Chapter 16

MARCH 31, 2015
4:43 A.M.

The darkness finds Mulder at his desk, screen glowing eerily in the pre-dawn light. Attempts to sleep are futile, his intuition gnawing away at his subconscious like an itch that can’t be scratched. The shed is dark no matter the time of day—like a black hole, it’s easy to get sucked in.

They’ve released the names of the victims from Isaac’s school. It’s no one he recognizes, four boys and a girl, their faces flash over the streaming video broadcast.

They might as well be infants.

The girl’s eyes are beautiful, bright and haunting, enough to make him wince, but his sympathy is once again overshadowed by a feeling of immense relief that it’s not his kid’s face on the screen. Relief mixed with a deep-seated fear.

Because it’s not just them.

The reports are coming in faster than Mulder can read them; victims with symptoms as far west as Texas, along the east coast, and across both borders. Major cities are reporting new cases in droves, with hospitals at capacity. Chicago, Boston, New York…

New York…

His chair swivels with a tired groan, almost of its own volition. The photo from the case file lies at his feet, the boy’s bloated corpse leering up at him, the gloss of the paper catching the light…waiting…

I wonder…

He leans down and picks it up, once again struck at how much the image reminds him of Isaac.

Not exactly a riveting connection. They’re almost the same age.

But looking closer, there’s something else.

Damn…damn. Scully would have seen it.

It’s subtle, almost covered by the discoloring effects of prolonged submersion in the polluted river, but the boy’s stomach is bruised. Badly, as a matter of fact.

Just like in the video…

He frowns, searching for the accompanying case report, finding it in the corner behind the trash can. He shakes off the dust and begins to read the medical examiner’s report for the second time. It’s the same information, but something about the signature at the bottom of the document rings a bell.

N. Hagernan.

He turns back to the computer and pulls up the list of names from the project, though he’s read it so many times, he knows what he’ll find.

Norman Hagernan, M.D. Jesus.

He sits back, hand to the back of his neck, where the muscles are iron-tight.

The project…the virus…

He wishes Scully were here. She’d be able to fill in the gaps, correct his wild assumptions with hard logic, replace his missing pieces. Tonight, she is his missing piece, and he feels it acutely.

He swivels his chair, facing the wall papered with clippings, searching. His sister’s picture hangs off to one side, tacked up amongst the few pieces of ephemera he salvaged from his mother’s house after her death. His eyes linger on Samantha for a second before settling on a different picture, this one black and white and yellow with age, two men standing with the water at their backs.

Was this what you were trying to save us from, Dad?

He hears his father’s reply in his head, as brutal as it is unyielding. The only remaining memories he has of Bill Mulder are tinged with regret and soaked in alcohol. Over time, the good ones have faded away, but his voice lives on.

You were always too late, Fox. Looking for the end of the world with your nose stuck up some extraterrestrial ass, when the answer is right in front of your face.

You’re wrong, Mulder thinks numbly, though he knows it’s futile; he’s never been able to silence that inner running monologue. Even in death—especially in death—he doesn’t measure up.

The phone rings, its shrill, angry wail jolting him out of his thoughts. Only Scully or the Gunmen would call at this hour, and either is preferable to the drone of a long-dead drunk.

Byers doesn’t bother with a greeting. “Mulder, we found something.”

Mulder glances at his computer, where the search engine spits out another handful of new reports. Some clever journalist has coined the term “bleeders” to describe the infected, due to the violent nature of their deaths, the expulsion of blood in their last gruesome moments.

He swallows hard. “I hope you’ve got more than a nice pair of double-D’s this time, boys.”

“From what we can tell, Baray and Kent were brought into the project for their immunology expertise. They theorized that their failure to produce a healthy clone was the result of an autoimmune response to the alignment of the chromosomes at the time of mitosis.”

Mulder rubs his left temple, grimacing. “In English, Byers.”

“Isaac is the computer,” Langly says, his voice even more nasal than usual over the speaker, “and these two were trying to hack him. Your kid is something else, Mulder.”

Mulder snorts, thinking of a certain pencil embedded in the drywall of his former den. “I could have told you that.”

“The same gene that prevents Isaac from being cloned could make him vulnerable to the virus. Kent was close to working around the problematic gene when he dropped out of the project.”

