The walk back was long and hot, but it gave me the time I needed to think. So maybe things weren't going to work out exactly as I'd pictured. Truth was, while the middle of said picture had always been perfectly clear - Scully, William, me - the edges had been a little blurry. Okay, a lot blurry. I'd just disregarded the fuzzy bits, assuming that they'd somehow come into focus all by themselves. Well, as Mr. Polyester Pants had pointed out, they weren't. Benign neglect wasn't going to cut it anymore. So, by the time I reached the school six blocks from the house, I had my de-blurring plan all worked out; by the time I hit the front door, I also had a contingency plan and two fall-backs. I had, I was certain, anticipated every twist the conversation might take, negotiated every possible blind alley and hairpin turn. We were going to talk. And if she wouldn't go for that, I was going to talk, dammit, and she was going to listen.
I was ready for anything.
Anything, as it turned out, but finding Scully curled up asleep on my bed. Which, coincidently, was what I found.
I stood in the doorway and tried to guess what Scully's impromptu visit meant. It wasn't unprecedented, exactly. There had been plenty of times when I'd been out there in the desert with Gibson and the guys and I'd crawl back to my 8 by 8 room, aching and lonely, and find Scully in my bed.
Of course, that Scully had always had the good sense to show up naked. And then to disappear when I blinked.
So I blinked.
Still dressed. Still there.
I sighed and leaned against the doorjamb, my resolve crumbling. Oh right, Mulder, I thought. You're going to go in there, shake her awake, and demand that she make your life make sense. Sure you are.
Hell, I couldn't even figure out how to ask her for breakfast cereal that didn't taste like hay.
And, dammit, leave it to Scully to fall asleep when I really needed her awake.
Scully had done this to me for years. We'd be on a stakeout, and I'd just be ready to lay the meaning of life, the universe, and all things Mulder on her, only to look over and find her out cold. Same thing the night we made Will: I was just about to profess my undying love and boom! she was snoring.
Okay, so maybe I hadn't been about to profess my undying love. Maybe I was just going to offer her more tea. Or maybe I was just going to say something that sounded deep and meant a whole hell of a lot of nothing, which was more my style. I'd convinced myself over the years that I didn't need to profess anything, that what we felt - what I felt, at least - went beyond words. But maybe the truth was that I knew deep down that some things were better left unsaid.
Then again, maybe I was just chickenshit. The fact that I stood frozen in the doorway, staring, suggested that might be my actual problem.
I sighed. Sometimes I wish I'd met Scully in a more normal way - in the cold food line at the Hoover cafeteria, say, or maybe over the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at some deadly dull out-of- town conference. I could have turned on the charm, dazzled her with all my expensive orthodontia, worked in a couple of hot dates and some wild sex *before* she figured out I was mad, bad, and extremely dangerous to know. Carnal itches sufficiently scratched, we could have gone our separate ways and gotten on with our respective normal lives. Well, she could have gotten on with hers, at least, and I'd have had one uncomplicated lay in the last decade, which in and of itself would have been an accomplishment.
Only, objectively, I knew that never would have happened. We might have said our *excuse me*s and *oh sorry*s as one of us reached past the other for the Thousand Island dressing or the no-fat cream cheese, but beyond that, we probably wouldn't have looked at each other twice. Whatever you might call this thing between us, whatever it actually was, it was the product of proximity and inertia and need. There was nothing vaguely storybook about it.
Didn't mean I wouldn't go to the ends of the earth for her again, though, or give her every cent I had, or jerk off into a Dixie cup for her a million more times if that was what was she wanted. That made it real. Real enough for me, anyway.
Scully shifted in her sleep and for about half a second I considered just climbing into bed, wrapping my arms around her, and whispering, "Honey, I'm home," into her hair. She might let me, too. On the other hand, Scully wasn't generally crazy about surprises, and knowing her, she had her gun tucked under the pillow. If she was going to shoot me again, I wanted her to have a nice, clean shot.
Instead, I sat as gently as I could on the edge of the bed and shook her by the shoulder. "Yo, Goldilocks. Wrong bed."
Scully stretched, full-bodied, like a waking kitten. She blinked up at me, then did something I never would have expected: She smiled. Not a polite little smile, either, but one of her head- to-toes, even-my-hair-is-happy-to-see-you smiles.
My surprise must have shown, because as quickly as the smile appeared, it disappeared. "I'm - I'm sorry," she began. "For a minute I thought -" She stopped, frowning slightly.
"You thought what?"
