NOTE: This is a WIP in the strictest sense of the word -- I therefore reserve the right to mess with, abuse, fold, spindle and mutilate it as I go. And I will; you know I will.
Many thanks to the usual suspects. Without you, I'm NOTHING! ;)
Three hours and half a dozen cups of coffee later, we were back in the driveway waving Mark goodbye; I was, perhaps, waving a little more enthusiastically than Scully. They hadn't been the worst three hours of my life - there were plenty of better-qualified contenders for that coveted title - but they were certainly among the least comfortable. And I'm including the three months in a box and the three months that came before the box in the count.
Scully had made it clear for weeks that she expected me to be there when The Marvelous Mark made his next appearance, but she hadn't bothered to tell me what I was expected to do during his performance. Was I supposed to sit quietly? Nod knowingly? Juggle? I know as much about renovating a house as Scully does about being tall or ugly or stupid. More to the point, I was living there, but it wasn't my house in any conventional sense. And as much as I wanted - needed - to believe I was and would always be welcome, nothing official had been said, by either one of us, one way or the other. Asking was out of the question, of course. So I confined myself to not interrupting, not glaring at Mark, and not thinking up new and interesting ways to dispose of a corpse.
Those last two proved trickiest. Hence, the enthusiastic waving.
"That wasn't so bad," Scully declared as Mark's truck disappeared.
"No," I agreed without actually agreeing. 'Bad' didn't even start to cover it.
One thing had become evident in short order, though - Scully may not have had a Clue One about being tall, but she knew plenty about gable ends and reinforced foundations and sequential hold-backs. I could read a building schematic, pretty much, but my interest always extended to likely access points for a sharp shooter and where you might want to put a bomb to get the most bang for your C4 buck. Scully, on the other hand, sounded like an old pro as she and Mark effortlessly discussed revisions and revisions of revisions and which revisions needed revising now. It was like being trapped at a foreign film festive without dubbing. Or subtitles. Or even a decent box of popcorn. The longer this 'consultation' went on, the more I wondered if all the copies of JAMA and The Lancet I had seen her devouring over the years had really been concealing back issues of Architectural Digest and This Old House Magazine. Jokes about power tools aside, it was entirely possible Scully had a *thing* for Bob Vila I did not want to know about.
"You were pretty quiet," she said after a moment.
I smiled as best I could. "Nice change, huh?"
She tilted her head to one side and cocked a brow at me. "A change, definitely," she said with a grin of her own. Then she seemed to sober. "I just thought - I thought you'd have more to say."
Now she bothered to tell me. "Oh."
"It's a lot of mon-" she began, then stopped. She frowned. "No questions at all, Mulder?"
I shrugged. "Home renovation is not exactly my area of expertise."
"No. No, I guess it isn't." She looked like she was going to say something else, but thought better of it and glanced away.
I don't know what it was exactly - something atmospheric or cosmological or maybe just something that had been coming on for a long long time, but I felt my mind unexpectedly slip gears, severing the connection between my brain and my tongue. "Besides, Mark seems to have taken care of everything," I said, with just enough edge to sound like an ass.
She tipped her head to the side again.
"You ask all the questions and, what do you know? He's got all the answers."
She frowned, puzzled. "All the -? Oh. No," she said, and shook her head. "No."
"I - he - there's - " she started and stopped. Finally she said, "You have nothing to worry about with Mark, Mulder."
I hadn't expected that - that she'd come right out and admit to it, even by denying it.
"What? Me, worry?" I only half-joked. "What could I possibly have to worry about?"
She licked her lips. "William just - he just really likes Mark's truck," she explained. "Mark's taken us out for a ride in it a few times. He told William he'd bring him a truck of his own next visit. That's all."
'That's all,' I thought. The little light-bulb above my head finally flickered all the way on and cast its harsh light on one ugly fucking picture.
I took a breath and willed myself calm, the way I do before interviewing a witness or interrogating a suspect. "Will's pretty comfortable with him."
"I suppose so." Scully nodded, but looked as if she had no idea where I was going. Which was the point, really.
"Surprisingly comfortable, actually. All the books say he's at that age where he should be worried about unfamiliar people, where he should be 'making strange,' but he's got no problems with Mark," I continued.
"So I guess it must have been more than a few times."
