead of resuming her seat behind the desk, Dana took the overstuffed armchair next to his matching chair. "Mr. Mulder, then. I'm Dana Scully. You spoke with my partner, John Byers, this morning."

"Ms. Scully. You were recommended to me by Melvin Frohike."

She nodded encouragingly. "Is there anything in particular that brings you here?"

"Ah, yeah, actually." He paused, studying his hands. Her gaze followed his, and noticed that his long fingers terminated in neat, carefully clipped nails with perfect white half moons. "Have you ever heard my name, Ms. Scully?"

"Please, call me Dana. And yes, I have." When John had mentioned Mulder's - or rather, Luder's - name, it had taken Dana a moment to place, but she had realized that he was a well-known writer of psychological science-fiction thrillers whose name appeared not infrequently on the New York Times bestseller list. She smiled back, her cool, professional, just-a-few-teeth smile.

"I've been writing sci-fi for nearly fifteen years. I make enough money to live comfortably, do what I want to do."

"Don't be modest," she interrupted calmly. "You've been quite successful."

He nodded. "My success has inspired a certain amount of professional jealousy. Nothing unusual, but I guess I'm a good target." He shrugged. "I'm a loner, Dana. I keep to myself. I have few friends; I seldom go out; my most intimate relationship is with the pizza delivery boy. That's the way I like to keep things. But in the last six or eight months, all sorts of ridiculous rumors have started to circulate. Now everyone seems to think I'm some sort of J.D. Salinger-type recluse, or that I don't exist at all."

"That's why you're here, then," Dana said, and again he nodded. "Mr. Mulder, I must tell you, I've seen these situations often work in a person's favor. Sales of your books could skyrocket."

"They have, but it isn't worth it."

"What do you mean?"

"Reporters call me. I've had TV crews showing up, harassing my neighbors. Some idiot interviewed my third-grade teacher. I can't take a piss without somebody sending in a camera crew. My landlord is this close to evicting me. Fans camp out on my doorstep. I can't go out in public. A teenager actually tried to mail herself to me."

"I thought they only did that on I Love Lucy," Dana commented wryly.

"Apparently not. I can't handle it. All of this is driving me crazy. I just want them all to go away." For a second he looked truly miserable, like a hang-dog little boy. "Melvin thought you could help."

Dana leaned back in her chair. "Yes, we can help. But you might not like it."

His arched eyebrow mirrored the one she had flashed him earlier, and his strong features held a combination of amusement and trepidation. "That's a hell of a sales pitch."

Her face remained impassive, but the skin around her eyes crinkled in what would have been laugh lines if she'd allowed them to develop. "I don't promise instant gratification, Mr. Mulder. I won't say you'll wake up tomorrow and find that your life has returned to normal, because that would be an outright lie. I'll need time."

He leaned forward. "How much time?"

She considered briefly. "Six months, to do it properly."

"What do I have to do?"

"Go out in public," she said bluntly, knowing that was exactly what he didn't want to hear. "Give lectures, readings, sign books. Go to a few dinners, charity functions. Get your face and your name out there. Once you do, the mystique will wear off. It isn't complicated."

He studied her. "If it's so simple, why do I need you?" he challenged.

She grinned, looking genuinely delighted. Sky blue eyes flashed at him, accentuated by the tiny laugh lines, now definitely in evidence. "Because I have the connections, and you don't. I'm sure your pizza delivery boy is wonderful, but I don't think he can get you an invitation to the White House."

He had no choice but to grin back. "Fair enough, I guess."

Dana reached for a sheaf of papers and handed it to him. "This is a contract. Take it with you and look over it, then let me know what you've decided."

He took the papers and they both stood. He crossed to the coat rack and began suiting up to go outside. He gave her a small smile and a wave.

"Have a nice afternoon, Mr. Mulder."

"Just Mulder."

"All right, Mulder."

"Thanks, Dana."

She smiled slightly. "Just Scully," she volleyed. "Feel free to call if you have any questions."

Chapter Two: Drop Dead Red

"It's red hot, mate. I hate to think of this sort of book getting in the wrong hands. As soon as I've finished this, I shall recommend they ban it." - Tony Hancock

Despite the disheartening regimen of mingling with the great unwashed masses prescribed by Dana Scully, Mulder found his spirits to be uncharacteristically light as he hoofed the six blocks back to his car. When pronounced by such luscious lips, even the grimmest sentence must needs lose most of its sting. Remembering not only those lips, but a pair of captivating blue eyes, rich copper hair and a barely-there smile, Mulder couldn't work up the appropriately Dickensian sentiments of a man in his position. When the cell phone in his coat pocket burred softly, he answered with unwonted good cheer.

"Que pasa, compadre?" intoned the gravelly voice of his caller. "Did you go over to see Byers and Dana about the PR jazz?"

"I just left. I met with Scully - Dana."

Melvin Frohike chuckled. "Yeah, she's a dish, huh? Real looker. Smart as a whip, too. Listen, can you stop by for a few minutes? I want to go over some of the details in your piece about telekinetic assassination."

Mulder acquiesced and pointed his jeep in the direction of a dingy converted warehouse in a part of town that had been overlooked by the trendy renovations of hip young professionals and remained merely unsavory. The building housed Melvin's small apartment, which blended seamlessly with the headquarters of his brainchild, The Lone Gunman. The magazine was a fringe publication popular with soldier of fortune types and Gen X hackers still living at home with their parents. Its pages were devoted to Melvin's true passion: conspiracy theories. For the last six months or so, since Mulder had run into Melvin, an acquaintance from his post-grad days, at a MUFON conference, Mulder had been contributing regular articles under a second nom de plume, George Hale.

The Lone Gunman wasn't exactly the generator of high-level revenues, and Melvin kept it afloat with the help of his silent partner, the unassuming John Byers, whom Mulder hadn't yet met, and Richard Langly, who, Mulder knew, also worked at Over the Moon. In a past life Frohike had, in his parlance, sold his soul to the sludge-sucking crustaceans who perpetuated the insidious evil of pop culture brain drain. In other words, he'd been a mainstream journalist.

Standing outside while he waited for Melvin to unlock half a dozen deadbolts, Mulder didn't realize he was whistling until the other man joined in, his voice picked up by the intercom system.

"'I love you more today than yesterday, but not as much as to-mor-row.' Pat Upton. Cool, man. So you liked Dana, huh?"

"She gave me some helpful advice," Mulder replied as noncommittally as possible. "What's up with the article?"

Frohike wasn't fooled. "I knew she'd be your type," he declared.

Mulder shoved his hands into his pants pockets and glowered.

"You should ask her out. No? Well, if you hang out over here enough, she'll eventually drop by." Melvin waggled his eyebrows up and down in a disturbingly cartoonish fashion. "She is one hot tamale."

Mulder pointedly ignored his friend's remarks and steered the conversation back to the business at hand. But that evening in his quiet apartment when he pulled out the contract Dana had given him and anchored his reading glasses on his nose, he heard the smaller man's words echoing in his ears.

"One hot tamale," Mulder repeated reluctantly.

Yes, she was, he thought, allowing himself a quick grin.

Flipping to the back page without bothering with the fine print, Mulder boldly scrawled his name in firm, black strokes.

Scully was hovering in a hypnogogic state between a dream involving cocoa butter and a Swedish masseur and thoughts of the dry cleaning she needed to drop off when the telephone rang. Whimpering at the intrusion, she seized the receiver from the nightstand and mumbled, "It's 7 a.m. on Saturday. I hope this is good."

"Er, Scully? Dana Scully?"

"Yes." Perplexed, she drew out the syllable, her voice sleep heavy and her ess sybilant. The caller's voice was vaguely familiar, but she couldn't quite place it.

"This is Fox Mulder. I obviously woke you. I can call back later."

Scully sat up and shoved the hair out of her eyes. "I'm awake now," she pointed out. "Did you need something, Mr. Mulder? And how did you get this number? It's not on my card, and it's not listed."

Her tone was vaguely accusatory and Mulder winced, aware that he'd incriminated himself and his friend. "I got it from Langly. I told him it was an urgent business matter."

She sighed and he wished he could see her expression.

Amusement? Annoyance? Resignation, perhaps.

"And is it?"

"Urgent? Not terribly. I'm sorry, Ms. Scully. I didn't realize it's Saturday. I thought I could catch you before you left for the office."

Dana smiled slightly, won over by his apologetic tone and her pity for someone whose life didn't differentiate between weekends and work days. "You're excused, Mr. Mulder. So what is this less than urgent matter?"

"Just Mulder," he reminded. "I signed the contract and thought I should call to find out what happens next."

"Step two, hmm?" Dana burrowed back under her warm down comforter and pensively licked her lips. "Oh, I've got just the thing. There's a gala tomorrow night at the Library of Congress - all the requisite literary types will be in attendance. I'll make a few calls, get your name added to the guest list, and someone will messenger the invitation to your place, which is -" Scully grabbed a pen and a scrap of paper and scrawled the Address he specified. After reading it back to him she said, "Yes, that will be a good start. We'll get you sorted out yet, Mis - Mulder."

He chuckled. "Thank-you. Again, I'm sorry to bother you on the weekend, Ms. Scully."

"Just Scully," she retorted warmly, and hung up.

When her phone rang at a quarter of five on Sunday afternoon, Dana almost didn't answer. Under normal circumstances, she would have ignored the interruption until her mother or the representative from the police athletic fund gave up and went away. She was hunkered over the kitchen sink, up to her elbows in soapsuds as she attacked the dishes from the day's pre-mass breakfast, and the display on her caller ID was flashing "Unavailable."

But somehow she had a premonition. She wiped her hands on a damp dishtowel and answered.

"Scully, it's Mulder."

"You know, Mulder, most of my clients limit themselves to one at-home phone call per weekend. Should I buy a beeper?" Her voice danced from low and intimate to light and teasing, as if manipulated by the fingers of a classical pianist, before hovering around Middle C.

In his apartment, Mulder stood in front of his open closet door, staring philosophically into its depths. "It's about this gala."

"You got the invitation?"

"Yeah. Tonight, 7 p.m., Mr. Fox Mulder and date."

"Right," Scully agreed, somewhat perplexed. "Is there a problem?"

"And date," he repeated.

"Ah." Dana smiled broadly. "No date, Mr. Mulder?"

"Is this one of those events where I'll look pathetic if I show up alone?"

"There must be someone you can ask. A friend? A neighbor?"

"How about a gorgeous, witty, charming PR coordinator?"

Scully stared at popping soap bubbles, her lips parted slightly in consternation. He wanted her to go with him?

"Come on, Dana. For moral support? You can tell me when I need to kiss ass. Think of the time it could save you later."

"Mulder," she replied edgily, "I'm not an escort service. This isn't part of the deal."

"I know, believe me. But it'll be like going stag to the senior prom. That does something to a guy," he wheedled.

A sudden memory of herself in braces and mauve chiffon made Dana relent.

Mulder was again running late. He'd had the forethought to avoid the odyssean quest for a parking spot by taking a cab, but he hadn't planned for the traffic jam resulting from a six-car pile-up on the Beltway. A steady drizzle was falling, and as he unfolded from the yellow cab's backseat, his gaze zeroed in on a black-clad figure clutching an equally black umbrella, huddled under the eaves of the massive library. As he dashed raindrops from his face, her voice floated back to him, saying, "Let's go in."

They darted up to the entrance, where they yielded up their coats before being greeted by a receiving line of minor dignitaries. As Scully introduced Mulder to a cluster of her acquaintances, Mulder got an opportunity to study her appearance. She was in black from head to foot, her smoky eye makeup making her deep-set eyes look wider and bluer, her lips stained a deep wine red. Her simply elegant black dress hugged her narrow waist and emphasized the generous curves of her breasts and hips, and impossibly high heels boosted her up a few inches. Leaning down to speak directly into her ear, Mulder whispered, "Scully, you look phenomenal. I know I had no right to ask you to come here tonight, but thank-you so much for doing it."

She smiled slightly. "You don't know yet just how much you owe me, Mulder - these things are as boring as purgatory and slightly longer. But don't worry - I'm sure you'll find some way to make it up to me... There's the vice-president. Let's go wish him a good evening."

If Melvin had suggested that Mulder was taking his advice and hanging around the offices of The Lone Gunmen more in order to increase his chances of running into the delectable Dana Scully, the younger man would have vehemently denied the allegation. Fortunately, Frohike spared him the necessity by not being crass enough to comment on the astonishing frequency of Mulder's visits over the week and a half since he'd met the redhead.

As a mere mortal, however, Melvin couldn't suppress the triumphant grin he beamed in Mulder's direction when, on Thursday afternoon, John Byers sauntered in with his partner in tow to have a look at the galleys for the mid- November issue. Mulder glowered in response and, realizing Dana's eyes were on him, offered her a shy smile.

"Do you have an article in this month's issue?" she asked.

"Uh, yeah, actually. How did you know I write for the Gunman?"

One eyebrow shot upward. "Oh, Mulder. We have no secrets here." Her eyes sparkled. "Telekinesis, huh? A moving theory."

"Just because something hasn't been proven, doesn't mean it's impossible," Mulder returned, glossing over her bad pun.

"That's true. Through science, our understanding of the world is expanding every day. A century, fifty years ago, the leading thinkers of the time could never have conceived the advances we've seen in the interim."

"So you think science can explain the world, Scully?"

"Our world is built on science, Mulder. Without it, we understand nothing."

"What about intuition, imagination, simple gut feelings?"

She was still smiling slightly, but he could tell that she was on alert, uncertain if he was merely teasing or subtly attacking her. "All science. Reactions to stimuli we don't always understand."

"Is that your hobby - science?"

"I wouldn't call it a hobby, no. It's a way of viewing the world. I open my eyes and see a carefully executed series of actions and reactions, motivated by complex forces of momentum, pressure, gravity. The order of our environment is very precise, Mulder."

Generous lips curved into a half-smile and he stroked his jaw. "The scientific."

A tiny, cat-like smirk twitched the corners of her mouth.

"Yes. And you are the artistic."

"And the two don't mix."

Her grin transformed her face. "Conventional wisdom would say no, wouldn't it? They don't mix; they balance. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction - you remember that one."

"Is that so? Where does one obtain this fascinating information, Ms. Scully? Are you hiding the Physicist's Desk Reference and Compendium under your desk? Next to Who's Who in America, perhaps?"

"Maybe I listened really, really well in my high school physics class." Her chair creaked as she crossed one ankle over the opposite knee. "Or maybe - and I wouldn't play these odds, Mr. Mulder - I'm a not-so-secret science geek with an undergraduate degree in physics to prove it."

The ends of his eyebrows arched fiercely toward his nose. "Really?"

"My senior thesis was called 'Rewriting Einstein's Twin Paradox.'"

His hazel eyes met her blue ones. "Ambitious, Scully. So, what happened to Einstein?"

"He died, Mulder, but don't feel too badly. He was old." Her chin dipped toward her left shoulder. "I had been accepted to med school, actually, when... circumstances intervened."


The shutters slammed down over her eyes and her expression tightened. Mulder belatedly realized his inquisition had gone too far. Scully spoke brusquely. "My father died and there was no money for more school. I needed a paying job."

"So you chose PR?" His tone implied that he didn't see the connection.

She answered while searching through her purse, her fingers itching to hold a cigarette. "Eventually. Let's say it was a long and winding road." Striking gold, she stood up. "I can't smoke in here. I'll be back in a few."

Scully stood on the cracked sidewalk outside the warehouse, drawing warm clouds of nicotine into her lungs. So it caused cancer; right now it felt like the balm of Gilead.

The cold, damp air chilled her body and cleared her thoughts. She pictured her lungs working, the blood flowing through her veins and pumping through her heart, her muscles flexing as she strolled down the block and back, and felt herself sinking comfortably back into her own skin.

She smoked two cigarettes, grinding the second out with the heel of her boot, and returned to the Gunmen's lair. John's voice, questioning, drifted into Melvin's living room, and Langly laughed. Without a word, Dana flung herself into an overstuffed armchair covered in a vicious seventies plaid. Standing near the window, Mulder looked up from his perusal of a stack of back issues and nodded.

Melvin's penchant for lighting slightly brighter than a waning candle flame in some eighteenth-century parlor cast deep shadows and made it difficult for Dana to read Mulder's facial expression or obtain any clues from his body language. She knew her abrupt change of mood and subsequent departure had put him ill at ease. He prowled around the perimeter of the room, riffling through seemingly random sheaves of paper and trailing his fingers through the half inch of dust insulating the furniture.

"Langly didn't mention that you knew each other," she commented.

Mulder paused in his restless movements. "Sure. We've gotten to know each other since I ran into Melvin again."

"Do you spend much time over here?"

"Enough." He stepped toward her and Dana recognized the wry quirk of his generous lips. "To reveal more would be embarrassing."

Her laughter was genuine, arching her neck and crinkling her eyes. Mulder approached somewhat reluctantly, folding his long limbs into the corner of the sofa nearest the armchair she occupied. He surveyed her with the abashed admiration of a little boy enthralled with his piano teacher.

"Scully," he began, and halted abruptly. Despite herself she relished the way his voice flowed over her surname, rich and smoky like bourbon, burning as it coated her throat with liquid heat. Her impudent nipples crested against the weave of her sweater and she leaned forward to hide her response.

"Mulder," she volleyed.

"Scully, are you seeing someone?"

She merely regarded him with one eyebrow again arched, giving him neither yes nor no. He realized he should get out now, shut his mouth and cut his losses, but he forged ahead. "I thought there might be something between, you know, you and John Byers."

Her expression barely changed, but the barest hint of a smile shadowed the corners of her mouth. "There is."

"You two seem really close - There is?" He strained to keep his tone neutral. He counseled himself to appear politely interested, not disappointed. He thought he might be failing.

Her lips twitched, then her expression evened out. "He's my best friend."

"That's it?" He was blundering, but he couldn't keep the words in his mouth.

"I'd say that's pretty important, wouldn't you? Having someone with whom you can share your thoughts, your dreams, your fears?"

He nodded, thinking that he really wouldn't know, since he didn't have that kind of relationship with anyone. He would hardly call Melvin when he wanted to expound on the meaning of life. "Yeah, I'd say so."

"Mulder." She leaned forward slightly, resting one hand on the coffee table. "Is that all you wanted to ask?"

Mulder's insides seized with nervousness. Shit, he thought. I'm so fucking awful at this. His eyes tentatively explored Dana's body - sleek black boots adding three inches to her height, her slim legs encased in flared gray slacks, the red turtleneck sweater that hugged her breasts, the black metal rings on her thumb - then moved to her face. She looked like a painting, her skin and eyes luminous. She looked calm, her mouth almost smiling, her eyes sparkling. She was teasing him, he realized abruptly.

Aloud, he chuckled dryly. "Tease," he admonished.

She really smiled now. "Is there something else?" she prompted again.

He leaned forward, his stance matching hers, and slid one hand into her hair just behind her ear. The color was so bright and hot that on some basic level he was surprised to find it cool to the touch. "Do you date clients?"

"I don't date," she replied. He leaned in close enough to feel her breath on his face.

"You said I owe you. So go to dinner with me, somewhere nice."

She tilted her head back to look into his eyes. "'Kay," she murmured lazily, her lids drifting half-shut. Her lips parted, the invitation obvious.

Mulder might be out of practice, but he wasn't a complete idiot. His mouth covered hers, slow and languorous and so, so right. Something inside Scully tightened and a bittersweet pain flooded through her. He wasn't touching her anywhere but with his hand in her hair and his mouth on hers, no tongue, no force. He pulled away first.

"I'll pick you up tomorrow night at 6:30," he said.

"I'll meet you at the restaurant," she replied.

"All right. The Golden Lotus on D Street, 7:00. Is that all right?"

"That's good."

"Tell the guys I had to go, okay?" He rose to go. He wanted to kiss her again. He listened for sounds of Melvin and John moving around in the other room, but heard none. Dana hadn't moved from her sitting position, one leg tucked underneath her. Mulder bent to press his lips to hers again, but her words stopped him.

"See you tomorrow."

"Right. Good night, Scully."

Dana leaned back when the door closed, breathing in the faint clean smell that hung in the air, teasing at her senses. Her fingertips tingled and she clinched them into fists, squeezing her eyes shut. Something down deep was tickling, drawing all her body heat to it and leaving the rest of her cold.

No, she thought. No, no, no. I should never have agreed to go.

"Dana? Is Mulder gone?"

She turned to Melvin, smiling automatically. "Yeah. He is. Would you like some coffee? I'll make it."

She darted into the kitchen before he finished answering, eager to busy herself with the mundane task. It was that or smoke half a pack of cigarettes, and John's reaction when he smelled the traces of her first two on her clothing wasn't something she wanted to consider. Carefully filling the little metal scoop with the rich grounds, Dana struggled to ignore the fluttering in her abdomen and the thought that by agreeing to have dinner with Fox Mulder she had made a very, very big blunder.

End Section (1/10)

Chapter Three: Under the Pink

"You could be my flamingo - 'cause pink is the new kinda lingo - pink like a deco umbrella - it's kink, but you don't ever tell her." - Aerosmith

Despite the rude gestures and angry curses of the harassed workaholic commuters, diners and theatre-goers Dana had to compete with while wending her way into the heart of D.C., she didn't realize exactly how fast she'd been driving until she reached the restaurant fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Hyped up on nerves and the residual effects of the five cigarettes she'd smoked in the car, she reclined in the butter-soft leather booth and tried to relax.

Without the cigarettes she knew she would've been clawing her way out of her skin by this point; unfortunately, she now smelled like an ashtray. Scully sniffed the air experimentally. Good. Perhaps Mulder would be perceptive enough to understand the strictly platonic message she wanted to send and they could avoid a potentially embarrassing heart-to-heart.

From her vantage point, Dana watched the smiling hostess direct Mulder toward her. She slid to the edge of the booth and arranged herself with as much nonchalance as possible, notwithstanding the tingling in her fingertips. Christ, in camel-colored slacks, a dusky blue sweater that clung to his torso like a preteen groupie at an Nsync concert, and a chocolate corduroy blazer, he looked good enough to eat.

He smiled, a dimple appearing in his chin, as he slid in beside her - close, but not too close, he hoped. "Am I late?"

"No, I was early." She leaned forward, nervously sipping her ice water.

His elbow brushed her upper arm. "Thank you for coming," he said, and belatedly realized he sounded like an aggrieved relative at the funeral of a loved one. Scully smiled slightly and studied the candle flickering at the center of the table.

Mulder searched the elegantly appointed restaurant for some sign of a reprieve. His hormones jumped up and down, their fourteen-year-old voices cracking as they shrieked, "Girl! Girl! Pretty girl!" Even as his higher brain recognized the agony of discomfort he and Dana were currently inflicting upon one another, he had to agree. She was a vision in a long ivory blazer and matching blouse, a chunky gold pendant dangling between her breasts.

At a loss, he reached for a menu. "Have you ever had the duck? They have a duck thing with ginger sauce that's really, uh, phenomenal. Do you like duck?"

She licked her lips. "I like duck," she allowed, the same muscles twitching into a tiny, nervous smile.

"It's enough for two, if you'd like to share."

"I like to share," she responded inanely, and blushed a furious crimson that delighted Mulder and eased a measure of his tension.

He flagged down the waiter and ordered a bottle of wine, telling his dinner companion, "I think we could both use a drink, don't you?"

"I think we did fine last weekend at the Library of Congress," she argued.

He raised his eyebrows as the waiter poured a California pinot into their glasses. "Ah, yes, but champagne was consumed, and that was business."

The wine pleasantly coated the roof of Dana's mouth and kindled a welcome warmth on its journey to her empty stomach, and she leaned back, crossing her legs. "And this is not business, is it, Mr. Mulder?" she bantered.

The cock of his head implied an intimacy that made her bounce one foot energetically. "I certainly hope not, Ms. Scully," he returned. "You got my name, rank and serial number when I signed your contract, but all I know about you I've learned from Melvin."

She laughed out loud, a wonderful, deep belly laugh, and the sound of it made his toes curl. "Oh, God. Well, we must reconcile that, mustn't we? What would you like to know? Keeping in mind, of course, that a lady should never reveal too much. - But let's order first. I'm starving." As she spoke the words, Dana was surprised to find that they were true. Her anxiety had nearly evaporated and hunger had rapidly rushed in to fill the available space.

They ordered the duck, with a side of pork dumplings in plum sauce, and she tried to teach him how properly to use the lacquered chopsticks resting beside their plates. His large, untutored fingers skittered clumsily along the length of the utensils until her precise, cool hand covered his. "Like this," she instructed, her genuine mirth warming his cold toes.

With her instruction he managed to successfully spear a dumpling and transport it to his mouth. "Are you an expert?" he asked.

She chuckled. "I'm good with my hands," she offered suggestively, then immediately drew back. He sensed the veil that had suddenly descended between them, muting their camaraderie.

The dinner stretched out over the mound of crispy duckling between them. "So far," he said, "I know that you're some kind of PR sorceress, have been known to consort with unsavory conspiracy theory types, and are an unabashed science nerd masquerading as a beautiful woman." Mulder ticked the items in his inventory off on his fingers.

Around a dainty mouthful of rice noodles Scully remarked, "You're keeping track."

"A writer has to be observant." He spooned hot mustard onto his plate. "So?"

"So what?"

"Tell me more."

"What else is there to know?" Dana questioned evasively.

"How long have you been consulting?"

She was secretly relieved by the relatively impersonal nature of his question. "Five years. John and I got the idea together and worked to make it happen, and along the way we picked up Langly."

"You and John have known each other for a long time, then?"

"Since we were kids, yeah. Like I told you the other day, he's been the best friend I could ask for. I was, ah, sick for a while a few years ago. It was a dark time, and he was right there with me through it all. He's a special man." The waiter returned to refill their water glasses,

interrupting them momentarily. When he had gone, Mulder leaned forward confidentially. "Dana -" His voice had a serious edge to it, and she regarded him warily. "I don't think I've made my attraction to you a secret."

She watched the ice cubes settle in her water glass before looking back at him. "No, you haven't, and I respect that. I don't want to give you the wrong idea. I like you, Mulder. I like you very much." She hesitated, and when she continued her tone was marked by a striking mingling of the plaintive and the resigned. "But I'm not interested in a romantic relationship with you or anyone else at this point. That's something that I just do not need in my life."

His gaze didn't waver, and his immediate response, Dana would reflect later, won him a friend. "And I respect that."

She nodded and smiled ruefully. "Maybe you'll let me pay my half of the check now."

"I'll let you pay the whole damn thing if you insist, but that doesn't mean I don't want to be your friend." He reached across the table and touched her arm. "I'm kinda picky, Scully, and I'm not the most popular guy. I don't have a lot of friends. I'd really like to be able to count you among them."

"I'd like that too." Her smile, though small, was genuine this time.

"I'd like to be whatever you need me to be, Dana. If it's just a friend, I can work with that."

Her smile turned into a grin. "You don't know me very well."

"I'd like to."

"Fair enough." She drank some of her water and held the glass as she spoke. "You should know that as a rule I don't go to dinner with my clients."

"So you've already made an exception for me. That's a good thing, right?"

She chuckled. "You're persistent; I have to give you that."

"Well, I'm a friend of a friend, so I'm not a normal client anyway. Do you want dessert?"

"I never accused you of being normal, and no, but I'd love a coffee. Order one for me if the waiter comes by, if you don't mind. I'll be back in a moment."

He ordered two coffees and waited for her to come back from the bathroom. The phone in the pocket of her jacket began to ring. Mulder hesitated, but decided to answer, in case it was important.

"Dana Scully's phone."

"Uhh... Who is this?" It was a child's voice.

"This is her friend, Mulder. She should be back in a minute or two."

"Oh, you're the guy she was going to dinner with. This is Chloe. Will you please tell her that Tina and I are spending the night at Sophia's? Tina's mom said it was okay."


"Okay, thanks. Bye."

"You were on my phone." Scully slid into the booth and regarded him inquisitively.

"It rang. I'm supposed to tell you that Chloe and Tina are spending the night at Sophia's, and Tina's mom said it was okay."

She smiled slightly. "Thanks."

"May I ask who Chloe is?"

Her smile broadened. "Chloe is my daughter."

"I didn't know you had children."

"You do now."

"You're divorced?"

"Mmhmm. What about you? Ever been married?"

"No, I've managed to steer clear. Are you and your ex- husband on good terms?"

She smirked. "You could say that."

Mulder felt an unpleasant tingling sensation in his fingertips. "You're not still, ah, involved?"

This time she laughed out loud, a hearty belly laugh.

"Romantically? Oh God, no! No." She took another sip of her water. "We met in junior high and were friends for a very long time, then separated for college and grad school. When we saw each other again, we were both nearly thirty, and one thing led to another. I think we both felt like it was time to get married. It wasn't a great love affair, but we were happy enough, for a while. We were more good friends and roommates than anything else. We were married for five years, but the spark just wasn't there, and when we both realized that there was so much more out there, we ended it. It was on good terms; obviously, since we work together every day."

Mulder's brow drew together in a frown of confusion. "Excuse me?"

Dana arched that eyebrow. "I thought you knew, Mulder; I assumed Melvin had mentioned it. John is my ex-husband."

"John Byers?"

She nodded. "None other."

"But -" Mulder stopped, afraid he'd already overstepped his bounds. The day before Melvin had casually made a comment about the fact that Byers "played for the other team," and had unknowingly assuaged all of Mulder's anxieties about John's relationship with Scully. Suddenly Mulder wasn't so sure; hell, maybe Frohike had meant that Byers was a Republican, or a Mets fan.

She chuckled; it was a sound he could get used to. "Go ahead and say it, Mulder: John's gay. Yes. He absolutely is. It took him years to realize it, and it's hardly something I could hold against him. I just want him to be happy."

"Um." Mulder studied his napkin for several seconds before admitting, "I don't quite know how to follow up after that."

"My relationship to John is a bit nontraditional." The tiny laugh lines were back, mapping out her mirth.

"So, Chloe is John's daughter," Mulder assumed. Scully opened her mouth as if to speak, but only sipped her coffee. The expression on her face suggested that Mulder had opened a whole new can of worms.

"Mmm, no. No, she's not." She paused, not out of embarrassment, but as if she were weighing her words carefully, deciding how much to reveal. "Chloe is not my biological child."

When no more information seemed to be forthcoming, Mulder interrupted Dana's intense perusal of the middle distance with the words, "Scully, if this is too personal - if you feel like I'm prying -"

"No, no." She waved his concerns away with a careless motion. "I had an older sister, Melissa. Seven years ago, she was killed in a car accident. Head-on collision with a drunk driver. She left behind a little girl just a few weeks shy of her fourth birthday."

"Chloe," Mulder supplied.

"Chloe," Dana echoed. "Her father and Melissa were never married, and he'd never exhibited any inclination to be involved in her life when Melissa was alive. He certainly didn't want to take on the responsibility of raising her as a single parent. Both of my brothers have families of their own, and my mother was still grieving over my father's death." She smiled softly. "That left me."

A wealth of emotion rippled behind Scully's soft declaration. Mulder learned all he needed to know from the love shining in her eyes when she added, "She's a pretty special kid."

"I'm sure she is. She's got a pretty damn special mom." Scully absent-mindedly fingered her necklace. "You might want to reserve judgment until you know me better, Mr. Mulder."

"I know enough, Ms. Scully." He grabbed two fortune cookies from the basket in the center of the table and dropped one into her saucer. "Go on, open it. Reveal your future."

She rolled her eyes but complied. "You first."

"You will meet someone tall, dark and handsome," Mulder intoned, comically waggling his eyebrows.

"No, seriously."

"'Your onion may be someone else's water lily.'" He looked at his dinner companion in consternation and after a beat they both burst into laughter. "What the hell does that mean?" he demanded. "That's not even a real fortune."

She snorted. "There's no such thing as a 'real fortune,'" she claimed. "It's a way for someone to make money by playing on our ridiculous pop culture superstitions."

"In short, they're hooey," he returned.

"Precisely." Her eyes sparkled. "Hooey. You don't agree?"

Mulder grinned. "Mysterious forces are at work in the universe, Scully. I bet you don't read your horoscope either, do you?"

"Absolutely not."

"Well, read your fortune, Ms. Skeptic."

She cleared her throat and read, with sufficient drama, "'You are about to begin a great artistic endeavor.'" Dropping the slip of paper, she made a face. "Well, Chloe is about to start a science project. They must mean that papier mache volcano she wants to make," Dana joked, and popped a section of the cookie into her mouth.

They crunched without speaking for a moment, then Scully drained the rest of her coffee. "Well, Mulder," she said, "you've heard my whole life story, and I don't know any more about you than what I learned on the Internet."

"Sometime I'll tell you all about the life and times of Fox Mulder," he vowed.

"Sometime," she agreed, glancing at her watch, "but not tonight. It's getting late."

As if on cue, the waiter appeared with the check. Scully slapped her credit card down before Mulder could protest.

After the waiter had whisked the card away, Mulder leaned forward. "You know, a man doesn't customarily invite a lady out to dinner and then make the lady pay for his meal."

"If I were your shill, I'd tell you I'm no lady," she retorted. The waiter reappeared at Scully's elbow, and she signed her name with a flourish on the bill. "Besides, this just means you owe me another dinner." She stood up. "Come on and I'll let you walk me to my car."

Chapter 4: Burnt Siena

"In the name of humanity, people, someone save Burnt Siena. Crayola is introducing four crayon colors and rubbing out four others - one of which, the aforementioned Burnt Siena, is, I would submit, the conscience of the legendary box of 64." - Bob Allen, Crains Detroit

Before they said goodnight, Scully had scrawled her cell phone number on the back of a business card and tucked it into Mulder's jacket pocket. "Call me," she admonished.

"Even on the weekend?" he retorted.

She grinned as she opened her car door. "Sure, Mulder. You passed the first test."

He pursed his lips. "Oh? And will there be more tests?"

Her airy laugh reminded him of wind chimes on a spring afternoon. "Absolutely. Good night, Mulder."

She was the one who called him, though.

"It's two p.m.," her rich alto intoned when he answered his phone the following Thursday afternoon. "Do you know where your PR consultant is?"

"At work?" Mulder suggested, muting the volume on his television. He was supposed to be working on his next novel, but he'd discovered that one of the best ways to work out sticky plot points was to zone out on mindless TV shows.

"Got it in one. Any big plans this evening, Mr. Bestseller?"

"Other than watching Sarah, Plain and Tall on the Hallmark Channel? No."

"I get the Hallmark Channel. Want to come over, watch some TV, meet my daughter, maybe go out for some really great Mexican?"

"How could I resist an offer like that? What time do you want me?"

"I've got my last client meeting at 3:15, which means I should be getting out of here around four. Meet me at my place, five-ish?" She gave him the address and he scribbled it on the nearest piece of paper, which happened to be his electric bill.

