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Winter Storm Warning

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Winter Storm Warning
By subobscura

Dana ascended the ancient stairway, tucked away in a forgotten corner of DuPont Circle. Her shoulder ached from the weight of her overnight bag, and snow was slipping over the tops of her ankle boots, making a damp mess of her socks and freezing her feet to numbness. This was exactly why she'd chosen to stay in the city, instead of heading home to Annapolis. A long journey on the best of days, with the blizzard moving in, traffic would be at a standstill. Not to mention the hassle of getting *back* to work tomorrow.

Despite the discomfort, snow was still a novelty to her, having grown up in mostly temperate climes. Already falling heavily, Dana appreciated the way the snow muffled the noise of the city to silence, blurred the edges of the world into something charming and classical instead of tired and run-down. In the pooling gloom of dusk, she imagined the snow covering secrets, masking the city in a blanket of innocence.

An enormous snowstorm was devouring the east coast, seeming to have boiled up from out of nowhere. The meteorologists were calling it the Storm of the Century already, deadly and filled with the violent energy of two colliding fronts.

Dana had called around and made a last-minute reservation at an old inn, The Revolutionary Arms, the only place she could find in a city filled with workaholics, all of them determined to beat the storm at its own game. She'd trudge over to the Hoover tomorrow, and hopefully catch the employee shuttle down to Quantico. That or hitch a ride with one of the HRT hotshots, who invariably drove oversized pickups with four-wheel drive.

Dana pushed her way into the small downstairs lobby, the welcoming heat washing over her like a warm embrace. With dark wooden beams and a sitting area next to a fireplace supplied by natural gas, it was much more charming than she had been expecting. She walked up to the counter, when the mid-fifties woman manning it looked up and said, "Dana Scully?"

Seeing her surprise, the manager laughed, "No conspiracy here, dear. You're just our last guest to check in this evening. We've been waiting for you to get here so Cookie can fix you up with some dinner and then head on home before it gets too awful out. How're the roads?"

"Not too bad yet," Dana smiled. This whole evening was more lovely than she could have imagined. She'd lucked out stumbling on this diamond in the rough.

"Alright," the manager replied briskly. "Well here's your key. Third floor, left at the top of the stairs and all the way down on the end. Irish stew in a bread bowl and salad okay for your dinner?"

"That sounds delicious," Dana sighed. "Thank you so much for your hospitality."

"All part of the service, honey," the manager answered. Her eyes creased kindly when she smiled. "Given how awful they say it's going to be, checkout's whenever you want. Don't suppose we'll have too much demand once the snow really flies."

-X-X-X-

Dana relaxed back into the pillows of the single queen bed, the combination of heat and a full stomach soporific. She supposed she could go to bed early instead of transcribing her dictation. Really, what was the point? Though her case and teaching load was heavy, it had gotten to the point where it was mostly unchallenging, the occasional bizarre cause of death notwithstanding.

Deciding that 7:30 was much too early to turn in, she picked up the remote and started surfing through fifty channels of cable. After five minutes, nothing having caught her interest, she settled back on the local news coverage of the storm, repeating in an endless loop. She wasn't a t.v. person by nature, didn't even have a cable subscription, but it still amazed her that five channels or fifty, nothing interesting ever seemed to be scheduled.

In truth, her ennui wearing off, she felt that same restlessness that had been plaguing her for more than a year. The snowstorm was only adding to it, making her feel hemmed in and claustrophobic.

The X-Files had been on hiatus since her and Mulder's single pilot case in Oregon, the strange three days now taking on the surreal quality of a fever dream. Sometimes she could almost convince herself that it had never happened at all. But then she'd open her wallet and look at the ticket stub from National to Portland, and she'd know it had all been real.

Of course she'd also picked up an acquaintance in Mulder, still enigmatic and strange to her even though they'd become friends since then, or as friendly as they could be given Mulder's seniority and conflicting schedules that rarely overlapped.

The lack of resolution on her final permanent assignment, her status as a field agent now superseded by her training as a forensic pathologist, her official partnership with Mulder on paper, that in reality left them on opposite sides of the country more often than not- all of it left her irascible and impatient.

