Title: Al Dente
Author: Spookey247
Feedback: Brightens my day spookey247@msn.com
Rated: PG-13 (profanity)
Archive: Yes! Drop me a note so I can visit!
Category: MSR, Baby Fic, Scully Angst, Pasta Fic
Timeline/Spoilers: Set post "Existence," with all the usual for Season 8

Disclaimer: Waaaaaa!!!!! Don't make me say it!!!!!!!!

Suggested Listening: This isn't song fic, but The Breeders "Last Splash" was on continuous play while I was writing this. Thus the quote at the beginning of the story that will only make sense to me.

Thanks and dedication: To Amanda, my beta, co- conspirator, web-mistress, graphics director, dialogue adjuster, and (most of all,) friend, who always asks the right questions and never lets me get away with not answering them.

Summary: A tale of hormones and pasta.

~~~~~~~~~~

"Spitting in a wishing well Blown to hell...crash I'm the last splash."

~~The Breeders

Al dente: al-'den-(")tA, (adj.) Italian; literally, to the tooth: cooked just enough to retain a somewhat firm texture

~~~~~~~~~~

Friday, July 6 1:38 PM

He flinched when the nurse called him "dad."

It was less noticeable than the standard textbook flinch, just a slight downward movement of his facial muscles: brow following eye following cheek following lip. But if eight years of partnership had not taught Dana Scully how to detect the mussed hairs in Fox Mulder's meticulous facial coiffure, six weeks of unprecedented togetherness and tag-team floor pacing certainly had.

Long story short: he couldn't run, he couldn't hide. Scully knew a flinch when she saw it.

The nurse hadn't meant to cause any trouble. "Hi there, Dad," was all she had said. "Hi there, Dad. That's sure a cute little boy you've got there." There was nothing dismissive or patronizing in her tone; in fact, the older woman's voice had been friendly, cheerful, downright solicitous. Scully sensed that the gentle "dad" had been the verbal equivalent of a kindly pat on the back, a quick I'm- okay-you're-okay intended to comfort yet another tongue-tied male standing frozen in the OB's waiting room, doggedly lugging a baby carrier and trying hard not to seem out of place.

But with circles under his eyes and this morning's beard still adorning his jaw, Mulder did look out of place. Embarrassingly so. The harsh blues and grays of his clothing stood out like a bruise against the dulcet lavenders and pinks that surrounded him. Exhaustion had weathered his handsome features, and this gave him a rough, sullen appearance. It was as if underneath the calm exterior there lay a seething cocktail of hyped-up androgens and bottled aggression, awaiting any excuse to freak out and pelt the staff with whatever came to hand. Kind of like a "Wild Ones" -era Marlon Brando, Scully thought. Only in this particular script, some huge, invisible hand had plucked the surly hero off his motorcycle and dropped him into the front display case at a Laura Ashley store.

Marlon Brando always faced things like a man, she thought, feeling suddenly uncharitable.

Two for flinching, Mulder. Take that. And that.

"Hi," he said shyly, having no idea, of course, that she was mentally socking him in the chest. He managed a nervous smile. "Everything okay?"

Scully swallowed hard. She tried to smile back, ducking her head once to indicate the affirmative and glancing into the baby carrier. "He asleep?"

Mulder shifted the baby carrier from one hand to the other to afford her a better view. Inside it, their six-week-old son was busily sawing logs. "Um, yeah...that's why we didn't come in until just now. Must be the movement of the car...we should try it this afternoon."

Scully wanted to remind Mulder that she had tried the car yesterday, with absolutely no effect, and that he had tried it two days ago, and four days ago, with a similar lack of effect, but she caught herself just before the heavy sigh escaped her body and tried to smile at him again. "Yeah," she said. "Maybe we should." She gestured toward the reception desk. "Um, I'm ready, I think. I just need to go check out."

He nodded. "Guess we'll wait over here, then."

"Yeah, sit down. I'll just be a minute."

Mulder wheeled around and headed for a seat, the baby carrier thwacking gently against his thighs. Scully headed for the reception desk, where a meticulously styled receptionist wearing superfluous medical togs was poised to accept her co-payment.

"Name?"

Mascara-encrusted lashes blinked once, then twice. Scully blinked back, wondering if the receptionist was aware that her make-up palette was an exact match for the pastel flowers papering the wall right next to her head.

"Name?"

Scully shook herself. She yawned. "Scully, Dana Scully. I just saw Dr. Speake a few minutes ago. I need to pay."

The spiky black lashes took another dramatic dip southward. "Oh," the receptionist said, surprised. "Well, I don't seem to have your chart. Just a minute and we'll see where it is."