Mulder arrived at Scully's apartment in Georgetown shortly after she did. She'd just had time to change into khaki pants and a soft violet sweater when he knocked. She opened to door to find him holding a six-pack of Beck's in one hand, and in the other a six-pack of Diet Coke.

"Emily Post says a good guest never arrives empty-handed," he announced. Smiling, Scully accepted his offering.

"I got the beer, and then I thought - well, the kid," he explained as she stowed the cartons in the fridge. "Where is the fabulous Miss Chloe?"

"In her room. She'll come out when the spirit moves her. Can I get you anything? A beer, maybe?"

"That would be great, if you'll join me."

Scully brought two beers and two frosted mugs into the living room and sat with Mulder on the sofa, tucking one leg underneath her. Using the remote, she turned on the television and began to flip through the channels. "There was a marathon of old sci-fi movies on last night - you know, the ones from the fifties, like THEM and The Blob. Made me think of you."

"Ah, so that's what inspired your call today. And I thought it was my boyish good looks and charisma."

"Oh, more like your penchant for the bizarre and unexplained. Psychic serial killers, alien-human hybridization, half-human, prehistoric beast women -"

"Have you been reading my books?"

"Only doing research so far, but I picked up one on my way home from work last night - Purity Control."

"Hey, I know a guy who knows the author. He could get you a signed copy."

She chuckled.

"I'd like to hear what you think after you finish it."

She eyed him sagely. "Even if I think it's shit?"

He laughed. "Especially if you think it's shit."

Shifting, Scully extended her legs until her bare toes rested on the edge of the coffee table. "You know, Mulder," she began more seriously, "I was going over your background - I do that with all our new clients - and I had to ask myself, what makes an apparently well-adjusted Oxford- educated man develop such a fascination for not only the incredible, but for the most vile, putrid recesses of human consciousness that he devotes his entire life to writing about them?"

"Well, Scully, one of your basic premises is wrong: I was never all that well-adjusted." She chuckled, as he'd wanted her to, and he wondered if it was because she thought he was funny or because she was picking up his signals. "I did psych as an undergrad - criminal psych. You learn about the worst human monsters there, Scully, and part of me began to research the paranormal in an effort to find a worse monster somewhere else - a futile effort to redeem our species, I suppose. It's fascinating - the world of the unexplained offers so much beauty and possibility, and people who choose to ignore that because it can't be quantified are missing the point entirely."

"People like me."

He met her intense gaze. "I didn't say that."

"No, you didn't have to. Go on."

Mulder hesitated, stopping to gulp his beer and dropping his eyes to the rug. "There is something else, but I don't often tell people about it. I think I want to tell you, though."

She made a small sound of encouragement.

"Are you ready for the portrait of the artist as a young man? -- I grew up on Martha's Vineyard in the Kennedy era - and from the outside looking in, we were the perfect family. I was obsessed with baseball, played little league, you know? My mom came to all my games to cheer me on, and my dad gave me pointers out in the yard on Sunday afternoons. I had a sister - Samantha. She was four years younger than I was, cute as a button and a huge pain in the ass. 'Foxy this' and 'Foxy that.' She followed me and my friends around all the time, always begging to be allowed to play. You know how little sisters are."

She smiled softly. "You're talking to a little sister. I drove my older brother and sister crazy at least until I went off to college." Her thumb brushed reassuringly against his knuckle.

"One night a few weeks after my twelfth birthday, my parents went down the street to play cards and left me in charge of Sam. It was Norman Rockwell Americana. We were playing a board game and arguing about what to watch on TV. Then there was this roaring sound, and a bright light through the living room window, and she - Scully, she was just gone."

Mulder struggled with the words, and looking out from behind his eyes Dana saw the scared little boy he must have been on that long-ago night.

"Oh my God, Mulder. She was kidnapped?"

He hunched forward, stroking his chin and staring sightlessly at the coffee table. "I was supposed to protect her, and I don't even remember what happened."

"Oh, Mulder, no - you were a child too - and the shock -" Scully helplessly squeezed his knee.

"My dad worked for the government doing something 'highly classified,' so they called in the FBI, but there were no leads. After a year or so, they closed the case. For a long time every move I made was calculated to bring me closer to the truth, to find Sam. I expected to see her around every corner. Now - now I don't expect it, but I still look."

Scully looked horrified. "I don't know what to say. I can't even imagine that kind of loss, how devastating it must have been for your family."

His soul felt her genuine compassion and responded to it, allowing her hands to cover his. His throat had tightened, as it always did when he talked about his little sister, but he cleared it and responded, his voice hoarse. "You lost a sister too, Scully. I'm not unique in that respect. But the not knowing, the compulsive desire for answers pushed me to the edge more than once. I almost went so far as to join the FBI, just so I could re-open the investigation."

"But you didn't." He inclined his head wordlessly. "Mulder, there's something you still aren't telling me."

He sighed. "In the late eighties," he began in a rushed monotone, "I made the decision to undergo regressive hypnotherapy in an effort to regain my memories of the night Samantha disappeared." He paused and looked warily at Scully. "This is the part where you run screaming for the hills." She frowned. "Mulder, regression is certainly considered controversial at best, but the fact that you underwent it doesn't make you crazy. Under the circumstances -"

"Wait, Scully. That's not it. When I was hypnotized, I said - I believed - Dana, I came to believe that my sister was not kidnapped, but abducted by aliens."

Her eyes widened perceptibly but her expression remained carefully neutral. "And now?" she questioned.

He shook his head. "Now I don't know. I can't be certain whether those memories were really mine, or just the creation of a psyche searching for something, anything to believe in. I have a degree in psychology, Scully, and I've never wanted to believe that my baby sister is dead. I understand how a desperate mind works. But finally, after a point, I realized that if I wanted to have any sort of life at all, I couldn't spend all my time chasing lights in the sky." He smiled ruefully. "So here I am, writing books aimed at people who think Klingon is a real language, and in return for a thousand words on Bigfoot or the Kennedy assassination, and Melvin humors me by accepting one of my crazy alien articles once in a while." Mulder tried to pull away and Scully held fast, resolutely seeking eye contact. "Well," she drawled, "that is a bit unorthodox, I'll admit. But as long as you're not hiding a ray gun and a pair of Spock ears under your jacket, I think I'll still be seen in public with you."

He grinned. "Come on, Scully. Vulcans are sexy." Mulder heard a door open and footsteps trotting into the kitchen. After a few seconds of rustling, the footsteps began to recede.

"Chloe," Dana called out, "what are you doing?"

A pause. "Not interrupting," a girl's voice returned in a sing-song cadence.

Scully grinned and rolled her eyes at Mulder. "Chloe, you ridiculous child, come in here and sit with us. We're watching television."

"I have homework," she replied pertly, peeking in from the kitchen, "but I'll stay for just a minute." A petite little girl with a smattering of freckles across her finely featured face and long, straight, light-brown hair held back with a headband bounded into the living room and flopped into the armchair. She held a Christmas tree-shaped snack cake on a napkin.

"So, you're the boyfriend." She studied Mulder frankly with startlingly familiar blue eyes.

"Mulder's not my boyfriend, Clo."

Chloe looked at Dana and raised one eyebrow. Mulder chuckled. "Okay. Is he gonna sleep over?"

"Um - no," Mulder replied, the tops of his ears tinged pink with embarrassment.

"Clo!" Dana admonished, grinning.

"Sophia's mom's boyfriend sleeps over all the time," the girl replied defensively.

"Well, Mulder is just a friend."

"Well," she imitated, "Tina's mom has a 'friend' and he sleeps over even more than Mrs. Katrell's boyfriend. But, whatever you say."

Scully just smiled. "I thought you were going to Amy's today, babe. You know I don't like your being home by yourself."

"I'm old enough! And Amy got sick at school."

"You should've gone to Tina's."

"I already told her I wasn't going today."

"We'll talk about it later. What do you want for dinner? We were thinking Mexican."

Chloe brightened. "Pablo's?"

"Yup. Go get your shoes."

When Chloe was out of earshot, Dana turned to Mulder. "I hope you don't mind. You said you wanted to go slumming."

"I like Pablo's. They've got great nachos."

One eyebrow crept toward her hairline. "That's not what I meant. I don't lead a glamorous life, Mulder. No one has ever tried to mail him or herself to me or interview one of my elementary school teachers. I go to PTA meetings and watch the Discovery Channel. It's just this, just boring, beige me trying to make some money, be a mom, and lose a few pounds."

Mulder breathed deeply. She wasn't ready yet to hear how much he needed this, how much he cherished the opportunity to at least witness a normal life. "I like this. I like you, Scully. And I like your daughter. She seems like a good kid."

"She is." Chloe came back wearing sneakers and carrying a denim jacket, and Dana slipped her arm around the girl's shoulders. "Ready?"

Over a mountain of chips and salsa, Mulder was delighted to discover Chloe's burgeoning passion for art.

"I'm taking this art class after school on Wednesdays," she explained, popping a chip into her mouth and crunching exuberantly. "I just started at the beginning of the year, so I'm not very good yet, but this week we finally started painting. Figure drawing is pretty cool, but it gets kinda boring, you know? I thought we might get to draw naked people, but Jane - that's my teacher - said that's only for the adult classes.

Scully grinned over the rim of her margarita glass and Mulder held back a chuckle, instead concentrating on coating his chip with exactly the right amount of salsa.

"Have you been to the National Gallery?" he asked.

Chloe nodded, sipping her soda through a straw. "A bunch of times, but I want to go see the modern collection. I've only seen the Impressionists and stuff, and Mom won't take me."

In a fair imitation of Scully, Mulder raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips.

"Hey!" Dana chided Chloe, giving her a playful shove. "I said we'd go sometime."

Chloe cut her baby blues at Mulder, looking for an ally. "Sometime," she muttered.

"I'm just not a modern art enthusiast," Sculy defended herself, carefully lapping a few grains of salt from the glass to cut the alcoholic sweetness of the frozen tequila and lime mix. Mulder tried not to focus too long on her tongue. "The paintings are nothing but big splotches of color. I can buy a can of paint and a brush and sling a few splashes of red and purple on a canvas - I don't have to pay to see it hanging on the wall in a museum." She shook her head and laughed. "In fact, Chloe, if that's the kind of art you're interested in, you don't need lessons - You were an expert at it when you were about four. The refrigerator used to be covered with your masterpieces."

Chloe rolled her eyes. "Mo-om," she groaned, exasperated, "you just don't *get* it."

Their conversation was put on pause while the waiter presented Mulder with a steaming plate of fajitas, Chloe dug into her soft tacos, and Dana took a careful bite of her burrito.

"You know," Mulder said after he had assembled and sampled the perfect proportions of steak, peppers, and onions on a flour tortilla, "Chloe has a point."

Scully froze with her fork in mid-air. "What - I don't appreciate modern art because I 'don't get it'?"

A slow, lazy smile spread across his face. "Well, yeah." He chewed and swallowed. "With a Sargent or a Renoir, you appreciate the technique and the sheer beauty - you see all the skill that went into making something remarkable, right?" Scully nodded, closing her lips around a forkful of shredded beef and guacamole. "Well, modern art is different. It's less about technical excellence than about emotion. You have to - you have to feel the colors."

Scully's skeptical grin was dazzling. "Feel the colors, Mulder? Don't you mean hear them?"

Demolishing a third fajita in two bites, Mulder came up for breath. "Nope, Scully, no acid trip required for this." He turned to Chloe. "I can see that I'm not going to convert your mom by words alone, Chloe, so I'll have to change my plan of battle. What would you think of all three of us going to the museum?"

Chloe nodded vigorously. "Yeah, Mom, can we?"

"What do you say, Scully?"

Mulder and Chloe wore identical looks of hopeful expectancy. Scully sighed. "I know when I've been beaten," she conceded.

Chloe beamed and Mulder bestowed a conspiratorial wink upon her. "You just wait," he promised in an exaggerated stage whisper. "We'll win her over yet."

End Section (2/10)

Chapter 5: Yellow

"Look at the stars, look how they shine for you, and everything you do. Yeah, they were all yellow. I came along, I wrote a song for you and all the things you do, and it was called yellow." - Coldplay

October dovetailed almost imperceptibly into November, the change in the night sky visible only to the discerning eye as fuzzy midnight clouds melted away to leave a canvas of pure, sleek black dotted with the tiny, diamond-hard and clear studs of bright gas expending their energies millions of light-years away.

Mulder melted seamlessly into Dana and Chloe's lives, somehow diffusing the idea that he had always been there, not taken for granted but accepted as unquestioningly as one accepted breathing or aging or opening one's eyes in the morning, any natural process of life. He haunted Scully's office, allowed her to explore the secrets of his apartment, and looked divine ornamenting her living room sofa when he wasn't traveling to the four corners of the United States on the promotional book tour she and his agent had thrust upon him as a fait accompli.

Dana scrawled her signature on the bottom of a six-page printout of legal jargon and dropped her pen. Leaning back in her desk chair and arching her neck, she sighed. "That's the last of those, thank God."

John stood up and began to unroll his sleeves. "I'm finishing up too. I thought I'd head out a few minutes early, if it's all the same to you."

"Oh, that's right!" Scully exclaimed, sitting up straight. "You've got a date with that lawyer tonight - Bill?"

"Blake." John shrugged into his suit jacket and carefully smoothed out a wrinkle perceptible only to his fastidious eye. "We're going out for Thai food - I had coconut oil and egg noodles in my shopping cart when we met, so I guess the counselor made an inference."

"Well, let's hope he's as skilled in the bedroom as he is in the courtroom and supermarket, hmm?" she teased.

"You know, Danes, you should shop more - you never know when you might find true love in the produce section." She only laughed and shook her head, and John gathered a stack of papers into his briefcase. "Oh, by the way - the Little Theatre is doing The Wizard of Oz. Do you and Chloe want to go to the Sunday matinee?"

Searching the recesses of her purse for a piece of Nicorette, Scully shook her head without looking up. "Thanks, but we can't. We're going to see the modern collection at the National Gallery with Mulder."

"With Mulder? Didn't you have dinner with him Monday, and go to a movie last night?"

"Yeah. He wanted to see that action thing that Clo has been talking about for weeks. So?"

"So, is he coming over tonight?"

"We're going bowling," Scully replied with as much dignity as she could muster.

John guffawed. "Bowling?"

"We're taking some of Chloe's friends. So?" she repeated, her tone growing sharper.

"So, I retract my earlier statement. If Mulder has already managed to get you into bowling shoes, you may not need the supermarket."

John had always thought Dana would be a hell of a lot more fun to play with if only she'd rise to his bait once in a while. True to form, she swallowed her exasperation and presented him with a tight-lipped smile. "Get out of here and have fun tonight, huh? Call me tomorrow."

Relenting, he swooped down to kiss the top of her head as he beat a path toward the door. "I'll be prepared for a no- holds-barred tell-all that would make Liz Smith proud," he promised, and winked, helpless to resist one last jibe. "Say hi to Mulder for me. And Dana - he looks like the kind of man who'd enjoy a big pancake breakfast on a Saturday morning to renew the energy he expended during a long Friday night of lovin'."

After throwing her third gutter ball in a row, Scully turned away from the lanes to face Mulder, her hands on her hips and a rueful smile gracing her lips. "That's it - I'm too old for this."

Mulder patted the plastic seat beside him and she collapsed gracelessly onto it with a relieved groan. Without a second thought, he draped his arm around her shoulders and tugged her into his chest.

"You look exhausted," he pointed out, his gaze tracing the faint purple shadows beneath her eyes. "Do you feel all right?"

"Yeah." Sitting up, Scully forced a smile, then glanced away as she explained, "It's nothing - I've just been having trouble sleeping. You know, weird dreams." She stood up. "I'm going to get a soda. Do you want anything? Iced tea with sugar?"

Mulder shot her a strange look. "How do you know how I take my tea?"

She paused, frowning. "Oh, I'm sure you told me. I'll be back in a minute."

As she walked away, Mulder's gaze remained fixed on her back, his expression unreadable.

After she had missed three frames, Mulder slipped away from the girls to go in search of Scully. Spotting no familiar blur of bright hair near the snack bar, he slipped out the side door to the parking lot. It had rained earlier, and swirls of oil shone magenta and silver blue where they sparkled against the blackness of the asphalt. The damp air hovered just this side of frigid; it would've been good football weather.

She was sitting on the curb, her body tucked close over her knees for warmth. The ember of her cigarette glowed brightly in the darkness. His shoes crunched on loose gravel as he walked over to join her.

"It's freezing out here."

Huddled in her denim jacket, Scully arched an eyebrow. "Really? I hadn't noticed."

"I thought you were quitting."

Scully blew out a curl of smoke and speculatively eyed the cigarette between her fingers. "Yeah. I still am."


She grinned ruefully. "Yeah, sure. Tomorrow." She ground the butt into the pavement. "You ever smoke, Mulder?"

"Only weed."

Her laugh was a surprise. An SUV glided by on the access road, water whooshing beneath its tires.

"I started after John and I had been married a few months. I'd already started to feel cagey, and I had to do... something." She laughed again. "It never occurred to me to have an affair. That's why I'm Catholic. I felt guilty enough about smoking cigarettes. But I guess everybody needs a little pollution, you know?"

She stared thoughtfully out over the parking lot for a few minutes, then lit another cigarette. "I quit. Didn't smoke for nearly ten years. And then seven years ago, I started again."

"What happened seven years ago?"

"I got sick."

He waited, but she remained silent. "Sick?" Mulder's voice was hushed. He dreaded hearing the answer almost as much as she dreaded giving it.

Scully took a long drag and didn't look at him. "I had ovarian cancer. It was pretty bad."

Pretty bad. Diagnosed only five months after Melissa's death. Dragging herself home from chemo and radiation, feeling as if her skin would shatter, sitting for hours with her cheek propped against the cool porcelain rim of the toilet seat. Vomiting until her body, raw inside and out, rebelled. Her mother's gentle hands soothing, feeling Maggie try not to falter or flinch when her careful ministrations pulled out another handful of hair. Trying as hard as she could and falling hopelessly short of being able to take care of a frightened, difficult four-year-old. John vacuuming her living room, scrubbing the bathtub, trying to make her smile and not act like he felt sorry for her. Maggie tucking Chloe into bed with her and making both of them oatmeal because Dana might, on one of her better days, be able to eat almost the whole bowl.

Seven years out, and Scully still couldn't look at a bowl of oatmeal without feeling nauseated.

She felt Mulder's eyes on her and knew he was aware that her thoughts were a thousand miles away, in the past. She silently thanked him for not asking for details.

"But you got well," he offered finally.

Scully sighed. "I got well," she agreed, and smiled the tiniest smile, really just a flicker at the corner of her mouth. She dropped her half-finished cigarette to the ground and crushed it adamantly beneath the heel of her shoe. "And I just quit smoking. Again."

The ancient brass faucet in Scully's bathtub had finally grown fatally weary, and in the last few hours it had developed a death rattle. Lying in bed, Scully idly attempted to measure time by the sporadic dripping. It conformed to no pattern, no rhyme, no reason. Around it she composed an imaginary symphony, each drop that slammed into the porcelain tub serving as a symbol crash. At some point during the third movement, she paused to reassure her impossibly annoying inner voice that the reason she was lying awake authoring the most miserable example of musical nonsense since "Disco Duck" was because of ambient sound or as an effect of the espresso she drank after dinner.

Under no circumstances could her wakefulness be due to the anxiety that surrounded the possibility of having another dream. Every time she closed her eyes, there was that horrible, blinding white light superimposed on her eyelids, slicing into her brain and filling her with an unnatural fear.

She'd told Mulder a partial truth when she'd admitted to not sleeping well, but the weight of fatigue visible in her face was the product of not one but several nearly sleepless nights. The dreams had begun over a week ago, and at first they had merely perplexed her.

She'd walked down a short, poorly illuminated corridor to knock on a door.

"Nobody here but the FBI's most unwanted..."

The brief exchange between her younger, poorly dressed, well-rounded self and a sardonic, lean, equally youthful Mulder segued into a jumble of visions of the two of them, of flashes of dialog and incredibly bizarre, almost, she thought, unimaginable sights. The ludicrousness of a half- human, half-fluke worm hybrid had made her laugh when she'd recalled it the next morning; a man who ate the livers of the unsuspecting for between meal snacks was less amusing.

Dana told herself that her dreaming mind must have gathered scraps of truth from her own life and what Mulder had told her of his and manufactured some sort of fantastical alter egos for them. At night she felt the cool steel of a scalpel in her latex-gloved hand; the sensation of the thin membrane of human skin giving way under the firm pressure of her steady, knowing hand stayed with her, along with the instinctive feeling that if asked to perform an autopsy, she would know exactly what to do. She could see it all - her diploma from the University of Maryland's medical school, Mulder's "I Want to Believe" poster, her eager, trusting face filled with desire to prove herself and her science in the face of his outlandish ideas.

"Actually, I'm looking forward to working with you."

"If there's an iced tea in that bag, it could be love."

Her own whimpers woke her up the night her dreams were invaded by the white light, cold rooms and freezing metal gurneys. She saw a man named Duane Barry and the outlines of faceless forms hovering over her as she lay terrified and shackled. She couldn't shake the paralyzing fear that left her trembling or the sense of unspeakable violation that haunted her. She had hoped this would be the last of her night terrors, but it had only been the first.

She dreamed of a man who wanted to cut off her fingers before he killed her, of a man who constantly smoked cigarettes and exuded an evil as foul as his breath, of a chip in her neck that had the power to control her thoughts and her movements. She watched her peaches and cream freshness become a sleek, black-clad sharpness as she and Mulder together ran both from and toward danger and death. Who could wonder that she'd rather suffer sleep-deprivation than close her eyes and risk the return of what seemed to be an endless nightmare?

Scully's eyes didn't close until the sun's rays began to pinken the horizon.

Scully's feet ached, pain seeming to travel up from the tiny stems supporting her heels to blossom in her arches. She refused to allow herself to acknowledge her own stupidity in wearing new shoes to an art museum, so she focused on her surroundings and listened to Mulder and her daughter with half an ear.

"You can tell he's borrowed heavily from the Caribbean school," Mulder intoned, sounding exactly like Dana's high school art teacher. "What amazing usage of color, huh?"

Chloe gazed from Mulder to the painting in question with the open adulation of the very young.

Scully glanced dismissively at the blurs of color and massive, deformed chunks of wood and scrap metal that adorned the walls and littered the floor, and her face took on the slack, unfocused look of deep longing. Somewhere in this building a Renoir was calling her name.

"They say he's revolutionary, don't they?" Chloe asked.

"Yeah - the way he blends the light with such deep, penetrating pain. Do you see that?"

When the discussion penetrated her fog, Scully planted her hands on her hips and stared in dismay. Observing her stance, Mulder smiled, a flash of even white teeth between his lips.

"What do you see, Scully?"

Unable to contain her incredulity any longer, Scully exclaimed, "It's a dot! It's a giant - purple - *dot*."

Chloe rolled her eyes and turned away in disgust, but Mulder's head shake and pursed lips only emphasized his good humor. "Well, that's undeniably true. Very scientific, Ms. Scully." Moving behind her, he planted his hands on her shoulders. "Unfortunately, in my art class, that response will never do. You've earned an F on the first quiz."

She laughed. "But Mr. Mulder, I have to keep my grades up or my parents won't let me try out for the cheerleading squad."

Mulder chuckled. "Well, we can't have that. You'd look so cute in those little pleated skirts. So here's what we'll do. Close your eyes - Are they closed?"

She nodded.

"No peeking." His arm snaked over her shoulder and his fingers gently blanketed her eyes. "Take a deep breath. Relax."

"Mulder -"

"Do it." His breath ruffled the hair on the crown of her head.

Scully inhaled deeply through her nose, feeling the oxygen rush into her lungs, and exhaled slowly, relaxing her shoulders and allowing her spine to curve and sway. Mulder's solid bulk, close but not actually touching, warmed her back.

"Mmkay," she acknowledged.

"You know what art is, don't you, Scully? A sensory experience." Mulder paused triumphantly to let his words sink in. "It should be like listening to a symphony or feeling a ripe raspberry explode in your mouth. Sometimes it's making love, sweaty skin on skin contact and feeling it build and build, and then the incredible euphoria of the release you just can't stop."

Robbed of her sight, the sensation of Mulder's warm breath as he spoke directly into her naked ear, the low rumble of his rich, dark chocolate voice vibrating through her bones, was uncomfortably erotic. Scully shifted her weight from foot to foot. Mulder paused, then resumed in a conversational tone, "Or sometimes it's like a slap in the face. Do you know what the difference is?"

"The feeling behind the piece?" Scully replied, her voice rising on the last syllable as if she were posing a question.

"But how does the artist convey that emotion?" The hand resting on her shoulder squeezed. "Through her use of color. It's all about color, Scully. Passion, joy, hunger, desperation - it's all there, every nuance in every shade. In this case, seeing is believing. The scientist in you ought to appreciate that."

She smiled in acknowledgment.

"Okay. Now I think we're ready to try again." His hand still clamped over her eyes, Mulder turned Scully and guided her a dozen steps. "Here. Open your eyes." His hand fell away and she blinked a few times before her eyes focused.

"What do you see now?"

Scully tamped down her instinctive response and contemplated the painting before her. The canvas was easily twelve by sixteen feet, streaked with every shade of yellow imaginable, from over-ripe lemon to a tone so pale that it reminded her of eggshells. The paint was so thickly layered that it was raised, standing out from the canvas like the topography of a miniature yellow universe. Her eyes followed the hills and troughs to a place where a rocky arrollo seemed to empty into a placid sea.

"I see sunshine," she began slowly. "I see, um, lemonade, and light, like on a summer afternoon. And laughter and something a little outrageous, a little giddy." Her eyes narrowing, she studied the painting carefully. Her brow furrowed with the effort of her scrutiny. "It's so bright that it takes you aback at first, but when you settle into it, it feels comfortable and soft. Familiar. And it has a lot of layers, so you know it's not all there on the surface."

A tiny patch of one very specific yellow glimmered at the edge of Scully's peripheral vision, and she stepped closer to examine it. As she stood with her nose about an inch from the built-up paint, Mulder hoped she wouldn't set off the security alarm.

Still caught up in her sudden fancy, Scully whirled and began to scrutinize Mulder as closely as she had the painting. Her suspicions confirmed, she raised her eyebrows. "I see you, Mulder."

He was perplexed. "Me?"

Smiling loftily, Scully folder her arms over her chest. "In addition to a few aforementioned qualities which rather remarkably mirror facets of your own personality, Mr. Mulder, this patch of yellow -" She indicated it with a tapping motion, her fingernail stopping a hairsbreadth from making contact - "is exactly the same color as your eyes. They have these little tiny flecks of yellow - just this shade."

Mulder grinned easily. "Well, Ms. Scully, it's not often I see such drastic improvement in my students' performance so quickly. A plus."

Chloe returned to them clutching a museum map. "Mulder, have you seen the sculpture in the next room? It's amazing. - What are you doing?"

"I've been giving your mom a lesson in modern art. She passed with flying colors. We'd better look out, Chloe - she's on her way to knowing more than both of us combined."

Scully tunneled her fingers through Chloe's fine, smooth hair and grinned. "I already do, just maybe not about modern art," she teased archly. "Anyone for ice cream?"

Chapter 6: Hunter's Orange

"Life... is like a grapefruit. It's orange and squishy, and has a few pits in it, and some people have half a one for breakfast." - Douglas Adams

The spring is adored and touted for its youthful enthusiasm, it's unstoppably energetic greens and pinks and blues. But for hues with the maturity and sophistication of a fine wine, for colors to be held in the hand and coveted like rubies, one must kneel on the altar of the autumn.

Scully's tousled hair mirrored the burnished copper of swirling leaves, and her cheeks glowed radiantly from the cold. Mulder walked beside her, leaves and twigs crunching underfoot. Thanks to the September heat, the fall of the year had been late to don her richly colored cloak; so on the last day of October, with the nip of frost in the air, the trees and unraked lawn of the small park a few blocks from Dana's apartment still displayed the brilliance of an artist's pallet. Lazy clouds drifted across an improbably blue sky, and Scully tipped her head back, allowing herself to believe that the entire spectacle was for her benefit. Slowly she widened her focus to include her daughter and the friend at her side.

Chloe had insisted that she was too old to trick-or-treat, so instead of costumes and grease paint, she, Dana, and Mulder had put on winter coats and tramped to the otherwise deserted park. Now she was indulging in one of her increasingly rare bursts of childish freedom and swinging on the swingset. Scully watched her for a moment then transferred her fond smile to Mulder, whose eyes crinkled in response, the famous gold flecks twinkling at her.

In the course of only a few short weeks, Scully had ceased to care when Mulder had become a fixture in their lives, or how; and she had stopped measuring the length of their relationship according to the number of days that had passed since he had walked into her office and had begun to feel, vaguely, that they had simply known each other for a very long time. His number had magically appeared on speed dial, between her younger brother and the pizza place, and she no longer considered it odd to receive calls from a man who greeted her by saying, "Hey, Scully, it's me."

She thought of all this as she walked, her footsteps falling in unison with his; and when she heard his exhalation perfectly timed with hers she imagined that she could see inside his chest to his beating heart, its rhythm identical to her own. A slight smile curved her lips at her foolishness.

"What?" Mulder prodded. Scully only shook her head. "I love the fall," she said simply; but she could not shake the unsinkable sense of well-being that suffused the afternoon and made her feel uncharacteristically at peace with the world and her place in it.

But long experience had taught Dana that when things seemed to be going too well, something had to give. On this particular occasion, the giving way had taken place at 1:27 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. As Scully munched on a corned beef sandwich and leafed through the new Land's End catalog, 3,000 miles away Martin Ajacks was pulled over for going 103 miles per hour on a scenic stretch of Highway 1. With the Pacific Ocean roaring 1000 feet below in all its breathtaking glory, Officer Daniel Mann of the California State Highway Patrol, nephew of the outspoken Republican senator Robert Mathison, recognized not only Senator Ajacks and his need for speed, but also the senator's companion - a notorious San Francisco madam - and the six ounces of loose marijuana in a plastic bag on the passenger side floorboard.

"Ajacks called his lawyer, and she called me." Static crackled over the line, filling in the pauses between Dana's words. She sounded strained, anticipating the days of fatigue and stress stretching before her. "They want me out there, and this is such a disaster that I really have to go. What are the odds that the arresting officer would be a relative of one of the senator's chief rivals on the Hill? Christ, what a nightmare."

She shifted her weight from one sleekly booted foot to the other as she rested one arm atop the bank of pay phones. They loomed in the departures lounge like dinosaur skeletons left standing by the inhabitants of the hazy past before a wireless phone had become as essential to the business traveler as frequent flyer miles and an expense account.

"I forgot my cell phone," she explained, "but Chloe and John have the number of the hotel. As Chloe would say, this part of my job really sucks."

Mulder murmured sympathetically.

"I wanted to let you know I'll be incommunicado for a while. A few days, at least - probably closer to a week. So if you have any questions or need anything, call John."

The unforgiving glare of the hunter's orange plastic chairs grouped haphazardly around the gate made spots dance before Dana's eyes, and she squinted. They reminded her of road cones and hard hats. Caution! She imagined them shouting. A knot of tension coiled in the vicinity of her large intestine.

"Listen, I've got to go. My flight's boarding, and I've got to get some antacids or something." She sighed. "Be a good boy, Mulder. My career can't afford two clients simultaneously embroiled in media debacles on two coasts."

"Don't worry, Scully. I'll come out to California for my fix of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll; here at Casa Mulder it's all work and no play."

"How considerate," she responded dryly. "Just remember what they say."

"All work and no play makes Fox a dull boy?"

"No. When the cat's away, the mouse will play. Keep in touch."

12 days later Thursday, November 27th - 1:05 p.m.

When the secure line rang, Mulder tore his eyes away from the computer screen, which was displaying a collage of lurid photos above the words "Beauties in Uniform" in bold characters, and answered automatically.

"State your business."

"Mulder? I've been calling around to find you - your phone's not on."

He grinned at the welcome sound of a voice he hadn't heard in almost two weeks. "Hey, Scully. Where are you?"

"I'm in the air about half an our out of D.C."

"Homeward bound at last."

"At last," she agreed. "Unless disaster strikes, I should be home a little after two."

"I was afraid you'd fallen into the Pacific and drowned."

She chuckled. "No, although the urge to drown the good senator has been almost overwhelming at times. I've just been insanely busy."

"I've been keeping up with the scandal - not that it's that difficult to do with the story splashed all over the headlines and the evening news. Things seem to be looking up for Ajacks."

"Well, they should be, if I'm doing my job right." Scully's sigh drifted over the air. "Hire a hooker, get busted for crack, kill your wife, embezzle a few million - hell, do all four at once, and if you've got enough cash and connections, you can wipe the slate clean. Get Dana Scully and you'll come out smelling like a rose."

She sounded disgusted. Mulder pursed his lips, his attention refocusing on a buxom blonde with a very intriguing firing stance. "Go be a doctor," he challenged.

As the plane began to descend, a ray of sunlight glinted off the wing and bounced straight into Scully's eyes. Her spine tingled as she was momentarily blinded.

"I haven't slept more than four hours a night since I've been gone," she offered. "This is the caffeine talking."

"You live for situations like this, opportunities to test your skill."

She was quiet for a moment. "Mulder, why are you at the Gunman on Thanksgiving Day? Is Frohike there?"

"He's at his sister's. I'm, ah -" He guiltily minimized the Web browser and the blonde disappeared from view - "doing some research."

"I'll bet you are. Have you eaten?"

"Uh... yeah," he lied.

"Meet me at my place at three. I'll see what I can scrounge," she instructed.

After a fruitless search of the city for an open supermarket, Dana pulled into the parking lot of a 7-11. Inside the store was still decorated with month-old Halloween paraphernalia, huge spider webs and snaggle- toothed witches and pumpkins of the improbably vivid orange that burned into Dana's brain and sent her a message she couldn't decode.

A haze of orange tinted her vision as she drove home, coloring the clouds and the buildings and the leafless trees as if with a crayon, a trick of the eye that made Georgetown look like a painted representation of hell.

"I'm too tired for this shit," she mumbled as she kicked open her apartment door. The air was close, musty.

After knocking and receiving no answer, Mulder let himself in. A window was partially open, the blinds tapping rhythmically against the panes. Shadows of the flames from four taper candles in tall iron sconces danced in concentric circles on the walls.

A brisk stream of autumn air gusted into the room, the force closing a door down the hall.

"Smell that?" Scully appeared from the kitchen with a large enamel platter. "It's winter." She placed the platter on an Indian blanket spread out in the center of the living room floor. The rich hues of the Navajo weave came alive in the low light.