“Why?”

“No one knows. Maybe he disagreed on the extent of the research, the questionable morality of using human subjects without their consent. Maybe he suddenly grew a conscience, decided to give his talents to more philanthropic endeavors—”

“But it’s more likely he made better moolah in the private sector,” Langly interrupts, “Uncle Sam doesn’t pay for shit, no matter how brilliant you are.”

“Preaching to the choir, Langly.”

“Baray continued working with the project up until about two years ago.”

Mulder closes his eyes, leans back in his seat with a tired sigh. “That’s when they gave up…when we found Isaac,” he says. “What does this have to do with the infection?”

“That’s what we don’t know,” Byers says, “but given their respective areas of expertise, and Kent’s voice on that video clip? Maybe they’re targeting the project’s victims to cover their tracks…”

“…or maybe some idiot in a white coat stuck his fingers in the wrong petrie dish,” Frohicke rumbles. “But if the goal was to keep your kid from contracting the infection, there’s a chance they were working on a cure.”

“So where do we find them?”

There’s a pause before Langly fills in the gap. “Baray’s dead, Mulder. Dude was shot at his apartment, night before last.”

Mulder’s stomach drops. Fuck. “And Kent?”

“I managed to dig up a mailing address in D.C., but it’s just a P.O. box—“

“What is it?” Mulder demands, cradling the phone on his shoulder, scrabbling through the clutter for a pen as Byers reads it off.

“What are you going to do, Mulder?”

He grimaces, turning back to the screen, thinking of his partner and her former admonition. “I have a monster to chase.”

#

6:30 A.M.

He stares at the computer after they’ve hung up, until his eyes are sand-coated glass and his jaw feels like it’s been wired shut.

Getting too old for this shit, Fox.

He’s already forming a plan. He’ll wake Isaac, and they’ll pack. They’ll get Scully from the hospital—even if I have to sedate her and carry her out, he thinks—and they’ll drive north, with a detour to check in on their new friend, Kent. Then they’ll head into the woods until this thing, whatever it is, blows over.

Guess we’re taking that family vacation after all, ha-ha.

He stumbles from the shed and wanders toward the farmhouse with his hands jammed into his pockets, the early light casting long shadows, gnarled fingers gripping the ground. It’s supposed to be a beautiful day, March’s lions becoming lambs, but the sun’s warmth is fleeting at best and Mulder shivers.

How do you run from an enemy you can’t see?

He’s still brooding as he reaches the steps, the creak of the old porch swing on rusty chains giving the otherwise bright spring morning an ominous soundtrack.

Should oil that, he thinks absently, walking into the house, which is slow to warm despite his efforts to seal its hidden cracks.

It’s a different sound that catches his attention, sending a chill down his spine, one that has little to do with the temperature. It’s a sound he’s heard too many times over the course of the night, newscasts riddled with its hollow echoes in the background.

But the television is a silent, empty eye at the far end of the living room. There’s no one here except…

Isaac. Coughing.

Mulder swallows, stumbling over his own feet toward the sound of his son’s labored breathing. He remembers Byers’ words from their conversation, he may be vulnerable.

No, he thinks, heart sinking in his chest. No, no, not now…

He finds the boy curled on the floor of the bathroom. His face is pale, his hair unkempt and wild along his temples.

“Hey, buddy,” Mulder says, reaching down to gently help the boy to a sitting position. He’s grown several inches in the last two years, he’s heavier than Mulder remembers from when they first met, from when he’d carried him, so slight in his arms. Now he feels solid, more like a young man than a child. When did that happen? he wonders dully.

“Isaac, can you hear me? Can you talk?“

Shit. Think, Fox. Ambulance?

No good. They’re too far out, and it’s unlikely any are free. He’ll drive, but where? The nearest hospital is Scully’s, and they’re under quarantine.

There’s another hospital. General something…Jesus, you should know this.

The hollow, reedy sound of the boy’s voice fills him with equal relief and dread.

“Don’t feel good,” Isaac croaks.

“Yeah…yeah, I can see that. We’re going to the truck, I’m going to get you to a hospital.”

“Mmmph,” Isaac mumbles. “Head hurts.”

