ONE MONTH LATER
Scully pulls the beige afghan around her shoulders, shivering against the pile of pillows that surround her on their sofa. Winter came early this year and the house is drafty; not yet Christmas, and already there’s a thick layer of snow on the ground.
Probably for the best, being stuck on the couch…who’d want to be out in this miserable weather, anyway?
Truth is, she’d go out in a heartbeat if she could. Being laid up has given her plenty of time to think, and all the navel-gazing makes her moody.
She thinks about Isaac, mostly…wondering if he’s OK, if he’s been placed with a family, if they’ll get to see him again.
Skinner covered for them, citing extenuating circumstances as the reason for taking the boy north, insisting the whole affair was a miscommunication on his part, an undercover protective measure gone wrong. No charges were pressed, but they haven’t been allowed to see or speak with Isaac since Idaho. Doggett calls with semi-regular updates, and though it’s good to know he’s keeping an eye on the kid, it’s not enough.
She’s seen for herself what she’s missed, had a glimpse of the life they might have had.
You can’t go back.
Mulder’s outrage comes in the form of dry humor as they discussed this over breakfast in the hospital cafeteria; he’d been released only a few days after the attack, but her recovery and physical therapy kept her in the hospital an additional week.
“He’s been taken underground, Scully. They don’t want us to have access, we know too much. They’ll have the whole thing tied up with a pretty red bow in time for Christmas.” He picks at his toast without interest.
Scully can’t help but think he’s right. Unsurprisingly, their copies of the Project Ultimam files, along with Mulder’s laptop, were nowhere to be found after the search team cleaned out their camp site. The digital copies have mysteriously disappeared from Mulder’s email accounts. She doesn’t know how the government found them, but it makes her think they’ve been watched more closely than either of them assumed.
Mulder tosses his spoon down on the brown plastic tray, disgusted. “Funny how they’re so anal retentive about evidence until the evidence in question works against them, huh?”
“Not like we haven’t been here before.”
He sighs, pouts. “Yeah, but this time it’s different. We have no influence at the Bureau. Skinner can only get us so far, and we’ve cashed in any favors he might have tossed our way. We’ll be lucky if he takes our calls after this.”
“So what are you thinking, Mulder?”
He shrugs. “I dunno, Scully, just…venting.”
She smiles into her coffee cup. Venting. They’d been doing more of that. She hadn’t realized how much hadn’t been said until they started talking.
She ponders the many paths that led them here, to this table. She considers the forlorn look on her partner’s face as he stirs his coffee; for the first time they share in the same pain.
She’d questioned her decision to give William up, but had she not, he might never have had a chance to cultivate his abilities. He might have been too weak, too young to save them…or himself.
The adoption wasn’t perfect, but it bought him time.
“Maybe we were never meant to have closure, Mulder. Maybe he came back into our lives for a different reason. He saved us…but he brought us together, too,” she whispers. “He reminded us why we’re together. That counts for something.”
Mulder smiles a little, but without conviction. “Nice thought, I guess.”
They sit in silence for a few minutes, the buzz of the cafeteria cloaking them in white noise.
One of the things they haven’t talked about is them. Whatever deterioration of their relationship happened back in the woods has been lightly patched up, leaving them bent but not broken; soon it will be just another scar among many.
“After what happened back there…who says they won’t come looking for us?”
He nods as though he’s been waiting for this. “Nothing, really. We’re even more vulnerable, considering…but…”
“But you don’t think they will.”
“I think…I think they’re waiting for something bigger than us.” His face goes dark, the words heavy with unrest, but he doesn’t elaborate.
She realizes, as a chill creeps lightly up her spine, that she doesn’t want to know.
She sighs, restless, forcing herself back to the present, shifting against the pillows; it’s impossible to get comfortable. Worse, it’s impossible to escape her own thoughts.
She reflects on the events of last month as though it were a dream, the details, with their sharp edges, clipped down to dull recollections. If her memory were a book, there would be ink smudges throughout, but she remembers enough to keep her awake at night.
