The sirens were wailing again, and Scully couldn't remember a night when they hadn't. Turning over in bed, she groaned and kicked at the sheets that lay twisted around her ankles.
The window was open, and the night air crept in heavy with the scent of fire. The same smell was in her hair and her clothes. It had settled into the upholstery of her car, the grout of her shower. The black taste of carbon lingered in the back of her throat like cheap wine, and nothing she did would erase its bitter ghost.
In the beginning, the smell had reminded her of burnt flesh, of all those bodies at Ruskin Dam all those years ago. She had thrown up almost willingly after her first patrol, sick from the ash and soot that had followed her even home.
The smell was bad, but the memories were worse. With every corner she turned, she expected to find bodies - charred shadows burnt into their last acts of escape, fingers clawed against the pavement, faces crumbling into dust, but the corners she finally turned presented her with nothing that terrifying, just the minor horrors of what had become everyday life.
People died in the fires, but not in the way she feared and still dreamed of, not in an explosive burst of flame, not like a lit match laid to gasoline-soaked skin. These were sad, accidental deaths. These she could almost accept.
Now, lying in bed, the stench only reminded her of flames, of burning buildings, of walking the streets under the high sun. The sky was cloudy with smog, the lights flickered like candlelight, and the air smelled of fire - it was all horribly familiar, normal in the way the desolation of war might become normal over time.
A siren pealed past, the truck's heavy engine almost an afterthought as the machine trundled down the street. Scully wished herself away to someplace with clear skies and no fires, Rhode Island or Washington State. Montana.
The open window admitted a breeze tangy with smoke, and Scully pulled the sheets off and threw them to the floor. The building's air conditioner had shorted out the day before and since her comfort was the least of the city's problems at the moment, she found herself doing without.
Closing the window would lessen the noise of the fire engines, but the heat would make it impossible to sleep. Not that sleep wasn't already impossible. It had been so long since a night had passed without her waking, that sleep was beginning to seem unlikely, like one of Mulder's crazier theories.
Mulder's apartment had air conditioning, but she hadn't talked to him in three days, not since her first patrol. The smoky streets had left her achy and pissed off. She'd felt disagreeable and was looking forward to being alone. Not for the first time she'd been relieved that there would be no one waiting for her at home. After the day she'd had, the stress of having to deal with another human being would be too much for her. No one could ever understand the kind of days she had.
Alone at last, she'd stepped into her apartment, ripped open the Velcro tabs of her vest and drop-kicked the hated thing into a corner. After tugging her boots off and pitching her hat across the room, she'd walked into her bedroom and pulled off her t-shirt only to be greeted with, "Honey, I'm home."
She'd kicked him out of her apartment without even retrieving her sweaty t-shirt from the floor. There was nothing about her that he had not already seen, and even then he had been more taken by her display of anger than by her white bra.
He'd picked the wrong day to be lonely and had definitely picked the wrong way in which to show it. If he wanted something from her, comfort or companionship, he would have to ask. She wasn't going to play games with him.
He'd balked at the door, but when his hesitation didn't result in apology, she'd pushed him the rest of the way out and thrown the dead bolt, glad to be rid of him. Finally turning the lights on, she'd walked into the bathroom and crouched by the toilet to throw up what seemed to be a city's worth of ashes.
He hadn't talked to her since, and though she knew he was probably just sulking in rejection, it was a little disturbing not to hear from him under the circumstances. She was sure he was fine, but there was always the chance he wasn't. Mulder attracted trouble like he attracted attention.
Scully held her hair away from her neck and considered getting out of bed to wet it down again. Or maybe she could just get it cut all together, a butch cut to match the combat boots she wore when on duty. She was sure Mulder would have something memorable to say to that.
Outside a siren's wail rose and fell like the breath of disaster, and she heard the smash of glass against the street. Not knowing when something was about to burst into flame had put people on edge, and Mulder was somewhere out there tonight. She started to regret her decision to let him brood. She should have said something in case this was the way things would end.
The District had burst into flames last week. There had been no prelude, no warning. She had been at lunch with Mulder when between songs the radio had simply announced, "Unexplainable electrical fires are cropping up across the city. Officials say...."