She'd joined the FBI to be a field agent. Right now she was just support, which in the hierarchy of the FBI left a lot to be desired. She'd been temporarily re-assigned back to Quantico, conducting endless autopsies- cataloging all the myriad and brutal ways there were to die, the horrors that human beings willfully inflicted on each other. Dana was their last voice, sometimes their only voice, advocating for their poor souls in a way no one had during their abbreviated interstitial lives. Even so, sometimes her contributions seemed meager, cleaning up after the fact. Although murder reconstruction was it's own art, it was only a small part of a complete investigation. Investigations she wanted to be running, not standing on the sidelines.

Maybe it was time to contact a head hunter, she mused. Look into switching to DEA or ATF. It would mean starting over, going through another training program. But the FBI wasn't using her full range of talents, not by a long shot, and starting over wouldn't be much lower than she was now. The thought was gloomy, her mood plummeting to match the miserable weather outside. Her life was trembling on the cusp of something, but what she couldn't begin to guess.

She wondered what Mulder was doing now. If he was warm, if he was safe, wherever he was. She'd given up trying to keep track of his schedule. He was almost always on the road with the BSU, working for them almost as if he'd never left, blowing into town like a hurricane every couple of weeks, then leaving just as abruptly when he caught a new case. In between, he was often booked to give short seminars on behavioral analysis. He'd even given some lectures at American and George Washington.

He was busy and in-demand, whatever his reputation was. He got results quickly, often unsnarling cases in days that had stymied whole teams for months. The X-Files solve-rate, of their partnership, was either abysmal or extraordinary, the one case in Bellefleur being their only case. It wouldn't have been closed at all without Mulder somehow intuiting the right questions to ask.

They had lunch sometimes, strolling along the reflecting pool eating hot dogs or sandwiches from the numerous vendor carts posted all over the tourist areas of the city. They'd chat, and she'd tell Mulder about the weirdest deaths to hit her table. Mulder would regale her with tales from his latest case, his impressions of other agents leaving her in stitches of laughter. He didn't suffer fools gladly, and next to Mulder, almost everyone was a fool.

Dana wasn't sure what made her so special compared to the hundreds of other agents Mulder had worked with, but whatever the reason, he seemed to have taken a shine to her. Sometimes Mulder would fax her case notes or send them via the Bureau's new intranet system, asking for her opinion even though she had no special insight into behavioral analysis.

He'd send her stacks of papers via inter-office mail, with post-its flagging the sections he wanted her to pay close attention to. Or she'd arrive at her cubicle after a long day teaching, finding three or four books stacked neatly on the corner of her desk. A motley trio of field investigative techniques, a dogeared soft bound copy of Abnormal Psychology with his own notes in the margins and his name in the acknowledgements as a co-author, a treatise on the potential scientific origins of the Brown Mountain lights. Dana felt like she was back in college, trying to keep up with the reading in her 300 level philosophy class while also scribbling pages and pages, notebooks-worth of equations for her Real Analysis class. It was surprisingly satisfying to be so intellectually stretched, to have someone demand her best and then demand she do better.

Mulder would ask her penetrating questions, requiring deep reflection on her part. He was testing her, she knew. He wanted to know what her limits were, what gaps in her field training he felt needed rectified. Dana wasn't sure why he bothered. They hadn't had a case in a year now, and it looked increasingly likely they'd never work together again. The X-Files were dead in the water, over almost as soon as they had been opened.

She found to her surprise that she was deeply disappointed. Mulder was weird, no doubt, but undeniably brilliant and probably the most canny investigator she'd ever observed- spray-painting the street notwithstanding.

Over the course of the year, she and Mulder'd had almost an intellectual courtship, punctuated by occasional lunches, sometimes dinner. Phone calls at unpredictable intervals and at all times, postcards from all over the country and one even from Canada, when he went to consult with the RCMP on a serial killer who roamed across the Canadian/Alaskan border.

The phone rang, its brassy jingle cutting through the meditative zone she'd slipped into watching the news and then watching the snow drifting in curtains of white outside.

"Hello," she asked in a wary tone. She hadn't told anyone she'd be here, so she had no earthly idea who could be calling.

"House of Fong's Takeout, calling to let you know your order will be very late. We're including five free fortune cookies in apology." Speak of the devil she thought to herself, his dry sarcastic tenor warming her as soon as she recognized it.

