Title: The Hard Edges of Things
Author: Neoxphile
Feedback: neoxphile@aol.com
Spoilers: Season eight

Summary: When Mulder returns after his abduction, he's burdened with a horrific secret.

Last updated: September 19, 2018

Author's Note: This story greatly diverges from canon after season seven. A (short) prequel, Ashes Bitter On Her Tongue, might shed some light on parts of the plot. Or not.


When the wind shifted overhead he could feel it blister his bare skin. The heat of it, a flame that would consume him, though poor fuel his body must be. If there had been air in his lungs, he would have screamed. There wasn't. The distance he'd been dropped, flung like a cigarette out a car window, had winded him on impact. All he could do was stare up at the craft with eyes that burned with the rest of him.

The craft didn't acknowledge the broken human that it left on the ground below. Instead it lingered a moment while its pilot punched in coordinates, then zoomed off leaving a trail of colored sparks that could have been fireworks but weren't.

Breathing shallowly, Mulder watched it go, and hoped that he would never see it again. Eventually he reached out one hand to touch a blistered leg. He pulled his hand away, bewildered. All his fingers had found was smooth, slightly hairy skin. No burns or blisters. He ran his hands over his thin body and found more of the same. He hadn't burned. Not even a little. The scars were still there, but he'd expected that. The craft had been full of shiny surfaces to show what they'd done to him with their sharp blades. Like scalpels, but not quite, just like all the dream (or nightmare) familiar objects they'd had. Earth-like objects designed by a fevered artist who lingered too long over the Guernica.

He waited on the cold ground. Maybe someone would come along to help him. Maybe he'd die and no one would have to bother. No one came, and the sky didn't lighten. It just stayed dark and mercifully empty but for a few half-hearted stars.

So he got up, trying not to moan out loud though there was no one to hear him. There were houses up and down the road but he knocked on no doors. A clothes line along his path found itself light a sweater, drawstring pants, and a fleece throw. The owners didn't notice. No one noticed the first naked, then oddly clothed man who slowly limped down the long winding road.

He knew where he was. It seemed odd, that he might have been left somewhere vaguely familiar, but he half way trusted that his mind wasn't just playing a cruel trick on him. A single-minded determined was the only thing that kept his feet moving. His destination wasn't far, perhaps just six or seven miles, but that was a least five miles more than his body was up for.

By the time he got where he needed to be, the blisters were real, at least on the soles of his feet. He meant to raise his fist and knock on the door, but in the end his courage failed him.


Early the next morning Skinner nearly tripped over the man sleeping on his porch. He had it in mind to wake the bum and tell him to move on when he realized that the man shivering under the half-sized blanket was his missing agent.

Bending down, he gently shook Mulder's shoulder to wake him. Eventually Mulder cracked his bloodshot eyes open and stared at him. To Skinner's relief there was recognition in that gaze.

"Skinner," he rasped, and the surprised look on Mulder's face clearly telegraphed his thoughts: Mulder was also wondering how long it had been since he last spoke.

"Can you stand?" Skinner's voice was gruffer than he intended, but Mulder nodded.

When he stood trembling before him, Skinner was horrified that even through the tight sweater he could occasionally see the outline of Mulder's ribs as he moved. "Let's get you inside. It's too cold out here." It was unseasonably cool for August, promising rain later in the day, but he suspected that it was a lack of body fat, not the temperature, making the other man so miserably cold.

Mulder was clearly stiff from his nap on the porch because he had the shuffling gait of a man in leg irons. It took three times as long as Skinner had patience for to get him to the kitchen table and put a mug of coffee into his hands. Mulder gave him a grateful look, and Skinner almost warned him not to offer thanks until after his first sip.

Instead of asking any of the thousands of questions crowding his head, Skinner went to the fridge and took out a carton of eggs and a pound of bacon. He occupied himself with the mundanities of cooking while Mulder slowly drained his mug.

"How long." Mulder's voice was so quiet that Skinner didn't realize he'd spoken at first.

When he glanced over at him, the other man was looking at him expectantly. "Mulder..." The rest of the words died in Skinner's throat. How would he explain?

Mulder looked away. It seemed as though he realized that he had just placed a great burden on Skinner. Still looking out the window he said, "I have to call Scully."

"Don't."

"She needs to know that I'm back."

"She doesn't need to know right now," Skinner objected.

"Yes, she does," Mulder insisted.

"Mulder..." Skinner broke off, frustrated, wondering how he could explain. Just do it, he told himself firmly. It's kinder if you don't pussyfoot around it. "If you call her now, you'll wake her kids."

This made Mulder looked up sharply. "Kids? She said...she said the IVF didn't work."

Skinner sat down heavily. "It didn't. There was a moment, right after you were abducted that she was given false hope. But no. It didn't work."

"Then she found someone else," Mulder said in a dead voice. His eyes got that faraway look again that suggested that he was shutting down.

"Not the way you're thinking," Skinner protested. "About a year after you were abducted she got a phone call. Two toddlers had been orphaned after a car accident. The lawyer for the family's estate had insisted they do a DNA search because they thought an uncle might have donated bone marrow and was in the system. They didn't find a wayward uncle. Instead they found Scully."

Mulder stared at him, face painted with disbelief. It was only when Mulder began to rant that he understood what he'd said wrong. "About a year? Scully found two more of her children about a year after I was abducted? How long have I been gone? Answer me, God dammit!"

"Three years."

Skinner's statement hung in the air for a full minute before Mulder said anything more.

"Tell me about these children. Are they healthy?" Mulder asked, sounding both interested and oddly urgent.

At least that was something positive he could talk about, and allay any worry Mulder might have that they were like Emily. "They're obscenely healthy. Tommy's five, and Grace is almost three. Someone from the consortium placed them both with the same parents. It is Scully's theory that the consortium was no longer interested in trying to create human-hybrids, but no one knows what had been the intended purpose for them..." As he said this, he wondered if Mulder even cared about those sorts of details right then.

A pause stretched out between them. Then Mulder broke it by quietly asking, "Are they mine?"

Skinner shrugged helplessly. "As far as I know she's never done a paternity test against your DNA."

"She doesn't want them to be mine."

"I don't think it's that," Skinner shook his head quickly. "I think she's afraid. Afraid that they're not. And if they're not wh-"

"Maybe she should be afraid."

"What do you mean?" Skinner demanded to know.

His erstwhile missing agent started at him with dead eyes. After a few seconds Skinner realized that Mulder was not going to explain his statement. It was hard to remind himself that he had to be patient, because he wanted to ask Mulder 10,000 questions, starting with "where have you been?" and ending with "what are you going to do now?" all at once.

The scars on Mulder's body suggested that he'd been thoroughly tortured already, so Skinner reminded himself that an inquisition after that would be unfair. He turned back to the stove, reminded by popping noises coming from the frying pan that he had a task to finish.


As they sat at the table and steadily ate their way through breakfast, Skinner kept getting an overwhelming urge to run to the phone and call Scully despite what he'd told him, but he didn't. There was more to it than not wanting to wake up Tommy and Grace...he wasn't sure how she would react.

Dealing with Mulder's disappearance had been hard on Scully, especially the first year. Back then, every time he spoke to her, he tried to avoid looking her in the eye, because when he did he saw first hope, then disappointment that he wasn't bringing her life-changing news. It made him envy the people in her life that didn't constantly disappoint her.

After the first year, after Tommy and Grace entered her life, things got better, but Skinner was afraid that her peace was a fragile one. Knowing that Mulder was back would have a profound impact on her... and he could only hope that it'd be a positive one.

"I didn't know you could cook," Mulder said, looking up from the ruin of his eggs.

"It's a well-guarded secret," Skinner replied, going for an airy tone, but failing. "If people knew, they'd make me cook on retreats."

"They still do those?" Mulder asked with the tone of someone asking if there was still gravity.

"Every other year, whether we need it or not."

Conversation petered out after that. And Mulder didn't say anything as he listened to Skinner call the office and tell them that he would not be in for the day. No one asked why he was going to be out, and he had no inclination to volunteer the information, letting them assume that perhaps he had taken ill overnight.


When Scully's alarm clock went off she contemplated picking up one of her slippers and heaving it at it. The thought that she didn't have time to go buy another one after work was the only thing that stilled her hand.

Yawning, she got up and shut the alarm clock off before wandering down the hall towards her children's rooms. Tommy was already putting on his shoes when she poked her head into his room to say good morning, so she continued on to her daughter's room.

Tommy was an early riser who got up without complaint, but his sister wasn't any more like that than Scully was herself. As usual Grace was huddled under a mountain of blankets that Scully used to worry would make her too hot but never did. Leaning over the bed, Scully peeled back the covers until they finally revealed a tiny redhead with eyes tightly scrunched shut.

"Hey," Scully said, knowing that she was awake. "Time to get up."

"No!" Grace wailed, eyes still closed.

"Yes," Scully said, wondering if she'd get Grace up or run out of patience and resort to wrestling her into her clothes first. "It's morning."

"Don't wanna it be."

"You and me both, kid," Scully said under her breath. The week after she brought Tommy and Grace home was the last week she'd spent in the field. The transfer to Quantico that she'd requested was fulfilled in a bewilderingly rapid manner...at least it felt that way until she realized how soon the next session a Quantico was beginning: they'd probably been pressured to get her over there quickly to keep from having to dump her in midterm. She'd hated it then, and still continues to hate it.

Looking down at her little girl, she sighed. "Come on, you don't need to want it to be morning, Grace. Morning doesn't care how we feel about it."

"It don't?" Grace's eyes popped open to give Scully a curious look.

"Nope." With that, Scully swept little girl up and set her on the floor. Grace giggled gleefully.

Reaching into Grace's closet, Scully pulled out two sundresses. "Which one?" she asked, holding them in front of the girl.

"That one!" Grace yelled, poking enthusiastically at the plaid, grass green one covered in ladybugs.

"Okay. Night gown off."

Grace was in a better mood than most mornings, evidenced by her compliance rather than having a tantrum. "Where's Tommy?" she asked as soon as Scully pulled the dress over her head.

"I think he's-" A flushing toilet interrupted Scully. Grace grinned at her so she asked, "you next, huh?"

"No! Pull up!" Grace declared, running towards the package Scully vainly kept hoping she wouldn't have to replace. Potty training was going nowhere fast, even though Grace could now change herself like she was at that very moment.

"Oh, Grace..." Scully just didn't have the energy to argue with her. "Soon, kiddo. Soon."

"Uh unh," Grace said, shaking her head hard enough to make her red ringlets bounce.

"Then you'll make a liar out of grandma." Pointing at the doorway, Scully declared, "mush!" Grace giggled again and raced down the hallway. For someone who did not enjoy getting out of bed, she certainly woke with enough energy.

Tommy was sitting quietly at the table by the time Scully and Grace reach the kitchen. He looked up with a smile when they enter the room, they didn't say anything. Scully hadn't really expected him to. "Hey, Tommy," she said, running a hand over a short red curls. "What kind of cereal do you want?"

Her son thought about this for a moment. "Count Chocula."

Looking at Grace, Scully asked, "and you, miss?"

"Yeah, that." Grace nodded.

"Three bowls of Count Chocula coming up," Scully declared, setting the bowls out in front of her.

"You too, mommy?" Tommy asked, apparently surprised.

"Me too. I don't know about you, but I'm tired."

"Nope, not me."

Scully reached for the cereal box and began to pour it into all three bowls before looking at him. "I don't know, you must've gotten somebody else's genes too. Because I know I only have night owl genes, not early bird genes."

Tommy opened his mouth to say something, but Grace interrupted him by getting out of her chair and walking around behind Scully's. Scully wasn't exactly sure what she was up to until Grace poked her in the leg. "Not jeans, Momma. And isn't any birdies."

Her brother began to giggle. At least until the nearly three-year-old gave him an indignant look. Then he sobered up. "Not those kind of jeans, silly."

"Tommy, be nice," Scully said gently. "She doesn't have any idea what the other kind are yet." Frankly, it still surprised her that he did. Most five-year-olds had no more idea of what genetics were than Grace did.

He immediately looked contrite. "Oh. Okay. Sorry, Grace."

Grace just shrugged, not having really understood any of their conversation.

Scully had thought it was over, at least until she realized that Tommy was giving her a look. "Then whose genes did I get?"

"Actually, I'm not sure." Every time he asked something that made her think about Mulder, she wanted to blurt it out, but didn't. She still hadn't tried to see if there was a way to figure out if they were his children. She knew why. Having the answer be no would have been completely unbearable, even worse than not knowing was.


Once Mulder had eaten, Skinner wasn't sure what to do with him. Until that point the lessons he learned at his grandmother's knee about hospitality had carried him forward, but then...

Glancing at Mulder he said, "Well, I guess we better find you something more appropriate to wear."

Mulder looked up at him, and some of the old light in his eyes flickered for a moment. "Sorry, I didn't realize there was a dress code."

Skinner snorted. "You can't tell me you're comfortable."

After a moment Mulder said, "that's true."

"All right then." Skinner got up, pleased that he had a plan of action. Doing something useful would ensure that he didn't have to think too hard about anything beyond the immediate present. Because that sort of thought, the sort of thought about what was going to happen now that Mulder was back, was far too difficult. "I'll be back in a minute," he promised.

He had intended to go directly to his bedroom and rifle through his closet, but he found himself hesitating as he walked by the linen closet. Turning on his foot, he walked back to it and pulled out a set of sheets and three neatly stacked blankets that his cleaning woman had left for him. Then he walked into the seldom used guestroom and began making up the bed.

Mulder had been gone for three years. They really hadn't discussed what he had done during his absence, but it was fairly clear to Skinner that it hadn't been anything lucrative. He knew that Scully had arranged to put all of his possessions in storage, but that wouldn't really help him in the meantime considering that as far as Skinner knew Mulder no longer had a home to put them in. At the very least, he knew that Mulder's apartment had long been rented by someone else. So, it seemed as though Skinner would be having a houseguest.

He found that he didn't really mind the company. Hopefully, Mulder would agree to stay with him, instead of impulsively fleeing into the wild. So far, the fact that Mulder hadn't immediately run off as soon as he'd finished eating implied that he was not eager to simply vanish again. They would have to talk about what he really wanted. But not right then.

Finding something that he thought might fit Mulder turned out to be a greater challenge than anticipated. Eventually he came up with a light sweater that had accidentally been shrunken the wash - one that he had kept solely because his cleaning lady had been so distraught about the incident and had worried that he would fire her, and he didn't want to upset her by tossing it out and making her worry that he had changed his mind about the seriousness of the accident - and a pair of jeans that he had bought in the wrong size and never returned. They still were not great, but at least they were better than the outfit Mulder was currently wearing. Socks fortunately only came in one size, unless you had far bigger feet than either man did.

Skinner returned to the guest room and put the clothing on the newly made bed. Then he stuck his head out the door and called "Hey Mulder, you want to come up here?"

It took so long for Mulder to appear, that Skinner had begun to worry that he had been wrong. Maybe Mulder had snuck out the back door. But then, he heard shuffling footsteps and relaxed a little.

When Mulder finally reached the doorway, Skinner pointed at the clothing on the bed. "You can change in here." He might have suggested a shower before changing, but somehow despite looking thin and worn, Mulder was clean.

He didn't add that this would be Mulder's room, but there was clearly an understanding in the other man's eyes. And Mulder didn't object. This left Skinner feeling a little less like everything was spinning out of his control.

As he left the room, carefully closing the door behind him, Skinner began to wonder what the next step should be. Eventually someone would have to tell Scully. There was just no way to avoid that. She had to know, or she would never forgive him. And he couldn't bear that.


Alone in Skinner's guest room, Mulder was left feeling exhausted simply by the thought of changing clothing. It hadn't escaped his attention that Skinner had made up the bed, all but saying that he was welcome to stay.

Staying wasn't something he had put any thought into. He had gone to Skinner's house the night before because it had been close and familiar, and that was simply it. If he had been closer to Scully's apartment, he would've gone looking for her there. Although, in the back of his mind knowing that it'd been an apartment, not a house like Skinner's, had on some level made him worry that she had not stayed put. He'd had no idea how long he had been gone, but sensed it'd been a while. Not as long as three years, but perhaps long enough for Scully to decide to relocate. Perhaps she and her mother would have decided to move to the west coast in order to be closer to the rest of their family. It was something of relief to realize that she was still close. Or so he assumed, considering that Skinner had not told him that he couldn't call her because he didn't know her current phone number.

That meant he might have, if he'd only had more energy to make the farther distance, found her exactly where he left her. Now, knowing that she had two children, he was glad he didn't. It wasn't as though he didn't want to see her just as badly, it was that he did not know how much she would want to see him. Skinner claimed that she hadn't found someone else, but still, taking on parenthood meant that she had moved on in some ways. He just wasn't sure which ways, and if those ways totally excluded him.

These worries raced in his mind as he reached for the clothing that was stacked on the bed and began the difficult process of putting it on. His muscles ached from sleeping on the porch and all that came before then so that made the mere actions of dressing feel excruciatingly difficult. This is why he came to pause in the middle of doing so, looking at the floor length mirror on the back the closet door, before he managed to get the somewhat less comfortable sweater all the way on as well as the jeans and socks.

Skinner's clothes never would have fit Mulder well, but on his ravaged body they made him resemble a scarecrow in his borrowed jeans and sweater. But looking into the mirror, that wasn't what bothered Mulder. The greater source of his angst was a long scar across his abdomen that he could see because he hadn't managed to pull the sweater all the way down yet. It was healing, but it frightened him because there were things he seemed to remember, and this lent credence to the worst of them...

