Scully can count on one hand the number of times Mulder has walked away from her during a fight. Usually he’s the one to pull them back together, the first to apologize, the first to reach for her…his faith in them has always been stronger than hers, almost blind in its reverence.
She sits next to the fire pit, but the fire has long since died out; he never had a chance to build it, too focused on the case, on their conversation.
What an apt metaphor, she thinks dully, staring at the dried husk of a log amidst the ruins.
She regrets her words from the moment they leave her lips, spilling out from some deep, self-destructive part of herself. The part that rebels against Mulder’s over-protectiveness and his unyielding faith despite the odds; the part that’s responsible for the tattoo on her lower back, her mark of rebellion like a brand against her skin; the part that drew her to a career in forensics against her father’s wishes, and stubbornly kept her at the X-files when the rational part of her knew it was a losing game.
It’s a part she hasn’t given enough attention in recent years.
And it’s finally come back to bite me in the ass.
She hadn’t meant to imply her relationship with Mulder was a regret, but isn’t that exactly what she’d said, when it came down to it?
Yes. Maybe we were the mistake.
She stares blankly at the charred logs as the ashes from last night’s fire skitter around, swirling, dissipating into the sharp, bitter air.
You can’t take this one back, Dana.
But she can’t capitulate. Not only because she’s stubborn, but because there’s a fine, hard grain of truth to what she’s said, as much as neither of them want to hear it. She’s always been good at voicing the ugly truths, fouling up Mulder’s pretty theories.
As much as she loves him, there are times when she looks at him, and all she can see are the losses.
If they’d stayed friends, if they hadn’t taken that last step…hell, if one of us had thought to grab a box of condoms before jumping into bed together like a couple of horny, sex-starved teenagers…realizing as she thinks this how coarse and unfair it is, given their history. The physical relationship was an afterthought, but somehow, that makes this even harder.
The muffled zip of a tent flap interrupts her thoughts; Isaac must be awake. She wipes at her eyes reflexively, though her tears have long since dried, and looks up to see the boy standing there. For a moment they stare at each other in awkward silence—her eyes red-rimmed, his untrusting, both waiting for the other to speak.
“I’m, uhh…I was cold,” he says finally, shifting from one foot to the other, hands rubbing at his shoulders.
“Oh! Grab a blanket from the tent, wrap yourself. I’ll get a fire going.”
“Where’d he go?”
Scully busies herself with the fire, avoiding the boy’s eyes. “Mulder? He…ah…he’s out for a walk.”
Isaac doesn’t believe this, and she doesn’t blame him. Given the shape Mulder’s knee is in, any walk would be short and painful. But the boy does her a kindness by not pushing the issue.
“You should have something,” she says, trying to regain her composure. “How do you feel about instant oatmeal?”
He shrugs, noncommittal, and she takes this to mean he’ll eat. She goes about stoking the fire, adding water to the foil bowl, nestling it deep in the coals. The movement of her hands gives her purpose, confidence. Mulder may have walked away, but she can still do this; prepare a fire, prepare food, look after another with care.
They eat from the foil bowl with plastic spoons. The hot cereal warms her, though her appetite wanes after a few bites. She’s pleased when Isaac shyly asks if he can finish the rest.
While he’s distracted, eating, she lets herself look at him more closely. His hair is tousled from sleep, it hangs in his eyes, and she resists the urge to reach out and brush it back. He definitely got Mulder’s nose, she thinks, smiling a little to herself, but it suits him. She recognizes her own eyes, their blue color, startling in its depth, behind long, dark lashes. But more distinctive is their wisdom, the knowledge within is that of a time-weary adult, not a boy of twelve.
As she gazes at him, she realizes with a heavy heart that she could never wish him out of being. That for all the suffering, he is here now, and that is an upside-down blessing.
“What?” He’s caught her watching, and she ducks her head, a flush creeping across her face.
“Sorry, Isaac. I’ve…I’m worried about you,” she confesses, truthfully. “About how you’re holding up, after your mom.”
