The Emergency room doors swing open, and he scans the waiting area, finds her standing at the window, looking out over the hospital campus.
She turns, face pale and eyes hollow, one arm wrapped around herself, the fingers of her other hand fidgeting with her cross.
“How is he?”
“He’s in surgery,” she says, her words gritty and distant at the same time. “They just took him down for the appendectomy.”
“I brought the clothes you asked for,” he says, holding up a hastily packed bag. “Even remembered this,” he says, pulling out William’s stuffed frog. Scully’s eyes water as she takes the toy, turns the worn plush over in her hands.
“Thanks. I was so focused on getting him to the ambulance I forgot to grab anything.”
“He’s had a stomach ache, a low-grade fever. I thought it was just the flu, there’s a bug going around at the preschool…but he woke up this morning, vomiting, crying in pain. His abdomen was swollen…I should have known.”
He shakes his head. “Don’t blame yourself.”
“If I hadn’t been so focused on work, if I’d paid more attention to his symptoms, I would have seen it.”
“I’m a doctor, Mulder—“
“You’re a pathologist, not a pediatrician.”
“It doesn’t—“ she begins, then lowers her head. She doesn’t resist when he pulls her into his arms, guides her to a bench. He goes to the coffee machine, plunking in a quarter, watches the brown liquid dispense into a paper cup.
“Thanks,” she whispers when he returns, handing her the coffee. “He’ll be out soon. You don’t need to stay.”
He settles beside her. “I have time.”
A woman wearing surgical scrubs approaches. Mulder’s hand goes to Scully’s back on instinct, tension roiling beneath his fingers.
“Is he out? Can we see him?”
“William is coming out of anesthesia now. It’s a good thing you brought him in when you did—the infection hadn’t had a chance to spread. We’ll want to keep an eye on him for the next few days, but I expect he’ll make a full recovery.”
“I’d like to see him now,” Scully repeats.
“Of course. They’re setting up his room; you can go up in a few minutes. Are you the father?” she asks, looking at Mulder.
Mulder opens his mouth to say no, but Scully interrupts. “Yes, he is.”
“The nurse will show you up once he’s in his room. I’m sure he’ll be happy to see his parents,” she says, smiling over her mask as she turns to leave.
A nurse leads them to the pediatric recovery ward, where William is tucked into bed, eyes shining and wide under the too-bright lights. Stark white bandages sweep across his naked stomach and chest, his skin pale against the colorful quilt across his lap.
“Mama?” his voice wavers, high and thin like a bird’s cry.
“Hey, baby,” Scully says, moving to his bedside, taking his small hand in hers. “I’m here.”
William’s face crumples. “Wanna go home.”
“I know,” she whispers. “But you’ve been so brave. You’re going to feel better soon.”
“Don’t wanna be sick, I wanna go home.”
“I know, baby, I know,” she soothes. “Does it hurt?”
He nods. “My tummy.”
“I’ll get the nurse. Fox is here,” she says, looking over her shoulder, where Mulder is waiting by the door. “Do you want him to sit with you?”
William nods, looking back and forth between them.
“OK. I’ll be right back.”
“Hey, buddy,” Mulder says. “I brought your favorite.”
He pulls out the stuffed frog, and William takes it, pressing it to his chest. “Thanks,” he whispers. “I’m scared.”
“I know,” Mulder says, pulling up a chair. “It’s an adventure. Remember Shrek?”
William nods. “Shrek n’ Donkey went on a ‘venture to the big castle.”
“Right,” Mulder says, brushing the boy’s hair back from his forehead, leaning over to give him a kiss. “It’s kinda like that, but there aren’t any ogres, and you get to watch as much TV as you want.”
Will gives him a look so much like his mother’s it takes his breath away.
At that moment, Scully returns with a nurse. She makes a note on his chart and injects something into the IV on Will’s arm.
“This will make you a little sleepy, hun,” the nurse chirps. “You get your rest.”
“Fox?” William’s voice grows small; already his eyes are growing heavy. “Can you stay with me?”
“Sure,” he says, squeezing the boy’s hand. “I’ll stay as long as you want.”
Scully pulls up a chair, sinking into it with a weary sigh as Will drifts off. She watches him for a long time before she speaks.
“We’ve been here so many times together, but it never fails to surprise me. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?”
“Some people call it hope.”
She snorts, watching her son shift, wince, and moan softly in his sleep.
“Why do I blame myself?” she asks, when the silence grows too heavy. “Logically I know there’s nothing I could have done, but…” she trails off.
“Did I tell you about the time Sam had her tonsils out?”
She raises an eyebrow. “No.”
“She was six, and she got to eat ice cream for lunch and dinner for a week. I only remember because I was jealous. I’m pretty sure her throat stopped hurting after four days, but Mom kept the freezer stocked with chocolate and strawberry. I think she felt bad.”
“Are you saying a mother’s guilt is universal?”
He shrugs. “I think, when carrying the responsibility of another life, the instinct is to protect them from anything that might do harm. Instincts are powerful, but they’re not good at nuance.”
She leans forward, eyes fixed on the boy’s face, as if she will him back to health with the power of her presence.
Mulder reaches out, puts his hand on her arm, whispers, “I know you don’t need me to tell you, but you’re doing a good job, Scully.”
She stiffens, and for a moment, he thinks she’ll brush him off, bristle at the compliment, but she doesn’t. Instead, she slowly relaxes, leans into his touch, lets the responsibility on her shoulders show its true weight.
Not for the first time, he wishes he could share it.