She did a 180 in her chair and glared at a younger woman who was pecking at a computer keyboard four feet behind her. The young woman looked up, brushing straw-colored bangs from her pale forehead. She glared back at the receptionist. "What?"

"Scully. Dana Scully. I don't have her chart."

Scully sighed, reaching into her bag for her checkbook and pen. "My co-payment is twenty dollars, if that helps..."

"Brenda must still have it," the younger woman murmured, rising from her desk and hurrying toward the office's backstage area.

The receptionist turned back to Scully. Blink, blink. "One moment, please. Sorry you have to wait."

"That's okay," Scully answered politely, though it really wasn't okay at all. Enough, already, she screamed inside her head, aiming another mental sucker-punch, this time in the receptionist's direction. This was it, the very last visit in a long string of visits, and after roughly nine months of being poked and stuck and checked and prodded and discussed and reduced to a hastily scribbled bunch of notes in a folder: after nine months of being the star of the almighty CHART, she was ready, oh so ready. It was the end of the run. The curtain was closing. She was damned anxious to get off the stage.

She tapped her pen impatiently against the counter. The receptionist looked up at her with an exaggerated smile. 'You're in my work space, lady,' the smile said. Chilly. Scully suppressed the urge to use her pen like a lawn dart. She took two steps to the right, jerked a pamphlet out of a rack near the door, and read.

"Working Mothers: Tips and Tricks for Getting Organized."

Oh yay, she thought, squeezing the glossy blue booklet so hard it cut into her fingers.

She glanced over her shoulder at Mulder, who was perched uneasily on the edge of a sky-blue armchair, the carrier and its zonked occupant resting at his feet. He was flipping through a magazine.

Scully turned, intent on making out the title. It was difficult to see the cover, since he hadn't actually picked the magazine up, choosing instead to crane his neck and glance at it almost surreptitiously as it lay on the end table. Was it People? Newsweek? Or could it be...YES!

Baby smiling on the cover. Scully resisted the urge to spike her checkbook against the floor and perform a victory dance straight out of Superstars of the Superbowls.

Over the last six weeks she'd offered Mulder copies of Parent, Child, Parent & Child, Mothering, Fathering, and Healthy Family Living, hoping against hope that he would educate himself, as she had, about all the challenges that awaited them. He'd tactfully avoided opening them, though, allowing a tidy stack of untouched periodicals to accumulate by what she now hesitantly thought of as "his side" of her bed.

But, now...had his curiosity finally gotten the best of him? Was this...progress?

Mulder was holding the magazine at arm's length, as if it was a long-neglected freezer dish he'd just found at the back of his 'fridge. Scully supposed the rosy baby on the page before him must be assuming the role of "foul-smelling mess lurking under the lid."

He doesn't treat Will like that, she reassured herself, banishing the image hastily from her consciousness. He loves Will.