"Mulder," she laughed. "How on earth did you figure out I was here?"

"I have my ways," he sniffed mysteriously.

"You mean you snooped my desk blotter where I'd written down my reservation," she said, smiling at Mulder's attempt to live up to his spooky moniker.

"Guilty as charged, G-woman," he chuffed. "Don't give away my secret."

"You mean that you are not actually spooky or psychic?"

"Just observant," he agreed cheerfully. "Hey listen, I don't have a lot of time, I'm catching a cab here in about five minutes. I just wanted to make sure you had everything you needed for the storm. Shovels, ice melt, yadda."

Dana rolled her eyes at his chivalry, though she supposed it was sweet that he'd thought of her well-being. "Yes dad," she said without malice. "Though if I didn't, it's a little late now to be worrying about it." His concern was touching, if a bit misplaced.

"Sue me for caring," he said, the smile still warming his voice.

"Thanks for asking," she responded. "I suppose you New England boys know a bit more about wintery weather than us San Diego girls."

"Oh? What *do* you San Diego girls know," he purred.

Before she could volley back, a horn sounded in the background over the phone line. "Oops, gotta go Scully. Stay safe!" With that he disconnected the call, the line going dead with abrupt silence.

She hadn't had time to ask him where he was, but she supposed it was some anonymous airport. Dana pictured him, tired and cold as hell, nursing a cup of coffee in his hands to keep them warm. The mental image made her sad for him, a nomad drifting from town to town, case to horrible case.

He'd called her a few times slurring his words, enunciating carefully around phrases like "sixth victim," "sexual overtones with ligature strangulation," and she knew he'd started drinking again. This year had been much harder on him than her. Her thwarted mothering instincts wanted to wrap him up in the warm afghan her Nana knitted and feed him a hot steaming bowl of chicken soup, but she couldn't. He was her partner, and her nominal boss, and he was never in town anyway, so she tried to be his friend over the long distance lines. She cheerfully billed the long distance fees to the Bureau and called it a work-related expense. Mulder seemed like a very lonely man.

-X-X-X-

Ten minutes later, after Scully had finally sunk into Mulder's battered copy of Bullfinches' Mythology, a knock sounded three times on her door. A familiar voice called, "room service!" Dana smiled, her incipient annoyance at another interruption already evaporating.

Mulder was never truly an annoyance, and he was welcome on this cold winter's eve, when all she'd had to entertain her before was news about the endlessly falling snow and some more of his "required reading."

Dana opened the door, and he held up a pizza in one hand and a six pack of beer in the other. "Party favors," he smirked before inviting himself in without so much as a by your leave. His woolen pea coat, scarf, hair, eyelashes were all still freckled with snow.

"How did you find my room," Dana questioned, happy but still confused. "I don't think I told you, and what are you doing here anyway? I thought you were in Oklahoma?"

He grinned a little sheepishly and laughed, "A shameless abuse of power and telling the manager I needed to find my FBI partner right away, it was urgent."

Dana rolled her eyes, and after taking the beer and pizza from him and putting them on the bed, she physically turned him around and pulled his coat off his shoulders.

"Ooh, undressing me already, Scully? Let me get in the door first." Mulder was in top form tonight.

Dana blushed and smiled even though Mulder couldn't see her, but she wasn't mortified. This felt fun and easy, and Oklahoma must have closed thank God, because otherwise there's no way he would have been this happy. Ethan left four months ago, re-assigned without notice to the New Orleans field office. It had ended well, both of them understanding it was what they had signed up for, but ended it had. Dana decided then and there, there was nothing stopping her, Mulder was a beautiful man and her friend besides, and it looked all but certain they wouldn't even have the nominal complication of working together. For some inexplicable reason, she'd caught his interest, and as their friendship deepened through letters and phone calls, he'd caught hers. *Time to pay up, Mister.*

They ate pizza sitting cross-legged and facing each other on the bed, eating out of the box. They split a beer, unnecessarily, as icy cold as the pizza was hot. She shivered at the intimacy of placing her mouth in the space his had just occupied. When the bottle was nearly empty, she tipped her head back and drained it, maybe just a tiny bit flirtatiously. When she straightened her head to look at him, Mulder quickly averted his eyes, a light blush imbuing his olive skin with a little color. How could a man who saw the worst of humanity every day have any innocence left, she wondered. But she took it for the gift it was.

