Title: Beating the Darkness Back
Author: Anjou (Anjou@rocketmail.com)
Posting Date: October 2008
Rating: R for language and sexuality; M for Mature readers
Classification: Mulder/Scully, MSR, post-ep for IWTB
Archive: No archival until the story is completed, please. I'll be submitting to Ephemeral and Gossamer myself.
Spoilers: Through I Want To Believe
Disclaimer: All X-Files personnel belong to 1013 and Fox. All other elements are mine.

Summary: Where do we go from here, now that we are free?

Author's Note: Posts can be read on my fic journal, Anjoufic (http://anjoufic.livejournal.com) as well as Ephemeral and other XF fic sites. The whole tale will be archived at my website, No Other (http://the-cave-online.com/anjou/index.html), maintained by the generous dtg, when it is completed. Thanks to Konrad Frye and especially the fabulous Lilydale for not only willingly answering questions about the novelization of "I Want To Believe" that clarified the timeline for this writer, but for being brave enough to have read it in the first place. As always, my biggest thanks go to my sister and editrix, Suzanne, for her support, and above all, her patience.

January 21, 2008

Fox Mulder was a free man. The thought echoed a bit in his head as he pondered it, like it was being said by an old-time baseball announcer. For an instant, he had the urge to shout it aloud to the heavens above their house, but it was late, and Scully was sleeping.

"Free, man." He mouthed the words instead to the uncaring fish a few feet from their bed, then contemplated the walls that had been both his solace and his well-appointed jail cell for the past few years. He had said each word separately, and the cadence of the pause between them reminded him with an ache of Langly, of Frohike, the ghosts of those long lost. He turned away from that unhappy thought to regard Scully as she slept beside him, warm and real, only to find her brow drawn down in worry.

He rolled onto his side and faced her, reaching out to stroke the back of her hand with a finger, moving close enough so that she could feel his breath against her lips. A small sigh escaped her; he watched as her brow unfurled before her hand turned and wrapped around his, drawing him closer. He smiled ruefully at her unconscious gesture, recognizing that the events of the past two weeks had unsettled her more than she wanted to admit. Still, he could not help but feel pleased by her desire to keep him near, to know that he was beside her, even while she was alone in sleep. He placed his other hand at the hollow of her waist, and watched her dream.

The years of isolation had not been easy for Scully, not by a long shot. Although she'd had far more interaction with the outside world than he'd had, the nature of her long requalification, first in pediatrics and then in neurosurgery, had been rather solitary. Her first year in the area she'd spent largely alone, reestablishing herself in society after she'd returned to Washington and resigned from the FBI. She'd had to steadfastly maintain that she had no idea where he was, and after a year had passed without her doing anything more interesting than continuing her education, the surveillance on her had mostly ceased.

Still, the nearly two years that they'd been apart, except for their brief reunion while they were on the run, had taken their toll on both of them. Scully had become, not exactly embittered, but deeply, viscerally angry at everything that they'd lost. Essentially, all they had left was each other - her resignation from the FBI had further fractured the already brittle relationship with her brothers when she would not repudiate her traitorous partner. She still spoke with her mother, but that relationship had become more distant than it had previously been. Like William, Mulder had become a subject that Scully did not speak of with anyone other than him. By the time Mulder had quietly moved into their house, Margaret Scully had moved to the West Coast to be closer to her sons and grandchildren. Invitations to visit had been issued to Scully with some regularity, at least at first, but it seemed all parties had become resigned to the fact that they would not be accepted. She would not leave Mulder, and she could not tell them that, nor did she care to defend her choices to her brothers, or the world at-large.

He knew that she'd lost her ability to play nice with others over the course of that year after she'd left the FBI. Back then, the NSA or some other unnamed MIBs were likely to show up to interrogate her in the middle of the night, or to subject her to yet another pointless search of the small apartment that she'd had at the time. It had cost Mulder a great deal of money to get the government off Scully's back -- civil rights attorneys at the level necessary to make an impression on the Bush era Justice Department weren't cheap -- but he would have spent twenty times that amount to get her free from the harassment. Money he had, most of it ill-gotten from his erstwhile father's activities, and he was not above savoring the irony of the Consortium paying for its own sins to be remedied. It was fitting.

Still, he ached to think about the humiliation she'd endured, and knew that her stoic nature meant that there were some things that she'd never told him in all their gory detail. His ready imagination, the one that could understand the minds of killers and other deviant thinkers, was perfectly capable of filling in the gaps, however, and it accounted her newfound inability to suffer fools gladly as a toll of that experience.

Dana Scully had never been the kind of person who wanted to lie about anything, but their secrets required a certain reticence, particularly because of their son. All of this had combined to make her more than particularly wary, and had probably made her more of an outcast at work than she would have otherwise been. After completing the required coursework at VCU Medical School, her only match for a residency had been at Our Lady of Sorrows. It was clear that she had been blackballed professionally; the Justice Department had never found anything to link her to Mulder breaking out of jail, but that didn't mean they were letting go of the search.

Scully had accepted the match and bought their little house in the country with its vast open acreage, miles of electrified fence and handy surveillance cameras. The first time the MIBs showed up there, they were filmed breaking and entering, and the Justice Department was threatened with exposure. Mulder's lawyers had warned that if the harassment continued that they had a sympathetic reporter who could make it seem like the Justice Department was needlessly harassing a former Federal Agent whose only crime was changing her career. It took two more visits for them to back off entirely. The last time they'd showed up, the county Sheriff, who was not a friend of the Federal government, was waiting on their property with a shotgun, a few deputies and a camera crew. A month later, on a moon-dark and stormy night just before the weather turned brutally cold, Mulder had moved from the tiny cabin built into the side of the gentle hill at the back of the property into their house. And there, he'd pretty much remained while Scully completed her residency and began her fellowship.

The MIBs hadn't been back to their house, although they had continued to poison the well for Scully at her job by showing up every once in a while. In a post-9/11 world, such open government surveillance gave rise to dark rumors of what her possible crimes could be. A lesser woman would have buckled under the pressure a long time ago, but Dana Scully was made of sterner stuff than her most recent set of tormentors. Besides, she'd survived far worse, and he knew it.

Still, the experience had made her far more apt to speak her opinions forcefully than she'd done in years past, an impulse he understood. When you've already been judged by people as suspicious, or perhaps a traitor, there's not much lower to go in their opinions. So, why hold back? Even so, he had been a bit surprised to note how fast she was to jump on Father Joe -- almost from the instant of their introduction to him -- as much as he had relished seeing that fire from her. The thing was, he wanted to see that sparkle in her eye from something other than anger or raw determination. He longed to see it there because of happiness, or delight, in fact.

And now that he was a free man, for the first time there was a possibility that he could give her back some of the things that she deserved -- even the simple things, like taking her out to dinner in a nice restaurant. It was impossible for him to believe, after all the meals that they'd eaten together in almost fifteen years, but there was only one occasion that he could remember that truly fit that criteria. It had been in that sweet pocket of time before all Hell broke loose, after she'd come to his bed that first night, and before he went into the woods with Walter Skinner. She'd been called to give evidence on a case that she'd consulted on in New York City, and he'd been unable to resist the lure of ditching work and joining her. They'd gone to a fancy bistro on the Upper West Side, a restaurant with ridiculous prices and a wine list that boggled the mind with its complexity.

Mulder could close his eyes and conjure the memory of them lingering over that meal, him feeding her bites of the dessert that she'd claimed not to want or need, but that she'd savored anyway. They'd been seated at a center table in the restaurant, just like any other couple out on a date. She'd looked gorgeous in the candlelight, her hair still sleek and tamed into a bob, the color brighter than it was now. All the stresses and strains of worrying about her testimony or whether or not they might be observed had been wiped away by the good food and the wine. The hand not feeding her bites of something sinful and chocolate was wrapped lightly around her clever fingers as she twirled her wineglass, head cocked at him with just a hint of a smile on her lips, but more important and true, in her eyes.

Of course, she knew what he was about, and had shaken her head at him for placing her on display. But he'd been proud to show her off, wanted to see the appreciative looks on the faces of the other men who'd only see her beautiful exterior, without knowing how complex and real she was underneath the smooth, seeming impassivity of her serene visage. They had no idea, would never, because she was his, as impossible as it was for him to believe sometimes. After all, he'd belonged to her long before she was willing to even entertain such an idea about him. But in the end, it didn't really matter who'd gotten there first, who'd loved longest, as long as she was beside him, dreaming in their bed.

Mulder lay curled on his side now, watching her, knowing that he had to be careful not to wake her with his regard. Her exhaustion was bone deep; she needed her sleep. He wanted to wipe the expression of worry off her brow for more than one evening. When he'd said to her that they'd go away someplace, just the two of them, he'd seen the heat in her glance as she looked up at him, assessingly. He'd put his finger right on the thing she'd wanted when he proposed that idea.

Smoothing a finger over her brow lightly, he contemplated the possibilities: Paris, Tuscany, maybe a spa in some mountain aerie. He shook his head. No. They'd had enough snow to last them for quite a while, and a city full of great art would inspire the need to get out and sightsee in Scully, and that kind of a hectic vacation was not what she needed. Although, if he took her to Paris, she could buy her body weight in shoes, and that would definitely make her happy. Still ... he pictured her languishing on a chaise under a huge beach umbrella and smiled at the picture of her he'd drawn. She looked beautiful, and it wasn't just because he'd clad her in a bikini in his imagination. She looked like she'd shed years of worry. He nodded, picking up a strand of her hair and feeling the silk of it running through his fingers. The beach. That was what they needed.

Pleased with his plan, Mulder fell asleep dreaming of holding Scully over his heart as they lazily rocked in a hammock, warm, soft breezes of fragrant air swirling around them and ruffling the trees of their tropical paradise for two.

When Mulder came to consciousness again, the long wave of Scully's hair was gleaming in the weak winter light of the new day. She was seated next to him on their bed, fully dressed, her hand on his cheek while she smiled at him apologetically for waking him.

"So early, Scully?" he rasped out.

She nodded ruefully, "I want to see if I can spend a little time in the lab today, aside from everything else."

He nodded, yawning, scrubbing at his eyes, while she traced his lips with her fingertips. "You want breakfast before you go?"

She bent over and kissed him, her fingertips lingering against his cheeks. His beard had grown out again to the point where it was no longer bristly, although it was still coarse, he had to admit. Scully kissed him softly again, shaking her head. "I'm not hungry yet," she admitted, then hastened to add, "but I will get something at the hospital."

In the past, he might have been satisfied with that answer, but he knew from recent personal experience that the food at Our Lady of Sorrows was bad enough to make the dead cry.

She smiled at his scowl. "Yogurt they can provide, Mulder," she said. "What are your plans for today?" Her fingers lightly grazed over his wounds, almost completely healed.

"Depends on the weather," he answered her. "But I'm thinking I've got to get after that ice in the gutter before it makes a dam and we're screwed."

She shook her head, "Mulder, I'm not sure you should be up on the ladder yet ... " she began. "You had ... "

"A concussion, Scully," he said, "and not even a bad one at that, according to the doctors at your fine medical establishment." He rapped his skull. "Hard as a rock -- you know that." He kept talking when she seemed about to interrupt. "It's been more than a week, Scully," he said firmly. "I'm fine. I'll call you every couple of hours and leave you a voicemail, how's that?"

She sighed, her expression revealing that she knew she was being managed, and that she didn't like it, not one bit.

"I'll be fine," he said to her softly. "Promise."

She pressed her forehead against his and took in a breath that was a little shaky from his perspective, but she nodded. "Deal," she said softly, but then added. "On one condition."

He waited for it.

"You shave today."

He laughed, then realized that she was serious. "Scully, my face is still pretty bruised and cut up," he said incredulously. "It'll hurt," he affected a pout.

"That's the deal, Mulder," she said crisply, standing up and smoothing her long jacket. "Besides, you always said that you'd only go caveman once a winter, remember? This year's option has been used. Shave."

"You threatening me, Scully?" he teased. "Gonna stop shaving again?"

She huffed and clomped over to the bureau in her impossibly high heels to put in her earrings. "You promised, Mulder," she reminded him. Their eyes met in the mirror as he sat up to watch her give her hair one last brushing before she left.

"You're still upset that it didn't bug me, aren't you?" he asked her.

She ignored him, and crossed the room on her way to the door, trying to get by him without incident. He waited for his moment and pounced, sweeping her into his arms and then rolling her over so that she was trapped underneath him. "You could be as furry as a Yeti, and you'd still be the sexiest thing on two stilettos," he murmured, pressing his face into her neck as he covered her skin with tiny kisses.

She yelped and wriggled underneath him, trying to dislodge him. He made sure to stay out of the way of her vicious little feet.

"Mulder!" She pinched above his nipple when he wouldn't let go of her.

"Ow!" He bit her shoulder through her jacket, and she struggled below him, trying not to giggle. "Kiss," he said.

"No," she said, turning her head.

"Kiss ... " he sang to her in a firm but silly tone. He waggled his fingers at her from where they were poised above her ribs, and almost lost her when she took advantage of his one-armed hold. He trapped her under his body and raised his hand again.

"No," she choked out, giggling already at the idea of being tickled.

"Kiss," he said to her sadly, making it seem like he would really regret tickling her. He hovered above her until she leant up and gave him a tiny peck. "OK, now, a real kiss, spoilsport."

"I already kissed you a bunch of times today," she mumbled, "and you are totally messing up my hair."

Mulder raised his eyebrow mockingly. "Yes, it will look terrible when you pull it up in that weird half-ponytail," he said in a tragic tone. "You won't look at all like the most beautiful woman to ever walk the halls of Our Lady of Sorrows."

"Well ... " Scully said agreeably. She put her arms around his neck and pulled him down to her, kissing him thoroughly. "That's not really that difficult, actually," she pointed out, then used a combination of her pelvic muscles and his distraction to heave him off of her as she stood and straightened her clothes.

When he reached for her again, she skittered out of reach to the doorway.

"Shave," she said to him pointedly. "And call me. I'll be home as soon as I can." She smiled and disappeared down the stairs as he flopped back down onto their disarranged bed, listening to the clip clopping of her high heels until they crossed the porch below their room.

He sighed, and closed his eyes as the sound of her car receded and silence descended on their house. He should probably get up anyway. He got up and fed the fish, then regarded himself in the mirror, running his hand over his nascent beard and then his chest. He raised an arm and made his bicep stand up while he critically regarded himself. His torso still looked pretty good, not gym hard anymore, but pretty good, especially considering the limited opportunities he had to exercise. Still ... he leaned in to look at his chin closely. There were more strands of white than he wanted to admit to, gleaming in the morning light. He was getting old. He sighed at the thought.

Maybe shaving wasn't such a bad idea, after all.

It was nearing midday when Mulder heard the honking from the locked front gate. He shaded his eyes, looking over the roofline down their long drive, surprised to see Walter Skinner at the open SUV window. Being Skinner, he didn't wave at Mulder, just kind of grimaced in his general direction. To say that Mulder was surprised to see Skinner was a bit of an understatement -- but he felt only minor apprehension at the sight. He was a free man now, wasn't he?

He backed down the ladder carefully, dropping the rake he'd been using to ineffectually chip away at the ice and snow on the roof onto the ground. He should have gotten up on the ladder earlier in the week. The ice had already begun to dam. He opened his phone and checked for calls as he ambled down the long drive, his other hand fishing in his pocket for the keys. Luckily, they were there and not in the pocket of the coat he'd left on the porch. The morning sun was stronger than he'd first anticipated, and combined with the effort of trying to break the ridge of icy snow on the roof without destroying the shingles, he'd worked up a bit of a sweat. He noted that he had three missed calls -- one from Scully, one from his lawyer's office, and one from an unidentified number that began with the DC area code. He assumed the latter was Skinner.

"You don't answer your phone anymore?" Skinner asked acerbically when he got in shouting distance.

Mulder gestured backwards toward the house. "I was focusing on not falling off the ladder, most of the time," he said. He walked over to the lock. "Are you coming in?"

"With your permission," Skinner said.

Mulder squinted, hearing a bit of a sarcastic edge in Skinner's tone. "Permission granted," he said lightly, pulling the heavy gate back and away from Skinner's SUV and then closing and locking it behind him.

"Expecting company?" Skinner asked as Mulder walked up to meet him.

"We haven't had many welcome guests," Mulder said. "Actually, I'm not sure we've ever had any." He paused, watching Skinner as he took in their house, and all the land around it. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

Skinner's jaw tightened. "I have some paperwork for you, Mulder."

"Oh," Mulder said, taking in Skinner's expression. "I'm not sure that I should accept any paperwork from you without talking to David."

Skinner's jaw tightened even more exponentially. "Your lawyer is a real pain in the ass, Mulder."

Mulder smiled, pleased. "That's why I pay him the big bucks," he said. He motioned Skinner toward the porch. "Why don't you come inside while I check my messages?" He smiled as he listened to Scully, hurriedly checking in before she went into Grand Rounds. He checked his watch -- she wouldn't be out for another hour.

David's familiar, brash voice spilled into his ear before he could turn the volume down, "Mulder, David Truesdale," the message began. "Your former boss insists on personally delivering all of the items I've requested for re-establishing your freedom. I've told him that if I hear even a murmur from you that this visit was unwelcome, or in any way resembled a hunting expedition on behalf of the FBI, the NSA, or any other acronym-wielding bunch of assholes, that I will personally make it my life's goal to impoverish him to such a degree that his dead grandparents will wish they'd never gotten off the boat in the first place. I've faxed you the checklist of what you should be receiving from him. Call me." The message cut off, as all David's did, without warning.

Mulder smiled and saved the message so that Scully could hear it later as he walked to the office door, pausing before he opened it. "I'll be just a minute," he said. "Take a seat." He slid into the office, closing the door behind him, then found the fax while he listened to Skinner's message.

"It's Skinner," his former boss said. "I'm on my way to bring you all of the paperwork that was promised to you. I'll be there in an hour or less." The message ended without a goodbye, and Mulder pictured Skinner flinging the phone onto the passenger seat.

When he returned to the living room, Skinner was still standing, although he appeared to be looking around curiously at their belongings. "Nice place," he said gruffly.

Mulder tilted his head, and regarded Skinner. "We like it," he said. "We have a lot of privacy." He paused. "So, just felt like taking a drive down to greater Richmond?"

"I didn't feel that this," Skinner gestured to the manila envelope in his hand, "was something that should be trusted to the mail, or a courier." He held the item out to Mulder.

"Trust no one," Mulder said softly, taking the envelope. He turned it over in his hands, feeling the objects inside slide around. He looked up at Skinner. "Thank you."

Skinner looked irritated. "Don't thank me, Mulder. I should have gotten you off those bogus charges." He pulled off his glasses, and rubbed the bridge of his nose, continuing on, "I shouldn't have lost you in the woods in the first place."

Mulder shook his head. "Sir," he said sharply, "there isn't a thing that you could have done to prevent either of those things from happening."

Skinner sighed, but didn't answer, other than shaking his head in a crisp negative gesture.

"Seriously," Mulder continued. "They were determined to get rid of me," he said. "and as to losing me ... " Now it was Mulder that sighed. "I spent a lot of years trying to re-write history. I'd hate to see you do that to yourself." He gestured toward the kitchen with the envelope. "Come in and have a cup of coffee."

Skinner looked at him suspiciously. "You make coffee, Mulder?"

"It's an X-File," he said, "but not as much of an X-File as when I taught myself to bake."

Skinner's eyebrows were still at his former hairline when Mulder turned around from setting up the coffee maker. Skinner seemed to be focused on the huge MixMaster on the counter of their small kitchen.

Mulder laughed at his expression. "It's not like there are any Starbuck's or bakeries out here," he said. "If I wanted something, I had to figure out how to get it."

"Are you any good?" Skinner asked skeptically.

"Scully's really the better baker," Mulder conceded. "It turns out there are all sorts of rules for baking, and well ... you know how I like to improvise."

Skinner rolled his eyes and sat down at the table. Now, his attention seemed fixed on the front of their refrigerator, which featured a grocery list written in Scully's neat handwriting. Next to it, in a magnetic frame, was a picture of William at nearly a year, his sweet baby face wreathed in a smile.

Mulder purposefully looked down at the manila envelope on the counter. He didn't want to discuss William with anyone other than Scully. Some losses were too deep and too personal to be shared, even with someone as intimately involved in the whole business as Skinner. He turned around and spilled the contents of the envelope onto the table, drawing Skinner's attention away from William and back to the present. The envelope yielded a sheaf of papers, some letter-sized envelopes, and surprisingly, a passport and a Virginia driver's license. He reached out and grabbed them both at the same time. "I thought you were just clearing the way for these to happen," he said.

Skinner shook his head. "I figured it was better that I get them done myself, rather than risk them trying to jerk you around. As it is, I'm pretty sure that you should keep a copy of your exoneration with you when you venture out into the world. I'm sure your face is still on the wall at more than a few post offices."

Mulder raised his head from contemplating the picture that Skinner had used of him, his last from the bureau. It seemed a lifetime ago. "I thought that David said ... "

"Oh, David says a lot of things!" Skinner snapped. "But you worked for the Federal government for a long time, Mulder. Just because an order to take down your photo has been issued to the USPS doesn't mean every post office is going to follow it. Use your head."

Mulder hid a smile as he turned to pour their coffee, handing Skinner his black coffee and the bowl of sugar. He crossed to the refrigerator and added milk to his own before he sat down, his back to the picture of William. "So ... you and David talk on the phone a lot."

"Where exactly did you find that bulldog, Mulder?" Skinner asked him. "He doesn't seem like an Oxford boy, and, as far as I can tell, he doesn't come from Massachusetts, but he defends you like his long-lost brother."

Mulder nodded. "Yeah, he's a good guy. You met him once before, a long time ago." He picked up an envelope from the pile and turned it over. "Craddock Marine Industrial," he said aloud. "Oh, my bank account is finally unfrozen? And just how much are they going to take in fees and taxes, I wonder ... " he read the statement. "Son of a bitch!" He glared at Skinner.

"It's not like you really need that money, Mulder," Skinner said shortly.

Mulder tried to tamp down his very sincere irritation at the evidence of the institutional pilfering in front of him. "I earned that money," he said softly. "Every fucking penny of it."

