Title: What is Essential
Summary: Halloween, 1997. "What is essential is invisible to the eye."
Endless thanks to alanna, Jesemie's Evil Twin, Lilydale, and Revely for advice and encouragement.
More notes at the end.
Autumn leaves fly from the trees, whirling madly in a sudden gust of wind. Darkness wraps around the car like a cape, and even with his brights on Mulder can barely see the road stretched out in front of him. There's no moon, and the stars are shrouded by a layer of clouds, promising a storm.
Not a perfect night for driving, he thinks, but a perfect night for Halloween. Obviously Scully doesn't feel the same way. At the first clap of thunder she looks out the window into the darkened sky and sighs.
"I'm sorry, Scully," he says. "I know this isn't what you wanted to be doing on a Friday night."
Scully glances his way, then holds her hands up to the vents to warm them.
"Halloween isn't exactly on my list of can't miss holidays, Mulder, but even so, spending it in the least attractive location in Podunk, Georgia wasn't what I had planned." She shakes her head mournfully. "All that candy I bought, and all those cute little ghosts and witches knocking at my door, and me not there to give it away. I was going to make candied apples, too, Mulder. Candied apples."
He leers as best he can while still keeping his attention half- focused on the road. "Well, if you're looking to play trick or treat, Scully..."
She ignores him, turning on the radio and zipping through the stations: static, agricultural news, "The Monster Mash," more static. She turns it off and twists in her seat to face him, tugging at her seatbelt.
"What the hell were you thinking?" Her words may be harsh, but her tone is only mildly annoyed. "Even if God had seen fit to put His son's portrait on an outhouse door, who cares? How is that even relevant to the FBI? Or to us?"
He drums his fingers on the steering wheel, accompanying the song in his head: Jesus loves me this I know, for the outhouse tells me so.
"An unexplained phenomenon, Scully," he says, slowing the car as a possum scurries across the road in front of them, eerie eyes shining in the headlights. "That's what's relevant. Jesus appears in the door, a farmer is suddenly healed of twenty years of bursitis, and his wife's chronic migraines disappear. Hell, even that old dog of theirs was as spry as a puppy."
Scully shakes her head. She complains, but Mulder knows she's glad to be back at work, even if she finds the importance of this particular case questionable.
"For one thing, Mulder, those markings, whatever they are, do not look like Jesus. They look a lot more like Englebert Humperdinck if you ask me."
"Englebert Humperdinck?" Mulder says, disbelieving. "And you think _I'm_ strange?"
"For another thing," she continues as if he hadn't spoken, "psychological factors in healing are incredibly well-documented, you of all people should know that. The placebo effect. If you think you've been treated, sometimes you get better. There's nothing miraculous about it."
His eyes dart her way, and he wonders again what she thinks caused her remission ** the DARPA chip, her doctor's last-ditch treatment, God? It's not something they've discussed, and he doubts they will.
"Those people were very nice, and very well-meaning, but not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer." She looks his way as if she could say the same about him.
"Yeah." He turns on the wipers as the first fat drops of rain start to fall. "Anyway, Scully, I said I'm sorry. I just thought it'd make a nice side trip after two days of partnership conference hell. A three hour drive from Atlanta this morning, an hour at the farm, three hours back, and we'd catch our flight. I didn't think we'd be there all afternoon."
"And all evening," she groans.
"And all evening."
"Eating dinner. Watching the video of their outhouse that they sent to the Pope. Looking at a hundred pictures of their grandchildren posing with farm animals in 4-H contests..."
"I swear there was a crop circle in that one picture, Scully. The one of the brother-in-law's farm in Minnesota."
"Mulder. There were no crop circles. Anyway, there's no way you're dragging me to Minnesota in November."
He chuckles, loosens his tie, and slips it out from under his collar. Without comment Scully takes it from him, folds it, and places it with his suit jacket in the back seat.
"You've got to admit, though," he begins, and she raises her eyebrow in warning. He changes his tack. "You have to admit, the apple cobbler was really good."
"Mmm, yes it was. Apple brown betty with real whipped cream. Maybe I'll make it for Thanksgiving at my mother's."
