Blood Ties 10: A Dish Served Cold (1/?)
If the final projectile hit its target, he'd have created the spitting image of A. D. Kersh's profile--the weak chin, the perpetually disapproving twist to the lips. Mulder leaned back a little further until the balls of his feet just brushed the floor, his chair emitting a low groan that could be interpreted as either protest or warning. Squinting a little against the fluorescent glare, he took careful aim and...
"Agent Mulder, what in the hell do you think you're doing?"
All the breath left his lungs in a whoosh as he tipped too far backward, feet leaving the floor and pencil going wild. It skittered and rolled across the linoleum while Mulder lunged upright, pinwheeling his arms in an effort to keep from landing in an undignified tangle.
Skinner stood just inside the doorway to the office, the scowl contorting his features clear evidence that he remained unimpressed by Mulder's acrobatics.
"Sorry, Sir. I...uh...didn't hear you come in."
Skinner thrust his hands into his pockets and walked over to lean against Scully's desk. Mulder bent to snag the errant pencil and straightened, twirling it between his fingers and cocking an impudent eyebrow.
"So, what brings you down to No Man's Land?"
Skinner glanced at the empty chair behind him before pinning Mulder with a stern glare. "Scully's at Quantico?"
"Was, is, and will be, from the way I hear it." Mulder leaned forward to brace his arms on the cluttered desktop. "They haven't even finished shipping in all the remains and gathering dental records. She tells me the actual process of identification could take anywhere from two weeks to a month."
Skinner nodded curtly, eyes cutting away to several tabloid clippings on the wall, his jaw clenched. Mulder waited him out, tapping the eraser end of the pencil idly on the blotter.
"SAC Larraby was grateful to get Scully on this one," his boss mused, moving over to take a closer look at a particularly lurid photo. "That bomb took out at least a hundred people, and their families are all awaiting the closure that only a positive ID can provide." He abruptly seemed to comprehend the significance of his words, eyes returning to Mulder's face.
Mulder inclined his head. "Scully was more than happy to help." He smirked. "She figures that with no active cases pending I'll be forced to catch up on paperwork."
Skinner looked pointedly at the fresh crop of pencils hanging from the ceiling tiles. "I seriously doubt Scully's that gullible."
"Is there something in particular I can do for you, Sir?" Mulder asked dryly, dropping the pencil to recline with his hands clasped behind his neck.
Skinner walked slowly over to sit in Scully's chair. "I need you to take some vacation time, Mulder. The sooner the better. If you fill out the leave request today, I'll sign it and have Kim drop it off with personnel before she goes home."
Mulder's only movement was a narrowing of hazel eyes. "I don't think I've done anything in particular that would cause you to doubt my mental health--more than usual, anyway. So there must be something else going on."
Skinner's brow furrowed but his eyes evaded Mulder's. "Agent Mulder, everything does not have to be part of a greater conspiracy. I've checked with personnel; you have a backlog of vacation time built up. With Scully tied up at Quantico and no open cases, it's the perfect time for you to take some of it."
Mulder chewed on his lower lip a moment before replying. "Respectfully, sir? That's bullshit." He dropped his arms and sat up. "I'm on a first name basis with the personnel department, and while I've certainly received my share of threatening phone calls, lately I'm in their good graces." He got up and shut the door, then resumed his seat. "Level with me. What's really going on?"
Skinner hesitated, the telltale tic in his cheek betraying his tension. Finally, he sighed. "Let's just say that the BSU is currently low on profilers and SAC Crittendon heard you're between cases."
"I don't see what one has to do with the other. I'm assigned to the X-Files, not Violent Crimes. Any exceptions to that rule are on a strictly voluntary basis."
Skinner snorted. "You don't really believe that." At Mulder's glare, he continued, "Look, right now it's only rumblings--Crittendon making a few shrewd remarks about the most efficient way to utilize Bureau resources. But I can guarantee he won't be satisfied with just talk for long. In case you haven't heard the buzz, there's a serial murderer in Chicago with a preference for little girls and a talent for confounding both the police and the Bureau. Crittendon's getting desperate."
Mulder nodded slowly, eyes distant. "Scully and I have only been married for six months, but it's been the happiest six months of my life." His gaze sharpened, locking onto Skinner's face. "Maybe I'm selfish, but I think we've both earned it. I won't profile, Walt. I can't."
Skinner pinched the bridge of his nose. "You're preaching to the choir, Mulder. I just wish it were that easy."
"It is that easy. When Crittendon asks you for the loan of your favorite agent, you just say no." Mulder's tone was glib, his face stone.