"Nothing." Shaking her head as if trying to dislodge a stray notion that had somehow gotten itself stuck there, she sat up, tugging the sheet with her.
"I - I just thought it was you."
"Um, I think it *is* me," I said, wondering what she'd meant. "Wanna check for distinguishing marks?"
That was supposed to earn me a frown, maybe a scowl. But, in keeping with her new *do-something-Mulder-would-never-expect* policy, she reached out and took my hand. "No," she said. "I don't need to see your scars to know they're there, Mulder." She gave my hand a squeeze. "You okay now?"
There was no good answer for that. "Been worse."
More gently than I deserved, she asked, "Anything you want to talk about?"
That there was a good answer for. No. No, in spite of my earlier bravado, I didn't want to talk. No, I didn't want to share my feelings. No I didn't want to hear it was going to be okay, everything would work out, it would all be fine fine fine. As far as I was concerned, fine was barely a distant speck on the horizon.
"Um, yeah," I began, looking down at the sheets instead of into her eyes. "I want to apolog -"
"No." Scully said, tugging on my hand. She tugged again, waiting until I looked at her. "We declared a moratorium on apologies this morning, remember?"
"I know but -"
"But nothing," she said. "You never have to apologize for telling me the truth." She shrugged. "Besides, it's not like I didn't know, like I couldn't tell."
She took a deep breath, let it go slowly. "That this" - she made a vague all-encompassing gesture with her free hand - "this isn't what you want."
Oh. Oh God. Shit. "No. No, Scully, I didn't mean -"
"Yes, you did. And it's all right, Mulder. I get it, I really do."
"No, Scully," I countered, panic rising in me like floodwater, threatening to drown me. "You don't-"
"I do," she plowed on. "And if anyone should apologize, it's me. I dragged you back here, forced you to -"
The wave of panic kept rolling in, the urge to curl up on myself like a pill bug trailing in its wake. "Forced me? Forced me to what?"
Scully sighed and twisted the sheet in her free hand. "You cringe every time William calls you daddy. You - you flinch every time I enter the room. And the first thing you did when you were strong enough to move was crawl out of my bed." She squeezed my hand, smiled that sad half-smile I hate. "I'm not dumb, Mulder."
"No, of course you aren't, but-"
"I know that sometimes things get said in the heat of the moment, things people don't mean," she continued, sounding oh-so-rational and oh-so-reasonable. "You're a good man, Mulder, and I know we weren't together before this, not really, and this was never part of our deal -"
"Deal?" I sputtered. "Scully this isn't- "
But she was on a tear. "You were gone two years, and I know people change, feelings change, and -"
I had to stop her. I had to say something or she was going to rational and reasonable me right out the damned door. "Scully, stop it."
"I love you," I said, surprising myself.
But not, apparently, surprising her. "I know that," she answered as if I'd just mentioned that the sky was blue or that I could sometimes be a little dense. The corners of her mouth twitched. "I just said I wasn't dumb, didn't I?"
I just looked at her, nodded. On the one hand, it was oddly reassuring that she hadn't thrown herself at me and cried *Oh Mulder darling, I love you too!* That would have been clear and final proof that I'd lost what was left of my mind. But on the other hand. . .
Hell, there was no other hand.
She cleared her throat. "That doesn't mean you want this life. I know that, too."
"No, it doesn't," I started, but my voice wedged sideways in my throat. "But it doesn't mean I don't want it, either. I do."
Scully nodded silently. She was giving me that look that told me she couldn't decide whether I was worth expending any more energy on or not. "Well, Mulder," she said at long last, "if that's the case, you've got a funny way of showing it."
She was probably right about that. I'd messed up more than my share of relationships with my own special set of mixed signals, and none of them had mattered half as much to me as this one. "No, Scully. I mean it. I love you and I love Will. And this may not have been our original deal, but this *is* what I want."
"So what's the issue here, Mulder?"
"It's just - all my best dreams start this way Scully. You, me, great kid, nice house, rotten plumbing, mother-in-law who hates me-"
"She doesn't hate you."
"Close enough." I shrugged.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to steady myself. "But all my worst nightmares start this way, too."
She was silent a long time. Too silent, for too long. When I got brave enough to open my eyes, she was looking at me as if I'd just slapped her, hard, and repeatedly. "Oh," she whispered. "And you aren't sure which this is? Is that it?"
"The nightmares always end the same, Scully. Sooner or later, you lose everything."
She cleared her throat softly. "Even you?"