Skinner sighed, and turned the sugar spoon over in his fingers. "I know, Mulder," he conceded grudgingly. "There was nothing I could do for you there. I freely admit that I'm powerless against the IRS." He paused. "They probably scare Truesdale. And where, exactly, did I meet Truesdale?"

Mulder looked up at him. "In Pennsylvania," he said. "At the Ruskin Dam."

Skinner looked at him with dawning understanding. "Who?"

"His fiancee."

Skinner nodded, his expression grim.

"After I was taken, and came back," Mulder paused to sip his coffee. "David called me again. He wanted to know if there was any possibility that Caroline was still alive, as I'd been."

"Jesus, Mulder," Skinner said feelingly. "That was years later."

Mulder shook his head. "For some of us, there is only one," he said quietly. "David had become involved in MUFON to some degree, but couldn't accept that what had happened to me was different. He got the order of exhumation, and ... well, there was no happy ending. But we became ... not exactly friends, but ... "

"Comrades in arms," Skinner said with understanding. "I'm amazed that his firm allowed him to take you on."

"It's not pro bono," Mulder said shortly. "Besides, Caroline worked at David's firm, too. She was the niece of one of the senior partners. Like David, he has never accepted that he was told the truth about what happened."

Skinner nodded, and turned his coffee cup by the handle. "What are you going to do now, Mulder? Now that you're a free man?"

Mulder tipped his chair backwards, balancing on just two legs. "I don't know," he said.

Skinner hesitated, and Mulder could see the interior struggle as it played out across Skinner's only subtly changing visage. "You had only two more years until you qualified for a full pens -"


"Maybe you shouldn't dismiss it out of hand -" Skinner tried again.

"No," Mulder said. "She'll never go back to the FBI, and I won't go back without her. Besides ... " he gathered his thoughts, thinking of Scully's face when he woke up in the hospital this last time, the way that she'd been reaching for him in her sleep all week, how she'd confessed that she couldn't sleep well without him anymore, even when her exile from their bed had been self-imposed. "I promised. And, even more than that, I think that there has to be something else, some reason why this all happened now."

"Like what?" Skinner asked. It was clear he was mystified.

"I don't know," Mulder said. He wasn't troubled in the least by the lack of clarity. "I've watched Scully struggle to requalify as a pediatrician, to re-establish herself in a career, and it's made me think. I think she had her own reasons for doing what she did -" and he wasn't about to explain his thoughts on Scully's need for expiation to Skinner, "and it's been really hard, really challenging at an elemental level. You know, a lot of what we did for all those years was dragging the monsters out of the darkness into the light, and now, what Scully does, trying to save those sick kids, it's like she's trying to shine a light into the darkness instead." He bit his lip, looking at Skinner, who looked puzzled. "I know, it's just the matter of perspective that's changed, but I wonder if that's what I need to do now, too. I lived in that darkness for a long time, with the monsters. I just ... I don't want to live there anymore."

"On some level, I think I understand what you're saying, Mulder," Skinner said. "I just can't believe that you're not going to try and do something about ... " Skinner waved his hand at the calendar.

"I didn't say that I wasn't," Mulder said. "Money's good for more than lawyers, you know." He smirked. "I just ... there are other considerations for me now."

Skinner nodded. "If you change your mind ... "

Mulder shrugged in a way that he hoped conveyed that this wasn't going to happen.

The kitchen fell to silence.

"So, what have you been doing with yourself besides baking?" Skinner asked.

Mulder laughed. "I actually became a pretty good cook," he said.

Skinner smirked.

"And I re-learned how to play the piano ... " he added. Wrote some books, he thought. Sold them and made decent money, but made a lot more investing the money he'd inherited, which he'd liquidated the year he spent away from Scully and William. He'd used that, in turn, to fund some secret projects, Scully's education - this house. "And this place has always needed a lot of help." He stood and circled the table, putting his empty cup in the sink.

"Is that how you've stayed in shape?" Skinner asked curiously, handing his cup over.

"We've got a lot of land," Mulder said. "When the weather's better, I run. In the winter ... " he made a face. "Scully bought me a treadmill."

Skinner looked around their crowded first floor with a puzzled expression on his face.

"Cellar," Mulder said. "Don't tell her, but I hate it. It makes me feel like a hamster, and frankly, too much of my life has been an exercise in futility. I've got a heavy bag, and a lighter one that Scully uses." He decided not to mention the yoga DVDs that Scully had bought and insisted that they use. He'd learned a lot from those programs, in fact. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"What were you trying to do on the roof with the rake?"

"Oh," Mulder sighed. "The gutter's full of ice and it's built a dam that's creeping up under the shingles."

"Do you have any idea what you're doing up there?" Skinner was decidedly skeptical. "I mean, a rake?"

"I am actually from New England, you know," Mulder asserted. Off Skinner's continuing dubious expression, he said, "Listen, I can watch "This Old House" with the best of them. And you're supposed to use a rake to pull the snow off the roof - it's too easy to damage the shingles with a shovel."

"Ah," Skinner said.

"Unfortunately, I needed to get up there and rake that snow off the roof about two snowstorms ago -- it's frozen solid from the gutter to the window," Mulder said. He smiled. "And Scully's going to kill me when she sees what they recommend next."

Skinner looked intrigued, rather than worried at his pronouncement.

~* ~

It was full dark by the time Skinner dropped him at Our Lady of Sorrows Hospital, leaving him with a nod as he drove off, his phone already pressed to his ear. Mulder watched Skinner drive away and wondered if the visit had been about more than delivering the papers, more than Skinner's desire to see if he might consider coming back to the FBI. He shook his head and turned, walking into the hospital. Skinner had confirmed that it was he that he had given the casefiles to the ill- fated Dakota Whitney. It was clear that he felt some guilt about having done so, and in that, at least, he and Skinner were united. Mulder sighed as he passed the admissions desk in the dimly lit foyer of the hospital and walked the long connecting corridor to the wing that housed pediatrics. He'd had years away from the death and ruin of his daily caseload at the FBI, but in the end, it seemed it hadn't been long enough.

He paused outside the entrance to the small ward where Christian Fearon lay sleeping, looking around furtively for Scully. She had no idea that he'd snuck downstairs to see Christian when he'd been admitted overnight for observation, that he felt compelled to see this boy with whom she felt such a connection. His first sight of the pale boy with the scar on his head, his thick lashes tangled as he slept, his mouth hanging slightly open, had caused his heart to turn over in his chest. Mulder saw that Christian could have easily passed for their child, even if he was older and more fair skinned than William, or the way Mulder had imagined him to look.

Long before there was even a possibility of William, Mulder had dreamt of a boy on a beach. Now, whenever he revisited that beach in his dreams -- and he did so, every few weeks -- that boy was William, and together they built huge sandcastles, and not always space ships. William, the real William, the child he hadn't seen since he was two days old, would be seven soon, when the spring finally came after this interminably cold winter. Christian had to be at least two years older. He'd only seen Christian once with his eyes open, and even hearing his slow, slurred speech had done nothing to dispel the familiarity of the child's appearance.

Today, however, Christian was not alone. A red-headed woman sat at his bedside, holding his hand as she looked at the child with worry and love. It wasn't his redhead, but a younger woman, petite but on a larger scale than Scully, aged beyond her years by her child's struggle to live. He looked around, wondering if he would see himself in Christian's father, only to find himself being watched territorially by a tall, almost gaunt younger man walking rapidly toward the ward.

"Can I help you?" he asked Mulder, stepping into the doorway and effectively blocking Mulder's entrance to the area.

"I was looking for Dr. Scully," Mulder said quietly.

"Oh," Christian's father said apologetically. "I'm sorry, I don't know where she is. I'm just getting here." His eyes were the same dark blue as the boy's, but ringed by lack of sleep, rather than illness.

Mulder imagined that he worked as a laborer somewhere, rising early and then driving to the hospital after a long day. He smiled and nodded at him, taking care to maintain the distance between them. "No problem," he said, pulling out his phone. "I'll just call her. Thank you."

He stepped away from the door of the ward and retreated down the hall a bit, watching while the younger man greeted his wife with a kiss, and then bent to kiss his sleeping son with a tenderness that made Mulder's heart ache. He didn't know how Scully did it, day after day, facing parents terrified at having to meet with a pediatric neurologist. She was incredibly strong, as always, but motivated by so many intricate impulses from their shared past. Those parents would never understand how much of her desire to aid them came from her own deeply felt pain. They would only see the compassion in her eyes, the reserve. They'd never know what it cost her to retain her seeming neutrality in the face of their overwhelming need for her skills. Just watching Christian's parents, seeing the mixture of anxiety and hope on their faces as they looked at their child, was so intimate that he had to close his eyes against the sight. Instead, he listened to Scully's phone ring and anticipated the healing balm of her voice, as he leant back against the wall.

"Hey you," Scully said warmly in his ear.

He smiled, and said, "Guess where I am right now?"

"Guess what you're wearing right now?" she teased. "Are you still playing that old game, Mulder?"

"Only with you," he murmured, then opened his eyes because he felt himself being watched. A young blonde doctor with sharp features regarded him with open interest as she made her way down the hallway to the children's ward. He turned his back to her as she passed him by, knowing without looking that she was checking out the rear view. Maybe he hadn't been outside in a long time, but he was reasonably certain that women had not been so bold when he was younger.

"I'll tell you where you better not be," Scully said, unaware of where his thoughts had gone.

He pushed away from the wall, and began walking toward her office. "Where's that?" he asked.

"Up on that roof when it's dark out," she said firmly.

"Hmm," he said to her in his best 'I'm just proposing a theory' conversational tone, "what if I told you that I was stuck to the gutter?"

"Mulder!" she said, with some feeling. "You aren't serious?"

He heard his knock on her office door echo oddly through the phone.

"Hold on a minute," she said.

He listened as her heels crossed the floor, both on the phone and off. He stood out of sight as she opened the door. "Boo," he said, leaning around the door jamb and snapping his phone shut.

"Mulder!" she said, in surprise. She pulled him into the office hurriedly and shut the door as if she still had to hide him, her phone pressed against her ear.

He bent down and kissed her, taking her phone and dropping it into her lab coat pocket as he backed her up against her desk. "Hi," he said when he drew away, still holding her face in his hands.

"Hi," she whispered back. "What are you doing here?" She reached up and stroked the hair back from his brow. "Not that I'm unhappy to see you, but ... "

He pulled a small laminated rectangle out of his jacket and handed it to her.

She took it with a puzzled expression on her face. "Is this a letter?" she asked. "Reduced and lamina-" her breath caught. "Mulder, is this a copy of your exoneration?"

He smiled at her excitement, watching as she turned and shoved the small placard under the lamp, fumbling for the glasses in her pocket, then reading the words under her breath.

"Mulder!" She turned and flung her arms around his neck.

"Skinner came for a visit today," he murmured into her hair.

She was practically jumping up and down in his arms, but stopped and drew back at his words. "Oh ... " she said.

He nodded. "He brought many gifts," he said, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket. He flashed his license like it was the ID in his old FBI billfold and she grabbed at it greedily, still holding the laminated letter in her other hand.

"This picture's almost a decade old," she murmured, tracing his face.

"I can still pass as me, though, right?" he asked.

She held the wallet up next to his head, eyebrow cocked, considering him teasingly. "I guess," she said slowly.

He pouted as she giggled.

"Did Skinner want anything for his gifts?" she asked.

He could see how apprehensive she was about his answer. "Maybe," he said, "but I told him 'no' before he could even make a real offer."

Her blue gaze was troubled as she regarded him. "Is that really what you want?" she asked quietly.

He shook his head in exasperation. She was such a contrarian. "Yes," he said firmly. "I meant what I said."

Her expression relaxed. She looked at the documents in her hand again. "Did David ask him to shrink down your exoneration and laminate it like this? It's barely legible."

Mulder laughed, "Believe it or not, that was Skinner's addition to David's checklist. You know how he worries. I think that if he could somehow tattoo it on me, he'd have it done."

Scully looked like that was an idea worth considering.

"No, Scully," he said firmly. "We are a one tattoo family."

She grimaced.

"Besides," he bent over her suggestively, and she stared up at him, her breath coming a little more deeply, "you know how I hate needles." He tipped forward just a bit more and caught her mouth with his, kissing her with intention, letting her know how he wanted this evening to end. He broke away from her, pressing his forehead against hers. "I say that we go out and celebrate," he said. "Let's go someplace nice and have dinner, just be ... like anyone else."

She shook her head. "No, let's be just like us," she said. She kissed him, and slipped her hand inside his coat, placing his wallet and the exoneration letter in his breast pocket. Her hands pressed against his chest, feeling the fine wool of the dark green cashmere sweater that he'd worn, knowing that she loved it. "I know just the place."

Mulder looked around the upscale diner, a bit startled that of all the places she could have chosen, that this was what Scully had picked. The diner had been restored lovingly, from its octagonal tiled floor to the art deco brushed nickel clock over the counter. The booths along the outside walls were dark red, with coat hooks like antlers springing up between them. The tables were covered with red and white checked cloths, but at the back of each booth was that same upright chrome topped napkin dispenser that he'd seen in innumerable places in years past. Still, the lighting was set lower than the diners of his memory, and there were tiny candles in glass globes on the table, adding to the cozy, cheery mood. He hung his winter coat over Scully's and turned to see her seated very happily with her menu already open. Her feet were crossed at the ankle, and she was smiling as she perused her choices. Mulder decided right then that it didn't matter if the food here was even worse than what could be had at Our Lady of Sorrows, so long as Scully was smiling like that.

He sat down opposite her, sliding his own feet out and around hers, then crossing his ankles behind them so that her legs were resting inside. She hummed a little and adjusted her seat, moving so that her feet were actually laying atop his, then looked up at him, blue eyes sparkling. "The meat loaf is supposed to be really good here," she said brightly.

"Meat loaf?" Mulder said in disbelief. "You're advocating for me to eat red meat?"

"It's turkey," she said warmly. "And I was thinking of getting it myself."

Mulder opened his menu. There was an array of comfort foods listed including potpies, stews, and hot sandwiches, and hardly a salad in sight. He quirked an eyebrow. "And what else would you recommend, Dr. Scully?"

"I've never eaten here before, Mulder," she said, and there was something in her tone that made him look over at her. She fiddled with her silverware, not looking at him.

He jiggled her feet to keep her talking, a method he'd perfected after years of her dozing off on him, sometimes while she was in mid- sentence.

"I just ... " she looked around the restaurant, but before she could finish her thought, was interrupted by the waitress.

"Can I get you folks something to drink?" she asked pleasantly. She was older, wearing the kind of waitressing uniform that had gone out of vogue during Mulder's childhood, with an apron around her waist.

"Do you have Shiner Bock?" Mulder asked.

"Sure thing, honey," she said in that warmly unaffected way of Southern women. "One for you too, honey?" she asked Scully.

"Just water," Scully answered.

Now it was Mulder who smiled at her, wagging a finger. "What makes you think ... " he began, but Scully silenced him with a tilt of her head and an eloquent eyebrow.

After the waitress left to get their drinks, Mulder turned his head to look at his menu. "You were saying ... " he prompted. He knew that Scully was more likely to talk to him if he wasn't looking directly at her just at this moment. He watched, from the corner of his eye, as her hand played with the salt shaker at the end of the table.

"It didn't seem right for me to come in here without you," she said quietly. "I always thought that you'd like it here," she shrugged, lowering her head as Mulder raised his. "Eating here without you seemed like it was ... "

"Disloyal?" Mulder supplied, as he watched her searching for a word.

"Giving up," she said softly. "If I ate here alone, that would be like saying that you were never going to be free."

Mulder closed his menu and reached across the table for her hands. He pulled the left one up to his mouth. "Thank you for not giving up, Scully," he said, and then kissed her knuckles.

"Never about that," she whispered back. Her smile was back, and even if it seemed a bit tremulous, he was sure that it was from happiness for once. She covered his hand with her other one, running her fingers lightly over his knuckles.

He nodded in understanding. He knew that however many times they had the same argument about who they were, and how different they were, that in the end, they always circled back to the other. At least, he hoped they always would.

"You shaved," Scully observed, tilting her head to the side and regarding him with open admiration. She lifted her hand from his to run it over his smooth cheek.

"It was a direct order, wasn't it?" Mulder said, with a chuckle. "Even though my face will freeze now," he complained.

She pressed her fingers over his lips, shushing him.

"You got any suggestions as to how I can keep my face warm, Scully?" he whispered, kissing her fingers softly. He was rewarded by the flush that came over her skin and the dilation of her pupils. "Hmm ... I think you do," he continued in a low voice that only she could hear, nipping at her index finger.

"Mulder," she murmured. She pressed her fingers against his lips once more before removing her hand.

He could feel her little feet moving as she shifted in her seat.

"What's on tomorrow's schedule?" he asked.

"You know I'm off tomorrow, Mulder," she said.

"Off?" Mulder said speculatively. "Let me get this straight, you're getting off tomorrow?"

The waitress interrupted him, bringing a beer with a glass over the long neck to the table. "One Shiner Bock," she informed them. "Do you know what else you want?"

"Oh, yeah," Mulder answered, never taking his eyes off Scully.

The waitress looked at him expectantly, while Scully's eyes shot flames at him.

"Oh, ladies first," Mulder said lazily, "that's always been my policy. Right, Scully?" He wanted desperately to tell her that if she kept pursing her mouth like that her lips would stick together, but she was already running one of her lethal heels up the inside of his leg in a way meant not to entice, but to warn. He couldn't help the fact that it was turning him on anyway.

"I'll have the meatloaf special, please," Scully said.

He listened while she went through her side dish choices as he slowly poured half the beer into the cold glass.

"And you, honey?" The waitress smiled when he ordered the shepherd's pie. "Oh, that's a good choice on a cold night like tonight. It's already starting to snow a little."

"How do you think tomorrow will be?" Mulder asked innocently.

"The perfect day to stay inside all day, if the weather report's right." Mulder smiled and nodded at the waitress' words and then turned to look at Scully as she continued on. "Let me just get these orders in. Holler if you need anything else." The waitress walked away.

"You may no longer be fit for civil society, Mulder," Scully said sternly, while she watched him finish pouring the beer.

When he'd filled the glass halfway, he put them both down and waited. Just as he suspected, Scully reached right out and snagged the bottle. "We could just order two," he said mildly. Secretly, he was charmed by the fact that he never got to drink a beer alone anymore, although he did occasionally miss drinking from the bottle.

"What fun is that?" Scully asked. She leaned forward on her elbows to the middle of the table. "I'd like to propose a toast," she said seriously.

Mulder picked up his glass and waited.

"To your freedom," she said, and he could see the sheen of tears in her eyes. "And our future."

He clinked his glass against her bottle and took a drink, holding her gaze the entire time. He leaned forward across the table and kissed her. It was an awkward stretch, but he just made it. "Thank God for those yoga tapes," he muttered as they broke apart.

"Oh, I'll drink to that," Scully said devilishly, clinking his glass with her bottle.

He smiled as she giggled. "So, even though I'm no longer a wanted man," he said slyly, referring back to a joke of theirs for the past few years, "you still love me?"

"As long as you keep practicing yoga," she said demurely, then added in a breathy voice, "I really love yoga." Her eyes were dancing in the candlelight as she raised her bottle to take a drink, her eyebrow arching salaciously.

A feeling of happiness broke over him like a wave and he laughed aloud. Who needed four-star restaurants and extensive wine lists? He was free, he had Scully -- and she loved him. He got himself back under control to see that she was grinning at him from her side of the table, his little provocateur, his partner through thick and thin. "Amen," he said, raising his glass. Then he drank deeply, never looking away from Scully's laughing eyes.

Scully was kind of a cheap drunk these days. No doubt this was due to her level of exhaustion, how rarely she imbibed, and that fact that she was already a bit giddy about his exoneration, but Mulder could not help but be amused by it. After they'd eaten a huge meal -- he must have missed when restaurant portions became enormous again while he was in exile -- Scully had demanded to see his exoneration. He sat there smiling, watching her trying to read the teeny type without her reading glasses in the low light of the diner. She had been annoyed with his amusement, but more annoyed that he didn't have his reading glasses with him.

After the meal, they'd walked down the snowy streets to the hospital- affiliated lot where Scully had parked her car that morning. She was slipping a little in her impractical-for-the-weather high heels, but he didn't bother to chide her. Scully might normally be the most sensible woman on the planet, but her hatred of wearing her "ugly" snow boots was almost comically adolescent. Instead, he tucked her hand inside the bend of his elbow, covering it with his other hand, and they slid along together like they were lovers from the era of his grandparents.

The snow had yet to amount to much, just a dusting on the windows and the roof, which only took a second to brush off. Instead of sitting in the warming car, though, Scully stood on the passenger side and continued her tale of the most recent political machinations of the other pediatric neurology fellow. This had become such a recurrent topic of conversation since Scully had begun her fellowship that Mulder had nicknamed Scully's erstwhile colleague her 'nemesis'. She had just gotten to a part of the narrative that she clearly found particularly galling when she abruptly changed the subject. Mulder glanced over his shoulder to see that they were being approached by a woman who was clearly curious about them. As she got closer, Mulder could see that it was the sharp-faced blonde from earlier in the evening, now under layers of winter clothes. He whacked the brush against the side of the car, to clean the accumulated snow from its head as she approached them.

"Dr. Scully," the woman said impassively. "Hello again," she said in a brighter tone of recognition, turning toward Mulder.

Mulder felt his brow beetling with incredulity at her rudeness. He nodded, but did not speak.

The younger woman had stopped, clearly expecting an introduction.

"Oh," Scully said. She had just clued in to what was going on, and seemed a little bemused by the whole situation. "This is my ... " Her sentence trailed off as once again the issue of how to describe the other reared its ugly head. It had been the subject of many conversations during his exile, but they'd never come to any conclusions. Scully had maintained that they were too old for the girlfriend/boyfriend routine and besides, they were committed, just not legal. Mulder absolutely hated the phrase 'significant other', and had advocated for partner, which was routinely used in Europe to describe a non-legal commitment. Scully had objected on the basis of their long partnership meaning something entirely different, while Mulder had countered that without the first partnership, there would never have been a second. As usual, their argument had ended in an impasse.

"Fox Mulder," Mulder finished. "I'm her Fox Mulder." He brushed the accumulated snow from his coat.

"Yes," Scully exhaled quietly, in a happy little breath.