“I know, buddy, stay with me. Keep talking so I know you’re alive, Isaac.”

“Don’t wanna talk.”

Even in sickness—more like death, a cruel internal voice rings out—the boy is contrary. Mulder takes this as a good sign.

“Yeah…well, I don’t…care,” he huffs, wrapping his arms under the boy’s armpits and hoisting him to his feet. “C’mon, Isaac, work with me here.”

“Hurts,” the boy mumbles, but he’s standing on his own, barely. Mulder supports him at the waist and steers them toward the door, willing his knee not to lock up.

He loads Isaac into the cab of the truck, and the boy’s head lolls back against the seat. His forehead is hot to the touch, his hands like ice. Mulder reaches behind the seat and grabs a blanket from the floor, tucking it around him as he opens his eyes to look into Mulder’s own.

I should have been with him.

“I wasn’t here anyway,” the boy says, causing Mulder’s head to snap up as Isaac continues, “You didn’t know. S’not your fault.”

Mulder’s throat tightens. It’s never his fault, and yet somehow, the past refuses to release its grip on the people he loves.

“No peeking,” he mutters, but he doesn’t mean it. “Where’d you go?” he asks, climbing into the truck and starting it, thankful the engine turns over without protest.

Keep him talking.

“Just the woods,” Isaac says quietly.

“What’s in the woods?”

“We hung out there sometimes.”

We?

“Alice.”

Mulder’s brow creases. He tries to remember if Isaac mentioned a friend in the past, but nothing comes up, especially not a girl. That would have caught his attention. But there’s something familiar about the name.

Alice…Alice? She was the…

“The girl who died?” he blurts out. “She was your friend?”

Isaac’s silence confirms the truth, and Mulder is struck dumb. He clears his throat, gaze shifting between his son and the road in front of them.

“Was she…alive…before you met her, Isaac?”

Isaac has enough strength to roll his eyes, as if this is the most ridiculous thing he’s ever heard, from the kid who can embed a pencil in the wall with the flick of a finger. “God, yes. She wasn’t a fucking ghost.”

Mulder turns his attention back to the road, chagrined.

Some father you are, Fox, the voice in his head broods. His friend dies, and you didn’t even know her. What else don’t you know?

“Nothing,” Isaac says, not missing a beat, causing Mulder to turn to him again, irritation flaring at this second intrusion, but it passes quickly.

He’s so damn pale.

“Hold on,” he mutters through gritted teeth, not daring to say more.

#

The hospital—Mercy General, on outer Main, he remembers as they take the exit, Scully had a conference there once—is eerily quiet. There are no ambulances, no strobe lights or sirens, no medical personnel rushing to aid. The building is lit, but the security booth is empty, the doors locked.

They’ve already given up, Mulder thinks, rushing from the truck. His fists bang against the glass entrance.

“Hey! Anybody!”

He turns to the right, peering into what looks like a waiting room; some people are sitting, hunched over, while others are curled on the floor. None of them stir as his palms smack the glass over and over, and slowly it dawns on him that they can’t hear him.

They’re all dead.

“No,” he whispers to himself, casting a sideways glance at Isaac, who’s slipped down the wall, propped up against the ER doors. “No, dammit! No!”

He scans the room again, pressing his forehead against the cold glass, looking for a sign of life. He turns back to the security booth, desperate, and that’s when he spots her—a figure behind the registration desk, peering out from around a door.

A nurse…alive.

He catches her eye, and resumes banging on the glass. “Hey! We need help out here!”

For a moment he thinks she’s going to turn away, to leave Isaac to die, and his panic is a raw, cutting edge. But the woman approaches the glass doors with guarded eyes before holding up one finger. Wait.

Mulder swallows, nods, breathing hard. Whatever, lady, just help him.

She walks back toward the security booth, reaches inside, and he hears the mechanical whir-click of the door lock.

“He’s sick, he’s—“

She turns back to him, but there’s no surprise on her face, only a resigned pain that makes Mulder’s stomach coil like a spring.

“Sick,” she says wearily, “just like everyone else.”

“It hasn’t been long,” he lies. “He still has a chance. You need to help him.”

The nurse sighs, as if she’s heard this story countless times and knows the ending by heart, but she re-locks the door behind them. “This way.”