Of course, the Lone Gunmen saw something more insidious than poor electrical regulation. While Mulder had tried to reassure them that this wasn't part of the aliens' plans to colonize earth and was probably just something wiggy in the wiring, Scully had leaned against the wall and wondered just which aliens he was referring to. She'd almost asked but in the end decided to keep the question to herself. They would only turn to look at her, either blank or stunned, and then dismiss her question, certain she was making fun of them.
It had only been the second day of the fires, and the agents were not yet pressed into riot duty. Mulder had been half-sitting on a cluttered table, arms crossed over his chest while he calmly explained why ET's manifesto did not include electrical fires. For once, Mulder was acting as the voice of reason, and it had left Scully feeling more unnecessary than usual.
The Gunmen had been packing. They'd unplugged the computers the day before and were growing anxious from withdrawal. Frohike's fingertips had twitched, as if typing invisible commands, and Langly had even given up his Discman in case it was something more than just the wiring. Only Byers had seemed unaffected, as if once working for the government had somehow prepared him for just this event.
Mulder had smiled at them tolerantly, as if he'd somehow gained a perspective that allowed him such an indulgence. His friends hadn't noticed his lack of alarm and continued to rattle off instructions in the event of a hostile takeover. They loaded up Langly's Volkswagen bus and headed off to the mountains, far enough away that the only wires would be in their flashlights. For the first time since she'd met him, Byers was in something other than a suit. She wasn't sure if it spoke of the gravity of the situation or not. The fact that Frohike had not neglected to kiss her hand on their way out the door made her think things weren't as dire as they seemed.
Desperate to escape the heat of her bedroom, Scully considered sleeping at their office. The Gunmen's lair was a concrete bunker of a basement, cool with or without A/C, but they'd shut the power off, and she knew the door wouldn't open without it.
A helicopter whipped by overhead. August in DC was never a comfortable time, but Scully's childish side felt the fires were actually raising the temperature. It didn't help that during the day she was forced to wear black riot gear, trooping around the streets in Kevlar like a non-stick frying pan with legs.
She'd be back at her desk in two days, but even the Hoover building was warm enough that people had starting wondering why none of the windows opened. At least the basement would be cool. The x-files were as disreputable as ever, but they'd earned a strange amount of reverence from the higher-ups. Their phone had been ringing when the agents returned from lunch that first day. Mr. and Mrs. Spooky might have been considered certifiable, but apparently if they knew anything about the fires then a moment could be spared to speak with them. For once Mulder didn't have an answer. He was as surprised as anyone.
Sirens. She never noticed that they'd stopped until they started up again. Her bed was hot, and the sheets were twisted. She'd knocked both her pillows to the floor in search of someplace cool to rest her head and now her neck was stiff from the lack of support.
Mulder was assigned night shifts this week so he wouldn't be in his apartment. She could turn on his air conditioner, then lie down on his leather couch and slowly freeze to death. It was tempting, but the chance he'd come back and take her body on his furniture as an invitation kept her in her own bed. She would wait until they'd talked again and maybe apologized before she laid herself out on Mulder's couch.
Scully kicked at a crease in her sheets. The heat had made her permanently irritable. She could feel it chewing at her. It wasn't hard to understand why some people were looting and rioting. It was so hot it made you angry to be alive.
All she had in the freezer was frozen daiquiri mix. She'd checked earlier, willing to eat even the most freezer burnt of ice creams or ancient frozen peas if it came to that. There wasn't any ice cream, and thanks to the local brownouts the tray of ice cubes was only partially frozen.
A cold shower wasn't out of the question, but it would wake her from her state of groggy rest. It wasn't comfortable, but it was the closest she could get to actual sleep, and she had patrol tomorrow. Strawberry daiquiris sounded wonderful, but rum at three in the morning was such a bad idea she couldn't even put its drawbacks into words.
She was back to Mulder's air conditioner. It was one of those wheezy boxes that perched in the window like a mechanical parasite. She'd slept in his apartment before and could easily remember the rattle of it as it sucked air through one end and blew it out the other. She thought she heard it now, but it was only a car out in the street. Military, if the loud engine was any indication.
Her mother was in southern California with Bill and the scrub fires that were at least "natural" in her words. So while the east coast struggled under its mysterious plight, the west suffered its own disasters. The only thing keeping Scully in Washington was the thought that she had a job to do. That and she really had no place else to go. This was home for her. The thought that it was just as hot in California wasn't much comfort.