He was sure her colleague hadn't heard Scully, but he had, and it made him smile to hear how pleased she was that he had his name back. Scully introduced the woman. She was, as he had suspected, Scully's nemesis. He congratulated himself on a still useful Spidey sense -- even if it was rusty, he'd known that he didn't like this woman before they'd been introduced.

"Nice to meet you," Mulder said with almost no affect. He tossed the scraper into the trunk, and walked past her to Scully, pulling her door open. "Be careful driving home," he said. "It's kind of nasty out here." He then handed Scully into the car, and closed her door, rounding the hood to the driver's side. It had been years since he'd done such a courtesy for any woman, and he wasn't entirely sure that he'd ever done so for Scully before, odd as that seemed, but he had exerted himself to make a point.

The woman was still standing at the back of the car, watching him. "You might want to move," Mulder said, opening his own door. "I'd really hate to accidentally back into you." He uttered the last in his blandest monotone ever, and heard Scully snickering in the car.

The woman blinked. "Oh, sure," she said, moving away slightly, but still not going on her way.

Mulder got in the car and closed the door. While he fastened his seatbelt, he leaned over to Scully and rested his head on her shoulder. She kissed the top of his head.

"My hero," she murmured. "Would you shoot her for me?"

"Just give me a gun, Scully," he said. He laid his arm behind her on the back of the seat. "In lieu of that, I hope to spurt snow all over her when I peel out, because she's still standing there staring at us."

"You have to understand, Mulder," Scully began. "I have never said a word about my personal life to these people. To them, I might as well be a nun. And now, here you are, and it's kind of proof ... "

"That you've been practicing yoga?" Mulder finished, putting the car in drive. He gave her colleague the finger in the rear view mirror as they drove away, but it was dark enough that she probably hadn't seen it.

"Mulder!" she laughed, grabbing his hand. "I still have to work here."

"Not forever, Scully," Mulder vowed. "Unlike your nemesis back there, when your fellowship is done, you're going to get out of this hellhole. You've done what you were supposed to do."

She was staring at him. "Why do you say that, Mulder? Because of what Father Joe said?"

He shook his head. "I don't know why, Scully, but I'm sure I'm right." He pulled up to a stop sign. "I'm sure of it." He turned on the radio and fiddled with the knobs until he found some music. She was still staring at him, half-hopeful, half-fearful. He wanted the lighter mood from earlier in the evening back and could have kicked himself for bringing up such a touchy subject. "And, as you know," he said in a confidential tone, "I'm right 98.9% of the time."

Scully rolled her eyes. "Mulder, please don't make me break out the spreadsheet again," she said.

He smirked as he put his foot on the gas pedal and drove them home.

~*~ "Don't think that I didn't notice the stockings on the roof, Mulder," Scully announced from her current locale below his chin.

Mulder, roused from the pleasant state of sated half-sleep, ran his hands across her waist and then up her back under the long fall of her hair. "Who says that the pillow talk falls off in a long-term relationship?" he asked rhetorically, kissing the top of her head. "Not us."

Scully yawned expansively, but made no move to get off of him. "Certainly not," she countered. "Just tell me that you didn't fill any of my La Perla stockings with rock salt."

"Scully!" he said, in a scandalized tone. "What do you take me for?"

She raised her head from his chest and stared at him. "Which ones are the La Perla stockings, Mulder?"

"The fancy ones," he said promptly. "My favorite ones," he amended off her look. "The ones with the roses at the top," he continued when he could see she wasn't going to be appeased.

"Should I be worried about you being home all day alone with my stockings, Mulder?" she asked drily.

He smiled at the image of himself wearing her sheer black stockings in all his hairy-legged glory. "I think that if you give that just one moment of thought, you'd realize that would not be a turn-on."

She cocked her head at him, eyes twinkling. "I guess that depends upon your perspective, Mulder. You do have a nice set of gams."

"Well," he laughed. "I like to think of myself as being open to new experiences and all, but ... " he was rewarded with the huff of her laugh. "I'm not sure they'd come up much higher than my knee."

She reached for her pillow, ready to belt him with it and he rolled her in the opposite direction. They wrestled pleasantly for a few minutes, ending up with Scully underneath Mulder and on top of her pillow.

"See this is what's wrong with American society these days," Mulder said. "Sex and violence all mixed up."

"Cats and dogs yadda yadda," Scully continued, kissing him to shut him up.

They lay there kissing for a few minutes until Mulder found himself feeling quite awake indeed.

"So, which stockings did you ruin?" Scully asked when they came up for air. Mulder had begun kissing his way down her neck.

Mulder stopped and looked up at her with feigned indignation. "You have a one track mind, woman."

She raised an eloquent eyebrow as he continued to kiss his way down toward her breast, arching her back and ruffling his hair. After a few minutes, she pulled his hair lightly to get his attention. "Mulder?"

"The trouser socks," he said in a distracted tone, "the ones you said made you look like an old lady, OK?"

"OK," she said, wrapping her legs around his upper back. She peered down her body at him. "I didn't say stop, did I?"

He nipped at her hipbone and she giggled, her face losing its mock stern expression. He smiled, and happily continued on his journey.

By the time Scully woke up the next day, Mulder had checked his various e-mail accounts, surfed the web, read two newspapers and drunk a pot of coffee. When he heard movement from upstairs, he'd already moved from the office to lounge on their too short couch, and was doing some serious reading, or trying to. He'd stoked the wood-burning stove to keep the upstairs warm, and the incredible heat coming off it, combined with the subject matter, was making him drowsy despite the amount of coffee he'd consumed. So, he was slower to respond than usual when she flew down the stairs wearing one of his flannel shirts and nothing else. She blew right past him and threw open the door of his office. When she saw it was empty, she gasped and covered her mouth, clutching the shirt against herself.

"Scully," he said quietly, not wanting to alarm her more. "I'm right over here, Scully."

She turned around and the raw pain that he saw on her face in the seconds before she launched herself at him was almost too much for him to bear.

He caught her and pulled her close, one arm wrapped around her waist, the other holding the back of her head tenderly.

She grappled for a hold on him that was tight enough to suit her; he could feel her heart beating, and the way that she was shuddering against him as she tried to control her fear and struggled not to cry.

"I'm right here, Scully," he said again. As much as her being traumatized worried him, he found himself humbled by her need for him, especially after all these years. It had taken him a long time to see past his own guilt at all that had been taken from her to realize that her love, as possessive and contrary as it could be, was an enormous gift. No one had ever loved him like Dana Scully had. In fact, there were times when he believed that, aside from Samantha, no one had ever truly loved him until Dana Scully. It obligated him to her, and there were still times when he chafed at such a restriction.

Then again, he'd never had to pick out the clothes to bury her in, or watch a backhoe cover her coffin with yards of earth. Even when he'd been miraculously restored, it had been a perversely cruel tease, a far too brief respite before they'd again been separated, potentially forever. He knew that she had lost far too much during the course of her life. If she lost him, she'd lose all connection to that past, including their son, in an irreplaceable way.

So much of their lives were bound up in the other -- he could only imagine how she had felt when she'd seen Dacyshyn raising that axe above his head, ready to strike the death blow. Many years ago, he'd seen her similarly threatened on the Chaco Chicken case and although he well remembered his terror, his love for her then had been so immature, so untested. He couldn't imagine how he'd feel now. It wasn't rational how intertwined they were, but their life together had conspired to make it so. After all, less than twelve hours ago he'd lashed out peevishly at a total stranger whose only crime had been that she was unkind to Scully. How would he feel if her safety had been truly threatened?

"I'm right here," he repeated, waiting. Despite the heat, he pulled the blanket off the back of the couch and covered her with it, then continued running his hands through her hair.

"I had a nightmare," she said finally, and he nodded, kissing the top of her head.

"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked.

"No," she said firmly. She was still holding him tightly.

Time was he would have felt rebuffed by her abject refusal or pressed her to share her nightmare, but he had enough of his own to know that sometimes the images in them were the last thing that he wanted to revisit for analysis. He pulled gently at a snarl in Scully's hair as he combed it with his fingers. He heard her sigh, and felt her relax a bit against his chest.

"Do you want some breakfast?" he asked after a while. They'd been laying there in the quiet, with only the roar and hissing of the burning wood in the stove for accompaniment. Outside, he could see the snow falling, the large flakes fluttering indifferently this way and that. It wouldn't accumulate to much, he was reasonably certain.

"Mm ... " Scully said noncommittally. Her body was still fairly rigid against his.

He gathered her hair up and moved it to the side, sliding his hands under her shirt and massaging the tension out of the base of her skull and down her neck.

She issued a little groan at his efforts, and encouraged, he kept going, widening his strokes to encompass her shoulders and top of her spine. Her hold on him began to relax.

"I made frittata," he said in a sing-song voice. He felt her smiling against his chest.

"Mulder," she said in a whiny tone, "you know that has way too much fat in it."

He smiled at her feigned petulance. "I'm sure you can find some way to burn off the extra calories," he said.

She ignored him.

"I need a bath," she said a few minutes later.

"You are pretty stinky," he agreed.

That got her to turn her head to look up at him. He stroked her brow line, which was still furrowed with tension. The flannel shirt she'd hastily thrown on was pushed back off her shoulders, and her hair was tousled both from his hands the night before and her unquiet dreams this morning. She was, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.

His expression must have reflected his thoughts, because she reached up and put her hand on his cheek. "Mulder," she whispered. How she could put so much expression, so much feeling into saying his name, he would never be able to explain.

He pulled her up on his chest and kissed her, trying to reassure her that her feeling was, and always would be, returned.

She broke the kiss, reaching beside him to where he'd shoved his reading in his haste to receive her. She braced herself and pulled the large hardback out from where it had gotten wedged. "Abnormal Psychology, Mulder?"

"13th edition," he supplied helpfully.

She was clearly mystified, but moved to drop the book onto the coffee table, only then noticing the others. He watched as she turned the small stack, looking at the titles, Biological Psychology, The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook, The Handbook of Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy. He watched her expression change as she got to the last book on the pile. "What's going on, Mulder?" Her question was not challenging - he could see that she had moved from being worried to being honestly curious. "Is this research for a new novel?"

His hand sifted through her hair. "No," he said. "Yesterday, when Skinner was here, he asked me what I would do now, and I talked about you, about how you'd continued your education, but changed your focus, and it made me think. Why do I have these books, Scully? I haven't been a profiler for years, but I ordered all of these books from Amazon."

She nodded, listening.

"This morning, I was sitting there in my office looking at my walls, and then my book shelves, and it struck me how many of my books are psychology texts. And I realized that I ordered them, but I haven't read them. So, I decided to give it a shot."

"Are you thinking about practicing?" she asked him.

He shrugged. "I really don't know, Scully. I just thought that I should see what happened when I started reading these books, see if it sparked anything."

She was regarding him in her clear-eyed, assessing way. "I think you'd be an excellent psychologist, Mulder."

He smiled at her, knowing that he was hardly likely to get his head cut off as a practicing psychologist.

"No, I'm serious," she said. "I think that you have a lot of insight into motivations, and real compassion," she hesitated, then leaned over and picked up the textbook on top of the stack, "especially with children. You were always so good with them, no matter what the circumstances were in the case." She was speaking dispassionately, but he could hear the sincerity in her tone. "I'm glad you're considering this," she said.

"We'd be a two-doctor family," Mulder pointed out.

"We already are," she said, laughing at him.

"Technically, I never completed my practicum, so ... I never really finished that doctorate."

She grimaced. "Does that mean that you'd have to go through therapy yourself?" She made it sound as if the very idea was torture.

"That's really more for psychoanalysis," Mulder said, "and I was always much more of a Jungian."

"Naturally," Scully said, with a giggle.

"No, it would be about conducting therapy while being observed, and advised," he said. "I just don't know if it's possible, or if it's what I want."

"Is there something else you're interested in?"

"Actually, yes," he said.

She looked at him expectantly.

"I want to go on that vacation," he said firmly.

"Oh, Mulder," she began, "I'm not through with Christian's treatments, and ... "

He held up a hand. "I know," he said. "But we can go away when you're done, right?"

"Well ... " she began, "I don't really know."

"Scully," he said, "you haven't taken any vacation since you started re-qualifying. You must have some time squirreled away."

She looked thoughtful. "I just never thought about it," she said. "But I must have something. Maybe two weeks?"

Mulder smiled. "Think about it, Scully." He closed her eyes. "You and me, on a tropical island somewhere. Warm ocean breezes, palm trees and sunsets, fruity drinks, dolphins leaping from the water ... "

She sighed wistfully. "I'll need a lot of sunblock," she said speculatively.

"I can buy you sunblock," he said, "and plenty of tiny bikinis."

"Oh, Mulder," she said, opening her eyes. "I think those days ... "

"Bikinis," he said firmly, "and you know that you are totally gorgeous."

She smiled.

"I want to go to one of those places where you have your own little island to yourself, where it's just you and the ocean and a well- appointed hut with a big hammock."

Scully looked intrigued. "You can do that?"

Mulder nodded, "Yep. There's usually a main house somewhere nearby, but if you want total privacy, you've got it." Off her expression he continued, "There was a time that I was thinking that's where we should go, but that was before Skinner made it clear that the best strategy was for you to come out of hiding."

"You never told me this, Mulder," she said drily. "I might have chosen the beach instead."

He smiled at her. "No, you wouldn't have," he said. "And we're going to go now, anyway, right?"

She was looking at him, but he could see the wheels turning in her head. "Can you wait until sometime in February?"

"February's perfect," Mulder said. "Valentine's Day. Your birthday. We could celebrate it in style this year, just you and me."

Her smile was like the sun breaking through the clouds. "Just you and me," she echoed.

March 23, 2008 Private Islands, Bahamas

Scully had been smiling since they'd touched down in Ft. Lauderdale. It wasn't an all-out grin, but her face was set in the curved shape that he associated with pleasure. No furrow in her brow, no line of worry or want marred her pretty face. More importantly, no mask adorned it. Her face was simply open and relaxed and happy, the closer they got to their destination. He was reasonably certain that his face had only relaxed into such an expression much more recently.

Mulder knew that it had been a long time since they'd traveled anywhere on a plane, and that he was simply out of practice with all the possibilities for frustrating holdups that could be encountered. They had, it seemed, run into every possible problem throughout the day. Storms in the North had made their plane late in getting to Richmond. Charlotte was backed up for similar reasons. The thing was, Mulder could have tolerated all of those delays more easily, if not for the fact that their vacation itself had been postponed by more than a month. Scully's treatment of Christian had gone well for the most part, but hadn't been without its issues, and Scully had been unwilling to leave until she was sure that the boy wouldn't have a setback. At one point, Mulder was certain that it would summer before she'd consent to actually leave Virginia -- especially after she'd been encouraged to write a monograph on her adaptation of the treatment of Sandhoff's Disease to treat what was likely to be called Fearon Syndrome. However, the fact that they'd have both internet and computer access at their destination had swayed Scully, and aside from a bulging briefcase, her only other work-related luggage was the draft manuscript she carried on a memory stick.

Mulder had his own briefcase full of reading, not to mention his own memory stick of papers due for the courses he'd been taking as he explored requalification. Unlike Scully, he'd been tempted to conveniently forget them both at one of the airports they'd been through today. Of course, he'd also been tempted to rent a car and drive to Ft. Lauderdale when the delays at Charlotte threatened to derail their arrival in Nassau by yet one more day, after far too many postponements.

Luckily, cooler heads had prevailed, but only because they had just made the last flight to Nassau. From there, they had taken a short flight to Lobster Cay over astonishingly azure seas, and checked in at the main island. The trip across the open water just after sunset had not given them the kind of view of their island that he'd planned for. He'd plotted their arrival so carefully, pictured them approaching the island as the sun lowered in the sky, and then sharing a cocktail on the hammock as the sun set, but it was not to be. At this hour, it was hard to discern features of the water and the land, but with the warm wind caressing his face, there was still no question that they had left winter far behind. Besides, it seemed that the lack of the perfect view mattered only to him.

Scully sat at the bow of the resort's sleek speedboat, watching as their island came into view. For the next two weeks, they were the sole occupants of a 2.5-acre forested island with a bungalow, private lagoon, rowboat and sailboat moored off the windward side. He smiled to see her barely tamped down excitement as they got closer to land. Her long hair, gone curly in the humid air, streamed backwards as she leaned over the bow, trying to see more of their destination. She looked, he realized with a shock, exactly like the carved figureheads he remembered from his childhood home. He was dumbfounded at the resemblance, now that he saw it. He hadn't thought of them in years - but on Martha's Vineyard in the 1970's, those figureheads had been as much a part of the decorative landscape as nautical anchors, lighthouses and sea shells. Figureheads from decommissioned ships graced flagpole tops, held up mailboxes and stared down the storm surges of winter from the sea-facing walls of the most elegant waterside homes. There had even been a restaurant in Vineyard Haven built from the hull of one of the old whaling ships. In the main dining room, a collection of some of the most artful of those huntress maidens jutted out of the walls, fierce and beautiful blondes or redheads all, most with harpoons in their hands.

Scully turned away from looking for details of the island and regarded him curiously, as if picking up on his amazement. "Mulder," she said, after pushing the mass of hair out of her eyes. "What?"

He shook his head, watching as she turned avian profile into the wind again and gathered her hair up in her hands before turning back. He grinned, raising his voice to be heard over the engine. "I'll tell you later."

She cocked her head and looked at the staff person from the resort, who seemed not in the least interested in them or their conversation.

"Did Skinner seem tense to you?" Scully asked him.

Mulder raised an eyebrow at her question. They had both been surprised to see Skinner at the security check-in gate at the Richmond airport. Clearly, he wanted to ensure that Mulder's name really had been cleared from the no-fly list, and was ready to intervene if there had been a problem. "I don't honestly know if I've ever seen Skinner relaxed," Mulder observed.

"California," Scully reminded him. Her lips moved silently to form the words "Lazarus Bowl."

Mulder winced. If anything, their notoriety had made that awful movie even more of a cult classic. "Scully ... " he protested. He had imposed a 'no bringing up that movie' rule years ago.

"Sorry," she giggled. "But he was relaxed."

"Or drunk," Mulder said. "Anyway. He's not a very relaxed guy - it took him a long time to warm up when he came to see me in January. Isn't that the way he is with you?"

"No," Scully said. "He tries very hard to be reassuring when he's with me, and he's usually very encouraging when he calls. I just had the feeling there was something he wasn't telling us."

Her expression reflected her worry, and Mulder hated to see it. "Well," he said. "There's nothing we can do about that right now, so let's not worry. Look," he said, pointing ahead of them. Lights from the island marked the end of the dock.

Scully's lips formed an 'O', and although he couldn't hear her happy exhalation, he was pleased to watch her face as it was transformed with delight.

The engine cut off abruptly as they approached the island, and the humid dark felt heavy with the sudden quiet, but the air was perfumed with unseen flowers, and the occasional call of a nightbird. They bumped up against the edge of the dock softly and turned sideways. The porter had jumped out of the boat onto the dock to secure it, and was joined by Scully, easily making the leap in her high heels before Mulder'd so much as begun to stand up. Scully tied off the front end of the boat and held out her hand to Mulder, much to the surprise of their companion.

"All ashore that's going ashore," she said, bracing herself and pulling as he leapt.

Mulder saluted before he kissed her. She was a moving target as the dock swayed beneath them, still disturbed from their arrival. He broke away from her to help the porter heft their bags onto the sand-worthy vehicle with heavy wheels at the end of the short dock, then turned to find that Scully was suddenly several inches shorter.

She tossed her shoes onto the luggage trolley and grinned up at him, digging her bare toes into the white sand. "We are at the beach," she informed him.

He couldn't help but grin back, even as he heard the unspoken end of the sentence, 'and there isn't a dead body, or an alien, or a sea monster in sight!'

Before leading them up to their bungalow, their porter pointed out the bamboo pole that was dug into the sand near the dock. There were two flags available for them to signal with: yellow if they wanted housekeeping or food service, red if they wanted privacy. Mulder consulted Scully with a glance, knowing that he'd requested enough food for three days. At her nod, he slid the red flag into position. They followed the porter up a winding path, losing their view of the stars that had just begun to shine in the navy velvet of the sky to the canopy of lush foliage overhead. Ahead of them, they could see the lights from their bungalow before they entered a clearing ringed by fragrant flowers.

The bungalow itself was impressive, a roomy, single story structure with a gently sloping roof. There was an extensive patio with what appeared to be a compact kitchen, most of it tucked under a roof for shelter. They walked across it and through the open shutter style doors into the central area of the house, a great room that rose to a peak where fans lazily twirled. There was a fully appointed and far larger kitchen next to a living room with a huge entertainment center. The porter pointed out all of the amenities, including the warming tray where their dinners waited for them. Champagne was chilling in an ice bucket, and there was an enormous fruit basket on one of the counters.

The look that Scully gave him was positively wide-eyed. He was relatively certain that his own expression could be described as smug. He felt his shoulders relax as he realized that his expectations for their accommodations had been exceeded.

The porter showed them the master bedroom, complete with king-sized bed. A hoop above it held a mosquito net canopy made of a fine white mesh, but the porter assured them that they would have little use for it. While the porter unloaded their bags onto the tile floor, Mulder watched Scully taking in the features of the room. The bedroom was open on two sides: doors to the patio they had first encountered on one side, and doors to a private, enclosed terrace on the other.

The bathroom attached to the master bedroom was as big as their bedroom in their old farmhouse back home, and featured a soaking tub that was easily six feet long. There was no door out to the patio, but alongside the tub there was a large window, through which the porter assured them, they'd have a clear view of the ocean during the day. There was a shower inside the room itself, but an outdoor shower was also available. The porter took them into the large space. It had high walls, and drying racks for bathing gear, but an open roof. Above them, there were hundreds of stars. The door into the shower from outside the house led them to a path, which in turn led to the lagoon. The cabana there housed their rowboat, scuba and snorkeling gear. The porter reminded them that there was a safe in their bedroom should they wish to stow their valuables while off the island and wished them a good night.

Before the porter rounded the house to return to the dock, Mulder remembered his manners and hurried after him to give him a tip. Then, he took off his own shoes and socks and sauntered around the exterior of their bungalow, listening to the breezes ruffle the palm trees and vines overhead, before he turned onto the patio, admiring the set-up. He dropped his shoes next to the open doors. This was exactly what they needed.