She can hear Mulder mulling about in his office, papers rustling, the occasional thunk of his leg brace on the rough pine floor, and she feels a rush of affection and annoyance in colliding waves.
It had been an unspoken rule in their relationship to leave William in the past. Why had they carried the same burden for so many years, but grieved alone? And where had it brought them? To a place of resentment, stony silence, unable to move forward. So mired in the past that their future was murky at best.
If this experience teaches her anything, it’s that the truth is not a destination, but a winding path, forever unfolding in front of them. The thought should give her peace, but the scientist in her aches for a tangible solution, a concrete end. They came so close; finding Isaac, learning about him, only to have him taken away.
She’ll go back to work in a couple weeks, and it will be like none of this ever happened.
Meanwhile, she’s left to sit on the couch while Mulder fusses about, treating her like a cracked porcelain doll, as though hers was the heart that stopped beating five weeks ago, not his. His recovery has been decidedly less dramatic, but that doesn’t stop her from waking in the night and struggling up the stairs to check for the steady rise and fall of his chest.
She turns her attention to her partner; not hard to do, since he hasn’t left her side for more than fifteen minutes at a stretch. Save for sleep, the furthest he’s gone is to the end of their winding driveway, to check the mail and pick up the occasional delivery.
He’s accustomed to having the place to himself, but he seems all too pleased to share the couch she still, after so many years, thinks of as his. This is his retribution for all those times she practically had to pin him to his hospital bed after an injury—he’s obviously enjoying the turned tables.
She, on the other hand, is not enjoying them at all. She hates not working, she hates that she can’t walk more than twenty steps without feeling winded, and more than anything, she hates being coddled.
If he asks me if I need anything one more time, I’ll scream.
As if on cue, Mulder hobbles into the living room, now her makeshift bedroom while her fractures heal.
“Hey, Scully, how’s it going? Need anything?”
He’s a dead man.
“I’m fine, thanks,” she mutters, pretending to flip through a Woman’s Day magazine. The date on the cover suggests it’s been hiding on their bookshelf since 2006, which is appropriate; she can’t remember a time when she actually read this crap.
He eyes the magazine, perched on the arm of the couch. “Hey, that’s a good issue. The article about ‘Seven new tricks for pleasing your man’ is particularly interesting,” he coughs. “I wouldn’t kick you out of bed for number four.”
She takes a deep breath, willing herself not to chuck the magazine at him, opting instead to set it on the coffee table. She folds her hands in her lap so she won’t be tempted to find the next nearest weapon.
“Mulder, why don’t you…go out? Get some groceries? I think we’re out of…uh…tomatoes.” She picks a type of produce at random, hoping they don’t have any in the fridge, realizing she hasn’t actually looked in their fridge in days. They’re living on take-out from the one pizza place that delivers, and the contents of their emergency pantry, which, thanks to Mulder’s paranoia, could last six more months. She’s eaten enough canned soup to be considered pickled.
I hope whatever new lifeforms are growing in that refrigerator come in peace.
“I told you, I set up automatic delivery. We’re getting a sweet deal on bagel chips,” he chirps drily.
So much for that brilliant idea.
“Yes…you did tell me…twice,” she sighs, “but you’re missing my point. Mulder, you’re—”
She’s about to finish with driving me crazy, but there’s the crunch of gravel and ice under tires as a vehicle makes its way up the drive.
Mulder’s eyes narrow as he moves toward the window, pulling aside the curtain.
“Who is it? Delivery?”
“No, they’d leave it at the gate. It’s not a truck, it’s a car…” he says with growing concern. “Wait here, k?” He’s out the door before she can respond.
“Like hell,” she mutters, struggling to her feet, hissing at the tightness along her ribs.
She finds Mulder on the porch, leaning against the railing at the top of the steps, hands in his pockets. Walter Skinner is standing outside the black car, looking stern as ever in his dark overcoat and tie. She makes to greet him before her eyes follow Mulder’s to the other side of the car…
Her heart leaps at the sight of the boy, who steps out of the car with his hands in his pockets, unconsciously mirroring her partner. He’s awkward and shy in Skinner’s commanding presence, but he’s clean, healthy; his face looks softer, less strained.
