Last Picture (before the fork in the road), The

by Gina Rain

Title: The Last Picture (by the fork in the road) Author: Gina Rain (ginarain@aol.com)
Category: UST
Rating: PG-13
Spoilers: Dreamland
Summary: Feeling unsettled? Get back in the damned car.
Special thanks to: My beta, Sybil. It's been three months or so and I'm rusty. She's my WD-40. (Why do I feel I should now change my rating to an R?)

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For the past several days, her dreams ended in the same way: with a lone figure standing in the dark.

She was not in the dream and yet she was. She couldn't see herself but knew she had just said goodbye. And it was a forever kind of parting. One filled with desolation, yearning, and a feeling of so many, many things left undone.

Leaving behind a shadowed figure. Alone. Destined to remain in that state. Always.

Mulder, and yet not Mulder.

In that funny way that dreams had, this man who didn't look at all like Mulder was supposed to represent him. That much she knew.

She woke up and heard herself swearing in the empty room. If she had to have a recurring dream, why couldn't it be a good one?

Take a picture, it lasts longer

Dana Scully double-checked her shopping list. Tampons: check.
Disposable razor: check
Paperback novel: check.
Everything on the list was in her basket. So, why did she feel like she was forgetting something? She passed by the motion sickness pills. She had experienced the disorientation that sometimes accompanied this malady but little else. She also walked on by the vitamin aisle. Gingko biloba might be an answer but, hopefully, not yet.

As she put her items on the counter, it hit her. She turned and checked to find no one else waiting in line, then quickly ran to the display of disposable cameras. She grabbed one and hurried back to the cashier. She felt better but had no idea why.

*Reality 1: Getting Back in the Damn Car*

Kersh assigned them a fertilizer check just outside of Orlando, Florida. They were to drop by the home of one Thomas J. Newberg: Orange Grower. Drop by. As if it were in the neighborhood. It was actually a fourteen-hour drive. Kersh made it very clear that plane fare would not be approved since they had so aptly demonstrated their love of driving by ending up in 'all sorts of godforsaken places.' Scully could just picture him twirling his mustache in anticipation of the grueling ride. He wanted them to suffer all right. He probably pictured the two of them alone in a moving vehicle as pure torture. Nothing to do but ruminate over their sins against the FBI. Fourteen glorious hours each way (assuming there was no traffic and their assignment went off without a hitch) to duly repent and mend their evil ways.

But if Kersh thought he was the winner in this situation--having them out of his hair and into each other's--he wasn't the only one. No matter what people might assume, she enjoyed spending time with Mulder. As he did with her. And besides, since their return from Area 51, she had felt odd. Inexplicably odd. And she was tired of doing background checks. She welcomed some time back in the car, in spite of what she told Mulder on their trip out to that strange place. It was what they did and part of who they were. And, ultimately, it might help her return to a state of normalcy.

"You want to hear something weird?" Mulder asked after their first restroom break of the day. She had watched him return to the car. It was a pleasant sight on this brisk day. He was dressed casually in jeans and a light blue shirt. There was no need for standard issue FBI-wear. They would not arrive before nightfall and their visit to Mr. Newberg would not occur before tomorrow morning.

"Sure," Scully said, leaning her head back and relaxing, "Why not?"

"I have a waterbed."

"A waterbed?" she felt her eyebrow do that thing it did so well.

"Yes."

"I didn't even know they manufactured those any more."

"Why wouldn't they?"

"I'm not criticizing them, Mulder. I've never even ... well, I don't think I've ever been on one," she frowned. The minute the statement was out of her mouth, she could almost feel the rippling of the mattress below her back. That was odd. To her knowledge, she had never even seen a waterbed in real life. "I just thought they were a passing fad. One that ended with the seventies. But I could see the appeal, I guess."

She supposed she could. Sex would probably be enhanced by the motion. Perhaps even Mulder's preferred sex-for-one. But he was hardly a hardy sailor. She smiled. Perhaps she should have bought the Dramamine for him as a gift. Or Sea Bands. Although with his obviously renewed interest in creative masturbation, she shuddered to think where he might wear them.