He re-entered the house to find Scully waiting for him, hands on her hips.

"Mulder, how much money did you spend on this?" she demanded.

He laughed at her ire. "A lot," he said succinctly. "A lot, a lot, a lot," he continued, when her arms showed no signs of relaxing. He began ticking items off on his fingers. "Let's see -- fifteen years, and zero vacations," he said. "None that we ever spent together, anyway."

"Mulder," she began, but he spoke over her.

"Not to mention the fact that for the past five years, we've had to live as if we only had your salary to support us, so that we wouldn't raise any suspicions."

"Well," Scully said, "we had to ... "

"We had to buy our crummy little house with a mortgage!" Mulder interjected.

She rolled her eyes at his incensed tone, having heard his speech on the evils of interest payments far too often over the years, but did pipe up to defend their house. "I like our house," she said heatedly, "and I object to the characterization of it as crummy!"

He stepped in closer to her. "I like our house, too, Scully," he said softly. "I love our house because it's our home, and it's not some shitty motel on some back road somewhere, but it's not what I envisioned when I pictured us building our life together."

"And this is?" she waved her arm around.

"No," he said. "This is to make up for the fact that for so long I haven't been able to give you any of those things."

She stepped up and put her hand on his arm. "None of that matters to me, Mulder," she said. "The fact that you're here with me, that's what counts."

"But that's not what I want," he said, wrapping his arms around her. "I want to spoil you. I wanted to spoil us, to celebrate the fact that we don't have to look over our shoulders anymore. Can't you let me give that to you?"

She regarded him seriously, listening to what he was saying.

"You've given me so much, Scully," he said. "This is something I wanted to do for us."

She nodded, and he dropped his forehead down to rest on hers.

"Is it so terrible?" he asked teasingly.

She made an irate noise in her throat and tried to push away from him, but he held on fast. "It's fantastic, and you know it," she said.

He bent down and kissed her.

"Just don't ever tell me how much this cost," she ordered him.

When Mulder opened his eyes the next morning, he thought he might still be dreaming, so he closed them again. The thing was, he usually didn't hear Scully giggling in his dreams, or feel her slender finger run down his nose.

When he opened his eyes again, she was still laying there in the bed next to him, her head propped up on one hand. Aside from the sunglasses that she was using as a headband, the only thing that she was wearing was a delightfully small dark purple bikini. He blinked and reached for her, only to have her roll swiftly away and stand at the side of the bed.

"No, no, lazybones," she said. "There's plenty of time for that later. You have to get up and come outside. It's fantastic." She picked up what looked like a long white shirt and put it on like a robe, moving backwards to the open patio doors. Even through sleep-blurred eyes, he could see that it was going to be an absolutely gorgeous day, with incredibly blue skies. The soft lighting told him that it was still early, but seeing the grounds around their bungalow in daylight was an eye-opening sight. The garden was full of orchids and hibiscus, a riot of color under the verdant canopy of palm trees that ringed the house. But nothing was more vivid than the many tones of iridescent blue of the open water that he could see down the gentle slope of the hill.

"Wow," he said groggily.

"I know!" Scully said enthusiastically. "Get up!" She tossed him a pair of swim trunks, hitting him squarely in the face.

He protested, but sat up, then scooted over to the edge of the enormous bed. In so doing, he caught sight of the clock. 6:45, it read. Which meant that it was actually 5:45 where his body was. "Scully!" he said, "it's unbelievably freaking early!" When she didn't answer, he looked over his shoulder to see that she was seated at the table on the patio, feet up on another chair, eating a large bowl of fruit. She'd made coffee.

"I want to go swimming," she said. "With you. And unless you want me to get burned to a crisp, it's now or at the very end of the day. We'll take a siesta in the middle of the day." Her voice was seductive, meant to entice.

"Promise?" he asked sulkily.

"If you get up right now," she sing-songed.

He huffed and dragged himself into the bathroom, accompanied by the sound of her snickering.

~*~ He would have groaned in ecstasy when the warm blue water closed over his head, but he still had enough sense to avoid drowning, or at least ingesting salt water. It had literally been years since he had been in any water deeper than their bathtub at home. As enjoyable as that most certainly had been, especially since he was usually not alone, it could not compare to the luxury of stretching out in the ocean and swimming.

After he had swum straight out from the shore for a couple of laps, he rolled onto his back and just reached as far as he could, drawing air into his lungs. The muscle memory of swimming was strong, but he knew that he was going to be sore from the hyperextension. Still, it would be worth every ache and pain to feel this joy at the weightlessness granted by the water. He arched his back, letting the water cup him in support. He would be taller by the end of this week, he thought fancifully. There was only so much that yoga could do for him, what with the size differential between him and Scully. Although, it was not like he was going to forego those pleasures -- even if he ended his life as a hunchback, he would be the happiest hunchback alive.

It was kind of amazing that for all those years he had never allowed himself to think about how much he missed swimming. Contrarily, now that he was immersed in the ocean, he felt the lack of it in his recent life acutely. He never wanted to leave this warm haven, even if there was something missing from this nearly perfect joy. He turned his head this way and that, looking for Scully.

She was approaching him, her pace more leisurely than his, but her strokes strong and sure. Her movements were efficient and gracefully precise, as was her way. She drew up alongside him and stood, treading water, then tipped her head back to slick her long hair away from her brow. She shaded her eyes from the early morning sun and he lazily stroked a half-circle around her so that she was no longer facing it, lounging on his back and smiling.

She watched him transit her in a tight orbit with a bemused expression on her face, before asking him, "Do I need to find you a cigarette, Mulder?"

He smiled at her cheekiness. "Just about," he said, stretching out and then circling her again for the sheer freedom of it. "We're in the ocean, Scully! I can't even remember the last time I went swimming."

"None of the motels you stayed in ... " she began, but stopped as he shook his head in denial.

"I would have felt too vulnerable," he said. "Besides, it was kinda the last thing on my mind at the time."

She nodded sadly. "But now ... " she pointed out, more cheerfully.

"Yeah," he said. "Although if the local pools are as shabby as that one in West Virginia, no thanks."

She chuckled ruefully. "That was a little low-rent," she admitted.

"A little, Scully?" he retorted. "You could smell the chlorine from the road!" He rolled over onto his stomach and floated up to her, wrapping his arms around her waist. "Hell-o," he said in a low voice, bumping up against her in the water.

"Hello yourself," she said agreeably, with a raised eyebrow, before adding. "I'd like to remind you that I'm floating."

He tested his footing and found that he was also over his head but then again, when wasn't he, as far as she was concerned? "Pity," he said. "I'd like to be a dolphin, just about now." He kissed her as the warm water lapped against them.

She sighed as they broke apart, leaving her arms wrapped around his neck. They spun ever so slowly in the water, being moved this way and that by the current as it circled their small island, their knees occasionally bumping as they treaded, trying to achieve a complementary rhythm.

"So, what's our plan for the day?" Mulder asked.

She looked up at him bemusedly. "Are you looking to schedule something in particular, Mulder? Because other than not getting sunburned, I have, as they say, no fixed plans."

Mulder smiled at her words. "It'll be a miracle if we get any color at all, Scully, with the amount of gloop you put on us."

"You've barely been outside in daylight for five years, Mulder," she said primly. "I felt a little caution was warranted."

"Yes, yes," he said, "but the next time you accuse me of being single- minded, I have new evidence to back up an alternative point of view."

"Shut up and float, Mulder," she reproved lightly.

He closed his eyes and let the water carry them toward the shore.

They had lazed around in the water drowsily until the sun was well up over the horizon, then gone up to the patio and had a larger breakfast. Scully had explored their bungalow and found a vast collection of beach reading. She had picked something that looked suspiciously like chick lit and was ensconced in the shade on the massive hammock that swung between two of the sturdiest palms on the property.

Calling that gigantic contraption a hammock was a bit of a misnomer, in Mulder's judgment, since it was more like a mattress suspended between the trees. Its possibilities intrigued him, but he could wait a while to indulge in them, at least until the promised midday siesta. For now, he was content to explore their island, and walked down it looking for their sailboat, but did not see it moored off the northern side of the island. He and Scully had swum along the roughly southern edge of the island, and they'd approached it from the East when they'd arrived last night. Even in the dim light of the gloaming, he thought that he would have noticed it.

He rambled back up island and then splashed across the shoulder-deep water of the lagoon to the small northwestern tip of their tear-shaped piece of paradise. A path led him through the dense growth of palm and plants to the tiny edge of their island. Several hundred yards offshore, a sailboat with furled sails sat on the placid seas, awaiting them. He rubbed his chin in satisfaction and turned back to the lagoon.

Scully had been dubious about him sailing, and remained unconvinced that he wouldn't have another episode of epic seasickness like he'd had in the Northern Atlantic. His continued reminders that he'd had plenty of crossings on the ferry in his early years that were problem-free had been met with decided skepticism, almost as if she knew that he was omitting the part about his routine problems with winter crossings. However, his protestations that the North Atlantic was not the Caribbean must have made an impression, as she'd asked him at breakfast when they were planning their sail. A passing breeze ruffled the trees, bending them toward the western, windward side of the island, but dropped nearly immediately. He only hoped that they'd get enough wind for the sail he'd originally planned for Scully's birthday last month.

The midmorning sun was definitely hotter than anything he'd felt in a long time, so he shed his Tevas on the bungalow side of the lagoon and dove in for his second swim of the day. He steadily stroked his way around the perimeter of their island in the abundant sunshine until he returned to the lagoon and just floated in a shady patch of water, stuck somewhere halfway between sleep and waking, thoughts tumbling around in his head in no particular order. True sleep was an impossibility in his current environment, and he finally stumbled out of the water groggily after he found himself dwelling on Skinner's presence at the airport.

In retrospect, he realized that Scully had been correct -- Skinner had been more than his typically tense self, and Mulder had a hard time believing that it was just because he was worried about Mulder's status on the no-fly list. He firmly pushed the thought away as he entered the outdoor shower to rinse off the salt. Worrying had become a way of life for him over the past few years -- he had the lines on his forehead to prove it -- and after all the worrying over discovery and separation from Scully, his freedom had been restored via a scenario straight out of those horror movies that were so popular these days. He never would have predicted such a plot twist, and most likely would have rejected it if he'd come up with the idea for his own works of fiction. But the end result, no matter how improbable, was the same: he was free. He was out of hiding, and out of the country, breathing in warm air lightly scented by exotic flowers -- whatever was troubling Skinner was beyond his control.

He entered their bathroom from the outdoor shower and gave a quick brush to his hair, wrapping a towel around his hips. He'd gotten an actual haircut before the trip, but wasn't sure if he was wild about the shaggy cut. Styles were a little too reminiscent of the '70s for him - not the best time of his life, even if it had been formative.

Mulder strode out onto the patio to see if Scully was ready for some lunch, but was arrested in mid-stride by the sight of her on the hammock. She lay on her side facing him as the hammock stirred ever so slightly. She was wearing the cover up over her bikini, but had pushed it aside, exposing the delicious curve of her waist as it flowed into her hips. Her left arm was extended out toward the book that she'd been reading, its worn spine cracked open as a page fluttered in the light breeze. She was fast asleep, but not alone. A tiny green parakeet sat on one of the ropes attaching the hammock to the tree behind her head, as if keeping watch over her.

Mulder backed into their bedroom and found the camera, trying to be as quiet as possible. He winced at the noise the camera made when it powered up, but the bird merely turned its head and regarded Mulder with one inquisitive eye before it returned to its seeming contemplation of his sleeping love. He was able to take a couple of pictures before the bird cocked his head at Mulder again and then flew away. He watched it until he heard Scully murmuring in her sleep. She rubbed her hand against the cotton coverlet on the hammock, her brow furrowed as if the flight of the bird had somehow disturbed her peace. Mulder crossed to her side and picked up her hand and kissed it, then carefully lay down beside her, trying not to rock the mobile bed. Scully stirred, but did not wake. He watched her expression even out as she returned to a deep sleep, then laid there admiring her beauty until his own eyelids closed, and he knew no more.

March 30, 2008

Mulder felt a curious mixture of nervousness and relief as he and Scully said good night to the resort staff after their day of sailing. She had been inquisitive about what he had in the cooler under his seat as he rowed them out to meet the boat, but she seemed to have forgotten about it in her excitement over today's adventure. He smiled to remember her enthusiasm, and was doubly glad that he'd brought the camera to record the sight of her lounging on the bench on the stern of their boat, wearing that purple bikini from their first day on the island.

Mulder'd been unable to get his camera out and snap a photo of her in a similar pose when they'd been in the rowboat, and even if the image of her was burned into his retinas, he now had photographic proof of how Scully looked when she was totally relaxed and happy. The days of sunshine had tinged her skin with a bit of gold scattered here and there, freckles that made her scowl and slap on more sunscreen, but that Mulder absolutely adored. His own skin had become lightly tanned, despite her desire to keep him as white as possible.

He waited until the captain and mate were well away in their dinghy, then shucked his swim trunks and dove into the crystal blue waters of the sea. He had remembered how much he hated trunks after two days, especially sitting around waiting for them to dry. Consequently, he only wore them as clothing, and not swimwear, much to Scully's amusement. He swam around their anchored sailboat, going underneath once to tug on the anchor line and assure himself that they were indeed, all set for the evening.

When he surfaced, Scully was kneeling on the padded bench at the stern with her elbows on the railing, watching him with amusement. "All ship shape, nature boy?" she inquired sweetly.

He spit a stream of water up at her like a dolphin. "Come out and play," he said, licking his salty lips.

She ducked out of the way of the stream, then reappeared, holding the camera. "Smile, Mulder," she said.

"Looking for a little something to keep you warm those long nights at the hospital, Scully?"

She quirked an eyebrow. "I suppose it would be tactless of me to point out that the water, while warm, is not that warm."

"If you'd consent to swim the way your God intended us to," he shot back. "I'm sure that I could get respectably warm fast enough."

"Nice try, Mulder," she murmured, focusing on taking his picture.

He tilted his head back while she fiddled with settings, attempting to gain some sort of order over his hair, then sank below the waterline again, filling his mouth.

"Mulder," she warned from above him. "I've got the camera."

He rose from the sea and aimed a warm stream of water at her, soaking the crotch of her purple bikini as she exclaimed in surprise.

"Happy to see me?" he asked cheekily, then turned and dove into the ocean before hearing more than the first of her imprecations against him. He felt the water surge out toward him as she dove in, and lengthened his stroke as he swam, grinning when he came up to the surface. The chase was on.


At dinner, he watched Scully dig into the conch salad that the resort had provided. Her salt-soaked hair had dried in long curls, and she had a fresh smattering of freckles on her slightly pink nose. She'd changed into yet another bikini, one that he'd decided was his absolute favorite as soon as she'd appeared in it. It was turquoise, and the top was a strapless sculpted band with a tortoise shell loop between the circles that covered some of his favorite pieces of flesh. The bottom, unfortunately covered by a colorful but unnecessarily large piece of cloth that she'd wrapped low around her waist, had similar loops over her hip bones. It was a mystery to him how these bits of fabric could be so alluring when he well knew what was underneath them, but they were simply enchanting. He wondered if there was any way he could talk her into wearing a bikini around the house on a regular basis, but decided it probably wasn't worth the risk of asking.

"Mulder," she said, in a tone that let him know this was not the first time she'd said his name. "What time is the captain coming to sail us back tomorrow?"

"Around two," he said, then paused. "So, are you enjoying your very late birthday present?"

She smiled at him, and speared a large piece of conch with her fork. "How many times am I going to have answer that question affirmatively, Mulder?" she asked.

"Once more would be nice," he answered, leaning in.

She leant forward and kissed him softly, then rubbed her pink nose against his. "I like it very much," she said, then kissed him again, letting him taste the conch and champagne on her tongue. "I never realized how much I missed sailing," she sighed. "And you've done wonderfully well."

Mulder looked out at the placid water. Once the sun had gone down, the wind had dropped down to nothing. The sea around them barely rippled. "So far, so good," he said, omitting the unspoken 'I told you so'.

Scully finally pushed back from the table, something he'd done a full ten minutes before, and he smiled to see it. Ever since her cancer, he'd loved nothing more than to see her eat a full and hearty meal. Her complaints that if she ate the way he wanted her to that she'd be enormous fell on deaf ears -- she'd been adorable when she was heavy. Besides, he was at least twenty pounds heavier than he'd been at his fighting weight, and she still loved him.

Scully sipped at her champagne, watching him. "Why do I think that I'm the only one who's going to gain weight on this vacation?" Her hand reached out and strummed the tender muscles over his ribs, the ones that ached from all the swimming he'd been doing.

"As I always say," he began, but she covered his mouth with her hand.

"I'm just glad to see you so relaxed and happy," she said, then ducked her head. "I feel like I should apologize to you, Mulder," she said in a quiet voice.

"For what?" He was utterly flummoxed by this turn in the conversation.

"I ... " she sighed, and then leaned back in her chair, separating herself from him. "I've been very selfish," she said. "I knew how unhappy you were, trapped in the house day after day, but I ... " she held up her hand to silence him as he began to protest. "I would have been perfectly happy to have you stay there, hidden away forever."

He smiled at her admission. "Scully, do you think that you're telling me something I didn't know?"

She scowled at him. "I don't think you really understand what I mean," she said.

"I do," he insisted. "And you have to know that I'd feel, and do, the exact same thing if it were you that had to be hidden away."

She looked at him sharply.

"Besides," he said, "I didn't have anything better to do."

She shook her head. "Don't joke about it, Mulder," she said. "I know that you were depressed."

"I was," he said equably. "But the past tense is the operative here." She looked surprised at his admission. "And let's be clear: at no time did I feel like your prisoner, or that I was unwilling to wait it out. I just ... I couldn't bear the thought of being away from you the way I'd been that year ... " She knew which of the two years that they'd been apart he was referring to - the first had been torture, the second a waiting game -- and he was upset to see her eyes fill with tears. "Scully," he said sorrowfully, "do we have to talk about this on your fake birthday?"

She nodded, and a tear rolled down her face but she was smiling at the same time. "Yes, we do," she said. "I don't want us to forget how to be honest."

He nodded, but gritted his teeth against the surge of irritation that swept over him. He had planned for other topics of conversation. "OK," he said. "Then I want you to think about this: if I wasn't with you, hiding in our house, sleeping in our bed at night, I would have been in a real prison, if I was still alive. Or I would have been on the run, always looking over my shoulder, alone. Hopeless." He let his words sink in. "I don't think I would have survived that reality, either."

Her eyes widened as his implication of self-harm hit home.

"Why would I want to live that way?" he asked her. "So, yes. Maybe I felt trapped sometimes, and maybe I wanted to be more physically involved in some of the things that I've been doing, but ... I never felt like you were keeping me there against my will. I don't blame you, Scully."

Her smile this time was tremulous. "I know that I'm not the easiest person to live with," she began, and he laughed.

"Does that mean that you think I am?" he teased.

She couldn't keep a straight face at his remark.

"We're not easy people, Scully," he said. "We spark off each other in so many ways. That's what makes us so good together, but ... "

"It's also why shouldn't be together," she said softly, echoing the conversation they'd had most recently had in a hallway at Our Lady of Sorrows, but more times than he cared to remember over the years.

"But we are, right?" he asked, his voice equally soft.

"Yes," she said.

He pushed the table away and sat next to her on the bench, wrapping his arms around her. He kissed his way down from her forehead to her lips. "Whither thou goest, Scully," he whispered, then sealed his vow with a kiss. "I promise."

She nodded, wrapping her arms around his neck to pull him down to her. He knew that she couldn't speak for fear of crying, so let her make her promise to him with her lips and her tongue.

When they resurfaced, he pulled her back against his chest, dragging the table within reach so they could get at their champagne. "Happy birthday, Scully," he said, clinking her glass.

"Thank you, Mulder," she said, and he understood that she meant more than his last few words.

They lay there sipping their champagne until Scully spoke again. "Is there any chocolate?"

He laughed his answer, and watched as she got up and searched the galley for dessert. He followed her, bringing in their plates and putting them in the tub designated for dirty dishes. He saw the cooler on the floor and hesitated, then went outside to get the rest of the dishes. When he returned, Scully was, of course, rearranging them in the tub. Even though they weren't going to be washed until they were returned to the resort, she still wanted them to be just so. He stood there, wordlessly watching his ever-so-slightly obsessive compulsive love, and tried to work up the courage to broach the topic that was the true reason for which he'd planned this private dinner.

"You know," he began, trying to sound casual, "we could get married now." He handed her an empty serving dish.

"Mulder," she said in a negative tone. "After all this time, why would that matter?"

"We could get married in the church," he countered quietly. "Get a blessing."

That caught her attention, and she stared up at him, wide-eyed but quiet, her cross dangling from her neck. "You'd have to take classes," she said after a minute.

"I know," he said. "I know what I would have to do." He paused. "I also know that it would mean something to you, Scully."

"It would have meant more ... before," she said, carefully. "I just ...

I'm not sure that anyone in my family would come to our wedding, Mulder." She looked down at her hands, and picked at a tiny chip in her perfect manicure. "I don't know if I'd want them to be there."

He knew that she'd been hurt by her mother's failure to accept her choices, but he doubted that she truly wouldn't want her to be there. Her brothers, however - Mulder tread lightly, knowing that the estrangement between them had complex underpinnings. He might not have ever finished his practicum, but Scully was his partner, his love, and sometimes his only client. "Is that the only reason to be married then? The public aspect of it?"

She blinked, looking at him blankly before she spoke again. "You know that I'll never leave you, Mulder," she said firmly. "Even when I couldn't come home those nights, it was just a stress reaction. I never should have done that." She rounded the bin and came to stand in front of him, speaking earnestly. "We made our vows a long time ago," she said, and he had a flash of memory of their motel room in Roswell. "What means something to me, Mulder, is that you would do that for me, to give me something that you think I want." She kissed him, and he stifled his disappointment to stay in the kiss. "Thank you," she said, breaking away. She put her hand on his cheek. "I love you."

"I love you, too, Scully," he echoed, and he meant it, despite the hollow ache he felt at the moment. He bent over and retrieved the cooler, opening it so that the cake box on top was clearly displayed.