Doesn't he?

~~~~

2:06 PM

It was hot in the car. Mulder strained to see around a parked UPS truck and pulled out into the street. "So everything's okay, Scully?"

She nodded again. "Yep. Okay."

Mulder bit his lip in frustration, but managed to find his voice again. "Okay. Why am I having a hard time believing that?"

"Believing what?"

"That everything's fine."

"I have no idea. I said I'm fine."

"Yeah, but...well, hell, Scully, you have to admit you're pretty damn quiet."

Fox Mulder, master of the fine art of understatement. Pretty Damn Quiet. Well, why the hell not, Scully thought. There had certainly been little enough silence in their lives of late and she didn't feel the need to justify herself. She stared down at her hands, which still clutched her checkbook and that shiny blue pamphlet.

"So...what? Is this some kind of cold shoulder, then? What's it about?"

"I'm not giving you the cold shoulder, Mulder. I'm tired."

"Is it about last night?" he asked, staring fixedly at the brake lights of the car ahead of them.

"I don't know," she answered quietly. "I mean, no. No, I mean, um, that was fine. We needed to talk about it. Obviously. My maternity leave is over, we needed to finalize the arrangements."

Mulder's hands went stiff on the steering wheel. "'Finalize the arrangements?' I'm sorry, Scully, but I thought it was our son we were talking about."

Scully drew a slow, deep breath and stared out of the window.

"Are you okay about going back to work, Scully? Are you having second thoughts? Because if you are, you don't have to do it just now. We can work something out."

"We'll see," she murmured.

Second thoughts?

"This isn't about that formula thing, is it?" Mulder continued. "I mean, not to belabor the point, but it just seems like if I'm going to have him all day there should be more than one option for feeding him. That's all I meant. I understand that you want him to have only breastmilk for a while, but, you know, it's um, a pretty intimidating thing to face...what if starts crying, like, well, you know, like he can sometimes, and I don't have anything to give him? Speaking of which, did you ask the doctor about the colic? Did she give you any idea when he was supposed to grow out of it?"

Third thoughts.

"I mean, I know I'm going to be bringing him to see you and you bought that fancy breast-pump and you've been, um, pumping, but..."

Fourth and fifth and sixth and seventh, even.

"Anyway," Mulder said, lowering his voice and peering down as if preparing to tell the dashboard his deepest, darkest secrets. "I hope this isn't about Boston."

Scully realized she was thinking about hitting him again, so she reached over and patted him on the knee, instead. "That's not settled yet," she told him, in the friendliest voice she could muster. "Can we talk about it later?"

Mulder pulled into a Texaco station. "Back in a sec," he muttered, and fled toward the gas pump and safety.

Scully twisted in her seat to check on Will, who was dead to the world, one tiny fist crammed into his red, toothless mouth. She wondered why he still seemed to have day and night so mixed up. Maybe he's a vampire, she worried. Maybe he's an X-file, after all.

She yawned, wishing pointlessly for a rich, frothy latte, loaded up with a double, no, make that triple shot of the caffeine that seemed to upset her son's digestion so much.

I'll tell you one thing, Will, she thought wryly. It's a damn good thing you're cute.

She glanced back at her partner, who for the moment was completely absorbed by the act of pumping high- test into his car.

Boston, Mulder? What the hell were you thinking?

She sighed and faced forward again.

Boston University. That had been Mulder's earth- shattering revelation last night. He hadn't begun to negotiate the particulars, but it looked like the Department of Psychology was going to offer him a very nice starting salary and good benefits. They wanted him to teach Forensic Psychology. A tenure- track position. Funding, resources, the backing of a powerful institution: an environment in which at least some of his work could continue.

When he'd told her about his lunch with the search committee rep, her mouth had instantly gone dry. Feeling like she might choke on her own tongue, she had asked him, very pointedly, if he planned to move to Boston. He had given her a funny look and, after a lengthy pause, answered that he could always commute home on the weekends, to spend time with her and Will.

Yes, she supposed that was a possibility. No, it wasn't a huge stretch to imagine that he could.

Would he, though?

Scully was aware of the car door opening, of Mulder sliding into the seat next to her and fiddling with his seat belt, but when she suddenly felt his hand on hers, she started anyway. "Hey," he said softly. "Don't worry so much. We'll work everything out."

He lifted her hand to his mouth and gave it a soft kiss.

Ooooooh shit, Scully thought. The feel of his flesh, the electricity, the thrill that screamed through her body like a pumper-truck on its way to a four-alarm fire...

She'd forgive him for everything in a minute. Even the formula. Even Boston.

And that really pissed her off.

She shot him a half-hearted smile and pulled her hand gently back into her lap, the soothing, motherly voice of Dr. Mary Speake rolling through her head: "You're recovering well, I'm very pleased. You're fine to resume normal sexual relations, keep taking your vitamins, and by the way, have you settled on a method of birth control?"

"Birth control?" Scully had been a bit taken aback. "Um, I don't think there's much of a chance that I'll conceive again, Mary. As you know, Will was...unexpected."

"But still," Dr. Speake had said, "you *did* get pregnant. It could happen again. Have you considered your birth control options at all?" She had started going down the list: the pills, the shots, the pantheon of rubber and foam and copper implements, but Scully had stopped her.

"Mary, I really don't know if I need anything. Let me think about it."

Resume normal sexual relations? Scully shook her head.

The only normal sexual relations she and Mulder had ever had occurred ten and a half months earlier, almost too far back to remember clearly. And their coupling hadn't been normal, exactly: an emotional late night grope that turned into an encounter that seemed like a dream the next morning. A very nice but highly surprising encounter, from which she had quite literally fled as the sun peeked over the horizon.

Something had passed between them that night, but just what was anybody's guess: they had never found a way to talk about what happened, and then he had disappeared.

And died.

And risen again.

Normal sexual relations with Mulder.

Ha.

They'd shared a bed since William's birth. They'd shared lingering looks, sympathetic caresses, kisses so cautious they were essentially chaste. Will was always between them, though; he filled every waking moment. Sometimes she suspected that they were both using him for protection, like he was some kind of magic shield.

Good lord, she thought, how would I break the news to Mulder, anyway? Um, by the way, in case you were interested, Doctor Speake says I can have sex now?

Oh, please.

When Will was two weeks old they had decided to move in together, but she'd been increasingly worried: to date Mulder had put one box in storage in the basement of her building. She wasn't even sure if he'd given his landlord any kind of notice. If he had, he hadn't mentioned it to her, and she'd been afraid to bring it up. She certainly didn't want to seem pushy. Still, it was troubling: a month had passed since they'd made the decision, and Mulder was still going to his apartment several times a week for clean laundry and mail.

She was highly suspicious. Was he giving up his life out of a sense of honor, to do the right thing? Or was Boston what he really wanted?

Did she have any right to ask him to stay?

Scully squeezed the shiny blue pamphlet, worrying its corner. Scratch, scratch, scratch, over and over...

She'd been ready to do it alone, before, fully prepared for single motherhood with all its joys and horrors. Then Mulder rose from the grave, started hanging around, bringing her pizzas, going to Lamaze classes. Miraculously appearing with helicopters just in time to save her life.

Kissing her and making it seem like he wanted...

Bastard, Scully thought, sending the glare of death whizzing across the front seat toward him.

Having settled once more into a comfortable state of oblivion, Mulder gave her a quick smile. "You know, Scully, I was bottle-fed. I bet you were, too."

She looked down, open-mouthed and red-faced, and flipped the shiny pamphlet open with trembling fingers. Read, she told herself. Don't scream, *read*.

"Tip #3: Get to know your freezer

Cooking nutritious meals can be a real problem for the mother working outside the home. The following dishes are quick and easy. Make large batches to store in the freezer, then thaw, heat, and serve with salad. Voila! A hot meal for the family, even when the baby is fussy!"

Scully stared at the recipes swimming before her eyes: Quick Lasagna. Macaroni and cheese. Cheesy Beef Noodle Casserole.

Fuck him, she thought. I've got this under control.

"Mulder?"

"Hmm?"

"Could you stop by Giant on the way home? I've got to pick up a few things."