"There's a mirror in the canopy," he stated.

"Ugh."

He turned and looked at her with amusement. "What was that noise you just made? Disgust? Disapproval? Indigestion?"

"That is so ... mid-life crisis, Mulder."

"The idea of watching yourself doesn't intrigue you?"

"Watching yourself what?"

"Do you really want me to answer that?" he accompanied his question with a smirk.

"No, I get the picture. And it doesn't intrigue me. Not at all."

"Why not?"

"Because there are certain moments in life when you shouldn't worry about how you look. Having a mirror reflecting your every move, I would think, would make you very self-conscious and take away from ... what you're doing."

"All right," he said. "It might be nice to watch your partner from another angle, though."

"Uh-huh," she knew she sounded skeptical until a mental picture of Mulder's backside popped into her mind. It might be nice ...

"The thing is ... " Mulder said, hesitation clearly in his voice, "I didn't exactly buy this bed."

"Someone gave it to you?"

"One would think."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means, no one is owning up to it. You didn't happen to buy me a porn-king special, did you, Scully?"

"No."

"I didn't think so."

They drove in silence for a while. Mulder was quietly tapping the steering wheel with his fingers and Scully looked out the side window. She turned back to him.

"Well, don't you think that's odd?" Scully asked, her voice sounding a little too strained for her liking.

"What?"

"The bed." There was the strained quality againhitched up another notch.

"I think it's very odd. That's why I brought it up. I have a theory for you to mock. Do you want to hear it?"

"Sure. It's been what? At least an hour since I mocked a theory? I wouldn't want you to miss your minimum daily requirement."

"This bed appeared--when we returned from Area 51. And I've got to tell you, Scully; I've been feeling weird since then. Kind of ... I don't know."

"Unsettled?"

"Yes, that's it. Unsettled. I think we may have experienced lost time. Just like Oregon. Too bad I didn't check my watch. I checked after we got back in the car but I never really knew what time it was before so that didn't do me any good. But it feels almost like that."

"I've been feeling kind of unsettled myself."

"You have?" he asked with the same enthusiasm she'd expect him to display if she handed him a wriggling puppy for Christmas.

"Yes. But don't get too excited. I will acknowledge something out there might have upset our equilibrium in some way. But that's a far cry from saying we lost time--a universal invariant--may I once again remind you. And I hardly think during a period of lost time, you somehow managed to find a phone and ordered a cheesy bed for yourself."

"It's not a cheesy bed."

"You're keeping it?"

"Well, of course I am. It's a perfectly good bed."

She sighed, a little disappointed, but not sure why.

*Reality 2: Getting Out of the Damn Car*

As Scully waited for Mulder to finish up with Mr. Newberg, she pulled out her mental photo album and started looking at her favorite shots:

hazel eyes looking up over a light box,

a quick grasp of hands and a challenge issued,

a towering figure looming over her--waiting for a response.She looked up without flinching and accepted. And they were off on the greatest adventure of her life.

A tall lanky figure that stood too close right from the start--always too close, until standing further away would not only feel abnormal but an insult.

A close up of hands that dipped into substances she cringed to even think about, yet cupped her face tenderly. Smooth, large hands that covered half her face at once. Loving, reassuring hands-- the hands of a friend. The hands of one highly cherished and secretly, and not-so-secretly, loved.

And that one last shot that had haunted her dreams over the past few days. A shadowy figure in a dark parking lot. Alone. Hard to see. Unrecognizable as Mulder and yet, somehow, in her heart she identified him just that way.

She shook herself. The heat was obviously getting to her. That, or the heady aromatic mix of oranges and their blossoms.

Mulder got back in the car and tossed her an orange.

"Mulder ..."

"It's an orange, Scully. Not a bushel, not a peck. A single orange. In no way, shape or form can it constitute a bribe. Besides, I didn't accept it until he presented the last of the documents proving he did, indeed, need all the crap he bought for his oranges. So, eat up."

"Gee, Mulder. How can I resist after you presented such an appetizing picture?"