She grinned and clapped her hands at the sight, and he smiled at her delight. "Now, feed me some of that birthday cake!" she ordered.

Later, in the tiny bed below deck, he thought about their earlier conversation as he twirled her bikini top around his finger, spinning it by the loop that had lain between her breasts. She was drowsily pressed up against him, barely covered by the sheet, both of them sweaty from the combination of their exertions and the still air. Even though his body was satisfied, his restless mind wouldn't settle down. He hadn't expected her to jump with joy over his proposal, and didn't need to be married to sanctify his commitment to her, but all the same, he wanted to be married. Wife, after all, was a word he could use to describe her easily, a socially acceptable shorthand for the far more complicated truth of what they were to each other. But, it was a name he couldn't use, a right that he'd been unable to exercise without jeopardizing her because he had no legal status. Now, he'd had his name, such as it was, returned to him. Scully, however, had already dismissed the idea, and unless he reintroduced the topic and reframed it, she wouldn't consider it again, at least not any time soon. "Maybe I just want to change my name for real this time," he announced suddenly, as inspiration struck him.

She looked up at him, peeling her cheek from his chest. She'd been stroking those newly developing muscles in his side again, seemingly fixated on them. He'd decided that he needed to find a gym with a pool as soon as they got back to Richmond. "You'd change your name?"

He shrugged. "It's not really my name, is it?" he asked. "Besides, you've been my family longer than anyone that came before you."

She looked astonished. "Fox Scully?" Her mouth made the foreign shape awkwardly.

"Oh, I don't think so," Mulder said swiftly, and with a wince. "I was thinking ... Mulder Scully."

She goggled at him. "That would be hopelessly confusing," she said.

"Why?" he asked. "Everyone calls me Mulder. It's my name."

"Yes, but Mulder? It's kind of a horrible first name to give a kid."

"Like Fox?" he asked with a scowl. "Yeah, that's an awesome name for a kid."

She smiled at him, but he could see her mulling it over, which was his whole point. She was quiet for a few minutes, curled up next to him as their small boat stirred slightly in the calm waters. "You'd really change your name?"

He held up his hand and wiggled his ring finger. "You put a fat diamond on that finger and I'm all yours, baby."

He loved making her laugh, maybe more than anything in the world, so he delighted in her giggles even as he thought forlornly of the ring tucked away at the bottom of the cooler in a Ziploc bag. He could be patient, he reminded himself. He had years of experience. He'd already planted the seed -- he just needed to tend it.

"Mulder Scully," she said slowly, shifting up in the bed. She kissed a path up from his chest, her fingers playing lightly over his sternum and his pecs, before they slid up to cup his face. He turned his head to kiss her fingers, drawing her ring finger into his mouth and sucking on it deliberately. She straddled him, sitting up, and then tilted her head to regard him, her sun-streaked curls streaming over her bared breasts.

He smiled at her. "That's me," he said.

"Hmm ... " she purred, then leant forward to capture his lips with her own, as his hands slid up to cup her breasts. Her hair made a curtain around them. "You still do keep me guessing, Mulder," she murmured.

He closed his eyes, and sank willingly into her embrace, and then her body, with a sigh. As long as she was there with him, he would always be home.

There really was nothing like the ocean, he thought as he floated drowsily. His back scratched lightly against the bottom of the lagoon, and he struggled up to consciousness, not aware that he'd drifted so far. He must have dozed off. He staggered up out of the water to find an entire sand city that stretched all the way from the water's edge to the cabana and the path that led around to the front of their bungalow. He felt suddenly awake as he searched the nearby area, looking for the expected small form. Seeing no one, he shaded his eyes and looked at the city again. The skyline looked familiar, with the water lapping at its edge. Just outside the city, spaceships had crashed into the ground, their large disks half buried in the sand where the sea grasses and the flowers began.

There was something disturbing about the tableau that he couldn't - they had built a lot of spaceships over the years, but this kind of scale, with the looming dead hulks of the ships in the ex-urbs, was new. And where was he? Mulder turned and rushed up the path to the patio.

Scully lay on the hammock in repose, her arm outspread over the narrow back of a boy, his skin dusted with sand that glistened in the dappled sunlight as they swung back and forth. He could hear the low murmur of her voice as she talked to William, something that had never happened, not once in all the years that he'd dreamt of their son. William and Scully were laying on the hammock facing each other, but he could only see Scully's face, and the love on it as she lifted her hand, stroking their son's dark hair and then wiping at his cheek.

"Scully," he said urgently, and she looked up at him, her smile radiant.

"See," she said to the boy. "There he is."

William turned his head, and his expression was so ineffably, utterly sad that Mulder felt his own heart clench in his chest. "William," he said in concern and took a step forward, but before he could take another, William disappeared, and all that was left was a diminishing pile of sand and the sound of Scully's choking sobs.

"Where is he, Mulder?" Her question sounded like an accusation, and he shook his head in bewilderment, his eyes fixated on the sand slowly drifting off the hammock as it rocked back and forth. Above Scully, the trees were filled with parakeets, all watching.

"I ... " he said helplessly, before he turned to run back to the lagoon. The path that he'd taken before had disappeared, so he blundered through the jungle-like growth, slapping the vines away that clung to his arms and legs as he tried to force his way through. Finally, he burst out of the undergrowth to the lagoon's edge, but William was nowhere to be seen.


The sound of his voice echoed, and he looked up to the empty sky and saw that the birds were filling the trees across the lagoon, watching him impassively. "Where is he?" he yelled at them, but they remained silent.

He glanced down at his feet and saw that the city was smashed to ruins around him, but not by his heedless actions. His blood ran cold as he realized that the spaceships that had before crashed harmlessly outside the city had instead laid waste to it entirely, leaving only rubble and the skyline itself unrecognizable.


Mulder was afraid that he'd said their son's name out loud, but Scully slept on in their little bunk. He'd sat up in the narrow bed grazing the low ceiling above the bunk, chest heaving, heart pounding. He lay back down and tried to regulate his breathing, his hand gripping his aching head as he resisted the urge to gather Scully to his chest like a teddy bear, to wake her with his need for reassurance as had happened so many nights when they were first reunited.

What did it mean? Was the dream trying to tell him something, or was it just a manifestation of new anxiety? He was free, but there had been a kind of safety in his solitude in their house. Was it merely the uncertainty of what was to come now?

Scully shifted and murmured next to him, and he turned toward her, trying to will himself to not wake her up, to not use her as a sedative to ease his anxiety. It was a bad habit that he'd go back to in times of trouble, that desperate loving in the middle of the night so that he could lapse into unconsciousness. He moved to the edge of the bed and rolled out, careful to keep his head down as he fumbled his way in the dim light to the ladderlike staircase that led above deck.

It's just post-traumatic stress he told himself, trying to will himself into rationally analyzing the dream. He'd gotten his life back, something he'd never thought would happen. Now that he was free and seemingly of no concern to the collaborators who were trying to bring about Armageddon, it was only logical that his subconscious mind would wander to William. After all, it was his fault that he was gone. He never should have left them alone in the first place -- it was his job to protect them, and he'd failed. Mulder shivered at the thought, and pulled Scully's sarong off the bench and wrapped it around his shoulders.

The stern of the boat was facing east, and it was still early enough that the stars were out above his head while the horizon was warming from red to pink as the sun readied its rise. He sat down on the bench and tried to push his morbid thoughts away, but his remembrance of William's face tore at him. Never once in all the years that they'd built sandcastles had William looked at him with anything other than happiness. Of course, the dreams were his, and subconsciously, he wanted to believe that William would still love him, even after everything. He'd taken comfort from the time that they'd spent together, silent as it usually was. So, why had he suddenly changed the dream scenario? Why had Scully been there? Why had William needed to be comforted? His heart was pounding with anxiety again, but he struggled to rein it in as he heard Scully's sure footfalls coming up from behind him.

"Mulder ... " he could hear the sleepy concern in her voice when suddenly she gasped. "Oh!"

He turned and looked at her, and her face was transformed with wonder. He followed her gaze and saw a pair of dolphins arcing from the water in the distance, ahead of the sunrise. "Wow ... " he said. All the years on the X-Files, he'd seen some amazing things, but they weren't usually wondrous.

"Oh, Mulder," Scully breathed out. She knelt on the bench and watched the dolphins playing, rapt at the sight, her freckled shoulder peeking out at him from the loose-slung toga of the top sheet.

They were silent until the dolphins disappeared behind one of the nearby islands that dotted the landscape.

"Were they here when you came up on deck?" she asked him. Her eyes were still shining with absolute joy and excitement, allowing him to see the little girl that she had been long before he knew her.

"No," he said, smiling, reaching out to her. "They appeared when you did. They were waiting for you."

"I have always wanted to see dolphins in the wild," she said warmly. She pushed and pulled him until his back was to the rising sun, then straddled his lap. "Ever since I was a little girl," her eyes were darting from the horizon back to him, alert for the possibility of the dolphins' return. "My father used to tell us stories of dolphins following his ship, of them playing in the wake, and every time he took us sailing," she shook her head. "I waited and I looked for them, but they never came."

Mulder smiled. "Until now."

"Until now," she echoed. She shrugged her shoulders out of her cocoon and wrapped her arms around his neck, playing with the hair at his nape. "Have you ever seen them before?"

"Twice," Mulder said, considering. "The first time I was really little, and I stuck my head between the railings of the ferry to get a good look at them. I was so far over the bottom one that I almost fell overboard."

Scully laughed at the image.

He smiled at her. "You know, I don't think I ever saw them after Samantha disappeared."

"You know what this means, Mulder?" Her eyes were still gleaming at him. "Your luck has changed."

"Scully," he said in delight. "Are you giving credence to an old wives' tale?" He squeezed her as he teased, pulling her in to kiss her neck.

"I don't think the old wives were on the fishing boats, Mulder," she said, tilting her head backwards.

"So you say," he said, "I think that the old husbands might have a different story to tell."

"Nice outfit," she commented. "First I have to worry about my stockings, now I have to worry about my sarongs."

"What can I say?" Mulder said. "I'm secure enough in my masculinity to embrace my feminine side. Or yours, more accurately."

She grinned at him, then regarded him searchingly. "Why were you up so early?"

He rotated his hips below her in answer.

"No," she said, narrowing her eyes.

He sighed. "OK," he said. "I was feeling a bit claustrophobic below deck." He hoped that she would not call him on his prevarication.

"Claustrophobic?" she asked.

"A little," he said. "It made me anxious."

That answer was acceptable, it seemed, as she lapsed into silence for a couple of minutes, tracing his shoulders with her fingertips. "Are you sure you're not upset about our conversation last night?"

He was immediately on alert. "Why would you think that, Scully?"

She sighed, ducking her head. "I wasn't entirely honest with you," she said, her cadence very slow and careful.

He was surprised to hear that, and his expression showed it.

"It's true that I'm touched that you want to get married, Mulder. And," she continued seriously, "it is true that a part of me feels that it's unnecessary after all this time." She paused. "But it's also true that I'm angry that we weren't married long before now."

"Scully ... "

She held up her hand. "I'm not angry with you," she said firmly. "I'm angry about all the time that we lost, everything that's been taken from us, how we've been toyed with and tortured. We should have been able to get married after William was born," she said in a harsh whisper. "We should have been able to be a family." She looked up at him. "But we weren't allowed any peace. And I cannot help but feel," her voice rose in anger, "resentful of the role that our government played in what has happened to us, to our family."

He nodded.

"And so it's that," she said. "That idea that they would have some role in sanctioning what we mean to each other, after all they have done to destroy us, that I cannot stand to think of."

He was well and truly surprised at her words.

"Can you understand that, Mulder?" she asked him. "They have no place here, between us. We exist, despite them."

"This is why you were so vehemently opposed to helping the FBI, even though you wanted me to work the case," he said.

"Yes," she admitted. "Yes. It galls me that they have had the power to take you away from me, all this time, when they're the ones who are the criminals. It galls me that they had power over me all those years when that chip resided in my neck, and that I might still have to depend upon that thing someday, to save my life." She paused, and swallowed. "I know that the FBI is not wholly, or solely, to blame, but ... there are plenty of people in it who are wielding authority that they've stolen, working for an illegal government." She shook her head. "I don't want anything to do with them. And when I talk to my family, and have to listen to my brothers defend what they don't understand ... how they denigrate and deny what has happened to me ... " she shook her head, and he saw how impotent she felt.

"I don't think I understood that until just now," Mulder said. He gathered her up against him. "Thank you for telling me this, Scully."

"Don't thank me, Mulder," she said, pushing him back so she could see him, "for not being fair to you. I shut down the conversation without real consideration."

"No, you didn't," he said diplomatically.

"Yes, I did," she said. "And what I'm trying to say is that if you really want to get married, I'll marry you."

He smiled. "You know what?"

She shook her head in mystification.

"It means a lot to me that you said that."


He could see that she thought he was mocking her. "I'm being completely serious," he said quietly.

She regarded him skeptically.

"You've given me a lot to think about," he said, "now that I understand how you feel." He paused. "We could do it here, you know. We're not in the US," he could see her mulling it over, her expression considering, but not really open. "My point is: we don't have to get married at home." He paused. "Think about it, OK? We can just go somewhere and do it alone, just the two of us."

She nodded.

"And while you're thinking about it," he stretched over to reach the cooler, which was on the floor, tucked into a corner. "I want you to have this." He rummaged around in the ice and found the Ziploc bag, pouring the velvet box into his other hand. "Man, that's cold."

"Oh, Mulder," she said. "What have you done?"

He smiled. "All these years, and yet, I never knew how frugal you were until just recently," he said. He opened the hinged box to reveal what he'd been assured was a deep green emerald framed on either side by blue sapphires. "Did you know that sapphire is one of the birthstones for not only Pisces, but Libra?" he asked.

"Mulder," she said, smiling. "You have always maintained that astrology is, and I quote, 'total bullshit'."

He shrugged. "It's just an interesting fact," he said. "You don't have to believe it."

"And the emerald?" she asked quietly.

He knew that she knew. "The birthstone for Taurus," he answered. "Or the month of May."

Her eyes filled with tears, but she was smiling. She held out her hand and he slid the ring home. "Thank you, Mulder," she said quietly before she kissed him. She pressed her forehead against his and said mischievously, "Does this ring mean you're not going to change your name?"

He laughed aloud, then gasped as she reached between them to push the sarong out of the way. As the sun began to crest over the horizon, it cast a blush on her skin as she rose like Venus from out of the bedsheet and made love to him, making him forget anything other than her.

May 7, 2008

Mulder sighed in satisfaction as the mile markers ticked off on I-95. He was within twenty miles of Richmond, and if the traffic gods were with him, he'd be home soon. The drive back from Baltimore had been more boring than grueling, particularly because he sorely missed Scully and felt the ache of her empty seat keenly. All the years they'd spent in the car had ingrained the habit, so when there was no one to make wry observations to, or play car games with, he got bored rapidly.

Still, the trip had been worthwhile, even if he still wasn't sure at all that he was on the right path for this next part of his life. He'd contacted John Maguire at Johns Hopkins at the end of January on David Truesdale's advice. Maguire was a well-known professor of psychology whose specialty was working with victims of trauma. David knew of him because of the work Maguire had quietly done with the abductee community and their families. He'd thought Maguire would be a good resource, and a sympathetic ear for Mulder as he explored the possibility of finishing his degree.

Maguire had, in fact, known exactly who Mulder was when he'd called, and although he was disappointed that Mulder was neither approaching him for therapeutic assistance nor desired to work with the abductee community, he had agreed to essentially become Mulder's academic adviser.

The thing was, the closer Mulder got to completing his degree, the less sure he became that he wanted to do so. It wasn't that the coursework he'd been required to take to requalify for his credentials had been ordinary, or even unchallenging. It simply didn't interest him the way it once had. He'd seen a tremendous spectrum of human psychology in his years in the FBI, most of it abnormal. And he wasn't the least little bit interested in revisiting that part of humanity. In fact, the coursework on abnormal psychology had actually inspired a revulsive response in him, not to mention triggering a few nightmares. What he was more interested in exploring was trying to help those who had been affected by trauma, particularly children and adolescents, but he'd been specific in saying that he was interested in working with children whose abuse and neglect had been more mundane.

Maguire claimed to understand and support Mulder's academic explorations, but Mulder couldn't help but notice that Maguire inevitably steered their conversations back to his traumatic memories of Samantha, Scully and of course, his own abduction. Maguire seemed to be testing the state of Mulder's resolve to remain silent about them.

Although Mulder could certainly empathize with a person who has doggedly pursued the answers to a mystery, the twists and turns of his own life had also taught him empathy for those who he had formerly relentlessly chased for answers. Maguire had no real concept of what he was asking Mulder to share, had only seen the tip of the iceberg in his clients. Mulder knew that Maguire could sense the lie in Mulder's firm assertion that he did not remember what had happened to him in the months before he was returned dead, or that he had no notion of time passing during his interment, even though he most certainly had strong memories of them both.

What Maguire could not understand, and would see as pathological, was that Mulder's belief that there were eyes and ears everywhere had been well earned. Five months out of the house, Mulder still believed that his freedom had been tenuously earned. He would do nothing to jeopardize the rights he had regained -- nothing to jeopardize the promise he'd made to Scully. He'd chosen her, all those years ago, and whenever possible, Fox Mulder did not break his promises.

He smiled as he steered onto the familiar country roads, his headlights cutting through the spring evening, which somehow didn't seem as dark as the winter's night. He cracked the windows and let the rich smell of the sun-ripened earth fill the car. He glanced at the clock, hoping that he'd be home before Scully, that he'd have time to get dinner started before she arrived. He hated the fact that it had been three nights since he'd last seen her. The first night she'd been scheduled for her regular overnight shift and the second she'd spent at the bedside of a gravely ill child. Ever since her successful treatment of Christian - so far, he heard her voice gravely qualifying in his head - she'd been sought out by other parents seeking similar miracles. Thank God he'd been able to take her away for their vacation, otherwise he didn't know if she could have withstood the onslaught of work.

Their third night apart had been necessitated by his need to write finals for the classes he'd taken. It hadn't been particularly difficult as much as it had been time-consuming and tedious. He had been surprised to find that he wasn't the oldest graduate student in the group. Among his classmates had been a woman in her sixties who'd given up the idea of practicing thirty years before when her third child had been born with special needs. Mulder and she had bonded over coffee. Unlike Mulder, Millie had no doubts about what she was doing. Her efforts to bolster his resolve had only underlined his doubts. Still -- he wasn't willing to give up as yet. He just had no idea what the hell he was going to do about the practical aspects of his clinical training year, since Maguire had made it plain that he wanted to oversee Mulder's year personally. In Baltimore.

He pulled up to their gate, surprised to see that Scully's car was already in front of the house. He wondered if this meant that she'd basically worked straight through while he'd been gone, an idea that seemed more than likely to be true. He shook his head in consternation. She really had to start taking better care of herself. He pulled in behind her car and grabbed his overnight bag and laptop from the back seat before he crossed the porch, eager to see her.

He'd expected to find her upstairs, so was surprised to see her sitting on the couch, still wearing her raincoat, staring at the papers in her hand. She looked -- not exactly upset, but stunned. She didn't seem to have noticed that he was home. "Scully?"

"There you are," she breathed out. She looked up at him, tearing her eyes away from the words on the page.

"Are you all right? Is that from your mother?"

She was shaking her head before he finished speaking. "No, Mulder, no," she said. "My mother's OK. No," she said, then stopped and looked down at the papers again, as if making sure that they were actually there. "Do you remember when I wrote up Christian's treatment course and outcomes for the Journal of Pediatric Neurology?"

"Scully," he said, delighted. "Did your monograph get accepted?"

"Oh, it's too soon for that, Mulder," she said, dismissively, "but I did send a copy of it to Dr. Sperry. It was her treatment for Sandhoff's disease I based my treatment plan on."

"OK," he said.

"She, um, forwarded the monograph to several of her colleagues," she said. Her tone seemed bewildered, almost disbelieving.

"And?!" Mulder said. Sometimes, she drove him completely crazy.

"Mulder," she said. "I've been solicited to apply for two posts, with the inference that if I apply, I will be offered them."

"Two?" he asked in delight. He went over to the couch and picked her up, hugging her, while she held the papers out of the way. "Scully! You stud! Tell me!"

She shook her head, as if to clear it. "You know you said this would happen. That first night we went to the diner, you said this would happen."

"I did, didn't I?" he asked proudly, then added. "98.9, Scully." He sat them both down on the couch. "Now, tell me."

"The first offer is from New York," she said, "from the Weill Cornell Medical Center at New York-Presbyterian."

Mulder tried to control his wince. As much as he loved the Yankees, he really wasn't wild about New York City. "I hear they're getting a new Yankee Stadium!" he said cheerfully.

"I saw the face, Mulder," she said. "That's for a lectureship, two years minimum. Housing stipend."

"Not bad," Mulder said, slowly. They didn't actually need the housing stipend, but the fact that they'd offered it meant that they were serious. "The other one?"

She drew in a breath. "The other cannot possibly be right," she said firmly.

"Scully," he said. "Stop stalling and spill it."

"It's for an assistant professorship, Mulder."

He whistled. "Skipping right over the riff raff is the eminently, or perhaps overqualified, Dr. Dr. Scully."

She shook her head at him. "The letter also states that if I continue evolving new, successful treatment modalities, that I'll be assured acceptance onto the tenure track within three years."

Mulder was absolutely delighted at this news. "And I bet you'll have lots of new toys that were built in this century to help you evolve those new modalities." He kissed her. "Where's the second offer from?"

"It's too good to be true, Mulder," she said.

"C'mon, my little skeptic," he said, wrapping his arms around her and jiggling her. "Cough up the name."

"Johns Hopkins," she said softly.

"I knew it," Mulder crowed. "They just want you back, that's all. They realize that they never should have let you go in the first place." He kissed her neck. "I know just how they feel."

She swatted him away with her letters, her cheeks flushed pink. "But ... we'd have to move," she said quietly.

"Scully," Mulder began, "do you remember how I always say 'If coincidences are just coincidences, why do they feel so contrived?'"

She raised an eyebrow at him.