~~~~

3:37 PM

"Where do you want me to put all this stuff, Scully?"

Mulder lurched through the front door and into the living room, loaded with plastic grocery bags and listing from side to side like a ship in a storm.

Distracted from his snack by the rustling of the bags, Will popped off Scully's breast, whimpering and searching for the lost nipple. She lifted her breast and helped him find it again, but he instantly spit it out, whimpering louder and drawing his knees towards his stomach.

Mulder reappeared in the kitchen door, watching the scene with resignation. "Um, Scully, why did you buy all that pasta?"

Will jerked, arched his back, kicked, began to squirm...

"You can't do this today, buddy," Scully told Will firmly, or was she really begging? "Not today, okay? Mama's got some things to do."

Will kicked some more. He whined. He complained. His tiny head rolled from side to side. Here we go, Scully thought to herself, trying desperately to get him to latch on again. The good baby train has pulled into the station. Passenger disembarking.

"There's enough food in there to feed a football team." Mulder leaned in the door with his hands into his pockets, clearly confused as hell. "Something I should know, Scully?"

"Um, as soon as Will's settled down I'm going to..."

Mulder cleared his throat nervously. "It's almost four," he interrupted, "do you really think he's going to settle...?"

Will began crying softly.

Mulder's expression grew stony. See, the expression said, here it comes.

The arsenic hour was upon them.

~~~~

4:10 PM

Will screamed with every fiber of his tiny being.

Scully paced the floor, making the usual circuit: dining room, living room, hallway, bedroom. Cross to the bedroom window, back to the bedroom door. Hallway, living room, dining room. Circle the table twice. Then: living room, hallway, bedroom, cross to the bedroom window, back to the bedroom door...

"You ready?" Mulder asked her, raising his voice so she could hear him over the din. His brow was a mass of folds and wrinkles and Scully knew it was all he could do not to put his hands over his ears.

"Not quite," she called, "Just a few minutes longer..."

Every day, between the hours of four and seven, she and Mulder took turns pacing in circles with Will. She'd come to think of it as a kind of walking meditation; only this was a little-known form of spiritual discipline wherein the seeker was assaulted, while walking, with some sort of spine- shrinking, toe-curling noise until he or she suffered a complete ego death, thus achieving a state of oneness.

"Well, just let me know," Mulder called back. "I'm right here whenever you need me."

He slumped onto the sofa and turned on the TV.

Scully had taken to always making the trip in bare feet. Otherwise, she reasoned, she'd wear a groove in the floor and have to pay someone to come in and re- do the finish. She hadn't told Mulder about this fear, knowing full-well that it was unfounded, if not downright silly, but still, every day when she handed their little bundle of misery over to his father, she would find herself staring down at Mulder's feet, worrying about the effect his Nikes were about to have on the hardwood.

She swayed with her son, humming to him gently. Will continued screaming, as he always did. She didn't know why she bothered humming anymore. Nothing seemed to have any effect at all.

She bounced him. He screamed.

She rocked him. He screamed.

She rubbed his back. He screamed some more.

Suddenly Scully's nerve endings stood at attention and started screaming back.

"C'mon, Will," she begged him, "Please. Please. Be quiet."

Her arms tightened around his body. She walked faster. Hallway, bedroom, cross to the bedroom window...

The screaming turned into a determined shrieking.

Cross back to the bedroom door...

"C'mon! That's enough, Will!!"

Hallway, living room...

Blood pressure rocketing skyward, she burst through the door like a Triple Crown winner, holding Will at arms length, trying to get him as far away from her body as she possibly could. "Mulder!"

He leaped to his feet. "Yeah?"

"I'm ready!"

Mulder was on his mark in an instant. He reeled Will in, right on cue. "I'll go change his diaper," he called, turning toward the bedroom. "Maybe that'll help. Why don't you take a shower, Scully, or..."

"I'll be in the kitchen," she growled.