She pulls her ID wallet out of her pocket and removes an index card decorated with bows and geese, flashing it his way before glancing at the recipe "from the kitchen of Matilda Bloom."
"I guess the trip wasn't a total waste, then," he says, smirking as she slips the card and wallet back in her pocket.
"Not a total waste, no."
He remembers the blissful look on Scully's face when she took that first bite. The way her eyes fluttered closed for just a second, the way she licked a fluff of cream from her top lip before she became the businesslike Agent Scully again. Farmer Bloom was explaining the finer points of miracle outhouse cures, but Mulder couldn't take his eyes off his partner long enough to pay attention.
"It's good to see you eating again, Scully," he says casually. "It's been too long." He starts to say, "since I saw you pig out," but thinks better of it. It's true, though. She's healthy again, and for the moment, before she goes back to salads and yogurt, he's enjoying her regained appetite.
To his relief Scully doesn't seem to mind his commenting on her health and eating habits, at least not this time. She briefly squeezes his hand where it rests on the wheel, then reaches into the back seat, fumbling for her camel coat and finding his black trench instead. She starts to put it back but changes her mind and drapes it over herself.
"Wake me when we get to the airport, okay?" she says, snuggling into the coat, which covers her from toes to nose. Her eyelids droop, then drift shut.
"Okay. Sweet dreams," he whispers, returning his gaze to the road.
All Hallow's Eve. The night ghosts come out, and are laid to rest.
For a while she is caught between wake and sleep, dozing, but still aware she is in the car with Mulder. She hears the wet crunch of gravel as the tires roll over the rain-slicked road, the susurration of the heater, Mulder stirring beside her as he rolls up his sleeves.
It's too hot for him with the heater on, but her internal thermostat is still off-kilter. Mulder pays attention, adjusts the temperature, and sweats or freezes without a word. His sweetness touches her, even half-asleep.
The wind grows stronger, and the small car lists like a sailboat with every gust. Each time she's on the verge of sinking into the comfort of sleep, thunder booms like the voice of God, pulsing through the car seat and awakening her for a moment. Then the rain's patter and the steady rhythm of the windshield wipers lull her back to her dreams.
Her head swims, voices and faces blurring in her mind. Mulder, his eyes wet and vibrantly green as he sits beside her hospital bed. Her mother's tremulous alto singing her a lullaby when the pain kept her from sleeping. The Smoker's wrinkled gray head, floating disembodied in a cloud of misty smoke.
Lightning flashes, its white light burning even through closed eyelids, and she hears herself grumbling in protest, a sleepy, unconscious reaction, as if she's listening from outside herself. "S'bright," she murmurs, covering her eyes with her hand. Her elbow knocks the covers away and she shivers with a sudden chill.
She feels Mulder tuck his coat more snugly around her shoulder, his hand slide lightly down her arm. She thinks she hears him humming "Jesus Loves Me," and knows for certain she is dreaming.
"Wakey, wakey, Agent Scully."
Mulder pulls the car door shut and leans toward Scully, gently stroking a finger down her warm cheek. She jerks and shakes herself awake, covering her face with both hands for a moment before pushing his coat away and looking around at the darkness outside the windows. Obviously noticing that they are _not_ at the airport.
"What's going on, Mulder? Why are we stopped here?"
He smiles ruefully. "We have a slight problem."
"What? Is something wrong with the car?"
"You could say that, yes."
Scully gives him a sharp look. A tell-me-your-lamebrained-theory- already look.
"We're out of gas. I thought we'd have enough to get us to the airport after that last rest stop we took, but apparently not. There's got to be something wrong with the gauge, because there's no way I could've made such a gross miscalcula-"
"Well, maybe there's someplace around here, Mulder," she interrupts. "A gas station within walking dista..."
She trails off as she seems to notice his bedraggled appearance for the first time since she woke.
"You already looked," she states, and he nods, running a hand through his wet, gel-sticky hair.
"There's nothing around for at least a quarter of a mile except a couple of abandoned old farmhouses ** shacks, really ** and a shop that's locked up tight. We can make a run for it, get inside somehow, and try to make a phone call. Or at least stay there until the storm passes and we can get some help. It's too cold to spend much time in the car without the heater."
