Mulder eases down onto the stump, cringing. He’s more than overdone it, his leg feels useless, no longer able to bear his weight. The last part of the walk back was a struggle, with Scully volunteering as a human crutch, and their group arrives subdued and beaten for the second time.
He watches as she goes for the first aid kit, shakes out four ibuprofen, placing them in his palm. He pops the pills in his mouth, crunching them to a fine, bitter powder.
“I wish we had ice to take the swelling down,” she frets, grabbing her sleeping bag, unrolling it, wrapping it around Mulder’s shoulders.
“I’ll be fine, Scully. We have other things to worry about,” he murmurs, tilting his head toward the boy, who sits across from him. The intensity in his eyes is as familiar as Mulder’s own reflection, his pale skin translucent in the cold light of a camp lantern. Scully grabs another blanket, unfolding it for him, but he rejects the comfort with a terse shake of his head.
She turns her attention to the fire pit, nursing the abandoned flames back to life, before finally taking a seat next to Mulder.
“So what do you want to know?”
The first question tumbles from his lips without hesitation. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“You don’t,” Scully replies, the best answer she can give. “We’ve shown you everything we have. I have memories…you could read them if you wanted, if it would help.”
If this intrigues him, it doesn’t show. He’s not so easily distracted. “Are you from the project?”
“No! No, nothing like that,” she pauses. “As FBI agents, we uncovered conspiracies like Project Ultimam. We worked to expose them and the men responsible, to bring justice…to find the truth,” She looks at Mulder, but he’s staring into the firelight, dazed. “But I don’t know that we were successful.”
“So what do you want from me, then? Why did you bring me out here?” The boy’s hands are clenched into fists on his knees, trembling slightly. She wishes he’d take the blanket that sits at his feet.
“We want to protect you, Isaac. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
“You don’t want to…to take me?”
She shakes her head. “We wouldn’t try to take you from your family—because they were your family, Isaac. We’re just the…the genetic material,” she whispers. It’s true, as much as it hurts to say it. “I don’t want to replace your mother, or Mulder your father. You have to believe that we had your best interests at heart. We only wanted to make sure you were safe.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
Scully presses her lips together. “I didn’t want to burden you, given everything you’d been through…with the attacks, your mother…but I know now that was a mistake. I should have told you.” She looks him in the eye. “And there’s no excuse, no apology I can offer that would make that right. But I’m sorry.”
He glares at her, the quiet between them stretched taut. “My mom…did she know?”
Scully nods. “I told her who we were shortly before she passed. I hoped she would tell you, but she didn’t have the chance. I think she would have, in time.”
His eyes go cloudy and he looks down, hiding tears, the grief for his lost mother palpable. She wants to reach out to him and hold him, but it would be wrong.
“Why did you give me up?”
Mulder speaks, surprising them both. “Because we were afraid for your life. Our jobs were dangerous, the secrets we uncovered were well-guarded…secrets that were never meant to see the light of day.” His voice rumbles in a soothing monotone. “Things got out of control shortly after you were born. I went into hiding. You were attacked. You were at risk, so Dana made the decision to give you up for protective adoption while I was in hiding.” He looks over at her, swallows. “It was the right decision.”
Isaac frowns. “But I still don’t understand. Why? Why did they come for me?”
Mulder opens his mouth, closes it again, looks at Scully, who’s staring at her hands. Her voice is low and strained when she speaks. “You’ve had your powers since you were born, Isaac. They made you a target. Why you were born this way…that’s harder to explain. I don’t honestly know if I can. But…I can tell you what I know.
“Early on in my career, I was abducted, had experiments and tests performed on me against my will. I was left barren. Do you know what that means?” She looks up at the boy.
“It means you couldn’t have a baby…right?”
She nods, tries to keep her tone clinical and scientific. “They placed a microchip in the back of my neck,” she reaches back, absently fingering the small metal chip just under the skin. “They harvested my ova…used them to create children without my knowledge…genetically altered clones.”
His eyes widen. “Clones…you mean like Project Ultimam?”
“An earlier incarnation of the project,” she agrees. “They were efficient at covering their tracks, burying the evidence. I had a daughter…she would have been your half-sister…but…she didn’t survive.”
Scully ducks her head, and Mulder feels a surreal shift as he watches his partner relive what he knows to be one of her most painful memories. The past is flooding in and they’re powerless to stop it.
She regains her composure after only a few seconds; the onslaught in recent days has left her dry, her reserves have been all but used up.
“Several years later, we investigated a series of abductions. Former abductees were being taken up, and there was concern I would be, too. But Mulder was abducted instead,” she pauses, swallows, finds it difficult to continue. They don’t talk about those days, the darkest ones of all; the months of searching, only to have Mulder returned to her a corpse. She can still recall the feel of cold earth in her hands, the hollow pattering as it fell on his casket after they lowered him into the ground.
“I discovered I was pregnant with you the day he was taken,” her voice drops to a whisper. “It was the best and worst day of my life.”
Mulder places his hand on the small of her back, tracing gentle, reassuring circles.
She continues with a slight smile. “You were a miracle, Isaac. Which made it that much harder to give you up.”
The boy studies her, absorbing what she’s said with an unnatural stoicism. “Is that…is that why I’m…why I can do what I do?”
Mulder clears his throat. “We think…at least I think…that your abilities stem from a combination of genetic mutations, the result of our experiences. We’ve been exposed to a number of unexplainable things, the most damaging of which was a…a virus. An alien virus. We know very little about what it did to us…or to you.”
“Isaac, I don’t want you to think that…that you weren’t wanted,” Scully interjects. “Because you were. And you were loved.”
Her partner nods in silent confirmation, staring at the worn photograph still clutched in Isaac’s hand.