"I had a frozen turkey breast, and I found some cranberry sauce and rolls, and I made a salad." She reached into her pocket and offered him an object that gleamed silver. When she opened her palm he saw that it was a corkscrew. "Do you want to open the wine? The glasses are on the counter." Mulder's eyes flickered around the apartment as he opened and poured the pinot grigio. The only light came from the candles, and Dana had piled throw pillows on the floor. She knelt on the blanket, arranging the food and folding napkins.

He handed her a glass and she smiled. "Happy Thanksgiving, Mulder."

He sat down gingerly and eyed the meal. "Where's Chloe?"

Dana sipped the wine and nodded approval. "With Mom at my brother's house in Norfolk. I'd hoped to drive up when I got home, but I've already missed lunch and I'm too tired to drive up tonight." She scooped salad onto his plate. "Here, tell me if you like the dressing."

"She won't be back tonight?"

She smiled slightly. "I'll go up tomorrow. Mulder, what's going on? You've barely said two words and you haven't touched your food. You're acting *bizarre*."

He shifted uneasily. "It's just - this." He gestured around him.

"The food? If you're not hungry, you don't have to -"

"The atmosphere," he interrupted. "Isn't this a little..." He trailed off, suddenly shy.

Her gaze followed his and her expression slowly evolved into one of consternation, as if her features were melting. "Oh - I thought - you know, a picnic. Elegant but casual. Fun," she finished as she examined her knife and fork. Romantic, she didn't say. "Guess I was off the mark, huh? And you thought I intended to - with Chloe away -" She shook her head, lifting one hand to cover her face.

"No, no - Dana." He touched her knee. "It's okay. It's great. The food looks delicious."

She stood up. "Let me turn the lights on and put this stuff away. We can watch TV while we eat. Is there a football game you want to watch, or something?"

He grabbed her hand and tugged. "Sit down, Scully. Eat."

She sat and ate with slow, careful bites, vaguely uneasy that she had unconsciously created such a romantic afternoon for herself and Mulder. What did that say about her motivations, her desires?

A clear, brilliant sunset bathed the taupe walls in a pale, peachy orange glow that made the nape of Scully's neck prickle with discomfort. The ethereal glow sharply delineated the shadows from the light, drawing criss- crossing bars across the living room floor. Dana eyed the pattern and worried that she, too, had unwittingly crossed a line. She relaxed only when the glowing orb sank beneath the horizon, shadows gradually creeping out from the corners to absorb Mulder and her where they sat.

End (3/10)

Chapter 7: Purple

"I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it." - Alice Walker

November bled into December, snowfall leeching away even the murky browns of the last full month of autumn and creating a vacuum of whiteness. Correspondingly Scully slipped out of Mulder's daily life; he saw less and less of her as the holidays approached and she tried to juggle her career - she was still occupied with the good Senator, among other, less noteworthy clients - Christmas and Hanukkah shopping, decorating, and the usual round of holiday festivities.

She had found the time to call him on a fresh wave of good cheer and invite him to the Scully family Christmas celebration. His trepidation was evident, but she insisted. "You can sit in the corner and be antisocial, but the food's to die for. Besides, my mother is extremely curious about you - she's convinced you're my secret lover."

This assertion did nothing to assuage Mulder's qualms, but it was interesting to think about.

Mulder had resolved to stay home on Christmas Eve, to do his own thing and allow Dana and Chloe to have some mother- daughter time together and do whatever it was that normal Catholic families did on December 24th. Unfortunately, currently "his own thing" amounted to sorting through his mail and making the grocery list, and was neither very time-consuming nor very entertaining. Heaving a sigh, he flipped on the TV. He should do laundry, but that was a hell of a way to spend Christmas Eve. If he just lurked in his apartment, he could at least maintain the illusion that he had somewhere to be and someone to be with rather than exposing his solitary status to the building's other tenants.

His cell phone rang, forcibly reminding him that Chloe had reprogrammed it to play "Jingle Bells." He grimaced.


"Hey, Mulder, it's me." He could hear the smile in Scully's voice and he smiled in return. "Listen, if you're not too busy, Chloe and I are going to ride out into the Virginia countryside and look at all the Christmas lights. Don't you want to come?"

Her phrasing got him off the hook - he didn't have to scramble for a set of imaginary plans that he could allow her to talk him out of so he could accept her invitation while still looking marginally cool. Of course everyone would want to look at decorations on Christmas Eve; it was simply what one did. Mulder grinned.

"Sure. What time?"

"I thought maybe around seven. We could have dinner first. Do you have any food?"

He was forced to admit that what he did have was probably no longer fit for human consumption.

"That's what I thought. We'll bring the food, then. See you later."

When Scully and Chloe arrived, Chloe immediately shucked off her parka, scarf, and gloves and sauntered over to the fish tank. "Do your fish have names?"

While she and Mulder discussed the inhabitants of his aquarium, Scully unpacked the contents of a large plastic bag, spreading everything out on the kitchen counter. "We got stuff for sandwiches," she announced. "There's whole wheat bread and chicken and roast beef, and I got a few different kinds of cheese, and lettuce and tomato -" She gestured vaguely. "I got some veggies, too. I didn't think you'd have much since you've been out of town."

The three of them fixed sandwiches and sat in the living room, Mulder and Scully on the couch and Chloe slouched in an armchair. "I like your apartment," the girl proclaimed. "It's really cool. Kinda dark."

"Uh, thanks. It's not exactly a showplace."

Dana smirked. "We rented It's a Wonderful Life on the way over. It's Clo's favorite Christmas movie. We're going to watch it later."

"You should come over," Chloe piped up. "It's not Christmas if you don't see it."

Mulder smiled very slightly, suddenly hit by a strong wave of nostalgia for his own childhood. Singing carols and stealing pinches of gingerbread and telling Sam that he was going to write Santa a letter telling him all the bad things she'd done all year, and she'd get nothing but coal in her stocking.

The clock ticked loudly in the quiet room. The fish tank gurgled. "Mulder," Scully called softly, and his attention snapped to her. How could anyone be so beautiful in blue jeans and a simple sweater? Maybe it was the concern shining in her eyes, the backlight of gentle affection. Maybe it was the burnished copper of her hair in the low light. "Where'd you go?"

In the car, Scully turned the heat way up high and Chloe and Mulder made fun of her driving. They laughed and listened to cheesy Christmas music and bumped down rutted Virginia back roads. For the first time in a very long time, Mulder remembered the joy of looking for lights that weren't in the sky. Scully seemed softer, younger, more vulnerable; he wondered if she had caught Chloe's childish glee or vice versa.

They dropped Mulder off to pick up his car and made a quick stop at a convenience store to buy popcorn on the way back to Georgetown. "With butter," Dana insisted, and Mulder marveled at the power of the Christmas spirit.

Their apartment was warm and smelled of cinnamon. Scully hummed as the popcorn popped and she got two beers and a Pepsi out of the fridge. Her voice, if off-key, was not entirely unpleasant. Mulder wanted to put his arms around her and press his nose into that tender spot where her neck met her shoulder.

She settled herself in the center of the sofa, hot popcorn in her lap, and propped one socked foot on the coffee table. "Come on, Clo," Scully called. "We have to start the movie now if we're going to finish it before Santa comes."

"Yeah, Mom, you need your beauty sleep. Takes a lot out of you to toss a few gifts under the tree, doesn't it?" Chloe rolled her eyes as she flopped down beside Dana, causing a handful of kernels to bounce out of the popcorn bowl and into Scully's lap. "Gee, next year maybe we can string popcorn and go caroling. Wouldn't that be down home and traditional of us?"

Dana snorted and ate a handful of popcorn. "You know you love it, and you love this movie. Get up and press play, young one."

"Make Mulder do it," Chloe suggested pertly, but did as her mother had asked. Mulder switched off the lamp as the music swelled.

"Mom, you're eating all the popcorn," Chloe complained a few minutes later. Scully stopped chewing and guiltily cut her eyes at Mulder.

"She's right," she said, lifting her hands. "I've gained eight pounds in less than two months."

Mulder grinned. "You're beautiful, Scully," he assured, sotto voce, "and we can make more popcorn."

Scully sighed and leaned forward, lifting her Sam Adams from the coffee table. "Maybe I should have bought light beer," she joked rather hopelessly, and took a long pull from the bottle.

Mulder shrugged philosophically. "It's the holidays - I think you're required to gain weight."

Chloe shushed them. "This is my favorite part," she explained, her eyes riveted to Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.

Scully's smile was discreet. "They're all her favorite parts," she whispered.

Two hours later the popcorn was gone, the credits were rolling, and Dana was dozing. As Mulder covered her with a blanket, he became aware of two slits of cerulean blue trained on him.

"You going?" she mumbled.

"Yeah." He smoothed her hair away from her forehead. "Can I get you anything first? More popcorn?"

"Hah." She stretched out fully on her side. "You're still coming with us to my mom's tomorrow, right?"

"I'll be there."

"Okay. Clo and I have to be there for presents at 6:30, but I'll come pick you up at noon for lunch."

He kissed her cheek. "Good night, Scully. Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, Mulder."

Dana heard the door click shut behind Mulder, and she drifted away on a haze of wrapping paper, evergreen boughs, and Christmases past.

<"Dana, she needs your help.">

<"According to this, Melissa is not Emily's mother. I am.">

A miracle that wasn't meant to be, Mulder had said. Scully felt her world dissolving into sand, her essence melting away.

The ringing phone and the feel of the sofa cradling her body blended eerily with her dream.

"Hello?" Her scratchy morning voice was cautious, almost wary.

"Good morning, sweetheart."


Maggie chuckled. "Who else? I just called to make sure you didn't oversleep. We can still expect you for breakfast, can't we?"

"Oh, of course." Scully sat up, blinking rapidly. "We'll be there right on time."

As Scully mashed the 'end' button, Chloe's sleepy voice reached her from the doorway. "Mom?"

"Hi, baby." Dana's eyes drank in her daughter's beloved form, perfectly, blessedly whole and alive. A miracle who *was* meant to be. She held out her arms. "Merry Christmas. We have to get ready to go to Grandma's, but first come here."

Scully hugged Chloe so fiercely that her arms ached, breathing in her sweet, warm little girl scent and relishing the feel of her strong, solid body. She didn't let go until the girl whimpered in protest.

Scully was alone in her car when it rolled to a stop as close to Mulder's building as she could get. She was reaching for her cell phone to call him when he bounded up to the passenger side and slid in, smelling improbably like spearmint. He leaned across the console to press a quick, cold-lipped kiss to her cheek.

"How am I for dress code?" he asked anxiously.

She eyed the dark brown pants and tan sweater peeking out from the folds of his coat. "Spectacular," she affirmed. "I'm glad you're coming. Lunch is at one, then presents."

"I thought you already did presents," Mulder protested.

"Oh, those were intra-family; these are inter-family." She grinned.

Mulder was preoccupied. He leaned toward her again and sniffed pointedly. Without taking her eyes from the road, she raised her eyebrows and shot him a slightly modified version of the death glare. "Mulder, just what the hell are you doing?"

He sat back in his seat and crossed his arms. "*Smoke*," he accused haughtily.

"A mere precautionary measure to ward off a second helping of dessert," she responded. He continued to eye her. "It's been kind of a stressful morning."

His ears pricked. "Family tension?"

"No, nothing like that... If you're too antsy, you can be out the door by two."

"And if I stay?"

She smiled slightly. "And if you stay, you may get to see me get annoyed at the inherent stubbornness of either of my two brothers - rivaled, I might add, only by my own - try to drown said annoyance in too much of my brother's homemade Christmas wine, get slightly tipsy, and make a fool of myself. And then Mom will send leftovers home with you for dinner."

"Drunk Scully." He regarded her appraisingly, his tone delighted.

"I didn't say drunk."

"Well, whatever. Sounds like a good show to me."

She turned down a quiet, tree-lined street and pulled to a stop across the street from a blue-shuddered brick house with cars spilling out of the driveway and onto the lawn. "This is it," she announced.

Mulder followed Scully up the drive the front porch; before she could ring the bell, the door swung open. A mid-sized golden dog with floppy ears and decidedly out-sized paws bounded between Chloe's feet. "Lola!" the girl exclaimed, exasperated. "Hey, Mom. Hi, Mulder, I'm really glad you came. Lunch will be ready soon. Grandma's stuffing is the best. Let me take your coat."

Cyclone Chloe, Mulder judged, was seriously hyped up on Christmas candy. She tugged at his sleeve, pulling him into the entryway and divesting him of his trenchcoat. Scully followed more slowly, bemused, slowly floating to a stop at his elbow. Chloe beamed, flashing a beatific smile overhead.

"Oh, look," she cooed, feigning shock as she sidled away. "Mistletoe. And you're standing right under it."

Scully looked to Chloe, over their heads, at Mulder, and back at Chloe in what could've been a pretty good imitation of any standard comedy routine. To her visible relief, a tall, gangly man with bright red hair appeared from what Mulder presumed was the living room, a welcoming smile on his lips. "Hey," he greeted. "You must be Mulder. I'm Dana's little brother, Charlie."

Mulder and Scully made the rounds, introducing him to all the members of her extended family. Finally she led him into the kitchen to meet her mother, Maggie, who smiled a remarkably familiar smile and murmured that she had "heard so much" about him. For no specific reason, Mulder felt the tips of his ears getting hot and knew they were flaming. Maggie continued to smile.

"Why don't you two go have a seat in the living room," she suggested.

Chloe saw them coming and set about dragging a pair of toddlers away from the loveseat in the corner. "Mulder, you two come sit here," she called. "There's just enough space for *two*."

Scully chuckled lightly as she settled beside him on the petite loveseat. Lola, intent on making new friends, padded over and planted herself, tail wagging with adoration, at Mulder's feet.

The fit on the sofa was, indeed, a bit tight, pushing their hips into glancing contact. "Don't look now, but someone's match-making," Scully murmured, her lips close to his ear. The arm around her shoulders squeezed firmly.

"She'll meet with no opposition from me."

Scully eyed him reproachfully and pointedly switched subjects. "What do you usually do for Christmas?"

"The same thing I do for Thanksgiving."

Her gaze was curious. "You came to my house for Thanksgiving," she pointed out.

He grinned easily. "You're ruining all my traditions, Scully."

Her eyes twinkled. "And what would you have done otherwise?"

"Oh, you know. I hang out on the couch, order a pizza, drink a few beers. I usually have a date with A Christmas Story."

"The one where the little boy gets his tongue stuck to the flagpole?" Tenderness and pity mingled in the soft lines of her open face, but to his relief, she didn't comment on the solitary state in which he usually passed his holidays.

Mulder chuckled. "That's the one. I love the part where his dad gets that God-awful leg-shaped lamp."

"My favorite part is when he gets his mouth washed out with soap." She smiled broadly. "That happened to me a few times. I've always had a foul mouth - I think I inherited it from my father - and Billy used to be a hell of a tattletale. He probably still is, actually."

Absently stroking her delicate collarbone with his thumb, Mulder pictured a young Scully with a mouthful of Coast and grinned delightedly. "My sister was a tattler too, but I was big enough to threaten her with bodily harm if she didn't keep her mouth shut."

She sensed his need to maintain physical contact with her and she responded by leaning into his caress. Dana watched as the haze of nostalgia crept into his expressive eyes. "Are the holidays hard for you, Mulder? Do they make you think of her?"

His voice had lost the humor it held minutes before. "I always think of her, Scully."

Seconds ticked by. Dana placed her left hand palm up on his knee and wiggled her fingers. His free hand covered hers and she linked their fingers.

"The holidays aren't that much different than any other time of year. We never had a lot of family Christmas traditions. My parents used to throw a big party, but Sam and I were relegated to our bedrooms during that. My grandmother would roast a goose on Christmas Eve and we'd go over there for a few hours. Pretty standard stuff." He craned his neck to meet her eyes and stated perceptively, "Christmas is pretty tough for you, huh?"

She sighed, the twinge of a smile at one corner of her mouth signaling him that he'd scored a point. "Well, no. Not - not in the way that you mean. The holidays aren't a sad time for me, but I do find myself thinking of Melissa more. I miss her more this time of year. She loved Christmas more than anyone else I've ever known. When we were kids she'd be the first one downstairs in the morning. She'd get my parents up at five o'clock, you know?" Scully grinned fondly. "I can see her sitting on the living room rug with the contents of her stocking spread out all around her like the spoils of war. She did that until she was in college. Even when we were adults, she acted like a kid at Christmas. I try to channel that enthusiasm for Chloe's sake."

Mulder nudged her. "Looks to me like you've got enough of your own."

"Not like Melissa, though. When the first decorations start to go up, I always wonder how Melissa would've celebrated the holidays with her daughter. I think they would've baked cookies and gone caroling and decorated the tree together, and I try to do those things the way Melissa would've wanted. Then I think of how differently Melissa would have done so many things, and I wonder just how much different Chloe's life would have been if Melissa had lived." Dana shrugged, the gesture and her expression self-effacing. "How much better."

"Obviously different." Mulder squeezed the soft hand he cradled in his. "But you know how impossible it is to judge yourself by that standard. In your mind you'll always come up short. And you're a wonderful mother to Chloe."

"I know." Her cheeks flushed rose with embarrassment and gratitude, but no words came. Instead they watched her nieces and nephews play on the floor with their Christmas bounty.

In the doorway Maggie Scully clapped her hands authoritatively. "All right, everything's on the table." She raised her voice. "Bill, will you come say grace?"

Scully smiled and turned her upper body to face her companion. "Come on, Mulder," she said softly, leaning toward him. "Feast's on. After all, you came for the food, didn't you?"

Mulder was seated across the table from Dana, smack in the middle of a row of wholesome, rosy-cheeked Scullys. With her bright hair and luminescent skin, Scully both fit in and stood out from her relatives, like a morning glory among lilacs. Sensing his scrutiny, she turned toward him and smiled. "Pass the gravy?" she asked.

She hadn't misled him as to the quality or quantity of the food, Mulder reflected. Ham, creamed corn, peas and green beans, squash casserole - a line of dishes marched up and down the table with military precision, passed from hand to hand. He looked down to find his plate heaped with Mrs. Scully's homemade fare and rubbed his hands together in anticipation.

After everyone was stuffed, Scully and Charlie's wife, Alicia, whisked the half-empty serving dishes into the kitchen and returned with a myriad of desserts. There were two apple pies, brownies, a coconut cake, a tray of peanut brittle and a huge tub of vanilla ice cream. As Mulder debated the merits of brownie versus apple pie, Scully appeared at his elbow.

"Coffee?" she offered brightly.

"Scully, this is killing me," he lamented.

Realizing his dilemma, Dana offered the wisdom of a lifetime in the Scully household. "Take both," she advised, and helped him to a piece of coconut cake.

Twenty minutes later Mulder lingered with the other adults at the table, allowing the desultory conversation to ebb and flow around him. He stared in stunned rapture at his now-empty dessert plate. Tara got up for a second cup of coffee and six-year-old Matthew clambered into a standing position on her vacated chair. Clapping his hands in a fair imitation of his grandmother, he imperiously announced, "Presents!"

All the elder Scully relatives laughed. Charlie pulled Matthew from the chair into an affectionate bear hug. "What, you don't think any of those presents under Grandma's tree are for *you*, do you? Didn't you get coal in your stocking this year, brat?"

"No, I was good, Uncle Charlie!" the boy exclaimed, his chubby, pink face a picture of indignation. "'Sides, I seen my name!"

"You saw it," his mother corrected, and fretted, "Oh, the dishes."

"Can wait," Maggie supplied, smiling but firm. "The children have been patient long enough, and so have I. Come on, Matthew, and show me the packages with your name."

Mulder followed the family procession into the living room to gather as closely as thirteen people can gather around a Christmas tree. He squeezed onto the sofa beside Dana, who held her youngest niece on her lap. While the older kids clamored for gifts, the baby cooed, wide-eyed, at the blinking angel atop the eight-foot Virginia pine.

"I'll be the elf," Chloe volunteered, assuming a position beside Bill's customary Santa Claus. She caught Mulder's eye and grinned. At 11 she felt too mature to be as unabashedly enthusiastic as her cousins, but her assumption of authority allowed her to participate while maintaining her cocoon of adolescent loftiness.

"Me first!" four-year-old Julia shrieked gleefully. She made a dive for the mound of brightly-wrapped boxes, but Alicia held her back.

"Hang on, sweetie. Mulder doesn't know the rules."

"Rules?" Mulder repeated, and thought he saw Scully wince.

She turned to him half-apologetically. "It's a tradition," she explained. "Before you open a gift, you have to kiss someone. On the cheek for siblings and parents, lips for spouses and, ah, anyone else."

"Here's one for Peter," Chloe chirped. The eldest of Charlie's brood collected his present, deposited a kiss on his mother's cheek, and tore into the wrapping while the rest of the family looked on with ceremonial attentiveness.

The process was repeated several times, Bill showing off and laying a passionate liplock on his wife for the family's benefit, before he offered Chloe a rectangular blue package. "Here, Squirt, this one's for your mom."

Scully's fingers closed on the box and she hesitated. She fingered the bow indecisively. She could take the easy way out - a kiss for the nearest brother or nephew. But there was Mulder sitting right next to her, utterly defenseless. She wouldn't want him to feel left out of the festivities, would she? After all, he was her guest.

Chloe made the decision for her. "Go on," she urged impatiently, looking pointedly at Mulder.

Scully flashed a blinding smile at him, hoping it masked her embarrassment, and leaned up to make contact with his mouth. In the instant before her lips grazed his, she felt her entire being throb with the memory of the one sweet kiss they'd exchanged in Melvin's living room. Then there was a glancing contact, his breath whispering across her cheek, and Scully found her fingers unknotting the gauzy gold bow her mother had tied around the gift.

Dana's bloodless fingers trembled as she thanked Maggie for the colorful plaid scarf that she unrolled to display for her family. Mulder leaned close to murmur, "That purple will look great on you, Scully. It'll bring out your hair." He reached up to finger a strand of brilliant copper; Dana's awareness of Bill's eyes on them made her realize how unconsciously intimate the gesture was.

"This one's for, ah, Mulder." Bill's puzzled tone revealed his confusion. Mulder turned to Scully, who raised her eyebrows and shook her head.

"It's from me," Chloe burst out, beaming. "I wanted Mulder to have something to open with everyone else."

The dimple in her chin lent Chloe's smile a mischievous exuberance, and Dana was forcefully reminded of her daughter's efforts in the last weeks to leave her and Mulder alone together. Hadn't she tried to push them under the mistletoe just hours ago? Pinning Chloe with her gaze, Scully narrowed her eyes and lifted her brows. Chloe ignored her, glowing with triumph.

"It's not much." Her eyes twinkled.

"Well," Mulder muttered, his face alight with laughing embarrassment. He met Scully's eyes and suddenly her trepidation at the thought of having to kiss him again in front of an audience was wiped away by the fear that he wouldn't kiss her. She tilted her head and leaned forward, as she had done on that October afternoon, inviting his attention. He dipped his head and she lifted her hand, fingertips skimming up from his jaw to his clean-shaven cheek, holding his head and directing his mouth to hers.

"Oh, God," she thought, feeling as if she'd received an electric shock - a painful tingling jolted her before being replaced by a warm glow of pleasure and well-being. Her teeth dragged lightly over the succulent flesh of his lower lip, lingering as he pulled away. Her hands dropped into her lap, dead weight. Avoiding his eyes, she urged, "Open your present, Mulder."

He precisely slit the tape and neatly unfolded the creased wrapping paper, revealing a small box. Opening the box disclosed an inexpensive watch.

Chloe shrugged. "It's not much. You told us your watch stopped working, remember?"

Mulder smiled and thanked her. "Now I won't have an excuse to be late," he teased.

He lasted the afternoon at the Scully family gathering, watching Dana's cheeks flush as she drank the sweet, fruity wine her younger brother dispensed from a plastic jug, and indulging in a bit of the brew himself. When the shadows deepened and the cold air crept into the corners of the living room, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to wrap Scully in his embrace and feel her nestled against his side, her stocking-clad toes pressed into his thigh, an intimate tableau for the eyes of her whole family. Her head rested on his shoulder and he wondered what she'd do if he leaned down and kissed her again.

It was already dark when he stepped onto the porch with Dana and the promised bag of leftovers ("Come on, Fox - just a bit of turkey. And ham. And, oh, some sweet potatoes, and cake, and did you like the casserole?"), and a cold wind blew in from the north and whistled around them.

"Brr!" she exclaimed, darting toward the driver's side of her car. "Get in, Mulder. I'm freezing."

He slid into the passenger seat and pointedly ignored his chattering teeth. "Buck up, Scully. Compared to winters on the Vineyard, this is nothing."

She cranked the engine and prayed for it to heat up quickly. "I grew up in California, remember?" she pointed out as she executed a three-point turn and headed toward the Interstate.

They were mostly silent on the drive back to his apartment. Comfortable. Easy. "Do you want to come up?" he invited when she pulled to the curb.

She shook her head regretfully. "I need to get home and pack. Our flight's at seven in the morning."

"That'll be a long day," he murmured, his voice almost getting lost beneath the roar of the heater. Mulder reached out to cover her hand with his and she felt his touch through the leather of her gloves. "I don't guess I'll talk to you until you get back. Have fun. Wear sunscreen."

"I will," she promised. "I'll send a postcard from the Bahamas."

This was an annual pilgrimage for Dana and Chloe, five days of mother-daughter bonding and sun and sand and fresh seafood. Mulder certainly didn't envy them the time, but he could already feel the cold chill of bad TV movies and greasy pizza alone in his apartment seeping in under the door.

"Wish I could go," he offered.

"I do too," she replied, and the husky tenor of her voice and the shadows in her eyes hinted at a vague sadness, a something left unsaid between them. He leaned forward and kissed her check, and wanted to believe that her cool fingers held a beat too long on the back of his neck.

He climbed out of the car with his bag of treats, the door slamming behind him in the biting wind. He had taken only a few steps when she called his name and he looked back. She had rolled down the window to shout at him.

"New Year's Eve - do you have plans?"

His eyes crinkled slightly. "I do now." His voice carried across the silent, barren landscape of snow-packed cars and slushy ice-grey gutters. Scully's smile was the barest quirk at the left corner of her mouth, but he caught it. He watched her taillights until they disappeared around the corner.

Chapter 8: Raspberry

"If you want inside her, well, boy you better make her raspberry swirl." - Tori Amos

At first he had been taken aback, a bit incredulous. The tiny lines around his eyes told her this was not how he had expected to spend the evening with her, and that knowledge caused a quaver in the pit of her stomach.

"You invited me to a slumber party?" Mulder's voice was a shade louder, a shade more brash than usual. He wasn't angry; just dismayed. Scully lifted his heavy coat from his broad shoulders and drew him further into the apartment, into the sound of the blaring TV and chattering little-girl voices and the rich smell of pepperoni pizza. She didn't say a word, only nodded.

His grin melted a chunk of ice in her intestines. "Well, damn. I forgot my sleeping bag."

Mulder quietly shelved his aspirations to cold, crisp champagne and slow dancing and, if he played his cards right, an Auld-Lang-Syne kiss. He had spent most of his adult life alone, and had never fathomed that five days away from someone could feel like such an eternity. He'd take whatever he could get.

He was content to settle back and watch Dana interact with Chloe and her friends. She laughed with them, teased them, gave them their space. Mulder imagined Scully at eleven or twelve with a group of girlfriends and a bottle of nail polish, talking about boys or movies or pop music. What had she been like? An image formed in his mind of a quiet little redhead in the corner with a book and a dreamy smile, and it felt right.

When she went into the kitchen area, he followed her. "You're the cool mom," he posited, speaking low enough that the girls couldn't hear him, and she grinned as she turned away from the icebox and looked at him.

"I like to think so," she agreed, plunking two tubs of ice- cream on the counter.

He moved closer, close enough to smell her perfume, and looked over her shoulder. "Mm, chocolate."

She scooped a spoon into the chocolate and offered him the resulting bite. For an instant his tongue stuck to the cold metal of the spoon. "Raspberry's my favorite," she stated.

Mulder deftly plucked the spoon from her grasp and, reaching over her shoulder, gathered a heaping mouthful of the richly colored treat. Scully didn't look at him as she opened her mouth to accept the bite. He gave her a moment to clean the spoon, then slowly withdrew it from the warmth of her mouth. His free hand skimmed down her upper arm. One of them was breathing too quickly. Maybe both of them. "Good?"

The combination of cold ice cream and the husky heat of his voice sent chills racing up her spine. She nodded convulsively and busied herself with dipping out the ice- cream. Mulder backed up and leaned against the opposite counter, watching her.

She was wearing a deep pink sweater, a dark, vivid color. He'd never seen her in pink. It looked soft, feminine as it hugged her curves. Cashmere, maybe. Mulder wanted to touch it. Even more, Mulder wanted to touch what was beneath it. Scully had gotten some sun - her freckles stood out more clearly than usual under her light makeup. He wanted to lick the powder away and taste each sweet spot of color.

He had to stop thinking this way, especially with a group of pre-teen girls in the next room - in *this* room, if one wanted to get technical. If they caught sight of the way he was looking at Scully, they'd certainly mature a few years faster than was strictly necessary.

She went back into the living room, defusing the tension between them. After a few minutes he decided it was safe and drifted back out to join the party.

Scully and Mulder were included in a game of Twister - the girls were dumbfounded to meet two adults willing to contort their feeble, ancient bodies into the required poses - which Mulder lost spectacularly on right hand, red, taking out Scully and two of Chloe's friends with him.

Scully tactfully retreated to the kitchen when someone mentioned Truth or Dare, and Mulder made his way to the bathroom. He just couldn't hold as much Mountain Dew as he'd been able to in his younger years.

When he emerged, the boisterous cadence of Dick Clark's eternally youthful voice drifted in from the living room, announcing the official beginning of the countdown to the new year. Four genuinely youthful voices stopped giggling long enough to join in.

"Ten... nine..."

Thanks to Chloe and her three girlfriends, Scully's entire apartment was festooned with pink streamers in honor of the occasion. The living room floor was strewn with sleeping bags, candy wrappers, chip bags, and one empty pizza box.

Scully was popping popcorn. He noted that nothing was sacred: not even the kitchen was safe from the redecorating efforts of a crowd of twelve-year-olds on a sugar high. Everywhere he looked, he saw pink. As if she'd planned the effect, Dana's sweater precisely matched the streamers.

Mulder gestured with his bottle. "You match."

She grinned and popped a hot kernel into her mouth.

"Seven... six..." Their eyes met. "You're about to miss the big moment, Scully."

Holding the popcorn bowl to her chest, Scully leaned back against the refrigerator, her hair fanning out around her head in a bright nebula. The ghost of a smile touched her lips. "I hear that."

And then as Dick Clark hit zero and the ball dropped in Times Square, Mulder and Scully weren't in Dana's cheerful kitchen; they were transported to a hospital waiting room no different than countless other waiting rooms, and Mulder forgot the painful twinge in his bandaged arm because Scully was so close that he could feel her breath. As he turned to her she tipped her head back, and the reality of it was much more amazing and frightening than a whole squadron of zombies. When their lips met in a chaste, soft kiss, there was no harm, no foul, because it was New Year's Eve, now New Year's Day, and they could blame it all on tradition and the spirit of the moment.

He invaded her space and Scully pressed against the cool, smooth surface of the refrigerator at her back. She sighed, her cool, popcorn-flavored breath fanning against his chin. Her eyes were closed, lashes pale against the tender, translucent skin below. He studied her carefully, breathless; a tiny, petulant frown creased her forehead and she surged up on tiptoe, reuniting their mouths. For a second they simply rested against one another, getting reacquainted, then Mulder tentatively opened his lips, nudging her with the fuller bottom one. He felt tightly strung, concentrating fiercely on his technique and the exactly right timing.

A soft, low humming sound emanated from deep in her chest as she received his kiss and gave one back in return. The exchange stretched out as a chorus of indistinct voices muddled through "Auld Lang Syne" on television. Taken separately, each kiss was like a tiny, clear drop of rainwater, but they merged seamlessly to form a stream. The contact of mouth to mouth remained light, only a step from hesitant, like the chase and retreat of two children on an elementary school playground. Needing to touch her, he placed his palms gently on her shoulders, rubbing the soft fabric slowly against the bones beneath.

Her numbed arms spontaneously released and the plastic bowl crashed to the floor, an avalanche of unpopped kernels rattling across the tiles. Scully's eyes popped open in surprise, and she blinked again when she found Mulder's pupils wide open and fixed determinedly on hers. She chuffed out a sheepish laugh and against hers his lips curved into a smile. His arm settled low around her waist, fingers fanning over her hip, and they held their pose, lip to lip and eye to eye, until a chorus of giggles close at hand broke the moment.

Even after he registered Chloe and her friends watching from the living room, the spectacle in the kitchen more interesting than the aftermath on TV, Mulder was able to move only sluggishly, reluctantly relinquishing Scully and stepping back a respectable distance. Chloe's face was flaming with embarrassment, but Mulder couldn't help observing her sly, triumphant grin.

As she knelt to scoop up the ruined popcorn, Scully's cheeks were flushed an identical pink. She'd turned to hide behind the curtain formed by her hair, but as Mulder joined her on the floor their eyes met and she smiled. As Mulder returned her gaze, he felt certain that, if only for that one unique moment in time, they shared an understanding as complete and unobstructed as the clear blue of her eyes.

End (4/10)

Chapter 9: Crimson

"Beauty's ensign yet is crimson in thy lips and in they cheeks, and death's pale flag is not advanced." - Shakespeare

Scully's sleep-fogged brain sluggishly worked to process the ear-piercing, inhuman screech that had yanked her from slumber. For a moment she thought it was the warning cry of the smoke alarm, but the apartment was silent, peaceful.

As her hammering heart slowed and sweat cooled on her body, leaving her skin irritated and scratchy, she realized the sound had come from within the cave of her own tortured nightmares, a wail of jagged, choking despair. Panicked, she groped for the bedside lamp. A pale yellow glow suffused the room and she sat up, the cool, smooth headboard wonderfully solid at her back.

If her dream had ever been coherent, now it was slipping from her grasp, details fading as surely as shadows faded in the light. She was left with a picture of herself studying her own x-rays, her eyes riveted on the pale, solid mass rooted at the center of her forehead, with the sensation of cold hospital tile beneath her shuffling bare feet, with blinding pain and Mulder's anguished eyes and her life slipping away with each drop of rich crimson blood trickling down her upper lip. One hand rose to her throat, as if her fingers could touch the origin of her silent scream. Her other hand drifted to her forehead, drawing rings around the source of her phantom pain.