She turned to set the now empty box on the floor, and when she returned to face him he said, "You've got a little sauce, just here." He pressed his finger just to the left of her lip, a soft whisper, like the touch of a snowflake, before he moved in and kissed it off her with a warm lick of his tongue. Her breath caught with surprise, but not displeasure.

He sat up and smiled down into her face, lines just starting to crease the edges of his kind hazel eyes. "Is this okay," he asked, as if she hadn't been giving him positive signals all through dinner.

"Yeah," she smiled back at him, "yeah it is." He bore her back onto the bed, and leaned halfway over her. He was physically imposing in this position, so much larger and stronger than she was that she felt dwarfed, but she wasn't afraid. Mulder would never, ever hurt her, she knew. He'd rather cut off his own arm than harm anything innocent, though she's heard he often made his own arrests, and could meet violence with deadly force if he had to.

But here he was, and tonight he was just the guy she liked, the wonderfully weird and fascinating person quickly becoming her best friend. They kissed like they were drowning, like they were sharing air, sharing life. It seemed to her they were the only man and woman to have ever discovered such beautiful intimacies, and it was imperative they explore this new land of miraculous passion.

They slipped out of their clothes as afterthoughts, kissing and licking each other as every inch of exposed skin was revealed. Every inch of him was toned muscle and sinew, Dana marveled. She ran her hands over him in appreciation both as a lover and as a doctor. He was the definition of human physical perfection, a man Michaelangelo would have wept to sculpt.

Mulder makes love to her with his sharp clever tongue and his long fingers, reaching deep, demanding she give him everything she had, and then taking even more. She came twice this way before he'd let her reciprocate. She kissed his pectorals, a background murmur in her mind cataloguing his left and right trapezius, his posterior deltoids, the metatarsals of his feet, the lean grace of his quadriceps and the lush firmness of his gluteus maximus. She wants and so she takes, drinking deep of his waters, her tongue bringing him to completion with his head tipped back, his body a long bowed arch, fist in his mouth to muffle his shouts.

In between, Mulder pulled three clementines from the deep pocket of his woolen coat. He peeled them each with a few deft twists of his wrist, and fed the segments to her one by one, leaning in to capture their sweet juicy taste from her lips.

Then he knelt over her, spread her wide as her body allowed, and slipped his length inside of her as easy as you please, with a possessive arrogant familiarity. She gasped and arched against him, and he gentled her with long easy strokes of his large hands. When she was used to him, he pumped his hips in long even thrusts, rubbing her in just the right way to make her come a third time. "Say my name, Dana," he murmured in her ear, his voice deep and rough with passion.

"Mulder," she sighed on an exhaled breath, her eyes closed in ecstasy and her body soft and open to him.

"No," he gently corrected. "Say my name."

Her eyes opened wide, and she understood what he meant. She wrapped her legs tightly around his waist, then pulled his face closer to her mouth. "Fox," she named him on a whisper, sharing the secret between them, staring deep into his forest-green eyes. Then he shuddered and came, shattering almost without sound against her breast.

-X-X-X-

She appropriated his undershirt for herself, pulling it over her body like a short dress because she was cold. Wintry drafts escaped into the room through the ancient casement windows. They turned the heater on low, and watched syndicated reruns of Saturday night live, her sitting between his long legs and leaning back against his chest. Dan Goodman was hosting, and something technical screwed up the monologue, but they stuck with it because the rest was hilarious. It was lovely to laugh together and talk about nonsense, and it reminded her of a cemetery and the pouring rain. She fell asleep halfway through the second episode, relishing the gentle kisses he pressed along her hairline.

Dana slipped in and out of broken dreams, the only sounds the wind in the eves and Mulder's breath in her ear. She woke up halfway through the night, missing the warmth of Mulder's body as he slept wrapped around her like an overly friendly octopus.