"No, you've still got me, but I'm your year's supply of Rice-a- Roni," I said. "Your Samsonite luggage."
She blinked at me. "You mean, what? That you're my consolation prize?"
"I think the p.c. term is 'lovely parting gift,' but yeah."
Scully blinked again, and let go of my hand. This is it, I thought. This is where your sorry ass gets escorted to the door.
Instead, Scully lifted her hand to my cheek and leaned in close. "Mulder," she whispered, "are you nuts?"
"Well, the jury's still out on tha-," I began, but she pressed the pad of her thumb to my lips, silencing me.
"No," she said. "No. The jury's back. You are nuts."
"Scully-" I tried, but she ran her thumb lightly back and forth across my lips, barely grazing them with each pass. It was tender and gentle and turning me on in ways that were entirely inappropriate under the circumstances.
"I know New Mexico is not as far as Antarctica, Mulder, but I'd have come that far for you. I'd have come a lot farther if I had to."
I nodded. I really wished she'd stop with the thumb thing, as I was still in my running shorts and those suckers didn't hide a thing.
Scully sighed. "Mulder, you are not the Rice-a-Roni. You are the all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii. You are the washer-dryer combo. You, Fox Mulder" - she poked the center of my chest with her index finger - "you are the Amana Radar Range."
That was news to me. "You think?"
"I know," she said, her voice so clear and certain that I almost believed her. "But I don't want you to stay if you don't want to. I honestly don't want anything from you that you don't want to give me, and believe me Mulder, I am well aware of how much you've given me already. If this life isn't the one you want, then it's not the life I want for you, either." She ducked her head, pulled her hand away. "I love you too much for that."
I must have sounded extra pathetic, because the next thing I knew, Scully's arms were around my neck and the rest of her was pretty much in my lap. "You know I do," she said, her voice low and fierce, her breath warm on my ear. "You're not dumb, either."
I pulled her closer. God, she felt good. Really good. So good I probably should have pinched myself a couple of times, but I was too busy holding her. I realized then that I'd missed her so much and for so long that it had simply become habit, and I had wasted time missing her even when we were in the same room. Stupid. So fucking stupid.
Scully sniffed, then sniffed again.
"Scully, are you crying?" I released her, pulled back so I could look. I lifted her chin. "You are crying. Don't cry."
She sniffed again and gave a dismissive wave. "Don't worry. It's the new me," she said. "I cry at card tricks."
"Okay." I wrapped her in my arms again. "Rule number one: no more card tricks."
She laughed, and just like that, the bubble of fear and doubt I'd been stuck in all those weeks popped, setting me free.
"God, Scully," I said. "I'm just - god, I'm so fucked up at the moment."
"And that makes you different from the rest of us how?" she asked, a gentle tease in her voice. "You're working on it, Mulder. You're doing what you have to do to get better. No one can expect anything more from you than that. Not even you."
"I just - I want more for us. More for you. I want the happy ending."
She sat back then, shook her head. "I don't. Not now. Not yet. "
"Our story isn't over, Mulder. We've barely started this chapter." She shrugged. "We're a work in progress."
"So what?" I asked. "Our fairy tale's still under construction?"
And then, for the very first time in well over two years, Dana Scully kissed me.
And I kissed her right back.
We spent the rest of the weekend doing what grown-ups who love each other do - moving my stuff back into the master bedroom, arguing about the new bathroom tiles, and reminding ourselves in explicit detail how and why we'd fallen for one another in the first place. It may not have been the ideal romantic combination, but in that respect, it suited us perfectly.
Eventually, we got around to negotiating the big stuff - how to squeeze the toothpaste, where to put my old couch, what to do with the rest of our lives. It took time and patience, but we'd regularly faced zombies, wolfmen, and the OPR, so Little League parents, pre-school carpools, and the occasional Wrath of Maggie seemed like a trip to DisneyWorld. It wasn't easy, but we had faith in each another, hope for the future, and plenty of love. It was all that we needed, and a lot more than, at one time, I'd have ever dreamed of.
And, as required, in the end, we all lived happily ever after.
Notes: Thanks to Amy, Weyo, Syn, and Euphrosyne, for beta, handholding, encouragement, endless whiny IM sessions, patience, inspiration, etc etc etc. Without you guys, sheesh. Thanks also to XOK list mom Lisby for issuing the challenge (so it took me 20 months -- what IS your point??) and to the many many many readers who have taken the time to poke, prod, and petition for more. I appreciate your interest and enthusiasm more than you can imagine.