~~~~

4:32 PM

Macaroni.

Rotini.

Jumbo shells.

She arranged the boxes by size in the middle of the kitchen table.

Mozzarella.

Ricotta.

Velveeta, family sized.

These went in the 'fridge. Second shelf, toward the front, within reach.

She sorted the vegetables by size and color. Set two pounds of ground chuck and Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup on the counter near the stove.

Scully had always been in the habit of buying the most elegant culinary equipment, longingly filling her cabinets and drawers with expensive implements that never saw any action. Vindicated now, the utensils came crashing out of storage: strainers, graters, spoons and spatulas; Swiss cutlery from the nifty knife holder; stainless steel bowls, nesting neatly; shiny glass baking dishes, lined up like jewels.

She jerked an enormous pot from a lower cabinet and filled it with water. The dials on the range spun, lighting a high blue flame under virgin copper.

Scully surveyed her handiwork and saw that it was good.

She flattened the pamphlet just in front of the gallery of pasta-boxes and began reading it with an academic air, making calculations she had never before felt qualified to make. She estimated chopping and grating times, formulated a beef-browning strategy, scheduled the boiling, the mixing, the layering.

Mushroom and onion.

Eggplant and garlic.

Zucchini and tomato and carrot and pepper.

The chopping knife felt good, so familiar in her hand.

She was aware, in some distant corner of her consciousness, that Will was still screaming. Well of course he is, she told herself, matter-of-factly checking the clock. It's 4:47. The screaming time.

The screaming seemed to be getting louder. Scully chopped harder, julienning for all she was worth.

"Scully."

The zucchini was a real pleasure to cut, as the eggplant had been. The knife slid through the skin so evenly, rendering neat, perfect little cubes...

"Scully."

The onion had been harder. A genuine challenge. The layers had slipped and slid so much she had ended up chasing them around the cutting board...

"Scully!"

Who was making that damn racket?

"What do you want?" She whirled toward Mulder and their still-wailing infant, eyes red and tearing from onion fumes, a shiny steel paring knife glinting in her hand.

Mulder took three steps back. "Uh...I'm patting him and bouncing him but it doesn't seem to be helping." His eyes were wide. He glanced furtively around the kitchen. "If you don't mind me asking, Scully, um, what the hell are you doing?"

Will bellowed. The kitchen was hot. The pot of water hissed on the stove as Scully brushed a sticky, enervated strand of hair off her forehead.

Mulder's stare was both bewildered and accusing.

Wiping her hands on a kitchen towel, she answered him more defiantly than was probably necessary: "I'm going back to work Monday morning so I'm putting some food in the freezer."

Mulder's eyes got wider. "Freezer?"

"Yes."

"The last time I looked in your freezer all it had in it was a couple of boxes of Lean Cuisine and an out- of-date container of Tofutti."

She pinned him with a steely glare. "Your point?"

"It's just...I never would have pegged you for a freezer type of woman, Scully. It really doesn't seem like you."

"Well, get used to it. I've got responsibilities now."

"You didn't have responsibilities before?"

"Look, this is emergency preparedness, Mulder. I'm making food to freeze so that I'll have more time with the baby when I'm not at work."

"'The baby.' You mean, 'our son, Will'?"

As his father spoke his name, Will redoubled his efforts to shout the building down.

Mulder bounced him. Mulder patted him. Mulder circled the kitchen.