"I suppose this is a stupid question," she begins, unbuckling her seat belt, "but did you try the cell-"
"No cell phone service out here in Podunk, Georgia, Scully. We're stuck."
Scully hands Mulder his coat, reaches for her own in the back, and struggles into it before bending to grab the small umbrella tucked beneath her seat. Too bad he hadn't known about that before he headed out into the storm without even a coat to keep him slightly dry.
She climbs out of the car and walks around to his side, offering to let him huddle with her under the umbrella's tiny shelter. He points them in the right direction and they make a run for it. The wind blows stinging rain into his face, and threatens to turn the umbrella inside out.
The store is set back from the road, almost hidden from view by a forest of massive pine trees. As they make their way up the muddy drive leading to the front porch of Addie's Antique and Book Emporium, lightning flickers in the windows, and the place looks alive.
Shadowy shapes inside stretch toward them, then retreat, all in the blink of an eye. The porch stairs creak under their feet, and a black cat appears from its hiding place beneath the porch, mewing pitifully and circling them when they stop to pick the lock.
"I guess you'll get your Halloween after all, Scully," Mulder says, pushing open the door, which seems to moan in greeting.
The cat hisses and scuttles away to a dark corner while Scully shakes excess water from her umbrella and pulls the door shut behind her.
"Not exactly Barnes and Noble," Mulder says. He flips the useless light switch up and down, dripping dirty rainwater on the dusty wood floor of their home for the night, then gives up and pulls a flashlight from his coat pocket.
There's no light except the narrow beam Mulder points around the shop's main room. A long, dark wood counter is straight ahead of them, full bookshelves line the walls, and odd pieces of furniture are scattered here and there, hulking in the darkness like monsters from under the bed. An old-fashioned settee, wing chair, and ottoman are gathered around a fireplace in one corner.
Scully starts when the flashlight streaks across something human- shaped and shiny. A mannequin decked out in a suit of armor, she realizes as her heartbeat slows back down. His visor is up, revealing a bland, wooden fellow who could be JFK's boring twin brother.
"Looks like it used to be someone's house, way back when," Scully observes, noticing the doors and hallways branching off from the main room, leading to other, smaller rooms stuffed with old- fashioned toys, hats, and dishes.
"Addie's house, maybe," Mulder says as they explore the cobweb- filled nooks and crannies, searching for a phone. He lifts the receiver of the yellow rotary on the sales counter, listens, and seems unsurprised to hear nothing.
"Seems Addie's been gone for a while." Scully runs a finger through a quarter inch of dust on a nearby bookshelf and tries not to sneeze. "What a strange business to have out here in the middle of nowhere."
"Maybe her ghost is still here, Scully," Mulder intones, holding the flashlight under his chin. "Keeping watch over her treasures in the old shop. People have come to clear things out before, but she scared them away, into the dark forest outside, never to be heard from again."
Scully rolls her eyes. "Really, Mulder, is that the best you can do? I know I've heard better ghost stories from you than that."
Mulder lowers the flashlight and continues exploring while she stands shivering beside the counter. "What do you expect of a guy whose coat weighs more than he does? I'm not exactly in tip-top form tonight."
She surveys his drowned puppy appearance. "You must be freezing," she says. "You need to get out of those wet clothes."
Mulder pauses in his inspection of a gumball machine shaped like Elvis's head ** a penny in the bouffant hair, a twist of the ear, and the King spits into your waiting hand ** to raise his eyebrows at her obvious opening. Gumhead Elvis is too fascinating, however, and he goes back to playing with it as she carefully makes her way toward the fireplace.
"I know what I want for my birthday, Scully," he says. She turns back to see him holding Elvis's head next to his own. With his shiny, wet hair next to Elvis's shellacked mane, the resemblance is uncanny.
"It's unbelievably tacky, Mulder."
"I know." He smiles. "That's what makes it so great. And at the bargain price of only $150."
"You must be kidding."
"I'm sure Elvis gumball machines are quite rare," he says, finally letting go of the object of his desire.
"Thank God. Now get over here with that flashlight. I'm going to try building a fire."
