When Mulder chose this case, he'd done so specifically because it looked like glorified desk work. He figured they would hop on a plane, travel down to Gainesville, maybe conduct an interview or two at the station house, and then get back by Wednesday. It would be Scully's first case back after being released from the hospital, and he didn't want to put too much strain on her.
Unfortunately, luck was not on his side. The contact who'd reached out to him drastically overexaggerated the progress of the case. The local police department had been half-assing the investigation into paranormal reports at the Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park. Apparently, there was a long-held belief among locals that the devil used the park's sinkhole to feed on the bodies of the living, and that legend combined with the lingering anxiety from the Gainseville Ripper murders made the police department shrug it off as mere satanic panic.
Their refusal to take the case seriously meant they hadn't even surveyed the scene, leaving that up to Mulder and Scully to tackle without any offered assistance. So instead of the quick in-and-out Mulder thought this would be, it was made clear to him that if they wanted this case solved, it was completely up to just him and Scully.
After interviewing a few of the teens who claimed they heard screaming coming from the sinkhole after wandering around the park, he'd marked off five separate locations they would need to investigate. The typical trail wasn't a loop rather than a single trail, but since the reports were scattered, they'd have to go off the beaten path into the rougher areas. In the past, a five-mile hike through the woods might take a few hours without a hitch, but he had a feeling that wouldn't be the case with Scully still recovering.
Even though she was in remission, her body was still pretty weak — even if she wasn't treating it that way. As soon as the sheriff stated there might be evidence left at the scene of the crime, he presumed Scully feared he was going to go with or without her, and she was planning the trek before even consulting him. He was pretty sure that was what was gnawing at him most. He knew her return to work was out of her desire for normalcy, but he worried Scully pushing herself like this was out of fear of his recklessness if he was alone.
Under the guise of getting them something to eat the night before they headed out, he ran to the nearest Wal-Mart and picked up a few things to make the hike more bearable for her. After half an hour, he was checking out with a small, collapsable tent, a blanket, and several high-protein snacks. Before heading back into the motel, he made sure to stuff all his things in his largest backpack. He was hoping that rather than telling Scully he didn't think she could make the whole hike and running the risk of insulting her, he could pretend that he planned a mid-hike picnic.
Turns out he should have checked the weather forecast while trying to prepare.
"I don't think I've ever been so hot in my entire life," Scully groaned halfway through the hike, wiping perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand. The humidity of the Florida heat was making simply being outside unbearable. With every step, he could feel a trail of sweat rolling down the middle of his back straight down his ass crack. Scully wasn't fairing much better herself. She was always cautious and covered up whenever they had to venture into the outdoors, and her long-sleeve shirt and jeans were sticking to her.
"Who knew it could be so miserable in November," he agreed, wiping the sweat away from his eyes.
Scully stepped on a twig and it caused her to careen slightly off balance for a moment. Mulder reached out to grab her, but she was quick to swat his hand away. "This has to be a record high."
They'd been to two sighting locations already, and aside from cigarette butts left in the shape of pentagrams, there was nothing remarkable about the sites. This was the first time she'd complained thus far, but he knew she'd been struggling since they started. Her fair complexion flushed not too long after they left the car, and he knew she was frustrated with how her hair was reacting to the humidity — though he found it adorable.
Her breathing was labored, despite the incline of the path not being too steep, and every now and then he'd catch her taking her own pulse. Mulder was trying to figure out when the best time to implement the picnic idea would be. He knew if he did it too soon that she might be insulted, and there was a strong likelihood she'd only accept it once, so he'd rather it be at a good point so she wasn't exhausted later. His decision was made for him when he saw Scully grab her side in pain and simultaneously fumble on her footing.
However, she beat him to it. "Mulder, can we take a break?"
He was surprised she asked, and it made him worry that she might be feeling worse than she was letting on. "Of course," he affirmed. He walked a little ahead so he could scan the area around them for a good place to set up the tent. As soon as he stopped moving, he felt a small force push into his arm, and he looked down to see Scully had run into him on accident, murmuring a soft apology as she looked up at him.
She looked exhausted, and he felt his heart break with guilt.
Not wanting his voice to betray his concern and cause her to feel the need to unnecessarily prove herself, he enthusiastically exclaimed, "I actually have a surprise for you!"
"Portable air conditioning?"
"Not quite," he apologized. "Why don't you sit down on that rock over there for a few minutes while I get it ready?"
Her right eyebrow rose in curiosity, but instead of arguing, she merely shrugged in acquiescence. "Okay, but I'm going to leave my stuff here with you for a few minutes."
"Do you need any help?" he asked upon seeing her walking into an area of dense foliage.
Scully glanced over her shoulder and shot a pointed expression at him. "Peeing? No, I think I'm familiar with the procedure, but thank you for the offer."
"If you change your mind, holler. Don't go too far," he requested, shucking off his backpack.
"You peek; I shoot," she yelled back.
Mulder watched as she struggled to walk over some brush, and it incentivized him to work quickly. It wouldn't do much to relieve the heat, but it could provide some shade and give her a chance to refuel. Pulling everything out of his backpack, he worked as fast as he could. Luckily, the tent didn't require much set up, and he had it secured with the blanket laid down without any issues.