"Let me tell you a fascinating story," he began, undoing the belt of her coat. "But before I do, let me observe that if you continue rolling your eyes like that, they may get stuck that way one day ... "

After his shower, he observed her from the mirror in the bathroom while he spread shaving cream across his face. She was in bed, propped up on a stack of pillows, with her reading glasses perched on her nose. Her book was opened, waiting to be read, but she was staring off into the middle distance. He lost sight of her when he opened the mirrored front of the cabinet to get a new blade for his razor. Years of sleeping together had trained him that his best chance at getting lucky was to shave -- a woman who supposedly lived alone shouldn't be showing up with a wanted fugitive's stubble burn on her easily marked skin. Of course, in the wintertime, the rules were different, but only because Scully was willing to wear turtlenecks. He could hear the creaking of their bed as she moved across it, so he wasn't surprised to find her standing in the doorway of the bathroom, leaning against the jamb in her camisole and matching panties.

He began to shave carefully as he waited for her to speak, unperturbed by her serious face.

"I really don't want to leave our house," she said suddenly.

"It'll cost a shitload to move it," Mulder quipped, running his razor under a stream of water.

"Mulder," she said, exasperated. "I'm serious. We've been happy here, haven't we? And this place ... " she rubbed the woodwork of the door fondly, almost caressing it. "This is our home," her anger had dissipated into wistfulness. "I don't want to sell our home."

He finished shaving his lip and then his chin as she watched him, patiently waiting. "Scully," he said. "Why would we sell our house?"

She looked askance at him.

"We can come down here on the weekends," he said. "It's not that far."

She looked stunned by his pronouncement, but he bent over and washed his face off before she could speak again.

"We're not hiding anymore," he said, after he shut the water off. "We don't have to pretend that we don't have money." He shrugged. "We don't need to sell our house."

"Are you sure we can afford that?"

"You want me to show you the bank accounts again?" He answered, turning around. He wiped his hands on the towel around his hips

Scully's shoulders eased down from their rigid posture. "I trust you," she said quietly.

He smiled and took two steps forward, bringing him flush against her. "Good answer," he said. He wrapped his arms around her, one hand stroking up under her camisole, one drifting underneath the elastic band of her underwear.

He felt her hands tug the damp towel loose as he walked her backwards toward their bed. He grumbled as she pushed him away from her so that she could wipe the water from his chest and his face, but sighed in pleasure as she stood on her tiptoes to kiss the extra-sensitive bare skin under his chin.

She pressed a line of kisses along his jawline moving toward his ear until she was practically standing en pointe. This time, it was she that broke away grumbling. "Too tall," she muttered, dropping back down on her heels as her hands roamed over his shoulders and chest.

He grunted as she punctuated her remark with a kiss to his chest. How was it possible that after all this time, he still reveled in the feel of her hands on his skin, even now when they were such familiar friends? He hunched over her like the gentleman his mother had raised him to be and kissed her, feeling the sweet urgency rise at her nearness. His hands roamed under the camisole pulling it up and over her head, before he bent to draw her underwear off, stopping to place a kiss below her belly button as he passed by. "You know what I think the real problem is?" he asked. He nipped at her thigh as she sighed.

"I imagine that you're going to tell me, whether or not I want to hear it," she said drily, ruffling his hair.

"Virginia," he announced, smoothing his hands over her thighs and buttocks as he rose back up, "is for lovers. You just like living here, because it validates your illicit lifestyle."

She smirked at him. "You think so, huh?"

"Absolutely," Mulder said, "your secret rebellious nature wins out time and again over your more pragmatic side. Why else would you have spent all that time living with a wanted fugitive?"

"For the yoga?" she asked innocently.

Mulder shrugged modestly, as she tugged at him, pulling him down on their bed where their size differential could be more easily accounted for. He followed her down to the bed, kissing her while they got supine.

"It all seems too good to be true," she whispered when they came up for air.

"I think it's about goddamned time," he said in a low voice, tracing her lips with his fingers. "You said that our luck was changed that day on the boat, remember?"

She nodded, watching him, waiting for his next move.

"Do you believe it now?" he whispered, watching her.

Her expression was slightly mischievous as she considered her answer. "I want to believe, Mulder," she said. She tugged on his shoulders, pulling him closer, her hair streaming across the pillows as she smiled. "Come here."

June 16, 2008

Mulder swore long and loud as the bottom dropped out of the box that he'd just packed full of psychology texts, books that he wasn't even sure he wanted to take with him to Baltimore.

"Are you all right?" Scully bellowed from upstairs. It sounded like she was still in the closet, so she clearly wasn't that worried.

"Where's the tape gun?" he yelled back fractiously. It was fucking hot. At least their new house in Baltimore had central air. He would enjoy that.

"I don't have it," Scully hollered in a firm, no-nonsense tone. "But when you find it, can you bring it up here?"

"Why don't we have two?" he muttered resentfully, looking around his mostly dismantled office. He tripped over a book just as he spotted the tape gun on top of the one empty bookcase in the room. "Why do we have so much crap?" he bellowed to Scully rhetorically.

"Speak for yourself," she belted out.

He snorted, taping the bottom of the box back together. As if she hadn't been up there packing clothes for the entire day - her shoes alone had filled one of the larger UPS boxes that they had. And that was another thing. Their new house, in Baltimore's Waverly neighborhood, had closets. In fact, it had two in the master bedroom alone, which meant that he would be able for the first time in years, to hang more than a few token items in the closet of the room he slept in. And even if he were forced to use the closets in any of the other three bedrooms, at least they'd be upstairs. The unused bedroom on their second floor, the one they tended to ignore, had a tiny closet with a recidivist tendency toward mice, no matter what he did to try and keep the nasty vermin out.

He had discovered this fact painfully one day, when he put on a coat to go out and shovel the first snow of the season and found a family of mice living in the pocket he expected only his gloves to be residing in. Luckily, he'd been alone in the house that day, so no one other than the aforementioned vermin had witnessed the entirely understandable noises that had emanated from his throat, not to mention the interesting dance he'd done when taking off the coat. After that, he'd crammed his clothes in the tiny closet down in his office. He'd also never stuck his hand in a coat pocket without squeezing it from the outside again.

He sighed as he surveyed the wreckage of his office. He'd need to move the boxes of books so that he'd actually be able to pack the contents of his closet. He grumbled as he hauled a box out to their cramped living room. As he searched for a square foot that he could put it down upon, he heard the sound of a phone ringing upstairs. From the ringtone, he assumed that it was Scully's, but if it was his, he wasn't going to answer it. Maguire had already called him twice, trying to get him to come up early to see an interesting child patient. From the limited history that Maguire had given him over the phone, Mulder knew that Maguire suspected that the child had been an abductee, but he was fairly convinced that the child was deluded. He pushed a stack of kitchenware boxes over to the left a little too hard, and had to rush to steady it with one arm while his right arm vigorously protested holding up the too heavy box of books.

After everything was more or less stable, he plunked the box down into the space he'd made, chest heaving. He could just make out the sound of Scully's quizzical murmuring upstairs over the sound of his own labored breathing. She'd discharged all of her patients at her former employer to her nemesis on the previous day, so he had no idea to whom she could be speaking. As Mulder had predicted, Scully's nemesis was remaining at Our Lady of Sorrows for what he was sure would be an illustrious post- fellowship career. He smirked as he grabbed the tape gun and his bottle of water and began to climb the stairs. It was time for a break.

Scully had hung up by the time he got to the top, and was sitting on the bed staring at her phone with a frown on her face. She looked hot, and he meant that in its truest sense. She was wearing a pink tank top that had been clean when she put it on, but was now covered with dust and dirt from her time rooting around on the bottom of the closet. There was a smear of dirt on her face, and a huge smudge of it on her bare white leg and the pair of Mulder's boxers that she'd commandeered to wear as shorts. She'd drawn her hair up on top of her head to keep it out of the way, but it had broken out of its confines and spilled out of the ponytail like a fountain of damp red gold.

"What's up?" he asked, flopping on the bed next to her.

"That," she said, in a flat tone, "was Skinner."

"What'd he want?"

"He said he'd be here in fifteen minutes."

"For what?" Mulder asked, confused. "Is he coming to help us pack?

Scully stared at him with her patented 'Mulder-you're-crazy' expression, seasoned with the irritation that came with being hot, cranky and dirty. "Why would Skinner help us pack?" she asked slowly. Mulder shrugged. "I was hoping," he said. "So, what does he want?"

"He refused to say," Scully said crisply.

Mulder nodded. "You think he wants us to investigate something weird."

"What else would he want, Mulder?" She got up off the bed abruptly and stomped into the bathroom. "I'm taking a shower." The door slammed behind her, and the message was as clear as if she'd said, 'Mulder, stay out.'

"I'm not going to do it, Scully," he said loudly. He listened for a few seconds, hearing her actions in the small room become less pointed.

"You don't even know what he wants yet," she said back in a loud voice. Her tone was not as sharp as it had been.

"Doesn't matter," he said. "I'm not doing it."

The door opened a crack, and he heard her sigh before she spoke. "Don't make promises you can't keep, Mulder."

"Maguire has already called twice to try to talk me into getting up to Baltimore early," Mulder said. "How am I supposed to help Skinner with anything?"

The shower was running, and he heard her step into it. "Let's just listen to what he has to say, OK?"

He shook his head in exasperation at her contrary nature. "I'm not doing it," he muttered crankily. "No fucking way."

"You're just telling us this now, when you've know for weeks that he was missing?" Mulder could hear the edge of hysteria beneath the rage in the quivering of his voice, but he was too far gone to stop it.

As Skinner's explanation had haltingly been relayed to them, Scully had sunk down onto the couch. She was curled around herself, rocking slightly.

Mulder had seen his mother assume that exact same posture year ago, and had watched helplessly as her eyes turned inward and she closed herself off. Her suicide years later had simply been a coda to that day, that action. He had never wanted that life to be his.

"I didn't have confirmation, Mulder," Skinner said. His voice had a pleading edge to it.

"You suspected this when you took us to the airport in March!" Mulder yelled. Skinner shook his head, but Mulder's voice rose over whatever clarification he might have made. "You knew something that day," he accused. "Don't lie to me!"

"All I knew was that his mother's cancer had returned," Skinner said, and this time it was his voice that rose over Mulder's. "One of the ways that I kept tabs on him was that he was enrolled," Skinner sketched quotes in the air, "in an asthma study. A detailed questionnaire about his and his family's health and circumstances was sent twice a year."

Scully looked up at Skinner in surprise.

He shrugged, and continued in a quieter voice. "That way, if there were any changes in his health status, I'd get some information on it directly."

Mulder was not appeased. "So, she answered the questionnaire in March and you decided not to tell us about her cancer!"

"Not exactly," Skinner said. "The questionnaire was due in January." Mulder threw up his hands in frustration. "They've been late before, Mulder!" Skinner said loudly. "And it takes time for the questionnaire to get to me through all the dummy PO boxes. When it got to the point that I got worried, I had the call placed to remind them."

"The call?" Mulder said. "Who called? How? And when, exactly, was this in January?"

"The call didn't take place until March," Skinner said firmly. "And I had Monica Reyes make it."

"Oh my God," Mulder began, but Skinner interrupted him.

"She called a number from a clean satellite phone that I purchased just for the purpose, and destroyed immediately after," Skinner said. "I dialed the number, and we made the call when I was on vacation and she was on a case in Kansas."

Mulder stared at Skinner.

"She has never asked who she was calling or why. We have not discussed it." Skinner was unequivocal. "She had a script, and she followed it. Her experience as an interrogator allowed her to tease more information out of the subject."

"William's adoptive mother, you mean?" Mulder said bitterly.

"Yes," Skinner said tersely. "She told Monica that they'd be unable to participate in the home visit this year because of her cancer treatment schedule."

"Home visit?" Mulder asked.

"Yes," Skinner said. "Once a year, someone goes to the house and vacuums samples, etc., to make it look legitimate. This also gives us the opportunity to look at William ourselves."

Scully's mouth hung open as she looked at Skinner. "Who?"

Skinner hesitated. "I usually send an operative that worked with the Gunmen, and has largely taken over their operation. She's designated others."

Now it was Mulder's mouth that was hanging open. "Yves?" he asked disbelievingly. "You've sent an assassin to check on our child?"

"She owed me," Skinner said tersely.

"I can't fucking" Mulder began, "this is a nightmare." He paused to take control of himself and focus. "So, she was being treated at a local cancer center," Mulder said. "And you decided not to tell us."

"You were on your way out of the country for your first vacation in years," Skinner said curtly. "We were monitoring the situation. I knew that I'd be getting an update in May. I decided to wait."

"I cannot believe that you didn't tell us what was going on! This is our son!" Mulder shouted.

"Mulder," Skinner said. "I firmly believed that I'd be coming to you today to tell you that they'd hit a bump in the road, but that everything was going to be all right. It wasn't until Gary went to camp on the farm and found it deserted that we found out about William's father's fatal heart attack-"

"In March," Mulder asked.

"It happened while you were gone, yes," Skinner confirmed. "But I did not know that before you went away."

"And why didn't you tell us when you found out?!" Mulder yelled. "And who is Gary?"

"I've only known for two weeks," Skinner said defensively. "Gary is a friend. We served together in Vietnam. He'd camp on their farm when he went out there for motorcycle rallies."

"I don't even fucking believe what I'm hearing," Mulder said. "That was a security plan? A guy who goes camping on their land?"

"Twice a year, Mulder," Skinner said. "Every Memorial Day weekend since William was one years old and then again in the fall. And not only did Gary and I serve together in Vietnam, but he continued on, in Special Ops." Skinner paused briefly. "He'd run into many of your boogie men over the years, Mulder. Including the supersoldiers. He never asked why I wanted him to go to Wyoming, but he was a good set of eyes and ears for unfriendlies."

"Fine," Mulder ground out. "Tell me what he found."

"He found the house quiet," Skinner said. "The fields were not planted. He went to the nearest town and asked what was going on. Because he'd been coming there for years, the restaurant owner was willing to tell him that Van De Kamp had died"

Scully roused herself to ask a question. "What happened?"

Skinner shook his head. "They'd gone into Cheyenne so that she could be treated for her cancer. He'd drive her in, and then come back and work in the fields, then drive back and get her four days later. Then he'd do it again two days later."

She nodded.

"The hand he had working for him said that he was exhausted, that he'd stay up all night taking care of his wife, and then work in the fields. He'd brought her and the boy home late on a Friday and went out to the barn to close it up for the night." Skinner paused, and his voice dropped to a whisper. "When Van De Kamp didn't come into the house in the usual amount of time ... " he hesitated. "The hand said that William went out to the barn ... "

Scully made an anguished noise.

Mulder glared at Skinner whose eyes had dropped to his shoes.

"By the time the ambulance got out there," Skinner began, then shook his head. "After the funeral, William and his adoptive mother returned to Cheyenne to continue her treatment." He looked up at Mulder. "By the time we got this information, she'd already been discharged. We were told that she'd been advised to go to a larger, more state-of-the-art cancer center."

"How did you get this information?" Mulder asked suspiciously.

"Agent Doggett took some vacation," Skinner said quietly.

Mulder swore out loud. "Perfect!" he said. "You do you realize that everything you've done since then would have led them right to our son, if they don't have him already?"

Scully moaned a little at his words.

"This is my fault," Mulder said bitterly. "I should have fucking known better. I should have fucking known that the only reason that I was allowed to regain my legal status was because they no longer had any use for me, and whatever's left of what they did to me. They knew that they could get William."

"I don't think that's true, Mulder," Skinner said heatedly. "I called you - no one else suggested it!"

"Oh, really," Mulder said. "How do you fucking know that your nanites didn't suggest the idea to you in your sleep one night? My God!" He turned around and kicked one of the boxes hard, caving in the side. "They could've had him for months now, for all you know. And even if they didn't know that he was missing, they certainly do now. I cannot believe that you used FBI sources!"

"Agent Doggett would not betray you," Skinner said through gritted teeth.

"Not willingly, no," Mulder said. "But that's not even the point, sir, and you fucking know it. This is my son, not yours. It wasn't your decision to make. And this is not just about the last two weeks -- you should have told us what was going on with him months ago!" "I'm sorry," Skinner said.

Mulder knew that he was sincere, but right now he couldn't bring himself to give a fuck. Skinner's apology was not answered with any form of forgiveness.

"We need to see exactly what you've done," Scully's voice was a whisper, but hearing it again after such a long silence made Skinner jump.

He pointed to the file on the coffee table. "It's all right there," he answered. "Agent Doggett wanted to come with me," he said. "He wants you to know that he's available anytime you want to talk to him, day or night."

"That's fine," Scully said. Her voice was absent any kind of affect. She picked up the file on the coffee table as if it were a bomb needing to be diffused. When she flipped it open, pictures of William were visible. He heard her indrawn breath and couldn't resist going over to look at their son.

He should have been more surprised, but mostly what he felt was a sinking in his gut. It was all real, and it always had been. The boy from his dreams was smiling up at him, in a school picture. He was sure that when he read the file, he'd find that William's father had died shortly before his last dream of him.

"That's from last year," Skinner said gruffly.

When the tears that Scully had been silently crying began to fall on the photo, Skinner turned to leave their house.

"Walter," Mulder said, his tone was still harsh with anger. "I want everything that was given to you for safekeeping."

Scully sobbed a little on the couch.

Skinner's shoulders tensed, and then dropped. He turned away from the door. "It's in a safety deposit box, encased in lead," he said quietly. "The Gunmen set it up before they died."

"That's fine," Mulder gritted out. "But I'll be taking custody of it from now on. I should have taken custody of it, and of everything else that was mine, long ago."

Skinner's jaw was set in anger, and he turned to Scully. "Have you had symptoms?" Skinner was addressing Scully, but she didn't look up at him. Her finger was tracing William's features, as she shook her head.

"No," she said softly. Her voice had a distant quality to it. "Everything's been fine since it was removed."

Mulder closed his eyes at the horror that the idea of her words conjured up in him. He would never forget the almost paralyzing sense of fear he'd felt when she'd calmly told him that she'd removed the chip at the end of her second trimester. There had been no other choice.

Shortly after he'd been buried in North Carolina, timing too coincidental for him to ignore, the site of the chip had become infected, and proved resistant to antibiotics. The ante had been upped when Scully had had three incidents of lost time that had terrified both her and the Gunmen. She'd removed the chip, intending it to be temporary. When the infection cleared up, she'd had it reinserted, and suffered repeated petit mal seizures until it had been removed for good 48 hours later.

In his heart of hearts, Mulder had always believed that the chip had not malfunctioned at all. Instead, he believed that when their child had become viable that Scully had become expendable. They'd been clearing the decks, trying to make it easy for William to be taken. Luckily, it had all had gone wrong for them. Mulder'd been resurrected without being turned. And for whatever reason -- exposure to the African ship or Jeremiah Smith, even her pregnancy with William itself -- Scully's cancer had not returned. They existed, as she'd rightly observed, in spite of everything that had been done to kill them.

When Scully said nothing further to refute Mulder's words, Skinner turned back to him and nodded curtly. It was Scully who'd made Skinner promise that if she died, that he'd ensure William's safety. At the time, with first Mulder dead and then the Gunmen, she'd had no one else on whom to depend. When push had come to shove, she'd activated what she'd hoped was a failsafe for William's safety. With them first on the run, and then living precariously there'd been no point in changing those arrangements.

"Truesdale will contact you," Mulder said firmly. With William missing, and possibly in their clutches, he had to assume that he and Scully were now both expendable. Other contingencies for William's safety would have to be activated. "Who besides Doggett knows?"

"He listed all of his contacts in the file," Skinner said grimly. "Mulder -"

"We'll be in touch," Mulder said shortly. He opened the door to the porch.

Skinner looked back at Scully, but she did not raise her eyes from the photo of their son.

"I'm sorry," he said one more time, directing his words at Scully.

She nodded, and Skinner turned to go.

Mulder closed the door behind Skinner and crossed the room to his office to call David and activate every resource that he had available to find William. Scully's soft voice stopped him as he crossed the threshold.

"It's not Skinner's fault, Mulder," she said quietly. Her voice was practically a whisper. "It's mine."

He closed his eyes and scrubbed a hand across his face at her words. He had no answer for her, could not give her the absolution that she wanted, even as he knew that he himself was to blame. "I've got to call David," he said instead.

July 20, 2008

The echo of his feet on the pavement was in the same rhythm as his heartbeat. The same tempo as the name repeating ceaselessly in his head like a mantra, a month after Skinner had come to speak to them.

William. William. William.

He hadn't run this much in years, and knew it was foolish for a man sliding toward fifty to run in this heat, but he couldn't bring himself to care. If he didn't run, he'd never sleep. If he ran enough, he could maybe sleep without nightmares.

It would be easier, of course, if he could talk to Scully about all this, but conversations between them were few and far between these days. She'd retreated to work with a vengeance, preferring to spend her time saving other people's children while he impotently tried to find theirs.

Mulder was living the nightmare of his own childhood from a whole new perspective. Surprisingly, it gave him little sympathy and insight into the world of his parents as he couldn't help but ascribe blame to them for placing them all on this destructive path. His parents' aims might have started out as noble, if not self-serving, but their actions had resulted only in death and dissolution as far as he could tell. Maybe he was feeling sorry for himself, and for Scully, but it seemed to him that his life was one long chain of agony, with the periods of true joy hidden inside the links to keep him hanging on, waiting for the next one. He knew that he should be grateful for the years of relative peace that he and Scully had enjoyed, but like so many things that are pleasurable, it had come with an enormous price tag.

And even that joy, that interwoven-ness that he and Scully shared which teetered on the edge of being pathological, had failed to protect them from being torn apart by this latest news. They'd moved into their new house, this new aspect of their lives, in virtual silence. They were ostensibly free to go wherever they wished, to do whatever they wanted. But freedom, Mulder had long ago learned, was an illusion, just like safety. You could be taken anytime, if not by an alien craft, then by the randomness of a malevolent passerby, or failing brakes, or even a comet falling from the sky. Sure, the odds were against it -- but somebody had to be the winner, the celestial schmuck who got struck by lightning twice.

Mulder rounded the corner that brought him to their street and slowed to a walk, then circled the block twice more before he turned down their driveway and stretched out in the backyard. It was lush and green even in the summer heat, but not because he or Scully had paid any sort of attention to it. The previous owners had created an automated system for watering the garden that worked well, so they'd left it alone. The sprinklers were on now, countering the late afternoon heat, and he ducked his head under one, then shook himself like a dog before he shucked his shoes and socks and crossed the wide deck that they never used.