"I think we'll have to go shopping." Skinner's voice behind him made him jump a foot. Until that second he hadn't realized the bedroom door had opened.

His boss already looked guilty by the time Mulder spun around to see him. Mulder gave him a weak smile. "I won't be picking up ladies looking like this."

Skinner raised his eyebrows. "Is picking up ladies on your to-do list?"

Although Mulder knew it had been a joke, he couldn't help that his mood immediately darkened. There was of course only one woman he wanted to have anything to do it, and he wasn't sure how soon he would. Looking over at Skinner he merely said, "not now."

To his relief the other man didn't press him. Instead he just nodded.


The trip to the store had been largely silent, and Skinner had not known if he should be pleased or worried about this, especially considering that he hadn't given enough thought to how stressful going out in public might on Mulder be until they were already in the car. Occasionally he glanced at the quiet man beside him, wondering if he should merely be grateful that he hadn't run away screaming when he suggested that they leave the house.

Skinner didn't have any medical background himself, but he had a sneaking suspicion that it was probably mentally healthy for Mulder to be willing to go out in public rather than hole up in the guest room. For no particular reason he had half assumed that Mulder would be agoraphobic. He knew that he wouldn't want to be out and about himself, if it had been him who had had...whatever had happened to Mulder happen him.

Inside the store, Skinner had anticipated Mulder arguing with him about Skinner footing the bill for the things they bought, but to his relief he hadn't. It was only when he thought about it more, and realized that it couldn't come as a surprise to Mulder to realize that he was destitute, at least for the moment, that he understood why Mulder had accepted his charity without complaint. It must be a strange position to be in, Skinner mused, vowing to be as sensitive as possible to the other man's perspective.

The shopping took less time than Skinner anticipated, perhaps because Mulder had simply accepted all of his suggestions and had gone into the changing room without a fight. By the time they had been there an hour, the shopping cart was half full of clothing that should see Mulder through the next several days. Long enough for them to figure out how they would gain access to the things that Mulder already owned, and perhaps more importantly his bank account. Although, Skinner was somewhat doubtful that Mulder's existing wardrobe would currently fit him much better than the clothes he had lent him. This had him making a mental note to stop the grocery store on the way home.

Things went well, other than shoppers occasionally giving Mulder curious looks probably born about because he was so thin and wearing a sweater in late summer... at least until Skinner decided to take a shortcut through the kitchen wares in order to avoid the crowd around the women's clothing section store.

Mulder didn't have a loud outburst, but something about the shiny cutlery on display had him terrified. Skinner hadn't realized it at first until he figured out that a low keening noise nearby that sounded like humming was coming from Mulder's throat. It made Skinner wonder what had happened to him because clearly he was being reminded of it right then. Rather than make a scene, he prodded him gently in the opposite direction to bypass the rows of knives. Fortunately, this was all that was needed to get Mulder going again.


Shopping for groceries went equally well, or at least no worse, and Skinner was pleased that they managed to get back to his house by ten in the morning. He kept glancing at the clock as he put the groceries into the cabinets and the refrigerator, trying to remember what his class schedule had been like at Quantico. In the end he decided that he was being silly. Scully would not really mind if they pulled her out of class to get the news she had been waiting for the past three years.

Mulder was sitting at the kitchen table, picking at the sandwich that Skinner insisted that he have rather than help him unpack the groceries. Looking over at him, Skinner casually suggested "I could give you the number for Quantico."

The thin man looked up. "No thank you."

For half a second Skinner wondered if he hadn't been direct enough, and that Mulder had not understood. He found himself beginning to explain, "I don't remember if I told you or not, but Scully's teaching there now-"

Mulder's expression was flat. "I assumed as much when you said I could have the number. It's not as though I'm eager to chat up old instructors."

This left him confused. "Okay. I understand if you would rather wait until she's at home to tell her that you're back." As he said that, he wondered if he should explain then that Scully had taken a larger apartment in the same building she'd lived in before, but decided that there was no good reason to overload him with information right that second. Her cell phone number was the same, which was the important thing when Mulder needed to talk to her later.

"I'm not going to."

Skinner nearly slapped himself on the forehead. Of course he was concerned about how she would take it. He should have realized that Mulder would worry about how much of a shock it would be to hear from him out of the blue. "Oh. I should've...I can call her for you. Then you can talk to her once she's come around to the idea of you being back." He didn't think it would take her long.

"I'm not going to tell her, and you're not going to tell her I'm back, either," Mulder explained tonelessly. "She doesn't need to know that I'm back right now."

"Of course she does!" Skinner protested. "When I said that you shouldn't tell her, I just meant at six o'clock in the morning."

Mulder shook his head. "What good would it do her? I'm no good to anyone right now. When I'm healthier, then I'll let her know. She doesn't need to worry about me as well as her kids."

Skinner cocked his head, thinking. Mulder was clearly jealous of the children, but he didn't think that Mulder even realized it himself.

The impulse to tell Mulder that he was being foolish rose up in him, but he was able to squash it. As much as he would like to tell him what to do, he realized that Mulder was his own person. If he had strong feelings about how and when he should reintroduce himself to those in his life, it wasn't fair to pressure him into doing something else.

Feeling deflated, he just looked at Mulder for a moment. "Fine."

For the first time since he opened his eyes on the porch, Mulder looked surprised. "Fine? You're not going to tell me that I need to leave if I don't do you tell me to do?"

Skinner shook his head. "It's your life. I guess it's your right to make a mess of it if you choose to."

"Is that what I'm doing?" He thought he heard Mulder say, but when he glanced back at him, Mulder had already put the sandwich back to his mouth.


Every time that Skinner looked at him for the rest of the day, Mulder was sure that he was going to launch into a lecture. Tell him that he was being stupid for not letting Scully know immediately that he was back. But each time, Skinner seemed to find the strength to hold his tongue.

Mulder detachedly wondered if he too would have that strength of character in his shoes. Somehow, he believed that it was more difficult for Skinner than it would've been for himself. No one had ever accused Mulder of being too caring, and being distant was not something that he put upon to fool others. No, he was not the person who cared easily about other people, although he did do his best to do right by all of the people there cases touched, if not warmly.

Despite the restraint that Skinner showed, it still came as a relief when he declared that he was going to bed. Since Mulder was not a child, Skinner didn't tell him that that meant he must go to bed as well, but there didn't seem to be much to do else.

Up in the guest room, he at first had played with the small television set, trying to find something that might allow him to disengage his brain for a while, but none of the television shows appealed to him. In fact, many of them were completely unfamiliar, which just served as a reminder that he had lost three years. That only upset him more, so he turned off the TV, before opening one of the bags of clothing they had bought and yanking out a pair of pajamas. It wasn't in his nature to wear pajamas normally, but it seemed to make Skinner feel better, so he'd have to forgo sleeping in his shorts like he would at home. Anyway, the pajamas would certainly keep him warmer, so they had that going for them.

When he turned off the light and climbed into bed, he found himself straining to hear noises in the hallway. Without quite realizing it, he had slipped back into expecting that They would come for him. He knew that was ridiculous because he was in Skinner's home now, not on the ship anymore, but still...

Lying on his back, looking at the dark ceiling, he wondered if Skinner realized that he was broken. Scully would, which is one of the reasons why he was decidedly not eager to go and see her. Skinner didn't have to tell him that she had suffered in his absence, and he knew instinctively that she would suffer even more if she saw him the way he was at the moment.

He just didn't know if he could become the man she remembered again.


An achingly full bladder got Skinner out of bed late that night. Swearing under his breath, he promised himself again that he'd do a better job keeping an eye on the clock when he got a glass of soda or a beer after dinner. At least it was just drinking too close to bedtime causing him to wake up, not the prostate problems that plagued his grandfather.

A couple of minutes later he heard something over the sounds of the sink. Shutting the tap off, he strained to hear what it was. By the time he dried his hands, he was sure that it was coming from the guestroom.

He opened the door a crack, confirming what he already suspected: Mulder was yelling in his sleep. Skinner shut the door again without hesitation, and headed back to bed. Mulder wouldn't have thanked him if he'd gone in and woken him from his nightmare, that much he was sure of.

He sighed as he climbed back into his bed, thinking of the experience that made him so certain of this. Jimmy Holmes had been the youngest man in Skinner's company at the beginning of his tour. Jimmy hadn't actually been a man yet, having gotten his parents to let him sign up at 17. Skinner hadn't been very old himself back then, but at least he had his high school diploma and could vote. He'd kind of looked out for the younger boy, but not as much as some of the older guys had (at the time they'd seemed grizzled and world-weary, which seemed odd looking back considering none of them had left their twenties yet at the time. Some never would).

After a particularly brutal and confusing battle Jimmy began to suffer from nightmares, clearly unable to get past the events that had left all of them at least somewhat traumatized themselves. But unlike the rest of them Jimmy got worse as time went on, not better. After a couple of weeks a few of the older guys got tired of waiting for Jimmy to get over it and took it upon themselves to make sure someone woke Jimmy up immediately when he began yelling, partly out of a fear that his squalling would lead the enemy right to them, but mostly because he was depriving them all of sleep which was another sort of danger. Everyone slept better after this, but Jimmy began to look haunted when he was awake too, sinking into himself when not prodded into action.

It didn't really surprise anyone when Jimmy stepped on a landmine about a month later. His folks had been told that it was a tragic accident, and the official excuse was that he'd been sleep deprived and had misstepped, but Skinner knew that wasn't true. He'd been close enough at that last minute to see the look on Jimmy's face. The kid had known it was there. He just stepped on it anyway.

When he thought about it later, Skinner wondered if it had been guilt that prompted Jimmy's final action. If he hadn't been blamed for disrupting everyone's sleep, would he have handled what was now called post-traumatic stress disorder better?

Back when he and Sharon had still been talking about kids, he'd pictured them bickering about what to do when the kids had nightmares. Having a baby never panned out so that fight never happened; it seemed about the only one they didn't have.

So Skinner had no intention of going into the guestroom and making Mulder feel badly for screaming...but he did get up and knock a stack of heavy books to the floor with a satisfying crash.


A loud crash was still ringing in Mulder's ears when he sat up in bed with a gasp. His nightmare clung to him even though he was now awake. The images from the dream tumbled through his mind, refusing to be forgotten.

The building had been abandoned, and in the dream he hadn't been sure how he'd gotten there. All he knew was that he was there to find something. Even what it might be that he needed to find had eluded him; he just felt strongly that he needed to find it there. Dark hallways led nowhere and he'd found himself pushing past what seemed like dozens of pairs of swing doors that might have made sense in a hospital, but not a warehouse like it seemed to be, at least at first. Eventually the place began to look more like the psych hospital he'd been in while that artifact scrambled his brain. Most of the hallways remained dark, but some distant condors were lit. But the lights always blinked out by the time he reached them.

He'd stumbled down the halls at random at first, but had stopped short, standing still and quiet when he thought he heard his name. After a moment he was rewarded by hearing it again. Familiar. Welcomed. His heart raced, and he yelled back "Scully?"

"I'm here, Mulder, I'm here!" her distant voice returned.

Joy turned to frustration when running, no matter which way he turned, just seemed to carry him away from her voice. A stich in his side eventually forced him to stumble to a stop. When he did, he heard her call him again, and a new sound caught his attention too: a heartbroken cry that seemed to be closer.

He stood there, confused, and torn. He didn't know who was crying, but he sensed strongly that he was supposed to care. Should he continue to look for Scully, or head towards the crying? Maybe he should find the source of the crying first because it seemed closer. Maybe the crying came from someone who could help him locate Scully, but a whisper at the back of his mind expressed doubt about that.

Before he broke his indecision, a bespectacled boy appeared in front of him, along with a cadre of slender, gray-skinned figures. The boy wordlessly pointed at him, and the grays surged forward, seizing him by both arms. Screaming and flailing, he was helplessly dragged away. Scully's voice and the crying rang in the bright hallway behind them. Then there had been a distant crash that sounded like the ceiling of one of the corridors coming down-

Awake, his stomach clenched, threatening to bring up the steak and potatoes Skinner had cooked them both a few hours earlier, but a series of deep breaths got it back under control. In some ways he felt worse at that moment than he had when he'd been gifted a flashback upon noting a row of steak knives at the store - that had been bad enough that he'd been pretty sure Skinner had nearly decided to cut his meat for him later rather than give him a knife, at least judging by the looks he'd given Mulder, the steak, and the blade.

At least he was sure that this dream only was a dream. Some of the other things rattling around his mind...Scully hadn't been anywhere near him in the past three years. The only reason he was sure of that was because she'd been right in DC, with her kids. If Skinner was to be believed. And he couldn't think of a reason not to believe him. At least then, though he supposed that could change, considering how many people had taught him that 'trust no one' was a sound life plan. Pretty much everyone but Scully had betrayed him at one time or another. But she never had.

Scully.

He understood why Skinner had been aghast when he said he wasn't going to tell her that he had come back. Truly he did. But she'd moved on. She didn't need another person to look after. Skinner only thought she'd be happier if she knew, but he was wrong. It would hurt her to see him like he was.

Once he was better, he'd go and see her. Just not yet, not while he could be nothing but a burden to her.

But would Skinner go behind his back and tell her, that was the question. Mulder dropped back against his mattress. He supposed he'd find out if his trust in the man was unfounded soon than later.


Mulder was already awake by the time Skinner got up. He sat in an armchair, the throw blanket he'd stolen wrapped around his bony shoulders. If it didn't seem so ridiculous to do so, the AD might have offered to turn on the heat. He just couldn't bring himself to suggest it, not during the dog days of August. "Sleep well?" he asked, trying not to let the question sound too pointed.

''About as well as I expected," Mulder told him with a yawn. "The guestroom bed beats the hell out of sleeping on your porch."

"I aim to please." Glancing at Mulder, and noting that he seemed calm, had him deciding to risk a question. "What about before you slept on my porch?"

To his surprise, Mulder looked faintly amused. "Are you trying to ask me how long I've been back, Walter?"

He nearly snapped at Mulder for being too familiar, but he didn't. Mulder might be back, but it wasn't as though he was still his boss. Or was he? Trying to work that out began to make Skinner's head ache. Flashing him a grim smile instead, he said, "I think I am."

In all honesty it had begun to bother him that he really had no idea how long it had been since Mulder was released. Or had he escaped? It was his instinct to assume Mulder had only just returned, however he'd managed that, but he couldn't shake the thought that he might have returned a while ago, and had just been lost and hungry until he finally had found someone he knew...

Mulder frowned, looking down at his cape nee throw blanket. "It took me a couple of hours to get here, but this is the first place I headed once I was off the ship."

The ship. How many times had he and Scully fought over his insistence that he'd seen a ship separate Mulder from the ground? Too many. But she'd had less energy for arguing once Grace was keeping her up at night...

He wasn't about to admit it to his prodigal agent, but maybe Mulder did have a right to be jealous of Tommy and Grace. Finding them signaled the end of her frantic efforts to find him. At first Skinner had tried to be sympathetic to what a big adjustment it had to be to become an instant parent, but eventually he'd called her on it. She'd given him an unimaginably sad smile and asked him if he was familiar with the old saying about God not closing a door without opening a window. This had left him confused at first until he realized that she was implying that she'd been given the children for consolation. To make up for losing the love of her life. It was only then that he'd become sure that she no longer expected Mulder to come back. Hoped, may be, but no longer expected it.

And now here he was, staring at him and a minute had passed without him saying anything. Blinking in slight confusion, Skinner tried to think of something profound, or at least relevant to say. What came out instead was, "Did you escape, or did they let you go?" That was so ham-fisted he cursed himself and fully expected Mulder to shut down.

He didn't. The cynical look he gave seemed to say 'well, if you really want to know, ask' and Skinner immediately began to wonder if he really did want to.

When he nodded slightly, Mulder began. "It was different at the end. For a while, for what seemed like forever, they'd tried to get something out of me." Mulder paused, looking haunted for a moment, but doggedly went on. "But after...afterwards they gave up on me. They stopped torturing me, but..." His eyes drifted down to his folded hands. "They stopped feeding me too."

Skinner winced. "Mulder..." He was thin because they'd starved him, not because he'd been lost in the world without monetary means to feed himself.

Mulder sighed. "I think it was worse, being left alone but slowly starving, than it was to be of interest to them but fed. I never would have guessed that. Up until then I thought all I wanted in the world was to be left alone. How could I imagine I'd one day try to eat pieces of the ship to quiet the rumbling in my gut?"

"Damn," Skinner swore quietly. Even during the war he hadn't met anyone that hungry. Not quite.

This earned him an unexpected, and joyless, smile. "I damned just about everyone by that point." Skinner didn't really expect him to say 'except for you' and he didn't. "That last night I was stunned when they came for me. It had been so long since I'd seen them, it had to be weeks, that I'd long since resigned myself to being left alone for the pitiful remainder of my life. So when I saw them, I assumed they were going to kill me. And when they began to drag me down a corridor, I became sure of it. All I could think was that they were worried about the smell."

Skinner frowned, puzzled by this. ''The smell?"

He nodded. "If they'd just let me die on my own it might have taken them a while to realize that I was finally dead, and by then I would have stunk op the place. Rotting," he added, as if unsure Skinner caught his drift. "So killing me would mean they could dispose of my corpse before then."

There really wasn't anything to say to that, so he held his tongue. Eventually Mulder seemed to grasp that he'd been rendered speechless and went on. "I waited for blows or a stabbing but they just hurried me along until we reached a hatch...they opened it and pushed me out."

