The earthy smells of leather and spring grass mix with the heady aromas of fried dough and popcorn, circling in the stands as they watch the players disperse across the field to take their places in the bottom of the ninth. It’s the perfect day for a game of baseball, the perfect sixth birthday present for a certain boy with bright blue eyes and a profile that grows more distinguished with every year.
“No butter?” Mulder asks, wrinkling his nose as he takes a handful of Will’s popcorn. “Your mom is rubbing off on you.”
Will shrugs, watching as the Oriole’s first hitter steps up to the plate; not Mulder’s team, but Scully nixed the idea of taking him across state lines for a baseball game, even if it was major league.
“Maybe he can see the Yankees for his tenth birthday, Mulder,” she’d said. For now, Camden Park would have to do.
Mulder leans back, takes another handful of popcorn, resisting the urge to reach over and ruffle Will’s fluffy brown hair.
“Why don’t you live with my mom?”
There’s a sharp crack as the ball makes contact with the bat, a hiss of excitement ripples through the crowd, but Mulder’s attention is elsewhere.
“Mom says it’s because we’re not a traditional nuclear family, but I don’t know what that means.”
“It, uh…it means—“
A wild cheer goes up as the announcers call the home run, and Will looks up at Mulder with his mother’s eyes.
“Um,” he falters. “Hey, are you hungry? Wanna get a snack?”
“But we just got popcorn,” Will reminds him, holding up his red-and-white-striped bag.
“Yeah, but I need a drink, don’t you? And maybe a hot dog.”
“Mom says I shouldn’t eat the hot dogs here, they have too many—“
“Nitrites, yeah, I know, but just one won’t hurt,” he says, already taking Will’s hand, leading them through the cheering stadium and out to the concessions, vacant except for the cashier.
“Do you want a Coke?” Mulder says, digging in his pocket for his wallet.
“I’m not supposed to have—“
“Yeah, I know caffeine isn’t good for you.“
“No, I’m not supposed to have soda. It’s not good for your teeth,” Will says, grinning broadly to prove the point.
“Right. OK, how about, uh, M&M’s. Can you have those?”
Will’s face lights up. “Yes! Peanuts, please.”
“That’ll be two bottles of water, a hot dog, and M&M’s, the yellow ones,” Mulder tells the cashier, sliding a twenty across the counter. They walk away with their food, settling on a nearby bench.
“So why don’t you live with my mom?”
“You’re not going to let me get out of this, are you?” Mulder asks, frowning as he smears mustard on the hot dog.
“Nope,” Will says, picking out the red candies first. A muted cheer rises up from the crowd in the stadium behind them; another run, it sounds like.
“You know, a lot of parents don’t live together. My parents were divorced.”
“I know. But you’re not divorced from Mom.”
“And you helped Mom have me, right?”
“So I don’t get it. If you’re the sperm, that makes you my dad…right?”
Mulder coughs, struggles to swallow his food. “It’s, uh, complicated, Will. Being a dad’s not just about, uh, sperm and ova,” he says, looking around self-consciously. “It’s about…spending time with you. Being there for you.”
“You spend time with me.”
“I do, but…but…your mom makes the rules,” he says. “She takes care of you every day. All the time.”
“So why don’t you?”
“I…” he hesitates, struggling to find an answer as people begin to stream out of the stands in droves. “I think we just missed the game.”
The drive home is quieter than usual. Twice, Mulder opens his mouth to break the silence, but closes it again, unsure of what to say.
When they get to Scully’s apartment, Will runs inside, firing off a perfunctory, “Hi Mom thanks Fox!” before disappearing into his room.
“How’d it go?” Scully asks, checking something in the oven, wiping her hands on a towel. The table is strewn with a mix of files, research, and classwork, and Mulder clears off a corner to sit down.
“It, uh, it went great. Baltimore won,” he adds, frowning at one of the files. “Or so I’m told.”
“So you’re told?”
“Yeah, we got sidetracked. Your son,” he says, “would like to know why his mom and ‘the sperm’ don’t live together.”
“Ahh,” she sighs. “That again.”