Mulder fidgets in the chair beside Isaac as she takes the boy’s blood pressure, heartbeat, and listens to his lungs with the kind of no-nonsense speed Mulder associates with assembly line manufacturing. He watches her hands at the boy’s throat, the quick, perfunctory squeezes of her fingers on the bulb.

“Any other symptoms? Dizziness? Shortness of breath?” Her voice is flat, almost bored, but perhaps that’s the shock. He wonders how many people’s deaths she’s witnessed in the last two days.

Hundreds at a hospital this size.

He glances out the door but there are no others rushing to join them, to see the latest victim. The inner hall is as silent as the waiting room.

Isaac shakes his head weakly at her questioning, looking to Mulder, but tonight they’re equally powerless.

The nurse purses her lips, before turning to a cabinet and withdrawing a syringe.

Mulder realizes he should be asking questions, making sure Isaac gets the appropriate treatment—it’s what Scully would do.

“What are you giving him?”

“An antiviral. Oseltamivir, more commonly known as Tamiflu. We’ve caught it early, but…”

“But what?”

She narrows her eyes, gently flicking the needle. “It’s temporary.”

“Temporary?”

“Mmm,” she affirms, turning to Isaac to soothe, “Little pinch, now.”

“You mean you’ve never seen anyone come back from this…don’t you?”

He’s staring at her intently, but she doesn’t answer; she doesn’t have to. Why else would the hospital be locked down?

Mulder’s knee bounces in an anxious dance, before he finally averts his gaze to Isaac, whose head is turned away, eyes shut tight until she finishes administering the shot.

Coming here was a death sentence.

“So,” he says, biting his thumbnail, “will a doctor be in to take a look, or what?”

The nurse turns away. “I’m afraid I’m it, Mr…”

“Mulder,” he says. “Call me Mulder.”

“Well, Mulder. There is no doctor here; just me. I’m the only one left.”

#

10:37 A.M.

“You’re not sick,” she says, matter-of-fact, as they watch Isaac drift in and out of consciousness. The Tamiflu brings his fever down, but there’s flaming color in his cheeks, a startling contrast to his blue-white skin.

The nurse, he learns her name is Eileen, has brought coffee from the cafeteria. It’s the only thing the hospital serves now, besides soda and chips. Vending machines have the advantage of immunity.

Mulder takes another sip; the coffee is bitter, watery, fitting.

“You look well enough yourself,” he returns, raising an eyebrow over the flimsy paper cup.

She shrugs, her eyes are dark, distant. “I’m not sure if it’s good luck or bad, to be left behind, but we’re all infected. Some just take longer than others,” she whispers. “The antivirals slow the process for some. Your son’s responding well…but it’s only a matter of time. I’d suggest you pray, but you don’t look like the praying type.”

Mulder might have been offended, but she’s got him pegged. Scully would pray, if worse came to worse. Mulder prefers to spend his last hours cursing at the sky. He’s done it before.

She takes his silence to mean she’s hit the nail on the head. “That’s OK. Neither am I,” she says with a sad, wry smile. “Not anymore.”

Mulder can’t take his eyes off Isaac as she talks.

“None of us realized what was happening until it was too late,” she’s talking, her voice hollow, flat as a broken drum. “The first one died six days ago, I think…a man, late fifties, no other symptoms but the cough. There was a lot of blood. Then suddenly every bed was full and the waiting room was overflowing. One would die, only to have three more start coughing…”

She closes her eyes, head swaying to an invisible rhythm.

“My super, Dr. Brennan, started convulsing in the middle of an exam. Scared the shit out of me, and the little girl she was treating. Both were dead within twenty-four hours.”

Jesus.

“There were rumors that someone had targeted the hospital, but then the news started reporting on similar attacks in the big cities…New York City, Philadelphia, D.C. It wasn’t just us.

“I went home in the middle of a shift. Just walked out, went back to my apartment. I thought…I don’t know what I was thinking,” she whispers, suddenly agitated. “I guess I wasn’t, I don’t even remember what I did. I think I made toast,” she laughs suddenly, barking into the empty room, making Mulder wince. “But by the time I came back…there was no one. Most of the last patients were my friends, colleagues. I watched them die.”