Scully folded her knees to her chest and drew the covers over them. She couldn't stop shaking, trembling so violently that she felt as if her entire body were vibrating.

Remission was both the most beautiful and the most treacherous word in the English lexicon. Six years ago Dana had realized the fragility not only of human life but of *her* life in the most brutal, personal manner possible. Death had encroached too deeply upon Scully's life for her ever to forget its indelible imprint; as if in retaliation, she had lived the last several years as if she were immortal. When you cheated fate once, it became easy to imagine that you were stronger, smarter, more *permanent* than death's reach.

This dream brought reality crashing down upon Dana. Death was inevitable. In her mind Scully saw her blood spatter across the pristine whiteness of a blank page and felt her horizon shrink. Confronted with the immediacy of her own mortality, Scully felt the sickeningly familiar internal rot of a slow death.

Instinctively she cradled her lower abdomen, her muscles quivering as they protected the place where her disease had lived, had perhaps been reborn.

"It's not real," she whimpered, hoping frantically that the sound of her voice would ground her in reality. Praying that health and life *were* reality.

She forced herself to lie down but couldn't turn off the light. The thought of darkness was unbearable. When she closed her eyes she saw the flow of her blood widening from a trickle to a crimson cascade, filling her lungs and choking her.

Gasping for breath, she jerked upright and grabbed the cordless phone. Her stiff fingers had pounded out the first half of Mulder's number before she realized that he was in San Francisco.

"Shit," she swore, dropping the receiver onto the comforter. Her eyes roamed the room. He always stayed at the same hotel on Nob Hill; if she called information and got the number, she could be talking to him in minutes - seconds, even. He might question her late-night phone call, but he would not force her to explain. His sleepy monotone would sooth her, wash over her like a healing balm.

In fact, the thought of Mulder had calmed Dana almost enough to allow her to breathe normally. Replacing the phone, she stood and smoothed the covers. There was no need to call Mulder and worry him - and if she behaved in a fashion so out of character, he would certainly worry. She ambled into the kitchen for a glass of water, then looked in on Chloe.

It was ridiculous to be so shaken. She'd had no symptoms to suggest that her illness had returned, and her bout with ovarian cancer in no way predisposed Scully to some sort of bizarre brain tumor. This nightmare, she assured herself, was merely a product of her imagination, just as all her other dreams were.

Bathed in the light of day, figments from the dim reaches of nightmares were supposed to vanish as suddenly as they descended. Instead, as Dana sat at her desk at 9 a.m., surrounded by a cheerful pool of sunlight, she still felt invaded, haunted. Scared.

With a sigh, she dropped her pencil and pressed her palm to her forehead. Her movements endowed with a force that was almost vicious, she flipped through her rolodex to the card she was looking for. Dialing the number, she felt unsteady, a little crazy.

The woman's voice was cheerful and businesslike when she answered. "Good morning, you've reached the Women's Medical Center of Georgetown. How may I direct your call?"

"I need to make an appointment with Dr. Maglione, please."

"One moment, ma'am. Let me transfer you."

The second voice was even more relentlessly peppy; perhaps, Scully considered, she cloaked her voice in such positivism because her job surrounded her with such a degree of suffering and death.

"Oncology, this is Mary."

"Mary, my name is Dana Scully. I'd like to make an appointment with Dr. Maglione."

Scully listened to the reassuring clicking of computer keys. "Ms. Scully, I'm showing that you're scheduled for a continuing care visit with Dr. Maglione in June."

Scully kept her voice low so that John couldn't overhear. "Yes, but I'd like to come sooner, please, as soon as possible."

"Have you developed any symptoms the doctor should know about?"

"Ah, no. No. This is just for my own peace of mind."

Scully closed her eyes tightly, and when she opened them the world danced and wavered. Wherever she looked, crimson starbursts exploded in the center of her field of vision, each explosion endowed with the destroying, life-taking power of a drop of human blood.

Chapter 10: A Patch of Blue

"Send a long letter way back home, says, 'All that I know, all that I know is the blue sky' - The farther I come, the farther I fall - Whatever I knew is nothing at all..." - Patty Griffin

Hypnotized by hours of staring at the busy gold and red print of the airplane's upholstery, Mulder let the drab beiges and browns of the hallway connecting the plane to the terminal wash over him in soothing waves. His shoulders and back were stiff, and his legs ached from being cramped into a too-small space. He let his muscles stretch, eyes roving over a sea of average, unfamiliar faces and forms clad in black and brown overcoats without really seeing anything.

A patch of blue entered his peripheral vision, relieving the monotony of his journey and bringing a smile to his face.

She stood back from the throng, hands linked in front of her, buttoned up from chin to well-shod foot in a powder blue wool coat, a matching toboggan perched on her head. Copper curls peeked out above and below the wool, their brilliance matching the brilliance of her smile. He paused, taking in the vision of her, then moved steadily forward.

It felt natural to sweep her into his arms, to feel the weight of her smaller body against his chest as her arms banded around his back.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, breathing in the spicy scent of her hair.

She tilted her head back enough to see him, still smiling as freely as he'd ever seen her smile. "I missed you," she admitted with aplomb, and peacefully tucked her head under his chin. Her hair tickled his skin.

He laughed from the sheer exhilaration of seeing her, hearing her voice, holding her. "I missed you," Mulder responded, playfully rocking them from side to side. "Don't ever make me do a book tour again. I'm exhausted, irritated, and may never recover."

She chuckled. "I won't make you do another tour of the West Coast until you write another book," she promised. "But you already know you're going to Canada in April." He groaned theatrically, and her arms tightened.

"It feels so good to touch you and know you're whole and safe," she murmured, her tone becoming deadly serious, almost sad. A world of shadows and half-formed thoughts lurked behind her words. He couldn't know about hospital gowns and sharp metal instruments and stiff, institutional blankets scratching chemo-worn skin. He couldn't know that just days ago she'd sat, every muscle in her body pulled tight, auto-defenses prepared for the worst, and watched as her blood steadily filled two perfect plastic vials.

Dr. Maglione's chocolate brown eyes had been gentle and sympathetic as he soothed her fears. "You're *fine*, Dana. It never hurts to be cautious, but the tests show that everything's fine. You're in perfect health."

The relief was so sharp that it felt like a slap, but it couldn't right her equilibrium and put everything back into perfect balance.

Mulder sensed that Scully was approaching whatever had really spurred her surprise appearance at the airport, but she didn't seem comfortable addressing the issue. "I'm not safe," he replied lightly, feigning affront as he lazily sifted through her hair. "I'm the dangerous bad boy your mother warned you about but secretly yearned for to break the monotony of her own dull suburban life. I'm a rebel, Scully. An artiste."

Dana's expression metamorphosed again, laughter rekindling in her eyes. Their bottomless blue curled around him, warming his weary limbs and soothing his tattered psyche. She was gazing at him as if that heartbreaking smile could be entirely attributed to his presence, and the last two times he'd seen her, she'd let him kiss her. The two thoughts chased one another around his mind, and if she kept looking at him like that, he'd want to dive into those twin blue pools and let himself drown.

He wasn't sure who moved first; he felt the puff of her breath, the upward momentum of her compact body, and then a sea of blue filled his vision, a cool, bracing wave rolled over him, and moist, open lips brushed against his.

Mulder blinked, hoping his carefully blank expression was still in place. Scully blinked back equally expressionlessly.

"I assume you checked a bag." Stepping back, she re- shouldered her purse.

Mulder rubbed his jaw, stubble scratching his palm. Scully had kissed him, hadn't she? Or had he imagined it courtesy of a travel-induced stupor?

She seemed to glide away from him toward the baggage claim, moving with the grace and unflappable ease of an iceberg, and he followed in her wake, his hazy, dazzled brain registering her presence as a blur of vivid blue.

Scully had been sleeping until some slight sound woke her, creaking pipes or a snapping branch or a barking dog. Pale late afternoon sunlight glinted off the snow and filtered through her bedroom window. After dropping Chloe off at Tina's and spending the morning deep cleaning the house, she had dropped onto her bed, exhausted, for a catnap.

Her legs shifted restlessly under the thin Indian blanket she'd thrown over her, the seam of her jeans pressing firmly between her legs. She released an exasperated breath that lifted a damp strand of hair from her forehead. Her body, damp with perspiration, was flushed and hyper- sensitive. When she closed her eyes she could see the shifting planes of her dream lover's long, golden body, could feel his mouth on her breast, his hand parting her damp folds, gently reaching inside her -

She whimpered and bit her lip, pressing her open palm against the damp denim and grinding sinuously against it. God, she needed to come. It had been too long. And there was no one here, no one to hear or see or interrupt.

Clumsy fingers fumbled to undo the buttons on her jeans and she plunged her hand inside between hot skin and damp satin. The tip of her index finger lightly brushed her clit and she flinched. This wouldn't take long; her skin already felt ripe and tight, almost ready to burst. She let her eyes drift shut and she was there again, in her dream.

Knowing masculine fingers played over her clit, scratching lightly beneath the hood before drawing tiny, leisurely circles on the side, his touch feather light, barely there. She imitated his movements, teasing her, making her squirm.

Behind closed eyelids her fantasy came into focus, the cool leather at her back, the hum of the aquarium, Mulder's face, intense and passionate as he loomed above her. For a moment she tried to erase his distinct features and replace them with the anonymous lover of a thousand generic, interchangeable fantasies, but he remained Mulder, determined and driven.

"Fuck," she muttered, and gave herself permission for one frenzied moment to want him in the worst and best ways. Her fingers ground into her clit and she was soaring, her body being incinerated and reconstituted as meteors exploded before her eyes in a shower of joyous, agonizing gold.

In the aftermath she shivered, tossed away the blanket and crawled under her thick comforter. Sweat was drying on her body. It would be better not to think about what she had just done. It would really be better to go over the grocery list or take an inventory of her winter suits or balance her checkbook.

With a groan of defeat, she flopped onto her stomach. She missed Mulder. She hadn't really spent any time with him since the day she picked him up at the airport *and kissed him, again* and they went out to lunch. They'd both been working; he was looking for a new agent, and her schedule was always an acid trip in January, jam-packed with sinners and grinners who had resolved to turn over a new leaf. Then he'd received word that his mother was in the hospital with pneumonia, and he'd gone up to Connecticut. They'd talked a few times, and he'd called this morning to say that his mom was home, and he, too, would be home in the next couple of days, "when she gets well enough to drive me crazy."

Talking on the phone wasn't the same, of course, as seeing the gentle laughter in his eyes when he dropped bad one- liners, or the way his lips pursed just slightly when he was watching her and didn't think she'd noticed.

Her strange mood carried her through the rest of the weekend, and she knew she was less than desirable company at work Monday morning. Uncharacteristically, John not only picked up on her foul humor but commented on it.

"You seem off today, Dana." He neatly mopped up the coffee she had sloshed out of her mug and tossed the napkins into the trash. "Is it Mulder?"

Her eyes narrowed slightly. "What do you mean?"

"Did you have a fight?"

She frowned. "Mulder's at his mother's, John."

"I know. You told me. Three times."

Scully focused resolutely on her day planner.

"I just wondered... a lover's quarrel..."

"Lover's *quarrel*?" Her voice shot up along with her eyebrows on the last word.

"There's nothing to be ashamed of. They happen in the best of relationships."

Her mouth tightened. "News flash, John," she said firmly. "Mulder and I are *not* lovers."

John eyed her for a moment, and she knew he was gauging the truthfulness of her statement. She crossed her arms over her breasts and stared back at him.

"Okay," he finally conceded. "I believe you. You could do worse, you know. I just thought - body language - the way you talk about him - I've never seen you light up for anyone that way. I just assumed - "

"Well, don't," she snapped, ending the conversation.

When her cell phone rang at 10:30, she knew it would be him. Glancing at the display, she beamed.

"Hi, Mulder."

"Hey, Scully. I just got on the road. I'm gonna take it slow, check out the back roads, stop for a long lunch."

"How's your mom?"

"Ready for me to get the hell out of here."

Mulder didn't like to talk about his parents. Wisely, Scully glossed over the remark, but she felt a squeeze of unfocused anger in the muscles of her arms. "Will you be back in time for dinner?"

"No promises for dinner, but I'll see you after?"

She smiled softly. He didn't have to ask. "Of course," she agreed.

Scully spent the remainder of the workday trying to convince herself that the nervous flutter in the pit of her stomach was completely unrelated to Mulder's return. She compensated by changing clothes and scrubbing the bathroom.

After dinner Chloe stretched out on her stomach on the carpet, ostensibly doing homework but mostly whining that she wanted a dog and trying to watch the NBC lineup when she thought Dana wasn't paying attention. Lifting the remote, Dana tapped in the number of the Discovery Channel and watched Chloe make a tiny face before subtly turning back to her math homework.

A few minutes passed in silence, save the rubbing of Chloe's eraser on her homework paper and the sound of pages turning as Dana read a medical mystery.

"Is Mulder coming over tonight? He was coming back today, right?"

Scully stretched her legs out and pulled a light blanket from the back of the sofa to toss over them. She glanced at the clock. "He called me at work this morning to tell me he was getting on the road, so he should be back in the city soon. He said he'd stop by for a few minutes on his way home, so if you want to see him, you'd better get started on that homework."

Chloe groaned. "I will as soon as this finishes," she promised, having apparently decided that details of the war rituals of headhunting tribes in Papua New Guinea were more entertaining than word problems.

"All right." Dana turned back to her book, which was just getting good and gruesome.

A few minutes later a commercial blared onto the TV screen and Scully picked up the remote control as Chloe turned to face her.

"When is Mulder going to move in?"

Dana froze, her finger hovering over the volume button. She turned shocked eyes on her daughter. "Ex - excuse me? When is Mulder going to *move in*? What on earth - why would you think he'd move in with us, Chloe?"

Chloe's expression remained complacent. "So he wouldn't have to go home at night. I mean, he comes over nearly every day, and we watch TV and go out and stuff - so why doesn't he just stay?"

Despite the simple lines she was drawing, Dana knew Chloe was mature enough to have some idea of the complexities of a committed romantic relationship: she was willfully glossing over the obvious problems such an arrangement between Scully and Mulder would produce.

Muting the television, Scully leaned forward, her smile rueful. "Clo, you're missing the obvious, hon." Her tone was gentle. "Mulder and I aren't a romantic item. We're not involved that way."

Chloe crossed her feet on the ottoman and regarded her shoelaces. "Don't you love him?" Her voice had grown smaller.

Dana hesitated, aware that her phrasing was critical. "Yes," she said slowly. "But in the same way that I love Uncle Johnny - as a friend. As a platonic friend."

Chloe drew a long, sulky breath and burst out, "But you kissed him at Grandma's house and again on New Year's in front of *all* my friends and he tells you you're beautiful and you look at him when he's not looking!"

Breathing deeply, Scully pinched the bridge of her nose. "Chloe, Mulder and I are close friends. I'm glad he's part of our life. But the status of our relationship isn't going to change. I'm very sorry if I've said or done things that gave you that idea. Okay?"

Silence filled the living room for a full minute. "Okay." Chloe's voice trembled slightly. "I have to go finish my homework."

Dana's stomach felt heavy and an uneasy prickle ascended her spine. First John, now Chloe. Perhaps she could've disregarded her daughter's question as the naievete of a child who was looking for a father figure, but coupled with John's insinuations, the combination was disturbing. In her mind she'd never wavered from the thought that she and Mulder were friends. They had coffee, watched movies, went to dinner - things all friends did.

Right. How many of her friends did she kiss on her mother's sofa? How many made her tingle and blush when they looked at her a certain way? How many's asses did she check out in jeans?

She flushed hotly as she remembered her fevered dream from earlier in the week. How many of her friends had starring roles in the fantasies that played behind her eyelids while she touched herself?

Scully bowed her head, confused. Had she been indulging herself where Mulder was concerned, grouping all her actions under the inadequate banner of friendship? She'd told him she was unwilling, unable, to give more, but she looked at Mulder and her nice, clear, black and white lines fuzzed into a shimmering sea of gray.

Another thought struck her. If she was this confused, how must Mulder feel? Was she leading him on? She'd let him kiss her. She'd kissed him back. She'd seen the way he looked at her, and she'd never even thought of telling him to stop. Despite what she'd said about being a man of the twenty-first century, did he think this was a logical progression of steps that would lead to a romantic, sexual relationship?

Oh, God. Did he want that? More importantly, did he expect that? She shivered, feeling cold and hot and scared and intrigued.

His knock broke in upon her crisis, and she opened the door in full retreat mode.

"Come in," she said simply, and stepped aside.

"Hey, Scully." His eyes swept her and he looked puzzled. "Am I early?"

She glanced down at her outfit and froze. Oh, shit. She was still wearing the skimpy gray athletic shorts and white tank top that she'd put on to clean in, and she didn't have on a bra. Feeling herself flush, Dana cursed her pale skin and tried to appear nonchalant.

"No, not at all. I was cleaning and didn't want to get my clothes dirty."

Mulder had taken off his coat and deposited his keys on the kitchen counter; Scully's gaze fell upon the thin, gaily wrapped parcel he'd placed next to them. "What's that?" she asked, and her voice had a hard edge she didn't like.

"It's a calendar. I know Chloe really likes Cezanne, and I saw this, so I picked it up for her."

Scully spoke sharply. "I don't want you to give her gifts."

His smile and the hand he laid on her bare shoulder were placating. "It's just a calendar, Scully."

"It doesn't matter." She moved away to straighten the items on the end table. "I don't want her to come to rely on you, Mulder. Having you here so much, going places with you - it confuses her. Chloe is a bright, perceptive child, but she's only eleven - she *is* still a child."

He trailed her across the room, careful not to get too close. He'd picked up on her mood and it put him on edge. "All right, I won't give her the present. It's a stupid calendar. What's going on here, Scully?"

The instant the words left his mouth, he wanted to retract them. He had the sense that the two of them were standing at a precipice, teetering.

She crossed her arms over her chest, rubbing at the chill bumps on her upper arms, and turned to face him. Taking a breath to summon her courage, she said, "I'm not - I don't think you should come here any more."

He didn't speak at first, then simply asked why, his voice neutral.

"I told you - it confuses Chloe." Her eyes searched his for understanding. Odd, since she didn't understand herself. "She sees things and makes the assumptions that any little girl would make, Mulder. She's had too much heartache and instability in her life for me to add to it. I have to protect her."

He stepped into her personal space and curved his hands around her upper arms. Her eyes flared in surprise but she didn't back away. "Are you worried about your daughter, Scully, or yourself?" he demanded quietly. "Because I think you're concerned that I'll destabilize *your* orderly little world."

"And why would I think that?" she volleyed hoarsely. Could he tell that her pulse was pounding just beneath her skin? Was her face as red as it felt?

"Because I think I make you feel things that you're afraid of feeling." His thumbs caressed her skin and she was conscious of twin sensations of heat and cold racing through her nervous system.

"What things?" she challenged.

He was close enough that she could feel his breath fanning across her face. "Want." A muscle in his jaw twitched. "Desire. Need."

She swallowed harshly, her pupils dilating with panic. "I think that's pretty goddamn arrogant," she volleyed.

"Scully." Her name was almost a moan. He released her arms to wrap one arm around her waist, anchoring her to him. "Scully, look at you." His eyes inventoried her feverishly. His free hand went to her hip, his fingers fanning over her abdomen. "You're stunning."

"Mulder," she protested, her voice wavering oh-so-slightly. One finger traced the curve of her gently rounded stomach, lingering over the way the t-shirt fabric hugged her skin. Mulder watched the movement of his hand, then met her gaze with his soul in his eyes.

"I'm a man, Scully."

She blinked twice, her alarm defusing. "Yes, I'm aware of that," she said, the barest hint of a smile touching her lips.

"Are you?" He stepped back to survey her from head to foot. "I promised I'd be your friend, Scully, and I always will be, but I can't help the things you make me feel, the way my body reacts to yours, especially when I see you like this -" His eyes pleaded with her as his fingertips skimmed the delicate hills and valleys of her shoulder. "I mean, I'm not some sex-crazed caveman, but I'm not a eunuch, either."

"I'll go change clothes," she whispered, but moved closer, drawn by the rich, intoxicating scent of his cologne, until her breasts brushed his chest. "Unless you don't want me to."

His chin rested on the top of her head. "Are you listening to what I'm saying?"

"I'm listening, Mulder. You said I'm a good listener, remember?" Her hands stroked his back. "I turn you on. I arouse you." She tipped her head back, and he barely recognized the smoky, seductive blue of her eyes. "Do you want me to change my clothes?"

What did *she* want? She felt herself move, heard the words Flowing from her lips as if she were merely a bystander.

"Don't." He pressed a tentative kiss to her temple. "Don't move."

She swayed into his embrace and pressed herself against Mulder's solid bulk as he caressed her from shoulder to hip. "Since the first time I saw you," he continued, "you're - you've been -" He stopped, shook his head. "I just want to hold you, wrap myself in you. And, yes, Scully, I want to make love to you. I've never denied that. But you're my best friend..."

He trailed off, thoughtful, anxious. But while Mulder wanted to pause and reflect, she needed to act. After only a moment Dana surged to her tiptoes, urgently demanding, "Kiss me."

The first touch of his mouth to hers was tentative, but she pushed back demandingly, pressing her tongue against his closed lips. Her message received, his hold on her tightened. Open mouths, teeth clashing awkwardly, tongues sliding - they kissed wetly, hotly, as if a switch had been flipped and current had begun to flow through both of them.

Seduced and seductress, she felt strong, sexy, and surprisingly unafraid. Suddenly she was in sync with her body for the first time in much too long. Scully staggered backward toward the sofa, turning to push Mulder down first and dropping onto his lap.

"Scully," he gasped.

"No," she dictated, responding to his doubts, his questions. Her weight settled over his thighs and he gasped again, his quick inhalation conveying his pleasure as she trapped his cock between them. He rocked against her and she whimpered, clutching at his shoulder. The soft fabric of his t-shirt slipped against his skin as she grabbed a handful, her eyes wide as she looked into his. She whimpered again, a small, helpless sound, and circled her hips. No one had ever turned her on this fast, left her feeling fuzzy and drugged with only a few kisses and light touches.

"You're so beautiful," he gritted out, sounding drugged himself and awe-struck, gathering a handful of her hair at the nape of her neck. His other hand rose from her hip, the sliding caress causing her stomach muscles to quiver, leaving flame in his wake. Two fingers grazed the fabric over her nipple and they both watched the small bud harden, Scully as aroused by the thought of the caress as by the barely-there reality. Encouraged, Mulder molded his whole hand to her flesh, the weight resting in his palm.

"Yeah," she hissed, arching her neck. "Mulder, hmmm." Her fingers opened and closed on his knee, denim rough against her skin.

He pulled her head down for another kiss, sucking her lower lip into his mouth. His hips surged up against her, the head of his cock stabbing at her clit, and she released an animalistic grunt as her internal muscles clenched under the sudden assault of feeling. Mulder repeated the motion and she thrust back, pushing her breast against his hand. His thumb flicked roughly against the nipple and she tossed her head back. The pounding in her clit was growing almost painful, pressure swelling as her thigh muscles tightened.

They were moving constantly, their pace increasing, his heat searing her through the thin fabric of her shorts and panties. She felt sweat trickling between her breasts as she tore her mouth away from his and cried out in desperation. Her fingers dug into Mulder's shoulder. God, just a little more - she was getting close -

Mulder's palm clamped over her mouth. "Dana, shh," he cautioned gruffly. "Chloe will hear."

Scully froze, her eyes growing impossibly wide. Her 11- year-old daughter was less than twenty feet away, doing her homework. "Oh my God," Scully whispered, leaping out of Mulder's lap as if she'd been burned. She walked a few paces away and stood with her back to him, lifting one hand to her brow. "Oh my God."

Behind her she heard Mulder shifting. Wisely he remained silent.

Dana's shoulders slumped. As the adrenaline was absorbed into her system and her respiration and heart rate slowed, she felt icy reality creeping into her limbs, weighing her down. She pivoted slowly, her face a picture of dismay. On the sofa Mulder looked rumpled and uncomfortable, and in the midst of her horror Scully felt a pang of sympathy for him.

"Jesus, Mulder." Panicked eyes searched his. "What the hell just happened? What did we do?"

"Nothing." Rising, he came toward her and gently grasped her shoulders, his thumbs stroking over the delicate bones. His tone and the set of his features were again placating, almost pleading. "Nothing, Dana."

She gestured vehemently toward the sofa. "That was *not* nothing, Mulder!"

His grip tightened. "No, it wasn't. I'm sorry, Scully." The look in his eyes turned tortured. "This never should have happened, not like this. I never meant - I'm so sorry -"

Surprising herself, she lifted her hand to cover his mouth, stopping his apologies. The movement of his warm lips against her palm was like a kiss, and she shivered. "Don't be sorry. I initiated this. I just -" She shook her head, her hand dropping to pick at the fabric of her shorts. She sat down heavily on the couch, elbows on her knees, and cradled her head in her hands. "I'm sorry, Mulder. I don't know what the hell is wrong with me. I can't explain..."

The touch at the crown of her head was tentative. When she didn't pull away, he lightly sifted through her hair. "I'm going to go," he said, his voice subdued. "I think we both need some time to think."

Dana looked up and nodded, her eyes bottomless and impossibly blue. "That's probably best," she murmured. Her attention shifted to his hand, its long fingers and hair- spattered knuckles such an appealing, heart-breaking combination of skill and vulnerability that she wanted to reach out to him, to press a kiss to his curved thumb. She dropped her hands into her lap, fingers linking tightly together, needing the time to gather her strength and her defenses, figure out the next step. "Will I talk to you soon?"

Picking up the wrapped package he had brought for Chloe, he shoved it into his jacket pocket, acceding to her earlier wishes. "If you think you want to," he replied uncertainly.

His trepidation tore at her heart and she swallowed with difficulty, feeling her eyes mist over. He was so sweet and so insecure. "I will," she promised, and blinked away tears. "I told you once that you'd passed the first test of friendship, but there would be others, didn't I?"

He nodded, tilting his head in curiosity.

"Well, this is just a test, Mulder."

Blue met yellow-brown and the tiniest of smiles traced his lips.

Title: Spectrum Author: the idiosyncratic stanwyck Email: theidiosyncraticstanwyck@yahoo.com Category/Keywords: AU, MSR, A (not too much) Rating: NC-17 Summary: A woman meets a man who opens her eyes to a vast, unexpected spectrum of beautiful, terrifying possibilities. Author's note: Please excuse the time lapse between the last section and this one; I've been having major technical difficulties. I hope you'll think this chapter was worth the wait.

Chapter 11: Shades of Gray

"The more you know, the harder it is to take decisive action. Once you become informed, you start seeing complexities and shades of gray. You realize that nothing is as clear and simple as it first appears." - Bill Watterson

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but like those words, a photograph can tell a lie.

Dana and John's wedding photos were in black and white. At the time, her mother had chided her and Missy had scoffed, but Dana had remained adamant. Black and white, she'd insisted, was timeless and classy.

"Just think," she'd teased her mom, "you'll look like a movie star in all the pictures."

Melissa had rolled her eyes in that my-little-sister-is-so- predictable way that had always infuriated Scully. "Black and white. Typical, Dana. Someday," she predicted, four years older and sophisticated and oh-so-worldly wise, "you'll realize they're all just shades of gray."

Sighing, Dana traced her fingertip over the image of her own smiling face, the finish of the photograph cool and smooth. She and John looked amazingly young and innocent, their faces almost cherubic. While not overweight, she was certainly plump, her curves exaggerated by the baby fat her figure had still supported. It had been so many years since she'd seen John without a beard that he looked like an imposter, some benign young man who had stepped into her best friend's spit-shined black loafers for that all- important long ago day.

She turned the pages slowly, examining each smiling face with a sharp eye, looking for any clue of inner turmoil. No matter how closely she scrutinized their faces, nothing revealed itself, no shadow, no hint of strife or deceit. She and John looked happy, ordinary, and disgustingly all- American. There was Maggie in her shiny silk, shoulder- padded suit - it had been fuschia - and Melissa with her teased, puffy eighties bangs, looking like something out of a Wham! Video. Dana chuckled and flipped to the next page.

An eight by ten of John and herself arm in arm stared back at her. She narrowed her eyes, and her face became an indistinct blur above the white expanse of her wedding gown. She tried to remember how she had felt on her wedding day. The photos told the story of a happy union. Had she been happy, excited? She'd been pledging herself to a man whom she loved.Had she felt eager to begin a new chapter in her life, or had she been gripped by restless nerves? It was strange that she couldn't remember, and now she had only these photos as evidence. At the time she thought she'd been happy, but in retrospect, it was a sad day, the first step on a journey of struggling and self-doubt. Neither black nor white, only shades of gray.

Scully closed her wedding album with a snap. She couldn't explain exactly what had possessed her to drag it out of the dusty recesses of a bottom cupboard; perhaps she needed to remind herself that she had a knack for entering into disastrous relationships, and the most spectacular of her failures was enshrined within these pages.

Her relationship with John had always been odd, but he had been her first love - her only love. And if she fell in love with her new best friend? She couldn't explain it, but Mulder instinctively knew and understood things about her that not even John had discovered, and John had known her since childhood. When their relationship failed - and it inevitably would, with her as one of the players - when all their pretty air castles burned down and they were left with ashes and bitterness and the impossibility of ever being as close and natural as they were today, could she handle it?

No. And there was her rational answer: Pick up the phone. Call Mulder, and tell him this was all a horrible mistake.

Mulder, with his big hands and long legs and full lips, who could make her boil with a single word or chuckle; Mulder, who tasted like gourmet coffee and cherries and whose remembered hardness pressed intimately against her had moisture flowing between her legs, lubricating, seeping into the crotch of her panties. She groaned and closed her eyes, restlessly shifting her thighs.

She did pick up the phone, and she did call Mulder.

And she invited him to take her out to dinner on Friday night.

This time, Mulder was early.

The restaurant Scully had suggested was a bistro, vaguely French in flavor, that was perennially popular with the uppercrust crowd and newly en vogue among the young and trendy. It was more elegant and much more pricey than their usual fare - a definite date restaurant.

This was, by his calculation, their second date. The thought made him want an antacid, something to go plop- plop-fizz-fizz in his water glass. It also made him feel more tingly and hopeful than he had since his senior prom.

She'd called him from her cell phone in the car to tell him that she was running late; Sophia's mom had picked Chloe up for the ritual Friday night sleepover, but she was twenty minutes behind, so could he hold their table?, and she'd be there just as soon as she could. The warm burgundy of her voice made his insides clench.

Mulder was a bit surprised when the hostess noted that Scully had asked that they be seated in the garden; it was no warmer than thirty degrees, at a generous estimate. So he followed the young woman through the restaurant to the back patio with some trepidation, and discovered that the terraced portico was enclosed with a translucent sheet of heavy plastic and comfortably heated. The stars glittered overhead, their brilliant flames suffering little from having to compete with the city lights for visibility.

He ordered a scotch on the rocks and an extra-dirty martini to be delivered when his dinner companion arrived, slipped the small bunch of flowers he had brought into the vase on the table, and settled back to enjoy the atmosphere if his nerves would permit. Soft piano music tinkled out from the bar via hidden speakers. A short, squat candle flickered in the center of the delicate wrought-iron table. The small patio accommodated only five tables, spaced as far apart as possible to provide maximum privacy for the diners.

She arrived in a light cloud of perfume, not the one she usually wore but something richer, spicier. Scully had left her coat inside and was nothing short of stunning in a simple, sleeveless black dress with a peacock blue stole tossed around her shoulders and big silver hoops swinging from her earlobes. She had dried her hair straight, taming out the natural waves, and her makeup was much darker than what he was accustomed to seeing her in, but no less elegant. Smoky grey shadow and liner accentuated the blueness of her eyes, and deep crimson lipstick drew his focus to her mouth.

She came in chattering, breathless, animated; then he stood up, ever a gentleman, to help her into her seat, and she froze. She really looked at him in his charcoal suit and silk shirt and olive tie, and she forgot to breathe. Her cheeks got hot and her toes felt cold and she teetered on her ridiculously high spiked heels, the Prada ones that had cost her more than her life insurance policy.

He was beautiful. She'd always laughed internally when her girlfriends called men beautiful, but she watched his muscles flexing under his impeccably tailored clothing and the fall of his dark hair and oh, God, the way he was watching her, as if she were the only woman on earth, and he was beautiful.

They were both still standing, trapped in the magnetic field zinging between them, when a waiter returned with their before-dinner drinks. Dana collapsed breathlessly into her chair as if she had just run a race or been hit in the stomach. Mulder sat more slowly, never taking his eyes off her, off the bones of her shoulders and the shading of her eyelids and the tantalizing shadows beneath her soft underarm, and spoke with no forethought and no filter.

"Scully, you're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."

She couldn't think of a response; she propped one hand on the tabletop and sipped her drink, the soft curve of her mouth entrancing him. Their eyes stayed locked and her pulse was steadily accelerating on a tide of adrenaline, pounding through her veins and shaking her frame.

"When you look at me like that -" she began breathlessly, and stopped. Mulder regarded her inquisitively, but Scully could only shake her head. "We should order," she murmured.

For her appetizer she ordered oysters. Mulder had no idea what he was eating as he watched the motion of her mouth working the smooth delicacy, her tongue licking a dab of butter from the corner of her mouth. She caught him watching and smiled very slightly.

"Try one," she offered.

When he assented, she picked an oyster up with her hand and fed him with her cool, delicate fingers, the tip of her pointer slipping into his mouth with the seafood. His tongue scraped across the pad of her finger and he knew she felt it, saw her slight jump. Butter dripped messily down her hand and he wanted to lick it off. Scully pulled her hand away and wrapped it in her napkin, eyes cast down. The electricity between them was powerful, thick.

In his mind, fantasy footage unwound like an epic film: the fall of her hair across his pillows, her knee hooked around his flank, her naked, open white thighs. Under the table his knee brushed hers, and there was no use even pretending that he wasn't already achingly hard.

Scully was distracted, her gaze roving the dining area, examining the other tables. When her attention returned to their own table, he watched her fixate on the flowers that formed their centerpiece. Her eyes narrowed.

"Our flowers are different," she pointed out, bemused.

Mulder grinned. "Yeah, they're of the bring-your-own variety."

Her lips parted in surprise. "You brought them? For me?"

He nodded, a bit embarrassed. Flowers on a date seemed like such an amateurish, high-school thing to do. "They're hyacinths," he offered.

She slowly brought her eyes up to meet his and bobbed her head. "I know," she said softly, the hint of a smile softening her features. "They're beautiful, Mulder. I'm... touched."

"They're just your shade of blue, Scully." Her mouth tightened slightly and he read her perplexity. Under the table he lightly squeezed her knee. "They match your eyes," he supplied.