Scully finally gave up the charade of sleep and plodded into the bathroom. She could have short hair. She pulled it back into an unforgivingly tight ponytail at the base of her skull and regarded herself in the mirror. The light was dim at best, but if she squinted she could make out the silhouette of a soldier. It was her brother, Charlie, she saw. She wondered what Mulder would think of her with short hair. She wondered what Mulder was thinking at all.
She'd received an e-mail from the Lone Gunmen that afternoon. Turned out they'd had more trouble going wireless than they'd expected, and when it was discovered that Byers had smuggled in a laptop, they'd e-mailed her several times, Frohike asking why Mulder's FBI mail was bouncing. That was a question she couldn't answer since hers was obviously working just fine. She lamely suggested he'd gone over his disk quota, but Mulder was compulsive about checking his e-mail. She was usually the one that got caught with an expired password and a full in-box.
But things had been out of whack lately, she would be the first to admit. She was less willing to admit that perhaps Mulder had had a more important reason to be sitting in her darkened bedroom than to see her without her shirt on. It was a possibility, which was why she kept wondering what he was up to now.
Hot enough to want a buzz cut, but still almost relieved by the knowledge that she didn't own a pair of electric shears, Scully left the bathroom for the kitchen. The message light was blinking on her answering machine, but it did that every time the power went out and it reset itself.
All was well in the freezer. The frozen daiquiri mix said it served six, but Scully didn't believe everything she read. She took it out of the freezer and wondered if her blender was operable. The rum bottle was nearly full and functioning without question. She'd done a lot of stupid things in her time, and it comforted her to know this wouldn't even make the list.
Belatedly she realized she couldn't make daiquiris without ice cubes. Opening the freezer, she jiggled the ice cube tray one more time. It made a slushy sound.
At this point she was willing to trade her soul for an ice cube, or, better yet, air-conditioning. Hell couldn't be any hotter than this, in which case she was prepared. There was a knock at her door, and she wondered if she'd traded away her immortal soul too soon.
She went to the door with her gun. Unfortunately, many Washingtonians were answering their doors the same way. It was part of the reason Scully had been pressed into Kevlar and given the nickname of Red. It wasn't original, but under the gear and hat, her hair was really the only thing that set her apart from the rest of the storm troopers.
Mulder was out in her hallway, his FBI hat backwards and his Kevlar trailing from one hand. He was sunburnt, which didn't fit in with his night watch detail.
Scully opened the door, glad at least that she had him in plain sight now and wouldn't stumble across him in her bedroom where all the sheets were off the bed and she had weird heat dreams while still half awake.
Mulder walked in without a greeting, like they hadn't just spent three days passively ignoring each other, like she wasn't wearing just a tank top and shorts, like the bottle of rum she'd bought after turning down a promotion out of the x-files wasn't still sitting on the kitchen counter.
Mulder dropped his vest to the floor and kicked off his shoes. "My air conditioner's busted," he informed her.
She exploded in a sharp little laugh, its shrapnel falling down into those dangerous places that hadn't smiled for years. Maybe they could share that cold shower.
"Mine too," she said.
"The first floor of my apartment building caught fire," he told her, taking off his watch.
She had nothing to say to that.
Mulder sailed his baseball hat across the room and then almost sat on her white couch.
"Mulder!" she warned. His pants were rumpled and dusty. His t-shirt had forgotten what white was and spoke of the damage that was about to be done to her couch. Mulder pulled off his t-shirt, as if that would satisfy her, but she hadn't asked for a strip tease. She watched anyway.
He wasn't looking at her. His head had wilted on his neck like a flower without water. She wanted to draw closer to him and touch his red cheeks, kiss the shiny skin of his nose.
It wasn't the precursor to alien invasion, but Mulder had been taking the fires and public unrest very seriously. She'd never seen him so involved in the business of law enforcement, not in this way of serve and protect.
"Take a shower," Scully told him. Mulder slunk down the hallway to the bathroom and Scully followed to make sure he had a clean towel. His pants hit the floor with a dull thump, and Scully wondered what he had in the pockets for them to make so much noise. She left the room before his underwear came off, though at that point it didn't matter between them. She could have stayed, sat on the closed lid of the toilet and talked to him over the spray of the shower. She never had before, but she knew it would be accepted without question. There were a lot of things about their relationship that worked that way.