Mulder swallows hard, wondering how many similar stories will be told in the coming weeks and months, how many lives will be lost. Through the years of waiting and watching, he’d silently prepared for war, but this isn’t a war.

It’s a goddamned massacre.

He swallows. “I need to, uh, make a call. Could you keep an eye on him?”

She nods; the heavy door closes behind him, and he leans against it.

Scully. Scully needs to know.

He pulls out the cell phone, ironically grateful for its slick metal weight, for its tenuous connection to his partner. He doesn’t expect her to pick up, but she does. Her voice is raw, thin, and Mulder feels his heart skip a beat.

Shit, she’s sick, too.

“Scully.”

He takes a deep breath, exhales. “Scully, it’s me.”

“Mulder. Hi,” she whispers, sounding distracted.

“You sound…are you…are you sick?” He grips the phone, knuckles white, waiting for the answer.

“No…no, I haven’t had any symptoms. Why, are you?”

His heart relaxes its grip, he closes his eyes and sinks back against the wall. “I’m fine,” he whispers. “I’m glad you’re OK.”

“I’m fine, Mulder.” There’s a concerned pause. “Have you found something?”

“No,” he says, his voice raw. “I, um,” is all he can manage, his eyes close and he presses the back of his skull into the hard wood of the door, but the words remain beyond his reach.

Our son is dying, Scully. He’s sick. He’s sick, and I should have been there, I should have known. You were right, I have no idea what I’m doing, and now he’s dying, and I’m sorry.

“Mulder? What’s wrong?” He’s waited too long, the silence is damning.

“It’s Isaac…”

Her voice is a razor, cutting down his defenses, the only person who can open him up and expose his heart with just a word. Her panic sucks all the air out of the room. When she falls, he goes down with her.

“What happened? Tell me.”

He grits his teeth, biting off the words. “He’s…I found him on the floor.”

She imagines the worst; there are tears in her voice when she finds her breath. “No—”

“We’re at Mercy General, but it’s a goddamned morgue. There’s no one…they’ve got him on something, an antiviral—”

“He’s alive?” she whispers. “Oh, thank God. I thought you were going to say—” but she can’t say it.

“He’s sick, Scully.”

“I…I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“No, don’t. I don’t want you to see him like this.”

I don’t want you to see me like this, he thinks.

“Mulder,” her voice cracks in disbelief, “he’s our son, if he’s…if he’s sick—”

“Scully, the guys found one of the scientists responsible for this thing. They might have a cure. It’s not much, but it’s a lead, it’s something.”

There’s a skeptical pause. “And you’re going to find him.”

It’s a statement, not a question; she knows him too well.

“I don’t have a choice.”

“Mulder…you can’t just…leave.”

“I can’t sit here and watch him die,” he says, the last syllable like a gunshot. He closes his eyes against his own words, the first time either one dares say it aloud.

Dying. He’s dying.

“No,” she whispers, “Mulder, the CDC—”

“Doesn’t know its head from its ass,” he spits, with a level of venom he doesn’t intend for her. “Sorry,” he mutters. “Sorry, I’m just—I can’t do this, Scully. I can’t lose him.”

When she speaks again, her voice barely registers above a whisper.

“What do we know for sure?” She’s had this conversation with herself hundreds of times in the last two days, but she doesn’t have Mulder’s imagination. “It’s viral, fast-acting. It appears to be airborne, although no one has confirmed that for sure…given the infection rate and spread, it’s the only form of transmission that makes sense.”

“Some people aren’t sick. There’s a nurse here…”

“There are a few here, too,” she says. “We haven’t admitted any new patients in the last 24 hours.”

“The nurse said some drug—”

“Tamiflu.”

“Yeah, that. She said it helps.”

“Somewhat,” Scully agrees, “but the virus adapts. Except no virus I know of can mutate so drastically within days, let alone hours. I’ve been trying to get the Disease Control liaison to work with me, but their people aren’t saying much. Our facilities are archaic, but they’ve sent samples back to Atlanta; if this is a mutated strain of an existing pathogen, they’ll know by tomorrow. If not…”

He shakes his head. Tomorrow is too far away.

