Title: Air of Fall
Summary: Mulder walked ahead on the road, kicking at the piles of leaves in his path...
Author's Notes: A special thanks to Meredith, who has stood staunchly through all my attempts at fanfic, gracefully slicing out schizophrenic Scullys and morbid Mulders - like Stonehenge, she rocks! All poetic excerpts herein are from 'The Hollow Men' by T.S. Eliot. Happy Halloween to all!
Mulder walked ahead on the road, kicking at the piles of leaves in his path. The fragrant, fetid air of fall rose in his wake.
"Stop that, Mulder."
"Why?" Scully sometimes seemed to be trying a bit too hard to shape him, to modify his behavior. To turn him into something that looked and resembled normal, a mostly losing battle for her.
"Because you're bothering me." Her simple answer lay between them, creating space. An inane reason -- an unreasonable request. Who was she to stop his kicking?
Nevertheless, he stopped. But not before one last swish of his shoes through the dry, rotting pile, the whistling noise of the wind he created a satisfying one. This was why he kicked. It soothed something in him, and he resented having to stop, but he did. For her.
One more day ending, and not with a bang as some of their more disturbing cases created, but with a characteristic whimper they were growing familiar with. There were no monsters present on this most hallowed of days. But above them, the moon was already visible in a blue sky, waiting in morbid expectation of the sun's setting.
He wanted to howl at it, an irrational urge fueled by the same imp that inspires all irrational desires that strike in unexpected moments. A craving to shout out loud on a crowded street, any and every act that would embrace the impulsive and unforeseen.
This was not a crowded street, but a deserted country road somewhere in Vermont. And this trip was not a failed case, but another failing attempt at normalcy. An attempt as fall colors blazed their final glory, shouting out to the skies and the heavens and anyone that would listen, advertising their deaths before they fell at his feet to decompose.
A solitary leaf plummeted in his peripheral vision, and he made a half-hearted attempt to catch it before it hit the ground. He and Samantha used to stand outside for hours under the trees on the Vineyard, trying to snatch the hopelessly elusive leaves out of the very air so they could make their wishes on the inevitability of foliage's final death spiral.
"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," she griped.
"Trick or treat," he said in answer.
Scully was a trooper. She always had a comeback. Well -- almost always. No matter how hard he tried to throw her off balance, she came back at him swinging. Making light of his more morose statements and giving tit for tat after those sarcastic rejoinders he specialized in.
"So...where is this place?" she inquired. The impatience in her tone warred with the indulgence she visited upon his more preposterous actions, imagining him in one of his more out-there places, maybe. He merely shrugged off her question, baiting her.
"Do you even know?" This one had a bite to it, as crisp as the fall air and her snapping, white teeth.
"Scully," he said gently. "Yes, I know where we're going and I told you that we didn't have to come."
"Of course we did. But why all the secrecy?"
He hadn't meant to be secretive. Just private. He stopped. Shook his head in exasperation at her. And looked at her. Just looked. He wished that he could see with unaffected eyes, the blaze of color in her cheeks, the framing of her fury by dying fire in the leaves behind her. But colorblind was colorblind. Instead, he filled her in with descriptions of colors he couldn't see. Despite her irritation with this unexplained walk down a deserted country road, she was here, despite whatever implausibility he might be up to. And he felt the characteristic surge of affection he always felt for her. And a strange surge of protectiveness, thick and unwanted. Because he knew he couldn't always protect her -- couldn't even protect himself -- but wanted to all the same.
She would be offended by this attitude, so he kept it to himself and shoved his hands deep into his pockets. "Look, Scully. All I know is it's almost All Hallow's Eve. And this cemetery we're going to has the most reliable reports of hauntings around here."
"I didn't think this trip was about ghosts, Mulder," she accused, and he knew what she was asking. "Is that why we're here? Why do you always insist on putting your faith in the ravings of local lunatics?"
Okay, that one hurt. This time he stopped and stared an accusation back at her. Before he could even speak the words though -- accuse her of not believing in the work -- ask her why she stayed with him at all --
"I'm sorry, Mulder." She reached out and grabbed his hand. Warm and small, hers had a grip like iron, holding him there with her when he felt like moving away.