An odd, almost whimsical expression crossed Skinner's face, and he shook his head. "I think you overestimate my position in the chain of command. Crittendon's solve rate is down along with his personnel. He'll go to Henderson, who'll go over my head to the Director..."
"Who's not exactly one of my biggest fans." Mulder scrubbed one hand over his face, then raised both in a gesture of surrender. "All right, all right. I'll go quietly. Is a week going to be enough time for Crittendon to seek out some other hapless victim?"
One corner of Skinner's mouth twitched. "Rosetti's medical leave is up next Monday and Hickman gets back from Detroit the following Friday. After that Crittendon is only down one profiler. I'd play it safe; make it ten days."
He refrained from comment when Mulder grimaced, instead terminating the conversation by getting to his feet. He hesitated when his fingers touched the doorknob. "A suggestion, Mulder."
Mulder laced his arms across his chest. "Just one?"
Skinner ignored the jibe. "Crittendon might not let a little thing like personal leave deter him. He has been known to cancel vacations at the last moment, not to mention hauling his people back to work during the middle of a pre-approved holiday. I'd make myself scarce."
"Is that your subtle way of telling me to get lost, sir?" Mulder affected wide-eyed innocence.
"A request for leave, on my desk within the next hour, Mulder. Then I don't want to see your ass anywhere near this office for the next ten days." Skinner flashed him a shark's grin. "There. I've never been one for being subtle."
"Like that's news," Mulder muttered under his breath. With a martyred sigh he pulled open a drawer and began rummaging for the required paperwork.
Scully slipped her key into the lock and eased the apartment door open, momentarily freezing when the aroma of onion and spices hit her nostrils. She stepped inside and shut the door, her ears taking in the sounds of rattling pans and the love of her life muttering. Two thoughts chased themselves through her tired brain.
How did I ever stand coming home to an empty apartment all those years?
Oh, God. Mulder's cooking.
She detoured to the bedroom to deposit her briefcase and kick off her shoes before wandering back into the kitchen. She paused in the doorway, somehow managing to be amused, horrified, and turned on by the view.
Mulder was barefoot, clad in faded jeans and a white tee shirt. He was clutching a cookbook in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other, stirring the contents of large metal pot. The kitchen looked like the scene of a particularly nasty food fight. A mound of dirty dishes, pots and pans teetered precariously in the sink. Spilled food, utensils, and empty tin cans littered every available surface. Her glass measuring cup was sporting a crack, and her favorite dishtowel had evidently been used to wipe up tomato sauce.
Mulder finally looked up to catch her lounging in the doorway. "Hey."
"Hey yourself." The glasses perched on his nose and the smudge of flour on his cheek went a long way toward making amends for turning her kitchen into Hiroshima.
Our kitchen she admonished herself. Married six months and they were still no closer to finding a more permanent living arrangement.
Note to self: Find a place with two kitchens.
"What's so funny?" Mulder gazed at her through narrowed eyes, dropping the spoon into the pot and padding toward her.
"Nothing. I'm just happy to see you." She tried to wipe the smirk from her face but it kept sneaking back.
"That is not a 'happy to see you' smile, Scully."
"Yes, it is."
"No, it's not. A 'happy to see you' smile looks like this." He grinned toothily at her and batted his eyelashes. "What I just saw on your face was this." Mulder folded his arms, pursed his lips, and tucked his chin to his chest in a dead-on imitation of her current body language.
"Oh, really?" Scully brushed the flour from his cheek with the pad of her thumb, letting her fingers trail along the line of his jaw. "And what kind of smile is that?"
He slipped his arms around her waist, tugging her closer. "A classic," he murmured, nuzzling the hypersensitive skin just behind her right ear. "I like to call it the 'Mulder, I'd kill you if you weren't so darn cute' smile." He worked his way down her neck, the rumble of his voice conspiring with lips and teeth to make her shiver. "Not to be confused with the 'All right, Mulder, you're cute, but I'm going to kill you anyway' smile."
"Mm. My personal favorite." Scully threaded her fingers through the soft hair at the nape of his neck and tugged, bringing his mouth back up to hers, where he obligingly proceeded to kiss her senseless.
She was pressed up against the counter, having long since ceased worrying about getting tomato sauce on her jacket, when a sharp, acrid smell pierced her addled brain.
"Burning," she mumbled--no easy feat with Mulder's teeth fastened onto her lower lip.
He gave her a smug little grin and resumed attacking her neck, one hand working its way up her thigh until her skirt bunched around her waist. "My kisses are known to have that effect."
Scully rolled her eyes but tilted her head so he could reach her earlobe. "Not me, Ace. The...ah...the food. It's burning."
Mulder's tongue began doing indecent things to the inside of her ear. "The food is... The food!"