"Jesus."

"I thought I was going to die, of course. My brain helpfully reminded me that I'd once read that there's a height from which you can push a man, a mouse, and a horse, and the mouse will walk away, the man will break every bone in his body, and the horse will explode. I didn't know if I should've expected to be the man or the horse, but they'd gotten low enough to the ground that I was lucky enough to be the bruised mouse."

"Then they weren't trying to kill you?"

'I don't think so. They'd done enough Mengelian experimentation to know how to kill a person. I'm sure of that."

"I wonder why they let you go," Skinner blurted out without thinking.

Mulder just shrugged. "Why do bullies eventually tire of burning ants with a magnifying glass."

This time he thought before speaking. "The novelty wears off and they find someone or something new to torture?"

"Probably," Mulder said, yawning. "I think I just wasn't any fun anymore. So they probably found new toys to break."

"Was there anyone else?"

"Hmm?"

"On the ship," he clarified. "Other humans."

"No," Mulder said quickly, not meeting his eyes.

He was lying, obviously, but Skinner didn't think it was because he was protecting another victim. Maybe they had people working for Them, even there. The smoking bastard really would have been in his element there, if they left him to torture his fellow man. He'd really missed his calling as a concentration camp guard.

Glancing at Mulder, he felt an unexpected pang of sorrow for him. Much of his own memories of war bordered on the hellish, but he hadn't gone to hell and back alone. It was hard to imagine being tortured for three years, all alone, and coming through it sane. But something about the way Mulder reacted to things left a little voice whispering in the back of Skinner's mind that it might be a little premature to declare Mulder whole and hale quite yet...and it might not just be his body that was frail. And that was another thing..."If we can get an appointment, are you up to a doctor's visit today?"

Mulder gave him a wry look. "What kind of doctor?" he asked, suggesting that he wasn't the only one with concerns about what long term effects might have been spawned from three years of captivity.

"The kind that gives physicals."

He expected Mulder to balk and say he didn't want to, not to look at him and ask, "How would we explain? A good doctor would figure out I'm not a drinker or drug user who'd forgotten to eat. And I'm not the right demographic for an eating disorder."

They'd have to see his doctor, Skinner decided, because Dr. Charles knew he was an AD at the FBI. "I'll see if my MD can see you," Skinner told him. "He knows enough about my job to believe me if I asked him to see a political prisoner."

"That makes me sound important," Mulder replied with the faintest of smiles. "Okay."

"Okay?" he repeated, making sure he hadn't misunderstood. When Mulder nodded, he reached for his phone.


Doctor Frank Charles turned out to be a nice man in his mid-thirties, and Mulder found himself liking him despite how obviously pleased he was to be of assistance to the FBI. As affable as the younger man was, Mulder still wished that Skinner wasn't sitting out in the waiting room. Wanting someone there felt childish considering he'd gone to all doctor's appointments alone since he started middle school, but he still couldn't shake the longing for someone else being there, if only to act as a buffer.

The air conditioner was on, and Mulder's skin goose bumped unpleasantly while his shirt was off. If the doctor wasn't trying to assess his heart, he probably would have begged to get dressed. Most patients probably found the A/C to be nice that time of year, but most of them probably had body fat percentages that couldn't be counted on one hand.

Charles multitasked, firing off questions while he examined Mulder. "How long were you held captive?" he asked, listening to his heart. "Sorry, didn't mean to stress you out."

It took a moment for him to realize that the doctor had heard something in his heartbeat react to the question. "Three years." Mulder marveled a little that the answer was both the truth and so bare it barely scratched the surface of what had happened to him. He thinks you've been in a gulag, he reminded himself, not on a space ship. The thought of how the good doctor might react if he even hinted at the full truth nearly made him laugh, but it wouldn't have been a sound of mirth, so he held it in.

"That's a long time," Charles noted, putting the stethoscope away so he could look in Mulder's mouth. ''I take it that you were more neglected towards the end of that time than the beginning." When this got him a questioning look, he added, "Given you didn't actually starve to death."

As soon as his mouth was free of fingers and instruments, Mulder agreed. "I was feed fairly regularly until the last few weeks."

"Hmm. How many weeks?"

Mulder shrugged helplessly. It might have been three weeks, maybe more than four.

"No calendar?" Charles asked with a sigh. "Considering the likely conditions, I suppose not." Mulder looked at him, suddenly curious about what Skinner had invented about the place he'd been held by a corrupt South American government. Charles seemed to have more defined preconceptions than hellhole covered. "Don't worry about it, I'm guessing about a month, and that's good enough."

"Okay." Mulder answered without looking at the man, and only realized this was a mistake a moment later.

"Now we need to take a little blood..." Charles broke off in dismay when Mulder jumped off the exam table, away from the needle the doctor held in his left hand. "Oh."

Stop being an idiot, Mulder scolded himself. Sitting back down, he gave the doctor a weak smile. I'm okay."

"You're sure?" Charles picked the syringe back up and waited for him to nod before cautiously approaching his arm. He relaxed a little when Mulder calmly endured having the first vial drawn. "I'm glad we could proceed. These blood tests are important."

"Sorry." Mulder gave him a sheepish look.

"It's ok, you didn't even make me drop anything," the doctor told him as he finished. But then he gave him a pointed look. "Has this happened before? Are you having nightmares?"

"Yes," Mulder admitted. "To both."

"I'm not a psychiatrist," Charles began, and Mulder had to fight the urge to blurt out his degree. He still didn't know what Skinner had told him to get the appointment, but he was pretty sure that being an oxford educated profiler probably didn't neatly mesh with the fiction. "...but I'm concerned about the trauma you've experienced. I'm going to give you some literature and a number to call if you're not feeling...better soon. All right?"

"Yeah." Truth to be told, the doctor was probably right to be concerned. He was concerned himself.


The Next Day

Skinner was having a rough morning, and not just because it was hard to get back into the swing of things after two days out of the office. It was difficult to resist the urge to call Mulder every half an hour and make sure that he was okay. Mulder was a grown man, so there was little reason to believe he wouldn't be perfectly fine. He wasn't a six-year-old accidentally left home alone without a sitter. But he was a little concerned by the pamphlets from Dr. Charles that Mulder had accidentally left in the car...

He was also struggling with what he was supposed to do, in an official capacity, about Mulder's return. It was an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position to be put in, to worry about the privacy of someone a case was centered upon. In the normal course of things concern about the feelings of the victims was at best an afterthought, but this was different. It was Mulder.

Sighing, he told himself that he'd give Mulder until the end of the week, and then they'd have to sit down and formulate a plan. He was sure that it would be met with resistance, but there wasn't much he could do about that. Given that Mulder was a federal agent there were still limited resources being put towards locating him, even three years out. It wasn't out of the goodness of Kersh's heart but to keep up appearances, which made it even more likely that he was going to be called upon to explain the unnecessary continuation of the use of funds. Maybe he could appeal to Mulder on that front.

Eventually, after he formed at least a skeletal action plan, he began to feel a little calmer about the situation. It wouldn't be comfortable reintroducing Mulder, but as long as Mulder didn't run screaming into the night as soon as the topic of closing his case came up, it was not insurmountable.

His feeling of competence, if not outright calm, instantly evaporated when his computer alerted him that he had e-mail: it was from Scully. His heart went into his throat until he realized that she hadn't somehow found out that Mulder was back and he was keeping it from her. Instead of feeling relief when he figured out that she was just giving him a heads up that one of her students was probably going to contact him, he felt a confusing wash of guilt.

Keeping Mulder's return from her didn't sit well with him, but he thought that there was a very real chance that betraying Mulder's trust by telling her would result in Mulder taking off...and he wouldn't keep stopping himself from calling to check on him if he thought he was okay enough to be on his own.

He gritted his teeth and responded to her e-mail with perfunctory pleasantries and found himself rereading his message four times, scouring it for unintended hints about Mulder, before finally hitting the send button.


A bell on campus chimed loudly at noon, and as one Scully's students gathered their things and filed out of the classroom. She lagged several seconds behind them, hoping that her slight delay would be rewarded.

At first it seemed possible, but then a voice down the hall said, "Dana?"

It took a lot of effort not to cringe or to run in the opposite direction. Instead she made herself turn around. "Finn," she said a little stiffly. The man who stood in the doorway of the classroom next to hers taught understanding terrorism. And he had been irritating her almost continuously for the better part of a year.

Finn Hardy smiled happily at her, making her wonder, not for the first time, if he had a psychological disorder that made him unaware of when he made others uncomfortable, or, worse, if he simply enjoyed his effect on others. "Beautiful day, isn't it?"

Scully looked past him, at the hall window. "Uh..." The day was gray and she could see drops of rain beginning to splatter the wide cement sill.

"Maybe it's just you, then," he said obnoxiously when she didn't get any other words out.

She half suspected that the powers that be would eventually renamed the yearly sexual harassment course that all faculty was required to take in Finn's honor. Rumor had it that she was just the latest in a long string of female faculty members that he had set his sights on, but knowing that she had company did nothing to make her feel better

Her response to his comment was to glare at him, which he predictably ignored.

"So, when are you going to have dinner with me? You can't use your kids as an excuse, I know a great sitter..."

She tuned out the rest of what he said, letting the words roll over her like waves as she wondered what he thought made him any sort of judge of a good babysitter. Like her, he'd never married, but he'd also never gotten anyone to reproduce with him and no one much seemed to want his DNA like they had hers...Eventually he finished speaking to give her an expectant look.

"I don't need a sitter, Finn. We're not going to dinner."

Another man might have been taken aback by her abruptness, but it wasn't the first time they'd had the conversation. He was so doggedly persistent for no good reason that every time she saw "F. Hardy" on inter-office mail, she imagined the F. was for fool rather than Finn.

"I'll change your mind yet," he declared with unwarranted confidence.

Scully stared at him, wondering how he would react if she said something to the effect that maybe they should discuss the matter with HR. Not that she'd actually turn to them given that she was sure she could eventually get him to back off. It was tempting to evoke that boogeyman, though. "Don't hold your breath."

He'd typically laugh off her admonishment then, but this time he didn't. "Who are you waiting for, anyway?" he demanded to know. "If I'm not good enough for you, who is?"

"That's none of your business," she said icily.

Recognition bloom in his expression. "Oh. So you're holding out for someone who doesn't think you're good enough too."

Retorts she'd like to fire back crowded her mouth, but she didn't let them out. Instead she turned and walked away without a backwards glance.

There was no way she was going to share something so private and painful with the likes of Finn Hardy. Not when there was no chance that he would understand. If her mother didn't understand, he surely wouldn't.

"How many guys are you going to find who are okay with kids?" Finn called down the hallway, already seeming to have forgotten that he'd correctly asserted that she was holding out for someone else. Or maybe he was just sure she'd never get the one she really wanted.

Scully continued to ignore him, wishing that the day wasn't just half over.


Earlier in the morning Mulder had more than half expected that Skinner was going to balk at leaving him alone to actually go off to work, but the older man had left without even telling him to do or not anything while he was gone. He'd been wryly amused at the time because he'd been fully prepared to hear a list of house rules like a teenage nephew staying with Skinner probably would've.

Left with no chores, and not much energy, Mulder had returned to bed around one that afternoon. It felt strange because his chronic insomnia didn't urge him into naps very often, but the doctor had insisted that he rest as much as he could, as well as stuff his face, so after an uncomfortably large lunch he followed his instincts back to the guestroom. Sleep had taken him easier than it used to.

Something woke him abruptly, but he didn't know what it was at first, nor did he care because he was comfortable under a thick blanket. But when he heard a familiar sound his heart began to jack-hammer in his chest.

An unmistakable sibilant chattering was coming from some place in the distance, but not distant enough. He thought it might be down the hall, and if it was, it wouldn't be long...

Somehow They had figured out exactly where he'd gone once they'd knocked him out of the ship. Cursing himself for not realizing that they might have ways to track him, or at least to accurately guess where he'd most likely gone for help, he jumped out of bed and began to scan the room for something that'd work as a weapon.

His hands found a souvenir backscratcher that someone had probably given Skinner a joke and seized on it even though he knew it was could only offer a pitiful defense.

Maybe he could scratch one or two of them to death before they took him down. He didn't even know if they'd come to kill him, or if they were making him go back. It was hard to decide which was worse, really.

There were enough of them in the hallway to overpower him, backscratcher or no. He could tell that much from listening to them chitter to each other.

He shouldn't have been so stubborn and gone to see Scully before it was too late. If they took him now, she would never forgive him for having returned without saying anything to her.

Maybe he should hide.

This last thought seemed like a good one, so he found himself shoving aside the clothes in the closet and squeezing his way in. It bothered him that the door had slats rather than being solid wood, but there wasn't really anything he could do about it. So he shut the door quietly, and settled on the floor to...he didn't actually know what. Wait for them to find him? Attack them when he knew they'd entered the bedroom? To pray that God would save his wretched soul because he couldn't endure any more?

Clutching the backscratcher, he listened hard to what was going on outside the closet. They eventually came into the room, and he thought that they were looking for him, at least from the questioning noises they made to each other.

And then, he saw a long finger poking between the slats. Without quite being aware of it, a warm stain began to spread on the front of his pajama bottoms. Once he realized what he'd done, he sprung to his feet, and threw the door open with a savage yell, hoping to at least surprise the bastards.

As he jumped out he shouted "I'm not going with you!"

To an empty room.

The backscratcher fell from his fingers then, and he covered his face with both hands.


It was clear to Skinner that something had happen while he was gone that day from Mulder's near silence the whole night, but he decided not to interrogate him. Nothing was damaged, and in fact Mulder had done a load of laundry and the dishes, so it wasn't as though he could complain about his house guest's behavior. So he just let it go, deciding to trust him to speak up if there was something really wrong.

For a moment, just before the two men were going to retire for the night, for it felt like Mulder might confide in him. He knew he was a poor substitute for a confidant compared to Scully, but he still hoped that Mulder trusted him enough to say whatever he needed to get off his chest. What little that had already been said about his ordeal aboard the ship didn't leave Skinner eager to learn more, but if it needed telling he'd listen.

But when Mulder finally did speak up it was just to ask, "Can I borrow your computer tomorrow?"

"Oh, sure," he replied a bit more disappointed than surprised. Maybe Mulder would play computer solitaire. He found it a soothingly mindless game himself.

"Thanks. I need to look some stuff up and I think I'll have more luck online than at the library."

"No problem. Feel free to hop online any time you want to," he replied, thinking that doing some research might be good for him, but betting that it was more likely that he'd look up recent bigfoot sightings instead of the Mulder family tree. "I've got broadband now, so it's not like the days of dialup with long distance charges."

Mulder just said "Thanks" again instead of offering any clues about his research topic. For no particular reason this left Skinner wondering if Scully was what he planned to look up. He almost hoped it was. So much so he found himself admitting "I got an e-mail from Scully today."

Mulder froze a moment obviously shocked, before recovering himself. "What about?" he asked with a barely detectable tremor to his voice.

Skinner shrugged. "She wanted to let me know that one of her students might approach me about the X-Files."

He predicted that Mulder would immediately ask if she'd said anything about him too, but he proved himself to be a poor mind reader. "The X-Files? I assumed it was closed after Scully left for Quantico."

If Mulder wasn't already on edge all of the time, Skinner might have asked him where the hell he thought he'd been all day. Instead he just shook his head and said, "No, your legacy lives on. I haven't been able to keep anyone in the basement office very long before they've fled for better offers, but the cases are still getting investigated. Not as well as when you and Scully were on them, but-"

"Good," Mulder said quietly. "I'm glad to hear someone is still keeping the truth from being buried or whitewashed."

It was on the tip of Skinner's tongue to suggest that maybe he and Scully would both return to fight the good fight, but there were too many reasons why suggesting that right then would have been cruel. For one Mulder was too frail to work at even an undemanding desk job at the moment, let alone go out into the field to investigate. And even if he was up for it, getting Kersh to reinstate him would be no small feat. Then there was Scully...Even with Mulder back, he wasn't sure if she'd ever return to casework, not now that she had two small children that could be orphaned if she didn't make it home from an investigation.

Mulder was looking at him in a way that reminded him uncomfortably of the brief time when an artifact allowed him to read minds. "I'm hoping Brennan and Howe stick around longer than most. They're young and a little green but they're doing a good job."

''Here's hoping," Mulder told him.

It was only as he was brushing his teeth that Skinner began to consider how strange it was that it had taken Mulder so long to finally ask about the X-Files. A few reasons flitted through his mind as he flossed, none of them good.


The house was quiet the next morning, and to Mulder's relief his traitorous mind was too. His surety that They had been there to get him the day before scared the hell out of him, and convinced him of what he had to do for the sake of his own sanity, if nothing else. It wasn't a decision he'd come to very easily, not when he knew it would provide Kersh with more than enough ammunition to bar him from ever returning to the X-Files if not the FBI altogether, but he knew something had to give because he couldn't go on the way he was.

Fortunately Skinner lending him the use of a computer made it much easier and more impersonal to look up the information he needed than being forced to make phone inquiries would have been. With the internet he was able to get costs and even reviews for the places he was interested in, as well as general run downs of the services they offered, their programming, and accommodations.

By early afternoon he'd picked the most likely candidate and needed only to visit his bank to ensure that he could cover the costs before calling to make arrangements.


Mulder expected more of a hassle when he first tried to take money of his bank account, but the ATM dutifully spit out four fifty dollar bills and a short statement about how much money was in his account.