“If I’d known we were expecting visitors, I would’ve cleaned up,” Mulder quips, but he can’t hide his pleasure at seeing Isaac for the first time in weeks.
“Fox, Dana,” Skinner addresses them in a clipped monotone they know all too well. “May we come in?”
Mulder nods, raising an eyebrow. “Don’t mind the mess; Scully’s recovering from surgery, and I’m not exactly Mr. Home-Ec.”
Skinner steps up to the porch, nodding toward Scully. “I heard about that. Sorry I haven’t been in touch, I had my hands full, ensuring two of my former agents didn’t serve time for kidnapping,” he grumbles, though it’s obvious his irritation is for show; he may not have a soft spot for Mulder, but Scully is a different story.
“It’s good to see you, too, sir,” she says with a wry smile, the honorific slipping from her lips without thought; old habits die hard.
“So, what brings you out here?” asks Mulder, as they settle into the living room.
“We’re here at Isaac’s request,” Skinner begins, glancing at the boy, who regards their surroundings in his solemn, wide-eyed way. “We’ve had a bit of a problem figuring out what to do with him. His parents didn’t leave a will…which isn’t to say one doesn’t exist, but the Bureau hasn’t been able to find it. In the absence of a formal document, I hesitate to let DHS place him, given this is a…special…situation.” Skinner clears his throat, looking uncomfortable.
Mulder nods politely, but it’s Isaac he wants to talk to. “They treating you OK, kid?”
Isaac nods. “I got to see the Hoover Building. Agent Doggett took me to the firing range, showed me how to shoot.” He grins, face brightening, and for a second he could be any twelve-year-old boy, excited about a field trip—no conspiracies, no tests, no dead parents.
Scully returns his smile, warming at the thought of Doggett taking Isaac under his wing.
Lighter. He looks lighter.
“I’m going to get some fresh air,” Skinner interrupts. “Isaac can fill you in on the rest. I’ll be outside when you’re done.”
Mulder and Scully exchange a look as their former superior walks out the door.
“So, Isaac…why did you want to see us?” Her eyes narrow, trying to read his face, suddenly fearing the worst. She braces herself for the inevitable.
They came back. The FBI is sending him away. We’ll never see him again.
The boy shifts uncomfortably in his seat, looks down at his lap. “I want to stay with you.”
It’s as though a bomb has dropped in the room. Scully blinks, trying and failing to hide her shock, while Mulder’s expression remains deceptively neutral.
Of course they’d considered this. She’d even suggested it back in the woods, although at the time it had been an impulsive thought voiced out of exhaustion and fear; not the best time to consider such a decision.
Is it really an adoption when the kid is biologically yours? she wonders.
“Isaac,” she begins carefully, “I don’t know if that’s possible. The adoption paperwork—”
“He said I could if you said it was OK,” the boy counters without hesitation. “Skinner. He said they could fudge the paperwork. I’d have to change my name or something…but I don’t care.”
She looks at her partner, silently pleading for backup, and notes the hint of a grin begin to surface on his face.
He’s enjoying this, she realizes with dismay. He’s ready to go all in.
Isaac interrupts again; he’s worked up, nervous, but his voice is strong and sure. Five minutes ago he was a normal kid, excited about a special trip to Hoover, and now he speaks with all the intensity of an adult. The abrupt shift is disarming, and Scully can do little but stare as he continues.
“I don’t want to live with strangers. It’s not just that, though. You said you would help me. The people who killed my parents? The ones who did this to me? I want you to help me find them.”
Scully swallows; so this is the reason. Her mouth is dry. “Isaac…I…you’ve been through so much,” she begins, keeping her tone gentle. “I don’t want you to think we don’t…I mean…I’m honored, that you trust us. But…this is a big decision—”
“I know. I’ve thought about it. This is what I want.”
He’s impatient and fierce, a volatile combination. A familiar combination.
Mulder interjects. “What makes you think we’ll be able to help? Find the people responsible, I mean.”