He dropped her so fast she nearly landed on the tile. As it was, her hand splatted into a puddle of congealed butter as she gripped the edge of the counter, legs splayed and skirt still hiked up to the tops of her thighs. Mulder frantically shut off the stove and grabbed the pot, intending to move it to another burner. Unfortunately, in his panicked state he forgot to use a potholder. The pan crashed back down, contents splattering onto the stove, counter, ceiling, and Mulder--who had popped his abused fingers into his mouth and was cursing lustily around them.
Torn between groaning or bursting into giggles, Scully calmly walked over and grasped his wrist until the digits left his mouth with a slurp. She turned on the cold water and stuck Mulder's hand beneath it.
She fished a pair of oven mitts out of a drawer and finished moving the pot, which apparently contained chili, to a safe location. A handful of paper towels mopped up the worst of the spill as well as the greasy smears of butter from her palm. When she finally looked up, Mulder was still standing as she'd left him, his expression that of a little boy who just knocked over his glass of milk.
"Before you say anything, could you give me an estimate?"
Scully lifted one eyebrow. "An estimate?"
"Of approximately how pissed off you are right now. On a scale of one to ten." He chewed on his lip a moment before adding. "One being 'mildly annoyed' and ten being 'hide all sharp objects.'"
Scully panned her gaze across the kitchen, then let her eyes slip shut. After a deep breath, she opened them, walked over, and shut off the water. She located a moderately clean dishtowel and handed it to Mulder before tugging gently on his arm. Face screwed up in puzzlement, he followed her into the living room, the terrycloth wrapped around his hand.
"What's going on?" Scully asked once she'd seated them both on the couch.
Mulder blinked. "I thought it was pretty self-evident. The authentic 'South of the Border' chili got a little out of hand."
Scully pursed her lips. "That much I've gathered on my own. What I want to know is, what's bothering you? Did something happen at work today?"
Mulder's brow furrowed. "Why would you ask that?"
Scully sighed again and a smile lifted the corners of her mouth. "Because I know you, love. The only time you cook is when you're either bored out of your mind or looking for a distraction. Does this have anything to do with me being stuck at Quantico?"
Mulder appeared ready to protest, then dropped his head onto the back of the couch. "Skinner came to see me today."
He tipped his face to the side so he could see her. "It seems certain parties are concerned that a valuable Bureau resource is languishing in the basement while his partner is putting together human jigsaw puzzles."
Scully's eyes narrowed. "Certain parties?"
"Crittendon?" Scully's confusion melted into understanding. "He's a SAC over in the BSU. Works under Henderson." She grimaced. "They want you to profile."
Mulder tapped his index finger to his nose.
"Skinner knows what profiling does to you! Why would he...?"
"He wouldn't. But he also probably won't have any choice. Which is why he suggested I might like to take a little time off. Maybe even get out of town for a while." Mulder's face looked as mournful as if Skinner had suggested eating ground glass.
Scully nodded, studying his face. "How soon?"
Mulder gestured toward the kitchen, smirking. "My first afternoon off. I feel more relaxed already."
Scully leaned over and pressed a kiss to his lips, then rested her forehead against his. "I love you, Mulder. But I will not be responsible for my actions if you spend the next week and a half hanging around this apartment all day." She straightened and picked up the phone from the end table.
Mulder raised both eyebrows. "Scully, are you getting me a babysitter?" He waggled them. "Can I participate in the selection process?"
Scully gave him "The Look" and placed the phone into his hand. "Call your brother."
Mulder stuck out his lip. "He's not exactly what I had in mind, babe."
"Grey has been trying to get you to go up to that cabin for months, and you keep putting him off. Now seems like the perfect time to me." She unsuccessfully tried to squelch a grin. "And I won't have to be afraid to walk in that door every night."
Mulder made a face. "Very funny." He looked at the phone, then turned puppy dog eyes to her face. "Sculleee. It's in the mountains."
"I know. Should be beautiful this time of year."
"There's trees, Scully. Forest. You know what my track record is with forests?"
Scully smiled, her reply syrupy. "The first time you declared your true feelings for me was in the forest, Mulder."
"I was high!" Mulder's expression was incredulous. "And in case you've forgotten, it was because I'd been attacked by an enormous, bloodthirsty wolf...thing."
Scully stood, hands propped on her hips. "You keep doing that"--she hooked her thumb over her shoulder--"to my kitchen, and that experience will seem like a walk in the park. Call your brother."
Mulder started to snicker but a good look at Scully's face changed his mind. He hit number two on the speed dial and made a pitiful attempt to look enthused. "I hear the fall colors are beautiful this time of year."
Continued in Chapter 2