The water on the stove moved past mere hissing and began to rasp and seethe.

"You're exhausted, and I don't understand why you're doing this. Why don't you wait and do it another day?"

"It's Friday. I'm going back to work in two days. If I'm going to do this, I've got to do it now."

"I haven't got a job yet, Scully. Will and I will be home all day. I'm not a gourmet but I can toss a salad. We don't have to go crazy."

Scully paused. She stared at him, lip curling. Then she turned her attention to the countertop and began dicing zucchini like mad.

"Scully..."

She didn't lift her gaze from the cutting board. "Bounce, pat and sway, Mulder. You forgot about the swaying. Now leave me alone."

Will let out an earsplitting howl. Mulder winced and shifted him to his other arm. "So... instead of relaxing or doing any of the other things you need to do before you go back to work, you're going to...cook?"

"I'm going to cook."

"But you don't cook, Scully. I've never seen you cook."

"I have a child, Mulder. From now on, I cook."

~~~~

5:02 PM

William's lament continued unabated.

The copper pot of water gave up seething and, approaching its boiling point, emitted a low roar.

Scully set a huge saute pan on the range and splashed olive oil over its bottom. She summoned the blue flame and watched with a brittle soul as the oil warmed, softened, slid lazily around the pan. She was the queen of the kitchen now, and when the oil was hot, she seized the vegetables by handfuls, pitching them into the pan and smiling at them triumphantly as they wilted at her command.

With the pan of vegetables hissing and writhing on the stove, she rushed to the refrigerator, flinging the door open, reaching into the cool interior and practically hurling the blocks and containers of cheese toward the kitchen table.

The grater was sharp and cruel, and the block of mozzarella was a fleshy white blur. Sweat dripped off the end of Scully's nose as she worked the cheese vigorously up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down, creating a huge shredded mound on the table.

She could hear them approaching. Will's howls were sharp and cruel. Scully worked the cheese harder, imagining her nerve endings curling up in a fleshy white pile on the table.

"So what are you making?"

Mulder was at her shoulder again, looking oddly worried.

Scully picked up the pamphlet. "Quick Lasagna, Filled Jumbo Shells, Cheesy Beef Noodle Casserole, and Macaroni and Cheese."

"People food. Huh." Shaking his head, he hefted Will and stalked back toward the living room.

Seizing the blue pamphlet and holding it out like a treasure map, Scully made her way back to the stove. She stirred the vegetables, adding tomato sauce, cheap red wine, oregano, basil, bay leaf...

Mulder was back a few minutes later, this time looking somewhat peeved.

"Is the freezer big enough to hold all that?" There was a challenge in his voice.

Scully decided to ignore him. Will screamed. Mulder swayed.

"Scully." It occurred to her that he was expecting an answer.

"Oh." She quit stirring the sauce while she forced her mind to consider his question, staring over her shoulder at the casserole dishes lined up like dead soldiers on the kitchen table.

The roaring of the water on the stove intensified.

"I'll make it fit," she said.

~~~~

5:10 PM

Scully raised both arms, stretching, then held the blue pamphlet where she could see it. "1 1/2 cups cottage cheese. 1 1/2 cups ricotta. Combine and mash well."

She measured the cheeses into a sturdy steel bowl and snagged a wide wooden spoon out of the jar on the counter.

She was looking forward to the mashing part.

The pasta water simmered and sang like a distant chorus, tiny bubbles chasing each other just under a layer of steam. The sauce blipped and bubbled in its pan. Scully charged back and forth between the table and the range-top, stirring, mashing, stirring, mashing...

Mulder paced back through the kitchen, patting and bouncing for all he was worth. He passed the cheesy scene on the table, pausing to flip the Velveeta package over and reading the label, aghast.

Scully flung a frying pan on the stove next to the sauce and turned the burner to High.

Mulder sighed impatiently. "Don't you have enough going on right now, Scully? I mean, I know you're a great multi-tasker, but there's already stuff on the stove and it's really hot in here."

The copper pot of water finally burst into a boil, making a vicious gurgling sound.

"The sauce is ready for the meat, Mulder. It's time for the meat to go into the sauce. I should have browned it ten minutes ago."

"Are you cooking this stuff just for me or do you plan to eat it, too?"

For an answer, she pulled the sticky wrapper off the package of ground chuck and flung the mass of beef into the frying pan.

Mulder raised his voice. "That's a lot of ground beef. Do you eat ground beef, Scully?"

She attacked the bloody red lump with a spatula, chopping it into smaller pieces and spreading it around the pan.