She shrugged. "Mark's been here five or, no, I guess six times, consulting on the renovations, measuring, that sort of thing. And we've seen him at Ellen's a couple of times," she said. "So, yes, I guess William doesn't think of him as a stranger any more."
"At Ellen's? Really?"
"Yes, really. She *is* his sister-in-law," she reminded me.
"I'm aware of that," I answered. "So what? She's invited you and Will over for a couple of play-dates and Mark just happened to be there?"
Scully frowned, "Well, no, but -"
"He's single, right?" I continued, laying out the facts. "Has his own business, not especially ugly, doesn't smell. Really nice truck, too - just ask William. Appears to like kids."
The frown morphed into a hard glare and an elevated brow. After a moment, she asked, "What's your point, Mulder?"
"I guess Mark's exactly the kind of guy a real friend would set you up with."
"Set me up? What the hell-"
"Your mother must be delirious."
She took a step toward me. "Stop it, Mul-."
"Bet Bill likes him, too," I added, dodging her.
"I said stop." She reached out to me, but I stepped back and shrugged her off.
"When's your mom bringing William back?"
She stopped in her tracks, clearly thrown off course by my sudden change of direction. "What?"
"William. Our son."
"Mulder, don't do -"
"I'm not 'doing' anything. When is she bringing him back?"
She folded her arms across her chest and drew her lips into a thin line. "She's not."
There were probably worse ways she could have answered me, but I couldn't think of any. I went from bluster to terror in the space of one heartbeat. "What?"
She took another step toward me. "She's keeping him at her place tonight. He's sleeping over. I thought we -"
I stepped back again, wanting to put more distance between us. "And you didn't think to mention this to me?"
She blinked at me. "Oh Mulder," she sighed at last. "I did mention it. Yesterday. Remember?"
No. No, I didn't remember, at all. When had we discussed this? Had I actually agreed? Or just been told?
My chest was tight and getting tighter. I had to get out of there, remove myself from the situation, or I was going to end up curled in a ball, howling like a baby, or trying to take out another wall without benefit of power tools.
"I'm going for a run," I said, turning for the house.
"Muld -" She caught my arm.
I spun on her, glared down. "What do you want?"
She took a step back, but squared her shoulders, and took a deep breath. "No, Mulder," she said softly, "the question now, clearly, is what do *you* want?"
She nodded once.
That was easy, I thought. I wanted a decent night's sleep and my old life back and for Samantha to have never died and for me to have never been born and for Scully to have never walked into my office and for Will to grow up happy and loved and for the aliens to have by-passed Earth and gone on to bother some other blue-green world and for whoever it was that kept tugging at the rug beneath my feet to yank it the fuck out from under me already and get it over with.
"What do I want?" I repeated.
Her gaze didn't waver. "Yeah."
I looked away, scanning the sky, the trees lining the street, the small useless bits of stone covering the driveway. Anywhere but her eyes.
"Not -" I began, turning away from her. "Not this."
"Wh -?" she started, but I didn't let her finish.
"Let go, Scully," I said with as much steely conviction as I could muster.
I jerked my arm free. "I said, let go."
I did not look back as I bolted for the house.
One of two things was going to happen: either Scully was going to follow me into the house and demand that I stop behaving like a complete asshole, or she wasn't. I couldn't decide which prospect was worse, so I made quick work of sliding out of my jeans and into my running gear. Scully regularly referred to my shoes as *canoes,* so William had developed a habit of filling them with plastic farm animals and sailing them under the bed, behind the bookcase, and once, into a half-filled tub (Yes Virginia, Nikes *do* float). Wherever they were docked that day, they weren't with my neatly folded and freshly laundered shorts and t-shirt, so I decided to forego proper footwear in hopes making a quick, clean getaway. Which is why, half an hour later, I was stuck outside another 7-11 in deepest suburbia with a broken shoelace.
Crouching, I tugged the lace out, hoping to salvage enough of it to finish the run back. The beauty of running - of any strenuous athletic pursuit, for that matter - is that it generates enough endorphins to narrow your focus down to one pure, perfect thought - generally something about how good it's going to feel when you stop. Never feels quite as good as you think it will, though. Good, yeah, just not as good as -
The lace snapped again. So much for that plan. I threw it to the ground in disgust, adding 'littering, with malice aforethought' to my list of crimes.
Shit shit shit. Shit.