When they'd first seen the house, Mulder'd had all sorts of visions of them enjoying the deck here the way they'd enjoyed the outside living space in the Bahamas. But that had been before the darkness had come roaring back and swallowed them whole. As it was, they'd never once used the grill that was built into one side of the deck, much less the refrigerator. They barely managed to feed themselves. He fumbled with the string inside of his shorts where he'd tied his keys and unlocked the back door, entering the kitchen. He'd seen Scully's car in the driveway, but didn't bother yelling for her as he crossed the room. He had to go upstairs to take a shower anyway. He'd see her then.

Oddly, she wasn't upstairs, at least not in their bedroom or its neighboring bathroom. He wandered downstairs, intending to check on his e-mail and see if there was any news from David. He wasn't expecting any; there'd been nothing when he'd checked two hours ago, but he couldn't stop himself from looking again. After that, he'd try and focus on reading the case histories of two new patients that Maguire wanted him to become involved with. He sighed softly as he trod across the floor to the room he'd claimed for his office. It had probably been a den in the original house configuration, but he'd figured that it would be a good idea to have a space adjacent to the deck, back when he'd had visions of the two of them on a warm summer evening, sharing a beer and talking at the end of the day while he grilled them dinner.

"Scully?" he stopped short at the sight of her, sitting at his desk with the case file from Skinner spread out around her as she intently read what was on his screen. "What're you doing?"

"You haven't been telling me everything, Mulder," she answered in a flat, angry voice.

"What're you talking about?" He was immediately pissed off. "You know that David has private detectives looking everywhere for them. They had a credible lead to Boston, but it appears that either Ms. Van De Kamp changed her mind about treatment there, or someone changed it for her." When she continued to stare at him with a stony expression, he asked, "What?"

"Adoption strategy?" she asked accusatorily.

He closed his eyes. She was reading his notes, which tended to be a bit more freeform.

"Scully ... " he began.

"The woman is dying of cancer," she said curtly. "Her husband is already dead. You'd take away her child, too?"

"Wow," Mulder said sarcastically. "You certainly got a lot out of a two word note from a conversation I had with David. Like, for example, that I'm a totally heartless bastard."

Scully was silent, watching him. Her face was so thin; her mouth was drawn down in a way that showed all of the fine lines that worry had etched upon her face. "Then what is this?" Her tone was still too professionally interrogatory for his liking.

"As you said," Mulder emphasized. "The woman is dying. In fact, she may already be dead." Scully flinched at his words, but did not look away from him.

"Since she didn't show up in Boston, David's detectives are looking for obituaries and legal notices across the country and searching any available Social Service delivery databases for William's name. It's a long shot, but if he's in the system somewhere, we'll need a strategy to get custody of him." He paused. "David thinks that the best strategy is to assert my paternity rights, which, as you know, were never severed." Scully's eyes dropped and she flushed. She started to say something, but Mulder cut her off. "David's sending an affidavit for you to sign, attesting to the fact that William is my biological son. That, coupled with the DNA testing that you did before he was adopted, should prove the biology. Of course, the court may require that it be re-affirmed."

"Mulder ... " she began.

He cut her off angrily, "What else would you like to know?"

"What if she's already given custody of William to one of her siblings, or her husband's?" she asked softly.

"She had no siblings," Mulder answered. "And although Van De Kamp was from a large family, he was by far the youngest. Most of his surviving siblings are much older. None of them are interested in parenting a seven-year-old boy. They weren't close." He paused. "Anyway, I wouldn't hesitate to challenge a claim of theirs," he said. "It's clear to me that William's safety is the most important thing."

Scully's head jerked up. "Meaning what?" she asked. "That I'm not interested in William's safety? That I wasn't thinking of William's safety when I did this?"

When Mulder didn't answer her, she sucked in a breath and turned angrily back to the screen. "What does this mean? Question: magnetite half-life, Spender, May 2004?"

"That's not an investigative avenue," Mulder prevaricated. "Well, the part about Spender is. David's trying to locate my erstwhile baby brother."

"Why?" Scully asked curtly.

"Why?" Mulder said. "For one thing, he might still be connected to the Consortium and have an idea of where they'd take William. For another, I'd like to know what exactly he put into our son."

"He said that it was a solubilized magnetite."

"And you believed him?"

"The only thing that was detected on any blood test was elevated iron levels," Scully said.

"On a conventional blood test," Mulder countered.

"I ran a sample myself!" Scully argued.

"At the FBI lab," Mulder answered. "Where the samples and the test results could have been tampered with by innumerable people."

"What would you have had me do?" Scully asked wearily. "The Gunmen were dead."

Mulder turned away in frustration. What he would have had her do, if he could turn back time, was reach out to him. When he thought about how they had ended up fleeing only weeks later, and the uncertainty of William's life now, the irony was overwhelming. Maybe he was deluding himself to think that they could have kept William safe, but anything was better than this present agony. Besides, looking back at the history of his family with the Consortium, it seemed to him that the real delusion was to be found in the belief that William's whereabouts could be kept hidden from a global conspiracy.

Scully's words cut across his morbid thoughts. "You still haven't told me why you were interested in the half-life of magnetite."

"Well, if you're right, and if Spender did inject magnetite into him, wouldn't the effectiveness degrade over time?"

He could feel her listening to his answer, but he didn't turn around to face her.

"If I remember correctly, that would be around five years," Scully said steadily, "So, what's the significance of May 2004?"

"Neural plasticity," Mulder said briefly, turning around.


Mulder shrugged. "Meaning neural plasticity," Mulder said. "The first big phase of it, developmentally speaking, ends around age 3. Not that there aren't other opportunities, but I was wondering if that shedding of all the unused neural pathways would have any effect on what was done to him."

Scully studied him silently. "You're lying to me," she said quietly.

"I am not lying!" Mulder said defensively.

"Well, then you're omitting something," she said speculatively. She turned back to the computer screen. "What's the significance of May 2004?" she repeated.

"His third birthday," Mulder said gruffly. He was hedging.

"You'd hardly need a note to remind you of that," Scully said shortly. She tapped the computer screen and tried another verbal tack. "What happened in May 2004?"

Mulder sighed, and gave in. "When Daddy Spender did his brain surgery on me, I had a lot of strange dreams," he began.

Scully's brows were drawn down as she watched him, her arms crossed tight over her body. "You've told me this before," she said tersely.

He shook his head. "I dreamt about a boy on a beach, building space ships."

She cocked her head at him. "William?"

He bobbed his head in a maybe-yes, maybe-no gesture. "He wasn't even an idea to me then, Scully. And this was a five-year-old boy, maybe six." He paused. "I began dreaming about that boy again in May 2004."

She stared at him. "How often?"

"Not often," he said.

Scully's expression was skeptical and a little bitter. "You expect me to believe that? That you've been dreaming of our son all these years, but not often?" Her initial shock was giving way to anger.

"It's true!" he insisted. "I would want it to happen, and it wouldn't. It would ... it wasn't on any kind of a schedule. At first I thought that it was stress-related, to his birthday and ... " he paused. "I was pretty depressed at certain points, so ... "

Scully's look of anger did not soften at this admission. "When did you start to believe that it was William who was initiating the contact?"

He shook his head. "I don't think it's that simple, Scully. When I had the first dream, he didn't even exist. When they started again, he was age appropriate. I assumed that it was my subconscious that was generating the image of him, that it was the expression of my own desires."

"What changed your mind?" she asked angrily.

"I didn't say my mind was changed! It's still possible that they're simply my dreams," Mulder said heatedly.

"Except that it's this boy, isn't it, Mulder?" Scully challenged him, tapping the picture of William in the file. "It's this exact boy in your dreams, isn't it?" There were tears in her eyes, and her voice was shaking.

He nodded, opening his mouth to explain, but she held up her hand.

"You've been seeing him, and talking to him, for years," she whispered, standing up suddenly. His desk chair was propelled backwards into the wall. "And you never even said a word." Her expression defied him to deny it, but he couldn't.

"Not one word," she echoed, tears streaming down her face. She pushed past him and walked into the living room.

"Scully," he said, as she picked up her purse. "Can't we talk about this?"

The look that she threw him over her shoulder was murderous. Then she turned and walked out the door.

July 23, 2008

It was the middle of the night when he woke from a sleep he'd only achieved by running himself ragged and then drinking tequila while he was still dehydrated. The house had been deathly quiet for the last couple of days, with only him rattling around in the too-large space until appointments with Maguire rousted him from it. As far as he could tell, Scully hadn't been home for more than the time it probably took to change her clothes, and then only while he was gone.

But now, in the mid-night stillness, he could clearly hear the sound of her weeping. He followed it to the empty room that they'd both known without saying was meant to be William's. Even with no hope of seeing him when they'd bought this house, they'd ordered furniture for his room. Now that Mulder was no longer a fugitive, Scully had hopes of enticing her mother back to the East Coast for a visit, so they'd gone furniture shopping. They'd only intended to buy furniture for their own room and for a guest bedroom, but they'd both stopped at the foot of a twin bed, clearly meant for a child.

They'd stared at it for a minute before Scully said, "We should get this in case my brothers visit," in a rush.

The likelihood of that occurring was almost nonexistent, and both of her brothers had more than one child. And yet, he'd let the statement go unchallenged, the way he'd done so many times through the years. They both knew the furniture was for the imaginary William that they'd always acknowledged, if sometimes only tacitly.

In their last house, William had had his own unoccupied, unfurnished room. This new house, with its ample space for guests they'd probably never have, had different requirements. In truth, he understood Scully's desire. It seemed wrong to furnish a room for a possible guest and not one for their son. So, he'd just nodded in agreement and told the saleswoman to add the bedroom set to their order and include a mattress.

The furniture had been delivered earlier in the day. Mulder found her seated on the floor next to the bed as if she'd collapsed there, her head down as she sobbed on the empty plastic-covered mattress.

"Scully," he said in sorrow. He wanted to go to her, but was still unsure of his welcome, so he crossed the room and crouched down next to her, not touching her.

She turned her tear-stained face to his, and moved her hand toward him, still caressing the empty mattress where their child should be sleeping. "Do you blame me for giving him away?" she asked him.

Mulder rocked back on his heels at the blunt question, sitting down on the floor next to her with his back against the bed. He could feel the tears rising in his throat as he tried to formulate an answer. He picked up the hand that she'd pushed toward him and kissed the back of it, holding it over his heart. He took in a breath. "A little," he admitted.

She sobbed, but nodded.

"Do you blame me for leaving you all alone with him?" he asked her.

"A little," she confessed in a halting voice. "I don't want to blame you, Mulder."

"But you do, a little," he answered. He was surprised at how easily the words came out, when the very idea felt like a knife in his gut. "We can't keep running away from what we feel, Scully," he said, turning toward her.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Her voice was an anguished whisper, and now, finally, he began to cry, in great, heaving sobs.

"Tell you what?" he choked out. "That I dream about our son sometimes, and that we play in the sand?" He shook his head helplessly. "That sometimes I'm horribly lonely for a child that I only knew for two days? How could I do that to you? For the longest time, I thought I was just dreaming, that it was simply a manifestation of my desire for some connection with him."

She moved to his side and put her arms around him as they cried together.

"I'm jealous that you've seen him all this time," Scully said finally. "That you could talk to him and touch him, when I couldn't."

He shook his head at her words. "We never really speak," he said. "In my first dream, I wasn't interacting with him at all - I was watching. I thought maybe he was me as a child, or one of the other children from ... " he didn't finish his statement. "And then, after we had William and lost him, I didn't think it was him at first, because his hair is so dark now. In my daytime imagination, William was a redhead like you." She nodded, smiling through her tears.

"I ... it wasn't until I'd seen him a couple of times and I really looked at him that I saw you in him, in his features, the shape of his face. I called him William, and he smiled at me," he chuckled wetly. "He doesn't speak to me, really. We just ... we build these enormous sandcastles - but they're not all castles," he paused. "I sound insane, don't I?"

She laughed through her tears, then grew serious as they wound down. "Mulder, why can't you ask him where he is in your dreams?"

"I haven't seen him in weeks and weeks," he choked out. He could see how his words alarmed her, but he was helpless to stop the torrent of fear that flowed out of him. "Not since we were at the beach, Scully," he sobbed. "Not once since then, and it makes me so afraid. The last dream made me afraid." He whispered. "You were in that one."

She shook her head, mystified and frightened. "I don't remember any dream like that."

Mulder smiled through his tears. "I wouldn't have wanted you to be in that one," he whispered. "He was so sad. He was crying, Scully."

She covered her mouth with her hand. "His father?"

Mulder nodded. "I think so. I don't know if he came looking for me, and found you ... " he shook his head in consternation. "They're still my dreams, no matter how you slice it. But this one ... you've never been in them, Scully, but there you both were on the hammock, and he was crying, and you were soothing him, and then ... he was just gone."

"Gone?" She shook her head in confusion and alarm.

"He turned into a pile of sand," he said quietly, and Scully's indrawn breath was harsh and high-pitched.

He'd known that it would remind her of Emily's coffin, but he was surprised by her sharp response. "What?"

"The sand ... do you think he's dead, Mulder?"

He shook his head. When he spoke, his voice was raw and hoarse. "I can't let myself think like that, Scully," he said, "or I will go crazy." He paused. "Do you blame me for not going out there and trying to find him?" She was shaking her head while he was speaking. "For letting David make all the contacts?"

"No," she said firmly. "They took you away from me once. I can't lose both of you, Mulder. I can't."

"Then, please stop running away when we have problems," Mulder said quietly. "It's killing me, Scully."

She looked at him searchingly.

"I mean it," he said. "I can take it if you blame me. I can even take it if you hate me a little bit. What I can't take is when you withdraw from me like this."

She burst into tears again and buried her face in his chest.

"Just don't leave me," he said haltingly. "Please, Scully."

Her hands reached up and threaded around his neck. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she said over and over as they kissed for the first time in weeks, faces wet and swollen, barely able to breathe through their tears. She pressed her forehead against his. "I'm sorry."

Mulder nodded and wiped the tears from her face. "I'm sorry, too," he said wearily, leaning back and levering himself up from the floor. He held out his hand to her and quietly said, "Come to bed."

Scully looked down toward William's empty bed, running her hand across the rumpled plastic in a caress. Then she turned and placed her hand in his, and let him help her rise.

July 25, 2008

Mulder trudged down the sidewalk on his way to the psychiatric facility that housed the latest patient that Maguire wanted him to see. He'd been questioning his desire to continue on this path almost from the time that he'd begun it, and it was only getting stronger as the weeks passed. He'd literally had to force himself to dress in a professional manner, a struggle he tried to pass off as confusion over the sartorial concept of business casual, before he'd reverted to his predictable standard of a summer-weight suit with a tie. The only unusual thing about his attire was that between the running and the stress that he'd lost so much weight that he'd been able to fit in a suit the same size as one he would have worn a decade before. In truth, the only thing he seemed to have an appetite for was impotently hitting the refresh button on his browser in hopes of news from David, or sifting through the records that the PIs were starting to send.

He sighed as he turned and regarded the building. He was supposed to meet Maguire on the steps, but there was no sign of him as yet. He leaned against the railing and looked absently at the blue summer sky. He and Scully had pretty much spent yesterday in bed, talking, reconnecting physically and emotionally, and crying. They'd done a lot of crying.

It had left him feeling sluggish and exhausted in a way that he felt all the way down to his toes. They'd needed the catharsis, but they were both exhausted by the events of the last few weeks. The move and all the changes that went along with acknowledging that they were truly free to go and do what they wanted would have been enough of a change. However, learning about William ... it had made them both feel powerless, but he felt singularly purposeless. Scully had her work to ground her, but he had no such connection to this work. All he felt was inadequate.

He couldn't save these children that Maguire wanted him to help -- they'd already survived unthinkable horror, sometimes at the hands of those who were supposed to protect them from their original torturers. And he wasn't sure exactly how he was supposed to counsel them in believing in a happy ending, a peaceful life beyond their remembered pain, when he didn't trust that such a thing was possible for some people. He'd look into the faces of these children, their eyes and spirits so much older than they should be, and could not help but think of William. It made him physically ill to imagine that if William had somehow escaped the clutches of the Consortium, that he might be in one of these places somewhere, traumatized by losing his parents, and maybe being preyed upon by unscrupulous, thoroughly ordinary humans.

That was his only motivation in coming here today, that maybe by trying to help a child in anguish inside these walls, that he'd be contributing to some kind of karmic cycle, that maybe somewhere, someone would be kind to his child. He looked at his watch, and then pulled out his phone.

No messages. Maguire was notorious for being a bit late to appointments, but this was unusual. He began to scroll through his address book to call him, when he heard his name. He looked down at the sidewalk and then back up the stairs to see Maguire holding open the door at the entrance to the building -- he was already inside. Mulder shook his head and began to climb the steps, taking them two at a time as he cut in and out of others coming and going from the building.

"Did I ... " he began, but Maguire cut him off.

"My apologies," he said firmly, shaking Mulder's hand. "My last meeting got rescheduled here, and we ran long."

John Maguire was a small, well put together man in his early sixties. There was something in his look, with his ubiquitous tweed jacket and his neatly kept silver beard, that reminded Mulder of John Byers, but the physical resemblance was only slight. Maguire was one of those indefatigable souls whose energy level was incredibly high. When he talked, he fairly bristled with ideas, and subtle but constant movement. It amazed Mulder that a man with so much nervous energy spent most of his days sitting still and listening. Perhaps it was because he was forced to be constrained during those periods that he was so active at the others.

"Now, something very interesting has happened since we last spoke," he said. "My original intention was for you to see the Latimore boy, as we'd discussed. However, a new patient has been transferred in, a boy younger than those I usually see." He pressed a folder into Mulder's hands but kept talking.

Mulder accepted the folder, but didn't do more than glance at it.

"It's a very sad case, but very representative of the kind of magical thinking that we've been discussing as a common feature of many juvenile cases. This boy," he pointed down at the file as they walked briskly down the corridor and turned a corner, "has only been in the system for a few weeks. He's an only child, adopted by an older couple. The adoptive mother had long been in remission when her cancer recurred fairly recently."

Mulder looked up at Maguire in surprise, just as Maguire stopped walking and motioned him into a small alcove.

Maguire lowered his voice in deference to the people passing them in the halls, and pointed at a room across the corridor. "He's in there, but I'd like to fill you in some more. Complicating the matter is the adoptive father's death, which has essentially orphaned the child again."

Mulder's pulse rate began to rise as he listened to Maguire. It seemed improbable, but could it really be this simple? He felt the phone in his pocket vibrate, but let it go to voicemail.

"Mulder?" Maguire asked. "Are you all right?"

"Tell me the rest," Mulder answered in an urgent tone.

"The mother was admitted to hospice, so the boy was remanded to the system, pending foster care placement," Maguire continued, watching Mulder intently. "He's an energetic handful. The mother described him as imaginative and creative, but the foster care reports describe him as delusional and disruptive. We have records from two different situations, both families that have had great success with traumatic placements."

"Neither worked out?" Mulder asked.

Maguire shook his head. "The boy has proven resistant to any overture of affection or sympathy. In fact, he's defiant in his assertion that his real father is coming to get him."

Mulder sucked in a breath. "What's known about the bio-dad?"

"Nothing," Maguire said. "The mother refused to name him, and the child was born before the enactment of welfare legislation that made that impossible. There's no name recorded, no known story."

"Are we going in?" Mulder was having a tremendously difficult time controlling his enthusiasm.

"Is there something you want to share with me?" Maguire asked.

"I'm simply curious about this child," Mulder answered, bluffing. "And exploring the roots of his delusion."

"Let's be clear, though," Maguire said, watching Mulder carefully. "Our goal is to try and get this child to a point where he can commit to a new situation, and that's not going to be accomplished in a day. Today, you're going to try and establish a rapport with him, recognizing that it's more than likely that he's created a false image of this father that will have to be countered slowly, as it's more than likely tied up with either grief over his adopted father's death, or disappointment in that relationship."

Mulder had been nodding the entire time that Maguire was speaking. "Absolutely," he said. He motioned to the door. "Let's go."

Mulder pushed open the door to the street and moved automatically to the side of the wide staircase, out of the path of the constant flow of foot traffic. He placed his hand on the broad railing to ground himself before he sat down. Then he dropped his head into his hands, grinding the heels of them against his eyes as he fought back tears. Magical thinking. He barked out a bitter laugh. He had more in common with that eagerly hopeful boy than he did with Maguire. He'd pushed that door open fully expecting to see William behind it, only to find a mixed race ten-year-old expectantly waiting for his imaginary father. He'd never forget the way the boy's face had fallen at the sight of two middle-aged white men in suits, not the rapper hero that he had conjured up in his mind.

Mulder had made it through the intake and initial discussion by force of will, hoping that the boy's obvious disappointment masked his own. He shook his head in memory, and angrily unknotted his tie, stuffing it in the outside pocket of his jacket. He unbuttoned his collar. He needed to tell Maguire that he was ending his practicum. He wasn't suited to this work -- he couldn't fix anyone, or anything. He had been better off in that room in their house in Virginia, cutting out bits of newspapers and plotting long-distance with MUFON to stop the end of the world.

He drew out his phone to leave a message for Maguire and saw a voicemail from Scully. He sighed. Maybe he'd just go for a walk instead. He didn't relish telling Scully what had happened today, that was for sure. He knew that she'd worry about how aimless he was, and he couldn't deny that she had reason to be. He was drifting straight into despair.

He dropped the phone into the breast pocket of his shirt, and stood up, taking off his jacket. It was an unusually beautiful summer day, warm without being oppressively humid. It would be a long trek, but he could walk home from here, and just ignore the world for a while. He'd rolled up one of his sleeves and started down the long staircase, when he heard someone call his name. Not feeling like confronting Maguire just yet, he continued downward after a momentary hesitation, but the voice called his name, his full name, more insistently. He turned around in irritation and almost fell backward down the staircase.

Father Joe was standing at the doorway to the building, his spectral self outlined fuzzily against the black doors. "Don't give up, Mulder," he said earnestly.

Mulder shook his head in consternation -- it had been years since he'd seen a ghost, and of all the ghosts to see - and took a step back up the staircase, but Father Joe had already disappeared.

