Bainbridge Island, Washington State
The slight breeze caught at the wet sunflower seed husk, and twirled it around in a graceful dance before depositing it gently near the others among the yellow-green blades of over-long grass. The lawn sloped smoothly towards an obvious transition point where man stopped fighting nature and lawn became wild grasses. Beyond the narrow expanse of wild grasses, the beach began. It wasn't a beach like people imagined beaches to be. There wasn't even much sand, and the sand that was there was a rich dark mixture. The grasses graded into rough black volcanic stones that were marked with bird droppings, lichens and slimy beach plants. Here and there, limpets clung to their surfaces. These stones became smaller as they approached the water, until they were fine pebbles at the water line. As they became smaller, different colors were mixed in, and the surfaces became smoother. Broken pieces of oyster shells, brownish agates, and red bits of hematite were part of the generally dark color of the beach. The paltry amount of sand was there at the edge, too, blending well with the dark stones. The surf was gently racing back and forth up the beach, making a sound like a rain-maker, as the pebbles rolled against each other. Chunks of sea vegetation lay scattered everywhere, and gave the air a pungent smell. A seagull hopped from rock to rock, eyeballing every patch of color to decide on edibility. Some patches warranted a peck or two, and unwary crabs became appetizers. Everything was freshly washed by the latest rain, but that could be said for pretty much any point in time in the Pacific Northwest. There was barely time between rain showers for anything to become dusty. It was no wonder that Seattle's nickname was "The Emerald City."
Well, thought Fox Mulder as he sent another husk into the wind, even if there were no other truths, it was true that this part of the country was beautiful. And even now, at the end of October, it was pleasantly cool, with a late-season nip in the air this morning, instead of oppressively hot like he had seen on the news reports for the D.C. area, although he was assured that sunshine instead of rain was unusual. He wasn't sweating in his dark suit and loud tie, which had been status quo in D.C. The fresh breeze stirred his dark hair, encouraging an uncooperative silky lock to fall forward across his brow as usual. He ignored it as he studied the sky. It was an unreal shade of blue, with a few improbably white puffy clouds sailing around, making the whole scene look like a kindergarten finger painting. Mulder finished off the seeds in his mouth, winging the husks out to join the others, and turned back towards his house.
He was pleased with the house they had chosen here in the South Beach area of Bainbridge Island. It was far enough from Winslow to seem remote, but close enough to allow easy commuting times. The house blended with the scenery painlessly, with its cedar siding and wildly landscaped yard. The side facing Puget Sound was mostly windows, all the way up into the sharply peaked roof. It wasn't large, but they didn't need a lot of space. The windows to the outside world lent a spaciousness that made up for that anyway. The front of the house was set back from the road and protected by huge old rhododendron bushes that almost seemed to have morphed into trees. There was a gravel drive that wound from the road and ended neatly by a detached double garage. He had started back towards the patio, neatly furnished with an patio table and chairs, when a woman's voice reached his ears, sailing faintly on the slight wind.
"Mulder! Where are you?" It made him quirk a small smile. The words were imbued with a familiar impatience that never failed make him want to quicken his step. How did she do that? The woman had more inflections to her voice than anyone else he knew. Or maybe, he thought, I just recognize them from having spent most of the last two decades in her company.
"Yo," he replied laconically, perversely trying to irritate her further, and simultaneously repressing that urge to rush to her by taking lanky, unhurried steps.
"Mulder," she began in annoyed frustration. "What are you doing out here? We need to get going. I don't want to be late for the ferry!" Dana Scully looked, as always, the picture of complete professionalism, with her slim charcoal suit jacket, matching skirt, and high-heeled pumps. Her shining red hair stirred in the gentle breeze, and her lacy blouse would have been flirty if she had left just one more button undone. Mulder amused himself by unbuttoning it in his mind before he reached her. As soon as he was close enough, he reached out for it and flicked the top button open before she could do anything to ward his hand off.
"Beautiful morning, isn't it, Scully?"
