Chapter Twenty-Four

A local restaurant catered the lunch, and a hired wait staff served it in the garden. Lunch was subdued and somewhat secluded as people sat five or so to a table. Mulder sat them at a table with a few of his older relatives, who after polite inquiry and small talk paid little attention to the lone young couple sharing their table. They were being cordial, not quite rude, but Scully felt somewhat snubbed anyway.

As Mulder walked her around the grounds, he pointed out places that held some memory from his childhood visits to his grandparents' home. From the far edge of the east garden, he pointed out the stables that used to house his grandfather's horses.

"As he got older, he gradually declined the number of horses. When I was nine, he was down to four horses," he explained. "When I moved a few years back, he only had his pet horse that died eighteen months later."

"What kind of horses were they?"

"Mostly stallions but all types of breeds. His last one was an American Saddlebred."

They rounded the estate, ending up on the opposite edge of the back garden, where a group was gathering in the middle of the lawn.

"Scully, have you ever played croquet?" Mulder asked, his tone insinuating an act far less socially acceptable than a yard game.

Laughing, she shook her head. Taking her silence for acquiescence, he grabbed her hand and they strode across the lawn. Picking up a wooden mallet, he passed it to Scully, who studied its multicolored handle, comparing it to the wooden ball she already held in her hands.

The others playing had already started picking order and such, the wickets already in place. One of the older men holding his own mallet nodded his head at the two as he asked, "You want to join our game?"

Scully shrugged at Mulder before he nodded at his uncle. Mulder told the other players that he'd double with Scully, explaining she had never played before. When it was Scully's turn, Mulder set the ball beside the first stake, and he and Scully stood about three feet away. He positioned her in a golf stance, the mallet poised just behind the wooden ball. He adjusted her grip from behind but was careful not to show too much affection in front of his relatives. It was not because he cared what they saw, but he knew it would make Scully uncomfortable.

"Just keep your grip firm and your arms straight," he instructed.

She nodded but kept her head down. Pulling back slightly, she struck the ball with the mallet, successfully propelling the ball through the first two wickets. Mulder lauded her efforts, though contributed her efforts to beginner's luck. She shrugged nonchalantly, but ended the game second out of six, leaving the remaining four men good-naturedly grumbling that they had lost to a beginner.

The rest of the afternoon was spent socializing with some of the older Mulder family members before getting ready for dinner. Mulder directed Scully to her room, where her overnight bag had already been placed.

"I'm just across the hall, next to the bathroom," he told her, pointing to the wooden door.

She closed the door behind Mulder before digging through her suitcase for her cosmetics bag. Dinner was in about an hour, so she was not sure exactly why the groups had dispersed to separate rooms. All of the adults and the younger children were all staying in a local hotel, but some of the children were sleeping in the house. She touched up her make-up and curled a few strands of hair that had fallen through the course of the day. The primping only took fifteen minutes, so she looked around the room for something to occupy her time. Picking up a book from the shelf between the beds, she read.

She became engrossed in the mystery novel, reading for almost an hour. When she finally looked at the clock, she jumped from the bed. Checking her appearance one last time in the mirror, she hurried into the sitting room where the majority of the women were chatting over cocktails. Upon her entrance, a few of them gave her a once over, but none moved to greet her. Feeling out of place, she nervously looked for Mulder, and heard his laughter from the cigar room. She stepped into the room, but after a quick scan, she noticed the room was completely void of women. Some of the men glanced at her, even fewer smiled, but Mulder had his back to her. She awkwardly stumbled out of the room, but not before Mulder caught sight of her retreating figure. She felt completely out of place. She wished she had not stepped out of her room, out of the plot of the mystery novel.

She almost wished that Mulder would come out of the cigar room, that he would tell her where she belonged. She was unaccustomed to such formal family gatherings. As the women in the sitting room stood between her and her bedroom, she wandered down the opposing hallway, trying to kill time. The wing of the mansion she stumbled into was unfamiliar, but she found herself in the library, which shared a wall and a closed door with the cigar room. After walking over to the wall and assuring herself the Mulder men were still sharing cocktails before dinner, she began perusing the shelves of the library.

She felt horribly like a snoop but even more so an outcast. Retreating to the familiar world of literature, she picked up a collection of works by an unfamiliar poet. She read each poem two or three times, trying to absorb the entire mood of each one. After finishing one about the speaker's childhood, it occurred to her that she had not seen any of the children in either of the rooms. She replaced the book and wandered farther down the hall and up the stairs. As the sound of chatter became louder, she walked the length of house to finally enter a play room. The room was filled with children, and the two girls she met earlier, Mary and Danielle, rushed her as soon as they spotted her.

"Do you want to come to our tea party?" the older child asked Dana, leading the teenager to a small wooden table elaborately set with a miniature china tea set. Sitting between Mary and a porcelain doll and across from Danielle, Dana watched the children interact, sipping imaginary tea while she followed suit.

Half an hour later, one of the maids began ushering the children downstairs, as dinner was to be served. Moments later, Mulder came upstairs, much against the current flow of traffic, obviously looking for someone.