The main course was blissful and painfully long, interminable. Scully ate salmon, sucking delicate bites of the pink flesh from the prongs of her fork. Mulder watched her mouth and the play of the candlelight in her eyes and had no idea what he ate. He knew she was perfectly aware that all of his attention was fixated on her; she didn't seem to mind. He couldn't quite read her expression, but a few times he caught a smile playing at the corners of her mysterious, kissable mouth.

Let me in, he thought. Tell me what you're thinking. Show me.

Part of Mulder never wanted the meal to end. He wanted to spend time with this side of Scully, shadowy and seductive; he wanted to see the fire in her eyes and hear her throaty conversation, and he was afraid that when the meal ended she would vanish.

The other part of Mulder couldn't wait to leave the restaurant, because he was determined to take his date home with him, and he was pretty damn certain that was what she had in mind too.

"Ready to go?" he asked softly when their plates had been cleared, trying not to sound too eager.

She tilted her head to the side and shook it thoughtfully, her long hair shimmering. "I want dessert."

He had to touch her. He reached across the table and closed his hand around her wrist, feeling the thrumming of her pulse. It was elevated, but you couldn't guess at it from her sleepy smile and languid eyes. "Whatever you want."

Her smile widened. "Chocolate," she said, her mouth and tongue caressing the word.

She ordered some kind of dark chocolate torte with raspberries in the center. Mulder was beyond caring what it was; he was enraptured by her eating process, her lush mouth making love to the dark sweetness of her treat. After the first bite she sighed and he felt the whispery sound throb through him.

"Share with me," she invited, her eyes narrowing slightly. He smiled, and she scooted her chair close to his, almost touching. Scully lifted the fork again, loaded it with a big bite, swirled the cake in the raspberry sauce on the dessert plate - and popped it into her mouth.

"Hey!" he exclaimed, surprised. "Aren't you going to give me any?"

Her lazy smile widened. "Uh-huh."

And he watched her repeat the process, again lifting the bite to her own lips, chewing slowly and swallowing.

She put the fork down. Mulder reached for it, but Scully's hand on his stopped his progress. She shook her head. "No, Mulder."



Scully leaned in, narrowing the gap between them until he couldn't watch her eyes anymore without his own crossing; her warm, chocolaty breath bathed the corner of his mouth, then he felt her tongue pressing between his lips. No preliminaries. He opened his mouth and let her in, tasting silky chocolate and the tang of fruit and something underlying, sweeter and darker still, that was pure Scully.

Her tongue played with his until the taste of the chocolate dissipated, and then she withdrew enough to speak. Her color was high, her breath fast. Mulder couldn't think.

"Do you like it?" Scully's voice was a bewitching whisper. Her eyelids were heavy. Her lips sparkled wetly.

Mulder couldn't form a verbal answer. His hand had found its way into her hair and he rubbed her neck and the base of her skull. He picked up the fork, scooped up the last bite of the torte, and swirled it generously in the sauce. Then he lifted it to her lips.

This time she brought her mouth to his before swallowing, and he felt the graininess of the chocolate and the juice of the crushed berries on his own tongue. They kissed long after the dessert was gone, tongues rasping slowly, lazily. With his hand on her bare back he could feel the increased heat of her skin, the shifting of her muscles; and as their desire increased, they moved more and more slowly, thickly, until finally their open mouths were pressed together, not moving, sharing deep, heavy breaths.

Mulder moved away a fraction and nipped at her nose. "Jesus, Scully. You can share your dessert with me anytime you want to."

She laughed, the sound catching in her throat. She was still close enough that he could feel her breath, stretching out the single most erotic experience of his life. He would never underestimate what a woman like Scully could do with a plan and a piece of cake.

Scully insisted on paying the check. When she had signed the credit card slip, Mulder stood with her, his hand on the back of her neck. He was aware of the eyes of other men following her shapely figure, following his progress with her. She was striking, stunning, certainly the most beautiful woman they had seen today. She was the most beautiful he saw any day.

"Where's your car?" he asked as they waited for their coats.

She bit her lip, chin tilted downward, and gazed up at him with the barest hint of a smile. "Parked behind my apartment building," she revealed softly, nearly shy. Her body was in deep shadow, the arch of her graceful neck blindingly white in comparison, and her eyes were so blue that they pierced him.

His fingers followed the fringe of her wrap around the cool flesh of her upper arm, bringing goose bumps to her skin, and brought his hand to rest beneath the soft fabric, his palm on the firm smoothness of her back, not quite hidden by her hair. She swayed infinitesimally closer to him.

"That's a pretty serious problem, Ms. Scully. What were you planning to do about that?" he asked gravely.

Scully frowned, playing along. "I don't know, Mulder. I could take a bus."

His hand moved lower, pulling her closer to his body. "I don't think public transportation matches that dress," he protested. Or those lips. Or those eyes. Or those breasts.

She bit her lip again. "Maybe that's true. I guess I could call a cab."

"I guess you could," he agreed gravely, his fingers creeping lower, just brushing the upper swell of her ass.

She widened her eyes. "Mulder!" she exclaimed, delighted. "I just had the most brilliant idea. *You* could take me home."

He helped her into her black wool coat, straightening the lapels and drawing his hands tantalizingly near her breasts. Her breath caught and held. He took her hand as they walked out into the brisk January night.

"So?" Scully teased. "You taking me home?"

Mulder nodded. "Of course. What kind of dashing hero would I be if I let a gorgeous, well-dressed woman wander the city streets alone? But there's just one thing I have to do first."

"Which is?"

He stopped, his grip on her hand pulling her back to him. His other hand found her hip and guided her into the warmth of his body.

"This." He breathed the word into her neck.

She would swear she could feel his open palm on her flank, as if by sheer force of will he had burned through her clothing. Scully drew a quick, startled breath, eyes automatically seeking Mulder's. But he was too near; his broad shoulders filled her field of vision, and his mouth covered hers.

Their earlier kisses had been exciting but, in a way, safe - with the ambient sounds of fellow patrons and a solicitous wait-staff filtering into the edges of her consciousness, she had been able to tease and act the part of the seductress with relative impunity. It had been a game.

Now they were alone, and she found herself confronted by the raw force of his desire and passion. She felt the same icy, racing panic she had felt a week before in her apartment. This was Mulder, and this was serious. When she'd looked over her photo albums and made the decision to be with him tonight, his physical absence had sheltered her from the magnitude of what she was doing. The reality was momentous and terrifying, and she felt the muscles in her calves tensing, readying for flight.

She pulled away just enough to free herself from the kiss and panted, muscles jumping and heart thundering, into the humid space between them. Mulder drew back a fraction and she felt his eyes on her, perplexed. He was waiting for her to a make a move, to decide.

Dana shook herself mentally. She had already decided; there was no going back now. She let her eyes close and drew frigid air into her lungs. She felt his heat, the crisp fabric of his impeccably tailored jacket, the possessive weight of his hand on her hip. The added element of her fear made her desire burn hotter; behind her eyelids she watched the blue flame flicker and dance to the rhythm of her heartbeat. She had already admitted to herself that she wanted him, and she let the sensations wash over her.

Her cold white hands rose to frame his face, and Mulder let his eyes close on her regular features and the tiny wrinkle of concentration marking her brow. She was utterly still, her frozen face beautiful like that of an ecstatic saint in a medieval painting. She angled his chin down and her lips sipped from his. His trembling fingers tightened and she turned fully into his arms, pressing the warm softness of her stomach against his groin, letting his hardness rest fully against her belly.

He felt the spike of her pulse and the tremor in her breathing, and knew that he had caused them. Mulder had wanted Dana Scully since the day he had walked into her sun-dappled office, even if he had tried to suppress his desire and shun it from his thoughts. Now he had received a precious gift in the permission to want her openly. To feel her body softening and heating, melting smoothly into his like rich, dark chocolate, and to know that she felt the same fire and need to touch was almost beyond his imagination. He felt her letting herself want him, in the tremor of her cold hands and the increasing intensity of her kisses. In his arms she was transforming from the lazy warmth of lemonade and baseball on a spring afternoon to the fierce, primal inferno of a Louisiana summer.

An icy gust of wind whipped down the canyon formed by the buildings lining the street, slicing drops of sweat from between Mulder's shoulder blades. A delicate hand had made the descent from his face down his torso to hover tantalizingly near his 100-percent Italian hand-crafted leather belt, and his cock was pulsing pretty seriously in time with his heartbeat - or maybe it was picking up Scully's, like a satellite in outer space. At this point he couldn't be entirely sure. What he was sure of was that she was trying to scale his body like a crusader going over the Wailing Wall, and he had to get them both to some kind of shelter before one of them spontaneously combusted.

Her back arched into a feline bow, Dana was able to gain enough height to nip the resistant flesh of Mulder's earlobe. Her breath husking into the shell of his ear made the hairs on his neck stand up. "Mulder, take me home with you." For good measure she undulated sinuously, rubbing against his groin like a cat at a scratching post.

Passing streetlights and headlights from oncoming traffic turned Scully's profile into sleek alabaster. Her eyes were black pool in the darkness, her features perfectly composed, mouth compressed into a hard line. As soon as Mulder had settled into the driver's seat her hand had come to rest possessively on his thigh, long nails digging just this side of painfully into his wool trousers and the muscle beneath. She spared him a glance, and the predatory flicker in the midnight wells of her eyes effectively shut off his higher brain function. He shivered, but couldn't have said whether he was hot or cold.

Earlier he had promised himself that he'd give Scully control of whatever happened tonight. He was, after all, a psychologist, and while he usually had enough sense to keep his mouth shut, he hadn't missed the rigidity with which she organized everything from her kitchen cabinets to day planner or her skittishness when confronted with emotional intimacy. She was putting on a good front, but such a huge change in their relationship must've had her chugging Maalox beforehand.

But she seemed to be handling it all very well - pun intended, he admitted as one finger danced teasingly up his length. Frighteningly well, in fact. He was beginning to realize that a concession of control on his part was probably superfluous, and his spun-glass angel might be more of a sledgehammer.

She didn't give him time to come around and open the door for her, but was out of the car like a shot as soon as he found a parking space. A dry wind blew her auburn hair back from her face and he halted her progress with his arms, his mouth assaulting the hard line of her jaw. Her insides cringed and Scully squirmed impatiently.

She thought her breathing was unnaturally noisy in the confines of the elevator. As it creaked upward, Mulder ground his cock into the small of her back and his hands skimmed up from her stomach to deftly unbutton her coat, gliding inside to cup her breasts. Scully's head cracked soundly against his shoulder, and Mulder contorted his posture to suck at the ivory column of her throat while he lifted her breasts, squeezing and weighing them. Her nipples pushed demandingly into his palms. She was trapping small sounds in her throat, low, dangerous growls.

She let him frog-march her to his apartment door, one hand firmly grasping her upper arm. Inside he backed off enough to skim her coat from her shoulders. The air in the apartment was cool, and Dana felt goose bumps race down her naked arms.

He left her standing in the living room while he hung up their coats, accompanied only by the purr of the fish tank. At a loss, she toed off her heels and let her stocking-clad toes sink into the plush carpet. The chill was creeping beneath her skin, seeping into her bones and making her feel horribly exposed.

She heard Mulder moving around the kitchen, opening the refrigerator, closing cabinet doors. This was too much lag time; she needed to have his scent surrounding her, his body crushing hers and obliterating rationality. If she had time to think and second-guess the choice she had made she would freeze, revert back to her usual concise, colorless level-headedness and flee. Worse yet, she might lose her resolve altogether, allow him to penetrate the last of her defenses and lay her soul bare. Either way, she would certainly lose this one precious opportunity that she had created for herself.

The ancient floor creaked under her weight as she stole into the kitchen. Her hand covered Mulder's as he began to twist the corkscrew into a bottle of Vernazza white.

"Leave it," she instructed huskily, fitting her body to the lithe line of his back. She rubbed her cheek against his wool sport coat, the fabric abrading her skin. "I don't want any more wine."

The fine hairs on the back of his hand prickled at her soft touch. Beyond the barriers she warred to maintain, she was such incredible, feminine softness stretched over muscle and delicate bone. She smelled like freesia, and it was humiliating, at this moment when he should be intent on the goal of driving between her legs until she didn't know where he ended and she began, how much he wanted to scoop her up and cuddle her.

She obviously had a different agenda. One hand continued to press his to the sweating wine bottle while the other drifted lazily down his starched shirtfront, toying with each button. Two fingers absently traced his belt buckle, then the whole hand dove in a sneak attack to cup his subsiding erection. Her grip tightened and he hissed, clutching the edge of the counter.

His muscles twitched. "What *do* you want, Scully?"

Without her shoes, she was too short to reach his ear, even stretched on tiptoe. She contented herself with licking his neck and tasting the tang of his sweat.

"I want to use my imagination."

Her voice was so low that he felt the vibrations of the words before he heard them. When he turned, she surged toward him. The Formica edge behind him dug into the base of his spine. Her mouth was open when he took it, the kiss she offered frenzied and raw. Their teeth clinked, and her tongue swiped across his soft palate, her head tipped so far back that her neck ached. Intense energy danced in the atmosphere around them, barely contained.

His mouth slid away and she followed, flowing with him like water, arresting him and drawing his lower lip between her sharp teeth. Mulder sucked her tongue into his mouth and tasted his own saliva. Fingers threaded through his hair - it was thick, coarse, and sleek, like fur - and gripped the tense muscle of his outer thigh. The palm that spread over her ass, squeezing, distracted her, and his lips darted away.

As he trailed down the side of her face, he assumed the low grumble he heard indicated displeasure, but it trailed off when he settled on the tendon between her neck and shoulder and sucked fiercely. He bit her, not hard enough to cause lasting pain, and she surged up on the balls of her feet with a gasp.

Oh, God, *that spot*. No one had discovered that spot in years, and she had forgotten the scalding knife blade of lust that arced through her and settled between her legs, bringing an added trickle of wetness.

The scrap of soaked lace between her legs dragged over her clit and she subtly rocked her pelvis, aching for increased friction. Her internal temperature was already so high that she felt like a furnace, burning and devouring. She felt a low-frequency throb with each pulse of her thick, sluggish blood through her heart, jarring her like a bass drum. She forced herself not to hump Mulder's leg like a bitch in heat. If she focused hard enough, she could make herself come without a single touch; but she didn't want to blunt the jagged edge of her arousal. Instead she tightened her grip on Mulder's neck, nails leaving bloodless half-moons on the exposed skin inside his collar, and tugged him up to receive her kiss.

He yanked her zipper down halfway; the pads of his fingers rasped across her skin as he fumbled one-handed with the hooks and eyes of her bra clasp. She had worked one small, determined hand down the back of his dress slacks and was gripping the cool flesh of his naked ass, shooting his concentration all to hell.

Mulder was shaking; he needed both hands to complete the delicate task he was attempting. His mouth stilled and he breathed out in frustration, lips a hairsbreadth from hers. Scully panted into the space between them, bathing him in the sweet-sour humidity of her breath.

"Bedroom." The command escaped low and gravelly.

He thought that was a fantastic suggestion, unless she wanted him to fuck her against the refrigerator door.

She'd never been in his bedroom. It was a dark, masculine Muldercave, carelessly undecorated in charcoal grey. A beautiful picture window stretched from floor to ceiling, and her breath wavered with fear and piqued arousal at the idea that someone could see them in here. Artificially chilled air surged up from the floor vent, and Dana shivered the instant she stepped out of Mulder's embrace.

He reached for the lamp, but her low, rough voice stopped the automatic flick of his wrist that would've bathed the room in a warm yellow glow.

"Don't. Don't turn on the light."

Mulder's hand slid away, skimming past his pants to dangle loosely at his side. Light from beyond the window illuminated her moon-clear skin and caught the highlights in her tousled hair, but left her face in deep shadow. He watched transfixed as she stepped out of her dress and folded it neatly over the armchair. With efficient, fluid movements she shimmied out of her panties and stockings and stood nude before him, fiery hair brushing the tops of her breasts.

Without her clothes, she became all curves and hourglass smoothness, from her heavy, full breasts to the gentle rounding of her abdomen and the compact tightness of her thighs and calves. He wanted the full color version bathed in the brightest of lights - he'd cheerfully make love to her under the hot sun or the buzzing of fluorescent lights, to catalog every nuance of her body and flicker of expression - but her tension told him she needed the darkness. His four remaining senses lurched into overdrive.

His chest tightened as he stalked toward her where she stood. The white wash of the moonlight made her skin look like finely shaped marble, and he ached to touch her and prove her warmth. His hand started at her shoulder, traversing the curve of her underarm to rest at her hip.

"People can see in the window, Dana."

Her skin was hot, but her features had again taken on the hard, determined lines he had seen in the car. A chill crept into the edges of Mulder's passion as he realized that even as Scully had removed her clothing and bared her body to his wandering gaze, she had slipped back into her old armor.

Stepping closer, she lifted his hand from her hip to cover her breast. The pebbled nipple was cool where it brushed his lifeline.

"So close the blinds."

"If I close the blinds, I won't be able to see you."

"You can feel me," she murmured, her gaze directed into the vague darkness over his shoulder.

He left the blinds open, and she didn't protest.

"Do you know how beautiful you are?" Her eyes were black like the depths of the ocean as he rubbed his thumb over her nipple. Her softness and her sharp edges filled him and squeezed something fragile and bloody inside his chest. "You're lovely. You're so lovely."

The old-fashioned term uttered in his familiar voice had her reaching for him to stabilize herself. She made contact with his shoulder as he knelt before her, his touch at her back bending her down so that he could sprinkle baby powder kisses on her chest and the undersides of her breasts.

His tongue swiped across one stiff nipple, tasting her, then he drew it into his mouth, eager to gorge himself. His hand began at her foot and moved upward in long strokes to circle low on her abdomen in wide, lazy sweeps that barely brushed the crisp, springy hair at the top of her mound.

Mulder's mouth tugged, and her eyes flew to his as he continued to work her. Just getting your attention, he seemed to say. The reverence and bone deep lust in his gaze shot straight to her groin; she couldn't let him penetrate any deeper. Scully was so wet that her thighs were sticky. She wanted to grab his hand and shove it between her legs.

"Mulder," she hissed, giving a single, one-handed tug at his shirt. "Take off your clothes."

Her nipple slid from between his lips with a wet pop and he rocked back on his heels, gazing up at her with warm golden eyes and a dazed expression. His lips shone pink with saliva and his hair was mussed. He was the vision of the little boy he had once been, open adoration on his face, and yet so deadly sexy that he took her breath away. She was so tempted to gather him in her arms and make promises she knew she couldn't keep.

She backed away to sit on the edge of the bed, and her movement spurred him into action. Mulder had almost forgotten that he was still fully dressed; if she would just allow him to kneel and worship her, he would be almost content. But she was watching him intently now, a tiny frown of concentration and impatience marring her smooth brow. His hands shook as he tore at the buttons on his dress shirt, suddenly aware that his whole body was screaming with eagerness and frustration, every nerve straining toward Scully.

She propped her chin on her hand and surveyed him. Mulder fought his way out of his shirt, yanking at recalcitrant cuff links, then tackled his pants, underwear, socks and shoes in one fell stroke. He balled hundreds of dollars worth of fine fabric into a messy wad and tossed it into a corner, and was left flushed, disheveled, and feeling slightly ridiculous.

Scully scooted back toward the head of the bed, and he could no longer see her face. He heard the mattress shifting, and traced the lines of her ivory skin against the dark comforter. "Come lie down."

He stalked toward her, proud and male and overwhelming her senses, and Dana suddenly felt like a tabby to his panther. He crawled over her, nudging the arch of her foot and the swell of her belly with his chin, and when he looked up, the eyes that met hers burned amber with lust and need.

He continued up her body until his face hovered over her shoulder, and she almost wept with relief. Propped on one elbow, he used the other hand to sweep up her thigh, fingers scratching through her pubic hair until his open palm rested firm and warm between her legs. That simple touch alone was almost enough; she hissed and jerked, one bent knee falling open. Fierce eyes still boring into hers, he pushed her other knee to the mattress, and she felt him at the entrance to her body, probing carefully.

She came in the middle of that first long, achingly slow thrust. It felt as if he were rubbing sandpaper over her nerves, and she kept her eyes shut tight on a wave of animal pleasure and embarrassment and a twinge of disappointment that that was it. It was like having someone tell you how the book ended right before you got to the last page.

Her body relaxed, and she heard him grunt in the space above her. After a few seconds his mouth found the arch of her eyebrow, and she could feel that he was smiling.

"Eager, Scully?"

She groaned and tried to turn her face away, but he followed her. The blush creeping up her neck and flushing her chest looked grey in the poor lighting. With a little work, he achieved the proper angle to plant a sloppy, playful kiss on her mouth. When one arm settled around his shoulders and she opened her lips opened to kiss him back, he gave a shallow, experimental thrust of his hips.

"Act Two?" she suggested, her words muffled against his mouth, and now she was smiling.

"Oh, Scully, that was just the prologue."

He penetrated her fully and fast and she gasped, pierced. Her ankles linked behind his back, urging him on. They settled into a violent rhythm, Scully's whole body surging up like the tide to crash against his, and his back stung where her nails dug into his skin.

His eyes seemed to penetrate her more deeply than his body; she felt hypnotized, unable to look away. He was so easy to read, so comfortable with his naked emotions. She thought something inside her had cracked.

Scully felt Mulder's muscles tightening and his control wobbling, and she didn't think she could come again, but then he slid one hand between their bodies and ground relentlessly against her. She heard herself cry out and felt as if she were being stretched and stretched, until there would be enough of her to wrap around Mulder and hold his whole body inside her.

His breath puffed against her forehead. "I love you," he gritted out, knowing that it was ridiculously cliched to declare his feelings at this point but also knowing that he had to say it, she had to know. "I love you."

She whimpered, but the sound was drowned beneath the pounding of the blood in his own ears as release screamed along every nerve ending in his body.

When he could move, Mulder rolled onto his back and scooped Scully to his side. She hadn't said it back, but then he hadn't expected her to. The key to understanding Dana Scully was often hearing what she chose not to vocalize. He could live with that.

Dana slowly realized that the arm draped across her abdomen had grown heavy with the dead weight of sleep. She squeezed her eyes shut in a prayer of thanks. If he had wanted to talk - if he had looked at her with those big, open, beautiful eyes - she would've shattered.

The sweat drying on her body left her chilled, but she didn't dare move for fear of waking him. She could lie here, in his arms and his bed, for a few minutes; she could allow herself that luxury.

A part of her she wouldn't allow herself to acknowledge hoped he would wake up, wrap his arms around her and refuse to let her go. If he whispered in her ear, his hot breath tickling her skin - if he repeated those horrible, beautiful words he had said when he was so deeply inside her that there was no him and no her, but only them -

For a dizzying moment she thought of staying, of letting herself be lulled to sleep and waking up to make love and eat bagels and exchange stilted morning-after conversation and knowing smiles. She would have liked to look into his eyes the instant they opened and see his thoughts, cover him with sloppy, sleepy kisses.

There could never be just one morning with Mulder, though. Her heart raced, with panic now instead of desire. There could never be just one anything with Mulder. One night, one time - her throat burned with acid. She had wanted him so badly. Now her body was sated, and she was in danger of caving, falling into the trap of the desire for extended intimacy.

It seemed so stupid and simplistic now, but she hadn't wanted to break his heart. Why the hell had she thought making love one time and telling him that it meant nothing and they could never do it again would be any less traumatic than finding out they were incompatible six months down the road? So she had drawn a line in the sand, to make it seem easy and possible and hopeful.

Realizing this now was not any easier than realizing it in the morning, alone with her coffee and her newspaper and Mozart on her stereo, would have been. But she couldn't stay, no matter how much she wanted to at that moment. A relationship was exactly what she shouldn't, couldn't want. Dana knew she couldn't be what Mulder needed, what he imagined her to be. It would be better, wouldn't it, for him to learn now how cold and selfish she could truly be?

With that thought in mind she carefully dislodged his arm and sat up. The floor felt like ice under her bare feet.

End (6/10)

Chapter 12: Paint it Black

"I see a red door and I want it painted black; no colors any more, I want them to turn black... maybe then I'll fade away and not have to face the facts. It's not easy facing up when your whole world is black." - The Rolling Stones

Some soft sound roused Mulder from slumber, and he turned, automatically seeking Scully's presence. Realizing that he was alone in bed but that the sheets still retained her scent and heat, he cracked one eye open and froze at the sight before him. Latticed moonlight from the bay window bathed her nude body, making her ivory skin glow a ghostly white. He'd caught her in a half-crouch, clutching her dress to her chest as she searched for her underwear.

"I have to go," she said, standing, the lines of her lithe body straightening, the muscles in her buttocks flexing with the fluid movement. Her voice was pitched low, rough and hoarse; it slid over his tender skin, chaffing harshly.

He blinked, trying to drag his brain into motion. "Is something wrong?"

She dressed quickly, her movements spare and back turned, trying to hide the trembling of her hands. She could feel his eyes on her, puncturing her brittle enamel shell. Turning, Scully resolutely met his gaze. The planes of his face were charcoal and amethyst, chiseled with a blunt instrument and smoothed with an artist's pencil. The raw vulnerability reflected there now was no less stunning than the accompanying anger.

"Scully, what -" He paused, fighting for calm. "Wait a minute. Talk to me."

Her hair tickled her shoulders as she shook her head. "Mulder, I'm sorry. This was a terrible mistake. I shouldn't have let what happened here tonight happen, but there's no undoing. So let's try to put this behind us."

"Put this behind us," he echoed dully, sitting up. The sheet slipped to his waist.

He thought he saw moisture shimmering in her eyes, but it was so damn dark that he couldn't be sure. "I'm so sorry," she said. "I can't be with you in this way. I never intended -"

She'd never intended what? To hurt him? Too goddamn late. A dull, insidious ache in his stomach began to penetrate the haze of numbness her first words had caused.

He knew she could read his thoughts on his face, and part of him was glad. Fuck his dignity. He wanted her to know exactly what she had done.

"You never intended to be in a relationship with me," he theorized coolly. "You planned all of this. You wanted to come back here so you could avoid the messiness of having to throw me out of your bed in the morning, huh? This way you were going to disappear tonight, and then what was going to happen tomorrow? Were you going to invite me over for pizza and videos with your daughter, like a couple of old pals?"

She was crying silently, tears racing down her frozen face. Her silence told Mulder that he had guessed correctly.

"Well, Scully, I'm sorry too. It's not going to work that way. I can't be 'just friends' any more." Not after I've tasted you, heard you moan, felt your body clenching mine from the inside.

"And I can't be anything more." Her voice trembled, clogged with tears.

He searched her eyes for a glimmer of familiarity but met a wall of ice. "You can't, or you won't? Damn it, Dana, we made love tonight -"

"We had sex!" she interrupted. She took a deep breath, exhaling through her nose, rolling her shoulders backward. "We had sex."

"You're a fucking coward, Scully." He watched his arrow hit its mark. She sucked in a quick breath. He saw through her. She was scared. She was so scared that she was going to run out of his apartment and ruin whatever chance they had of creating something together.

His next words ripped more deeply into the fresh wound. "I love you."

He wasn't going to let her leave without acknowledging that she knew exactly what had happened between them, that it meant far more than some one night stand. She bowed her head and stared at her feet. She could feel the anger and disappointment rolling off him in waves.

"I'm sorry," she repeated. *I can't love you, Mulder. I can't let myself.* Her cheeks hollowed as she forced herself to breathe, her eyes raking over the rumpled sheets and the muted bedroom.

Her panic was beginning to recede as he recognized the finality of her actions. Clean white light from the hallway led her toward exit and salvation. It was much too late to hail a cab on the street; but she had her cell phone.

"Was it worth it?" His voice was sharp, piercing.

She turned back to the bedroom, absorbing the scene she was leaving behind. The air-conditioned room smelled like sex. Mulder sprawled on the bed like a centerfold.

Scully met his eyes for the last time. "No," she whispered.

Six steps to the bedroom doorway. Twelve down the hall, her heels clacking on the blonde wood. Keys scooped from the end table; purse rescued from a careless heap under the sofa. The door swung open soundlessly, but whined pitifully as she closed it behind her, wedging the swollen wood into the doorframe. Gulps of the icy air filled her lungs, slicking over her skin and down her throat, bathing the damage the night had wrought in a crystallized, impenetrable blanket.

Dana would have liked to cry and eat ice cream and lament her stupidity in the best soap opera fashion, but that didn't fit with her personality or her schedule. So she settled for silent, galling, carefully contained grief and recrimination, and Chloe came home to find a spotless apartment and a pancake breakfast fit for a princess.

When she was young and allowed to have problems and be miserable, Maggie used to tell Dana to keep busy. Dana took Chloe to the mall and bought her new school clothes. She stopped on the way home at the nearest convenience store and bought herself two packs of cigarettes. Marlboro Reds. Chloe frowned but wisely chose not to say anything.

At home Scully pulled out one of her seldom-used cookbooks and proceeded to craft a meal that would have made Martha Stewart proud, complete with artfully folded napkins - not an easy task to accomplish when her hands were trembling like the last leaves on a barren tree.

Chloe said everything was good. Dana stared at the very balanced meal and pristine silverware in front of her and wanted to vomit.

Chloe cut her chicken cutlet into perfect geometric pieces and ate them with her usual precise nibbles. Across the table Dana sipped from a tall glass of iced jasmine tea and studied her daughter, mulling, as she habitually did, over the contrasts that provided the building blocks of Chloe's personality. She was such a striking combination of structure and passion, reservation and enthusiasm, caution and spontaneity. She was a deep thinker who made straight As and would be equally at home in a science lab or a New Age bookstore. Gazing at Chloe's messy ponytail and the blue eyes just a shade darker than her own, Scully envisioned a fault line running through the middle of her child's body, a visible demarcation of the mental and spiritual welding of Dana and Melissa's personalities that had formed her. Seeing so much in Chloe that was inherently Melissa both encouraged and frightened Dana. She was thrilled to see her sister's child thriving, and terrified of stifling her.

"Hey, Clo, we need to talk about something."

Her daughter paused in her eating, swallowing slowly before lowering her fork to rest on the edge of the plate. Dana saw trepidation wash over her face, leeching away a measure of her healthy coloring.

"Um, okay." She dropped her hands into her lap. "What's going on?"

Scully's grip tightened around her glass. "We're not going to be seeing Mulder any more, sweetheart. He's not going to come over here, and we're not going to visit him."

The emotion Chloe must have been feeling only subtly altered her expression, and Dana reflected ruefully that her daughter had learned well from her example.

"Why not?"

"It's complicated," Scully answered truthfully, unsure of what else to say.

"Oh." A muscle in Chloe's jaw twitched as she picked up her fork and knife and resumed slowly, methodically slicing into her meat. "Okay."

Dana watched Chloe, observing all the signs of someone pushing her emotions away, locking down and relentlessly maintaining control - behavior with which she of all people was intimately familiar. She'd done this to her daughter and herself.

Chloe's knife scratched piercingly against the surface of the plate, and the vice around Dana's clutched painfully.

Chapter 13: White

"The brightest blades grow dim with rust, the fairest meadow white with snow." - Oliver Wendell Holmes

As a child, Dana had been fascinated with snow, perhaps because it was something elusive, mysterious; it never came to find her family in sunny Southern California - they had to go to it. When she was eight, her parents had taken the family snow-skiing. Billy had broken his leg, and Scully had been too scared to descend the bunny slopes, despite her father's disappointment in her. She'd decided maybe she didn't like snow so much after all.

The first snowfall of the year was so incredibly beautiful and pure, blanketing the world with its virgin whiteness. But then weeks passed and the snow accumulated, and it was cold. Barren.

The February Scully spent locked in her apartment with her uncommunicative daughter and her cracked, second-hand heart was the coldest month of her life. The immensity of the snowfields in the country terrified her. They stretched as far as her eye could see, tricking her into believing that they had blotted out all the color, leeched away all the brightness and light and warmth. She was sure *she* would never be warm again.

In Asia, white is the color of death.

Dana slipped back into her old habit of working late, staying at Over the Moon long after John and Langly had gone home for the night, then taking home an armload of files to work through into the small hours of the morning, only breaking to step outside onto the patio and chain- smoke Marlboro Lights. She was eager to take up any slack she might have let fall her partner's way during the intensity of her... friendship... with Mulder; she needed the distraction.

She felt Chloe pulling away, retreating into herself and her books and her art, and tried to make herself believe that the roots stemmed from nothing more unusual than growing pains.

For her birthday Dana got cards from her mother and sisters-in-law (her brothers could be counted on to forget), and a delicate silver watch from John. It made her think of the Timex Chloe had given Mulder for Christmas and she didn't want to explain to John why her chin quivered and her nose turned red as she fastened it on her wrist.

Chloe didn't mention the birthday, although Dana was sure Maggie had reminded her. Scully didn't make an issue of it.

The next day, Chloe had begged to be allowed to stay an extra hour at the art studio, and Jane Fetzer had assured Dana that it would be no trouble, so the sun was setting as Dana walked toward the unassuming storefront workplace. Her heels tapped on the concrete and she hugged her tan suede coat tightly to her body.

Looking up from her task of scrubbing a long wooden worktable, Jane smiled warmly, the skin around her eyes crinkling. "Hi, Dana. Chloe's back in the studio. She's been working hard all afternoon - I'm sure she'd like you to see her painting."

With a murmur of thanks, Dana wandered into the huge, open room. The air was heavy with the pungent scents of paint, clay, and turpentine, and paintings and drawings covered every inch of wall space. The floor was spattered with paint, and Dana's attention was immediately arrested by a lake of vivid green. It looked like someone had spilled an entire can of paint. Scully stared, her stomach knotting as the color evoked vaguely familiar, ghostly images of flames, light, and charred flesh.


Scully shivered, unable to explain her visceral response to something so innocuous. She mentally shook herself.

"Hey, sweetie." Her voice sounded vacant as she walked to where her daughter stood at an easel. "What are you working on?"

Chloe quickly turned the easel so Dana couldn't see. "Nothing."

Scully stepped to the side. "Can I see?"

"It's not done yet." Chloe gathered her supplies and took her brushes to the sink, where she cleaned them briskly.

Scully didn't push. "Are you ready to go?"

Chloe grabbed her backpack, which had acquired a brilliant smear of blue paint. "I'm hungry. Can we have breakfast?"

Chloe requested that they go to a coffee shop where they often ate with John, but otherwise she didn't speak again until she ordered an omelet and buttered toast.

After ordering hashbrowns, sausage, and two eggs over easy, Scully nudged Chloe's foot under the table. "Come on, give. What's going on, Clo?"

Chloe's expression was a shade too innocent to be believed. "Nothing. Everything's fine. I'm just hungry."