While he was pulling out the snacks he brought, a loud noise cracked through the air like a whip. "Scully?" he yelled, crawling out of the tent. The heels of his hands dug into the soot below him while he scanned the treeline for her. He was about to call out for her again when there was a flash in his vision followed by another rumbling sound.
"Mulder?" He heard Scully's voice but wasn't sure where it was coming from.
"Over here!" he called out at the exact same time the rain started pouring down. A minute ago the area was relatively tranquil, and now it felt like he was in the middle of a tropical storm. He hadn't expected this, but the forest had probably occluded them from seeing storm clouds rolling in.
He saw a tuft of red emerge from behind a tree, and he raised his arms over his head to get her attention. She started running towards him, but quickly slipped and fell on the rapidly forming mud. Mulder ran towards her and yanked her up with a hand around her bicep.
When they got to the tent, Scully hesitated to pull down the zipper. "I don't want to track mud inside!" she yelled over the rain.
"Give me your clothes and get in," he shouted back.
"But-" Whatever argument she was about to give him died on her lips as a gust of wind nearly knocked her down. With impressive speed, she rid herself of her flannel, long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and boots, passing them to him before scrambling into the tent.
He followed suit and stuffed everything into his now empty backpack, attaching it to a rod on the tent in the hopes it wouldn't fly away. Before he could get too wet, Mulder jumped into the tent and zipped it shut behind him, falling onto his ass after losing his balance.
"What the hell was that?" he rasped while trying to catch his breath.
"I think that was Florida's hurricane season in action," she replied. "Do you pack a tent every case we go on?"
"I wanted to surprise you with a picnic." He turned to show her the snacks and heard the crinkling of wrappers beneath him. "Oh," he chuckled, sitting up and glancing at the flattened array of fruit snacks and granola bars. "Surprise!" he sang lamely.
Her eyes lit up as she took in the bottled water and food arranged before her. "Aww, Mulder, you shouldn't have. But I'm afraid to think of what would've happened if you hadn't," she admitted with a soft smile. As she leaned over to grab some of the snacks, his eyes were drawn to a rivulet of rainwater that dropped from the ends of her hair and slid down her chest, disappearing in the valley of her cleavage.
As his cock stirred, he really took in their situation: they were pretty much soaking wet, nearly naked, and trapped in a tent for who knows how long.
He'd only kept his boxers on while Scully was in her underwear and a now-sheer, white ribbed tank top that revealed her black sports bra. However, now that more skin was on display, he could see how frail she still was. He wondered if she was struggling with getting her weight back up because he noticed a lot of her soft curves were replaced with bony edges and it concerned him how easily everyday tasks would exhaust her.
She ripped a granola bar wrapper open with her teeth while she brushed her damp hair back with her free hand, and the movement caused his attention to fall onto some dark bruising that had been hidden under her long sleeves. "Scully," he gasped in horror. His hand shot out and grabbed hers instinctively, turning it towards him so he could see the deep purple marring the crook of her arm.
"It's nothing," she replied, trying unsuccessfully to draw her arm back from his grip.
His thumb ran over her delicate, mottled skin. He could see various shades of purple, red, and yellow, so he knew this didn't happen all at once. "How can you say this is nothing?"
"The nurses had a hard time finding my vein," she shrugged. The next time she tried to pull her arm away, he let go, and she rested her hand in between her thighs.
"Does it hurt?"
She pressed her fingers against the skin and he winced in sympathy, actively resisting the urge to ask her not to do that. "No, not really," she answered, examining the skin a bit more before turning her attention back to her food.
As discreetly as he could, he tried to give her a once over to check for other injuries but didn't see anything else, on this side at least. From his position laying next to her, he was at face level with her bare, exposed thigh. He could see the crease where her leg turned into her hip which was covered with a thin scrap of lavender fabric with flowers on it. Turning his attention to his Scooby Doo fruit snacks, he couldn't repress a smile. Mulder always imagined Scully was the type to lay out her outfits and meticulously match complimentary colors. Seeing her with a black bra and frilly purple panties was adorable to him.
"Penny for your thoughts?"
Not wanting to admit what he'd really been thinking, he made something up. "Just thinking about how much my Indian Guide training has come in handy."
She chuckled and brushed her hair back again, her hand darting out to steady the tent when a gust of wind pushed in the siding. "Always be prepared."
"That's for Boy Scouts. They've got nothing on Indian Guides," he joked, separating the opaque blue fruit snacks from the other colors before popping them into his mouth.
Mulder watched as she scanned the tent, looking for any signs it might cave in until she caught him watching her. "What's their motto?"
With a small smile, Mulder nudged her thigh with his arm. "Pals forever."
She gave him an exaggerated pout and cooed, "That's sweet."
"The boyhood camaraderie wasn't as strong as I think the Indian Guide rulebook wanted, but I'm glad I got to enjoy this with my favorite pal," he replied, smiling at her.