"Maybe I am a lunatic, Scully," he said gently.
"Maybe that's what you want to believe."
"You're not a lunatic, Mulder," she said firmly. And then repeated it, as if trying to convince herself. "You're not."
He sighed and moved forward. And she followed.
Two stone cherubs held vigil, orbed and sightless eyes upraised to towering chestnut trees. Mulder bent over and scooped up a handful of the tree's bounty, pulling his hand away from Scully's in order to place a rounded, polished fruit in hers. He watched her rolling it back and forth in her palm, enjoying its smoothness. "We used to collect these as kids," she observed. "I used to keep them in a box until I realized they were rotting." She dropped the chestnut carelessly as they entered the cemetery. Mulder pocketed his, and imagined planting it somewhere -- imagined that underneath the eventual rot might be a tiny budding seed that would sprout. But he kept this impossibly optimistic thought to himself.
"It's supposed to be over here," he said instead, moving through the artfully planted maples toward the back of the cemetery, which was graced by a crumbling stone wall.
Scully sighed and followed. "What -- your hypothetical ghost?"
The trees were thicker toward the edge of the plot of stones, giving way to an eerily silent forest. There was an expectant hush in the air. The ground was strewn with the fragrant corpses of leaves. He could imagine that there were no other souls in the world besides themselves, despite the fact that they stood on earth covering so many. Mulder kicked at a pile of leaves again, not to annoy Scully, but to lift the scent of them to his nostrils. The delicious, loamy fragrance of dirt, the crisp press of leaves returning to the soil from whence they originated.
"Is this it?" Scully asked when he stopped. She moved around him to see their destination and had to tilt her head back to take it in.
The gravestone was ostentatious, to say the least, in this small, more modest gathering of granite tombs. The angel towered over them, one arm raised to the sky, the other held out in supplication; the base of this angelic entity seemingly almost too fragile to support the lift the wings conveyed. The high-gloss marble facing was gouged with the name of the occupant that rested at this formidable specter's feet.
Scully's face blanched when she saw the name. Still, she read it aloud. A question and an accusation. "Mulder."
"Who knew?" he said quickly.
She turned on him. "You knew," she charged. But he saw the anger leave her like a pin-pricked balloon, escaping into the surrounding forest where some animal would no doubt pick up on the vibes and kill something. She stood before him, deflating, and he was afraid that at any moment she would reach out -- and that her empathy would look instead like pity and he would reject her for it.
"My great, great, or maybe not so great grandfather," he stated. "Disowned by the Mulder family after he made a bundle and promptly left the Vineyard and his wife for the greener pastures of Vermont and a woman half his age." He looked around him, and saw very little green under the carpet of gilded golds. "At the time, he was the outcast of the Mulder family, deserting the homestead to cavort in sin." He grinned. "You know how it is, Scully. The usual scandal and pathetic sordidness of normal family life."
He didn't add that his branch of the Mulder family could have topped this man for sordidness. And that he would have counted himself the latest Mulder outcast, but with no family remaining to be outcast from, in some sense he belonged again, though he wasn't sure to what.
"How did you find out about this?" Scully asked, natural curiosity in her voice.
"Ah, the genealogical powers of the internet."
She smiled slightly and continued to stare at the tombstone, her eyes traveling upward to appreciate the angel atop it, that one animated eyebrow rising in speculation. Was she wondering at his motives or those of his ancestors? He watched her surreptitiously, admiring the way she could ignore him. Accept him. Listen without being overbearing. He should appreciate this more, he knew. Appreciate the fact that she followed his lead so readily, despite any complaints she voiced. What he should do was tell her of this appreciation, but his lips stayed together, holding the secret inside.
"So where are we staying tonight, Mulder? And if you say 'here', be prepared to protect the family jewels from someone trained in offensive, hand-to-hand combat."
"Ooo, do you promise, Scully?"
She smiled fully then -- one with teeth. Predatory, like a shark as she cast a look at him. "Let's just say that if this trip doesn't have some mulled cider in it, you're going to be sorry you invited me."