For a second he felt absurdly disappointed, because he had already anticipated being able to joke with a loan officer about how the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. Of course, he hadn't been gone for seven years, although three years was quite long enough thank you, so perhaps he hadn't been declared dead. Who would've done that? His parents were gone, and from what Skinner had told him, both he and Scully had hoped that he would return. There really wasn't anyone in his life would benefit from his estate, so maybe even after seven years, maybe after twenty, no one would have gotten around to filing that paperwork. Perhaps there was some benefit to not having enough people in his life to bother with things like that.

Looking down at the paper balance statement he still held in his hand with the bills, he considered the amount. Apparently his money had continued to earn interest, even while he was off the planet, because the total was a fair bit higher than he anticipated. It would definitely cover the costs associated with what he was planning to do.

The only problem would be convincing Skinner that it was the right move. Although, considering that he was almost positive that Skinner wasn't sleeping through his episodes every night, maybe it wouldn't be as hard a sell as all that anyway.


A cab in the driveway that night kept Skinner from being able to park. Figuring the guy was lost, he waved at the driver, only to have him gesture back. It seemed like he wasn't going to budge, so Skinner gave up and parked on the street figuring he'd save time in the long run if he moved his car after the idiot gave up and left.

Mulder was in the living room, and seemed startled to see him, but he'd been jumpy the whole time he'd been there so Skinner no longer bothered to apologize. After he put his bag down he commented "Some fool cabdriver is out in my driveway. Not sure how long he'll sit there before he realizes he's got the wrong house."

He was in the middle of picking up the mail off a table by the door when Mulder said, "He's got the right house."

"You called him?" Skinner looked up from the stack of bills and advertisements. "Why? You know if you need a ride I could give you one."

Mulder sighed, and only then did Skinner notice the duffel bag by his feet. "I'm grateful that you took me in, but I think we both know I don't belong here."

Skinner opened his mouth, nearly blurting out what he was thinking, but shut it before he actually came out and said that Mulder was in no condition to look after himself. Thinking of a tactful question took some time, but he finally asked, "Where do you belong, then?" which didn't feel too condescending.

"Do you really have to ask?" The grim he gave him had him worrying about whether he was implying that he was contemplating the same course of action that Jimmy had, but he went on, "I'm not getting better here-"

"It's only been a few days!"

"-and I'm probably not going to without help. I called in a favor with someone I used to work with, before the X-Files, and they got Dolby to agree to admit me."

He nearly asked if he was supposed to know who Dolby was when he realized it was probably a where rather than a who. "That's a... hospital?" he guessed, figuring it was more likely than rehab or a nursing home.

''A psych hospital, yes." Something must have showed on his face, because Mulder gave him a wan smile. "A voluntary commitment this time, to change things up."

Skinner seized on the word voluntary. "You can sign yourself back out, then?"

"Not the first three days, but after that I could. I'm hoping I won't, though."

Because he didn't expect to stabilize in less than three days, Skinner realized. "How long do you think you'll be there?" he asked abruptly.

Mulder shrugged. "With PTSD? I don't know." He sighed. "But I do know that I need to do this because the path I'm on ends at the end of a rope or mumbling to myself out on the streets."

Unfortunately, Skinner couldn't find it in himself to disagree. So he just nodded.

"I have your blessing, then?"

"You don't need it, but yes."

"Alright, then." Mulder reached for the duffel at his feet, leaving him morbidly wondering how much of its contents would be confiscated as harmful once he checked in.

"Mulder?" He looked up. "Guestroom's still yours when you're ready to check out."

"Thanks."


They didn't take his shoelaces this time, Mulder found himself thinking immediately after he checked in to Dolby. Maybe it was because his stay was going to be voluntary this time. That did make him wonder though, who was more likely to kill themselves, someone who was being held in a hospital against their will, who probably didn't think there was anything wrong with themselves, or someone who was so concerned about their own state that they signed in on purpose.

The other thing that was nice about voluntary commitment was that no one was dragging him down the hallway towards his room - they let him walk behind like they trusted him to follow. That bode well for his chances of not being held down and drugged too. Or at least hope so.

"Here we are," the woman said as they reached a doorway. "It's not the Ritz, but hopefully you'll find it comfortable."

Mulder peered in past her, taking in the standard furniture set up. It was a twin bed, a desk, a pair of nightstands and a dresser. He'd stayed in worse motel rooms. "It should be fine."

"Well," she said briskly. "I believe that the doctor will speak to you in about a half an hour, so that give you some time to get settled in."

Mulder looked down at the duffel bag he was still holding. Did she honestly think it was going to take him half an hour to unpack? Or maybe she meant mentally. They probably did have a fair number of people who are anxious about transition. So maybe that made more sense. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," she said, and then left.

Mulder sat at the desk, hoping that he had done the right thing. His main goal was to get better without getting drugged, or at least not with the drug that might make him speak uncomfortable truths, the sort of truths that would get him locked up for the rest of life regardless of whether or not he had entered the building on his own accord.

He glanced clock, wondering if the therapist who had been assigned to him would actually help him, and if he or she was literally a doctor or if it was a polite term for any staff there from psychotherapist to psychiatrist who worked with patients on a therapeutic basis. He supposed it didn't really matter because anyone doing therapy would have the sort of training necessary to treat him.

Frowning slightly, he turned his gaze towards the windows. It was stormy outside, and the wind was beginning to pick up. If the doctor couldn't help him, at least he could leave.

But he wasn't sure what he would do after that if he did. He wasn't sure at all.


Skinner had watched the cab back out of the driveway with a heavy heart. If Mulder, who'd gotten a psychology degree from a prestigious university believed that his condition wasn't going to improve without an impatient stay, he was probably right. God knew that skinner had no idea what to do for him. But even though he doubted any other layperson would, either, he was unable to shake the feeling that he had failed Mulder.

It wasn't until he'd gone into the guest room that night to turn off a lamp that had been left on that he discovered the note.

    Don't blame yourself, Walter. Yesterday I was so sure that they'd come
    back for me I pissed myself while hiding in a closet. This is the best thing
    for me and everyone else right now.

"Oh, Mulder," he sighed, putting it down.


After an hour or two passed and he'd only been introduced to the doctor who would be treating him and showed around, Mulder came to the conclusion that it was Dolby's policy to ease new patients into the program. In a way that was probably good for a lot of the other people who were sharing the facility with him, but it left him feeling frustrated. The longer it took for him to get started, the longer it was going to be before he got better and got on with his life.

If he even had a life to get back to anymore. This had him sighing, and considering he was sitting on a bed in a mental hospital, it felt like something he was entitled to rather than self-indulgent. What he didn't feel he had the right to was believing that things were ever going to get back to what they'd been like it had been before the beam of cold light had removed him from the world and everything he knew.

Would it be the height of naivety to believe that someday he might eventually be able to return to his job at the FBI? That he might someday be healed enough to be worthy of being part of Scully's new life, which now included children? This sent his thoughts spiraling off into a new direction.

If he had gotten back and learned that Scully was still single, and still childless, he probably would have made sure that she knew he was back, even if he was in as bad a state mentally as he currently was. But there was something about the fact that she was responsible for two young lives that made him terrified of contacting her. He didn't think that most people with posttraumatic stress disorder were dangerous, but what if he proved to be the exception?

He had already been responsible for taking so much from her, the idea of hurting her kids, even by accident, or maybe especially by accident, left in horrified. And maybe that was what motivated him to seek help. He didn't want to be the sort of person who was always worried that just around the corner a mental breakdown would cause them to harm others.


When Mulder woke, the sound of his scream still rang in the air. It shouldn't have surprised him that he was dreaming about being on the ship again, but in a way it did. His waking mind wanted to be through with all of that, but clearly his subconscious was not finished with the deal. It struck him as ironic that while he was able to escape the ship, at night his mind to put him right back in there.

It wasn't particularly cold in his room, but Mulder shivered anyway. This specific dream had been a bad one. In the dream he was not refugee camp thin. Instead his abdomen had swollen to a ridiculous degree, as if he had swallowed a watermelon. In the dream he tried to convince himself that he had no idea what the problem was, but in a way he knew. He could tell by the way it jabbed at him, from within.

And that was not the worst of it. After doing this to him, they had worse in mind. They wanted it. He didn't speak the same language as they did, but he knew just the same that they were claiming it. That it was theirs, at least in their minds. He didn't really want it, but he didn't want them to have it either. It was part of him.

Towards the end of the dream they would drag him down the hallway, and then strap him to a table. And they cut it out. He always woke up before he got to see it. Awake, he couldn't tell if this was a blessing or curse.

The reason he cared was because the scar on his stomach made him think that perhaps it wasn't just a dream as desperately as he wished it to be. He worried that it was a memory. He worried about that a lot.

Any thoughts he had about not bothering anyone considering it was a private room dissipated when there was a firm knock on his door. The knocker didn't wait for him to grant access, and immediately opened the door instead, reminding him that it wasn't a Motel 6 as much as the furnishing might suggest it was.

"Everything all right in here, Mr. Mulder?" the nurse asked as soon as he stepped in the room, giving him a concerned look. His gender and size probably got him hired, Mulder thought, since a big guy like him would have an easier time with people who were potentially out of control like was too likely to happen there.

Mulder summoned up a wan smile for the young man, who despite a gently concerned expression still looked a lot like a bouncer. "Just a nightmare." Just your garden-variety abducted by aliens and then tortured medically dream.

He began to wonder if the nurse had other aspirations when he asked "anything you want to talk about?" Maybe the man thought he would pursue something in the field of psychology one day himself, Mulder mused. It was as good an aspiration as any, and he did seem to have the bedside manner for it.

Looking at him, Mulder wondered what would happen if he told the man that is nightmare had been about carrying an alien baby, or at least until they cut it out of him. Although, technically, considering it was in his body, it was likely that it was probably really a hybrid baby, with half of its garnering its DNA from him. And then, he wondered how the nurse would react if he said that maybe it wasn't a dream, but a fragmented memory.

The thought of being held down and given a shot of Risperdal didn't bring joy to his heart, so he just shook his head instead. He would save the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest experience for another night.

After giving him a studying look, the younger man nodded. "Would you like something to help you sleep? I could bring your sleeping pill."

The most common complaint about sleeping pills was that people found that they erased their dreams. "Yes," Mulder said promptly. A dreamless sleep sounded like a gift that point.

"Okay, I'll be right back."

Don't hurry, Mulder thought with a sigh as he watched the nurse walk away. He was grateful for the offer of a sleeping pill, but the dream reminded him exactly how carefully he'd have to tread in order not to make the people treating him understandably believe he was delusional. Because delusions, rather than flashbacks and hallucinations were not his problem. Anti-psychotics would only serve to make him worse.

He was so lost in thought that he didn't even realize that the nurse had returned until a cup and a small capsule were being held out to him. "Maybe you won't even need this," the younger man remarked, leaving Mulder tempted to snatch the pill from his hand and swallow it before the offer was rescinded. "You look like you're falling asleep already."

To Mulder's relief the drug was handed over to him. "Not quite."

"I guess not then," he answered with a small smile that suggested that the nurse was trying to figure out if Mulder was joking. He still looked unsure when he left.

Mulder shrugged and swallowed the pill, hoping hard for the remainder of the night to come without any dreams.


The next morning Mulder woke up and steeled himself for the fact that he was going to be expected to eat with everyone else; the night before he'd arrived late enough to avoid a group meal. Sighing, he told himself that he couldn't avoid it because it wouldn't help him get better. Not to mention getting a reputation as antisocial wouldn't be a good thing, either.

So he got dressed like a good boy and wandered down to the dining room. It wasn't an overly large room because the facility didn't serve that many people, but the designer still managed to make the setting feel institutional rather than homey. He guessed that they didn't want to encourage anyone to get too comfortable. A handful of people were seated at the long rectangular tables, but most were in line with their trays, so he picked one up too.

No one in line said anything much, and he was afraid to wonder if this was because they weren't morning people... or because they were drugged. Scully had given him a lot of practice dealing with people who woke up bearish, but if they were medicated...

A woman who reminded him of the lunch ladies at his middle school, right down to the health department mandated hairnet, put a stack of pancakes on the plate he acquired as the line shuffled past a station and gave him a brittle smile he wondered if was also mandated.

Since he wasn't feeling social yet didn't want to look like a loner, he brought his tray over to a table where a young man sat flicking his fingers in front of his own eyes. "Mind if I sit?" he asked quietly. The man continued to ignore both him and the tray sitting on the table in front of him. Mulder shrugged and slowly set his own tray down, braced for a loud outburst. Fortunately he didn't get one. Relaxing a little, he picked up his silverware. But then a voice behind him said, "Tim's autistic. He barely knows you're there."

Turning slightly, he saw a thirty-something man giving him an amused look. He was the only one in the dining room who was anywhere near as thin as Mulder. Long, dirty dark hair hung in his dark eyes. Eventually he realized that the guy was waiting for a response, so he said, "I know."

''Ah, you wanted to sit with someone who won't talk you ears off, I get you," he said, getting ready to walk away.

"Wait," he said impulsively. When he did, Mulder wasn't sure why he stopped him but he felt obliged to wave towards one of the empty seats.

Smirking, the man sat down. "Mark."

Mulder hesitated. "Fox," he said eventually. He was supposed to be a political prisoner, not an FBI agent, so he probably shouldn't insist everyone call him Mulder. This had him unexpectedly thinking of a conversation early in his partnership with Scully, which left him feeling melancholy.

"What? Your parents not like you or something?" Mark asked.

"Something like that."

Mark nodded thoughtfully. "Food's not too bad, here. Kind of boring, but that doesn't bother some people, does it, Tim?" Predictably, Tim didn't pay any more attention to Mark's comments than he had Mulder's question.

Turning back to Mulder, Mark said, "Until I got here it never occurred to me that someone like our buddy Tim here was even capable of getting a mental illness. Life sticks it so hard to some people."

"Yeah," Mulder agreed. His schooling taught him that mental illness often struck those who had already had the deck stacked against him, but it was hard to disagree that it felt extra unfair.

"You just got here last night, right?" Mark asked then, looking down to saw at his pancakes with the dull knives they'd been issued. The knives barely had teeth, so it wasn't as easy work as one would figure.

"Uh huh." He began to feel wary, worried that Mark's next question was going to be a demand to know why he was there. There hadn't been time yet to polish a good cover story, so he felt unprepared, exposed.

"I've been here a month," Mark confided. "I mean, voluntarily. This time."

For a moment Mulder almost blurted out that it was the same for him too, this time, but he just nodded. He really wasn't up for swapping stories about involuntary commitments of the past.

This seemed to satisfy his tablemate because the other man began to eat his breakfast, leaving him free to eat as well. Tim flicked his fingers a few more times then finally gave his own tray some attention too. As the three of them ate, lost in their own thoughts, Mulder finally began to relax a little. He'd more than half expected the meal to be an ordeal, but it wasn't. That wasn't to say that it couldn't happen later, but at the moment it was okay.

Still, he sensed that he ought to savor the okay times because there was surely worse to come ahead. It wasn't summer camp; you weren't ready to leave without doing some damn hard work first.


The first of this hard work came at mid-morning, in the form of a group therapy session. Although he figured it was naive, he had some hope that he'd be allowed to fade into the background and quietly listen the first time. Unfortunately this was not to be.

Most of the other people in the PTSD group were former members of the military, pushed to their breaking points by their experiences on sand dunes half a world away, but a few were women who had suffered unfortunate indignities much closer to home. It was hard for him to decide who he felt closer to, on a comparable tragedy scale, at first but in the end the women who spoke haltingly of rape and other abuse seemed to be more of a kindred spirit to him than men who felt guilt over what their service had asked of them. He didn't feel any guilt; he hadn't even been able to fight back enough to even mildly disturb his captors. If anything, he felt ashamed of his helplessness, which was something he could see mirrored in the eyes of all three women there.

The person leading the group was an earnest young woman, fresh out of school, he thought. He tried not to allow himself to remember Scully when she'd been that age and secretly thrilled to be defying parental expectations by getting no closer to practicing medicine than wielding a scalpel for an autopsy. Nevertheless he got so lost in this thought that he was taken by surprise to hear her ask, "And what about your experiences, Fox?"

Casting her a startled look, he stammered, "I'm not sure what to say." Which was the god's honest truth. It wasn't as though anything good could come of being truthful, yet lying wasn't going to help him sleep at night or avoid flashbacks and hallucinations.

The woman, Sarah, nodded thoughtfully before saying, "That's okay. A lot of new comers don't know where to start." For half a second he hoped that this would mean that he was off the hook for the day but she dashed that by asking, "Do you mind if I give the group your background?"

It felt like a test, and he didn't want to fail it, so he found himself reluctantly saying, "Okay" even though his instincts were telling him to scream no as he ran out of the room.

Sarah offered him a brief, encouraging smile that said 'don't worry we're all friends here' which he didn't yet believe before looking at the other men and women who sat in the circle. "Fox was a political prisoner for three years. Isn't that right?"

He nodded, but when he looked up he was a bit surprised to see how many sympatric faces were looking back at him. It gave him a little hope that Sarah wasn't wrong about them all being friends of a sort.

If Sarah noticed his reaction, she didn't let on. "I'm sure you've all noticed how thin he is-" This made him turn red, feeling absurdly adolescent when it bothered him to have this pointed out. "His captors withheld food towards the end of his ordeal."

This predictably elicited a couple of gasps and a few more tsks, and one large dark-skinned man who had been a marine in Iraq grinned at him and said, "I feel like I should send you to my momma. She'd get the weight back on you quick."