His phone rang in his pocket, and he pulled it out. Scully.

This time, he took the call.

Mulder made two wrong turns before he finally located the right kind of oncological floor at the massive Johns Hopkins complex. At her request, he'd called Scully when he got to the front of the building, even though she still steadfastly refused to tell him why.

"Just come here, Mulder," she'd said stubbornly. Her voice was urgent, but strangely relaxed at the same time. He turned the corner and found himself standing at the edge of the solarium, which was filled with those being treated for cancer, and those who'd come to be with them. He began to scan the crowd for Scully's bright hair when he heard the excited voice of a child clearly above the din of conversation and the buzz of the omnipresent TV sets.

"There he is!"

His head swiveled toward the voice, but he couldn't quite see where it was coming from.

"That's him!" The boy's voice sounded more excited, exultant even. "That's him, right over there!"

Mulder registered the blur of the dark-haired boy in jeans running at him only after he'd already dropped to his knees and held out his arms to receive him. "William!"

He wrapped his arms around his son, and the weight of him in real life, the impression of him over his heart, was exactly what he remembered from his dream world. William's precious skull was cradled in the palm of his hand for the first time in years, and Mulder pressed a kiss of thanks to the top of William's head as he held him. It took a monumental effort, but he made himself loosen his arms so as not to overwhelm the child when William began to move away.

William didn't entirely break away from Mulder, but leaned back far enough so that he could look at him. "Wow," he said, in a wondering tone. "You really are a real guy."

Mulder laughed in delight, dislodging some of the tears from his eyes. "And you're a real boy."

"Just like Pinocchio?" William shot back immediately. "Actually, I think that story's kind of creepy."

Mulder smiled at William, letting him stand on his own. "You'll have to tell me all about it." He still had a hand on William's arm, not wanting to lose contact with him, afraid that his vision of him now in what appeared to be the real world would fade as surely as the ethereal world of his dreams.

"OK," William said, "but first you have to come meet my mother." He grabbed Mulder by the hand and pulled until Mulder was upright, excitedly dragging him in his wake as he wove through the people whose curiosity about them had been momentary at best.

As they worked their way across the room, he could see Scully sitting on the edge of a couch, next to a woman in a wheelchair. She was holding the woman's hand as she smiled softly at Mulder, her joy tempered by her obvious concern for the ill woman next to her.

"Mama," William said, bringing Mulder to his mother's side. "This is my other Dad, the one from my dreams."

The woman in the wheelchair smiled warmly at William, patting his face. "I'm sorry I doubted you, sweetheart," she said. She looked up at Mulder, and he could see that she had that same horrible look of fragility that Scully had had so many years ago. She was as brittle as glass, and so pale that she looked ghostly even while still breathing. Her eyes had the fever brightness that he associated with the very ill, as if the knowledge of imminent death made some interior spirit burn at a heightened pitch. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Mulder," she said softly.

"It's just Mulder," he answered automatically, and dropped into a crouch next to her wheelchair, picking up her other hand gently. He didn't shake it, just held it.

She smiled, but it was fleeting. "So your wife has told me. I can't say that I blame you." She squeezed his hand lightly.

He could see how she was struggling with this situation, on top of everything else that had happened to her in the past few months.

"Did your parents really name you Fox?" William asked.

"Yep," he nodded, turning to look at him. William was tall for his age, obviously intelligent and very poised. Mulder imagined that he had spent a tremendous amount of his young life talking to adults. He glanced at Scully, to find her eyes fixed on their son. Her expression was slightly dazed, although her professional veneer was mostly in place.

"Why?" William asked, flummoxed.

Mulder shrugged while his mother chided him for being rude. "Beats me," he said. "It's a pretty dumb name."

William agreed, and Mulder dropped Mrs. Van De Kamp's hand to pull a chair closer to her other side. His knees couldn't take being in that position for too long anymore. "Mrs. Van De Kamp," he said. "I'm so sorry about your husband."

Her eyes filled with tears, but she nodded. "He was a wonderful man," she said. She reached out to William, who was looking worried and solemn, and ruffled his dark hair, pushing his too long forelock out of his eyes. "He was a good papa."

William nodded. "I miss him," he said to Mulder.

William's hands were restlessly playing with the string ends laced through the neck of the red hooded sweatshirt he was wearing, probably in deference to the cool, conditioned air of the hospital.

"Of course you do," Mulder answered easily, hearing both the challenge and need for reassurance in William's statement. "I'm sorry that I never got a chance to meet him."

"He didn't believe you were real," William said matter-of-factly. Mulder heard his mother make a small noise in dismay. "He said that you were only in my imagination."

"I probably would have said the same thing," Mulder said.

William cocked his head and looked at him searchingly, a gesture so reminiscent of Scully that Mulder had to wonder about the true reach of genetics. William's eyes were not the pure blue of Scully's, but an unusual mixture of his own hazel at its most green, leavened with blue. "Really?" William asked skeptically. "I don't think that's true."

Mulder chuckled as William's mother chided him.

He and Scully shared a wry glance over their son's head.

"He's probably right," Mulder said, as William protested his innocence. "I do have a habit of believing a lot of unusual things."

This time, it was Scully that huffed out a strangled chuckle.

William looked a bit astonished at the sound.

"I don't understand, though," Mulder asked. "How did we end up here? Scully?"

He looked over at his partner, but she shook her head, pointing at William.

"I found you," he announced proudly.

Mulder shook his head, mystified. "How did you know we were looking for you?"

William shrugged, covering his mother's legs with a blanket and then tucking it around her carefully. Mulder could see how the conversation was distressing her, but she didn't try to stop William from speaking. "Mama needed to go to a hospital in a big city, and we had to pick. First, I thought we should go to Boston," he said, looking at his mother as she nodded.

Then, he turned toward Mulder, who had noted that William had not actually answered his question. "But I went on the internet and I looked at pictures, and it wasn't the right city next to the water. Like the city in the dream?"

Mulder nodded, somewhat surprised by William's explicit acknowledgment of their dream world. "Did you build that city?"

William shook his head. "No, it was just there when I got there, so I made myself stop and look at it, even though I was upset." He paused, and Mulder was sure now that there were things he was omitting, in deference to his mother. "I wanted to see you because my Papa was dead, but I couldn't find you."

"You found Scully," Mulder said.

"It's weird that you call her that," William observed. He looked over at Scully, who smiled at him.

"William!" his mother reproached.

"She was asleep," William said, shifting back into his story. "But I recognized her."

"You did?" Mulder said, astonished

William nodded. "It was like ... suddenly I remembered her from when I was a baby. I knew she was my other mom."

Mulder glanced from Scully, who had clearly heard the story before, to William's mother.

"We've always told Will that he was adopted," she answered. "He always insisted that his other mother had red hair, and since he had reddish hair when we first got him, we never doubted it. But it wasn't until he was three that he told us about his other dad." She shrugged. "We thought he was just imagining you."

Mulder nodded. "Then what happened?" He asked William.

"I looked on the computer and found the right city by the water, and told Mama that we needed to come to Baltimore."

Mulder shook his head in consternation. Why hadn't he recognized the skyline? "How long have you been here, Mrs. Van De Kamp?"

"Helen, please," she said quietly. "We got here at the end of May."

Mulder scrubbed at his face as the coincidences piled up. "This is really ... " he had no words to describe it, and stopped trying. "So, you just bumped into each other?" he asked incredulously.

"No," Scully said firmly. "I was paged here by William."

Mulder turned and looked at their son in shock.

"I was over there on the computer," William said. "And I was waiting for a page to load, and there's a newsletter." He ran over and picked it up, showing the front page where a picture of new hire Dr. Dana Scully was featured, with an article about her promising pediatric oncology research.

"Oh my God," Mulder said, looking from Scully's sad and weary face in the photo to her now. She still looked stunned, but there was no hiding the joy that radiated from her every pore as she looked back at him, while William leaned companionably against his leg.

"I think so," said Helen softly. She cleared her throat. "I got a package yesterday, forwarded to us by one of William's aunts, from a David Truesdale. It outlined our legal situation."

"Oh, no," Mulder began. "That was not my intention at all ... " "Regardless," Helen said, and he stopped, cognizant that this conversation was incredibly difficult for her. "The fact is that God, or someone, has interceded when I was beginning to truly worry about what to do next." William looked very upset at her words and moved back over to his mother. She patted his cheek. "There is a reason that all of this has happened now."

"Helen," Scully said, "I don't think that we're at that point yet."

"I can't wait until we are," she answered softly. "I have been so very worried about what will happen. Tom was a wonderful man, but his family ... they're not suitable for a boy like William. Now, I don't have to worry anymore." She paused, stroking William's hair while the boy looked at her, lips trembling.

Mulder had no doubt whatsoever that William knew exactly what his mother wasn't saying, and that she knew it as well.

"So, when I'm through with my pre-treatment screening today, we'll go back to the hotel and pack up William's things," she said slowly, but with an air of finality, then looked first at Mulder, and then at Scully. "Monday, I'll check in so that they can begin the stem cell transplant. I only ask that you bring him frequently to visit me both when it's allowed, and ... " Helen hesitated, and William pressed up against her side, seeking a hug. She dropped Scully's hand and wrapped her arms around him. She continued quietly, "And then after the treatment is over." Helen looked at Scully for a long time, and Mulder knew by the expression on Scully's face that Helen did not expect to survive.

"No," Mulder said firmly into the silence.

Helen looked shocked, but Scully's eyes swung to his and she looked at him searchingly before she nodded.

"I mean, yes, I'll go back to the hotel, and I will pack up both of your things," Mulder said, in the same assured tone. "And then I will come back and take you both home. Monday, William and I will bring you to the hospital for your treatment, and when you're through with it," Mulder continued, "you'll come home with us."

Scully was positively beaming at him.

"Oh, Mr. Mulder," Helen said, "No, I couldn't impose—"

"It's just Mulder," he said, "and there is no imposition here. You are family. This is what family does." He smiled at Will, who was bouncing next to his mother's wheelchair.

"See, Mama?" he asked. "I told you."

"Mulder," Helen said. She was on the verge of tears, but trying to hold it back. "I don't think you realize what you're signing yourself up for. I'm sure that your wife ... "

"Unfortunately, I have a very clear idea of what I'm in for, as does Scully." He looked over at Scully and back at Helen. "As far as I'm concerned that's all the more reason for you to be with us."

Scully nodded as she wiped away a tear. "I totally agree with Mulder. You should be with us." She moved closer to Helen and put her hand over hers, her expression imploring.

Helen looked helplessly back and forth between them, tears pooling in her eyes. "You have to know how hard this is going to be ... " she whispered to Scully.

"I do," Scully answered. "I do. But it's the right thing to do."

"Please, Mama," William said. He dropped to his knees, wrapping his arms around his mother's legs and laying his head in her lap. "Please say yes."

Helen looked from her son to Scully and then to Mulder, searching their faces. She must have seen the same brand of determined implacability, because she suddenly leaned against the back of the wheelchair and sighed. "This is absolutely crazy," she said. The tears she'd been holding back began to spill over, but she was smiling. "Thank you."

Scully leaned forward and took Helen's hand. "No," she said. "Thank you." She was smiling, but tears were coursing down her face. "We owe you so much."

Helen smiled back at her tremulously, her other hand on William's head. She shook her head. "You owe me nothing," she said softly, then added, "Someday, I'd like to hear the whole story."

"You will," Scully said firmly, wiping away her tears as a nurse called Helen's name from the doorway. She stood and waved her hand, and the nurse began to cross the room.

"OK, then," Helen said. She pulled a key card in a paper case with the hotel name on it from a pocket in her purse. "William, can you help Mulder pack up our things?"

"Yes!" he said enthusiastically, jumping up. He hugged her again.

"Neatly, my friend," Helen said, laughing. She looked up at Mulder. "I guess I'll see you later."

He nodded. "William and I will be back to pick you up ... " he looked at the nurse.

"I would say four hours from now," the nurse answered, glancing at her watch. "Maybe three if we're very lucky." It was clear that she wanted to get started, although her expression was kind.

"I'm ready," Helen said softly. She released the locks on the wheelchair, and the nurse moved to push her toward the door. William followed, holding her hand until they got to the door of the solarium.

Mulder found himself standing, watching his small figure anxiously, not entirely sure that he was ready, would ever be ready, for William to go beyond arm's reach. He felt Scully's arm circle his waist as they both watched their son. William kissed his mother at the doorway and then stood there watching after Helen had disappeared from their view.

Mulder wrapped his arms around Scully, bending so he could speak into her ear. "Is this really happening?" he whispered.

He felt her nod as she tilted her head to whisper back. "I'm not really sure."

At the doorway, William waved, and then turned and walked toward them. He smiled at them a little shyly until Scully opened her arms to him. William was tall enough that his head came up to just above Scully's waist. As Mulder watched, her expression became beatific as she held William to her breast.

Scully opened her eyes and looked up at him as Mulder put his arms around them both. Her eyes were asking him a question, wanting to know if it was wrong to feel so happy when there had been so much pain, and there was still so much more to come.

He shrugged helplessly. He had no answer for her, because he knew that the darkness would always find them, no matter what. But there had to be a reason that they were here now, together, as improbable as it was. He bent and kissed her tenderly.

They both looked down at William, who was watching them curiously.

"I missed you so much," Scully said.

"I know," William said solemnly. He broke out of their hold and stepped back a little. "I could feel it sometimes."

She nodded, her eyes filling up with tears.

"How come I could come visit you and not Mom?" William asked Mulder. Mulder saw Scully start at William's easy use of the word 'Mom'.

Mulder shook his head, running his hand through his hair. "I really don't know, William," he said. "I don't understand how all this ... " he gestured helplessly, "works."

"Oh," William said, clearly disappointed. He looked reflective for a moment before he said, "Jeremiah says that sometimes the answers are not obvious, so we have to pay attention."

"Jeremiah?" Scully asked sharply.

At the same time, Mulder asked "Who's Jeremiah?" in a neutral tone.

William looked up at him, and there was a familiar arch to his eyebrow. "Mama says that Jeremiah is my guardian angel, but he's more like a teacher."

"What does he teach you?" Mulder asked quietly.

William shrugged. "Things he said that I need to know."

Mulder held onto Scully's hand before she could cover her mouth with it. He could feel her escalating tension. "He teaches you in your dreams?"

William nodded. "He told me that he'd met you a couple of times," William continued. "He's a real guy, too."

"You've met Jeremiah?" Mulder asked. "Jeremiah Smith?"

William nodded.

"He came to Papa's funeral," he said. "Mama didn't see him, but we talked for a while."

Mulder nodded. "Did Jeremiah have a message for your Mom or me?"

Scully looked at him, startled by his sudden question. Her eyes were fearful.

William looked at him, surprised. "Yeah, he did," he said. "I almost forgot until just now. He said ... " William closed his eyes and concentrated. "He said, the darkness can be vanquished if you are steadfast." He opened his eyes. "Don't give up."

Scully was very still next to him, her eyes fixed on their son's face. "Do you know what that means?" she asked William very softly. Unconsciously, her hand went to the cross at her neck, and she traced it softly.

William shook his head and his too long hair fell into his eyes. "No," he said easily, pushing it aside. "But Jeremiah said that I don't always need to understand what things mean right away. That if I pay attention, and watch carefully, that I'll be led the right way. And he was right!" He pointed at them. "I paid attention, and I found you!"

William's smile was bright and wide, and for the first time Mulder could see that his front teeth were crooked, and that one of his eyeteeth was growing in at a slant, just like his own had done before he'd had braces.

"Yes, you did," Mulder said firmly. "You did a great job." He knew that Scully had a million more questions, as did he, but now was not the time for them.

They had time for all of that later. They had time.

"Scully," he said conversationally, leaning toward her and pointedly changing the subject. "Did you have braces?"

"For years," she answered. "You?"

"Oh yeah," he said.

William looked puzzled at this topic, but then grabbed Mulder's hand and pulled. "Are we going to the hotel now?"


"I don't like the hotel," William said. "It smells funny and there are so many sad people. Everybody there is sick or scared." He shook his head, a small shudder running through his frame.

Scully put her hand on William's head, alarmed at his distress, and looked at Mulder.

"Then let's go," Mulder said. He gestured with his other hand toward the door, then watched in amazement as William hesitated, before he launched himself at Scully, hugging her and saying, "I'll see you later."

"Yes, you will," she said to him tenderly.

"Will you sing to me?" he asked shyly.

Scully laughed out loud, a full-throated laugh that Mulder hadn't heard for ages, maybe forever. It sounded free. It sounded full of light, and it pierced him through with joy. "If you really want me to," she said.

William nodded, his cheeks a little pink. "I do."

Scully ruffled his hair and pressed a kiss to his cheek. "Then I will," she promised.

William turned and took Mulder's hand again.

"OK," he said, then he smiled and began to lead Mulder out of the solarium.

They stopped at the door and waved at Scully, who looked like she was going to dissolve into tears at any second, but was smiling when she waved back at them.

"You know," William said to Mulder in a confidential tone, as they walked down corridors and staircases that Mulder hadn't noticed before, but was paying attention to now. "I've never really been to the beach."

"I'll take you," Mulder said immediately.

Mulder felt as if the whole world had shifted, and lay open like a ripe pomegranate at his feet. Anything was possible.

This morning he had been drifting, without purpose, but now ... he saw how the pieces of the puzzle fit together, and this jumble of a path he'd been on for the past few years made sense. All of it, from Scully's decisions to his own, had led them here. He had a flash of memory of Scully speaking to him years ago saying 'What if there was only one choice and all the other ones were wrong? And there were signs along the way to pay attention to?'

He smiled, and felt the weight of William's smaller hand in his, the trust inherent in that placement. All their choices, good and bad, had led them to this. Mulder knew what he needed to do.

He was going to call John Maguire tomorrow morning and thank him sincerely for the opportunity to work with him, and for the training that he had a feeling was going to come in handy for the next few years. Then he was going to respectfully decline to continue.

Today, however, he was going to call David Truesdale and tell him to call off the dogs, and to figure out a solution to their legal conundrum that would work for all of them. Most importantly, Truesdale needed to arrange for Mulder to get a concealed carry license, ASAP.

But before he did that, Mulder was going send Walter Skinner a case of scotch, an abject apology and an invitation to dinner. They needed to discuss what was to come. If he was lucky, Skinner would consent to re- train him on hand-to-hand combat techniques without putting him in the hospital.

Then, after William was asleep, he was going to call Maggie Scully and tell her that he'd booked an open ticket for her to get on a plane and come east to meet her grandson.

And when Mulder finally got Scully alone in their bed tonight, he was going to have a serious conversation with her about when, exactly, she was going to make their union legal. For entirely prudent reasons, of course.

William tugged on his hand, refocusing him on the present. He asked, "Will you teach me how to swim?"

"I'll teach you whatever you want to learn," Mulder said easily.

When they reached the front door of the hospital, Mulder stepped in front of William and placed a hand on his chest, stopping his forward progress. He moved his son behind him. For the first time in years, Mulder longed for the reassuring weight of his gun at his side. He pushed the door open and his eyes swept the outside landscape in sectors, carefully noting the people and the cars. He had to pay attention, to be ever vigilant from this moment forward. All the weeks of worrying about William's safety made perfect sense to him -- it had all been preparation for this, his new purpose.

Once he had ascertained that the coast was clear, at least for now, Mulder reached back and took William by the hand. "Stay close," he said to William.

William smiled up at him, and nodded. "OK, Dad," he said.

Mulder fought back tears as he struggled to stay focused. He leaned down and kissed his son on the forehead, then turned to open the door to whatever came next.

Together, Mulder and William stepped outside into the abundant sunshine.

The End

Author's End Note:

A couple of things really surprised me as I watched I Want To Believe. The first was the explicit sense of intimacy between Mulder and Scully and all of the evidence of their shared life which we were shown. With all of the fandom speculation about them having been separated for a long period of time, and perhaps estranged, it was wonderful to see them so clearly together, partners still. Their conversations, especially the last one about the role of the darkness in their lives, was one that I reflected on a great deal as the idea of this story was forming in my imagination.

The second, larger surprise to me was the overt acknowledgment of William, and the loss of him, in the conversation that they had in their bed. I had not expected William to be mentioned at all, or even really to be part of the subtext. But with Scully requalified as a pediatrician (which would have been a subtextual acknowledgment, in and of itself) and the discussion of William in the text of the movie, I began to wonder what it all could mean.

Of course, I've always believed that William has a seminal role in the X-Files mythology, a belief that was solidified by conversations with the brilliant and much-missed Ambress. Sometime in Season 8, she, Suzanne and I had a long, involved discussion about the mytharc that I've never forgotten. Ambress, with the unerring eye of the scholar that she is, argued that the mytharc of the X-Files owed an enormous debt to the modern school of horror begun by Mary Shelley whose novel Frankenstein, with its focus on reproduction and the attempted usurpation of its mysteries by the protagonist, can be read as a feminist fable about how some men fear the power of women's bodies.

The X-Files mytharc, with its consortium of men literally stealing the essential elements of reproduction from women, and trying to control and improve reproductive outcomes for their own aims, was a modern twist on the same kind of fable, with a justification for those efforts that fit the tenor of post-modern times. From Ambress' perspective, the fitting end to the story was the creation of William, the natural child of a woman who was supposed to have been rendered powerless, and the man who had spent his life trying to stop the consortium's unnatural aims.

Ambress also rightly predicted that such a child, born of conditions that were supposed to preclude his birth, would be super-natural (in the literal sense), and that his creation would herald the downfall of the consortium's long-term aims.

For those reasons, I've always believed that William is key to the events of 2012. In fact, I believe that if there ever is an X-Files movie about those events, William must be a major factor in the successful repulsion of colonization.

So, if he's going to come back to his parents eventually, why not now? Mulder's got time on his hands, and who better to protect William than his father?

Besides, years ago, I asked Suzanne how she envisioned Mulder as a father, and she promptly answered, "Sitting next to the crib with a gun in his hand." Put a stiletto in his pocket, and I could not agree more.

I hope that you enjoyed my flight of fancy. I can honestly say that I had a marvelous time writing it, even when it drove me crazy and kept me up at night. Thanks to all of you who have written to me as I've been posting this tale. It means a great deal to me.

As always, I thank my incredibly indulgent and patient sister Suzanne for her thoughtful insights, and eye for grammar.

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