They return to camp well after sunset. Isaac crawls into the tent without a word, leaving Mulder and Scully to stand by the fire in moody silence.
“So, what do we do?” Scully whispers, voice laden with exhaustion.
“I dunno,” Mulder responds, rubbing his face with both hands. “Leave, I guess. Turn ourselves in.”
“What will happen to us, do you think?”
“Skinner will find a way to exonerate us given the circumstances. We’ll be fine.”
“What about Isaac?”
He stares up at the sky as if searching for something. The stars are shimmering pins of light in the crisp night air.
She can remember a particularly difficult time when the stars had reminded her of Mulder, when the thought of their distant light traveling miles through space was a comfort.
Tonight they look cold, sharp, and unforgiving.
“I think…no matter what happens…he has a difficult road ahead of him,” Mulder whispers.
She goes quiet, knowing her partner is right, knowing there’s little they can do for the boy once he’s been surrendered to the authorities.
“What if I adopted him?”
Mulder looks at her sharply, but she sits, pretends to busy herself with the fire, which is already roaring. Her abrupt suggestion hangs between them, awkward and fumbling.
“I’m pretty sure no jury would grant you or I custody of the kid, Scully,” he finally replies, keeping his voice low so as not to disturb Isaac. “We don’t have an exemplary parental track record. At this point, I’m not sure what we have,” he pauses, letting this sink in. She ducks her head, unable to meet his gaze.
“Anyway,” he continues, “we still don’t know for sure if his adoptive parents had a will.”
“I know,” she sighs. “I thought…I don’t know what I thought. I just don’t know what to tell him.”
He considers this carefully, studying her face, the telltale signs of distress in the pinch of her mouth, the furrows in her brow.
He looks over his shoulder at the tent; he can just make out the boy’s shadow in the soft glow of a lantern. “Let’s start by telling him the truth.”
“Scully, I get that you’re scared…but we can’t hide this from him. It’s not right, and you know it.”
She looks at him in disbelief, eyes shining, the tremor in her voice betraying the strength of her words. “Mulder, we can’t…what good would it do? It can’t change the past.”
“No, Scully, but it could change his future. Give him a foundation. We can at least leave him with that much.”
She tries to speak, to protest, to defend herself, but the tears pour out of her like a horrible flood, weakness and regret spilling down her cheeks.
Her emotion only provokes him. “Dammit, Scully. I know you. You’re stronger than this. I can’t watch you lie to him…or to yourself.” He kneels with some difficulty, taking her by the arms, holding them tight, not letting her pull away.
“I fell in love with you because nothing could break you. Not cancer, not losing your daughter, or our son…not even your arrogant jackass of a partner. Don’t let this be the thing that breaks you, the way Samantha almost broke me.”
He lets this linger in the vast space between them, a bridge to bring her back.
Her voice is a whisper. “Mulder…I can’t…” She attempts to wrest herself from his grasp, standing and nearly falling with the effort, but he meets her, maintaining his grip.
“What, Scully? Tell me,” his words are ragged, a desperate challenge.
She opens her mouth, the words fall out of their own accord.
“For giving up our son. For putting us here. I risked our lives, his life…and at what cost?” She wipes at her eyes. “We’re no closer to finding the people responsible, and he’s lost so much…”
Mulder’s grip softens as he begins to understand the weight of her regret. He hooks a finger under her chin, gently tilting her face upward. “Scully, this boy doesn’t need your self-pity. He needs someone he can trust. He needs you. And I…I need you, too…more than anything. I always have, and I always will.”
She shakes her head, closing her eyes, unable to speak. He brushes fresh tears away, willing her to accept this small comfort.
“You have nothing to apologize for, Scully. Nothing.”
The silence settles around them. Mulder feels his pulse at his fingertips, the warm skin of her throat under his hand, hears the soft whisper of her breath.
Please, please don’t let her pull away…
“Scully…look at me,” his voice cracks, pleading.
Her eyes open to him, always to him.
“Did you mean it when you said we were a mistake? Because if you did…I’ll walk away. No questions asked. But you have to be able to look me in the eye and tell me you believe it.”
His request is so honest, so vulnerable, it takes her breath.
She studies his face, familiar after so many years together. The lines around his eyes have deepened, the creases in his brow more pronounced, his temples peppered with gray. He’s weathered, scarred, but still handsome…and still hers.
“No,” she says, softly. “I didn’t mean it, Mulder.”
She reaches out to touch him, her fingers drawn to his brow, across to the scar at his temple, down to the corner of his lips. His eyes close at this simple, intimate gesture as her hand comes around to rest lightly on his cheek. The stubble at his jaw is rough, scratching her palm. He reaches behind her to cup her neck, pulling her close. Their lips touch lightly, and for a moment he fears she’ll turn away.
She doesn’t. The kiss is light, sweet, heartbreaking, making her stomach clench with a warm, pleasurable heat.
His hand comes down to rest on her hip, sliding over it, downward…but then he jerks away, looking down, brow furrowed.
She pulls back in alarm. “What…?”
“Scully…where’s the gun?”
She blinks, her brain foggy from the kiss. Gun?
“Oh! It was here…” she checks the back pocket of her jeans, then the other, but they’re both empty. She looks down and around their feet, around the fire, maybe it fell…
Shit! How could she be so careless?
Mulder’s staring at her, concerned, an uneasy realization setting in. She meets his eyes, but she already knows what he’s thinking.
Mulder stands as quickly as he can, walks over to the tent. “Isaac? You there buddy?”
No response. Scully’s heart beats wildly against her ribs in a panicked throb, the blood in her veins turns to ice.
“Isaac? Coming in…” Mulder says, unzipping the tent flap, but it’s clear the boy isn’t here.
He turns back to his partner, eyes wide. “Do you think he…”
“He heard us,” she says, weakly, confirming their shared fear.
There’s no time to waste. He reaches into the tent to grab the flashlights, tossing one to Scully. “He won’t get far. Come on.”