Adding creamer to her coffee, Dana reminded herself that Chloe was much like her: she would tell what was on her mind when she was ready, and not a minute before. The waiter brought their food, and Scully's stomach rumbled impatiently.

She was vaguely aware of the small bell on the door chiming as the door opened, but only in the unquestioning way that one accepts ambient sound, until Chloe's expression changed and she put down her fork.

"Mom," Chloe whispered, looking pointedly over Dana's shoulder.

"What?" Still chewing a mouthful of egg, Dana twisted around, and the food on her tongue immediately turned to sand. Unobserved, she turned back to Chloe. They ate in silence for several minutes.

"Did either of them see us?"

Chloe shook her head slowly. "No. They haven't looked over here." She stabbed at a wedge of congealing egg and cheese. "I'm finished."

"Me too." Digging in her purse, Scully pulled out cash for a tip. "Let's go pay."

As she stood at the cash register, Scully could feel his eyes on her. "Mom, Mulder's looking at us."

She nodded and swallowed hard. "I know," she murmured, accepting her change from the cashier. "Let's go say hello." Frohike greeted them boisterously. Mulder met Scully's eyes for a second before smiling at Chloe. "It's art class day," he remembered, looking at her paint-stained hands. "You getting good, Picasso?"

Chloe smiled shyly. "I'm more of a Dali fan. I've been working really hard. You could come over and see sometime," she invited hopefully.

Mulder cut his eyes at Scully. The air between them seemed to vibrate with a sudden rush of pain and emotion. Broad- sided, Dana looked down at her feet.

"We'll see," Mulder replied neutrally. "You'll have to invite me to your first show."

Scully placed her hand on Chloe's shoulder. "We should go. Nice to see you two."

Four steps took them back out to the street, and they walked briskly toward the car. The wind whipped around them, pulling Chloe's long hair into knots.

"Gee, that went well," the girl muttered under breath.

Dana pretended not to hear.

Chapter 14: Green

"Her green mind made the world around her green." - Wallace Stevens

She hadn't thought it possible, but the nightmares kept getting worse.

The first instant was always the worst - when she surged, heart pounding and palms sweating, from stark terror to hazy wakefulness. Her dream agony bled into the reality of her tangled sheets and the hum of the air-conditioner and the blinking VCR clock, and she didn't know where one ended and the other began. For a moment, it all seemed equally real.

Tonight Mulder had died. She had found his body on the leaf-covered floor of a deciduous forest, and the screams ripping from her throat had burned her vocal cords. Silently she repeated the words she had shouted in her dream: *This is not happening.*

Sitting up, Scully wrapped her arms around herself in an ineffectual embrace and began to rock to and fro, hoping the repetitive motion would slow the relentless pounding of her heart, thundering so wildly she thought it would surely burst. She felt the wetness of tears on her cheeks and dimly heard the low keening issuing from her throat, a sound so mournful and eerie that it made the hair stand up on the back of her neck.

She could see Mulder's body, so pale and vulnerable against the fresh earth, his face bruised and scarred, forever altered by the bluish-grey tint of death. He was dead, God, he was dead, and the loss, the pain - Why had they taken him and left her alone to suffer through the rest of her life without him? Why not just kill her too?

Scully had wanted to fling herself on top of his body and wail.

She grabbed a tissue and swiped at her runny nose. Her dreams had taken on an existence of their own, but that didn't make them reality, thank God. Dana couldn't point to the source of her nightmares or identify the reason why she felt them so deeply, why they resonated in her soul. But Mulder was safe, healthy, alive. He was lost to her, yes, but the bright flame of his passionate existence still burned, shedding light in the dark corners of her soul.

This nightmare had been the worst one yet. When had the idea of Mulder's death become more terrifying than the thought of her own?

Scully blew her nose again and drew a deep, shaky breath. "I'd feel so much better if I could hear his voice," she said aloud. Tears swam in her eyes, making the bedroom blur into an indistinct haze marked by slashes of blue. She couldn't help but recall other nights when she'd agonized over this same desire, and ultimately her reason and her desire to protect her own image and emotions had triumphed. On those occasions, though, picking up the phone had been a viable option. Now it wasn't, and she ached because of it, feeling as if her flesh were being torn apart.

Everywhere she looked she saw green, and tension coiled like a serpent in her stomach. Her muscles spasmed with horror and repulsion, and for the first time her response made a certain brand of sense. She couldn't count the number of days this nightmare had haunted her subconscious mind, but now it had fought its way to the surface. She closed her eyes, and she was there again.

Dana's dreamscape was shrouded in the obscurity of a hazy night. The familiar pitch and roll beneath her feet told her that she was standing on the deck of a ship, a large one, but she detected no thrum of the engine. She heard water lapping against the hull, and peering down into the firmament beyond the spot where the ship's railing must have been, she registered the inky, oily blackness of the waves. Lights reflected back at her, and she realized that the hulking shapes rising darkly behind, in front, and beside her were buildings; the ship was anchored in a harbor.

Aside from the murmur of the water, an unearthly stillness pervaded the atmosphere. No sounds of traffic reached her ear; the liner didn't emit a single creak in protestation against its moorings. Dana couldn't even distinguish the faint rasp of her own slow, expectant inhalation. She knew, however, with absolute certainty that she wasn't alone. The warmth emanating just behind her, the flesh pressing her open palm belonged to her mother; there, too, was Melissa, smiling her odd, mystic half-smile. Behind them row upon row of faces washed free of color by the moonlight tipped back to regard the starless heavens. Scully's muscles quivered as she gazed up and up. She breathed in the warm, close, humid air, feeling her ligaments and tendons elongate with anticipation.

Scully saw the flash before she heard the explosion - brilliant orange like a garish fluorescent splash, fire falling from the sky in a hideous man-made version of a meteor shower.

The herd of bodies on deck surged forward as one; scrabbling for Melissa's hand, Dana flung herself over the railing toward the water. The thought that the fall alone could kill her bounced around her brain, and then warm, salty water closed over her, saturating her winter clothing and filling her ears and eyes. She began to swim frantically for shore, conscious of Melissa slicing through the water beside her.

Another missile from above crashed into the water twenty yards in front of her, and Dana began to backpedal. She surfaced and scanned the rippling waves, freshly littered with bloody, mangled bodies. Unseen crafts continued to bomb the city, fire raining down on buildings and streets. If the doomed victims were screaming, praying to their gods in their last moments, their anguish was drowned out by the continual roar of the explosions.

"Mom," Dana gasped, and her sister's face told her that their mother was dead.

"With Ahab," Melissa shouted, her mouth brushing Scully's ear. Near the sinking ship, the water, slick with oil, had ignited, and was burning green, livid green.

"Oh, my God!" The shout mingled awe and horror into a reverential, stupefied doom. The woman's voice faded and was replaced by a chorus of strangled, agonized screams, overlapping, clashing from every angle. Dana breathed raggedly, her heart hammering in a frenzy. The escape instinct loosed a flood of adrenaline, but Scully was trapped, unsure of the source of the most immediate danger. She watched the green spreading, swirling. Emerald green.

Acid green.

Green like blood.

Her sleep had again been interrupted by terrifying visions of fire, strange crafts, and bubbling green blood, but this time - after the alarm clock went off and she had showered, put on her makeup, and changed into the armor of her daily life - she remembered.

She finally chose to confide in the only person who might, just possibly, not think she had gone totally crazy.

"It was blood?" John's calm, well-modulated voice asked for clarification, grounding Dana in the present.

She nodded, her hair brushing the shoulders of her pin- striped suit. Her native frankness underscored the pensive nature of her expression.

"The aliens bleed green. It made so much sense - I knew the blood was toxic because I had seen it before. And the craziest part is that it didn't seem strange. It felt like fate. We knew the aliens were going to come."

"To attack earth?"

One eyebrow arched sardonically, mocking herself. "To colonize."

For some reason green blood made sense, and the sheer terror the realization brought on caused her to panic. The green blood would kill her - She began to swim with every ounce of strength she possessed, every atom of her being straining toward shore.


Even underwater, she could hear Melissa screaming, but if she looked back, if she hesitated, they would both die. A hand brushed her leg and seared her with an intense, gnawing pain a hundred times more intense than hydrochloric acid. She redoubled her efforts, her lungs burning, her ears ringing.

Her knees met sandy, silty gravel and she fell forward, jarring her teeth and scraping her chin. Struggling to her feet, Dana threw off her drenched overcoat and began to run. She needed to lose herself among the partially burned- out buildings and acrid smoke. She had to hide.

She had to find Mulder.

"I was running through the streets, and there was no one - The city was totally deserted. I listened to my feet on the pavement, counting my steps. I turned a corner and confronted a soldier in full fatigues carrying a machine gun. He told me to stop, to hide before they came; his English was heavily accented, German, maybe Russian. I kept running - I wanted to hide, but I had to find Mulder first and see that he was safe. He was nearby, but in terrible danger - I could feel it. The soldier began to chase me, so I ducked into a long, low building, and he followed me. Before I could think he had me against a wall, his pistol shoved under my chin. He pulled the trigger, and suddenly I was in this forest, and Mulder's body was on the ground at my feet."

John stretched his long legs and scratched his bearded chin. "It makes sense," he reasoned. "Mulder writes science fiction; this could very well be a plot for one of his books. When you think of Mulder, you think of the unexplained, the weird -"

"I know, John. But it's not like I fell asleep after eating a chili dog and watching The War of the Worlds." She shook her head and forced a smile. "It just felt so real, so eerily right. I was this person with this whole different history, this entire other life. You weren't there, Chloe wasn't there, Billy and Charlie weren't there, and yet it was Mulder who was my missing half. I don't know - I can't stop thinking about it. He was dead. I knew it as certainly as I knew my own name, and I had this vision of his body, half buried."

Dana opened the top drawer of her desk and rifled through it, securing a yellow highlighter and a fistful of paperclips. She dragged a stack of files to the center of her desk and flipped the top one open, determined to focus and divert her attention. Her low laugh sounded hollow in her own ears.

"Silly, isn't it?"

Dana plowed ruthlessly through the paperwork, cleaned out her inbox, and sorted the day's mail, but her thoughts never strayed far from her bizarre dream. She felt as if some sort of specter were standing over her shoulder, casting a pall over the morning.

It was so unlike her to be sidetracked by anything, particularly something so unsubstantial as the unconscious wanderings of her own restless mind. The misty terror of a nightmare burns away in even the weakest light of day; but the connection to Mulder she had felt in her dream and the absolutely true chord that vibrated through this other existence clung to her as if they were part of her skin. She needed to see him, talk to him.

The sun had just passed its zenith when Chloe called. Her thin voice was strained as she related the embarrassment of vomiting in the school cafeteria. Dana promised to hurry, making a quick stop at Food Lion for ginger ale, saltines and banana Popsicles.

She parked beneath the thin bar of shade cast by the middle school's naked flagpole. The air steamed and the grass seethed with life in the aftermath of the morning shower. She stepped off the pavement and sank to the hilt of her high heel in the black mud.

The grass was the radiant, lively green of freshly laid sod. In Dana Scully's world, green stood for youth, inexperience, innocence, hope, rejuvenation, luck. In the world inhabited by her alter ego, green was the color of death, a portent of suffering, a messenger of unearthly forces at work.

She was raving, Dana decided firmly. Chloe was ill and needed her, and Dana liked to be needed. The Popsicles were melting in the back seat.

By 4:00 Dana's tuna sandwich and bagel chip lunch had begun an exuberant rendition of the Mexican hat dance somewhere in the vicinity of her small intestine. By 4:15 the remnants were being flushed down the toilet, and Scully's rosy cheek was pressed against the cold, hard plastic lid in defeat.

"Mom? Are you sick?"

Chloe's voice drifted thinly from the living room, where she reclined on the sofa in Cleopatra-esque splendor. Dana dragged herself to her feet, groaning when the room tilted unnaturally, and vigorously brushed her teeth, willing her mouth to absorb the minty, fluoride-enriched flavor. She shuffled into the kitchen before venturing an answer.

"Share and share alike." Shit, she sounded like Grace Slick. Scully dropped a few ice cubes into a plastic tumbler and popped the top on a can of ginger ale. "Need something else to drink?"

"Bleh. No. I'm busy 'renewing my spirit.'" Chloe gestured at the daytime talk show blaring from the television speakers. "You should eat a Popsicle."

"Ugh." Glass in hand, Dana lifted her daughter's feet into her lap and sank weakly into the overstuffed sofa cushions. "You sound like you're feeling better."

"I'm a little hungry."

"Oh, God." Dana's stomach clinched and she allowed her head to loll against the back of the sofa. "Just let me rest for a little while and then I'll make you something."

She awoke to a blinding flash of lightning and the sizzling pop of the power surge frying the TV. Beyond the half- closed blinds, dusk had descended. Her bleary eyes focused on Chloe kneeling in front of the television, prodding irately at the buttons.

"What time is it?" Damn, still Grace Slick.

"'Bout six thirty. I think the TV's broken."

"You must be starving." Dana rolled her head from side to side and her vertebrae creaked into place. Frowning, she experimentally sniffed the air. "Chloe Winter, did you eat pizza?"

Chloe shrugged. "Yeah. You were sleeping, and it was that or those leftovers from Grandma's house."

"Jesus, those have been in the fridge for two weeks! - But don't you feel sick from the cheese and pepperoni and everything?"

Another shrug. "Nah, I'm fine. Don't you feel better?"

Indeed, the thought of food was not as torturous as it had been hours earlier.

"There's some left if you're hungry."

Scully's stomach gave an anticipatory clench and she blanched. "Unh."

Chloe flopped down on the couch and leaned heavily on Dana's shoulder. She yawned so widely that a speedy dentist could've done an oral exam. "Do I have to go to school tomorrow?"

"I hope not. Tomorrow's Saturday."

"Oh. Yeah." Chloe snuffled against her aunt's flannel-clad side and burrowed in so securely that Scully thought she might be considering hibernation. The dim quiet of her surroundings began to exact their toll, and she gently shook her daughter off.

"I'm going to boil an egg. Do you want anything else?"

"Can I have a piece of cake?"

"If you feel up to it."

Chloe bounded to the kitchen in a startling display of energy. Scully followed more slowly and began to prepare a modest supper.

She barely made it through the evening news before she began to nod off again. Dana left Chloe taking a magazine quiz and giggling over the phone to one of her girlfriends and sought refuge in the cloud-like cocoon of the down comforter blanketing her bed.

The shrill of the bedside telephone jolted her to bleary- eyed, stomach-clenching awareness. Red numerals blinking a steady 12:00 told Scully the power had been out. Beyond the fogged window rain pelted down in a nearly solid sheet. A creeping tingling pricked her scalp and the back of her neck, and crushing, breathless dread sat on her chest, sapping the breath in her lungs. Every cell in her body screamed that something was terribly, terribly wrong.

The phone rang again. Her fingers scrabbled on the smooth, polished surface of her nightstand before Dana managed to snag the receiver. She forcefully jabbed the 'talk' button.

"Hello?" Her voice hadn't caught up with the energy coursing through her body; it was scratchy, sluggish.

"Dana Scully?"

"Y-yes?" She hated the hesitant little-girl tremor.

"Ms. Scully, my name is Rosa Cardew. I'm a nurse in the emergency room at Mercy general, and I'm calling to let you know that your mother has been brought into emergency."

"Oh, God. Oh my God. When - what -" A dizzying, gaping, nightmarish blackness swirled up to consume Scully's power of speech.

"Ms. Scully, we believe your mother has suffered a heart attack."

"Is it - bad?" In the darkness of her bedroom, Scully's eyes were squeezed shut with painful tightness, as if they could block out the antiseptic efficiency of the stranger's voice.

"It would be a good idea for you to come as quickly as you can, ma'am."

End 7/10

Chapter 15: Translucent

"Cubists cracked the mirror of art. Parts are broken off, colors bleed into neighboring objects, and translucent facets of space with multiple light sources cut shadows across bounding surfaces." - Stephen Kerm, The Culture of Time and Space

Mulder's cell phone burred quietly. He pointed his toes, stretching tight calf muscles. Worn, buttery leather soothed his skin. He barely stopped to wonder who would call at such an obscene hour.

Her voice was the last he expected to hear.

"I'll be right there," he promised tautly. "Give me fifteen minutes."

He scrubbed a handful of water over his face and threw on jeans, a shirt, and sneakers, not allowing himself to feel or think too much.

She was on the third floor, huddled near the bank of pay phones as she'd promised, the fluorescent lights washing out her bright hair and painting garish, livid blue shadows under her fathomless eyes.

He almost walked past her, but she said his name. He wouldn't have recognized her. She looked younger, vulnerable; Mulder foolishly realized how small this woman was. She was wearing jeans and an oversized white blouse, her hair pulled into a messy ponytail. Faint lines traced the edges of her unnaturally bright eyes.

"You came," she said. "I didn't know who else to call - Johnny's away for the weekend - I didn't think you'd come..." She trailed off vaguely.

"What happened? Is it Chloe?"

Dana shook her head. "My mom. They said it was a heart attack. She's been in surgery for an hour."

"Have they told you -"

"At least two more hours. I've been in the waiting room, but I thought I'd walk around."

He walked with her, focusing on the occasional squeak of her sneaker on the glossy linoleum. The fluorescent lights made him squint. Mounds of garishly white linens and trays of instruments came toward them like something out of a hallucination.

"I don't understand it. She's healthy, Mulder. She exercises every day, watches what she eats -"

His fingertips brushed her shoulder blade. "She'll be fine, Scully."

Dana nodded with confidence he knew she couldn't feel. "I'm sorry. For calling you in the middle of the night and waking you up. I shouldn't -"

"Don't be sorry. Do you want to sit?" He gestured to the small lounge area just behind them, a collection of sagging plastic chairs cowering under buzzing, overly bright lights.

She shook her head. "I want to walk," she whispered.

He nodded. As they ambled up and down the corridors, his hand hovered near her back, not touching but offering the promise of support. I'll catch you if you fall, the gesture seemed to say.

Scully felt raw, as if her insides had been shredded. Breathing and swallowing were almost unbearably painful. Looking down at her hands, she was surprised to find that the delicate, blue-tinted membrane of skin protecting her aching bones was still whole, unscathed, giving no hint of the carnage beneath.

A ribbon of silence unfurled between them, fuzzy and gray like static on an old television set. Scully strained to hear her heartbeat above it, to listen to the rhythm of Mulder's breathing. Would this always be between them now, a veil of misapprehensions separating them from one another, rendering communication impossible? If so, the blame lay entirely at her feet.

With her mother desperately ill and clinging to life moment by moment, the future was too vast and distant for Dana to allow herself to contemplate it. She filled the void with words.

"I need coffee. There must be a cafeteria or a commissary, right?"

"Sure, let's go see."

As they walked into the cafeteria, Scully registered scarred linoleum, the smell of stale grease, and the relentless continuation of the fluorescent light bars.

"You sit," Mulder instructed. "I'll find something high in caffeine."

Scully selected a two-person table placed in front of a floor-to-ceiling window. Sitting, she gazed across the tops of the assortment of condiment bottles littering the table at the immense, iron gray flatness of the sky. Early morning was beginning to differentiate itself from the deepness of night, the heavens growing not lighter but more leaden.

"Here." Mulder plunked a large paper cup down in front of Scully, a teaspoon of dark liquid sloshing over the side. She peeled a napkin from the table's metal holder and laid it down to soak up the spill.

"Thanks," she said, wrapping her hands around the warm cup.

"Don't thank me until you've tasted it."

They drank their coffee in silence, Scully staring vacantly out the window while Mulder stared into the middle distance over her left shoulder. She ran her fingers through her hair, mussing her loose ponytail. "It's after six," she observed. "Do you think...?"

She trailed off, her eyes seeking his for the first time since they'd begun to walk together. "Yeah. Let's go up and check," he offered.

The elevator lurched sickeningly before the doors opened to disgorge them into the hallway. The reek of industrial strength cleansers again assaulted Mulder's nose and his stomach turned. Scully led the way to the nurses' station.

"Margaret Scully?" the nurse on duty repeated in answer to Scully's query. She glanced from her computer screen to a stack of files beside her. "Her doctor should be out soon, if you'll have a seat in the waiting area."

Mulder arranged himself in the best way possible on the unforgiving chair in order to minimize his discomfort. Scully lowered herself into the seat next to him, and after a few seconds edged close enough for their shoulders to brush. After a few more minutes, she leaned in ever so slightly, allowing his arm to bear a tiny fraction of her weight. Mulder's arm felt unnaturally heavy as he lifted it to drape around her shoulders, and Dana shuddered.

"I just keep thinking about all the things - I mean - what about Lola?"

"The dog?"

She nodded. "Who's taking care of her? Does she have food, water...?" Dana trailed off, staring at her shoes.

"Ms. Scully?"

Dana was instantly on her feet to face the thin, bespectacled man in green scrubs, a protective mask hanging loosely from his neck. Mulder rose more slowly, his fingers skimming the curve of her back.

"I'm Dr. Reingold. I'm pleased to tell you that your mother came through surgery without any complications, and the damage was less extensive than we had originally believed."

The cardiologist continued speaking, but she scarcely heard him, his words overwhelmed by the crashing roar of waves of relief. "Your mother is being moved to ICU now, but I don't anticipate that she'll be there for very long. With any luck we'll be able to move her into a regular room within the next few days." He smiled. "Visiting hours aren't until this afternoon, but if you want to go up to intensive care, the nurses will let you spend a few minutes with her once she's settled in."

When Reingold walked away, Scully slumped backward against the island of chairs, bracing herself with one hand. The other ran over her face. "God," she sighed. "Thank God."

Mulder extended a hand as if to touch her, but let it fall back to his side. "I'm glad."

They regarded one another in uncomfortable silence. The crisis over, neither knew how to behave.

"Do you want some breakfast?"

Scully twitched, startled by the normality of the question. She hesitated. Craving Mulder's presence during a time of crisis was one thing. He was a warm body, a steadying presence, and she could allow herself to discount her neediness. But breakfast was coffee and eggs and the morning paper; it was the mundane bathed in natural light, and the simple act of sharing a meal seemed dangerously intimate, too reminiscent of all that had gone before.

"I should go up and see Mom... She'll be in her room soon. And, um, I'm really not hungry." When she finished, Scully met Mulder's eyes with a generous measure of trepidation. The tight set of his jaw wasn't a figment of her imagination. His body language was easy to read: he had interpreted rejection of his offer as rejection of him. And wasn't that just what she'd intended?

She let her head loll forward in a futile effort to loosen weary muscles, her gaze zeroing in on the floor. His sneakers penetrated the upper left corner of her field of vision.

"Well, I guess I'll get going, then."

Dana nodded jerkily. "Thanks." Her voice was a shade too loud, almost strident. "Thanks," she repeated, adjusting her internal volume control.

Mulder didn't respond, at least not verbally. Scully envisioned him nodding, but couldn't bring herself to look up. Her fight or flight response waned when he moved beyond her reach, and her eyes zeroed in on the play of his shoulder blades beneath his denim jacket, each contraction and elongation carrying him further away and leaving her finally, resolutely alone.

Chapter 16: Azure

"Within the circuit of this plodding life There enter moments of an azure hue Untarnished fair as is the violet Or anemone, when the spring strews them By some meandering rivulet, which make The best philosophy untrue that aims But to console man for his grievances I have remembered when the winter came." - Henry David Thoreau

Almost hidden at the back of the flower display in the hospital's tiny gift shop, Dana's eyes lit upon a small splash of blue. Tunneling through carnations and lilies, she unearthed a petite bunch of hyacinths. Surrounded by robust, thick-stemmed roses, the blue blooms looked fragile and heartbreakingly exposed. Her emotions scraped raw by the events of the last several days, Dana felt tears misting her eyes.

"Just your shade of blue, Scully."

She heard his voice in her ears as she paid for the flowers and rode the elevator to Maggie's floor.

A young male orderly with spiked hair and deep dimples spotted Dana as soon as she stepped into the corridor and flashed her a brilliant smile. "Hi, Ms. Scully. Your mom's popular this afternoon."

She paused, surprised. "Does she have a visitor?"

He grinned. "Go see."

Mulder stepped into the hallway as she approached and closed the door behind him. He didn't look terribly surprised to see her.

"Your mom's sleeping," he said.

"You came to see her?"

He gave her question the respect it deserved by ignoring it. "I'm going down the street to get a cup of coffee." His eyes traveled to the flowers she held loosely at her side.

She gulped. "Hyacinths," she said as if that explained everything.

"Why don't you put them in her room and come with me?"

She stared down at the flowers. "Yeah," she answered after a moment's contemplation, "okay."

They walked in silence to the cafe, a foot of sidewalk separating them, hands shoved into their pockets. The wind was freezing; it stole Dana's breath, whipped her hair into her face, and felt like January instead of March. Her heart throbbed. She wished she could turn the clock back, simply rewind the cosmic video of the last two months of her life. Fucking space-time continuum. She fumbled in her purse, lit a cigarette, and smoked it as if she and not just it were on fire. Mulder offered no comment.

She imagined the conversation they would have if they were different people. He: "Why don't you just tell me what you want from me?" And she: "I really don't know. Right now, I think I want you to be my friend. Can we try that?"

But they weren't different people. They were Mulder and Dana - Scully - whoever the hell she was to him, to herself. So they sat there at a small table near the bar, each sipping cappuccino, Dana hating herself for the impotence of her uncertainty. She hadn't had a plan when Mulder walked out of her mother's room, hadn't had a plan when he asked her to coffee, and didn't have a plan now. Her rational, ordered self needed a goddamn plan. And she couldn't talk about it.

"I was going to call you about the book signings," she said softly, staring into her mug. "It's a bit tricky since you're between agents, but I can handle most of the -"

"I don't want to talk about work." His voice was quiet but firm. She nodded. Neither did she. Minutes ticked by; her coffee got cold, and her courage evaporated with the steam.

She stood abruptly. "I have to get back to the hospital."

He nodded, eyeing her speculatively, and stood slowly. "I'll walk back with you."

"You don't have to," she said, and her voice was a little too sharp.

"I'd like to. Your mom might be awake, and I'd like to say hello."

Unable to deny him that, she paid for her coffee and walked out into the blustery afternoon as he paid for his. She felt as if a vaccuum were sucking at her stomach, drawing her vital organs down into her toes. Her shoes pinched her feet and for an instant, the heels seemed so sharp that she expected them to pierce the pavement.

Then he was standing beside her, not touching, not even very close, but undeniably there. They walked the two blocks without speaking and took the elevator to the fourth floor.

Maggie's door was open and a nurse was just leaving. She smiled cheerfully at Dana and Mulder and waved them into the room.

"Hi, Mom." Upon entering, Dana's heart seized up in her throat as it always did when she re-entered the room, whether she'd gone home to sleep or just down the hall to get a soda, as if she expected, and dreaded, to find her mother greatly changed. Maggie smiled.

"Hi, sweetheart. Hello, Mulder." Maggie shifted her attention to the tall, dark man standing uncomfortably in the corner. "Thank you so much for being here with Dana the other night."

"I'm glad to see that you're doing well, Mrs. Scully."

"Not as glad as I am. Dana, did you have something to eat?"

"I'm not hungry, Mom." Scully lingered at the foot of the bed, trying not to get so close that her mother would smell the smoke on her clothing.

"You're so thin already; you've lost so much weight in the last few months. Mulder, will you take Dana down to the cafeteria?"

Before he could respond, Dana cut in, "Mulder has to go, Mom. He just came by to say hello." She cut her eyes at him, but she needn't have worried. Mulder could take a hint. He smiled warmly at her mother, but Scully recognized the guarded, questioning thoughts lurking deeper in his gaze. She tried to smile.

"I'll - I'll call you. About the book signings," she offered by way of making amends. He nodded briefly, his body brushing against hers as he exited the cramped room. Her right side tingled where he'd made contact.

Maggie was watching her carefully with the knowledge of a mother. "Dana," she began softly, "what's wrong between you and Mulder?"

Scully perched on the edge of the bed. She considered brushing aside her mother's concern, turning the conversation to other topics. Maggie was ill; she shouldn't be worrying about -

"Dana Katherine, I'm your mother."

Maggie's voice held the firm, compassionate authority that Scully strove for when she talked to Chloe. She sighed and reached for Maggie's hand. "Oh, Mom. I don't know where to start. Everything's wrong."

"Did he do something?"

Scully shook her head. "It was all me," she admitted.

Maggie settled back against the pillows. "Call him," she instructed without even hesitating to think. "Talk about what's really bothering you. That's hard for you, Dana. *Talk* to him." She cocked her head, fixed her daughter with a penetrating stare. "Get it fixed. And don't come in here again smelling like an ashtray. It's bad for your heart."

Langly was playing Doom again. He had the volume down low, but Dana and John could both hear it. Counting the little metallic pings the computer emitted, Dana looked down at her watch.

"What time is it?" she asked.

"1:45," John assured her. "Just relax. He'll be here."

Dana swallowed hard, trying not to clench her jaw. Mulder would walk through that door in fifteen minutes and sit down at her desk. And under no circumstances would she vomit.

"In fact," John continued, "I think that's our key to go. C'mon, Langly - turn the computer off."

"Dude, I'm almost to level twelve!" Langly exclaimed. He looked up and, catching the look on his employer's face, conceded immediately. "Um, yeah. Lemme grab my jacket and we're outta here."

Dana sat stock still as the two men bade her goodbye and headed out into the cold, rainy afternoon. She'd had all weekend to stew, to brood and plan. Mulder was coming over to talk about his book, and she was going to use the opportunity to talk to him, to tell him - something. Her phone call had certainly been vague enough, a message left on his answering machine that she wanted to talk about "the book signings - and some other things. Um, personal." She couldn't even be one hundred percent sure that he'd gotten the message.

"I can do this," she said to the empty office.

The minutes ticked by audibly with the grandfather clock in the corner marking time. She fidgeted with the pens on the desk, aligning them neatly along the edge of her blotter, tips facing down. She uncapped a red one and drew a series of crimson swirls around March 16 on the desktop calendar.

At 2:06, the doorknob caught and turned, and her stomach dropped into the vicinity of her knees at that small sound. Dana was so still that she could hear each individual creak as the door swung inward. Her gaze was riveted to Mulder as he automatically closed the door behind him before surveying the nearly deserted office. She knew when he'd seen her; although his gaze continued to sweep the rooms, his posture stiffened.

"Hello, Mulder," she said quietly.

"Scully." Both their faces were solemn, pinched. He advanced jerkily and stopped several feet in front of her desk.

"John had to go out, so you'll have to meet with me. Or you could reschedule," she added as an afterthought, hating the cowardice that colored her voice with mild hopefulness.

"Don't be ridiculous." He sat in the armchair nearest her, where he'd sat a dozen times, his pose a picture of studied nonchalance. He drug one foot from the rug, as if it weighed eighty pounds, to cross it over the other, and eyed her with wary expectancy.

Dana was acutely conscious that she should say something, begin the thing on firm professional footing and steer their encounter out of personal waters, but she was stymied. She studied her calendar for several minutes, at a loss, before turning beseeching eyes on him.

"How's your mom?"

The sound of his voice after prolonged silence startled her and she actually jumped, banging into the underside of the desk. Halfheartedly stroking a bruised knee, she gathered the words, "Much better. They're keeping her in the cardiac wing at the hospital to monitor her while she starts her rehab group, but she should be going home in a couple of days."

Her phrasing hung in the air and Dana found herself fancifully wishing that she and Mulder could go to relationship rehabilitation to repair the damage wrought by the emotional heart attack she had brought upon them.

"You're here about your book tour, though." Mulder looked indescribably sad at her abrupt change of subject and she was aware that she was blundering again, but had no idea how to fix it. Instead, she fell back upon the one arena in which she was supremely confident, and pulled out Mulder's file.

"Both John and I have been discussing things with your publishing company, but there are just a few details that we need to work out, okay?"

Mulder nodded, but try as she might, Dana could elicit no feedback from him other than low grunts, and his expression grew increasingly morose and brooding as she spoke. She began to lose track of what she was saying, her voice a staccato clatter as she raced toward the verbal finish line that would release him from her presence. When she reached the end of her list, she drew up short, surprising herself with the abruptness of her finish.

He'll leave now, she realized, and wanted to kick herself. She'd wanted so badly, needed, to talk to him, for once really to talk, and she couldn't even bring herself to ask him to stay. A cold, damp misery began to seep into her flesh and she blinked back tears, almost forgetting that he was still sitting opposite her. After a few seconds, she collected herself and looked up, right into his eyes. He regarded her steadily, showing no signs of moving.

"Did you want to say something, Scully?" he asked, his voice neutral. "Something else?"

Her laugh was dry. "Don't you think I've said enough?" But she hung her head, signaling him that he was right, she had something to tell him. Dana swiveled her chair away and felt him watching the set of her shoulders.

"I had the strangest dream about you the night of my mother's heart attack." He looked startled, and she rushed to clarify. "Not that kind of dream. And not really about you... but you were in it. There were aliens with green blood, and the water was on fire, and the city was being bombed -" She paused, shaking her head as if to acknowledge her own foolishness, and barely noticed his stunned expression. "I was searching for you, only - I wasn't myself. Not exactly. I had completely different memories, Mulder; I was someone else and yet I wasn't, and I knew you." Dana turned her head, wide eyes seeking his. "I wanted to hide, but even stronger was the urge to find you. Do you understand? I knew you."

His eyes narrowed sardonically. "Biblically?"

Her eyes narrowed in response, her expression mimicking his, and she sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. "I don't know. It doesn't matter. I'm not describing it the way it was, the way it felt - I don't know what to say. I couldn't find you, and I knew that you were dead. I could feel it. I just can't stop remembering how real that dream was. And when I woke up, I panicked, because if you died..."

The clock ticked, and she stared at her calendar, pushing down whatever emotions threatened to bubble up to the surface. She looked up again and spoke slowly, her words measured. "I don't know how to fix any of this, Mulder, but I want to try. Please."

He shifted, uncrossing his feet and planting them wide apart on the rug. Rubbing his mouth, he nodded slightly. "Go ahead."

Dana stood up. "Will you come over tonight, to talk?"

"I have plans."

She forged ahead. "Tomorrow night, then. Or the next night, or the next. Say you'll come."

Her pleading tone and lovely eyes exerted the same pull over him that they had since the first day he'd walked into her office, and he was powerless to resist. He wanted to be angry, but he looked at her and memory supplied a smiling woman with bright eyes beneath a blue cap kissing him in an airport waiting area, and teary eyes that had absolutely nothing to do with the end of Casablanca, and a lone figure hunched beside a bank of pay phones in a hospital corridor. He stood up, shoving his fists into his pockets like a little boy.