There were a few soft chuckles, which he took as agreement that the marine was making a good natured joke rather than trying to slight him, so he smiled back. "I could probably use that," he agreed and the laugher got louder.

Sarah let it go on a minute before refocusing them. "Fox, would you agree that you felt helpless in that situation?"

Mulder nodded slowly once he realized that her use of the word situation was meant to encompass everything that had happened to him over the past three years. "Yes." It frustrated him that he still felt helpless in many ways. His captors were literally light years away (or so he hoped with every fiber of his being) but they still seemed to hold tremendous power over him... "Still do," he blurted out without intending to.

The people in the group reacted with low utterances to each other, although he didn't catch most of what was said. Sarah looked at him and remarked, "I think you'll find that everyone else feels that way too. And people who haven't been through the sorts of experiences you all have can unwittingly make you feel worse."

Glancing at the rest of group, Sarah said, "Please raise your hand if you agree: at first people are sympathetic to what you've been through, but before very long you get the sense that even people who care about you feel like now that you're not being actively harmed you should be able to just get over it, like being a victim is something that stops the moment you escape the traumatizing situation."

It took a few seconds, but in the end everyone but him raised their hand, including Sarah. It made him wonder if the popular idea that most people became therapists because they were looking to heal themselves might hold a grain of truth.

"What about you, Fox?" one of the women asked. He figured her to be in her 50s, judging by her short steel-hued hair and not yet overly lined face.

He sighed and decided to tell the truth. "My friend Walter is the only one who knows I'm back yet. And he feels enough guilt about not being able to keep me from being taken that it probably hasn't occurred to him that he can be annoyed with me."

"You want to get better before you connect with people again?" the same woman asked. It turned out that she didn't expect him to answer. ''I can't say that it's wrong to do that. Lord knows I wish I'd been less of a mess after my divorce. You'll have fewer people to apologize than I did."

Mulder looked at his hands, unable to bring himself to admit how few people there were in his life that cared enough for him and vice versa that he was concerned about how his erratic behavior might affect them. He'd shared enough for one day already.

"I don't think there's any one right way of picking up the pieces," the solider whose mother was a good cook announced. "But I know that no matter how we do it, we still end up feeling like maybe we should've done something else."

No one in the group disagreed with him.

"Jake, Ruthe, thank you for giving us something to think about," Sarah said in a tone that signaled the group was about to end. This caught Mulder by surprise and he looked at the clock only to find that time also flew when you were being emotionally vulnerable, not just when you were having fun. "We'll pick this up next time."

"Hopefully one of us will be in the hot seat instead of you, then," Jake said to him as they stood to leave.

Mulder looked up at his welcoming grin and agreed. "Yeah, that'd be nice."

''I thought I saw you eating with Mark and Tim this morning."

"Yup," he said cautiously, bracing himself for being told why he shouldn't have.

Jake nodded thoughtfully. "Mark's a good guy. I mean, he's got his problems, or he wouldn't be here with the rest of us. And Tim, well, at least he won't talk your ear off."

Mulder wondered where he was going with this, at least until Jake said, "Maybe the four of us could have dinner some time."

"Oh, sure." He hadn't really given any thought to whether or not he'd eat with Mark again, and now he was wondering if Mark shared Jake's expectation that he would. Probably.

"Good." Jake looked relieved. "My buddy Pete was here too, but he got discharged. That's a problem with a place like this: as happy as you are for people who get better and go home, it still is hard to be left behind."

"Uh huh." He turned his face, not wanting his surprise to show. The thought that he might grow attached enough to his fellow patients to care when they left hadn't occurred to him. Maybe Jake was more of a people person than he was. Or maybe he was in for a different experience than he'd planned on.

But would the latter really be so bad? During group he'd been upset to think of how few long-term links he'd forged in his adult life, but it didn't have to stay that way forever.

Maybe he should put forming meaningful relationships on his list of goals for the time he was in-patient.

It sure would make for awkward "I've known my friend X since we met in..." stories, though.


Mulder ended up eating lunch alone except for Tim that afternoon. Jake had a solo therapy session, and he didn't end up seeing Mark again for several more hours. He spotted Tim just after he'd gotten his food, but he didn't expect the young man to pay him any attention; once Tim gave him a sidelong look before joining him at the table, he realized he'd been wrong to think Tim hadn't been aware of him at breakfast. He made a mental note to be aware that Tim probably could understand him, and decided to ear on the side of caution. ''Afternoon, Tim."

Tim looked up briefly, but said nothing.

I definitely shouldn't talk about him like he's not here, not like Mark does, he thought. Makes me wonder what he thinks of Mark. Unless, of course, Tim didn't mind the things Mark said about him; Mark had been blunt but not mean, so maybe he didn't have a problem with it.

"So, groups, huh?" Mulder asked, not expecting or getting a response. "Wonder if I'll like those better or worse than one-on-one."

Neither he nor Tim spoke further, and Mulder found it peaceful to spend time with someone who wasn't asking anything of him. Even Skinner had seemed too demanding of him, and all he wanted was a houseguest who didn't hide in closets.

"Tim likes group."

By the time Mulder looked up, startled, the gravelly voice disappeared. Tim wasn't looking at him either, and if there had been anyone within conversational distance he would have assumed someone else had spoken.

"The people in my group are nice," Mulder offered.

There was a long pause. Then "Tim likes Doctor Wendel. He's nice."

"In group?"

"Yeah."

"Sarah's okay too. A little pushy may be, but okay," he said, wondering if he ought to be calling her doctor too, despite her youth.

There wasn't much more conversation then, but it was pleasant in an odd sort of way.


Group therapy continued to be both somewhat challenging yet okay for Mulder over the next couple of weeks. Somehow, he was able to say things that were meaningful enough to make him feel a little better, but were mostly lies. Or maybe not so much lies, he decided when thinking about it once, but distortions. He didn't make up completely fabricated places and players when talking about what had happened to him, but white washed them with a thin veneer of humanity. Earthliness.

Thus, when he talked about his abuse, the other members of the group likely imagined him being screamed at and abused and beaten by swarthy members of a South American military group in a jungle, rather than by gray-skinned aliens on a ship. Most of his trials were easy enough to translate into terms that people could understand and accept.

It was solo sessions that he had more issues with. At first he and Doctor Hull spent a lot of time discussing relaxation techniques, which he found frustrating. Eventually he snapped at Hull, telling him that he could have done a yahoo search and gotten identical advice for free.

Fortunately, Hull wasn't easily flustered, and didn't get upset when Mulder lashed out like that. Upon reflection Mulder decided that this made sense because the type of person who was easily hurt probably wouldn't last long treating in-patient.

Instead, Hull listened to his concerns before asking if Mulder was willing to consider medication.

"It depends on what you have in mind." He'd looked up PTSD medications while exploring treatment options, mostly to see if the drugs had changed since he had studied the disorder at Oxford. "I'm not willing to take any benzos. I understand why they might be a good option for some people, but I don't like what I've read about the risk of addiction," he said, nearly having to bite his tongue to keep himself from making a more sophisticated argument against using a drug that carried that high a risk of dependency. He felt fairly strongly that outing himself as trained psychologist himself would be a massive misstep. "And I don't want any of those zombie drugs, either."

Hull looked mildly amused. "You mean antipsychotics?"

"I don't know, I mean drugs that leave you completely out of it, drooling on yourself. The nightmares and hallucinations are bad, but those drugs sound like hell." He carefully avoided saying that they seemed like a fate worse than death, least Hull begin to think about suicidal ideations, which would be rather unfortunate considering he wasn't so devoid of hope that he found the idea of ending it all appealing.

Hull nodded. "I appreciate your concerns, but I had an SSRI in mind instead." Mulder gave him his best blank look in case the off-hand use of the shorthand was a test, and Hull clarified, "An anti-depressant, I mean."

"Oh. I guess that would be okay." Giving Hull a suspicious look, he asked, "What kind of side effects do they have, though? I know all these drugs have them."

"I was thinking of Paxil. Common side effects include dry mouth, trouble sleeping, upset stomach, and dizziness, but not everyone gets them. Some people don't get any."

''And less common ones?"

"Weight gain-"

"Sign me up," Mulder said with a smirk.

"And some men expel nice sexual side effects," Hull said, obviously trying to mask his own discomfort by being vague.

"You mean...?" Mulder made an unmistakable gesture.

To his credit, Hull didn't blush. "Sometimes. Other men have lower levels of arousal or difficulty reaching orgasm."

"Yeah, well. I'm going to have difficulty with that anyway unless I meet a woman with a concentration camp fetish."

"Ah. So you didn't leave behind a spouse, I take it," Hull said, then looked horrified at himself. At first Mulder couldn't figure out why, but then he realized that the doctor was worried that he had and that she had left him.

"Nope," Mulder agreed, wondering why he was concerned about Hull's feelings. "Not even close." But was that really true, he wondered silently.

"Well, hopefully that won't even be an issue anyway," Hull said heartily. "So, what do you say, should we give it a try?"

If it brought him one step closer to being whole again, it'd be worth it even if he got all the side effects. "Definitely."

"Okay, then." Hull looked pleased.

Mulder left the session feeling cautiously pleased too.


The Next Day

An already stressful day of teaching classes and enduring a faculty meeting with Finn Hardy sitting across from her and irritating her by repeatedly trying to catch her eye got more stressful when she got a call from the kids' preschool/kindergarten informing her that a water pipe had burst. Not only were kids being sent home immediately, it was doubtful that the building would be habitable the next day, either.

The next day wasn't a problem because she could work from home considering she wasn't teaching, but that day was another story. Before she could panic and cancel her last class of the day, her neighbor, Kathy, called and offered to look after Tommy and Grace earlier than she usually did: Kathy had a child in Tommy's class and normally looked after them from the time the school closed and Scully got home in the evening.

Scully was grateful that Kathy was willing, but the whole thing just frustrated her. Things were supposed to be easier now that Grace had been accepted into preschool, which had required a hearing to get a dispensation given she wouldn't be three until October, instead of having one kid in daycare and the other in "school" but unforeseeable things would probably continue to crop up like this.

By the end of the day she'd had enough time to brood about it to have made herself irritable before she got home. She walked over to Kathy's, ready to complain about the school and their lack of foresight about repairs.

But the first words out of her mouth were "Thanks so much for watching them all afternoon" so she found that she wasn't in as much of a complaining mood as she'd thought.

Kathy smiled. "No problem. They kept Lizzie entertained, so it was no big deal."

Lizzie, Kathy's five-year-old daughter was the reason Scully had found Kathy as a babysitter - three days after Tommy and Grace moved in, Lizzie insisted that her mother bring her over to meet the new kids. Through that first meeting Scully learned that Kathy was a part-time bookkeeper who worked from home four hours a night, and enjoyed baby sitting in the afternoons.

"Still..." Scully said doubtfully. She'd pay Kathy for the extra time, but Kathy would still be working more than eight hours over the course of the day.

"Don't worry about it," Kathy told her. "I know it's not easy being a single mom."

But not from experience, Scully noted. Karen's husband Josh would be home in an hour and after dinner he'd be the one caring for Lizzie until bedtime so Kathy could work.

"Yeah..." she said slowly, wondering if Kathy would suggest she look for a boyfriend who liked kids, which coworkers frequently would.

Fortunately, Kathy didn't. This left Scully liking her a bit more than she already did.


Even though Kathy hadn't harped on Scully being a single mom, she still found her thoughts returning to the idea repeatedly over the course of the night. Things might have been easier if there was another adult in the house. It would be nice to have someone to come home to.

There were a lot of excuses she could, and did, give herself for not moving on like she probably should. Everyone else thought so, and most weren't shy about sharing their feelings. Even her family. Maybe especially her family: she and Bill had a huge fight the year before, culminating with her deflecting his suggestion that she was wasting valuable time by hissing at him that biological clocks didn't tick for women who were already certifiably barren.

Most of her internal excuses revolved around Tommy and Grace. She couldn't shake the feeling that potential suitors would be less accepting of children of half-ambiguous parentage, and get the wrong idea about her morals too.

But as she stirred a pot of pasta that night, she considered the fact that she could, possibly, know who their father was. Or rule Mulder out if he wasn't. Up until that point she hadn't been able to face the thought that he might not be. Even though they looked like her she still felt that he could be, and finding examples of redheaded children with a dark-haired parent helped her justify that. Reading up on the theory that red hair isn't recessive but instead co-dominant allowed her to continue to cling to that belief.

Testing would either confirm her belief or crumble it. Either way the children would no longer have Schrodinger's paternity.

Maybe that would be for the best, she told herself over dinner. A few hairs from their hair brushes, and it could be resolve, one way or the other. Wouldn't knowing the truth be worth it? Even if the answer wasn't what she needed it to be, was that really worse than the discomfort of the unknown?

Her head and her heart both offered their two cents on the matter. By the time she tucked Tommy and Grace in, she'd decided which to listen to.


Two Weeks Later

It had felt strange to Skinner to walk into the hospital. Somehow, even though he knew that Mulder had signed himself up for treatment, he still had the expectation that it would be like when he'd visited the involuntarily committed or justly imprisoned. But he hadn't been stopped and told to temporality surrender dangerous objects, and a warden with a ponderous set of keys hadn't unlocked a barred door after locating the correct key. Instead he'd gone to a perfectly ordinary reception desk and signed in. After a few minutes of looking through an issue of Newsweek he'd been gotten by a young man and brought to a conference room.

Mulder had already been in the room, along with a doctor and the site's administrator.

There were three things that had struck Skinner immediately when he saw Mulder. First, he looked alert but not on edge as he had four weeks earlier, and not out of it like the last time he'd been committed - so he probably wasn't on high doses of antipsychotics. Second, he wasn't wearing a hospital gown, but his own clothes instead. It did look like he'd put on a few pounds, which left him seeming healthier and less fragile. The third was he seemed genuinely happy to see him, which left him feeling less like he'd failed him.

All these observations happened in the first few seconds, before the older of the two strangers even got a chance to open his mouth and make introductions, "Mister Skinner, thank you for joining us today. I'm Conrad Mann, the center's director, and this is Patrick Hull, the doctor treating Fox."

"Glad to be here," Skinner told them, and he was. The fact that he'd been called in meant that Mulder was making a lot of progress, which is something he'd desperately wanted for him.

"It's important to have people involved in transition planning," Conrad went on, "because it generally leads to better outcomes."

Skinner glanced at Mulder, wondering what happened to patients that had no one in their corners. He knew that they weren't forced to stay, but he suspected that they were heavily encouraged to move into a halfway house for a time before they braved the world at large on their own. "Right..."

"I'm sure you have questions about how involved we hope you'll be in the process of getting Fox settled once he leaves here."

''I do," Skinner admitted. "I take it from the conversation we had on the phone that you'd rather he not return to my home...?"

Hull gave him an understanding look. "It's quite generous when someone makes that kind of offer, but we've studied a variety of post-hospitalization living situations and have come to conclude that people who immediately transition into living in their own space have the best outcomes."

Skinner thought about this. "Moving is stressful. I can see how fewer moves might be better," he said, but really, he knew so little about the treatment of PTSD that he'd have to take their word on what worked best.

"Exactly," Conrad agreed. "What we're hoping is that you might have the time to look at three apartments and offer Fox your honest opinions about them." The director handed him a small stack of papers which were each accompanied by black and white photos.

"Sure," he agreed, eyes immediately seeking out the addresses. Had they been widely scattered he probably wouldn't have been able to keep himself from deciding that the closest one was the best, but all three were less than five miles away from his own house so that probably wouldn't be an issue. "I'd be happy to check them out."

The director and the doctor both looked pleased. But Mulder was clearly concerned. "This is great and all, but will they really rent to someone like me?"

"Like you?" Conrad asked mildly.

"Nuts," Mulder blurted out, then signed when this was met with disapproving looks. "Recently released from this fine establishment."

"The bureau of mental health has established relationships with several apartment complexes. We aren't setting you up for disappointment, Fox."

"I'm not implying you are, but it seemed understandable if building managers were reluctant to rent to people who are known to have issues." Mulder paused. "I'm glad it's not an issue."

Skinner wished his poker face was as good as Mulder's. Or as good as it used to be: during the three weeks that Mulder had been at Dolby so far, Skinner had found himself mentally going over the first few days after Mulder had showed up, wondering what signs he had missed. One thing that occurred to him during these reflections was how often he had looked startled and even outright scared. Mulder had never been so easy to read before his abduction.

And he himself was surely easy to read too, given the look Hull was giving him. It came as little surprise when the psychiatrist said, "I sense you have questions." Skinner nodded and cleared his throat before looking at Mulder. "I'm glad you're doing better, and it's easy to see that you are, and I'm willing to help out any way that I can, but what sort of timeline are we thinking about?"

He couldn't tell if Hull was trying to spare Mulder's feelings or if he was honestly confused, but he said, "Fox is making excellent progress, but we feel he's at about the halfway point in the program, so you don't need to drop everything to go look at the apartments. We understand that you're a busy man..."

Skinner tuned out the rest of his sentence, instead biting back the impulse to say that he hadn't asked because he was busy. If Mulder was halfway through the program, did it mean he was halfway better? Somehow he didn't think so. From what he'd recently read about trauma, some people never got completely over it. He had hopes that Mulder would prove more resilient than those poor lost souls, but full recovery wasn't going to happen in three weeks. Hopefully something like manageability would.

"I can probably go at the end of the week," he said when he realized it was his turn to speak again. "Or early the next."

"Excellent." Hull's expression was decided approving.