“You used to do this all the time, right? Investigate weird stuff? Catch the bad guys?”
“The bad guys caught us more than we caught them,” Mulder says with a self-deprecating half-smile. “You saw that for yourself. We’re more than a little out of practice.”
“Yeah, but you believe this stuff when no one else will! You know things. You said you’d help me,” he repeats, fixing Scully with an accusatory glare.
She presses her lips together, remembering.
The men who did this to you need to be brought to justice.
“Yes…I did say that,” she admits, caught in the tangle of her own words. She glances at Mulder, who has the look of a man about to place a very large, very risky bet.
And I can guess which way he’s betting, too. She can see him trying to get her attention out of the corner of his eye.
Mulder turns to the boy, cutting her off. “Hey, can we have a minute to talk? In private?”
Isaac’s face falls, but he nods and slides off the couch without a word, shuffling outside to join Skinner on the porch. The door closes behind him with a soft thunk, and Scully feels a piece of her heart go with him.
But we can’t!
Mulder turns his gaze on her, dark eyes penetrating, pleading.
“Scully, we can’t say no.”
“Mulder, this is…too much! We don’t…our lives aren’t set up for this. I’m at the office 60 hours a week, and you’re—”
“At home,” he finishes mildly. “With all the time in the world to make sure the kid doesn’t get into trouble. C’mon, it’s not like he’s a baby. I get the impression he’s pretty self-reliant.”
“I know. I don’t blame him,” Mulder says quietly. “What if we could help, Scully? Nothing will make up for lost time, but…it’s something. Help him find some closure, make sense of what’s happened to him. Make sense of who he is.”
She blinks at him, still clouded in a fog of disbelief. Mulder, in contrast, is glowing with excitement.
“Scully, this is a gift. A second chance; you’ve said it yourself, you wish things had been different. For God’s sake, don’t turn it down. We’ll figure it out.”
“After liver-eating mutants and blood-sucking monsters, how hard can it be?” He grins.
She snorts, but can’t suppress a small smile. Who can argue with that logic?
“Mulder, he’s not a project. He’s not a…a case. He’s a child. We need to set rules, boundaries, we need to enforce them, to make sure he’s doing his homework, eating his vegetables…I still can’t get you to eat broccoli,” she gripes, fully aware she’s rambling. All the chatter in the world can’t ease the fluttering in her chest.
It’s hope, she realizes dully; hope, and the fear of having it taken from her again.
At some point during her rant, Mulder places his hands on her shoulders, facing her, an infuriatingly patient smile on his lips as he waits for her to quiet.
“We don’t even have a room for him in this place…where would we put him?” she argues weakly; she’s running out of ammunition.
Mulder doesn’t miss a beat. “I’ll move my office to the shed; I’ve been meaning to fix it up. We’ll put a window in there,” he nods toward the den. “You can do that…that decorating thing you do. It’ll work. He’ll be fine.”
It’s all she can do to keep her jaw from coming unhinged. Mulder’s office is sacred territory; he grumbles if she so much as looks at one of the many crumpled scraps of paper that litter the floor. And yet, he’s willing—no, offering—to give it up so Isaac can have a bedroom.
A home. With them.
The fight has all but gone out of her, but she continues, her mind refusing to relinquish control over her heart. “He needs guidance, Mulder, he needs direction, he needs—”
“In the words of one of the greatest English rock bands of all time, ‘All you need is love,’” Mulder counters, batting his lashes in an exaggerated come-hither expression.
This earns him a gentle swat on the shoulder and the hint of a laugh. “Mulder, this is serious!”
“We’ve had enough serious for a lifetime, Scully. For two lifetimes, even. Lighten up. We can’t fuck him up any more than we already have, right?”
He may have a point.
She shakes her head, but she’s grinning now, too; his elation is contagious.
“C’mon, Scully,” he murmurs, taking her hands in his. “It’ll be good times.”
She takes a deep breath, looking back and forth between the front door and her partner’s earnest face, her future and her past colliding in one endless, glorious moment.