She started to say his name again in annoyance, but caught his eye instead. The devilry lurking there heated her in ways she didn't need to be heated just before going to work, and she couldn't help remembering what the same look had led to the night before. As Mulder saw the answering heat in her eyes, he swooped in to capture her lips in a quick, careful kiss while she was still flustered, loving the thought that he could still reduce her to this state, even after being together for so long.
He waggled his eyebrows at her suggestively. "We still have plenty of time, Scully. If we left now, we would be almost an hour early, and then what would we do?" He danced back out of range of the quick, light right hook that was aimed at his shoulder. "Hey, I didn't even mess up your lipstick!"
"Get your ass in the car, Mulder, and stop trying to grope me." Scully's voice took on a tone that Mulder didn't often feel compelled to argue with, and he gave her a wide berth as he headed towards the car. Her diminutive stature didn't figure into the depth of his respect for her; it was her personal strength and "I can do anything" attitude that did it. Anyway, it was probable that she was carrying a concealed weapon, as she often did these days. Mulder respected that cop side of her still, although he only saw it when she was nervous or anxious about something. She had been practicing as a pediatrician for several years now, and didn't often feel the need to blast the crap out of things, but he knew from long hours at the shooting range that she was still a fine shot. She was actually better than he was, if he was going to be truthful about it. He rubbed his left shoulder in a gesture of respect for her skill.
"Geez, Dr. Scully-Mulder, give a guy a break! Ever since I married you, you've done nothing but abuse me." He shot her a kicked puppy look as he climbed into the driver's side that made her want to cuff him even more. But still, she smiled at the silly name he'd bestowed on her when they had married.
"Someone needs to abuse you to keep you in line, Mulder, and you know it." Scully slid with athletic grace into the passenger's side of the dark gray sedan and swung her legs in last, settling her rich brown leather briefcase in front of her knees. She had already buttoned her blouse up to a respectable level, Mulder noted with some disappointment. She fastened her seatbelt and then, tapping her fingers repeatedly on the handles, she looked across at the beloved face. It sported many more scars and lines than the youthfully unlined and undamaged one he had presented to her in his basement office in Washington D.C. so very long ago. She took note of the silver strands that were making their presence known in the thick dark brown hair at his temples. "Thank you for going with me to do this today. You don't have to, you know." Her voice was warm as she met his eyes.
"Sure, Scully, anything for you." He paused, looking pointedly at her fidgeting hands. "Except maybe for any more coffee this morning. I think you've exceeded the national safety limits." He flung this at her as he put the car in drive and guided it smoothly down the sloped driveway towards the road. Glancing both ways, he barely paused as he entered the roadway.
"You're going to get a ticket doing that, someday," she said sanctimoniously. "I'm probably going to have to say 'I told you so,' because I won't be able to stop myself." She glanced restlessly at her watch and squirmed impatiently in her seat, ignoring his comment about her jitters. "Where are your materials, Mulder?"
"Did I need materials?" The lazy comment had the intended effect on his wife.
Scully tipped her head back and bumped it several times against the headrest in familiar exasperation with her partner's cavalier attitude towards his job. She felt her newly shortened cinnamon-colored hair brush against her neck and reached up to tuck a strand behind her ear. She sighed out loud, started bouncing her knee, and looked over at Mulder.
"You have been invited to a career fair at a nationally recognized high school for gifted kids, and you have no materials." She made it a statement, because she already knew it was true.
Mulder looked at her bouncing knee, reached over and pushed down on it, which stilled it only until he released it. "Scully, you know that I was only included to get you to come to the fair. I'm not really science, and I'm not really medical, so I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to do, anyway. I'll probably just back you up, as usual. I brought some files with me to work on, and if someone gets bored with all of you stiff-necked science types and wants to know about psychology, criminal profiling, private investigating, federal investigating, or even alien conspiracies, I will be happy to chat with him."
"Or her," Scully insisted perversely, mostly because he was ticking her off.
"Or her," he added agreeably.
Scully sighed again, knowing she couldn't win against someone who wouldn't fight with her. Sometimes, it would just be so satisfying to go a few rounds with the guy, but she could hardly ever get him going. His talent was in disarming her with his odd dry humor; it was his most effective weapon. He never lost his temper with her, like she had seen him do with suspects, like she had seen him do with himself. Deep inside, where she knew he wouldn't see, she smiled to herself, and admitted that she loved this simply complicated man a little more today than she had done yesterday. Putting her hand over his on the console, she let him see the smile.