“They’re not going to find anything, Scully. You know it, and I know it. What we’re dealing with isn’t documented in any of the medical texts, and they want to keep it that way.”

“Mulder, there’s no proof of—“

“Why Isaac, Scully? Why him, and not us?” he demands, pinching the bridge of his nose as he paces the empty hall outside their son’s room.

She doesn’t have an answer.

He takes a deep breath. “What if…what if the virus isn’t new?”

“You’re going to have to give me more than that, Mulder.”

“What if immunity is the result of exposure to the virus at a different stage of its life? If some smallpox vaccinations contained fragments of the deactivated virus, or if someone was exposed to the original virus, or hell, even stung by a bee…it could explain why we haven’t been affected,” he says, still pacing, his mind churning. “Did you get the results of the autopsy on your first patient?”

There’s a pause. “No, the CDC appropriated the morgue. But Mulder—”

“Can you get to the body?” There’s budding excitement in his voice now.

“I can try, but—“

“The answers will be in the victims, Scully. You have to get to that body and examine it.”

“Mulder, we don’t know for certain that this is the same virus we were exposed to. The only way to confirm is an antibody titer. Our lab doesn’t have the equipment, nor do we have time to—”

He’s barely listening, talking more to himself than her. “Byers said something about how Isaac’s DNA left him vulnerable…if they were working on a vaccine…”

“Mulder, I—”

“I know it’s a stretch…call it a hunch. Humor me,” he says thickly.

She goes quiet.

“Scully?”

A soft sigh. “I’m here.”

Another pause. Neither wants to let go.

“Scully,” he whispers, voice catching, willing her to understand, “I have to know I did everything I could.”

“I know,” she replies. “You go. I’ll…I’ll get the autopsy results, then come straight to the hospital. Is Isaac safe?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, he’s safe.”

“Mulder?”

“Yeah.”

“I…be careful,” she says finally, the words layered and rich with their shared, secret language.

“I know,” he whispers into the phone as the connection is closed, still tasting the lie on his tongue.

Safe.

The word doesn’t mean anything to him anymore.

#

He holds his breath long after the call has ended, the mint green walls and smell of antiseptic as unforgiving as his memories, thinking of a time when a place like this was just another mirage in the desert of their runaway lives, a necessity that remained out of reach.

They were living out of a weekly-rate motel in Arkansas. No amount of hand sanitizer could compete with the bugs breeding in some of the back-country’s fine dining establishments, and Mulder had picked up a bad case of strep.

With no insurance and no way for him to see a doctor—a licensed one, at least—he’d made do with Tylenol and tea and his partner’s careful tending, until the razors in his throat subsided, until the fever broke and left him shivering.

He’d awoken in the dark, missing Scully’s warmth on the other side of the bed. He found her in the cramped bathroom, sitting on the edge of the chipped fiberglass tub with her head in her hands.

“It’s just strep, doc.” He was trying to save face, but the sheen of cold sweat on his bare shoulders and the whistle in his throat told a different story.

She’d looked up, glaring at him with eyes that could cut glass, before standing and grabbing a washcloth from the towel rack.

“Today it’s strep throat, Mulder, but tomorrow it could be a compound fracture, or a concussion…or worse,” she’d growled, running water, wringing out the cloth with a sharp twist. “You should get back to bed.”

Too weak to protest, he’d collapsed onto the worn polyester duvet. His head throbbed, but he’d batted her hand away when she sat down beside him and held out the cool washcloth. He was a terrible patient, but she had years of practice.

“We’re not young,” she’d sighed, speaking softly this time, and he’d actually worked up the energy to take offense, grumbling something to the effect of youth being overrated.

“Maybe it is,” she said, turning the cloth over in her hands, “but your health isn’t.”

The precarious nature of their situation lingered long after Mulder healed. It became the impetus for finding a permanent home. He’d argued against it at the time, though now he can’t imagine why—what part of that life was he so reluctant to leave behind? The living accommodations weren’t doing them any favors.

No, their situation wasn’t enviable, but he was certain of one terrifying thing: The moment they stepped back into anything resembling a normal life was the moment Scully would realize she’d made a mistake.

He was a fugitive, but she was not. Why should she choose to live like one? Why would she stay with Fox Mulder when she could have a home, a career, and a family that wasn’t tethered to a conspiracy that destroyed everything it touched?