He laughed. She continued to surprise him -- mostly in the way she continually came back at him. Never put off in the manner he'd learned to expect from people. Freaky, spooky Mulder had close to forty years of not being understood. Despite any gap in understanding that still lay between them, Mulder knew he would probably never find anyone with a higher acceptance level.
"Is it okay if it's in a thermos?"
"No," she shot back.
"I promise it's not drugged..."
"There aren't vampires here too, are there Mulder?"
"You got me," he answered. "Somehow, I doubt it. Imagine that -- no restless ghouls -- at least none that I know of." He looked around him, at the peaceful lull of their surroundings. Felt the fragrant, crispness to the air that accompanied his false pretenses of a ghost hunting expedition and would follow them on their progress back toward town.
Scully cast another long eye at the stone, reaching out to trace her fingers over the full name, her demeanor meditative now that she'd figured out the purpose of this trip was not to hunt monsters but merely to share a bit of himself with her. "What is it with your family and names, Mulder? What kind of a name is Brick?"
There was a chip in the angel's foot, he noticed. Inside her toes, the stone sparkled in the dying rays of sun with numerous flecks of foreign mica. "Don't knock it, Scully -- it's better than Fox."
Hot, mulled cider. The crackling blaze of a fire across the room. The susurration of murmuring couples throughout the room. And shadows -- falling everywhere. All Hallow's Eve and Mulder was in a restaurant, eating pumpkin ravioli, described in the menu as 'a gourmet jack-o-spicy treat', and wondering what the hell he was trying for here.
Scully watched him, her gaze growing more and more careful. Reproachful of his growing melancholy. He watched the reflections of the last light of sun fade from her eyes as evening set in. And he cursed the tenacious Mulder ability to turn the tables on himself, even as the leaves outside the window took on the colorless hue of twilight, then hid themselves in the darkness that finally came.
"Should we go back to the cemetery?" Scully asked dryly, starting to pick at her zucchini and spinach pasta, unsettled by his mood and pushing the green goo around her plate.
Two jack-o-lanterns were flanking the fireplace hearth. The proprietors had carved one as slit-eyed, grinning Devil; the other in an open-mouth startled O, casting its hollowed eyes toward its companion. Tiny flames winked inside, bringing each alive in their shell of death.
Fox Mulder, you are one sick bastard, he thought.
Scully's voice brought him back. He looked at her, forcing himself to stay still when her hand touched lightly over his on the table.
"We don't have to do this," she said quietly.
He shook his head and laughed at this. "Do what?" he asked, half-amused, the other half truly half-confused himself.
He saw that little crease appear in her forehead. Realized that it accompanied a scowl -- anger flaring hot again in the already present heat of the room -- hurt hidden behind that. She tossed her napkin into her plate and sat back, crossing her arms and bathing him in her level stare.
"I'm ready to go," she stated quietly.
He sighed and reached for the check.
Scully truly did want to return to the cemetery, imagining that a little ghost-hunting in the family plot might cheer him up. Mulder didn't. He needed no escape from the night. He only desired to escape her expectations. All his life, expectations were something he'd excelled in failing at. Why not add Scully's to the list? Did he really think he could escape the inevitable failure?
"We should have gotten two rooms," she remarked, throwing her case down on the one bed.
He moved toward her. She moved away.
She migrated to the window and pushed it up. Cold air drifted into the room, carrying the pungent aroma of fall along. The moon was visible and full behind the glass. All Hallow's Eve, a full moon and Scully -- could he possibly ask for more? He crossed the room and stood beside her, pushing the filmy curtain aside to gaze out on the night, his irrational urge to howl returning. It was said that if a woman exposed herself to moonlight, slept under its direct influence, she would begin to cycle in synchrony with the moon. A timeless, endless tide of life that would ebb and flow on a lunar path.
"I don't know what we're doing, Mulder," she murmured.
He moved closer. She shifted away.
"I didn't ask for this. We shouldn't even consider it..."
