Summary: Mulder has cravings, too.
Beta Thanks: Forte and Invida Prompts, (also courtesy Invida): a fall fair, something lost, and a ghost story
After eight weeks of bed rest, desk jockeying and jumping through FBI hoops to re-qualify, Mulder had been anxious to get back to working cases. And, if he were honest with himself, feeling a little anxious about doing just that. But he was also glad for the chance that a field investigation offered to re-set the equilibrium in his partnership. His…illness, and its resolution in particular, he knew, had rattled Scully more than she would admit. But she seemed as pleased as Mulder to be back on the road now – so much so that she'd even offered to handle their travel arrangements, and he'd been happy to relinquish that particular bit of administrative bureaucracy.
Paperwork on the Lucky Boy killings duly signed and submitted, Scully had booked them on an early flight back to DC and reserved rooms at a boutique hotel in a small beach town just south of LAX. The drive up from the Orange County field office was more of a crawl at the end of the day. Though Scully had taken care of renting the car, Mulder had insisted on resuming his rightful place behind the wheel. Regret crept over him as they inched up the 405 freeway in late afternoon traffic. Looking enviously over at a napping Scully, he thought about searching the radio for the local sports report to keep him company. Instead, his thoughts became occupied by their work on the murders of Donald Pankow and Derwood Spinks.
Not for the first time, he pondered the idea that the effects of the alien artifact, which were apparently excised along with a chunk of his temporal lobe, had nonetheless permanently altered his brain's capacity for perception. From the moment he met the crew at the MacArthur Blvd. Lucky Boy location, Mulder had really only entertained one suspect. But he didn't need to hear Rob Robertson's thoughts to know the young man was responsible for Pankow's death. The kid's face betrayed a churning well of hunger. In his mind's eye, Mulder could see the suspect frantically devouring the pile of discarded meat, trying in vain to satisfy his true cravings with a poor substitute. Mulder knew the feeling, considering how often he had gobbled up mere scraps of facts when he was starved for capital-T Truth.
His partner stretched and shifted in her seat without fully waking. When she'd returned from Africa, he hadn't needed to read Scully's internal monologue, either. He was as relieved not to hear "lab rat" emanating from her mind as he was grateful to see the love pouring from her eyes. Her inner thoughts hadn't even formulated the words, but he'd felt them all the same. He'd held onto that look, those waves of emotion, in every conscious moment that followed. That sense of pure comfort saw him through an unmeasured haze of fear and confusion, until he came to with her at his side radiating worry, anger and tenderness all at once.
Finally arriving at the hotel, Mulder nudged his companion awake. Scully rolled out of the car with a yawn and lined up their bags on the curb as he handed over the keys and a ridiculous amount of money to the parking valet. The price one paid, he supposed, to watch jumbo jets bound for Maui and Tokyo skim over lifeguard towers and shimmering blue water. After checking in, Mulder suggested a walk down to the coast, as much to stretch his legs as to distance himself from the heat of his gun and Rob Robertson's anguished yearning for the simple existence he could never have.
An hour before sunset, the air was still balmy. The village clung to steep brown hills falling into the Pacific. Mulder and Scully followed a maze of narrow streets through a pastel Lego pile of condos down to a farmers market and fall fair spread over several blocks of The Strand. Cases seemed to bring them to California more often lately, and for Mulder the place was eternally exotic. He marveled at the abundance of summer produce spilling across the tables even at the end of October. His stomach rumbled at the enticing scents of kettle corn and roasting almonds, but it was the caramel apple stand that drew a smile from Scully.
Scully. Another hunger he'd worked like hell to suppress, only to feel it come roaring back stronger than ever in his recovery. She was a delicacy under glass, and he had almost convinced himself that she was better off out of reach. Scully selected a fat, sticky Fuji studded with cashews, and he snickered as she tried to maintain her dignity with bits of browned sugar sticking to her teeth and apple juice dripping down her chin. A strong salty gust whipped her hair about, threatening to glue itself to the caramel. He reached over without thinking to slide it out of danger behind her ear and let his fingers slip slowly over the lobe. Scully grinned and thanked him by raising the treat to his lips, tacitly offering a bite.
Together, they savored the contradictions of tart and sweet, crisp and smooth, passing the apple back and forth as their walk took them onto the pier. Neither said much between turns, and Mulder felt the bonds of their partnership settle into the easy stretch and slack that he had worried might be lost. He reflected with no small joy on being able to stroll in public without the sensation that the people around him had all crowded into to his head. He spent a few minutes zeroing in on passing strangers, trying to tune into their thoughts, breathing in relief when he failed every time. Scully stopped to toss the apple core into a trash can near the railing, and they both paused to lean forward on their elbows, taking in the scene. Mulder nudged her shoulder and nodded to a small boy wearing a Batman cape, who was building a sand castle with his jack-o-lantern candy bucket. Scully's brow quirked in amusement, as if to say, "That's LA for you."