He goes rigid at the mention of her, and his spoon drops into the last of the oatmeal, forgotten. The remainder forms a thick, tasteless paste on his tongue as guilt turns his stomach, and he struggles to keep the food down, remembering her blackened figure advancing, clawing her way toward him, pulling him down, down, down…
Scully is talking, asking him questions, but her voice is muted background noise. He’s locked in a waking nightmare of memory.
“…is there anything you want to talk about?”
He surfaces, breaking free from the memory’s grasp, giving his head a terse shake. No.
She nods reluctantly. “OK. Well…” she pauses, making a show of wiping her hands on her jeans in carefully masked disappointment, “if you need anything, I’ll be in my tent. I’m going to rest.” She puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder, surprised and inwardly hopeful when he doesn’t flinch away.
She moves to leave, but he stops her. “What did you find out? About me? There were those files, Mulder said…Project Ultimam? I heard you talking. I…I want to know.”
She hesitates, feeling even more out of her element than she thought possible. Isaac may be her son by birth, but she doesn’t know him, doesn’t know how he’ll take this, how much to tell him, how much to hold back. There are no right answers, no logical path to guide her.
It calls up memories of those first weeks after he was born, how every day was built on instinct and prayer, a foundation as delicate as the newborn child she cradled in her arms.
Fragile foundations had always been Mulder’s territory.
She takes a seat beside Isaac again, narrowing her eyes. “Isaac…there are some things you can’t un-learn once you know them. You can’t…take it back,” she says, thinking of her earlier conversation with Mulder. “Can you understand that? I’ll tell you, if you really want…but I need you to show me you understand the implications.”
He nods, eyes burning with an intensity she knows all too well.
He comes by it honestly…
Scully takes a deep breath. “Isaac, you were told you were sick as a child. But you weren’t born with a heart condition. That’s something the doctors made up. Your doctor was part of this project.”
She continues, telling the boy about his genetic anomalies, the other test subjects, carefully maneuvering around his biological origins; she’s beginning to think that particular fact may not have to come out. After all, she rationalizes, he’s been through enough.
He listens to her with rapt attention. “We think,” she finishes, “that your participation in the project was discontinued due to your unique genetics, and now they’re trying to cover it up. They sent that thing to attack you; when it couldn’t get to you directly, it tried to go through your mother,” she says, watching the boy’s face, gauging his reaction.
When he finally speaks, it’s to ask a question she doesn’t expect. “So…it’s not my fault? That she’s dead?”
Her brow furrows. How could he think he was responsible?
“She just kept coming at me, she wouldn’t talk to me, and she…and then—” he’s rambling, frantic, the pitch of his voice wavering higher with each syllable.
“No! Isaac…no, it wasn’t your fault. I saw…well, I don’t know what I saw, but it wasn’t your mom,” she says with sincerity. “That was something pretending to be your mom, but it wasn’t her. You didn’t kill her, Isaac, she was…she was already gone.”
There’s a flicker of relief in his eyes. “They sent it to kill me?”
“We don’t know that for sure. But that’s what I think happened, yes.”
“What does he think?” the boy asks, referring to Mulder.
Scully smiles in spite of herself. “Mulder and I don’t always agree. He has his own theories…”
Isaac goes quiet again, though his face suggests his thoughts are anything but. Anger radiates outward from his slender body, a fine heat against the damp morning chill.
“Isaac…I understand what you’re feeling right now…and it’s normal to be angry, you’ve suffered a major trauma, a loss—”
The line of his jaw tightens, his eyes narrow. “How?” he spits. “How could you know?”
She softens. How odd, that the life she’d once carried inside her, the baby for whom she’d had hopes and dreams, could be so drastically changed by a single decision, a signature on a piece of paper. He has no way of knowing what was taken from her, the anger it created within her so similar to his own.
As much as he is a stranger to her, she is an equal stranger to him.
“I know more than you’d think, Isaac. I lost my sister, a daughter. I lost…many things.” She pauses. “The men who did this to you, the men who killed your mother…they need to be brought to justice. And I need you to trust us so we can make that happen.”
He doesn’t answer, but he doesn’t need to; the look in his eyes, the set of his jaw tells her everything. She watches the fire in front of her without seeing it, too focused on the boy who sits next to her, his own inner fire burning with a newfound rage.