He steeled himself and grew brave enough to put his arms around her. It felt awkward at first, and he was surprised to feel her trembling. This uncharacteristic fear made him braver and he pulled her against him, closing her into the circle of his arms when she turned.
"I didn't get my cider." Her voice was muffled against his shirt. Saddened.
"You will," he promised.
They walked in a street absent of traffic. The hour was early enough that some children were still out, dressed in their ghoulish gore or bejeweled Cinderella splendor, capturing the last candies of the night. Mulder noticed Scully turn her head to watch as they passed, a small, sad smile on her face she gave no voice to. They passed a store where Dracula, sitting on a stool in the doorway, raised a dripping goblet of ketchup blood to them. "Trick or treat," he said in an exaggerated Bela Lugosi accent. Growing bolder, Mulder took Scully's hand and pulled her along with him, away from the crowd.
"Where are we going?" she complained, sounding tired. Or perhaps just weary of the seesaw that was Fox Mulder.
The establishment resembled a stone cottage. A sign hung outside on a pole, the likeness of a badger in a waiter's uniform, carrying a tray full of drinks to a table of patrons of some unidentifiable species. The name had nothing to do with badgers, but rather proclaimed the place to be called 'Crowskin's'.
"Ick," Scully observed.
Mulder ducked through the doorway, which couldn't possibly have been regulation height. "Just your size," he noted. Scully scowled and followed him into the bar, seemingly resigned to her fate, whatever it may be.
"Two mulled ciders," Mulder requested. The bartender bore a striking resemblance to the badger on the sign out front. He merely nodded and returned with the drinks, taking Mulder's twenty and bringing change without saying a word. The place was thick with plants that mimicked the colors of autumn outside and looking up, Mulder noticed the ceiling was painted a deep midnight blue and splashed with pinpoint stars. "Scully, I think maybe this is an enchanted bar," Mulder whispered, pulling out a stool for her.
She sat without speaking at first, and fought back a smile unsuccessfully. "Maybe every Halloween, the local forest animals are under some ancient curse where they're turned into public servants and have to cater to demanding humans," she observed finally, playing along.
"That hardly seems fair."
"Who said life is fair? We, of all creatures, should be aware of that particular fact." Scully picked up her mug and closed her hands around it. Tendrils of heat rose from the surface of the liquid. He watched, mesmerized, as her nose hovered delicately over the steaming liquid, inhaling deeply. "Mmm..."
She took a sip, her lips closing over the rim of the cup and something below the area of his belt gave an answering surge at the sight. Mulder pulled up a stool and sat down quickly, both to hide the evidence and lest he pass out from the loss of blood currently rushing southward.
The possibility of Scully was almost too much for him. The reality of Scully definitely was. When had they crossed this line? How could he possibly think he might satisfy this woman? It seemed a ludicrous wish. He didn't even know where to begin.
"Scully..." It was a feeble start to an even more feeble protest. How could he explain to her what he knew in his heart? That in the end, he would fail her? That in the end, everyone fails others in those nobler intentions they hold. That all anyone can hope for is to grab what little happiness they can before forced to leave this world -- moments that are never a promise but only a delay to the ever-present shadows.
She put a finger up to his lips. "No, Mulder. Don't spoil it. It's not that bad." She set down her mug on the polished wood bar and reaching over, picked up his with one hand. With the other, she closed his hands around it. "Take a sip," she urged.
He raised the mug to his lips. The steam rose into his nostrils and almost made him sneeze. Scully, grinning over the rim in his line of sight, bewitched him. He took a huge gulp and scalded his tongue. She laughed as he set the drink down and berated her for the wound. But the cider was good and healed his soul. A hot elixir of life in the dying breaths of autumn.
"Thanks for bringing me here," Scully said, her tone shifting to solemn before returning to a lighter note. "And on your favorite holiday, of all days."
"Thanks for sharing your room," he grinned.
"Oh, we haven't even gotten to that part yet," she announced mysteriously.
This time, he promised with confidence enough to chase the lingering shadows away, forcing them to flee outside into the gilded forest or up into the painted, midnight blue of the sky. At least for a while. For long enough. "Oh, but we will."