I plopped myself down on the sun-warmed curb, popped off my shoe, swore again for good measure, and considered my options.
Options. . .options. . .options. . .
I had to have some, right?
Okay, so, the 7-11 probably sold something I could fake it with. They might even sell laces of some sort, though they'd probably be pink and curly and have My Little Ponies galloping all over them. Unfortunately, my wallet was sitting on the dresser in Scully's guestroom, and since I was still technically a Fed, shoplifting was probably not a great career move.
I could hitchhike. That's generally a good way to make friends and meet sociopaths, and one is frequently the other for me. But, all appearances aside, death-by-deviant wasn't on my to-do list that day, and the odds of someone picking me up around here? Ha. They just don't do that in the 'burbs.
I could call a cab, pay when he dropped me off. That would probably require some explanation, though, and I wasn't in the mood to explain anything to anyone. And what the hell was Scully's address, anyway?
I suppose I could call Scully and ask her to come get me, upping my pathetic loser quotient by several million. Several million million.
Or, come to think of it, I could just sit on the curb with one shoe and wallow in my misery.
Stick with what you know, I guess.
The few clouds that had been hanging around rolled away, leaving my exposed forearms to sizzle about the same way the fake bacon at breakfast had, reminding me that I had not only gone out without sunscreen, but was turning into one of those *do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do* parents I'd always assured myself I was never going to be. The top of my head was burning too, a little more in some spots than others. The reason for that was probably better left un-thought about.
Christ. I knew guys who had kids graduating from college this year. Given the range of geniuses I'd gone to high school with, some of the guys in my graduating class were probably now grandparents. And I had thinning hair and an almost two year old and -
Lord, I thought, my stomach sinking like a stone, I was going to have to go back there. After the stupid things I'd said and the stupid way I'd behaved, I was going to have to go back there and face her and apologize - again - and tell her - again - that I wasn't exactly myself at the moment.
An enormous SUV crammed full of kids rolled by, narrowly missing the puddle next to me. It was true, I guess. But if I wasn't exactly myself at the moment, as far as I could tell, I wasn't exactly anyone else, either. Fox Mulder - truth-seeker, alien-hunter, brooder, rebel, loner, and guy with a decent jump shot - had left the building, leaving behind nothing more than - well, nothing more than me.
Scully hadn't shown the slightest interest in Mark. She'd been civil, friendly, attentive - all the things you probably should be when you're getting ready to hand 50-odd thousand dollars over to someone. Objectively, though, I could say without a trace of a doubt that the only thing she had any interest in him laying was maybe some new flooring. But the one abiding truism of our relationship was that I'd always found it easier to hurt her than disappoint her.
God, I'd had plans. Not elaborate, and not particularly well-thought out plans, but plans, just the same. There were a lot of little details that had to be worked out. Hell, there were a lot of big details that had to be worked out, but in general, they'd involved me returning victorious, sweeping her off her feet, and the three of us building a brand new life.
But - surprise - Scully didn't need a brand new life. She already had one under construction.
So where, besides stranded at the local 7-11, did that leave me?
I had no idea.
I brooded a while longer, hoping some answers might come to me. The only thing that came to me, though, was pimply 17 year old in an ugly polyester smock.
"Mister," he said, keeping his distance, "my manager, um, he sent me out here to see if you need some help or something. You've been sittin' here over an hour, now. Do you, like, need me to call the cops or an ambulance or something?"
"What? No." I held up my shoe. "I just broke a lace."
"Oh," he replied sounding relieved. "Well, my manager said you're impeding the steady flow of traffic."
"I am, am I?" I looked around. There wasn't a lot of traffic, steady or otherwise, for me to impede, but looks could be deceiving.
"Yeah," he answered. "Yeah. You are. You can't just sit there, mister."
I blinked up at him stupidly. He had a slight local drawl, but that wasn't the issue. It was like he was speaking some foreign language. "What?" I asked.
"I said you can't sit here. You have to move along."
I blinked again.
Well, duh, I thought. It was so obvious even a zitty Slurpee jockey could see it.
Of course I couldn't just sit there. Of course I had to move on.
I stood, swiped the accumulated curb crap off the back of my shorts, slipped my shoe back on. It was just a broken shoelace; I'd lived through worse.
"You're right. Thanks."
"Um, anytime," he answered, but I was already half a block away.
Thanks for hanging in there, guys. One chapter to go!