Glancing at her, Mulder raised his eyebrow at her quizzically, and wondered about the smile. It held a typical amount of Scully-mystery, and kept him guessing about her thoughts, like every other smile she had ever shot his way. He brought her hand up to lay his lips against, inhaled the scent of her, and released her hand to steer around a corner.
Mulder felt his cell phone vibrate unexpectedly in the breast pocket of his suit, and because it surprised him with its violence, he swore succinctly, "Son of a bitch." Pulling it out, he checked the caller ID before answering it. It was his part-time secretary, Marilyn, who was a bossy, irreverent older woman with a prodigious talent for keeping his private investigation firm organized, despite his best efforts to sabotage her at every turn. He flipped the phone open, dividing his attention dangerously between his conversation and his driving.
"Hey, Mulder, I got a call this morning that you might want to return before it gets too late. It was from that FBI guy that you talk about all the time. Walter Skinner." Her strong Arkansas accent flowed out of the phone into his ear. "He sounded all hot and bothered, like a half-screwed red fox in a forest fire. But he wouldn't say what he wanted, exactly. That is one damned suspicious son-of-a-bitch. Sexy phone voice, though. I have his phone number." This all came out at high speed, as if she were a telemarketer who was paid by how many words she spoke each minute. She reeled Skinner's number off, too fast to write down even if he hadn't been driving. Mulder didn't need it, though; it hadn't changed. He shook his head at his secretary's colorful language and delivery. She was an attention-grabbing package, his secretary. She was an ex-biker chick, rumored to have owned a biker bar years earlier. Her appearance was striking, with her frightening bleached hair, a dizzying array of tattoos, (some of which Mulder didn't even want to imagine), and about three hundred pounds on a 5'3" frame. She had shown him a photo of herself twenty years earlier, when she weighed less than a hundred pounds, but told him that when she stopped smoking, she substituted chocolates, figuring they were less dangerous to her heath than cigarettes. He was constantly on her case about keeping her speech professional when she was talking to clients, but her back-woods upbringing had been augmented by her years on the back of a Harley and running the rumored bar, and he was pretty sure he'd never break her of her tendency to pepper her speech with bawdy words and stories. He wasn't even sure she could tell the difference between appropriate and not.
"Yeah. Thanks, Marilyn. I'll give him a call. Anything else?"
"Nope, pretty quiet today."
"Okay, why don't you take the day off? I'm headed over to Seattle for the day to educate some kids about the existence of extraterrestrials and I'll be back to the office tomorrow."
"Wow. You are one fantastic boss. I was wondering when I could meet up with my new boyfriend and try out some of his kinky toys. Now I have all day."
Her twisted humor was something Mulder could relate to, and he laughed appreciatively, trying not to picture her doing anything of the sort. He advised her solemnly not to do anything he wouldn't, before he hung up on her. He refocused his attention on his driving, as they approached the Winslow ferry terminal and got in line at one of the toll booths.
Scully eyed him warily. "Your … erm …secretary?" The jury was still out, as far as Scully's opinion of his secretary was concerned. He decided not to mention Marilyn's little joke.
"Yeah. Guess who called, all worked up?" He thought he could drag out the time before he mentioned Skinner, because he knew exactly what her reaction would be. Skinner knew their home phone number, and called occasionally to shoot the breeze and catch up. This sounded different; Scully would catch on pretty quickly and jump to the inevitable conclusion of impending doom.
"No idea, Mulder. Why don't you just tell me? Something going on that I should know about?" She scowled steadily at the SUV in front of them, trying unsuccessfully to make the vanity plate make sense in her head. Why did people put such stupid things on their cars? They were a distraction and the bane of the English language. Besides, they made her mad when she couldn't figure them out.
"I don't know yet. It was Skinner. I'll have to call him back to get the low-down." He looked apprehensively at her out of the corner of his eye as they inched forward towards the booth. She had become very still, the change all the more noticeable after her jumpiness all the way from home this morning. He looked away and pulled up to pay for their passage on the ferry. He kept his gaze on the traffic attendant, and followed his directions to the proper lane to await the loading process. As he turned the key off, Scully's silence was emphasized by the clearly audible ticking of the cooling engine.