It was easier living day to day, motel to cheap motel, because he knew what the stakes were, what to expect. He wasn’t sure he could go back to the real world. That world made it clear he was no longer welcome within its boundaries.

Tonight, standing outside Isaac’s hospital room, he’s not sure any of them are.

#

Eileen excuses herself, slipping out of the room like a shadow as soon as Mulder returns. He wonders how much of the conversation she heard, then decides it doesn’t matter.

We’re all in the same boat now.

He pulls up a chair beside Isaac, relieved to see the boy’s eyes open and lucid.

“Hey, kid.”

“Hey.” Isaac’s voice is thready, gravel against ice.

“Listen, Isaac,” he begins, feeling his throat constrict. “There’s something I need to do.”

Isaac is staring at him with resigned stoicism. There are no tears, no plaintive goodbyes, only stony determination.

Scully looked that way when she was dying, too.

He lowers his head, blinking back tears. It has never been more clear that the baby his partner gave up and the boy who lies in front of him are two different people. What happened in between caused a hardness in Isaac, an inky black stone that Mulder will never be able to crack.

You may never get to try if you don’t get your ass moving, Fox.

“There’s a chance we can beat this thing…but I need to meet with someone in D.C. A doctor.”

He doesn’t tell the boy that the chances are small, that the meeting is less an arrangement and more a hope and a prayer, but Isaac doesn’t need him to speak it aloud. He’s too weak to shut out the thoughts, and Mulder vibrates with a dread that makes his head ache.

When Isaac doesn’t respond, Mulder reaches out to take the boy’s hand in a rare moment of connection. “I’m sorry about your friend.”

Isaac jerks back at the mention of Alice, glaring with a haunted look Mulder has seen too often in his own reflection. As one who is an expert in blaming himself, it’s not surprising Isaac suffers the same undeserved guilty conscience.

Of all the things I could have passed on…

“Isaac…” he begins, “you told me in the truck this isn’t my fault…but it’s not yours either.”

The boy snorts in response, and Mulder clears his throat. “There was a time when I thought I’d pay any price to find what I was looking for, that no cost was too great. Then Scully was taken…she got sick…she lost her daughter…and by the time I thought to ask myself if it was worth it, it was too late,” he says, nipping at the pad of his thumb, his teeth leaving nervous indentations in the calloused flesh.

Something shifts between them as Mulder talks. Isaac’s eyes are shining pools, swirled with feverish hurt.

“You lose sight of what you have when you focus on what you’ve lost,” Mulder whispers. “I did that with Scully, for a long time. I did that with you.”

Isaac blinks, and maybe it’s a trick of the light, but Mulder thinks he sees the trace of a tear disappear under the boy’s chin.

“Your friend got sick, but it wasn’t your fault. Your dad, your mom…they weren’t your fault, either,” he says. “You probably don’t believe that now, but someday I hope you will.”

The silence is painful, uncomfortably full.

“Go,” the boy chokes out, “I’ll be fine.”

Just like Scully, Mulder thinks. She was always fine, too.

He sets his jaw, squeezing Isaac’s hand until his fingers ache. “You will,” he replies, as if saying the words can make him believe them.

#

He finds Eileen standing outside the door.

“You’re leaving,” she says matter-of-factly, crossing her arms over her chest. “What do you expect to find out there?”

He presses his lips together, avoiding the question, because he doesn’t have the answer. “Take care of him. He’s…he’s important,” Mulder says, unable to let himself speak the truth: That aside from Scully, Isaac is the one thing that came from their sullied past that’s worth anything, shoebox full of memories be damned.

“What else would I do?” she mutters drily, then softens. “The Tamiflu is helping; it should give you a day, maybe more. But hurry,” she finishes, leaving the implications of a late return hanging between them.

“I will,” he says, digging into his pocket and pulling out a scrap of paper. “This is my cell,” he says, scribbling down the number, handing her the crumpled slip. “Call me if anything changes.”

The morning air is sharp and empty, a damp slap to the face pointing him north. His words to Isaac play themselves over in his mind as he takes a reluctant leave from his son for the second time in his life.

…by the time I thought to ask myself if it was worth it, it was too late.

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