"Because you had such good luck last time, right?" He shines the light on the mantelpiece, and Scully searches for something to help get the fire started.
"Aha, matches! We're in luck." She tosses two prehistoric looking logs from the small pile on the hearth into the fireplace, and Mulder noisily rummages around behind the sales counter, returning with several sales flyers that he crumples and shoves beneath the wood. In a few minutes they have a fire which, though not exactly blazing, provides at least a little light and warmth.
Mulder reads one of the unsacrificed flyers. "There's some history of the shop here," he says. "'Addie's Antique and Rare Book Emporium opened in October 1947, founded and run by Adelaide Bell Johnson. The daughter of illiterate sharecroppers, Mrs. Johnson started her shop after the death of her beloved husband in World War II, originally selling books as a way of sharing her love of learning with others in her rural hometown. In the '70s the shop expanded to include a wide variety of antiques and collectibles. Addie lives and works in the shop, which was once her family's home.'"
"When was that printed?" Scully asks.
He squints at the yellowing sheet of paper, shining his flashlight on the front, then the back of the page. "Doesn't say."
"Hmm. Well, the store can't have been closed for too long, with all these things still here. Maybe she just got too old or sick to take care of it."
"Or maybe she's here even now, haunting anyone who dares invade her sanctuary."
Scully sighs. "Go find some dry clothes, Mulder. There's got to be something around here you can wear."
Their eyes simultaneously land on Jack Kennedy in his incongruous Camelot suit, and the agents smile at each other.
Scully refuses to call Mulder her knight in shining armor, chip or no chip, but as he lopes off on a quest for something warm to wear, she can't help thinking it for a moment.
The fire crackles and pops, threatening to send sparks in their direction, but they're too busy reading to care.
Mulder slouches on one end the settee, dressed in an ancient, mothball scented pair of Levi's overalls and an old flannel shirt, while Scully is curled up on the other end, her nose in a battered copy of "Persuasion."
Between them is a stack of musty books ** everything from Poe to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle ** and the cat, who eventually sidled out of the shadows to join them in front of the fire. They found an oil lamp on another pass through the store, and it sits precariously perched on the ottoman, throwing shadows on the walls and flickering on the pages they read.
Scully looks up and questioningly eyes the book he has in his hands. "You can read French?"
"I took a few years of it in school, yeah. French is the second language of all well brought up young New England schoolboys. Didn't you know that?"
"Read me something," she says.
Mulder hesitates. It's been years since he spoke French, and when he did it back then it was only to impress girls on his trips across the Channel, when he was at Oxford. He supposes it's serving the same purpose now, and gives it a try.
"Voici mon secret. Il est tres simple: on ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux." He imagines his high school French teacher, old Madame Simon, rolling in her grave, appalled by his horrible accent.
Scully sighs almost dreamily. "That's nice," she says, and Mulder smirks. Looks like he still has it. "What does it mean?"
"Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."
Their gazes catch and hold, and the moment stretches between them. Scully's face illuminated by firelight is lovely, but when she drops her head to carefully mark the place in her book with a folded store flyer, the circles still visible beneath her eyes seem especially dark.
"I always wanted to learn French," she says, looking back up at him. "I've dreamed about visiting Paris ever since I read 'Madeline' when I was young."
"Yeah, I can see that," Mulder says. "Both of you mischievous, redheaded Catholic girls."
Scully chuckles. "Something like that."
"So why didn't you study French, if you liked it so much?"
She shrugs. "I took Latin, Mulder. A dead language, but a very practical one for a future doctor."
"You learned German, though, didn't you?"
Scully nods. She seems surprised, as if she'd almost forgotten, herself, and never expected him to remember. "Yeah, I did. Just two semesters in college."
"Well, that doesn't sound too practical."
"It was, actually," she says. "Melissa'd planned a month long backpacking trip to Austria and Germany the summer after my freshman year. The plans fell through when she fell in love with her yoga instructor and decided to stay home for the summer."
She gives him a small, wistful smile.
"Anyway, my father would only help pay for the trip if we went together. It sounded fun, but I didn't want to go not speaking a word of the language. I don't know. I craved a sense of control back then, I guess. I felt I needed to know everything, be prepared for every eventuality."