"This weekend," he agreed irritably, feeling that he'd been defeated. "Friday night. I'll call first." He took some small pleasure in vindictively adding, "But I can't stay long."

"It won't take long," she promised, her arms crossed tightly over her chest as if to protect herself. Mulder nodded twice, tersely, and left her where she stood, as cool and unmoving as a statue.

He missed seeing her flinch when the door slammed.

End 8/10

Chapter 17: Lilac

"Lilacs, False blue, White, Purple, Color of lilac." -Amy Lowell

Scully clung to the glimmer of hope that she and Mulder might be making some tiny bit of progress toward repairing their friendship. She had no such illusions about the positive nature of her relationship with her daughter.

It had started, really, with Mulder's forced, abrupt departure from their lives, and had grown dramatically worse in the last few weeks. Chloe wouldn't laugh, wouldn't talk with Dana, and had made it perfectly clear that she had absolutely no intention of telling her mother what was bothering her. It wounded Scully's soul to see Chloe building walls and to know that she had learned the skill from her.

Despite her resolute silence, Thursday night found Scully perched on her daughter's bedside, carrying out the nightly ritual of tucking her in.

Dana leaned forward to brush a lock of hair from Chloe's eye and whispered a kiss across her cheek. "I'll pick you up from Tina's around 6:30 tomorrow," she said, her heart struggling to beat in spite of the knot of fear borne of her daughter's continued silent rejection.

"I don't want to go to Tina's. I want to go see Grandma."

The defiant pull of Chloe's mouth almost masked the scared tremor in her voice. Sighing, Dana continued stroking her hair.

"Baby, we've had this discussion. No children are allowed on Grandma's floor."

Chloe turned her head, fixing Scully with a glare. "How do I know you're telling the truth?"

Scully blinked in surprise. "Of course I'm telling the truth, honey. Why on earth would I lie to you?"

"Because you think you need to protect me. You always treat me like I'm some stupid little kid. And kids can go to the hospital - Tina went when her brother was born, and we were only ten," Chloe finished triumphantly, tears welling in her eyes.

"Chloe -" Dana paused, gathering her strength and her patience. "I do try to protect you, because I love you very, very much and I don't want anything in this world or outside it to ever hurt you. I know that you're growing up, and I can't always keep you from hurting, but I will always try, and I will always be honest with you. I know you're worried about Grandma, but she's getting stronger every day. But even though she's much better, she's in a special cardiac unit where the doctors and nurses don't allow anyone under sixteen to go. As soon as she's settled in at home this weekend I'll take you to visit, okay?"

Chloe said nothing, but rolled onto her side to face away from Dana. Scully placed a firm hand on her shoulder. "Okay, Chloe?"

"You're lying," Chloe whispered.

"Chloe, why would you even think that?" Dana tugged at Chloe's thin shoulder but the girl jerked away. "I am your mother - I would never lie to you!"

Chloe sat bolt upright, her palms braced against the mattress. Her face contorted with tearful rage and her words escaped on a shout: "You are NOT my mother! My mother is dead!"

Numbly, Scully felt her lungs working to pump oxygen through her body, her heart hammering as her pulse raced, but she could do nothing to stem the tears pricking hotly at her eyes and clogging her throat.

"I know," she began, trying to control the tremor in her voice, "that you're worried about Grandma, and still angry with me about Mulder, but -"

"You lied to me about my father," Chloe interrupted, angrily dashing away tears. "You told me he was dead - You made me believe it!"

Dread welled up in Scully's stomach, tingling along her nerve endings and blossoming at the base of her spine in a clenching spasm. She had feared the arrival of this moment for seven years, and despite her mother's assurances that it need never come, Scully had sensed its inevitability. The room seemed to tilt, and instead of loving, concerned mother, Scully knew that she had become the accused standing trial.

From beneath her pillow, Chloe produced a lilac envelope. The return addressee was Karl Hemlin in Castle Falls, Texas. When Dana reached for the paper, Chloe jerked it behind her back. "This came yesterday - I got the mail, remember?" Chloe's expression was poisonous. "My dad wrote me a letter. He says he misses me and wants to get to know me, and you told me he was dead!"

Dana had given up on remaining strong and allowed her tears to flow freely. Words she had mentally rehearsed for years tasted like gall on her tongue. "Yes, Chloe, I told you that, but it was not my decision. You may not remember, but Melissa told you the same thing, for many reasons. I have hated deceiving you, but I've respected her wishes -"

"Don't say that about my mother!" Chloe shouted, backing up against the headboard as if Scully's touch might infect her. "You're the liar! You've lied to me my whole life about my father so I would love you the most, because you can't have any kids of your own. You won't let me see Mulder, and you won't tell me that Grandma's dying, but you can't keep me from talking to my father!"

Desperate for contact, Dana squeezed Chloe's foot. "Baby, please - I promise that your grandmother is getting well. You have every right to be upset, but if you'll just let me explain -"

"I don't care what you say - you're a liar." Chloe kicked Scully's hand away. "Go away. Leave me alone." Her voice was even, wary. She flopped down on her stomach and pulled the covers over her.

"Chloe -"

She bit back a sob and spoke softly. "Go away. I hate you." Gathering strength, as if trying to convince herself, she repeated more boldly, "I hate you."

Biting her lip painfully to suppress her own sobs, Scully backed unsteadily toward the open door. She wanted nothing more than to stay and make her daughter understand, but she knew that attempting to do so now would only make Chloe angrier and likely achieve the exact opposite of what Dana wanted to do. "We'll talk about this in the morning," she promised hoarsely, closing the door behind her.

As her own defenses crumbled and the bottom dropped out of her self-possession, she slid to the carpet. Ear pressed against the door, she listened to her daughter's sobs, each reverberating through her soul as she shook soundlessly, smarting from the wound of Chloe's distrust and grieving for the little girl's grief.

The morning sun crept across the kitchen floor in an ever- widening pool, as if someone had upended a carton of liquid light that, once released, could only spread inexorably. It washed the midnight-colored ceramic tile a vivid blue, but only lapped at the breakfast nook, where Chloe sat. She stared at her cereal, lips compressed into a thin line, as if she and it were engaged in a battle of wills.

Scully had never been able to bear the silent treatment for long, and this morning each magnified tick of the wall clock compounded her deep sense of guilt. Feeling as if she might jump out of her skin, she bolted for the sink and began to wash the few dishes waiting there. A coffee cup slipped through her boneless fingers and shattered in the stainless steel basin. Dropping her chin to her chest, Scully let her hair hide her face as the tap ran full blast.

"I'm going downstairs to wait," Chloe muttered from across the room. Her chair scraped across the floor and Scully, eyes closed, listened to the familiar sound of Chloe's canvas backpack sliding across the countertop. Dana didn't look up until the door closed, and then she resolutely turned off the water and began to collect the broken shards of green enamel.

Visiting hours lasted from three to six, and Dana, driven by a desperate, childlike yearning to confide in her own mother, canceled her afternoon appointments. At 3:05, her knuckles scraped a tentative knock on Maggie's door. The thin wood swung open, but Dana remained hovering just outside in the hallway, clutching the newest hardback by her mother's favorite mystery writer.

Sitting up in her bed in a pale blue gown and robe, her hair brushed and styled, Maggie looked almost like her old self. Her eyes lit up and she smiled brightly. "Dana! Come in, honey. I didn't expect you so soon - what a wonderful surprise." When she took in her daughter's slumped shoulders and defeated posture, Maggie's expression changed. "Is something wrong?"

Coming into the room and pulling the door to behind her, Dana extended her offering to her mother. "I didn't think you'd read this one," she said with a faint smile. "I picked it up on the way over."

Maggie Scully barely glanced at the cover as she placed the book on the bedside table. "Thank-you, honey. Now tell me what's wrong."

Dana turned away from her mother to take off her coat and fold it over the back of the visitor's chair. She'd come with every intention of telling her mother everything, eagerly anticipating the relief of unburdening her soul and soaking up Maggie's words of wisdom. But how could she have thought it fair or prudent to heap her worries upon the plate of a woman who had just suffered a massive heart attack? She turned slowly to face Maggie, absently gnawing on her lower lip and half-aware of what a guilty, downtrodden sight she must be in her mother's eyes.

"Dana." The simple word carried a gentle reproof. Maggie patted the edge of the hospital bed. "The Lord has seen fit to spare me so that I can be here for my children and grandchildren. Whatever it is, I can handle it."

Obediently Dana sat, enfolding her mother's hand in her own. Unbidden, the entire story tumbled forth, and Dana felt her load lighten fractionally as she related her worries to Maggie.

"Oh, Mom," she sighed when she had finally finished, dabbing at her eyes with a wadded-up tissue. "What have I done?"

"You've done nothing but love that little girl and do your best to see her safe and happy," Maggie said firmly.

Scully sniffled, and her voice was waterlogged. "What if I've destroyed her innocence and ruined her childhood?"

Her mother actually smiled. "You haven't, Dana. You just have to talk to her. Tell her everything she doesn't know, and she'll understand. She may not listen right away, but she will eventually."

"I love her so much, Mom." Dana bowed her head. "Was it this hard for you, with the four of us?"

Maggie's capable, loving fingers sifted through Scully's silky hair. "It's always hard, baby. But it's wonderful." Her hand slid to her daughter's shoulder and squeezed. "Get out of here. Go get Chloe."

Scully blew her nose. "But I came to spend the afternoon with you."

"You can come back tomorrow. Some things are more important."

On her way back to Georgetown, Dana stopped to get take-out from Chloe's favorite deli as a peace offering. Armed with two Reubens, hold the dressing, a side of fries, and two large lemonades, she surveyed the parking situation near the row of trendy brownstones, decided to risk it, and wheeled into the fire lane. She jabbed the button that controlled the emergency flashers, locked the car doors, and walked briskly to the front door of a home with cornflower blue shutters and a carefully tended Leland cyprus in a huge clay pot on the shallow porch. After ringing the bell, she listened for the enthusiastic barking of the Wilders' dog and the sound of footsteps in the foyer.

Tall, willowy Lisa Wilder glided soundlessly to the door on moccasin-clad feet. "Dana, hi!" she exclaimed, flipping her long blonde hair over her shoulder and flashing a brilliant smile - her first husband had been an orthodontist. "What's up?"

Scully faltered, trying to ignore the tingling dread prickling her scalp and making all her body hair stand on end.

Oh, God, no.

"Lisa, I came to get Chloe." She felt the blood leeching from her face and tunneling deep into her veins. "But she's not here, is she?" To her own ears, her voice sounded dazed and thready.

Lisa frowned. "No, I dropped her off at home." She reached out to touch Dana's arm. "Is everything okay?"

Scully swallowed hard and instructed herself not to panic. "I hope so. I'm - I'm sure she's there." Turning on her heel, Scully flung politeness to the wind and sprinted back to her car. She couldn't shake the sinking feeling in the depths of her stomach as she shoved the key into the ignition and stomped the accelerator, peeling out for the first time in her adult life. With her right hand, she fumbled in her briefcase for her cell phone and punched in her home number.

"Answer, answer, answer," she pleaded frantically as she counted off three rings, then four. She heard her own voice on the answering machine and swore violently.

"Choe, it's Mom. If you're there, pick up right this minute - I'm on my way home."

Even as she spoke, Scully knew instinctively that she was speaking to no one. Swerving around a delivery truck, she punched the gas, continuing to pray and curse under her breath. Fitting the car into the nearest parking space she could find, Scully didn't even bother locking the doors before she began sprinting toward the building. She took the stairs two at a time, gasping for breath and wondering for a split second why the hell she'd bothered to stop smoking when she was still so out of shape regardless. Her hand trembled as she fumbled to fit the key into the lock.

The apartment was dead silent save the maddening dripping of water in the bathroom. "Chloe!" she called, her voice unnaturally shrill. "Chloe Winter Scully, answer me right this minute, god damn it!"

Although she was achingly aware that Chloe was too old to play hide and seek, Scully performed a whirlwind search of the apartment before seizing the phone and rifling through the pages of the phone book at top speed.

"Maggie Scully's room, please... Mom? Have you heard from Chloe, or seen her?"

"No, Dana." Scully could almost see the wheels turning, and the trepidation in Maggie's voice was easily audible when she spoke again. "Dana, is something wrong?"

Scully bit her lip. "I just got home, and she's not here. She was worried about you, so I thought maybe - Don't worry, Mom. I'm sure everything's fine, and she just went home from school with one of her friends and forgot to tell me. Please don't worry. I'll call as soon as I find her."

Feeling as if she were outside her body, observing her own actions, Dana grabbed her address book and called each of Chloe's close friends. After interrogating the parents, she demanded to speak to the girls, but each claimed she knew nothing.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck!" Slamming the receiver into the cradle, Dana raced into Chloe's bedroom and jerked the closet doors open. Her gaze immediately zeroed in on an empty spot on the floor - Chloe's suitcase was gone. As if in slow motion, she pivoted. Sliding her hand under the bed pillow, she felt for the telltale rasp of the lilac envelope. Her fingers encountered only soft cotton.

Scully dropped onto the bed, her knees no longer able to support her, and scooped up Chloe's dog-eared stuffed pig. "Oh, fuck," she swore breathlessly.

Chapter 18: Ash

"This is a valley of ashes--a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air." - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Scully spent the next twenty minutes in a flurry of phone calls: first the police, who could do nothing until Chloe had been missing for twenty-four hours, then the bank, the airport and bus stations, and finally John. As she spoke to him, she bore down on her emotions, ruthlessly keeping her voice steady and as calm as possible.

"Johnny, it's me. Are you busy?"

"Never too busy for you."

"I have some bad news." She paused, unable to say the words. "Chloe's - missing."


"Dana, are you serious?"

Without allowing herself to pause for breath, Scully blurted everything out. She sensed John's concern, but he remained as calm and solid as he'd always been, and she loved him for it.

"So you think she's gone to find Karl, right? Where is he - what was the return address on the envelope?"

She took a deep breath and blew it out through her nose. "Texas - it was, oh -" She squeezed her eyes shut, trying for an agonizingly long moment to visualize the paper. "Castle Falls! Castle Falls, Texas."

"Okay, honey, good. Just try to stay calm. Does she have enough money to get there?"

"She has an ATM card for my account, for emergency purposes. I already called the bank - she withdrew five hundred dollars this afternoon from an ATM near the bus station." "And used a chunk of that to buy a bus ticket."

"She must have. I called the bus station and terrorized everyone I could get on the phone until I found a woman who thinks she might have sold her a one-way ticket to Dallas. I'm in my car right now, headed there to show her a picture of Chloe."

"Good. What do you want me to do?"

"God, John, I don't know." As she slowed to a stop at a red light, Dana lit a fresh cigarette from the dying embers of the one she'd been smoking. She'd worked through almost an entire pack in less than an hour. "She has a three hour head start, but there's a half-hour scheduled stop in Raleigh at 10:04. Can you get us there?"

"It's done," he promised. "Call me as soon as you've got an ID from the bus station."

A pencil-thin woman with large doe eyes and a nervous, sympathetic smile looked at Chloe's picture as Dana concentrated with all her might on holding it steady. The woman had to squint, and the harsh fluorescent lighting in the station made Scully's head swim.

The woman nodded slowly. "Yes, ma'am. That's her. Pretty little girl with a bright yellow backpack."

As Scully tucked the photo back into her wallet, her eyes flashed with outrage. "What's your name, Miss?" she asked tightly.


"Yolanda. Do you routinely sell one-way tickets to eleven- year-old children?" she demanded through gritted teeth.

The other woman cringed and shrugged. "Well, no. But it's not illegal or anything. I can't get in no trouble over this."

For the second time that day, Scully wheeled and raced toward her car. As she slid behind the wheel, she already had her phone out.

"It was her, Johnny. The woman remembered her backpack. Fucking imbeciles - who sells a fucking cross-country bus ticket to a little girl? Shit!" She pounded on the steering wheel.

"I've got us on an 7:55 flight. Can you be there?"

"I'm on my way right now."

John read off the fight information and they agreed to meet at the gate.

Scully parked in the short-term lot because it was closer to the terminals and prayed that this would be a short-term trip. After she had realized that Chloe was on her way to Texas, her mind had shut off and her body was operating on autopilot. She and John would fly to Raleigh and beat the bus to the station. Chloe would be fine. They'd take her home and Dana would explain everything, and things would turn out fine. Any other eventuality was too terrible to contemplate. So many horrible things could happen to a little girl alone; Dana wouldn't, couldn't think of them, or her body would seize up with mindless terror and she'd be utterly useless to her daughter.

Scully picked up the ticket John had reserved for her and sent up a prayer of thanks for the mercifully short line at the security checkpoint. For the first time in her life, she prepared to board an airplane without so much as a carry-on bag.

When Dana came within sight of the waiting area at Gate 14, she froze. It was a day of firsts - for the first time she could remember, her jaw actually dropped.

John looked up and spotted her. Their gazes connected, and he nudged the man next to him, who turned to look at Scully. As if she had been kicked into gear, she began to move forward again.

Mulder rocked to his feet and came to meet her.

"Mulder," she whispered, not certain yet if she was amazingly annoyed at his impudence or deeply touched by his concern. "What are you doing here?"

"John called me. I had to come, Scully." His eyes, deep green in the airport lighting, didn't give much away, but as she stood confronting this man whom she had rejected not once but twice, Scully felt his incredible kindness. Again he was reaching out to her, putting himself out there to be not her knight in shining armor, but her friend. Suddenly Scully felt overwhelmed, and her tenuously held composure threatened to slip. She bit her lip almost hard enough to draw blood and sucked in a quick, harsh breath.

"You're a good man, Mulder," she murmured, her voice cracking on his name.

He cupped her elbow, not invading her space, but gently guiding her. "They'll start boarding soon. Come sit down."

John had hung back, looking on anxiously as Mulder and Dana warily circled one another and exchanged a few words. Calling Mulder had seemed like the right thing to do. He hoped the other man's presence would be a comfort to Dana, and Chloe was crazy about him, but he really had no idea how Dana would respond. As she walked toward him, she managed a tiny smile. John stood up and opened his arms.

As he enfolded her in his arms, Dana breathed deeply of John's clean, familiar scent and let herself relax as much as she could without completely breaking down.

"Oh, Johnny," she whimpered, feeling the tears on her cheeks. "Oh, God."

He kissed the top of her head and rocked her back and forth. "It's going to be okay," he murmured. "We're going to get her and bring her back. Everything will work out."

On the plane, John sat by the window with Dana beside him and Mulder across the aisle. For a while he tried to distract her by talking about work, his relationship with Blake, the storyline of the soap opera she wouldn't admit to watching, anything. When she offered him her tiny bag of airline peanuts without showing even a tiny flicker of interest in them, he finally gave up and simply held her hand.

When the copilot came over the PA system to advise the flight attendants to prepare for landing, a rogue tear trickled down Dana's marble cheek.

"Oh, God, oh, God. What if she's not there? What if she's been hurt, or kidnapped, or - What if she hates me? Have I destroyed everything for her by keeping this a secret all these years?"

They were rhetorical questions. John simply pulled her close and kissed her forehead. "We'll find her," he said resolutely.

Mulder had been nearly silent during the flight. As soon as they were allowed to deplane, he strode to one of the myriad rental car counters. John lingered several yards back with his palm on Dana's back, rubbing in soothing circles.

Scully checked her watch. "We have plenty of time," she reassured herself.

She rode shotgun as Mulder weaved easily in and out of the heavy airport traffic. As he stopped for a red light, he turned to look at her. He eyed her for a moment without speaking, then refocused his attention on the road.

Dana swallowed, seeking relief for her burning throat, made raw by diligently repressed tears. "Thank you for coming, Mulder."

He nodded once. "Here we are. Do you and John want to go inside while I find a place to park?"

Even inside the station the reek of bus fumes was almost overpowering. Dana and John waited outside under an overhang, as near the arriving buses as possible. "If she doesn't get off, we're going on to look for her."

"Of course," John replied.

Twenty minutes ticked by, and Mulder failed to appear. Dana watched the giant hands on the station clock creep in a circle and tried not to think. Huddled inside her overcoat, she slumped against the wall and fought against the fatigue battling to overtake her. She felt as if she were trapped in some T.S. Eliot Wasteland-esque purgatory.

A hydraulic screech filled the moist air as the driver of a sleek, purring Greyhound deftly negotiated the curve and pulled into the station. DALLAS, proclaimed the computerized marquee scrolling above the front window.

"This one," Scully breathed, clutching John's bony wrist and standing up straight. The doors opened with a hiss and passengers began to spill out, some searching for familiar, beloved faces, others moving more slowly, intent on grabbing a sandwich or a late-night cup of coffee. Torn between the need to run toward the bus and the desire to flee, Dana stood as still as if she'd grown roots that had tunneled down into the cracked asphalt.

A few minutes passed. Finally a lone, slight figure appeared, backlit by the bus's interior lights. She slowly climbed down the steps and stopped.

"Chloe!" Dana cried, tearing away from John. Restraining herself from flinging her arms around her daughter and crushing her, Scully settled for grasping the girl's shoulders and squeezing fiercely.

"Mom?" Sounding disoriented, she peered over Dana's shoulder. "And Uncle Johnny?" Her eyes flicked back to her mother's. Chloe looked heartbreakingly young, scared, and miserable. "Mommy," she whimpered, and burst into tears.

Scully's arms surrounded her in a bone-cracking hug. "Are you all right? Are you hurt? Has anyone bothered you?" Dana demanded.

Chloe scrubbed at her eyes. "I'm okay," she sniffled.

Scully brushed at her own tears. "I love you so much," she said, "and you are in so much trouble right now." Hugging her again, she buried her face in Chloe's neck and breathed her sweet little girl smell. "You're safe, you're safe, you're safe," she chanted softly. "I was so scared, Chloe Winter. God, you have no idea."

"I'm sorry," Chloe muttered.

"I know," Dana said, nodding. "And I know that you're angry and there are a lot of things you don't understand right now. But Chloe, whatever happens, you and I will talk about it. Don't you ever run away from me, or from your problems, again." She tipped Chloe's chin up and met her soulful gaze. "Understood?"

Chloe nodded jerkily. For the first time Dana became aware of Mulder watching their reunion and she managed a tiny smile. Tucking Chloe against her body, she kissed the tip of her daughter's nose.

"Let's go home, huh?"

End 9/10

Chapter 19: Gold

"The day she came, I'm freezing that frame... 'How did it go so fast?' you'll say as we are looking back, and then we'll understand: we held gold dust in our hands." - Tori Amos

Scully knew it was April when the rain started and didn't stop. The trouble with living in the city was that there wasn't much green space where the showers could bring flowers, so the best she could hope for was a humid, slightly depressing drizzle.

She looked out the window at the nighttime streets, black and rain-slicked. Mulder was out there, in his car, traveling toward her. She glanced at her watch. 7:49. He'd said around eight. She pushed her sleeves up and tugged them down again. Chloe was sprawled on the couch, ostensibly watching TV, but really keeping an eye on Dana and sticking close to the nexus of any possible drama.

Scully straightened the magazines on the bar and ran over the mental list of things she wanted to say, as if she were preparing to give a lecture. The chiming of the doorbell actually caught her off guard.

Mulder was dressed nicely, tan slacks and a dress shirt with a burgundy striped tie. She suddenly remembered that he'd had a dinner at George Washington tonight, and wondered if he'd left early to meet her. He didn't say anything, but looked steadily at her, and she forced herself to meet his gaze. Her stomach was tied into a thousand of the intricate sailor's knots her father had taught her how to make.

"Oh. Hey." Chloe's gaze flicked toward the vicinity of Mulder's chest and back to the TV, her guarded tone and eyes giving away as little as did Dana's.

"Clo, can you go to your room, please?" Dana requested, her voice carefully neutral, her eyes fixed on her daughter's profile, which was eerily backlit by the blue glow of the screen.

"This is my favorite show."

"Chloe, go to your room. Just for a little while."

The girl looked over her shoulder. "Aunt Dana, I'm watch -" Her small jaw snapped shut when she took in her aunt's rigid pose. The remote control smacked the glass surface of the coffee table, sneakers simultaneously thudding against the sofa cushions as Chloe bounded over the back, shoving past Mulder. "Whatever."

The bedroom door closed with a muted snick. Scully stared vacantly over the top of the television, her thoughts clicking with the unyielding rapidity of a stopwatch. The muscles in her arm burned when she retrieved the remote and aimed it at the screen. A thin, smiling blonde froze and dissipated mid-word.

The tension in the apartment ratcheted up a notch. Dana rocked to her heels, her hands rising to hug her stomach. "Thank you for coming." She sounded and looked as if she were anticipating a root canal without the benefit of Novocain.

Mulder dragged the sole of one loafer through the lush pile of the Oriental rug, bringing his toe to rest behind the opposite heel. "I was in the neighborhood." He sat down gingerly on the edge of the armchair. He was waiting, giving her the floor.

Dana was hypersensitive to his presence and her surroundings; her skin felt tight, hot, and stretched over her sharp bones. She sat carefully on the sofa, welcoming the soft, downy envelope of the cushions. Her tongue curled against the roof of her mouth in a futile effort to ease her aching throat.

Words and fragments of thoughts blazed across her mind's eye as if they were printed on giant cue cards. The font would be called something like Cosmic Ultra Bold.

"Remember when we went to the museum, Mulder?" she asked suddenly. "You taught me how to look at the paintings, how to understand the colors. I've been thinking a lot about that - about color."

He waited for Dana to continue, but she seemed disinclined to do so. She'd realized that she was doing it again, dancing all around the subject she really wanted to broach. With a hint of interest Mulder prodded again, "Color?"

She tilted her head to rest her chin on steepled fingers. "Each of us is surrounded by colors from the moment we open our eyes at birth until they are closed by death. Color symbolism is an integral part of our language - we see red, feel blue, are green with envy. Colors influence our moods and even our health. Red provokes anger; black induces melancholy. But how much of the color we attribute to our environment is an illusion, merely a fabrication of the unconscious mind? Do we add color to the world like a child with Tempera paints? Science offers no solid answers.

"Do you know how the human eye works, Mulder? The rods and cones within our eyes distinguish varying wavelengths of light, and the brain transforms those wavelengths into electrochemical signals. We interpret those signals as colors. Longer wavelengths look red; the shortest visible to the human eye are blue. Bees can see ultraviolet light, but they are incapable of experiencing red. Did you know that?"

She didn't expect or wait for a reply. "2300 years ago Plato advanced the idea that color vision was a result of rays that shot out from the eyes toward objects. But I prefer Galen's theory. He believed that rays produced by our eyes empowered the surrounding air to transport miniscule images of objects to the eye. He thought a spirit moving between the eyes and the brain interpreted those images, creating color. Goethe studied the interplay of color and shadow - so you see the link between color and poetry is one of long standing."

"I'm not a scientist, Scully. Or a poet."

She chuckled dryly. "Obviously, neither am I. I sound like Some kind of goddamned encyclopedia, and I'm not saying - I can't -" She sighed heavily and gestured vaguely. "But - But my point is that we don't really see colors. We see light. Absorption and reflection. Things that appear black absorb light from all wavelengths. White is the absence of color. Blankness. Sterility.

"As part of the vision process, the brain eliminates or ignores certain conflicting or confusing impulses, so everything we see involves a certain level of distortion. How do I know what my mind is distorting? How do I know that my mind isn't blocking out too much?"

Her voice had risen to a fever pitch, her agitation obvious. Mulder's expression remained blank and he slouched more deeply into the sofa. "I guess you don't. Scully, are you going somewhere with this?"

Her smooth features twitched ruefully at his flippancy. She knew his patience was wearing thin. Her hand drifted up to pinch the bridge of her nose in her habitual gesture of discomfort and frustration. "I'm trying to, Mulder."

A driving bass beat drifted down the hall and starkly delineated the complexities of their tangled relationship from Chloe's preteen existence. The glowing green face of the VCR clock ticked away three minutes before Mulder touched Scully's elbow in a phantom caress. "I know you are, Scully. Go on. Please."

"There are so few primary colors; if we see only those, we miss the nuances. That's why artists blend... Scientists estimate that the human eye can distinguish ten million colors. Ten million emotions, Mulder; ten million ways to live and breathe and be. Isn't that what you told me at the museum? Do you remember?"

She paused a beat. He nodded.

"But some people have dichromatic vision - they're color blind. They switch certain colors, have trouble recognizing others. In the most severely affected individuals, the entire world is reduced to a few shades of gray. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that these people don't realize that their eyesight is defective. They learn to use the color names that everyone else uses, but sometimes their disability puts them at risk."

"You've been doing research," he offered, his voice soft, shadowed. "What are you saying, Scully?"

"I think I'm one of those people. Color-blind. Um, emotionally." She blushed and looked down for a long moment before her eyes finally met his. "I'm emotionally color- blind. It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? But that's the way I think of it. I lived in this monotonous, compartmentalized world for thirty-nine years, and then I met you. You swept into my life with all your disorder and passion, and there were so many colors - cyan and magenta and aqua and sunshine yellow -" She trailed off, shaking her head.

Silence stretched out and made herself at home as Dana's heart rate gradually slowed and her breath returned to something resembling normality. She risked a glance at Mulder and found him pensively stroking his chin. A chuffing laugh escaped her lips, the accompanying puff of air lifting a loose lock of auburn hair away from her pale cheek.

"Was that marginally less oblique?"

"Marginally." He sat up and carefully tucked the escaped hair behind her ear, his touch tentative. She couldn't suppress the resulting hitch in her breath. "You know, statistically only one in 200 women is color blind."


"Clinically, or otherwise."

Precise fingernails toyed with the fabric covering the arm of the sofa, tracing the deep wine-colored stripes. Her eyes zeroed in on her actions, studiously refusing even a glimpse of Mulder as she dredged up the courage to say what she truly meant.

"Mulder, I want you to be part of my life."

Her words fell softly into the silence and were subtly absorbed by her living room. The clock ticked. His hand covered hers where it lay and squeezed.

"I don't have words to describe the relationship we have, but your friendship has meant so much to me, and I want - I need - to find a way to return that -" She broke off, her nails digging into the fabric and her eyes clinching shut as she battled the tears scalding her sensitive skin. "No - that's not what I wanted to say, but I don't know how to -" She pulled away from his hand and made a tight fist of frustration. "I just miss you so much," she confessed.

"Dana - Scully -" He reached behind her, his warm palm sliding over the back of her fist, loosening her grip to rotate her wrist and link their fingers. "That was all you had to say, you know. I told you once that it would be a privilege to count you among my friends, and that was before I knew what an amazing, colorful woman -" His fingers squeezed hers and she squeezed back automatically - "you could be." His eyes traced her face, and she could almost feel it. "I've missed you too, Scully."

She nodded, sifting through her thoughts. "I'm glad. I'm - I'm really glad." Her head bounced compulsively, punctuating each syllable. She felt that she had said part of what she'd wanted him to know, but not all. Maybe she'd never have the courage or the words to say it all, and this would have to be enough.

Chloe's door opened and footsteps padded down the hallway to the bathroom. The taps squeaked, then the sound of water thundering into the bathtub filled the apartment. Mulder pressed Dana's hand once and untangled their fingers. "I should go. I think we both need some time to process things." His voice was sandpaper-rough and oddly comforting. She wondered if he realized he was echoing words he had spoken in this same room over two months earlier.

She hovered near the sofa while he shrugged into his jacket. Her gaze flitted anxiously to his and a tiny smile curved her lips. "Call me. Or I'll call you."

"We'll talk soon." His fingertips grazed her shoulders, following the seams of her blouse, and his lips descended to brush her forehead just below her hairline. Dana's eyelids fell for an instant, then blinked open to reveal wide, wet pools of azure.

Mulder took a couple of steps and paused with one hand resting on the doorframe. His grin transformed his serious face as his eyes found Dana's and lingered there.


Her right eyebrow crept upward. "Blue?" she questioned.

The intensity of his stare was disconcerting. "It's my favorite color."

When understanding dawned, her grin matched his.

"If you have any crises or emergencies, you can call," John reminded. "In fact, if you don't I'll never forgive you."

Dana smiled and rested her chin on her fist. "We'll be fine," she predicted. "I think my family has undergone enough traumatic events for a while."

"Well, still - I'll only be a phone call away."

Crossing from her desk to the cooler, Scully poured herself a cup of water. "I think Blake's good for you, Johnny. You've been so relaxed lately. I'm really glad things seem to be working out for you two."

Flushed with pleasure, John beamed. "He's an incredible man, Dana. Funny, tender - I think - Well, I think I'm falling in love with him."

Scully set her water down. "That's great," she murmured, her back to him and her hands braced on the table. "That's really great."

Taking in her rigid posture, John stood up and walked over to place his hand on her back. "Are you okay?"

She released a short bark of watery laughter. "I'm fine. And I am so sincerely happy for you," she answered him, smoothing the lapels of his suit coat and blinking away troublesome tears. "I just -"

Scully drew a short breath through her mouth and clamped her lips shut. After a few seconds she dropped her eyes. When it became evident that no further information was forthcoming, John lightly tapped two fingers on her collarbone.

"You just what, Dana?"

"I just don't understand how it can be so easy for you to open up, to lay yourself bare to another person like that," she admitted, tears again flooding her eyes.

He rubbed her shoulder soothingly. "Love is a risk," he offered with a shrug. "You can't hold any of yourself back. You have to go into it whole-heartedly and hope the pay-off will be worth the risk."

Tears racing down her cheeks and dropping onto her silk blouse, Scully sank her teeth into her lower lip. "Doesn't it scare you? Making yourself so vulnerable, so terribly exposed?"

"Sure. Admitting that you need another person is not a bad thing. You have to make the decision not to let fear rule your life. "

"Are you talking about the general you or the specific me?" she joked weakly. "Because God, John, I'm fucking terrified." Her sigh was shaky.

As she tried to wipe away her tears, the stark truth of her words struck Dana. Spots of inky black and glaring white danced behind her eyelids as if she'd just been captured in the light of a blinding flashbulb.

"I'm talking about me, Danes," John replied quietly. "Your choices are up to you. They always have been."

After a moment she nodded and grabbed a Kleenex from his desk. With quick, businesslike movements she mopped away her tears, then drew a deep breath, rising to her full height and pushing her shoulders back.

"Well," she said, forcing a smile as she returned to her desk, "forgive me for being maudlin. I don't know what's gotten into me. Hormones, maybe? Is it too early for menopause?" Her tone had turned overly bright. "I'm so happy that you're happy, John."

John leaned against his desk and folded his arms. "I am happy," he said softly. "But I want you to be happy too. What's going on? You and Mulder talked, and I thought you were feeling good about it."

She stared blankly at her physics fact-a-day calendar. Realizing it was several days behind, she tore away sheets until she got to Wednesday, April 4th.