Then he was awake, working steadily at the small dining room table, lit only by a small desk lamp with a faux Tiffany shade. The actinic light created an opaque glare against the lenses of his glasses, making him look remote and strange. He sat with his dress shirt unbuttoned, the sleeves rolled up, and a low slung pair of sweats hastily knotted at his waist. He ate with precise dexterity using chopsticks, demolishing her Thai leftovers from lunch in an effort to feed his racing greyhound metabolism, reading over case files he must have had stashed in his briefcase.

He was so exquisite in this moment, she thought. Exactly who he was, doing exactly what he was born to do. She was already hooked, like a narcotic, and she knew wherever he went, she would have no choice but to follow. Especially with those teasing sidelong glances, goading her intentionally with that wit, combined with the most insanely implausible stories he could imagine. He'd been asking her to come outside and play with him since their first and only case, and she realized she didn't know how to say anything but yes.

"Hey, you're awake," he noticed, glancing up from the open file in front of him. "I hope I'm not bothering you."

"Don't you ever sleep, Mulder," she asked, a little concerned. He didn't seem overly distraught, but this strange insomnia of his couldn't be healthy.

"Sometimes, if I'm feeling especially run down, or I'm near my coffin," he joked. He sobered, seeing her concern. "Seriously, I'm only good for about four hours a night. Some kind of sleep disorder thing they can't figure out. I hate sleeping pills, so I just...do without. I'm not usually tired, so, consider it yet another one of my eccentricities," he finished with a wry twist of his lips.

"Do you want me to look into it for you," Dana asked, her concern as a doctor winning out over her instinct as a friend not to pry.

"Nah, I get my best work done when I have the fewest distractions," he said, smiling. "Although you are a very welcome distraction indeed, Dana Scully."

"Well, how about you come back here and I'll distract you some more," she purred, wanting to get her hands on that gorgeous body at least one more time before morning came, and they both had to go their separate ways.

He was happy to oblige and came back to bed. They made love again, slow and tender, like they'd known each other for years. Mulder's hips pumped so smoothly and gracefully between her legs, it was almost as if he were a dancer. Once again she was spread and splayed beneath him, her calves held in place by his braced forearms. She was bent in half, accommodating her body to his gentle demands, and she knew this too would be their pattern. She came once from the rough glide of his cock against her clit, but he didnt't slow down at all. He was impelled to push deeper, harder, faster, and she came again from the overwhelming sensation of her walls squeezing down on his long, full length. This time she had him, trapped him, and he came shuddering against her body, nipping and biting and kissing up her neck until he took her mouth in a searing, wet final kiss. She'd come completely undone. She fell back asleep with him still inside her, rousing only slightly when he slipped out and behind her, pulling her close once more to the long heat of his naked body. His softened cock seemed vulnerable and fragile against her backside, and her eyes prickled with this unexpected intimacy. They were still virtual strangers, and she was already madly in love with him.

-X-X-X-

He woke her with a soft kiss, tasting of mouthwash and toothpaste, his fingers a gentle touch along her jaw. His eyes were tired and shadowed in the gray pre-dawn gloom of the hotel room, lit only by the flat white light emanating from behind the blackout curtains. But he also looked happier than she'd seen him in some time, and she thought maybe she had something to do with that. "Sleep some more," he ordered her with soft command. "They have me out on an early emergency flight from Andrews," he said with an apologetic smile. "The Lubbock task force can't wait. Another girl turned up dead last night and our guy is rapidly decompensating."

"It's the job, Mulder," she yawned. "No need to apologize to me." She sat up in bed despite his order. "Did you make any coffee? I should get going, too. Even the shuttle is going to take forever, and I've got two, maybe three autopsies booked today."

"There's a fresh midget pot waiting for you, Scully, minus the cup I took for the road." He stroked a curl behind her ear, and whispered, "This was nice. To be continued whenever I get back into town?"

She turned her face into his big warm palm. "Mmmm, yes, definitely. You can count on it, Agent Mulder."

He pressed one last tiny kiss to the tip of her nose, then swung around to pick up his briefcase and travel bag, leaving the room with a swirl of his long navy pea coat and the clatter of the closing door.

-X-X-X-

She did make it to Quantico, after crawling down I-95 for two hours. She should have gotten some work done, but the start-stop-jerk of the carriage was too distracting. Instead, she pulled out her Walkman and started listening to the book on tape she'd checked out of The Lord of the Rings. Not an assignment, but a request this time from Mulder, claiming it was one of his favorites as a child. Although not a fan of fantasy literature, it was easy to get absorbed into the tale of Frodo, journeying into ever increasing darkness, on his quest to destroy the One Ring in a mountain of fire, lest its power destroy everything good and true.