"But not now?" he asks skeptically.
"Now I just take things as they come, Mulder. The X-Files don't exactly lend themselves to a lot of predictability. And God knows I don't know everything."
The sadness in her tone clutches at him, and he searches for something to lighten the mood. "I've told you we should get psychic readings as a department, Scully. We could find out what's in store for the year, you could plan your vacation days accordingly."
"Mulder," she growls.
"It'd be a good New Year's Resolution, don't you think? I happen to know a great reader in D.C."
Scully smiles. "I'm sure you do."
For a moment they sit in comfortable silence, listening to the rain still pouring outside, the rumbling thunder, the purring cat. Mulder stands and throws another log into the fireplace, sending up a shower of orange sparks.
"Well, this French fascination of yours explains one thing, at least," he says, settling back down on the sofa. The cat, not pleased at being disturbed from her nap, eyes him haughtily and relocates to the wing chair.
"What's that?" Scully asks.
"All that fancy cheese in your fridge. I was wondering about that."
She narrows her eyes. "What do you know about what I have in my refrigerator, Mulder?"
"I made myself a little snack the last time I was at your apartment. You weren't there, and I didn't think you'd mind."
Scully looks puzzled at first, her eyebrows drawing together, but she quickly realizes when it was. "Oh," she says. "Oh. No, of course I don't mind."
"Takes a lot out of a guy, pretending to be dead," he jokes, and instantly regrets it. How can he kid around about faking suicide, when just a few days afterwards she'd been lying on her own all too real deathbed? "I'm sorry, Scully, I-"
She shakes her head. "Don't be sorry, Mulder. To tell you the truth I've...well, I've missed this. Things have been so serious, but it's starting to feel more normal again."
Mulder's throat tightens with emotion. He wants to put his arm around her, but the books are between them.
Scully yawns, covering her mouth with her hand, and he's surprised when a quick glance at his watch tells him it's already after two in the morning. He places the pile of books on the floor beside him and turns down the lamp, then stretches one arm along the back of the settee.
"C'mere, Scully," he whispers.
She nervously licks her lips. For a moment she wears the same deer-in-the-headlights expression she wore when he walked in on her with Van Blundht, and he can't help smiling.
"You're tired, you should sleep," he says, patting his shoulder in invitation. "It's still fairly chilly in here, and you know what they say about body heat."
"I've heard something about that recently, yeah," she says, scooting over to gingerly rest her head on his shoulder, letting him wrap his arms around her. "This can't be very comfortable for you, Mulder. You need to sleep, too." She's already dropping off in that way she has, her voice low and slurred with drowsiness.
"I'll be fine, Scully," he says, thinking that he can't remember the last time he was as comfortable as he is at this moment. "You just rest."
She pulls her feet up beside her on the couch, and at last he feels her relax completely, melting against his body.
"You smell like mothballs, Mulder," she murmurs, and then she's gone, her breathing warm and even against his chest.
It's not long before he's asleep, too, listening to the steady beating of her heart.
"Here, read this one, dearie."
The voice is feminine and crackly with age ** a slow, gentle drawl. Scully doesn't feel unsafe, hearing a stranger's voice, just warm and heavy-limbed, too muddled with sleep to bother opening her eyes.
Something solid and heavy rests on her lap, and a sweetly scented breeze caresses her cheek. She smells lavender. The odor reminds her of her grandmother's perfume, of the sachets in her mother's bureau drawers.
When at last she opens her eyes she is alone in front of the fire, looking down at a black, leather-bound book. She strokes its pebbled cover, and opens it to see pages covered with her own round writing.
It should seem strange to her that her journal, which was safely locked away at home, is sitting on her lap, but somehow she isn't surprised.
Slowly, carefully, she turns the pages, reading words that hid and illuminated her fear and hope, words that said too much and not enough. Words meant for him.
She flips to the back, anxious to know how the story ends, and finds only pages and pages of smooth, expansive white, blank blue lines waiting to be filled.
He is sitting in the wing chair warming his hands when Scully wakes, blinking against the glare of sunshine just beginning to intrude through the windows. She seems confused to see him there, and to find the cat curled up on her lap, purring contentedly.