Up until three days ago, Mulder's haunting of her bedroom had been like that as well, but that had been a bad day and Mulder's voyeur act had given her an excuse to yell, something she'd wanted to do since that morning.
She'd decided on the ride home that if one more person looked at her with anything less than human compassion, if one more time someone stared through her while ordering her around, it would be the last time they'd make that mistake. Maybe Mulder had come to that conclusion on his own, but she was still unsure if she had meant for him to feel the result of her first day as Red. She'd never been anything less to him than 'Scully.' Though it was true some days Scully didn't feel like much of anything at all.
In the kitchen, the daiquiri mix was making puddles on the counter as the frost on the outside of the can melted. She hopped up on the counter next to it and kicked her heels against the cabinets. The water trickled under her thigh. She brushed her leg against the frozen can, but pulled back when it proved too cold. In college when it had gotten hot like this, Scully and her dormmates would pile into Ellen's car and go buy huge drinks at the campus convenience store. The cold on her thigh was like a Slurpee headache, and it made her skin prickle. Nostalgia hit her softly, but there weren't any convenience stores in Georgetown, certainly none that sold anything as tacky as a Slurpee.
Scully missed the simplicity of those days, when supply and demand were always about equal. She'd wanted things then, but now, looking back, those things were nothing compared to what she wanted today. The B- she prayed for in comparative lit turned frivolous now that she prayed for things like tolerance and redemption, for the end of government corruption. She couldn't even remember what she'd gotten in that class, if her wish had been granted, but she knew that ten years from now she would remember tolerance, she would remember justice.
She would remember her partner standing in her kitchen, wearing boxer shorts, his lips unnaturally pink from the sunburn. He must have gone digging through her dresser drawers to find the shorts. They were his and because of that too big for her to wear. She'd stashed them in a drawer along with her running clothes. She didn't want them with her own underwear, and it had seemed silly to put them in her sock or sweater drawer. Not that men's underwear anywhere in her bedroom didn't seem out of place.
"There's aloe vera in the medicine cabinet for that sunburn," she said, wondering if Mulder had somehow known there was a pair of his boxers in her bedroom, or if he'd just been poking around and found them.
He nodded, but ignored her suggestion, asking instead, "Having a drink, Scully?"
The bottle of rum was still on the counter. The top was off, but Scully didn't remember doing that. The heat had grown to where it overwhelmed any individual thoughts. Her mind had turned into a plasma, where everything happened in the present and there was no sense of time, only of now.
Mulder looked wonderfully solid standing in her kitchen. His bare feet were braced against the floor like it might tip and roll at any moment, and she half thought it would. She was sure she hadn't had any of the rum, but how else would she explain Mulder's legs and chest there before her, like they were hers? It was so hot, but she thought she might like to kiss him just once. Just once before the next fire broke out and the heat drove the people mad.
Mulder came closer and the burns on his arms couldn't have been from the sun. He was so brave. She loved that about him. She loved him....
Her own madness had finally worn her out. She was tired and thought she might now be able to sleep. Her sheets were all on the floor. She remembered that much.
Her head was heavy, and its weight eclipsed the smothering heat she had once felt so acutely. The microwave flashed 12:00 at her, but the battery-operated clock on the wall said 4:05. She had to go to work tomorrow, but not like this with migraine eyes and a wavery head.
She watched Mulder put the daiquiri mix back into the freezer, screw the top back on the Bacardi. She was sure she hadn't drunk any of the rum. He offered her a hand, and she slid down from the counter in free fall, landing against his chest, which reminded her just how hot everything was, Mulder included. He was like a kiln, and his hiss made her think of the way glazes sometimes cracked while cooling. She moved her hand from his burnt arm, leaving white fingerprints behind, and tried to apologize, but the words never left her mind.
He put her to bed, and she found her sheets had cooled off. The window was still open, but there were no sirens. She hadn't heard any since Mulder knocked on her door. A breeze flowed through the room, cool and smoky.
Mulder drew the top sheet over them, and she forgave him his heat next to her because she'd missed him. The world wasn't ending tonight, and she hoped it wouldn't for a while because she hadn't kissed him yet. She needed more time.
She fell closer to sleep, Mulder there next to her, making a long dent in her mattress, his body warm and burnt. DC crackled with fire and electricity, a small apocalypse of science. Somewhere in the city, the sirens howled their misery. She couldn't remember a night they hadn't.