She had just enough time to scrub in for one out of her three planned autopsies. She started the week off behind, and the backlog only got worse as other pathologists and agents were delayed or detained due to the lingering effects of the storm. When all was said and done, over 300 people died as a result of the storm's wrath. The flooding caused by the snow melt cut new channels for rivers, displaced houses as if they were mere toys. The land and the people would go on, as everything must, but they all had been irrevocably changed. Even the cherry blossom season was abbreviated and muted, most of the buds having frozen off during the storm. Scully was disappointed, missing the lovely pink cloud of falling tiny petals that heralded true spring all along the tidal basin.

Mulder was out in the field for over two months when all was said and done. He called and wrote when he could, but he was buried under the work that the inexplicable savagery of the thaw seemed to have wrought.

He called her three times to pack him an extra suit bag, and throw in extra shirts and socks and underwear. She got in to his apartment via a key he taped to the top of his doorframe. She fed his hungry fish, but couldn't save the lonely potted fern that had shriveled into brown flaking powder on his desk.

She snooped of course, as he undoubtedly knew she would- reading the mail that piled in his PO box and the titles of the books on his shelves. He was listed as the author of three others that she could find. She handed off the bags each time to a field office flunky- he always wore a black suit, red tie, and mirrored aviator glasses. Scully had to resist the urge each time to roll her eyes. She thought of Mulder as as she had last seen him, his long legs in jeans and wearing a white long-sleeved thermal shirt, striking against his impossible winter tan.

He called her one night in late April, drunk out of his skull and crying about the eight tiny bodies they'd recovered from their UNSUB's basement. "Too late, I'm always *always* too late," he slurred through his tears. Her heart ached, and she wondered if Mulder's heart was too fine and gentle for the path he'd chosen for himself. She'd had him hand off the phone to another agent on the task force, and asked them to make sure he made it safely back to the hotel with a belly full of food, an aspirin, and a huge glass of water. "No problem," said the worried anonymous voice at the end of the line. "He solved the case, and saved the two who were still alive."

The next day, she went looking for their hotel on a whim. Dana supposed she wanted to recapture some of that feeling from their night of passion, that they were on a new road of possibility and happiness for both of them. When she got there, the windows were shuttered and dark. The contractor's permit in the window said they had been closed since June of 1991.

-X-X-X-

On the day Mulder was finally due back in Virginia, though for how long was anyone's guess, word came down through channels that the X-Files project was officially moving forward. Mulder and Scully were to be the only two assigned agents, Mulder as the Supervisory Special Agent, Scully reporting to him, though her field evaluations were to be handled by the Section Chief. It looked like Spooky and Scully were teaming up after all, and not in the way she'd come to hope.

Was there a word to describe the simultaneous emotion of elation and heartbreak? If there was, she hadn't found it yet, and she'd done quite a lot of reading in the past year. Dana was going to be a field agent again, something she wanted with a fierce desire bordering on obsession since her first taste more than a year ago. She was going to be Mulder's partner, and she already knew that nothing would ever match the intellectual and personal challenge of keeping up with that brilliant, fiercely independent man.

But the vague outlines of the other future she'd started to see with Mulder- Sunday morning coffee and the Times crossword in ink, dinners of intellectual foreplay followed by nights of stolen passion- that future was already crumbling into dust, if it had ever been viable to begin with.

Whatever else was true about Mulder, who even after a year of trading confidences remained a stranger to Dana, he was owned by the FBI in a way few other agents were so wholly subsumed. Even if his journey to find his sister weren't most logically conducted from the Justice Department, he still had something the Bureau needed, and he'd handed over the keys to his jailers long ago. They'd prey on his empathy and his guilt, use up everything in him that was good and kind, until all that was left was an embittered cynical man, old before his time. It broke her heart to realize it, to see something so clearly that remained easily preventable. But it wasn't her choice to make, and Mulder was his own man. And he still had to find his sister, no matter how fruitless she perceived his search, the trail having gone cold for twenty years. Cold case, cold heart.