"Good morning," he says. "Sleep well?"
"Mmm," she says, nodding. She stretches her arms above her head and yawns.
Mulder smiles, watching her shoo the cat from her lap and sleepily rub her eyes. Early-morning Scully is dewy and disheveled. He hasn't seen enough of her like this.
"It stopped raining about half an hour ago," he says. "I checked on the car. Still no gas, of course, and we came close to not even having the car anymore. A huge tree blew down about ten feet from the spot where we left it."
"Oh?" Scully leans forward and searches through the pile of books stacked on the floor, carefully examining each one, her brow furrowed with concentration.
"Are you okay?" he asks. "Did you lose something?"
"What?" she says, startled. She stops rearranging books and looks up at him, shaking her head. "No. No, I'm fine. That's good about the car, Mulder. Another insurance claim and the rental agency would've banned us for life."
He nods. Scully still seems slightly unsettled, but he chalks it up to the long, strange night.
"So, are you ready to go?" she asks. She stands up and smoothes her clothes with her hands, then tucks wavy hair behind her ears. She looks a little wild, like she did that night in Florida. He doesn't want to take his eyes off her when she's like this.
"Just give me a second to change," he finally says. He gestures to the jeans and sweater he took from the car, neatly folded in his lap.
Scully's lips quirk in a smile. "No more overalls, Mulder?"
"Not really my style," he says. He stands and walks to one of the small rooms, where he can change clothes with no one but a group of preternaturally wide-eyed old dolls to see him.
Glancing back, he notices the way the worn bookshelves lean drunkenly on one another, the way the floorboards buckle beneath their layer of dust. Water is pooled on top of a glass display case full of gaudy rhinestone jewelry, from a leak in the roof they didn't notice the night before.
Addie's looks slightly shabbier in the unforgiving sunshine. Amazing, he thinks, how firelight can work magic.
The two-lane highway is narrow, rutted by tractors and eighteen wheelers far too large for such a small road. Muddy water shimmies in potholes, and despite her best efforts to avoid them, Scully's shoes and pant hems are caked with dirt by the time they find a gas station an hour after sunrise.
The station looks like something from an old movie. The pump is fairly modern, but there's only one, lonely beneath a tin awning projecting from a white frame building. From their vantage point on the road they can see an old, green pickup truck pull up for fuel, and the station attendant walk out of the small store, probably offering to fill 'er up.
"How much do you want to bet that guy's name is Goober?" Mulder asks.
Scully shivers in her wool pantsuit and still damp coat, last night's storm having brought with it a blast of even colder weather from the north.
If Mulder's cold he doesn't show it, dressed in his jeans and cotton sweater. He exhales steamy breath and keeps his hands jammed in his pants pockets, but aside from that he looks as unruffled as if they spent the night in a luxury hotel suite, and had simply decided to take a stroll along the beach.
Scully reluctantly pulls a hand out of her coat pocket and rubs her nose, which she can barely feel. "I still think you should've kept the overalls, Mulder," she teases. "I'm sure you'd fit in a lot better with the locals here."
Mulder glances at her. "Since when do I worry about fitting in?"
"Very true," she replies.
His eyes widen. "Unless farmer chic turns you on, Scully." He turns on his heel as if to head in the other direction. "I'll catch up with you later."
Scully grabs his arm and points him back toward the filling station. "Let's just go, Mulder. In case you hadn't noticed, it's about 35 degrees out here."
The green truck's engine sputters to life as they walk up, and the driver waves as he pulls away. The station attendant, a squat, middle-aged man wearing a brown flannel shirt and denim overalls, approaches them. Scully raises her eyebrow at Mulder in a silent "I told you so."
"What can I do for you folks?" the man drawls.
"We ran out of gas about two miles back," Scully says. "Not far from the old bookstore."
The man pulls his Braves cap further down on his head, as if wishing it was big enough to warm his prominent, cold-reddened ears.
"Bookstore?" he says.
Scully nods. "We were stranded there during the storm, so if we could just get a few gallons of gas..."