Mulder pressed his point. "Are you aware that there's *Velveeta* on your kitchen table?" He leaned to the right, trying to catch her eye. "Scully, did you hear me? Velveeta. And Scully, as I recall from your past lectures on the subject, pasta is nothing but carbohydrate. It's never been on your A-list. I've been working with you day and night for the last eight years and I feel confident saying that what you eat is salad. Salad, Scully, and yogurt and dry toast and um, those godawful little crunchy things from the Asian market..."

Will shrieked, arching his back so hard Mulder almost lost his grip.

"You're not bouncing him, Mulder. Bounce him."

"I'm bouncing." Mulder jiggled Will up and down and Will responded by lowering his shriek to a squall. "I just don't see why you're doing this. After you go back to work, we can call for take-out if we're in a bind. We have the technology. Right now I think what you really need is a nap."

Spinning back toward the table, Scully snatched up a box of jumbo shells and ripped it open. After consulting her shiny blue guidebook, she spoke, pelting the boiling water with pasta shells to punctuate her words:

"A nap (splash) will not take care (splash) of this family (splash, splash). We have to think of Will (splash). We have to be there (splash) for him (splash, splash, splash)."

"The last time I checked, Will was still on a liquid diet, Scully. I fail to see what good a pan of jumbo shells is going to be to him right now."

Will rammed his fist into his mouth, sucking furiously. His tiny legs drew up tight, kicking out one by one like micro-pistons so that Mulder had to juggle him to keep him in hand.

"He's hungry, Scully. I think you should feed him."

"No, you're not patting him. Pat him and he'll calm down."

"Look at him, he's hungry. Take a break and try to feed him."

Scully stirred the browning meat. "You know he never eats when he's crying like this."

Mulder took a few steps toward the stove, trying to impose himself and Will on her field of vision. "Well maybe today is different. I think you should at least try."

She glared at him. "Even if I do manage to get anything into him, he'll just spit it right back up."

"That's true, but Scully, he's upset. He might just want you, you know. He might just want to know that you love him."

"Will knows I love him." She stirred the sauce vigorously, staring into its savory depths. "It's you he's probably not so sure about."

"Excuse me?"

Scully instantly regretted the words, which had tumbled out before she could stop them. Her thoughts seemed to be getting more unmanageable by the moment. Mulder took a step closer, but she could not bring herself to look at his face.

Will's crying escalated. Scully screamed with him, though she did it silently.

Mulder swayed. "What did you just say?"

Scully swallowed. She forced herself to stir the sauce more slowly. Then she left the spoon behind in the pot and returned to her bowl of ricotta. Mulder followed.

"You think I don't love him?"

She just couldn't help it. "I wonder," she whispered.

Mulder's mouth dropped open. He turned to leave the room and then thought better of it. "Is this what all this is about today? The cold shoulder and all this fucking shopping and cooking...it's because you've got some crazy idea that I don't love Will?"

Scully added Parmesan to the mixture before her, shaking the container hard, shake, shake, shake...

Will wailed.

"Sway, Mulder."

"I'm swaying, Scully. I'm swaying, okay? I can't believe you would imply that I don't love our son when I'm here day and night doing everything...dammit, Scully, what the hell else can I do?"

"You can make a commitment to him, Mulder. You can be his father. That's what you can do."

"What the hell does that mean? I'm going to be spending every day with him. How much more of a commitment do you want?"

"Why do I feel like that won't last, Mulder?" Scully was boiling. She shook her cottage-cheese-and- ricotta-coated spoon in his face. "Can you think of any reason I might feel that way?"

"Holy shit, Scully, how the hell am I supposed to know?"

Scully threw her spoon down and rushed toward the pot of noodles on the stove. Will gave three piercing shrieks and kicked so hard his sock flew off.

"Bounce, Mulder! You're not bouncing!!"

"I'm bouncing, Scully, I'm FUCKING BOUNCING!!!"

She snatched up two pot-holders and caught hold of the pot. Mulder dodged out of her way as she swung toward the sink, where a strainer was waiting. She dumped the pasta in one smooth motion. Steam billowed toward the ceiling like a mushroom cloud, rising up and bathing her body.

There was a long pause, the silence broken only by the sound of Will's whimpering.

"You're crying," Mulder finally observed, his voice thick and tight.

"I'm not crying," she answered. "It's just the steam." She leaned over the sink, curling into herself, into the rising heat. There's no hope, she thought, there's no hope at all. We'll never be a normal family.

Mulder moved toward her, touching her shoulder. "Did something happen at your check-up today, Scully? Is there something I need to know?"