"I wondered where you had gone," he said.

Scully looked up from the toy box she was refilling. "I didn't know where I was supposed to go."

"You could have sat with one of the groups."

To her, his tone was almost chastising. She stood tall. "You didn't explain what I was supposed to do, or how I was supposed to act. Neither group looked like they wanted me there. Oh, and it would have been nice if you had told me that most people had brought separate clothes for dinner. I already feel uncomfortable enough."

Mulder said nothing in response. After opening and clenching his fists, his mouth followed suit, and he appeared much like a fish out of water. He squinted his eyes, not sure what to say. He turned away from her and walked towards the stairs. "Dinner is ready," he replied, looking back towards her, waiting for her to descend the stairs before him.

Her mouth was agape in shock. He completely ignored her feelings, her reservations, in a coward's way out of a quarrel. She was not trying to be argumentative; she was frustrated that she had been thrown into the middle of a game without the set of rules, only to be penalized when she made a wrong move.

She stormed past him down the stairs, through the hall and into the dining room. Violet Mulder, who had finished seating just about everyone, stood to welcome Dana and seat the girl next to Violet's brother Robert, who, Dana would learn, was the widowed uncle with whom Mulder was sharing a room. Mulder sat in the seat across from Dana. He was trying to catch her eyes, but she refused to look up, paying too much attention to sipping her water and arranging the cloth napkin in her lap. She politely chatted with Uncle Robert, who insisted she call him such, over salad. For as old and as quiet as the man was, the family easily forgot about him, but Scully found him incredibly fascinating. She stayed out of the main course of conversation, focusing on the main course in front of her instead. When Mulder finally did catch her eyes, she offered him a small smile so he knew she was not mad him.

As the wait staff served coffee and the conversation reached a lull, the Mulders focused their attention on Scully, which started out innocent enough.

"Dana, how long have you known our Fox?" a middle-aged woman farther down the table turned all of the attention on Scully.

"Since October, when I moved to Fairfield from California," she replied.

"You two seem to have become rather serious rather fast, then, don't you think?" the woman continued.

"Aunt Jackie," Mulder protested.

Scully glanced at Mulder before replying, "In what regards?" Scully was paying special attention to her poise, controlling her voice and body language.

Jacqueline did not reply verbally, but her eyes pointed to the bracelet on Scully's wrist as it rose to bring the water goblet to her mouth.

Instead of defending Mulder's gift, she waited until the woman replied verbally. Scully pursed her lips and waited.

Teena Mulder said, "Dear, it's just easy to become so quickly attached to the luxuries your relationship with my son affords."

Dana's eyes narrowed. "I wasn't aware that this family enjoyed such," she paused before emphasizing the word, "luxuries until today."

"Nevertheless," Bill Mulder continued for his wife, "these luxuries don't come without certain obligations in regards to Fox's future."

"With all do respect, I am only sixteen. And although I am sure some started at such a young age, I am not after anyone's money."

"Dana," Mulder once again threw a weak objection into the conversation.

Without looking at Mulder or anyone else at the table, she carefully took off the tennis bracelet and placed it upon her discarded napkin. Once again looking at the hosts, she explained, "I have had a long day and was not able to sleep well the night before. I think I am going to retire early."

Violet Mulder frowned at what had just transpired. She watched at Dana stilled her boyfriend's movements to follow her with just a glance.

Dessert brought back lighter conversation, no one except Mulder and his grandmother missing the presence of Dana. The wait staff removed her plate and returned the bracelet to Mulder's care, so there was no evidence Dana had even sat at the table. Mulder silently fidgeted until the dinner was completed, wanting more than anything to run after Scully.

As some of the family members left to return to their hotel room for the night, he managed to sneak away from the group and down the hall.

The lights in Scully and Nancy's room were off. He cracked open the door, the light spilling from the hallway onto both beds. The farther one was unoccupied; the children were still playing upstairs. Scully's still form was facing him, her hair hiding her face. After making sure no one could see him entering her room, he closed the door behind him. Kneeling in front of her, he smoothed her hair out of her face, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness.

Leaning forward on his knees, he softly kissed her lips, his eyes watching hers as she stirred. Pulling back, he watched her momentarily before kissing her again. He watched her eyes open in a mixture of sleep and surprise. His hand smoothed her cheek before returning to his side, though his lips never broke contact. After making sure she was aware, he deepened the kiss, opening his mouth. Their eyes remained locked, lids heavy, as they kissed. Moments passed before his tongue found his way into her mouth. Their movements were slow, healing.

When the kiss broke, Mulder dropped to a sitting position, and Scully scooted closer to the edge of the bed. Taking one of Scully's hands from the warm haven of her bed, he played with her fingers, neither of them speaking. Silently, he slipped the bracelet back onto her wrist.

"I'm sorry," she spoke, her tongue heavy with sleep and the remnants of Mulder's kiss, and her eyes not exactly meeting his.

They did not talk about what had transpired, though both knew something should be said. They kissed slowly, their eyes closed as they silently said good night.