They met for coffee late that afternoon, sitting outside in patio chairs, the late afternoon sun warm on their faces, flowers blooming in the riotous colorful profusion that was spring in Virginia. Mulder was gaunt, as thin as she'd ever seen him, and he'd never had much to spare. But he was animated with an intensity she hadn't realized was missing since last year. It was wonderful to see his face, listen to his voice in-person again. She realized her choice was already made, if either of them had ever had any choices to begin with. He was kindly apologetic, saying, "You have to believe me, Scully. I never, never would have started something if I knew you were going to be reporting to me. I hate the guys that run their divisions like that, and it's not what I want for you." He was so earnest and sincere, she believed him, not that she had ever doubted him anyway.

She smiled at him to show she wasn't angry. They were victims of timing and circumstance, both of them. Blaming each other for what could not be helped was no way to start a professional partnership. "Mulder, it's okay. We both made assumptions about how things would shake out with the Bureau, that in retrospect were at the least not fully informed. But I'm confused. Why the long delay? It's been over a year since our pilot case."

"Your guess is as good as mine," he replied thoughtfully. "I had a private sit-down meeting with Matheson on Capitol Hill about two weeks after we got back from Oregon, to brief him on our progress. Then we got our temporary re-assignments, and at first I just assumed the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly. As time went on, it became apparent to me their intention was to tie up the X-Files in indefinite red tape, which was not a surprise given how these things work in Washington."

Dana nodded. "Standard operating procedure. You don't like something, send it to sub-committee purgatory, never to be heard from again." She took a sip of her latte, enjoying the rich creamy milk combined with the bitterness of the espresso.

"Exactly," Mulder said with a wry smirk. "Why they're being officially re-opened...? I can only assume there's something in them someone wants found. And that someone is pulling the strings, for now."

He looked at her, a little shyly, in stark contrast with the confidence he usually projected. "What about you," he asked. "It's probably not too late to request re-assignment, *if* that's what *you* want," he hurried to finish, cutting her off before she could voice her protest. "Whatever happens is your call, Scully. I have very stupidly put myself in a very compromising ethical position, and I don't want you to feel influenced by what I think or hope should happen." He was trying so hard to make her comfortable, to be open and accepting of wherever she wanted to take this.

Dana looked down and studied the table, the pattern of rattan blurring and reforming into different shapes and connections. She thought about what she'd have of Mulder if she wasn't his partner. Stolen nights and weekends, erratic and unpredictable. Her possibly being assigned to some other field office, far away and disconnected from Mulder. Their relationship slowly suffocating under the weight of time spent apart, cases they could not discuss- until one day they both woke up and wondered what they had ever seen in each other.

Or she could stand with Mulder at his side, as his professional equal. Dana could hopefully keep his feet on terra firma, and he could pull her out of the cage of her personal, familial, and social expectations. They'd have long days and late nights, arguments, bad food, and perhaps danger. But she could protect his back, and he could show her things which she had never dreamed even possible. This might have been the end of a fragile fantasy, but it could also be the beginning of a better, truer, stronger path that would give them more than any fantasy ever could.

There was no happy ending, Dana realized. Not where everyone got everything they wanted. But that was life, and never let it be said that Ahab's daughter chose the easy, the predictable, the conventional route. She wanted this man and she also wanted what only he could give her. There was only one answer in the end.

"I'm staying, Mulder," Dana said calmly and with firm certainty. He smiled at her, warm and proud, and she knew she had chosen for both of them what he would have chosen for himself. "As for the rest of it," she added, laying her small white hand atop his, "let's just...see where it goes. Who knows what dreams may come?" He settled his other hand atop hers, squeezing gently.

They walked back to the Hoover, diverting along the gravel paths of the Mall to watch the tourist groups and frisbee games, children eating freeze dried ice cream from the Air and Space Museum, and joggers enjoying the beautiful weather before the crushing heat and humidity of summer set in. She kept pace with Mulder, who was now talking a mile a minute about the cases he wanted to pull for her opinion. Dana had a few interjections and questions here and there, but it was hard to squeeze a word in edgewise, and his enthusiasm was infectious and wonderful.

If she'd had any lingering doubts, Dana knew now that she had made the right choice.