"What else can I do?"

Conrad spoke up. "Besides living arrangements being finalized before exiting the center, we ask guests to consider applying to jobs or volunteer placements if they won't be returning to their current employment-"

Internally, Skinner cringed, waiting for someone to insist that he needed to demand that Mulder be returned to the FBI. As much as he thought it'd only be fair considering Mulder hadn't left intentionally, it wasn't really in his power to do that, and even if it had been, he would have reservations about Mulder's capacities just then. "-and I was hoping you could provide written references."

"Oh. Of course." Glancing at Mulder, he asked, "what were you thinking of...doing?"

Mulder nodded thoughtfully. "While I do have some hope of eventually returning to the FBI, I'm well aware that I'm currently too frail right now, and I don't just mean physically. Right now, while I concentrate on getting better, I want to be helpful to others. So I'm hoping to volunteer at an animal shelter."

Skinner blinked in surprise. That he was aware of, Mulder had never shown an interest in animals; he'd certainly not mourned the death of Scully's ghoulish little dog when he'd been eaten by a bigger predator. But maybe it was change that was appealing to him. "Well. That should be an interesting experience."

"Probably not too useful for my resume, though," Mulder said ruefully, reminding them both that the odds of him resuming his role as an FBI agent were not great.

"You'd be surprised how valuable volunteering can be to potential employers," Dr. Hull said supportively.

"Uh huh. Hopefully there won't be many crimes to investigate at the shelter, anyway." Mulder shot Skinner a wry look, wordlessly reminding him of case files he'd read the write ups to, ones that claimed that cats, dogs, and, on one memorable occasion, insects were responsible for crimes.

"God willing," Skinner murmured.

They continued to discuss how Skinner could help for another twenty minutes, then Conrad and Hull excused themselves, leaving him and Mulder to talk.

This time Mulder didn't attack him to pass a note inked in his own blood. Instead, he calmly looked at him and said, "I really appreciate your willingness to be part of this process."

"It's the least I can do," he insisted. Mulder just smiled wanly. "So...how are you, really?" He glanced at the door, which was shot. At least he didn't feel like any of Mulder's geek friends should've been snuck in to look for bugs. The mechanical kind, that was.

Rather than taking the opportunity to complain, Mulder just said, "I'm getting there. I've still got a ways to go, but I hope I seem like less of a wreck than I'd been when I left you to come here."

"You do seem better. Truly."

"Better living through chemistry," Mulder said wryly. "But I think therapy is helpful too. Between the two I've at least stopped having flashbacks."

Skinner nodded, but he wondered about the nightmares. Those he'd been aware of as they happened, unlike what he'd come to think of as 'the closet incident'. "Mulder...is there anything you need from me that you didn't want to mention in front of them?" he asked.

Mulder said nothing for a moment, then said, "When you look at the apartments, can you ask them about pets? Nothing big, but may be a cat."

The idea of Mulder being well enough to have a pet that depended on made Skinner start to choke up and he couldn't really figure out why. After all that'd be a sign that he was really getting better. But still, getting better was also proof of how bad he'd been when he'd first gotten back. He covered him mouth with a fist and coughed, hoping to mask it as clearing his throat. "Absolutely."

"Thanks," Mulder told him.

Skinner almost stood and said goodbye at that point but Mulder's expression stopped him. "I'm going to contact Scully. When I get out of here. I'm giving myself two weeks to move in and get settled...but I'm going to talk to her."

As much as he wanted to tell him that Scully would visit him at Dolby, he didn't. It wouldn't have been productive. "Good."

"I thought you'd approve," Mulder told him with a strange smile he didn't quite trust, or like.

"You'll have to let me know how it goes," Skinner said, desperately trying to shake his unease.

"I will."

"Great. I'll be in touch after I see the apartments."

"Thanks," Mulder said, sounding sincere now. Skinner waved and left, noticing that the young man who'd showed him the conference room was headed towards it now.

It was something of a relief to step outside the hospital. As the perfectly ordinary door swung closed behind him, Skinner tried to tell himself that he'd been too hard on Mulder. He wasn't completely better yet, so it was unfair to expect him to be normal. In the end he was more or less convinced that was all it was...but it was a hard sell, though.


Back in his room, Mulder closed his door and sighed. He hadn't lied to Skinner. The combination of therapy and medication were undoubtedly helping him. Noises didn't leave him feeling like he was going to jump out of his skin any more. He hadn't worried that They were near in weeks. And sleeping pills kept his nightmares at bay.

But...

Mulder crossed the room, stopping in front of the mirror. He lifted his shirt and stared at the long pinkish scar across his belly. It still was very visible, even though he was slowly gaining weight.

But he still knew something terrible he couldn't remember had happened to him.

The thing he hadn't told Skinner, and didn't intend to, was one of the reasons he wanted to tell Scully that he was back was because even though he wasn't sure if she'd want him back, she'd help him. That made her different from everyone else who had ever been in his life, and he hoped that their relationship wouldn't be reduced to victim and helper, but if it got him the answer to questions that plagued him, someday soon it might be worth the risk.


Two Weeks Later

As much as Grace hated getting up in the morning, she hated going to bed even more. Most nights there was whining, and sometimes she would get out of bed. Sometimes she would get out of bed more than once. And when she did, it would try Scully's patience.

But Scully did try to be patient. When she gained custody of the children, everyone had been mostly concerned about Tommy's mental state. After all, at three, he remembered the parents who had died in an accident. He was old enough to talk about it a little, tell people about his distress when he had nightmares or miss them. No one much thought about what one-year-old Grace must feel because she was so very young. But Scully had read a lot of pediatric psychology literature in the two years since, and she thought that Grace might have felt more distress than she was capable of letting on. That's why she always promised herself to be as patient as possible.

Which is why she was sitting in the living room, watching Grace come back into the room an hour after being put to bed, and not reacting angrily to it. Grace looked like she knew she shouldn't be out of bed, but also that she desperately wanted to talk to Scully.

Scully held out her arms, and Grace ran to her. Kissing her daughter on top of her head, Scully asked, "What's wrong?"

"Can't sleep," Grace said, sounding wretched. She seemed sincere, as if she had actually tried to sleep, and Scully decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.

"Would a story help?" she asked.

In her arms, Grace nodded. "Maybe."

"What story?"

Grace thought about this for a moment. "You pick, Momma." The fact that she didn't have a story in mind convinced Scully that getting out of bed was not a ploy to have a particular favorite read, and she probably really was having difficulty sleep.

"Okay," Scully said, picking her up and walking back to the girl's room. Down the hall she could hear Tommy playing in his room, but he was older and wasn't required to be in bed quite yet.

Because Grace liked pink in a way that Scully and Missy never had, the small girl's room was decorated in shades of pink and white. After she set Grace down on her bed, Scully went to the small white bookcase, and began to browse. Out of the corner of her eye Scully saw that Grace was pulling her blanket up over her knees, a blanket she slept with 365 days of the year, even on the hottest days. She guessed that Grace would be lying down by the time she selected what to read. Maybe only one book would be required to get her to sleep.

Running her eyes along the row of titles, Scully wondered what she should pick. She didn't want a story that was too exciting, not when she wanted Grace to sleep. Eventually she settled on Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Grace's bed was small and low to the floor, so Scully sat on the rug beside it. Picking up the book, she began to read, "Once upon a time in a large forest close to a village, stood the cottage where the Bear family lived..."

The story had a soporific effect that Scully had been hoping for. Before she got to the end, Grace's blue eyes were closed tightly, and the little girl exhaled even breaths. Trying hard not to disturb the sleeping child by leaning on the bed for leverage, Scully eventually got to her feet without any groaning. Why hadn't anyone ever told her that getting old was a gradual process, and that you would slowly find it more difficult to do tasks that required agility?

After a couple of quiet steps, she reached the light switch, and turned it off. As she left the room, she began to wonder as she often did after reading that particular story what had happened to Goldilocks. The story never said if she had gotten home safely or not. In fact, when Scully had been an adolescent she had read the original versions of Grimm's fairy tales, and had been somewhat surprised to learn that the Bears didn't eat her in the original, either.

Thinking about people who may or may not have ever gotten home made Scully's thoughts turn to Mulder. A glance at the clock told her that it was finally Tommy's bedtime, so she headed to his room to remind him. But when she got there, the room was dark except for the nightlight and she could see the Tommy was already in bed. She wandered in, and gave him a kiss on the cheek before leaving him be.

There was a small table by the front door, and she kept mail in it. The envelope she wanted was on the top, because although she had not managed to force herself to open it, she had looked at it often since it arrived three days earlier. Reminding herself that the lab she had sent the DNA samples to was highly rated, even lauded for its accuracy, she picked it up.

Stalling for time, she also picked up the envelope opener that her mother had given her but she seldom used, and sliced the paper of the envelope. The envelope was surprisingly thin, and only contained three pieces of paper which she made herself extract.

The first piece of paper was a short form letter, explaining that the tests that had been requested have been done, and the results were attached. It was clipped to the pieces of paper that she was scared to read. But she did. Sitting down, she read them both.

As soon as she finished reading them, she put them aside, and stared out the dark window. When she had decided to do the test, she thought of two possible results. But now, now that she had the results in hand, she had just learned that there had been a third.


Meanwhile...

Skinner thought that perhaps the fact that he was an AD at the FBI was the sole reason that the realtor was so accommodating of his schedule. As it was, the man seemed cheerful as they toured the apartment, even though it was late.

Looking at him, the realtor said of the space, "I think your friend will like the bright airiness of this place. Open concepts are in the moment."

Skinner shrugged. He wouldn't have known it was an open concept if he hadn't just been told it was. "Where's the bedroom?"

"Over here," the realtor said, and then he led the way.

Apparently open concept didn't mean the same thing to the realtor as a studio, which was one thing that Skinner was afraid of. He felt that Mulder had to have a bedroom, even if he didn't use it for anything. Although, rumor had had it that towards the end of the time before Mulder's abduction, he actually had acquired a bed and that he had put it to use on occasion.

Thinking of this made him smirk little bit. He had never brought up the relationship in the office, but Skinner hadn't been blind. He had known that his agents had started a relationship and had even had a pretty good idea of when that had been. They may have tried to be subtle, but it hadn't worked. Something changed about the way they acted towards each other, and they were too happy hide it completely.

Maybe it was the thought that Scully might spend nights in the apartment that had Skinner wanting there to be an actual bedroom. He had no idea if they would ever pick up where they left off, but maybe they should. Two people who had found so much difficulty in the pursuit of happiness should allow themselves to try to re-find it together.

It wasn't really any of his business, and he would say no more about it than he had three years earlier, but that didn't mean he couldn't root for them secretly.

"What do you think?" the realtor asked, as they stood in the doorway of the bedroom.

Skinner looked at the empty space, and tried to judge the size of it. It was more than big enough to hold a king size bed. "Nice," he said, offering man a bone.

Predictably, the realtor smiled. "Let me show you the bathroom."

Skinner shook his head. Impulsively, he asked, "Is this the only bedroom?"

The realtor looked somewhat surprised, but he shook his head. "Were you thinking of an office for your friend?"

"Something like that," Skinner said. But actually, he had been picturing Scully spending the night. And if Scully spent the night, the second bedroom would have two small beds in it. Because there was no way she was going to leave Tommy and Grace with a sitter overnight.

"I think you'll like this one," the other man said, leading to a door across the hallway. When he opened it, Skinner saw that it was smallish, but perfectly adequate for what he thought the most likely I would be. Or, maybe he just hoped.

"This will do," Skinner allowed.

"So, do you think this is the winner?" the realtor asked hopefully.

The apartment was nice. And, more importantly, it was less than a ten minute drive from Skinner's home. If Scully didn't end up back in Mulder's life, Skinner wanted to make sure that he could help himself in case of crisis.

"Definitely," he declared.

"Excellent." The realtor beamed at him. "I'll get you the paperwork for him to sign tomorrow."

"Great. I'll bring it to him the next day."

The realtor gave him a sidelong glance. "He must really trust you to pick out an apartment for him."

Skinner just stared. "I guess." It didn't seem worth the effort to say that Mulder trusted no one. Because, maybe that wasn't entirely true. Not anymore.

"Is he overseas?" the realtor asked, and Skinner found himself idly wondering if the realtor was fishing for information because he believed it was possible that he and Mulder were in a relationship. Hopefully not, but he wasn't actually up to trying to change the man's mind if that was the case.

"No, he's in the hospital."

The realtor's smile faded. "Nothing serious, I hope."

You have no idea. "He's working on getting better. He should be out of the hospital just a week or two."

"Well, that is good news."

Skinner nodded. It probably was good news. He just hoped that a week or two would be enough time for Mulder to be well enough to spend his first night here alone. Because, even if Scully reentered his life, it wouldn't be on day one. He knew Mulder well enough to know that the first thing he did in this apartment was not going to be to pick up the phone and call her. But, hopefully if he had issues, he would have the sense to pick up the phone and call him.

They were about to step out of the apartment when Skinner remembered something Mulder had requested. "Do you know if pets are allowed?"

"Pets?"

At first he was confused, but then he understood what the realtor was getting at. "I guess pet is more accurate. He was thinking of getting a small dog or a cat."

"Oh. Not that I'm aware of, but I can look into that for you."

"Thanks."

"He could still have fish, even if the landlord says no to a cat or dog," the other man offered.

"That's true..." They closed the door behind them and Skinner hoped that Mulder could have a pet there. A pet was easier to love than another person, so maybe it'd give him some practice if he felt that he was rusty.

Frowning slightly as they walked out of the building, Skinner found himself wondering if he should consider a dog himself.


The next time a shout woke Mulder in the middle of a night, it wasn't his own. His heart beat fast as he lay in bed, listening to see if the shout would come again. And after a minute or so, it did. The dim memory of listening to someone else shouting like that haunted the edges of his mind, but he couldn't bring that memory to the forefront so he could examine it.

At First Mulder's instinct was not to investigate. He has his own issues to deal with, and the person screaming was probably in good hands. But the likelihood that the person having a meltdown was someone he knew, someone he might not simply be indifferent to had him on his feet and opening the door.

Despite how loud the action in the hallway sounded, opening his door revealed that it wasn't going on right outside his room. That's why the first thing he saw was not the shouting man but other patients standing in the hallway. Most of them were wearing the same blue, hospital-issued, pajamas that Mulder himself was, and they were all looking down the hallway that he couldn't see from the doorway of his room. And everyone of them looked sad, as if they all knew something that Mulder didn't about what was going to happen.

He hesitated a moment, waiting to see if anyone would order him to remain in his room, and stepped out of his room when no one noticed him. As soon as he looked in the same direction as everyone, his heart sank.

Mark noticed him and waved him over. Mulder shuffled over to him, absently noting that someone had coaxed Mark into washing his hair. Pitching his voice low, Mulder asked, "Does this happen a lot?"

Mark turned his gaze back towards the spectacle still going on down the hallway. Tim continued to shout incoherently, hitting the orderlies who were trying to subdue him. Tim was tackled before he could hit someone with a hall chair, and Mark grimaced. "Not a lot. But it has happened before. Eventually they'll shoot him up with something and take him away."

"Take him where?" Mulder asked, alarmed. He tried to push away the memory of being pulled down a hallway himself away using the techniques he'd been taught in his sessions. The memory didn't completely abate, but it didn't feel like it was going to overwhelm him, so he considered it a victory.

"To the State Hospital," Mark told him, sounding like he was surprised that it wasn't obvious. "There's no locked ward here because we're in here voluntarily, but they can get us held for observation there if need be."

Mulder slowly nodded to himself, trying not to wince as Tim hollered while someone tried to get restraints on him. Rather than remind him of the ship, it reminded him of the last time he'd been in a locked ward himself. Somehow that was an easier memory to deal with. "He'll come back, though?"

Mark grimaced. "Unfortunately."

"I thought you liked him," Mulder said, surprise making the statement faintly accusatory.

This had the other man holding his hands up to placate him. "I do. But I don't want him to come back. I want him to get to go home. It almost seems like he's going to, and then he snaps like this, and starts over again."

"Home where?" Mulder asked, curious. "With his family, or a group home?"

"His folks. They come and visit him a lot, but they're older, in their late sixties, and they just can't handle it when he has...episodes. So he gets committed when he has bad spells."

"Oh," Mulder replied, watching Tim finally calm down enough to climb onto a gurney with help. Tim seemed resigned, as if he knew that he was going to be taken away. Maybe he did, if this happened as often as Mark said it did. Mulder had already concluded that Tim was bipolar on top of his other issue.

"It's pretty damn sad, man," Mark said sorrowfully. "This crap shouldn't happen to a good kid like Tim."

"I hear you," Mulder said absently.

A few minutes later Tim was wheeled away and everyone else drifted back to their rooms. Mulder imagined that most went back to bed, given the hour. He himself went to the window, hoping to catch sight of the ambulance that'd be taking Tim over to the State Hospital. Maybe he could wave. Maybe if he could, he'd feel less guilty for being so glad that it wasn't him having a break down bad enough to get kicked out.

The whole incident left him feeling bad for Tim yet oddly hopeful. For him, the medication and therapy were working. It seemed possible that he might leave out the front door, on his own two feet, and not need to come back. And really, that was as much as he allowed himself to hope for those days.


Mulder could hear sounds coming from the hallway as he packed his bags. It was just the typical goings-on in the hospital, but it seemed strange to him to be apart from it as he got ready to leave.