He smiled and started peeling his orange.

She didn't want an orange. She wanted a picture of Mulder. A real one. She needed one. The only trouble was, she had no idea how to broach the subject. It seemed like such an odd thing for her to ask. It wasn't like she snapped pictures all the time. If relatives didn't send them to her, she wouldn't even have the framed ones in her apartment.

She wanted something else, as well. "Mulder, can we wait a few hours before driving home?"

"Why? Don't you feel well?"

"I feel fine. I just wanted to spend some time in the sun."

"What?" he said, stopping the orange peeling with his fingers caught between the rind and the flesh.

"You heard me."

"I heard, but I don't believe. Agent
Fruit-Can-Be-Construed-As-A-Bribe Scully wants to take a few hours off before heading back to her G-Woman job?"

"Mulder, you're killing my spontaneity."

"Well, I can't be responsible for that," he said, resuming the peeling. "Of course we can take some time. Besides, if we didn't, Kersh would be mad as hell. I think he's throwing a party to celebrate our absence."

"He probably is," she said, feeling herself relax.

"So, where to, Scully? Want to frolic in Mickey and Minnie's house? Go through the scientific displays at Epcot? Ride the teacups?"

"I just want to lie on the beach for a while."

"Wow," he said, this time stopping himself from eating an orange slice even though it was halfway to his mouth.

"Wow, what?"

"Just pictured you in your teeny-weeny yellow polka dot bikini." He popped the slice in his mouth.

"I won't be wearing one of those."

"Even better." He popped in another section of orange and chewed with enthusiasm.

"I did bring a suit," she said, ignoring his orange-eating antics. "Did you?"

"Yes. I swam in the motel pool last night."

"You did?"

"Yeah. It was damned hot."

Yes, it had been. So hot, he took his trunks and went off to the pool. By himself. Always by himself. A brief flash of that lone figure standing outside in the dark entered her mind again and she felt a deep, cold pain somewhere inside.

*Reality 3: Getting way out of the damn car*

"This is the smallest beach I've ever seen, Scully," he said as he sat down on a blanket on the small strip of beach behind their hotel. It was not a fancy hotel; it was pretty much a family-oriented place with a pool and a stairway leading to a very small beach. The families had hunkered down by the chlorinated water. Only Mulder and Scully and a few elderly people chose the beach. And the elderly people were out walking, not sunbathing.

"Well, that's good. It's not at all crowded."

"It's deserted. You and me. Two people. That's it."

"And that's a bad thing?"

He smiled and gave her two-piece red bathing suit the once-over. "No. Actually, it's a very nice thing."

He lay down besides a sitting Scully and watched as she slathered SPF30 all over herself. He lifted himself up, grabbed the tube from her hand and started doing her back without being asked.

"Thank you," she said.

"You're welcome," he said, and frowned.

"What's wrong?" She felt his hands slow against her back. They felt heavy just resting against her skin.

"I don't know. I just feel this ... sadness wash over me sometimes. It's that damned area 51 thing. We should go back and find out what they did to us."

"No, we shouldn't. It's probably just some temporary imbalance of ... something."

"Is that a medical term?"

"Yes, it is."

She needed to get him off the subject or he'd be making plane reservations before the afternoon was over. She reached into her bag and pulled out the disposable camera. She never had to broach the subject; she had the perfect excuse.

"Boy, you were serious about this time-off thing. You're taking vacation snapshots of a 12 hour vacation?"

"No, I'm taking pictures of you."

"Me?"

"Yes. I need to capture this momentous occasion for our files: 'Mulder, Fox. Relaxing.' I think it should go in the Strange Sightings drawer."

"Ha, ha," he said, without mirth.

"Smile ..." she said, cheerily. He gave a quick, small grin and she snapped the picture. "Gee, Mulder. Do you think you could spare it?"

"Okay. You want posing? I can give you posing," He lay back in a beef-cakey type of pose and lay one hand on the beach towel, in front of his bathing trunks. She snapped the picture. Fifteen pictures later, they were both laughing at the outrageous mock-sexy positions Mulder was putting himself into for the benefit of her roll of film.