She closed her eyes, wishing she could vomit, wishing it were possible to rid herself, with just one violent heave, of the fear that had been festering in her guts every day since William's birth.

She didn't know how she would survive if Mulder left her behind again.

Mulder's voice trembled very faintly, dropping so low she almost couldn't hear: "Whatever it is, can we please just talk about it?"

Scully clung to the edge of the sink. She closed her eyes, choked down a sob. "I think I'm going crazy, Mulder."

He reached out with his free hand, trailed his fingers down her cheek, running them gently through the sweat, the tears, the steam. "Scully, it hasn't been very long since Will was born. I think the way you're feeling right now might be...normal."

'Normal,' she thought. There was that word again.

Normal family. Normal sexual relations.

She opened her eyes and looked down at their son. Will was sucking his fist, eyes growing glassy, lids dipping lower with every blink.

She'd always been alone, before. Alone was easy. This was not.

"Scully. Please. Tell me what the doctor said."

She knew she was scaring him. Why couldn't she speak?

She took a deep breath and said it as quickly as she could. "Today Dr. Speake said I could resume 'normal sexual relations.'"

Mulder swallowed hard, clearly relieved. "Scully, that's..."

"And I have no idea if there's even any such thing for me."

He winced as if she had slapped him.

"She asked me if I needed birth control, Mulder, and I didn't know what to tell her. You've been sleeping in my bed for six weeks, but we haven't...and we decided to move in together, but you haven't...and now you tell me you're looking at a job out of state, even though I thought we had planned..."

He threw his head back, closing his eyes in distress. "No, Scully. No. Oh god, no, no, no...oh holy shit, Scully."

"I'm sorry, Mulder, I didn't mean to imply that you didn't love Will, because I know that you do, but I'm definitely getting a message here. I'm getting it loud and clear."

"But it's the wrong message. Scully, wait. Look in my shirt pocket."

"What?"

"Go ahead. Take a look."

She reached into the front pocket of his t-shirt. With his heart pounding against the backs of her fingers, she grasped something smooth and rectangular: a business card, no, two business cards. She pulled them out slowly, staring at them quizzically, as if she'd never seen anything like a business card before.

She flipped one of the cards over and tried to bring its red and blue lettering into focus. There was a familiar logo on the card, but she couldn't remember where she'd seen it before. There was also a small, square photo of a well-groomed woman, smiling in a most upstanding and trustworthy way. There was a name, a phone number, an address in somewhere in Arlington...

"Okay. So?"

"Read them."

Befuddled, Scully looked at the other card. It appeared to be an exact match for the first, only this card featured a photo of a balding man in a tacky, striped tie smiling in the same shallow way.

She looked up at Mulder, thoroughly confused. He was watching her expectantly.

"'ReMax.'" Scully blinked. She stared, uncomprehending. "You've been in touch with a real estate agent?"

He nodded intently. "You've been so overwhelmed with everything. I was going to surprise you. I've been looking on the internet and I thought Will and I could scope it out while you were at work, maybe whittle it down to two or three choices, then let you make the decision."

"Make a decision?"

"Uh-huh."

"You want to buy a house?"

"Yes."

"For who?"

"For who? For us."

"But...we decided you were going to move in here."

"We did? I thought we decided we were going to move in *together.*"

She stared at him, confounded.

"I want a place that's ours. Something new. Something roomy. I thought you would, too. You said. . ."

"But...what about Boston, Mulder? I don't understand."

"I'm looking in Boston, too. If I take the job, you could stay home. For a while. If you want, I mean. Scully, this job is a great opportunity for us."

"For 'us?'"

"Look, in spite of what you say, I'm not totally convinced that being back at the Bureau is what you want right now. The teaching job doesn't start until January, so I've got time to wait and see what's going to happen."

"You mean, you want Will and me to come with you to Boston?"

"Of course." It was Mulder's turn to look confounded. "How could I go without you? I'm sorry if I gave you the wrong impression last night. You put me on the spot and I panicked." He lifted a strand of hair from her cheek and smoothed it back toward her ear. "Scully, whatever ends up happening, I want you to know that...god, I really want this."

"But...what does that mean, Mulder?"

"It means we'll work it out." He reached out to take her hand. "Together."

His eyes were wide, infinite, brimming. He leaned toward her and she lifted her mouth to his.

Hot.

Drenching.

Breathless.

Exquisite.

The kiss was a promise, and a mystery, too.

The feel of his flesh, the electricity...

Suddenly she felt limp and dizzy, like the floor was a carousel under her feet. "I want to believe you," she told him quietly.

"Believe me, then, Scully. Believe me."



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