A late-season hurricane was churning off of Baja. It wouldn't bring rain to quench the brittle-dry hills this fire season, but it was driving massive waves into the creaky pilings beneath their feet. He and Scully watched as surfers paddled out in force to greet the enormous, glassy cylinders they hoped to ride to shore. Down on the water, a young woman stroked furiously and planted her feet on the board as a giant swell curled around her. Thrown off balance by the violent current, she soon plunged into the foam, surfacing several long moments later.
"Idiots," they heard from a few feet away, where a weathered fisherman with his line dropped over the railing shook his head and tsked disparagingly.
Mulder and Scully glanced over, politely curious.
"You ever heard of Guy Peters?" He chinned at the waves. "Died out there in '78 on a day just like today."
"Bummer," Mulder affected a surfer-dude drawl.
"Guy Peters? He was an ISA World Master," Scully said.
Mulder knew he shouldn't be surprised any longer by the random esoterica his partner dredged up, but his jaw dropped in delight anyway.
"My brother brought home a lot of surfing magazines when he was a teenager," she explained.
"He wasn't reading them for tips on waxing up his board…or, was he?" Mulder leered. She landed a smack to his shoulder, equal parts affection and disgust.
Scully shook her head seriously. "Just goes to show, even experts can misjudge the power of those waves, get in over their heads."
"So to speak," Mulder muttered.
"Expertise had nothin' to do with it," the fisherman countered. "Guy rode the Mavericks every winter, saw fifteen, twenty-foot action all over the world. Little rip-tide wouldn't take him down."
"So what happened? He hit the pipe – and I don't mean half-pipe – a little too hard that day?" asked Mulder.
"The potency of marijuana can vary widely from strain to strain," Scully added. "And the federal government was using powerful pesticides on cannabis fields in those days."
"Bill a big reader of 'High Times' back then, too?" Mulder murmured into his partner's ear, secretly turned on when it brought a flush to her pale neck.
"Ah, hell, it wasn't anything to do with him," the old guy scoffed. "It was the damn ocean itself. Big hurricane slammed into Cabo that fall, sent humongous waves all the way up to Carmel, but the accident wasn't caused by the weather. If you'd even call it an 'accident.'"
"Are you suggesting a supernatural force was responsible for Guy Peters' death?" Mulder's interest zinged now. "Like maybe it was Tlaloc, the Aztec storm god, asserting his powers?"
Scully rolled her eyes at him and turned back to lean on the railing.
The fisherman squinted and shrugged, his gaze fixed on the roiling tide. "Could be. Folks down on shore and up on the pier watching nature go wild, and a lot of 'em – me included – saw that once Guy caught the swell, it actually rose even further, taking him ten feet above the rest of the waves. Man, he rode that sonuvabitch forever, it seemed like." He turned toward Mulder. "But then it took him down hard, held him under."
"Held him under?" Scully couldn't help but challenge.
"When he finally came up, lifeguards thought the board had knocked him out, or that he'd broken his neck, gone head-first into the ocean floor. But the EMTs didn't find anything like that. Coroner later just said his lungs were full of salt water." Leathery features cracked in reverie. "But hand-to-god, even from where I was sitting up here, I could see he was smiling."
Mulder and Scully exchanged a look: hers, troubled but dubious; his, lit with curiosity and a certain morbid glee.
"They say you can find him out in the waves at twilight this time of year," the geezer continued, "'specially when the breakers are high and fast, like today. I hear swimmers and boarders swear they've had to dive under in a panic as a surfer bore down on them from outta nowhere."
"The entire eastern Pacific must be haunted, if you think about it," Scully said, detouring from her typical fixation with evidence. "From here to the Bering Strait to Cape Horn, imagine how many skeletons – ships and sailors alike – litter the ocean bed."
And all of them hungry, Mulder mused silently. For adventure, discovery, riches and anything besides dried fish and hard-tack, no doubt.
"Heh. I wouldn't go on a cruise with that one," the old man muttered and winked at Mulder.
"Noted," Mulder agreed with a smirk. He eyed his partner, feeling a soft stroke of something in his chest as the golden hour lit her cheek and eyelashes. "C'mon, Scully, let's see if we can scare up a corn dog for dinner."
"More food on a stick, Mulder? I suppose I could go for another bite." His breath hitched a little at her subtly salacious undertone.
Letting slip the ghost of a grin, Scully turned to wish the fisherman a good evening and a good catch. Heading toward shore, the pair ambled slowly, relishing the last bit of sun warming their backs. Winter was coming, at least back in DC, and Mulder could already feel the chill in his bones.
On impulse, he reached to take Scully's hand, unsure how she would feel about the picture they made: a man and a woman, strolling hand-in-hand by the sea at sunset. Mulder cast a quick glance down, expecting to see a question or hesitation in her eyes. Not meeting his look, she twined her fingers with his and didn't let go.