An older couple strolling on the sand stopped in front of them.
"Do you want a picture of the two of you together?" The woman asked. "I'd be happy to do it."

Mulder and Scully looked at each other and stood up. After showing the woman how to work the camera, Scully stepped back next to Mulder. He tentatively put an arm around her shoulder and looked down at her. The woman snapped the picture before they could pose.

For the second shot, she waited for them both to stand still and face the lens.

For the third, she made a suggestion. "Why don't you hold your girl a little closer? She won't break, you know."

Scully opened her mouth to say something and then stopped. Mulder put his arms around her and held her closer to him. The woman snapped three pictures in a row.

"Thank you," Scully said as she gently took the camera away from the woman.

"Anytime, sweetie." And, with a wink to her elderly companion, she took his arm and they resumed their stroll.

"Well, my girl, that was fun, no?"

She smiled, "Yes, it was."

The melancholy returned. It was fun. And fun seemed so foreign to them; normalcy seemed foreign. And nothing could be sadder.

She sighed. At least, she'd have Mulder's picture now. That was something that had seemed so important to her a few hours ago.

Mulder lay down on the blanket and closed his eyes.

She lay down next to him and rolled over to her side. She leaned on one elbow and watched him.

"Are you staring at me, Scully?" he asked without opening his eyes.

"Yes. Kind of."

"Well, you're making me more self conscious than the mirror over my bed."

She put her hand on his face and ran the back of her fingers down his cheek. He opened his eyes and stared right back at her. His eyes were so beautiful in the sunlight. Little specks of gold she couldn't easily see in regular lighting seemed to spark outdoors. He frowned suddenly.

"You think I'm too ugly to kiss," he said flatly.

"What?"

"You said that ..."

"I never said any such thing."

"Maybe you thought it."

"Of course I didn't. And who do you think you are suddenly--the Stupendous Yappi? Reading my thoughts?"

"I hear your voice saying it."

"I don't really care what you thought you heard. I don't think it. I'd never think it. How could I?"

"I don't know, but come to think of it, you looked pretty damned scared in the hallway before the bee bit you."

"What?" She couldn't believe he was delving into ancient history to prove his point.

"You did. Your eyes got all wide and tortured and you were not a happy camper. It didn't even surprise me when you pulled back. Well, it surprised me the bee was there biting you but not that you pulled back."

"Mulder, that is the most idiotic thing I've ever heard you say. And I've heard quite a bit of crap from that mouth of yours. But, I have never--would never--not want to kiss you for any reason and certainly not because of your looks. You are ..."

He was staring at her with amusement in his eyes.

"What? I'm what?"

"Infuriating," she said and turning her back to him, she picked up her novel.

A replacement photo

Scully was sitting on the hood of the car as Mulder left the drug store. Wayward sand was clinging to Scully's skin but the burning hood took her mind off the aggravating particles. She hadn't wanted to go back to the hotel to shower and change, and just threw on a pair of shorts and a tee shirt. She wanted to make sure her pictures came out, so they could redo them if they didn't. One hour photo developing was a fabulous invention.

She saw him coming and reached out her hands and made grasping motions with her fingers. "Gimme."

"Not so fast, Scully. Maybe I want to preview them-- make sure they aren't too hot for you to handle."

"Just hand them over, Mulder."

"Pushy."

He gave her the packet and she started looking through the photos. She giggled at a few of them, Mulder and his calendar-boy positions. She tried to give the pictures of the two of them a longer look without seeming to stare. They were nice. And surprisingly, the nicest of the bunch was the one the older woman snapped without them preparing for it. They had been caught in mid-look and it was a nice, unguarded moment with a feeling of intimacy to it.

She handed them to Mulder, who didn't hide the fact that he was looking at the pictures of the two of them together.

"That's a really nice bathing suit, Scully."

"Thanks," she said, waiting for a punch line.

"You should wear it to work. Kersh would never find fault with anything we ever did ever again."