"That's no problem, ma'am. I'll even drive you back down there." He seems to notice her muddy high heels, and Mulder's coatless state. "It's way too bad out to be walking."
"Thank you," she says. "We'd appreciate that."
The man is silent for a few seconds, his brow furrowed. "Addie's place, is that the bookstore you mean?"
"Yes, that's right," she says slowly, thinking that Goober would probably be a pretty good name for this guy after all. Her stomach growls; low blood sugar makes her grumpy.
She turns to Mulder. "I'll just go get us something for breakfast," she says, gesturing at the store.
Mulder seems distracted, looking back down the stretch of road they came up, squinting and holding his hand up to block the early morning sunshine from his eyes.
"Yeah, Scully, fine," he says absently, as she walks away.
Five minutes later, Scully emerges from the store with honey buns, two large styrofoam cups of steaming coffee, and a dozen half- price jack-o-lantern sugar cookies. The young girl inside ** Goober's daughter, Scully discovered ** gaped at her as if she'd never seen a stranger before, though after taking a look at herself in the store's warped bathroom mirror Scully really couldn't blame her. She looked like a leftover Halloween witch, with frizzy hair, wrinkled clothes, and pale skin.
"Ready to go?" she asks Mulder, who's deep in conversation with the attendant. Mulder takes a cup of coffee from her hand, inhaling the scent, and nods.
They climb into the attendant's pickup truck with Scully crammed in the middle, so close to both of them she can hardly breathe. The cab reeks of a strange blend of gasoline fumes and the strawberry air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror.
"Darryl here's been telling me about Addie Johnson and her store," Mulder says, taking a sip of his coffee.
"Oh?" Her legs are pressed against Mulder's, so Darryl can change gears without groping her, and she fights the urge to lean her entire body against the warmth of Mulder's side. He is her own personal space heater.
"Yes, ma'am." Darryl steers them out into the road. Mud splashes against the sides of the truck as he drives through puddles. "A really fine lady. She died, oh, about five years ago, I guess."
He flips on the windshield wipers to knock away a few dried pine needles that have gathered on the glass, and they flutter away in the breeze.
"Her kids came and got all the stuff in the store," he continues. "Sold it at some auction in Atlanta and closed up the shop. The town hasn't been the same since she passed, that's for sure."
Scully looks at Mulder, who has a smug smile on his face. He can hardly stop smiling long enough to take another sip of his coffee. She turns her attention back to Darryl.
"What do you mean, her children sold everything in the store?" she asks. "We just spent the night there. It was dusty and a little messy, but definitely not empty."
Darryl takes his eyes off the road long enough to give her a strange look, one she recognizes from years of interrogating suspects as that of a man who knows more than he's willing to tell. He reaches up to adjust his cap again just as they hit a pothole, and almost elbows Scully in the eye.
"Well, I don't know what to say, ma'am. That place's been shut down for years. Maybe where you folks stayed was some other old house along the road, but I don't know which one it could've been. They're all pretty much run down and abandoned down this stretch."
Mulder whispers in her ear. "Don't ask me how, Scully, but the Twilight Zone just seems to find us, wherever we go."
"What's that?" Darryl asks.
"Nothing," Scully replies, pointing toward the left side of the road. "Here's our car."
The truck shudders to a stop, and the three of them get out. Darryl grabs the gas can from the back of the truck and fills the car's tank. Scully takes a moment to enjoy being able to breathe freely while Mulder pays for the gas.
"Drive careful now," Darryl says as he climbs into the truck and starts the engine. "The road's still slick."
They watch him as he pulls away, kicking up muddy water. Mulder takes a honey bun from the paper sack in Scully's hand, unwraps it and takes a huge bite.
"What the hell was that all about?" she asks.
Mulder shrugs, quickly swallowing before he speaks. "I'm not exactly sure, but we've got to go back to the shop, obviously."
"Obviously nothing, Mulder," she says. "I'm tired and hungry, and I just want to get the next flight out of here."
"The man did seem pretty certain the store was long gone, yet we just spent the night sleeping on the couch. Aren't you just the least bit curious?"
"No, not really," she sniffs, raising her cup of coffee to her lips. She tries not to think of her dream, and the scent of lavender.