He internally raised his fist in the air in triumph when he watched another smile break out on her face. "The Gunmen are going to be so jealous when I tell them that," she teased, rubbing her hands over her arms.
The gesture caused his expression to falter a bit. It was by no means cold outside, but she always got colder than he did and that was before the cancer. "Sorry I didn't bring any more blankets."
"Don't be. It's so hot, this actually feels a lot better. I'm just trying to rub the water into my skin so I can dry out." Maybe his eyes were playing tricks on him, but it looked like she gave him a once-over before laying parallel to him on her back.
They were silent for a moment as they watched the rain fall against the clear plastic roof of the tent. "This is pretty," she praised on an exhale, nuzzling into the fabric of the blanket.
"Isn't it?" Mulder agreed, turning to look at the prettier view at his side.
Her eyes were flitting across the top of the tent with rapt interest. Since it was still light out, the streams of sunlight through the trees were leaving little casts of raindrops on her face, mirroring the visage on the plastic above.
"How have you been, Mulder?" she asks, taking him off guard.
His brows furrowed as he continued to watch her. "I think I should be asking you that."
Scully looked over at him before rolling onto her side so that she was facing him. She bent one of her arms so she could use it as a pillow while the other rest on her stomach. "And you have, repeatedly. It's my turn," she chastised.
"I-" he paused, contemplating his answer. "I'm good."
"Good?" she repeated, seemingly unconvinced.
Turning onto his side to mirror her, he raised himself on his elbow while holding his head in his hand. "Relieved you're okay. Happy you're back. Thankful this cheap tent is withstanding the storm."
Scully nodded appreciatively while her eyes roamed his face. "Sometimes I worry you aren't taking care of yourself," she admitted in a small voice.
It was one of his favorite qualities about Scully: her concern for him. She was one of the very few people in the world who gave a damn about him, and it touched him to be on the receiving end of her affection.
A flash of lightning made her eyes squint, and the ensuing thunder caused her to flinch. She glanced up at him, as if to check if he was looking, and gave him a shy smile upon seeing he was. "I didn't know you're afraid of storms," he pressed, changing the subject.
"That's because I'm not," she answered pointedly. "Is worrying about me your favorite pastime?"
"Only when baseball's in the off-season." His joke made her smile, but it didn't fully reach her eyes. "I meant to say this earlier, but I'm sorry I didn't make the best first impression with your brother. I'm sure that won't make conversations about work any easier for you."
His comment earned him a glimpse into a teenage Scully as she rolled her eyes with a scoff. "Don't mind Bill. He's an overbearing, protective brother. He means well but his intent and execution rarely compliment each other. I'm pretty sure he didn't like you before he even met you."
Scully smirked and reluctantly admitted, "Melissa made an untoward joke about us that really pissed Bill off a few Christmases ago." Upon Mulder's look, she continued, "She didn't really mean it. I think she just thought it would be funny to get a rise out of me and Bill at the same time. When Bill was pressing me about why I was spending so much time with you after my abduction, Melissa said it was because we were making up for all the banging we missed out on."
"Banging? She said that?" Mulder chuckled, his face turning red on Scully's behalf. "Was your mom there?"
"She really did, and no, my mom wasn't there. If she was, I'm sure her launching into a tirade about how much she adores you would have really sent Bill over the edge," she chuckled. She rolled back so that she was laying down again, facing the roof of the tent. He followed her lead and laid parallel to her, watching the violent storm shake the trees overhead.
"I'm not sure your mom adores me much anymore," he admitted, wincing as he remembered the look of hopeless despair on Mrs. Scully's face while they were at the hospital.
Scully snorted and insisted, "Believe me, she does."
He had a hard time believing that was true with all he'd put her daughter through, but since Scully had just admitted she was concerned about him, he didn't want to press and make her worry about his guilt complex. Instead, he just laid with her in silence as the tent swayed in the wind, the droplets of water racing against the clear plastic overhead as if they were racing, only to rub together and create bigger water drops.
After a while, Scully shifted around next to him a bit while sighing.
"Hmm?" he hummed in response. Mulder turned to look at her and immediately realized that was a sound of contentment and not her trying to get his attention. She was facing his direction, using her bent arm as a pillow with her lips parted and her eyes closed.
An odd wave of sentimentality passed over him as he was reminded of boyhood afternoons with his friends, exhausting themselves after a day of playing and taking a mid-day nap without a care in the world. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been able to indulge in such a small, mundane luxury, let alone with Scully.
He was proud he could provide this little respite from the outside world for her, and honored she felt comfortable enough to completely let her guard down like this. Mulder's eyes trailed over her form, taking note of little details about her that he usually didn't get to observe this close — like the violin curve of her hip and the freckles that muttered her skin like a thousand little kisses.
Her eyelids were fluttering from movement, and he wondered what she was dreaming about. He wanted to know if he was ever in her dreams. Was it an idealized version of him? Did he annoy her? Was it anything like how his dreams were when she visited?
While his mind wandered, his eyes grew heavy, and before he knew it, he was sleeping too. His body curved towards hers instinctively, and they both laid there in peace while the storm raged on.