"We did, and I was. But I just feel - I don't know, unsettled. I feel like the air is vibrating around me, like the floor might fly out from under my feet at any minute. The more I think about what I intended to say, the less I think I actually said - with any intelligibility, at least. The way we left things was so open-ended that I have no idea where we stand. In retrospect, I wish I'd tried harder to achieve some closure."

"Maybe you don't need closure - maybe what you need is an opening, a to-be-continued. You'll work it out," John declared with a confidence that Dana wished she could share. Bending, he planted a sloppy kiss on her cheek. "I'm out of here, and I'll see you on Monday. Remember - a phone call away."

Left alone in the silent office, Dana's eyes zeroed in on the newly revealed fact of the day, which seemed oddly appropriate.

"Isaac Newton was the first to demonstrate that white light was composed of the light of all the colors of the rainbow, which one glass prism could split into the full spectrum of colors, and another could recombine into a beam of white light."

What Scully needed, she thought, was a prism.

The next time Fox Mulder bumped into Dana Scully, he did so literally.

The bottom had just fallen out of the flat, late afternoon sky, turning everything a dirty grey, and he, shoulders hunched protectively, had ducked into the doorway of an Asian grocery store to escape the deluge. As he did, he slammed into the woman coming out, jostling her shopping bag and catching an elbow in the stomach.

He began apologizing before he realized with whom he had collided. "Scully," he murmured, brushing a few stray raindrops from the sleeve of her white wool coat.

Her eyes widened so that he could see all the way around the irises. She looked bemused and just a little bit sad. "Well hello, Mr. Mulder."

"I didn't break anything, did I?"

She peered into the brown paper bag she held with both arms. "Everything looks okay," she confirmed lightly. "The stir-fry can go on as planned. I'm making Chloe's favorite."

He turned to watch the soggy street. "It's raining like a son of a bitch," he observed.

She said nothing.

"Look, Scully -" He ran his fingers through his hair. "I was going to call you."

She regarded the tips of his well-worn loafers. "It's okay, Mulder. I don't blame you."

"No, I was. I just - with the situation with Chloe and everything, I didn't know what to say." His eyes sought hers. "I didn't know what you'd want me to say." Instead he'd worried about her in silence, his forte. Did she still smile at silly commercials and hide peanut M
Ms in her desk drawers? Was she still having bad dreams?

"What I want to say is thank-you." She tipped her head up, and he saw that her nose was already bright red from the cold. "Thank-you for going to Raleigh and being willing to be there for me and Chloe, and just for everything. I meant what I said, Fox Mulder - you're a very good man. One of the best I've ever known."

Their breath mingled in light cloudy puffs between their faces. Mulder smiled slightly. "Let a pretty good guy buy you a cup of coffee?" he suggested.

It didn't even occur to her to check her watch. "I'd like that," she responded.

He took her to a dark, smoky coffee house around the corner. Once they were ensconced in a high-backed wooden booth, their faces being warmed by the curling steam from tall black coffees, Mulder watched Scully fidget with packets of artificial sweetener and frantically bounce her foot.

"Go ahead," he said slowly, his voice tinged with humor. "You can smoke."

She released a pent-up breath of relief. "Oh, thank-you," she said, reaching into her purse and retrieving her lighter and a pack of Marlboro Lights. "That may be the nicest thing anyone has said to me in a long time." To her mortification she felt tears threatening. To hide her inopportune attack of emotion, she lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply.

"Officially started again?" Mulder assumed.

She shrugged self-deprecatingly. "Yeah, well, it looks that way. Maybe I'll lose a few pounds, at least," she joked half-heartedly.

His eyes narrowed. "It looks like you've already lost a few pounds, Scully." Indeed, the supple roundness that had padded her curves and softened her appearance in January had melted away, and with dark circles under her eyes, she looked gaunt, almost haggard. "In fact, you look like hell."

Mulder's bluntness stung her vanity. Scully stared down into the abyss of her coffee cup. "Thanks. I'm exhausted," she confessed. "Mulder, you have a way of telling every girl exactly what she wants to hear." Cigarette firmly anchored between her first and middle fingers, Dana dumped creamer into her coffee and stirred before taking a short swallow.

He watched her. She was so beautiful to him. Didn't she know that?

"How are things at home?"

She gestured with her cigarette, as if sketching an abstract figure in the air. "You know how they say you can't go home again?" Dana shook her head. "Life at my house is very tense right now. I'm trying to learn to live with a lot of silences. You saw how she was the night you came over." Scully watched her hand as she stubbed the cigarette out in the metal ash tray on the table, then looked up to meet Mulder's intense scrutiny. "I'm hoping things will change, go back to normal. But eventually I may have to face the fact that there could be a new normal. Did you notice the other night that I'm 'Aunt Dana' now?"

He heard the dark pain welling behind the simple statement. Pushing her coffee away, Scully lit a new cigarette, eying Mulder as it flared to life. "I know she didn't say much at the bus station, and even less at the apartment, but I think it means a lot to Chloe that you cared enough to be there. She thinks a lot of you."

"She's a very special girl."

"I didn't realize until later what it must have been like for you - an eleven-, almost twelve-year-old girl disappearing from her home."

"I had to be there, Scully. To keep it from happening again," he admitted.

In the wake of Mulder's words, they sat in silence for several minutes, the muted hum of conversation and rattling dishes flowing around them, the rain drumming on the roof and sheeting down the windows.

"Chloe called her father from Virginia," Dana said softly. "He told her not to come to Texas. When she got to Raleigh, she was trying to find a way back to D.C."

"He told her she shouldn't run away."

Scully shook her head. "No. He told her she could go anywhere she pleased except where he lives, because he didn't want her. She called him again a few days ago - he said he'd changed his mind after writing the letter, didn't want to have any contact with her at all, and asked her not to call back - ever. That's what kind of a man he is, Mulder - a bastard who would say something like that to his own child."

Mulder puckered his lips and emitted a low whistle.

"I told her he was dead, and I've agonized over that decision - but only because I hate the idea of any deception existing between me and my daughter. As much as I would love for Chloe to have a father, I would do almost anything to keep Karl out of her life. He's a user and a destroyer, and he met my sister when she was at her most vulnerable."

Scully, unaccustomed to revealing so much about her family or herself, faltered, and studied her coffee intently, as if it harbored the answers to all of life's great questions. Mulder nudged the back of her hand with his knuckle. "Go on," he invited, his moss green eyes earnest.

"Melissa had this boyfriend, Mark. Great guy. Funny, affable - the whole family loved him, even Ahab. Mark and Missy moved in together during college, and they were together for - oh, six years, I guess. Then one day she came home to find him in their bed with another woman. That's how she learned he was having an affair - affairs, actually; plural. Melissa took off out West to find herself, and she met Karl. Karl, the modern day minstrel, high school dropout traveling around the country with his guitar. I hear he played beautifully. Of course, he supported himself by stealing cars and spent his spare cash on heroin, but these are minor details - He was an artist."

Pausing again, Scully took a long swig of rapidly cooling coffee. "Melissa got pregnant, and when she refused to have an abortion, he thanked her by fracturing three of her ribs. Needless to say, he made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with her or the baby. He got busted for theft and spent a few years in jail. Melissa made the decision to tell Chloe her father was dead because she thought that would be easier for her to deal with than the reality of a living parent who simply didn't love her."

"And you've told her this now."

"The slightly censored version." Scully sighed, blowing a strand of hair out of her eye. "That's the whole long, messy story."

Mulder's warm, calloused palm covered her curled fingers where they rested on top of the table. His touch communicated his compassion, doing away with the need for spoken words.

"You're a good mom, Scully," he said after a few minutes, straightening her fingers so that their hands met palm to palm, elbows on the table. Brow furrowed, she studied the disparity in their sizes, the contrast of his dark skin against her much lighter flesh. It was strangely intimate.

As if reading her thoughts, Mulder brought his other hand up and held Scully's between them. In turn, Dana lifted her free hand to cover his. They both stared at Scully's thumb repetitively grazing the veins on the back of his hand.

"Mulder -"

"Scully -"

They both broke off and shared a muted chuckle. "You first," she encouraged.

"If it wouldn't be too much Asian food in one week, how about going out for Chinese tomorrow night or Saturday? An amazing woman once let me take her to this great place called the Golden Lotus down on D Street."

She didn't smile, but she felt her facial muscles relaxing. "Chinese sounds wonderful. Tomorrow night, say 7:30?"

"Pick you up?"

Scully heard the refrain of the conversation they'd had five months ago. Her next line was "I'll meet you there." This time she nodded, squeezing his hand and releasing.

"I should go. I have to pick Chloe up at my mom's. They're watching each other so I don't have to worry about them."

"But you do anyway."

Scully offered a rueful grin as she slid out of the booth. "But I do anyway," she agreed.

Mulder helped her into her coat, and as it settled over her shoulders she felt the ghost of his touch and shivered. Ever the gentleman, she thought.

As he walked Scully back to her car, Mulder's sleeve brushed lightly against hers. He waited while she opened the door and loaded the groceries inside. As she straightened to her full height, he said, "I'm glad I ran into you today."

"So am I, Mulder." When she turned to face him, she realized that they were only inches apart, close enough that she imagined she could feel the magnetic field that must surround his body.

His warm fingers grazed her temple as he tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. An instant later his generous lips gifted her forehead with a slow kiss. "Good- bye, Scully," he whispered, and she lifted her gaze from his shirtfront to meet his eyes. They seemed to glow, no longer green but a deep, riverbed brown touched with that familiar yellow. Encouraged by her frank perusal, he swooped down, covering her lips for a brief, hard, coffee- flavored kiss that made her toes tingle. His fingers curved around the nape of her neck in a quick squeeze.

"Bye, Mulder," she mumbled, dazed.

His lips quirked into a smile. "Enjoy your stir-fry." Jamming his hands into his pockets, Mulder strode away into the soggy twilight.

Scully stood still, shell-shocked, her keys hanging from numb fingers, until ripe drops of fresh rain began to splatter impudently on her face and hair.

Chapter 20: The Spectrum

"When light passes through a prism, it creates a rainbow of color, or a spectrum."

The rain refused to stop or even slacken. Mixed with the oils on the sidewalks and streets, it glowed with a jewel- like brightness as if lit from within, here a brilliant pink, there ice blue, there the golden sheen of promises fulfilled, as if the heavens had tumbled to earth and the streets were paved with gold.

Stepping out of the shower, Scully felt liquid, as if her body were harmonizing with and being absorbed by the moisture pouring down from above and driving into the yielding earth. Hair the color of fire refused to be tamed by the water, choosing instead to curl wildly around her face and spill onto her back and shoulders like a vine.

Chloe opened the door at Mulder's ring, and after her eyes surveyed him, her lips curved into a cautious smile. "Hey," she said. "Mom's coming."

As the door opened wider, Scully appeared in Mulder's field of vision, her hair a vivid swirl against the peacock blue slash of a soft, clinging blouse. Their eyes met for a few seconds as she fastened an earring.

"Hi," she said quietly. "I'm ready. Clo, are you sure you wouldn't rather go with us?"

Chloe shrugged and hoisted the overnight bag that had been resting just inside the door. "No, that's okay," she muttered.

Scully turned to Mulder. "It's Sophia's birthday," she explained. "She's having a slumber party tonight. I told Chloe we could drop her off on the way to the restaurant."

"Or we could drop her off after dinner," Mulder offered, raising his eyebrows.

The girl scuffed at the floor with the toe of her sneaker. "I'm gonna eat there."

Scully looked pained. Mulder cleared his throat. "Well, are we ready to go?" He removed Dana's soft, wheat-colored corduroy jacket from the coat tree and held it open for her. "I bet Chloe can't wait to get a head start on staying up all night. Pizza and monster movies?"

Chloe actually grinned. "I'm a girl, Mulder. Pizza and chick flicks."

"Oh, of course. What was I thinking?" Mulder smoothed his hand down to Scully's lower back and gave her a gentle pat.

As they walked to his jeep, Mulder swayed close enough to smell Scully's perfume. The scent, fresh and light at once, like richly ripe cherries and sweet cream, filled his nostrils, and despite the rain he saw the blue skies and hazy mellow gold sunshine of a perfect autumn afternoon. Mulder inhaled deeply and Scully darted him a quizzical glance.

On the short drive to Sophia's family's apartment, Scully and Chloe were both silent. Under his breath Mulder hummed along with the radio and tapped the drumbeat of the rain on the steering wheel.

"Here," Scully indicated, nodding toward the building. She twisted around to look at Chloe, who busied herself fumbling with the seatbelt and gathering her things.

"I'll see you in the morning. Call when you want me to come pick you up," Dana reminded. "I love you."

"Bye." Without looking up, Chloe opened the door and slid to the ground. Two pairs of eyes followed her as she darted through the fat raindrops and waited to be buzzed into the building. When she disappeared from sight, Scully collapsed back in the seat with a sigh. Mulder turned the heat on high.

"She's still keeping her distance." Scully's words vibrated in the lower register, mournful notes soaked in discouragement. "I just don't know what to do."

One of Mulder's best qualities, as far as Scully was Concerned, was his complete inability to offer meaningless words of sympathy or encouragement. Now he simply slid the vehicle into gear.

"Hungry?" he asked.

Relieved to move onto a lighter topic, Scully nodded. "But I don't feel like having the duck," she cautioned teasingly.

"I feel like more of an orange beef man tonight myself," he responded.

"Lettuce wraps?" Dana suggested.

"Oh, definitely. And maybe some egg drop soup and fried wantons."

Her eyebrows arched comically. "Did you skip lunch, Mr. Mulder?"

"No, but you look like you did, Ms. Scully."

They didn't say much until they'd been seated and were peering at one another above over-sized leather menus.

"Do you want a glass of wine, or would you rather share a bottle?"

Scully's gaze ran briefly over the wine list. "Can I have my own bottle?" she asked, deadpan.

Mulder's brow knitted slightly. "Do you feel like you need a whole bottle, Scully? Any special reason?"

She tilted her head back and the oil lamp on the table picked up the fine gold sheen of the oversized hoops dangling from her delicate earlobes. As she spoke the golden rays danced, connecting with the gold vein in the brocade upholstery, and Mulder felt as if he were surrounded by a web of pure gold thread.

"I don't know how I feel tonight, Mulder. I'm not sure I'm comfortable about being with you, in this place. It feels contrived." Her nails, coated with clear polish, traced a starched crease in the tablecloth and her eyes narrowed speculatively. "So you tell me - why are we here?"

Mulder shifted and leaned forward. "It's a night to remember, Scully." His voice and expression were inscrutable. "An anniversary of sorts."

"Anniversary?" she echoed.

"It's been almost six months since I walked into your office, Dana Scully. My contract with Over the Moon is up next week."

She nodded slowly, remembering the first time she'd seen Fox Mulder, those first weekend phone calls, and smiled slightly. The waiter interrupted to take their appetizer and wine orders, and Dana waited until he had left to speak.

"It feels like longer," she admitted. "More than six months. So is that what this is - an ending? A fittingly symbolic bookend for our relationship?"

He steepled his fingers and pressed the tips to his lips. "That's not what I had in mind. It sounds a little Machiavellian for me, don't you think?"

"I don't know what to think, Mulder. After the way we left things when you came over to talk - then bringing me here - I'm not sure what's going on, and I really want us to be on the same page this time. So why don't you tell me what you did have in mind."

He carefully covered her fidgeting hand with his and held it still. Against the thin skin stretched taut over her veins, she could feel his pulse beating steadily in his warm palm. He was silent for so long that she had almost decided he'd never speak, when he squeezed her hand and released it.

"I was thinking this could be a beginning."

In her chest, somewhere in the vicinity of her heart, Dana felt a quiver of relief. "Beginnings are good," she said, lifting her wine glass by its delicate crystal stem and taking a sip. The rich, smoky wine rolled across her tongue, the tartness of the grapes making her palate tingle. "But what kind of beginning?"

As unobtrusively as possible, their waiter delivered a platterof lettuce leaves and steaming chicken and melted out ofsight.

Before answering, Mulder scooped minced chicken and vegetables onto a crisp bed of iceberg lettuce and folded it into a neat cocoon. Lifting it from his plate, he carefully studied his concoction. "I think that's up to you."

As Scully considered his words, she watched the lamplight glint in the rich burgundy of the wine. Her nose crinkled thoughtfully. "No," she said slowly, tasting the word on her tongue as she had tasted the wine. "No, Mulder, I don't think it is. I believe we moved past the possibility of platonic friendship months ago."

"That's not what you said then," he pointed out quickly, his tone bordering on accusatory.

Another black-clothed waiter appeared at Dana's elbow and whisked their shared entree onto the table. When he retreated, Scully met Mulder's uneasy gaze.

"No," she agreed, "that's true. I told myself we could be together just once, no strings, and I told you that was what I wanted."

Mulder's eyebrows crept toward his hairline. He picked up the thick-handled silver serving spoon and dipped spicy citrus-seasoned beef onto Scully's plate. "Are you saying that wasn't what you wanted?"

Scully lifted the lid from the black lacquered bowl of steaming rice. "I wanted to believe that one night with you wouldn't change anything, that I could create a night of joyous, passionate memories and then keep them carefully walled away from the future, but I think I always knew deep down that the repercussions would be disastrous. How could they not when we were so close? My behavior isn't something I'm proud of, Mulder." She tilted her head forward, hiding her face behind a curtain of shimmering titian, and Mulder mourned the loss of her expressive eyes. "I wanted you - *all* of you - so much that I was willing to do anything, tell you and myself any lie, in order to possess you."

His spoon clinked discordantly against the rice bowl as he scooped a mound onto his plate. He traced the path being followed by the steam escaping from the food; blurred by the hot, damp cloud, Scully's face wavered into and out of focus. She didn't look up. Mulder coughed to sooth the tickle in his suddenly dry throat.

"And you did, Scully. Possess me."

She focused on the corner of his mouth, her own tightening with pain. "The idea of wanting anything that badly has always terrified me. The reality was shattering."

He bowed his head. "I know it's not easy for you to let your guard down and open up, Dana."

"No, it's not," she agreed wryly. "I don't deal well with strong emotions. I hate making myself vulnerable enough to allow another person to surmount my defenses." Scully released a shaky breath as her eyes found his. "But what I didn't realize was that you're already in, Mulder. You've swum the moat and climbed the tower. Now all you have to do is kiss the princess and awaken her from her slumber."

The barest hint of a smile graced Mulder's mouth. "I'm your knight errant," he kidded. His eyes were dark, questioning; hers, filled with trepidation.

"Where does this leave us, Scully? Happy ending?"

She smiled tremulously. "No, it's exactly what you said. A beginning."

Between the restaurant and Scully's street the rain had tapered off, leaving the streets steaming and the night air unbearably humid. It was eerily quiet, the sounds of a car passing on the street and a dog barking muffled by the thick air. As she and Mulder huddled on the stoop of her building, the security light flamed through Dana's loose curls, setting them ablaze like a fiery halo of red-gold. Her key in the door, she twisted her upper body to face him, and Mulder tried to read the tension in her face like a road map.

She hesitated, turning something over in the opaque recesses of her mind.

"Come up," she said resolutely, her jaw tight. "There's something I want to give you."

He followed her up the stairs, the old wood creaking and popping under the combined weight of their feet. Looking down, he admired the way her Achilles tendon stretched and bunched as she balanced on her high heels.

Her apartment was cool, and Scully immediately turned the air conditioning off. She took his coat and hung it neatly beside her own. "Sit," she instructed softly, the word firm in the middle but wavering around the edges. "Can I get you anything to drink?"

He tried to relax into the familiar giving embrace of her sofa. "I'm fine," he assured her. His gaze anxiously tracked her movements.

"Good." Briefly meeting his gaze, Scully slid her palms over her hips, as if wiping moisture from them, and smiled slightly. "Wait here."

Her heels sank into the plush carpet as she walked into her bedroom. Her heart was pounding so hard with arousal and terror that she thought she might literally pass out, which would be both embarrassing and counter-productive. Her fingers trembling and bloodless, Dana took off her shoes, then stripped her blouse over her head. Next she took off her bra and pants, letting it all fall into a puddle on her bedroom floor. She hesitated, but told herself it was all or nothing. Her panties joined the rest of her clothes, and she bent at the waist, gathering the items in her arms. She tossed her underwear into the laundry hamper, hung her slacks and top in the closet, and finally looked at herself in the mirror, trying to turn a blind eye to her imperfections. "Okay," she mouthed.

"Mulder?" she called, hoping he didn't catch the tremulous quality of her voice.


"Can you come in here?" As she spoke, Dana crawled onto the bed and arranged herself in the middle.

His footsteps approached. For a couple of seconds she closed her eyes, then forced them open again. He stood in the doorway.

The light from the hallway behind him illuminated her pale body against the comforter. Mulder stood stock still, staring at her.

After several minutes he spoke. "Scully?"

"Come here." She sat up and reached out for him. He was too far away for her to touch, but he automatically moved forward and she caught his hand, tugging him to stand beside the bed, his thighs touching the mattress.

Dana brought their clasped hands to her lips and kissed his knuckles. "Anything you want, Mulder," she promised. "I'll give you anything you want."

"Oh, Scully." His cock, semi-erect all night and rock hard since he'd seen her naked, throbbed with blood and he sank down beside her on the bed, bending over her body. "Scully." His free hand skimmed up her leg to her hip and rested there as he touched his lips to hers in a light kiss. She opened her mouth without his urging, and he sank his tongue into the proffered warmth.

She was gorgeous and golden, stretched out in front of him like a painted goddess, and he'd have to be dead not to feel the scalding flare of desire. Months dissolved, he remembered her tiny gasps and her nails skittering across his sweaty flesh, and it would have been so easy to slip inside of her and let their bodies do the communicating. But he wouldn't let it happen, not like this.

When he'd walked in and seen her lying there, her eyes shining with fear, he'd understood. It was the scenario they'd played out on an incredible, heartbreaking January night, but she was turning the tables. She'd brought him into her home and stripped herself bare, literally and figuratively, to allow him to do whatever he wanted with her. She'd hurt him, and now she was purposefully giving him the opportunity to hurt her in return. The magnitude of the gesture overwhelmed him, and he sprinkled kisses all over her face, his mouth like a benediction, his tongue exploring the arch of her eyebrow.

Finally, dragging his mouth away from her skin, he said, "No, Scully."

Her heart slammed into her ribs and she chased his eyes with her own. "Mulder?" she asked in a small voice. "Let me make it right. Please, let me do this." She clutched at his wrist, holding his hand against her warm flesh.

"Not like this."

"You don't want to?" She thought she was going to cry, but she forced the tears back.

His groan sounded tortured. He grabbed her hand and placed her palm over his straining erection. "Does this feel like I don't want to?"

She shivered, feeling him throb. It felt good.

"We need to talk. Do you want to put some clothes on?"

She sat up and swung her feet over the side of the bed.

"I'll go into the other room," he said.

"No, just stay." She stepped to the bureau and, opening one of the deep drawers, yanked out a sweatshirt. "It doesn't matter." Soft gray dropped over her head and slithered down her back, hiding her delicate vertebrae from his view. Mulder's cock twitched with residual excitement, and despite his total certainty that Band-Aid sex between them now would have created far more wounds than it might have begun to heal, a knot of regret coiled in his stomach. He averted his eyes and focused instead on the diamond pattern of raindrops zig-zagging down the windowpanes.

After several seconds she sat down on the other side of the bed. She'd paired faded blue sweatpants with the sweatshirt, and when she tucked one foot into her lap, her painted toenails barely peeked out from beneath the frayed hem. Mulder expected anger, hurt, maybe confusion, but he'd underestimated Scully.

Sighing, she turned her head to meet Mulder's wary gaze. "Well," she began with her usual pragmatism, "I guess that was a bad idea." Rubbing her hands over her face, she curved her spine and let her head fall forward. "I feel ridiculous."

"Don't be embarrassed." He wanted to touch her but didn't dare reach across the expanse of the bed. "Tell me what's going on in your head, Scully."

Seconds stretched into minutes. Scully turned toward the wall, hiding her face. "I thought I could give back what I took from you," she murmured, voicing what he'd realized as soon as he saw the scene she'd created. "I wanted to give you that gift."

He grinned. "Scully, the sex was great. It's not like I was the village maiden and you were the big, bad city slicker. I'm pretty sure we were both willing participants."

She rolled her eyes. "I'm not sorry for the sex, Mulder. But the way I went about initiating it, yes." Turning to face him fully, Scully tucked both legs underneath her. "I didn't know that I could want anything as badly as I wanted to be with you, and I convinced myself that if I could just see what it was like..."

"Take the edge off?" he suggested, his palm coming to ground on her knee.

She smiled ruefully. "It didn't work," she confided. "I'm still not sure I can really explain. It's just that - Mulder, before you, there has only been one time in my life when I thought I was in love. He was my best friend too, and you know what happened. After - after, it took years for John and me to reach a point where we were able to have any kind of relationship again, and while he's a wonderful friend, we'll never have the kind of closeness and complete trust we once did.

I've never had that with anyone else, and then it sprang up between us like an incredible gift, and I just thought that if I fell in love with you, I'd ruin it somehow, ruin everything. At the same time Iknew how you felt, but I wouldn't let myself see how I felt. Maybe that trust, that intimacy, is inseperable from love, but I thought I could choose one or the other. I tried to use you, and I ended up destroying our friendship. I took something from both of us."

"Not destroying," he corrected.

"No," she amended. "But if I'd been emotionally honest enough with myself to admit that what I was calling lust was love, the last few months wouldn't have happened."

Scooting closer, he traced her eyebrow with one long finger. "And we might not be here," he pointed out.

"Do you have to be so damn forgiving?" She smiled, her forehead crinkling and tears gathering at the corners of her eyes. "I do love you, you know." Her voice caught roughly as she pronounced the words, struggling to force them out.

"I know." He smiled slightly, but his eyes were serious. "And thank you for offering me this gift, but you're going to have to return it. Because I'm not walking out of here. The next time we make love, we're both going to be here in the morning. Every morning, Scully."

She took a deep breath, her eyes seeking his. He was making sure that she knew what this meant, giving her the opportunity to choose whether she was ready to swallow her fear and commit everything.

"I don't know if I ever truly expressed how sorry I am. That night, Mulder - I wanted to stay, but I was so scared. You were right. I was a coward, Mulder. I was terrified. I'm terrified now," she admitted, folding herself into his arms. "I don't know how to do this. But I'm more scared of losing you again."

He kissed the corner of her mouth, tasting her breath and her makeup and her cool skin. "I'm scared too, Scully," he murmured, kissing her cheek and the shell of her ear. "It's like we're standing at a precipice, hundreds of feet above the ocean, getting ready to jump." His mouth traveled to her lips and he pressed a gentle, reverent kiss there, stealing the breath from her lungs. When he drew back, she licked her lips, her tongue rasping against his chin. "And when we jump, we might plummet down, down to the rocks. But I think we're going to fly." He grinned, nuzzling his nose against her cheek. "Fly with me, Scully."

Her lips curved into a soft bow and her eyes smiled, sparkling a vivid, heart-piercing blue. She reclined against the mound of pillows on the bed and tugged him down with her, and as he buried his face in her hair, he thought he heard her say something. Her lips were moving against his throat.

"What?" he asked breathlessly, pushing her hair away from her face.

"Come fly with me, come fly, come fly," she crooned, tugging at his shirt.

She was singing. Sinatra. Her voice was off-key and scratchy, but he thought it was one of the most beautiful sounds he'd ever heard.

Mulder obligingly shed his dress shirt and divested Scully of her sweatshirt. They rolled around on Scully's bed, on top of the covers, kissing, touching, nipping, sucking. It felt familiar and new at once. He cataloged every expression that flitted across her face, every sound she made as he nibbled her toes, tickled the back of her knee, sucked at the plane of her flat stomach. At some point they must have decided they would be more comfortable with no clothing to get in their way, although neither could say when.

Scully's hands and mouth roamed obsessively over his beautiful body, exploring, memorizing, getting reacquainted. She draped herself over his back, rubbed her cheek against the hair on his chest, and fastened her mouth on the soft, delicate skin where his hip bone jutted up from his toned abs.

"This," she whispered, lapping at his skin. "This is my favorite spot."

"There?" he chuckled hoarsely, wondering how he'd lived over forty years without realizing there was a direct connection between that precise spot on his anatomy and his cock.

Grinning devilishly, Scully rubbed her cheek against his eager erection and looked up at him. "Maybe here too."

Their mood was light, playful, frothy like the sweet foam topping a cappuccino; they reveled in the joy of being completely together for the first time in months without the barrier of doubts between them. Then their eyes met and held, and hers filled with tears. She wrapped her arms tightly around him, pulling his body down on hers and holding him as close as she could.

"I love you," she whispered, afraid to say it too loudly.

His bright eyes reassured her. "I love you too," he murmured, and lightly kissed her lips. His mouth trailed across her jaw and down her neck, liberally spreading soft, smacking kisses. "I love you," he repeated after each one. "I love you, I love you." *It's going to be okay, Scully. We'll do it together.*

When his mouth closed around her pebbled nipple, she released a tiny mewling noise from the back of her throat. When he combed his fingers through the damp curls at the juncture of her thighs, her back bowed and her mouth formed a perfect, soundless O.

Finally, her heaving chest flushed a mottled, rosy red, Scully rolled onto her back and spread her legs. The invitation was obvious, and Mulder was not a stupid man. He moved into position over her and took himself in hand. Their bodies were already slick with perspiration, and her leg slid smoothly against his flank as she bent at the knee. The heat of his hard length brushed against her opening and she closed her eyes on a grimace, her muscles tightening then liquefying with anticipation.

She could feel his breath fanning across her face, shallow and fast, but he didn't move. Her eyes popped open. "What's wrong?" she asked, her concern touched with impatience.

"Scully." Frozen by the enormity, the profundity of the moment, he wracked his brain for words that would express even a fraction of what he was feeling without sounding hackneyed. "Remember how you said that I'm yellow, and I said you're blue?"

She blinked and nodded, obviously humoring him but wondering if he had a point.

"The thing about blue and yellow is that when you mix them together in exactly the right measure - equal parts of each - they create the purest, most beautiful green."

Her brilliant smile told him more clearly than words that she understood, and their eyes remained locked as he sank into her, her body yielding and gripping his flesh as she accepted him. Pleasure knifed through him and he groaned, sinking his teeth into his lower lip.

Scully's eyes widened with shock as he bottomed out, sure that he felt it too: utter peace. She'd almost lost this. He was smiling at her, his face reflecting his adoration, and she felt tears pricking at her eyes.

"It's - oh -" she whispered, amazed. "God, it didn't feel like this before."

Their movements were slow, leisurely, each intent on loving the other and prolonging this moment as long as possible.

"Mulder," Scully whispered, dragging her fingernails up his back, "I have to tell you something."

"Now?" His tone was a little desperate, and he was biting his lip again, sweat dripping into his eyes as he labored against his body's imperative, striving to keep his strokes slow and measured.

"Yes, now."

He heard the urgency in her voice and forced himself to focus.

"The dream I had about you and me and the aliens, Mulder, it wasn't the only one. I've been having them for months, since I met you - dreams about you and me, Mulder and Scully, FBI partners, and the most bizarre creatures and horrible crimes you can imagine, and these mind-shattering conspiracies -"

"I know."

She searched his face for some clue. "What do you mean, you know?"

"I've had the same dreams, Scully. Every night." Leaving the haven of her body, he gathered her in his arms and pressed a kiss to her forehead.

She shook her head adamantly. "No, that's impossible. That's crazy, Mulder. How could we have the same dreams?"

"I don't know, Scully. A psychic link?" Smiling as if the answer didn't matter, he kissed her mouth. "I've seen them, Scully. Your abduction, your sister's murder, your cancer, Emily."

Her face was slack with dismay, her voice trapped in her throat. "Yes," she finally managed. "I don't understand - but Mulder, what I have to tell you -"

In one fluid movement Mulder rolled Scully onto her back, their legs tangled, and sheathed himself within her heat. "I'm listening."

She moaned, her eyes closing, then reopening hazy and dilated. "I don't think they're just dreams," she murmured, lifting her hips and rocking to the rhythm they created. "They feel so real, so familiar. I didn't understand at first how you could know me so well, when we'd only just met. I think it's because they are real, Mulder, somehow, somewhere."

Clouds shifted over the fathomless blue depths of her eyes as she wordlessly asked him for reassurance that this was somehow possible, that she hadn't lost her mind. With his body inside hers, burning and soothing, she felt as if he were pushing her closer and closer to the brink of insanity, into the embrace of something enormous and powerful and incomprehensible.

"They're real," he promised, his thrusts growing less controlled. "I think they're us."

Her senses swimming, her body ablaze, she twisted her head from side to side in protest. "So what, this is some kind of c-cosmic justice?" she stuttered. "Why? To give us the love they should have been able to express, an opportunity to live the life they can't? Some kind of restitution?"

His eyes crinkled and she saw peace and contentment in their murky depths. "Yes. Oh, God, Scully -"

"That's insane," she moaned, despite the tug of truth she felt inside, in a place so deep she could never touch or locate it. "That's not possible - oh -"

*I wouldn't put myself on the line for anyone but you.*

*The truth will save you, Scully. I think it will save both of us.*

*You are the only one I trust.*

*You are my constant, my touchstone.*

*You were my friend and you told me the truth.*

*The truth we both know.*

The world tilted crazily on its axis, making Scully feel dizzy and giddy. Visions and snatches of conversations - memories? - from this impossible dual existence welled up from her bones, as much a part of her as her breath, weaving and merging with her 'real' life until the two were inextricable, indistinguishable. The idea of it was inconceivable, deranged -

Mulder's fingers found her clit and began rubbing in firm circles, and she was right there, teetering, and none of it truly mattered because she loved him, she loved him and that was real and, oh, the colors were swirling around her in a blur.

This man was her prism, and the brilliance seared into her brain, every possible color and shade: deep crimson and blushing rose, emerald green and cool blue, fiery orange, glittering gold, royal purple, surrounding her and Mulder. The colors cocooned them and lifted them up, and came together to form the most gorgeous, breathtaking, visible spectrum of futures past and possibilities present and a thousand realities and lives lived, narrowing and focusing to one undeniable truth.

"He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream, and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it." - Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The END of the whole damn thing

A thousand thanks to Tali and Jen, without whom this story would probably bear little resemblance to its current form, and without whom it *certainly* would not have been posted. To those of you who have stuck with Spectrum to the bitter (?) end, and especially to those who have written to me, an additional thousand thanks, and I hope the ending hasn't disappointed. To conclude - I can't go wrong quoting Shakespeare, can I?

"If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumb'red here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend."

- from A Midsummer Night's Dream


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