As he stuffed his things into the same duffel he'd brought them in, he had difficulty shaking a vague sense of paranoia. He figured odds were about 25% that someone would come into the room before he left and tell him that they really didn't think he was well enough to leave after all. They couldn't keep him, not unless he did something violent like Tim had that'd get him transferred to a non-voluntary placement, but he knew that they could try to convince him that it was in his best interest to stay.

And he wasn't sure how forcefully he'd insist that he was okay to leave if push came to shove. He felt much better than when he'd arrived several weeks earlier, but his state of mind wasn't anything like it had been before his three-year-long ordeal had begun. Even with medication and the therapy that he'd be continuing on an out-patient basis, he still felt at sea, worrying over shadowy corners of the room. His therapist had warned him that healing would be a gradual process, but he found himself impatient to get back to the way things used to be.

If things could ever go back to the way things used to be.

That was something that he found himself thinking about more and more as his stay wore on. No one with a clipboard had to tell him that worrying about the future instead of just surviving another day was a sign that he was making progress. His educational background explained that concept and many more to him, in a clinical, textbook way. But he did have serious concerns about what came after leaving the hospital. The immediate particulars, that he'd move into the apartment that Skinner helped him decide upon and that he'd report to the animal shelter later in the week for his first shift, were things he didn't worry about. It was what came after that, what people expected of him and what he expected of himself, that kept him awake on quiet nights.

It wasn't as if he had any real expectations that he'd play with the pooches at the pound for a little while, just waiting for a phone call from the bureau asking him to report back on some not too distant Monday, and as soon as he returned, Scully would tell Quantico that it had been nice but her place was in the field. With him. And that they'd resume their relationship, picking up exactly where they left off just before a strange glow from above whisked him out of the world.

That was entirely too facile, and he found that his capacity for naive hope had been ripped completely from him right around the time he was being strapped down and poked with wires and other sharp objects.

A soft rap, exactly appropriate from someone used to being around the easily startled, lifted Mulder from his thoughts. By the time he turned his gaze from his back to the door a face was looking in at him. Hull smiled in a non-threatening manner. "I've got your discharge paperwork," he said, indicating a sheaf of paper held in his right hand.

"Thanks," Mulder told him, figuring that was the expected response.

"How are you feeling?" Hull's gaze was suddenly intent, but it often was. It made Mulder wonder idly if the man's keen powers of observation could be muted, if the doctor really wanted them to be. Somehow he thought not, at least not without some edge-blunting medication.

Instead of trying to bullshit them both, Mulder let his shoulders rise and fall in an inelegant shrug. "Not too bad. A little excited. A little nervous."

This had the psychiatrist nodding. "That's good."

"Is it?"

"Sure." Hull stepped into the room, taking care not to stand where he'd be blocking the exit. Mulder wondered how long he'd been practicing in hospitals instead of office buildings. He figured on a while. "If you were terrified or exuberant, I'd be concerned. Mixed feelings, though... those are perfectly natural."

A caustic voice piped up in the back of Mulder's mind, taunting him about his experience with the perfectly unnatural too. Even as he had the thought he wondered if it was about what had happened to him while he was missing, or if the bullying thought was referencing his less traumatic past, too.

The thought of the latter almost made him laugh out loud, and he probably would have if he wasn't standing in the room with someone actively evaluating his mental health. For all his yearning to get back to normal, he had to be the first person to admit that his old life hadn't exactly been a shining example of normalcy. His career had led him to legions of creepy, crawly things that scared even those who went bump in the night. And even before then, there had been Samantha...

But damn it, if the only things you experience are abnormal, that becomes your normal. Hadn't that been what let him go on with his life? If every experience left your nerves taunt and sizzling, you'd quickly burn out. So people adapt, and learn to accept what happens. It's not always just hopelessness. Survival can be more than that, with lulls in the disasters that let you feel okay for a while.

He just wanted to feel okay for a while. Even it wasn't forever. Maybe a while could be enough.

When he looked up he expected Hull to be staring at him, but the doctor looked beyond him, eyes on something outside the window. Mulder looked too, and saw a crow on the nearest tree branch.

Noticing that Mulder was looking at the bird too, he asked, "What are your thoughts when you see one of those guys?"

This felt like a quiz, but Mulder told him what he was thinking rather than carefully deliberating what to tell the doctor. If he was going to suggest that he expend his stay, he would have by then. "I think that they're smart. Aren't they one of the birds that keep treasures? Bits of shiny things that capture their attention so thoroughly that they have to have them."

"Ravens and crows, yes," Hull agreed. Then he sighed, which was surprising. "They get a bad rap as far as I'm concerned."

"A bad rap?" Mulder repeated, verging on amusement. The last thing he expected was for Hull to come to the bird's defense.

Hull waved a hand in the bird's direction, and although it was watching them too, it was clever enough not to worry that his movement had been a threat. "They're heavily used in horror movies as shorthand for the ominous."

"Ah." Mulder could recall watching a movie with Scully that had resorted to that. "Humans are like that, aren't they? Programed to look for faces and stuff in ordinary things.

"Pareidolia," Hull said. Mulder glanced at him, and he shrugged. "That's the term for it."

"Right."

Hull looked at the packed bags resting on Mulder's neatly made bed. "You have an appointment set up for Wednesday, correct?"

"I do," Mulder replied nervously, even though it was the right answer and the truth.

"And I trust you'll keep it." Hull didn't react to the surprise on Mulder's face. "It's always nice to feel like someone leaving us is for the best."

"I didn't realize leaving came with a complimentary pep-talk," Mulder said with a wan smile.

"Oh no." Hull made a warding gesture. "I bill you for it."

Mulder opened his mouth to laugh, but before he could one of the orderlies poked his head into the room. "Mr. Mulder? Your ride is here."

"Thanks," Mulder told him.

The orderly picked up one of the bags, and he realized that the younger man intended to accompany him out. He gave Hull an awkward look, wondering how you were supposed to say goodbye to the doctor who treated you for PTSD. In the end Hull just nodded, and Mulder followed the orderly from the room without another word.

Somehow he'd expected to meet Skinner in the lobby, but the orderly walked out the front doors with Mulder trailing after him. This was such a surprise that he didn't even have time to dwell on the fact that crossing the threshold would be the difference between being a patient and being on his own. He barely noticed that the fresh air made him free as he hurried towards Skinner's waiting car.

A small click, and the trunk popped open for them to stow his bags in. Mulder smiled minutely to himself - a few week earlier the trunk coming open like that would have left him diving for cover, and he hadn't even flinched now.

After the orderly slammed the trunk back down, he gave Mulder a friendly look. "Good luck."

"Thanks," Mulder replied quietly. Skinner reached across the front seat, opening the passenger side door a few inches, which he took as an invitation to get in.

As he did so, he looked at Skinner and said, "Thanks for the ride. It would have been awkward to get a cab if I got the same driver who dropped me off here."

Skinner forced himself to smile. "I'm glad to spare you that."

To Mulder's relief, they didn't spend a lot of time talking on the drive to his new apartment. What would they have talked about anyway, he wondered. The medications he was on, their intended purposes and intense side-effects? What it had been like to watch Tim being taken away when he was deemed to be a danger to himself and others? It wasn't as though he'd been gone on vacation and had a lot of new stories that wouldn't have depressed them both if he shared them.

And he still hadn't been able to bring himself to ask Skinner about his continued work on the X-Files, either. In a way he was deeply grateful that Skinner had kept the division alive while he was gone, and he was aware of how high a price he must have paid professionally to have accomplished it, yet it too was still a sore spot. The X-Files was apparently getting along without him, and the very fact that it was also proved that it could continue in his sustained absence. But wasn't that what he should want? He didn't though. In a way it would have made him feel better if it had crumbled when he stepped away from it, and it needing him to resurrect it would have feed his ego all the more.

Since he couldn't talk about these things, they exchanged a few sentences about the weather and called it good.

"We're here," Skinner announced when they pulled up to a building on a somewhat familiar road. Mulder had sometimes taken the road as a shortcut to a favorite Chinese food place that he wasn't sure even still existed.

"Great," he replied, trying to force some enthusiasm into his tone.

Skinner fished a set of keys out of his pocket and handed them to him, then they both entered the building. The apartment was on the first floor, which came as more of a relief than Mulder really wanted to think about. He'd gained ten pounds back since entering the hospital, but he was still a lot frailer than he was comfortable with and the lack of stairs would help him recover faster. Maybe he should have taken the cafeteria workers up on offers of extra desserts.

He felt clumsy as he unlocked his new door, but eventually he got it open. The place had more furniture than he had imagined it would, but when he shot a questioning look at Skinner, his former boss shrugged. "I figured you'd like a furnished place."

"I..." Mulder tried to think of how to put his question.

Somehow Skinner seemed to read his mind. "Your stuff's in storage. I wasn't sure if you'd want it here right now. Anyway, that's the smaller key on the ring. It's in space 207 at the Lock-It Inn on South street."

"Thanks," Mulder said, feeling like he'd said that too much for one day. But in all honesty he wasn't sure how he would have reacted if he'd opened the door to find his old apartment recreated elsewhere.

"So..." Skinner looked around. "There's food for dinner in the fridge, but you're going to want to buy groceries soon. The store's about a block away. We could go now-"

Mulder cut him off, shaking his head. "No thank you. Honestly, I'm too worn out to do it today. I think I'll go tomorrow."

Skinner's expression was hesitant, but eventually he nodded. For some reason it had him thinking of how Skinner would have reacted if he and Sharon had children because Mulder could imagine him looking much the same watching the oldest going off to kindergarten.

"Well," Skinner said gruffly. "You've got my number if you need me."

"Thanks, Walt."

"Walt?" he asked, one eyebrow arched ironically.

Mulder shrugged. "You're not exactly my boss at the moment, so 'sir' feels a little weird."

"Walt's okay." Skinner eyed him. "And you'll call Scully in a few days?"

"Count on it."

"Okay..."

He left after that rather than putting Mulder through a drawn-out goodbye.

Alone in the apartment, Mulder revealed in the relief he felt that he had no urge to look in the closet and under the bed for little gray men.


The Next Day

As well behaved as the kids generally were, Scully tried to limit taking them out to shop to once a week, or twice when absolutely necessary. She had her list and pilled them into her car after getting home for work. Grace and Tommy looked out the windows as the scenery rushed by. Tommy was in a booster seat and Grace just barely fit in her car seat, so Scully made a mental note to look into finding a larger pink car seat by the end of the month.

Looking at the kids in the rear view mirror, she asked, "Two days ago I said that we needed to get more of something when we went shopping. I've forgotten what it is. Do either of you remember?"

"Chicken nuggets," Grace said with confidence.

"No, we've got plenty of those."

"Fish sticks?"

"Nope."

"Manwin oranges!"

By this point Scully had realized Grace was just naming her favorite foods. "No."

"Slippy peanut butter."

"Grace-" Scully started to say, but then realized that it had been creamy peanut butter they'd run out of. "Thank you."

"That was it?" Tommy asked, not bothering to disguise his surprise.

"Yup."

"Huh."


It didn't take long before Scully remembered why she hated to take the kids grocery shopping: Grace was perched in the cart's seat and pointed things out that she wanted to negotiate getting, while Tommy walked beside her and occasionally also held up things he would like. She said no to most of it, but gave on a few things. Maybe she could talk to her mother because she didn't remember her brothers, Missy, or herself behaving that way in stores. It might be more pleasant to shop with them with that taken care of.

By chance, she looked out one of the store's big plate-glass windows as she reached for a package of English muffins and her heart nearly stopped. A familiar figure carrying two plastic grocery bags was moving across the parking lot, paying no attention to the store or anyone in it. She had the urge to run out of the store, screaming his name, and only the mental image of her bewildered children left behind in the baked goods aisle stilled her feet.

Shooting Tommy a quick look, she wondered if it would be ok if she promised to be right back. No, she decided. No. Tommy wasn't even big enough to get Grace out of the shopping carriage's seat, so he was far too young to look after his sister, even for a couple of minutes.

And if she wasn't hallucinating, and it was Mulder, if it really, truly was Mulder, would it only be a couple of minutes? She could imagine chasing after him, literally running behind him as she pleaded with him to just talk to her. Depending on his frame of mind, the quest could take her blocks away.

"What are you looking at, Mommy?" Tommy asked, his gaze following hers.

She shook her head, and then sought to give him a reassuring smile. "I just thought I saw someone I knew."

"Was it someone you knew?" he predictably asked.

"I'm not sure, honey." And she wasn't. But she thought she knew who might know. "I think we've got everything, and Mom's gotta make a phone call, so let's go check out, huh?"

"We didn't get bananas," her small red-haired boy pointed out.

Biting back her sigh, Scully headed for the produce department at the other end of the store, hoping that if Mulder was really out there, she'd get confirmation of that soon.


Even though he had been anticipating the call for weeks, Skinner's throat tightened when he read the name on the phone's display. It would have been easy to just let the call go to voicemail, but he thought he owed her more than that. "Skinner."

She didn't waste any time with greetings and salutations before getting right to the heart of the matter. "Is he back?"

As tempting as it was to deflect that with a show of confusion, asking her who, he knew it wouldn't put her off for long. "Yes."

There was a silence at the other end for a moment then, heatedly, she demanded to know "why didn't you tell me?"

Skinner sighed. He had been anticipating this conversation, and knew that she would ask this very question, but he had never come up with a satisfactory answer. All he was left with was the truth. "He asked me not to tell you," he said simply.

Somehow the pause on the other end felt angry to him. Hurt. "He didn't want me to know he was back," she said finally. It wasn't a question, not exactly.

"Not immediately," Skinner told her. "Scully...He wanted to wait. To protect you, I think."

"Protect me from what?" she snapped. "From ever knowing what happened to him? From knowing he wasn't dead?" Her voice rose at the end of every question.

"From seeing him the way he was when he first was returned," Skinner said quietly.

She seemed to think about this. "Oh."

That seemed to sum it up. "He stayed with me for a few days. Then, he went to a hospital."

"They injured him," she said, in a way that suggested that this was the first time the thought was crossing her mind. How could that be? Maybe it was too hard to imagine that things that they couldn't protect him from had happened. He himself had imagined all sorts of terrible fates for Mulder, but then, he'd been the one who'd let Mulder be taken away so his imagination had been fueled by guilt.

"Well, they certainly damaged him," Skinner agreed cautiously.

She saw through his equivocation immediately. "In what way?"

His noisy sigh must've transmitted well over the phone too. "Physically, he wasn't too bad. Extremely thin, because they starved him towards the end. But the doctor I talked him into going to see thought that he was doing well, considering."

"I would love to know what you told the doctor to explain things, but another time," she said. "I sense a 'but.'"

"You're familiar with posttraumatic stress disorder," Skinner prompted. She murmured an agreement. "That's what he was in the hospital for, to be treated for that."

After several seconds she asked "how long has he been out of the hospital?"

It probably took a lot of restraint not to ask how long it had been since he returned, Skinner thought. Perhaps she didn't really want to know yet, because that would mean knowing how long it'd been that Mulder had been avoiding speaking to her. "He got out yesterday. I helped get him an apartment."

"Oh." She took the phone away from her mouth, and he could hear her responding to something that one of the kids said before she focused her attention on the phone conversation again. "Did he...Do you know if he planned to speak to me soon?"

"In a few days. I believe he said something about speaking to you next week, once he was settled in the apartment." He wondered if that made her feel happier, that he'd only wanted a few days before he reached out to her. Somehow he doubted it. The relationship between her and Mulder had always been a complicated thing, and he had never kidded himself by believing that he understood it. "How did you know...?" He trailed off, unable to articulate the rest of this question.

Had she somehow sensed that he was back? She had once told him that she had dreams about Mulder, things they had done to him. He hadn't believed that it was anything more than a desperate desire to believe that she was still connected to Mulder somehow, and she herself didn't really believe they were real or she wouldn't have been surprised that he'd come back in rough shape, but maybe... And if she had sensed things then, maybe she just knew now.

To his surprise, she gave a sharp bark of laughter. "I thought I was hallucinating. I looked out the window while I was shopping for groceries with the kids half an hour ago, and I saw him."

"I see." Her confession left him feeling ridiculous. Of course that was how she knew, it'd been silly to speculate it could have been otherwise. "And you didn't go after him?" he asked, thinking that was unlike her.

"I wanted to, believe me. If I hadn't had the kids with me, I would've, in a heartbeat."

"Oh," he said, still thinking that it would have been predictable of her if she had left the kids standing there waiting for her. It left him feeling a little bit uneasy, like he didn't know her as well has he thought he did, even if her actions were more responsible than he would have given her credit for. "Right."

He drifted off into his thoughts, wondering if he was supposed to tell Mulder that she knew he was back or not, when she finally asked him something that he hoped he wouldn't be the one required to provide an answer to.

"Did They have him, all of this time?" After a moment she clarified, showing that she wasn't coyly asking about his hospital stay, "Before he stayed with you, I mean."

"Yes. The entire time we were looking for him, he was a million miles away, perhaps literally." Would that make her feel better, he wondered. They hadn't failed because they hadn't tried hard enough to find him, but because it had been impossible. They couldn't have left the earth to look for him, so they had done everything they could have for him. Even though it had not been enough.

"Does he...Does he know we tried?"

"We discussed it. Even before we did, I know he did. He wouldn't have expected anything else from us."

Her laugh was shaky. "I guess it's good to know we're considered reliable."

"I...I'm going to tell him you saw him. That we spoke. Okay?" he asked quickly, before he could reconsider the wisdom of asking permission instead of doing it and apologizing later.

Scully took a moment to consider this. "Okay."