"Gee, thanks," she said with a roll of her eyes. "It's nice to be appreciated for more than my brain."

He held up her favorite picture. "This one is nice. I want the double."

"You can have all the doubles, if you want."

"I don't need the pictures of myself. You might want to save those. Sell them on ebay or something," he smiled and looked at the picture of the two of them. He kept smiling softly.

He put the pictures back in their envelope and tossed it in the front seat through the open car window.

"Should we pick up something to eat in the room, or do you want to go out to dinner later?"

"We can go out."

"Touristy? Disney? Epcot? Paradise Island?"

"We could do that if you want."

He smiled and she found her hand reaching out to touch his face again. Something about this face before her. It was so precious to her. His eyes widened in surprise.

"I don't understand it, Mulder."

"What?"

"This," she nodded toward her hand as it gently stroked his late afternoon facial stubble. And she didn't understand it. She couldn't stop herself from touching him. Reaffirming his existence. His position right by her side.

"I'm not complaining."

"I know but ... "

"Just do what you have to do, Scully," he said with a mock-resigned smile, as if he were facing some unknown torture.

She ran her fingers softly over his nose and then reached her other hand out and drew his face closer to hers. Now, there really was a surprised look on his face. He closed his eyes for a moment, almost involuntarily. His lips were right there. Shit. He expected her to kiss him. She didn't. She couldn't. Not like this. Not out in the open on a day it didn't make any logical sense to do so. She always pictured this moment as one that would be initiated by Mulder--after something traumatic, or earth shattering. Not a sunny day in Florida with nothing major, or minor, on the horizon.

He opened his eyes and shrugged, even though his eyes were now devoid of dancing amber sparks. She had embarrassed him and, as soon as he regrouped, he'd be saying something sarcastic to laugh his way out of the situation. She could counter with a casual "got you big time," and the incident would be over.

She couldn't hurt him that way. It would hurt. And she couldn't add one more hurt to this man's collection. She could either kiss him and let him know he was never alone in this world or watch him become that man in her dreams. And, by extension, she knew if she let this moment pass, Mulder could soon explore the heart of his dreams and find a solitary redhead walking in the shadows. She didn't want that for either of them.

She pulled him to her and kissed him lightly on the mouth. It was nice. With that degree of pressure, his lips were cool, with just a touch of warmth toward the end when she had pressed a bit closer. She wanted more.

She pulled his face even closer and tried again. He didn't kiss back but let her take the lead. She pressed her lips to his in a firmer kiss. Then she nudged his top lip with her bottom and reversed positions and nudged his bottom lip with her top. Somewhere in between, his lips parted just enough for her to tentatively explore. She quickly touched the inside of his mouth with the tip of her tongue and gasped a bit when she finally felt his arms encircle her and pull her closer to him.

She felt his large hands roam over her back and slide her toward him. Her legs automatically went around his hips and he opened his mouth. She could feel her own breath mingle with his just before he let his tongue do a little tango with her own. His arms, his heat, were all around her and the world was filled with warmth, sunlight and the heady smell of coconut scented suntan lotion.

She wasn't even aware of the moment they stopped kissing. They were still holding each other tightly on top of the hood of the car. Scully could feel his hard body pressed up against hers and the world felt a little more "right." She didn't feel as she had for the past few days. Like she was about to lose him. Like she already had. He was right there in her arms.

"You're way too pretty not to kiss, Mulder," she said with a small sigh.

He smiled against her cheek. "I bet you say that to all the guys."

"What's a guy?" she said with a smile, remembering something he said to her a long, long time ago.

She wrapped her arms around him tighter and they just held each other for a few moments. She thought of the picture they'd make now. It was a far more attractive one than the one haunting her dreams. In a car, out of a car, on a car--there were two of them. No shadows or partings or loneliness. And they could face whatever road they found themselves on--and the forks in those roads--together.

~The End

Author's Note: I bought a new computer and it came with Word Perfect. It's easy enough to use but my world has been turned upside down with text conversion. If everything is all screwy--I will repost. If you've read this far and it's not--never mind <vbg>.


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