“Had I known what they did…how they used you…” but she can’t finish this thought.
What’s done is done.
Isaac sits, rigid and stone-faced, the silence spiraling out from the core of their small group like a snake choking the life from its prey. Mulder finds himself wishing the boy would speak, even if it’s to scream, to curse at them and tell them how much he hates their guts; anything but silence.
When he finally speaks, it’s without any acknowledgment of what has transpired. “So, uh, what do we do now?”
“We’ll head out at first light. We’ll go to the nearest Bureau branch, turn ourselves in.” A weight feels like it’s lifted off her shoulders at these words.
No more running.
“What will they do to you? Won’t they, you know, arrest you or something?” Isaac asks.
Scully thinks of Skinner and Doggett. “I think our contacts can help us avoid any extreme consequences. Don’t worry about us, though, OK?”
He nods, looks down.
“We’ll stay with you, if you want. But…you’ll be better off in the Bureau’s care.”
If she thought the boy looked mature for his age before, he looks ten years older now.
But at least he knows the truth. I hope that’s enough.
He nods, fidgets, bites at his lip. “Hey, is it OK if I have some, uh, privacy? I need some time…to think.”
Mulder and Scully exchange a look; his hand slides to her back, checking for the gun, reassured to find it tucked into her belt. “Yeah, sure kid. I don’t think Scully will mind if I share her tent tonight. We’ll be here if you need us.”
“K. Well…g’night,” says Isaac without fanfare, already retreating.
“Think he’ll be OK?” Scully whispers, watching the boy’s shadow from the soft glow of the blue tent.
“Kids are resilient, or so I’ve heard,” Mulder replies, putting his arm around her. “I’m not sure ‘finding out your bio-parents gave you telepathy’ is a common milestone, but it can’t be worse than puberty.”
She snorts. They sit in comfortable silence for a few moments, huddled against the air’s bitter chill. The wind has picked up, perhaps signaling an oncoming storm, but Mulder’s arm is warm and solid. She senses a shift, a lightening, as though a dark cloud has lifted.
Maybe the worst is behind us.
Something niggles at the back of her mind, but they’ve been running too long, her thoughts are fuzzy.
“I didn’t know you kept that photo.” There’s no accusation in her words, but a certain expectation lingers. She’s probing for an explanation.
“Yeah. Well.” He sucks in an icy breath, exhales. “Didn’t want to make things harder for you.”
“Since when?” she shoots back, a half smile on her lips. “You’ve spent the last twenty years making life difficult for me, Mulder.”
His smile is broad, then sad; a bulb burning brightly in its last second of life. “I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, Scully…you’ve witnessed a lot of those things,” he pauses, drawing a breath. “But…I could look at him, look at our son, and know that if the rest of the world went to hell today, if I left nothing else behind, I had two things I could be proud of: You…and him.”
She feels her throat close up; maybe her reserves are not completely dry after all. He hugs her to his side until her deep sigh ends their brief reverie.
“It’s late. I’m going to bed.”
“Speaking of sleeping arrangements, kid has my sleeping bag,” Mulder says good-naturedly. “Guess we’ll have to share.”
She cocks an eyebrow. “Why do I get the feeling you aren’t disappointed about that?”
He grins as they make their way to her tent. It’s a tight fit, jackets and all, but soon they’re squeezed into her sleeping bag, limbs entwined. His body is warm against hers, and for the first time in several months, she feels at ease.
Well, somewhat at ease.
They still have to get out of here…and there’s that something, that nagging worry…but it will wait ‘til tomorrow. She snuggles deeper into the covers, letting the rhythm of Mulder’s pulse soothe her. How long has it been since they’ve been this close? Too long. She pulls up her legs slightly, tucking them around his tall frame, eliciting an abrupt yelp from her partner.
“…eeeAHHH! Scully, cold feet! God, woman, it’s a wonder you can walk around on those things.”
She giggles, and it’s the most cheerful sound he’s heard all week, like music, lilting and melodic. She doesn’t pull away.
“I have socks on!”
“Oh, really? Then why does it feel like I have ten little toe-shaped ice cubes between my knees?”
She smirks against his chest, drowsy. “Dunno, Mulder, maybe you need to grow a thicker skin.”
“Evolutionarily speaking, you might be right. Y’know, some cavemen were covered in thick, coarse body hair to protect their skin from sub-zero temperatures. Maybe I need to grow a pelt…”
She snorts against his chest, but she’s used to this, his strange variation on pillow talk. “Gross.”
He smiles. His hand searches for hers under the cover, finds it, entangles their fingers.
“Mmmyeah?” She’s groggy, almost asleep, his lips tickle at her ear.
“It didn’t rain sleeping bags…and I still got lucky.”
Her partner quiets, as does she, and her mind begins its long, spiraling loop into sleep. She’s drifting, lulled by the sound of Mulder’s soft breathing mingled with her own, and the whistle and clack of branches as the trees sway in the wind.
The trees, something about the trees…
She gasps and jerks awake as the nag bleeds through her subconscious and bursts forth.
The trees! The burns, that residue. We’re not alone…they’re watching…
Her mouth goes dry, remembering the piece of charred black bark, still tucked in Mulder’s jacket pocket, now pressed between them, a grim souvenir. Between Isaac’s disappearance and their emotionally fraught conversation, she’d forgotten about Mulder’s discovery in the woods, but now the memory won’t let her sleep. And while the rational part of her, the part she clings to like a life raft in times of duress, tells her it could well be lightning or a fire or even tree beetles, her subconscious knows better.
She believes, because she has seen too many unbelievable things not to.
One night. We just have to make it through one night, and we’ll leave this godforsaken place tomorrow.
This does little to calm her nerves, but she forces herself to relax, to slow her breath and steady her heart, and eventually sleep takes her.