"C'mon," he says, waving his breakfast beneath her nose. "I'll give you half."
"I have my own, thanks."
Mulder sighs, then turns to look into the forest, silently chewing. She can almost hear his mind working, formulating theories in his endlessly curious way. She knows he'll go back there one way or another ** with or without her, now or later.
"Oh, fine, Mulder. But this is totally ridiculous, you know."
"I'm sure you're right," he lies, grinning as he starts walking toward the woods.
The store is a shambles.
Half-dead grass and thistly weeds grow all the way up to the front porch. The windows are X-ed over with masking tape to keep them from being broken, and the shingle over the front door dangles lopsided, its lettering faded almost to illegibility.
Mulder jogs up the path to the front door, which opens easily, hung as it is by only one set of hinges. He's not really surprised to find the room empty except for the thick layer of dust and cobwebs over the walls and floor, smeared by their fingerprints and footsteps.
Scully follows close behind him, her mouth hanging open. "I don't believe this," she says. "Someone must've been waiting until we left to come in and loot the place. A pretty organized group, too, if they could get everything in the store out in such a short amount of time-"
"We should drive back to the gas station and call the sheriff, Mulder. They can't have gotten too far, yet."
"This place wasn't robbed," he says, exploring the empty spaces where tables piled high with old lace and linens, shelves stacked with musty magazines, and cabinets displaying fragile china once stood.
"Look at it, Scully, it's not the same as it was last night. It's dirtier and more run down, and the windows are taped up, which I'm pretty sure they weren't before."
"It's impossible, Mulder. We sat right there," she says, pointing toward the fireplace.
She walks over and kneels beside the hearth, feeling for remnants of the logs they burned the night before. She finds a nothing but dust, marred only by the shape of human feet and hands, and four tiny paws. "There were books, and the other rooms were full, too. You saw it. Where did you leave the clothes you wore?"
"They were on the couch." Mulder walks over to her, peering down into the fireplace. He shrugs. "Who knows? Maybe Addie's ghost really was here. I mean, I was just kidding around about that last night, but-"
"There's no such thing as ghosts, Mulder," she says quickly. "And even if there were, don't they just go around moaning and moving furniture? I've never heard of ghosts who made furniture _appear_.
"I don't know, Scully. Maybe we just needed some time together, after...well, after everything," he says lamely.
"What, like a Halloween miracle?" She shakes her head in disbelief. "You must be kidding. There has to be a better explanation than that."
Mulder listens to her denials without irritation. A month ago he thought he would be without her by the first day in November, that he would be half crazy with grief. Instead they're in a dusty old haunted store in backwoods Georgia, bickering about the existence of ghosts. He smiles and brushes away a stray pine needle that's stuck to her shoulder, letting his hand rest there.
The cat saunters in through the wide-open door with a loud meow, her tail swishing when she sees the two of them back in her territory. She slinks toward them, rubbing against their ankles before delicately sitting in front of the fireplace, waiting for them to leave her alone. Mulder bends to pet her, and she butts his hand with her head.
"Addie, that's not you, is it?" he says, not quite sure whether or not he's joking.
The cat blinks slowly and lies down on the hearth, licking her paw and beginning to clean gray dust from her inky fur. Mulder straightens and faces Scully, who gives him a small, mysterious smile.
"Let's just go home, Mulder," she says. "If we manage to get back at a decent hour, I might even make you a candied apple."
"Okay, Scully." Mulder smiles in return, lightly placing a hand on her back as they turn to leave. "Let's go home."
On the creaky porch steps he pauses to picks up a small, prickly pinecone, handing it to Scully. She examines it for a moment, and without a word, slips it in her coat pocket. Together they walk out among the wild things, beneath a canopy of evergreen trees.
Halloween fic in December! As usual I'm a little behind the times. <g>
Thanks to JET, Noelle Leithe, Lysandra, melymbrosia, and Revely for providing elements for this story, oh so long ago.
A special thank you to Lilydale, who not only exhibited saintly patience throughout the writing and editing of this story, but also graciously forgave me for not using her element. :)
Mulder quotes from _Le Petit Prince_ by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
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