“I’ve told him—”
“That we’re not a traditional nuclear family?”
“Glad to know he’s listening.”
Mulder snorts. “He’s listening, alright. He asked why I’m not his father.”
This seems to quiet her. “What did you say?”
“I couldn’t answer him, Scully. I wanted to, but…I’m not…I mean, I love him. But…”
She watches him, waiting out an endless pause as he tries to make sense of his thoughts.
“My dad wasn’t there,” he says. “And it only got worse after Sam was taken. He and I never talked. We fought when I got older, and I rarely saw him after the divorce. I had more reasons to be mad at him than I knew, but…all I saw was a man who couldn’t wait to get away from me.”
“Mulder…you’re not your father.”
“Maybe not. But he didn’t exactly set the best example, and Will deserves better than what I had.”
“Isn’t that what every parent wants for their child?” she counters. “Maybe Will knows what he needs.”
“He’s just a kid—”
“He’s your kid, Mulder,” she returns, causing him to look up. “Ours,” she continues more softly. “And he’s smart. Too smart, sometimes.”
He considers this, watching as her face flicks through a hundred different emotions before settling somewhere between nostalgia and rumination.
“There’s a reason I asked you…and it wasn’t all your spotless genetic make-up,” she says, smiling a little. “It’s because I knew you’d be here. If that doesn’t make you his father, I don’t know what does.”
They’re interrupted by Will’s footsteps. “Mom? I’m hungry.”
“Dinner’s in the oven.”
Will wrinkles his nose, sniffing the air. “Is it chicken again?”
“Mmhm. No complaints,” she says, interrupting as he opens his mouth to protest. “You need something more filling than popcorn and M&Ms.”
“But peanuts have protein!” Will objects.
“It doesn’t count when they’re covered in chocolate. Go wash up, we’ll eat soon.”
She waits until Will is gone, then turns back to Mulder, lowering her voice. “Before he was born, you told me you wanted whatever made me happy, but that goes both ways. I’m grateful to have you in Will’s life in any capacity…but don’t underestimate what you are to him, Mulder. He deserves better than that.”
“Scully? You awake?”
“Mmm, barely,” she murmurs, turning toward him, nuzzling his throat.
He’s curled around her in the bed he still thinks of as hers, even though he hasn’t slept at his own apartment in months. He’s not sure why he still pays the rent for a place that does little more than act as a receptacle for junk mail and houses his fish. Even Will has stopped asking if he’s staying for dinner, and last week Scully suggested clearing a spot in the living room for the fish tank.
He clears his throat. “I was thinking about what you said…before dinner.”
“What about it?”
“Do you think that’s what Will wants? For me to be his dad?”
“Mulder,” she sighs, her breath warm against his chest. “You already are. That’s what I was trying to say.”
“I know, but…is that what you want?”
She tips her head up to look at him, bemused. “For such a brilliant man, you can be incredibly dense, you know.”
He forces a smile, a flutter beginning deep in his stomach. “Is that a ‘yes’?”
“I think you can use your exceptional powers of deductive reasoning to figure that out for yourself, Mulder.”
He pauses, thinking. She’d never make it easy; it was part of the reason he loved her, after all. He swallows hard, gathering his courage.
His mouth is dry, his lips can barely form the words, because he’s only dimly aware of what he’s about to say: “Marry me.”
She snorts into his chest, and his heart falls, the bottom dropping out.
“On one condition,” she says, looking up at him, brow furrowed in grave sincerity. “Please teach your son to put the toilet seat down. If I fall in one more time, so help me God, I’ll kill you both.”
He blinks, watching as her expression melts into a grin. “For the record, that’s a ‘yes’. Now, can I get some sleep?”
“I…uhh…sure, Scully,” he stammers, wondering if the exchange actually happened, or if this is a bizarre dream. Then he feels her smile, sealing the deal with a kiss to his throat. The way her lips tease along the stubbled line of his jaw creates a sensation too vivid to be anything but real.
“I love you, Mulder,” she says. “And I’m serious about the toilet seat thing.”
He chuckles, murmuring into her hair, “Duly noted. Love you, too.”