"What?" he was brave enough to ask her.
"Skinner." Suddenly urgent, she turned sideways in her seat to face him, intensity etched onto her face and in her gaze. "What could he want? We just chatted with him last week. Something must be going on for him to call you at work."
"I'll call him later, Scully. He can wait. Look, the ferry's here." His words were drowned out by the sounding of the ferry's fog horns, a common sort of eerie music around the Puget Sound, and they watched in silence as the vessel docked. The ferry had a blocky shape, with the gaping maw of the car decks taking up the lower two stories. Above the car decks were the two passenger decks, one lined with gleaming windows and the other open to the air, with two areas blocked off from the wind. The wheelhouse was stacked atop these decks, and the name plate on the front of this vessel read "Wenatchee." The deck hands looped massive ropes around enormous cleats, lowered the car ramps, and began to direct the unloading cars towards the correct lanes. The seagulls swooped around the front and sides of the ferry, looking for freshly disturbed edibles stirred up by the huge engines of the boat. Walking passengers waited patiently for the deck hands to swing the passenger bridge into place, before walking off of the ferry en masse towards the terminal. Fresh passengers took their place within moments.
Finally, the boat had emptied, and the ferry terminal workers pointed at two cyclists who were waiting to board. They rode towards the front of the boat, and then the lanes of waiting cars were pointed at in turn to drive aboard the glinting green and white ferry. Mulder concentrated on parking the car where he was directed, and then set the parking brake, turned the car off again, and looked at his partner. "Wanna go get some coffee?" He was determined to keep her mind off of Skinner as long as he could.
"I thought I was 86ed," Scully said ruefully.
He looked at her knee. "Yeah, well, looks like you've regained a bit of control. I think we can chance it. Anyway, I just want to go up on deck and enjoy the view."
Scully followed Mulder up the stairs from the car deck, already admiring the view ahead of her on the steep narrow gray stairs. When he turned suddenly on the landing, he caught her ogling his backside, and queried, "View pretty good?"
She blushed, shrugged an unconcerned shoulder and allowed, "Considering how old it is, not too bad."
Laughing at the insulting compliment, Mulder wrapped his arm around her shoulders and walked with her to a bench by one of the enormous windows. Without taking his arm away, he guided both of them into the seat and snuggled her close to his side, enjoying her warmth and familiar weight against him. They sat in companionable silence while the ferry's engines engaged and caused the boat to surge away from the terminal. They were both still new enough to the whole ferry-riding process, that it all seemed fascinating. As they pulled away from the shore, a pair of seagulls fell into precision formation next to their window and paced the ferry exactly, peering in the window at the pair of humans who peered out. One of the gulls cocked his head insolently at Mulder and made him laugh.
"I think that was a challenge, Mulder. Whatever will you do to preserve your honor among man-beasts?"
"I'm fairly secure in my manhood. I think I'll just let it pass."
Eventually, the birds got bored and peeled off in search of more interesting things to do. Scully and Mulder settled into a pleasant hypnotized state, and watched as the shores of the Puget Sound passed by. Fine glass-fronted houses flanked private beaches, and the overwhelming colors of the numerous fall flowering plants were intensely bright. Sailboats tacked lazily back and forth on the slightly rough blue water of the sound. Fishing boats made their way with purpose from point to point. Tiny people could be seen here and there beachcombing, playing, clamming, and looking for oysters. The half-hour trip passed uneventfully, and neither one were inclined to get up and brave the snack-bar coffee. The captain announced that they were approaching the Seattle terminal, and that all car passengers needed to return to the car deck.
The ferry trip had provided a welcome respite from thoughts of what Walter Skinner wanted, but thoughts of him returned to Scully's mind as she climbed back into the car with her characteristic grace. She let the suspicions bounce around in her mind as they completed the last leg of their journey to the Jackson Calhoun Science and Medical Magnet School, and then compartmentalized her thoughts neatly as they pulled into the parking lot.