"That might mean he calls you tonight," Skinner cautioned her. "He might not think there's a reason to wait if you already know."

"That's okay."

He almost asked her if that was true. But he didn't.


Seconds after he hung up with Scully, Skinner dialed the number for Mulder's new apartment. Once upon a time Mulder's old number, and Scully's as well, had been on his speed dial. But that was a long time ago, and he'd mostly had their numbers to check in on them when they failed to show up at the office. Now he'd like to think that he was calling either of them because he was their friend.

"Hello?" Mulder asked cautiously a moment after the call connected. He probably had caller ID on the new phone he'd bought, but he still sounded wary. Skinner tried to push the implications of that away before he answered.

He'd tried to think of how to break the news gently, but when he opened his mouth, the words fell out. "She saw you today."

There was silence on the other end for a moment, then Mulder spoke quietly, not sounding shocked or angry. "Where?"

"She looked out the window while grocery shopping, and saw you in the parking lot."

"Oh."

"Mulder?" he asked, after there was a pause longer than the first. It made him wonder if the connection had dropped.

"Did she seem pleased to know I've come back?"

"It was an uncomfortable conversation." Skinner squirmed in his seat. "She was mostly pissed that we hadn't told her right away. That I hadn't," he clarified.

"But you explained," Mulder said then. It wasn't a question.

"I tried to, yes."

"Right."

"I told her that you might call her sooner than you had planned, now that we know she's aware that you've returned."

"How did she take that?" Mulder's voice shook as he spoke, giving his nervousness away completely.

"I think she'll be glad to hear from you," Skinner told him honestly. "She'll probably be as nervous to speak to you as you to her."

"What does she have to be nervous about?" Mulder asked, sounding confused.

It was all he could do not to sigh. "We've all changed a lot in the past three years, not just you."

"I didn't change," Mulder said so sharply that Skinner nearly dropped his phone in surprise. "Change implies something one chose. I didn't choose to change. I was transmogrified."

Skinner looked at the phone, desperately trying to repress a sigh. There was really no adequate reply to a statement like that. "Right."

"She's changed?" Mulder asked hesitantly.

He shrugged. "How could she not have?"

"I know. I know. It's just... It's hard to remember that everyone else lived for the three years that I didn't."

"That you didn't?" Skinner asked, morbidly imagining Mulder in a pine box for three years.

After a second Mulder answered. "I don't mean that I was literally not alive, but I had no concept of how much time passed. You had to have realized that when I was shocked how long I'd been gone."

"I guess so," he said, but he really wanted to ask how it was possible that one could lose track of time so completely that they had no idea how many years they'd been gone. That was just another thing on the long list of questions that he still had and fought not to ask.

On the other end of the line Mulder laughed hollowly. "It's hard to keep track of the days when every one of them is the same."

Skinner shivered, reading between the lines. If he'd been a POW back during his marine days, he wondered how well he would have kept time himself. He didn't really imagine himself to be the sort of person who drew hash-marks on the wall to make sure each day was accounted for. That had always struck him as a good way to demoralize yourself. Maybe Mulder's sanity had depended on letting the days blend together, rather than remembering the indignities each had individually bestowed.

After a long pause, Skinner remembered that he and Mulder had never talked about something. "Hey...Her phone number is the same, but Scully lives in a different unit in her complex now."

"Why?" Mulder asked, before immediately saying "Oh."

"It's a three-bedroom," Skinner offered.

Mulder said nothing for a while, and he was left wondering if Mulder was also thinking back to his claim that they'd all changed over the past three years. Needing a place with bedrooms for her children was certainly a change in Scully's case. Eventually Mulder replied. "That's good to know, thanks."

"Are you going to call her tonight?" Skinner asked, wondering if he was supposed to call Scully back and let her know if he was. He wasn't going to, he decided, unless Mulder asked him to. It was too much like passing notes between his high school friends and the girls they were after.

"Yeah."

"Then maybe I'd better let you go now..."

"Yeah. Thanks."

The angry buzz of the dial tone surfaced before Skinner had the chance to say anything else, like wishing him luck. Hopefully he wouldn't need it.


Someone else might have complained about how Scully had discovered that he was back, upset that the knowledge had wandered to her in a way completely different than how he'd imagined it, but Mulder hadn't ever really decided the best way to announce that rumors of his death had been greatly exaggerated. So the only thing that bothered him about the whole situation was that it took the timing out of his control too. He would have contacted her by the end of the week. Probably.

Despite what Skinner had said about her taking a different apartment to accommodate the kids, it still felt comforting to dial a number that he'd stopped having to look up by the time they'd worked together for four months. That he'd had to ever had once puzzled him given his strong memory for everything else written down, but he eventually attributed the block in his uncertainty about how he felt about his new partner: if he easily memorized her number so calling her felt natural, it would have implied a comfortable familiarity between them and he had taken a little while before he'd grown to feel it was okay to depend upon her.

The call connected while he was still wandering memory lane, and it almost startled him. "Hello?" an uncertain voice asked after only two rings. Her voice.

"Scully?" he asked, and suddenly his own voice sounded as rusty as it had when he first spoke to Skinner.

"It's me," she paused. "I just can't believe it's you."

Did anyone miss me? he desperately wanted to ask, but he couldn't bring himself to. Instead he just said, "Surprise."

"You have no idea." He thought he could hear a ghost of humor to her tone, but he couldn't be sure. "When I saw you out the window, I thought I was losing my mind."

"I didn't mean for you to find out I was back that way," he offered. "I'm sorry it was upsetting."

She laughed then, and it was a sound totally devoid of mirth. "You've been through so much, and now I'm making you feel guilty...I don't mean to. You shouldn't. It was just a shock, that's all." Scully paused. "A good one. A really good one."

"Oh."

"I imagined getting you back in so many ways...but it didn't prepare me for the reality of it," she confessed. "I almost left the kids standing in the grocery store to run after you."

"Wow." He wondered when he'd be able to say something intelligent to her.

"Mulder...." she trailed off, and he waited for her to continue, wondering desperately what she was going to say to him. You have to understand that after this long we're over, find someone else, I'm sorry about what you've been through but I have to think of my children now? "Um, can I come see you? Tonight?"

For a moment he only gave the phone a puzzled frown. Then he began to suspect that he hadn't imagined her question at all. Still, he had to be sure. "I'm sorry, did you say you want to see me tonight?"

"If that's okay?" she asked cautiously.

He glanced at the stack of boxes piled under the window. "If you can deal with an apartment still full of boxes, sure," he found himself blurting out. She really wanted to see him that night?

"Great." Scully sounded eager and relieved. "I'll have to get someone to watch the kids, but I'll be over as soon as I can."

Of course she wouldn't want to bring the kids, he found himself thinking. In her shoes he'd probably want to have them meet him later, after being satisfied that he was okay to be around them, too. "Uh, okay."

Neither of them seemed to know what to say for a few moments. "See you then," Scully finally said softly.

Then there was a click and she was gone.

Mulder sat down on the couch. He was really going to see Scully. It was almost too hard to believe.


As soon as Scully hung up, she became aware of the kids' voices. Peeking her head around the corner, she saw that they were both playing with the Duplo blocks that Tommy was just a little too old for but still enjoyed nearly as much as Grace did.

For the briefest moment Scully contemplated forgoing finding a sitter, and getting the kids into the car right that second so she wouldn't have to wait another minute to see Mulder. But this would be a bad idea for many reasons, not the least of which was how badly Mulder might react to that sort of surprise and Tommy's shyness around new adults. No, the only person who'd benefit from such a plan was her, so it wasn't the responsible thing to do.

Instead she watched the kids play for another minute or so, just long enough to assure herself that they would probably continue to do what they were doing, then found her phone. Her fingers shook a little, and she was glad that the phone number was on speed dial.

"Hello?" her mother asked, and for a moment Scully forgot that she had caller ID. Her mother was probably confused that she was calling at an unusual time, not uncertain of the caller's identity.

"Mom, could you come over and watch the kids tonight?" Scully begged.

"Sure," Maggie said, sounding surprised. "Why?"

After an uncomfortable silence, Scully replied. "I...I..."

"Dana?" Her mother's concern was evident in her voice.

"He's back," Scully whispered.

There was a moment of silence, then Maggie asked, "Fox? Fox is back?"

"Yes."

"Oh my god, that's wonderful news!" she exclaimed, but when Scully didn't say anything, she asked, "Isn't it?" uncertainly.

Scully swallowed hard. "I think so."

"You think so?"

"Skinner said that he's been in the hospital since just after he... I don't know how he got back, honestly."

"So you haven't talked to him yet," her mother concluded.

Scully listened for a moment, reassuring herself that the kids were still playing. "I talked to him on the phone for a few minutes tonight. I'm hoping to learn more when I get to see him."

"I'll be right over," her mother promised.

She suddenly found herself panicking over the idea of going to see Mulder very soon, which was faintly ridiculous considering that just a few minutes earlier she'd wanted to not wait another moment. It began to occur to her that Mulder's feelings probably weren't the only ones that were complex and muddled.

"Thanks, Mom," she said at last.

"Have the kids eaten yet?"

Scully startled, kicking herself for not having thought of this earlier. "No, we only got home from grocery shopping a little while ago." It was going on half an hour past when the kids would normally eat, though, so she began to feel bad for not having thought to feed them before making her phone calls. Somehow, them not complaining about it made her feel even worse than if they had whined at her about being hungry.

"I'll take them out, then."

"You don't have to do that," she automatically protested.

"I know I don't have to, Dana. I want to."

"Thanks."

"See you soon."

"Love you, bye," Scully told her, then wandered back to where her children were still playing. It had been silly to worry that they'd of gotten bored and overheard her conversation, especially considering the elaborate zoo they'd set up to contain their plastic animals. Looking at the flat painted eyes of their menagerie bothered her for some reason, but she didn't really want to puzzle that out.


So," Scully told her children with a brittle brightness. "Grandma is going to come over and see you tonight." She decided not to mention her mother's plans to take them out because Maggie could change her mind and make them spaghetti instead.

"Yay, Grandma!" Grace cheered. Her smile was big enough to make the dimples in her cheek show up.

Tommy, on the other hand, didn't look as thrilled as his little sister did. "How come? Grandma doesn't usually come see us when we got school in the morning."

"Um..." Scully stalled, wishing that he had simply accepted this like Grace had.

"Are you coming back?" Tommy continued. "Before we go to bed?"

"Uh." He looked at her with bright blue eyes, fully expecting that she'd give him satisfactory answers to his questions. Sitting down, she invited him to take a seat on the couch beside her. He clambered up next to her, but looked suspicious.

"I'm not sure. You've heard me talking to Mr. Skinner a lot over the years," she began, and he nodded. She and Walter hadn't spent as much time talking about Mulder within the last eighteen months as they had before, but he'd been around often enough for Tommy to know exactly who she was talking about. "Do you remember us talking about a friend of ours who is missing?"

Tommy cocked his head to the side. "I think so. He got lost when him and Mr. Skinner were working, right?"

This had her cringing inside, not wanting to think too much about the circumstances under which Mulder went missing. "More or less." Trying to smile, she said, "Well, he got found."

Her son's eyes widened in surprise. "He came back? I didn't know missing people could come back."

This had her thinking that they should spend some time looking at missing person news stories that had happier outcomes because he apparently thought all the missing were destined to remain just black and white photos forever. But it wasn't really the time for that, so it would have to wait. "Some people who are missing are only missing for a while-"

"But some die," Tommy said solemnly.

"Well, yes..."

"And some are gone forever and ever."

"Right. But our friend isn't one who died, and he's not missing anymore."

"Oh. That's good, right?"

She really, really wanted to believe that. But having only exchanged a few sentences with Mulder so far, her heart was still withholding judgment on that score no matter how much her brain scolded her for thinking that he could possibly be worse off here than in the clutches of the aliens. When Tommy gave her a questioning look, she tried to smile again. "It is good."

"Okay." Tommy thought for a moment. "But why is Grandma coming to see us?"

He was so smart that it was sometimes a shock to her when he did the developmentally appropriate thing, which in this case was failing to read between the lines. "Oh! I'm going to go visit my friend, and see how he is."

"We can't come?"

"Not tonight."

Scully expected an argument, but didn't get one. Instead Tommy said, "He's not ready for new friends?"

From the mouths of babes, she thought. "Not yet," She agreed. The thought of bringing two lively children to see a man who had just gotten out of the hospital for the treatment of PTSD seemed like a disaster in the making. "I think we need to wait for him to get comfortable in his new home before he meets new people," she explained.

"He had to move?" Tommy looked surprised. "How come?"

The innocent question had her thinking back to an uncomfortable episode not long after she got custody of the kids. They'd been discovered just over a year after Mulder disappeared, which was coincidentally just after Mulder's pre-paid lease ran out on his apartment. Perhaps around the time they'd begun dating, Mulder had listed her as an emergency contact, so this eventually led to his landlord calling her, demanding that she make decisions about the fate of his belongings.

Pleading with the landlord to let her pay to extend the lease on Mulder's behalf fell on deaf ears; the man was bound and determined to rent the place out to someone else, claiming that leaving it empty, even if paid for, was some sort of liability. The only thing she could do was to arrange to have his things put into storage.

Even at the last possible minute she hoped that the landlord would relent, but he never did. So one afternoon, while Tommy was at his new preschool, she and Grace had stood out in the rain under an umbrella she'd once left in Mulder's apartment, watching as men loaded his life onto a moving truck and got ready to bring it all to the local Lock-it Inn storage place. Standing there, holding the baby on one hip and the umbrella over them both with her free hand, all she could think about was how glad she was that she'd given up feeding Mulder's fish at his apartment within a month of his disappearance. The fish had long since taken up residence with her, and had recently made the move to her new apartment too. Somehow, she couldn't stop thinking about how much more complicated that rainy day would have been if she and Grace had had to share their ride home with a sloshing fish tank. Not that they'd made the trip in their tank back when she'd actually moved them: Maggie had held them protectively in a huge covered Tupperware bowl that had been immediately retired after that (although Scully knew very well that the container would have been sterilized in the dishwasher, she'd never been able to use it for its intended purposes ever again) and the emptied and dried tank had arrived safely in her back seat.

Thinking of the fish, she looked at the mollies swimming peacefully in their tank and wondered if she should call Mulder back and offer to bring the fish back to him that night. It only took a moment before she decided that returning the fish so abruptly would probably be almost as stressful to spring on him as bringing the kids, so she left them be. There would be plenty of time to give him his fish back later, when he was ready for them.

She hoped.

"Mom, how come?" Tommy repeated, making her realize that she'd never answered his question.

"Mister Skinner found him a new place to live because new people live in his old apartment."

Tommy frowned. "Oh. Is he sad?"

"About his apartment?" she asked after a beat. Her first assumption was to think that he meant in general, but she realized he was too young to think like that.

"Uh huh."

"I don't know. Maybe he'll tell me tonight."

"I'd be sad," Tommy told her. Then he made her cringe again. "I was sad when Grace and me hadda leave our old house." He seemed to become aware that he'd upset her, because he patted her arm. "I like living here better, though."

"That's good," she said faintly.

She never did know how to react when he casually mentioned something from before he lived with her; he was young enough and it had been long enough ago that many of his memories of his old life seemed to have faded, but he still surprised her now and again with what he could remember. Even though she told herself it was selfish to wish that he'd forget it all, and that he had a right to feel however he did about the past, she still felt stricken whenever his life before her got brought up.

Fortunately, Maggie arrived just a few minutes later, and when she did Scully's thoughts were wrenched back to the present. She kissed both kids on the cheek, and told them to behave for their grandmother, which predictably elicited promises that they would. On her way out the door she hugged her mother, and thanked her profusely.

It wasn't until she had slid behind the steering wheel that she really felt like she was going to see Mulder, and it wasn't some sort of fever dream that her brain had cooked up to console or torment her. That was probably why her hand shook a little bit as she tried to put the key in the ignition. But after a moment the car started, and she was on her way to him.


There wasn't a lot Mulder could do about the boxes before Scully got there, but he thought that he did have enough time to make the living room look a little more presentable. Grabbing the boxes two at a time, he pushed them out of the room and into the second bedroom. Despite gaining back several pounds since returning he still was on the weak side, so he didn't dare pick them up. After just a few minutes the living room began to resemble a space he could feel comfortable sitting and talking in, and not just a collection of things to unpack. At least the landlord had already gotten a set of living room furniture delivered before he even entered the apartment the first time on his own.

After removing the boxes he stood there, frantically trying to think of small ways he could quickly improve the look of the room. He turned on a lamp here, and straightened the area rug there, and fluffed up a pair of throw pillows on the couch that he had no idea the origin of. All the little things were done, and he didn't know what else to do, so he sat down in the chair, hands on his knees.

As he hunched there in the chair, his thoughts began to drift. It was wonderful that he was finally going to get to see Scully, but he couldn't tell her everything. Not all at once. Not if he didn't want her to run away, screaming into the night.

No one, not even Scully, would ever really be prepared to hear exactly what it was that he'd been through. He had his fellow patients in the posttraumatic stress therapy group to thank for this knowledge. It was nice to be able to learn from the mistakes of others, rather than having to win that knowledge the hard way himself. What he took away from listening to them was the fact that people will tell you that they want to know everything, but they don't understand how intense "everything" might be. Then they get overloaded, and they don't know what to do, because there's nothing that springs to mind for them that could help you.

So he promised himself that he would go slowly. He could be evasive if he needed to be. He just didn't want to see that look, that hopeless/helpless look that so many people in group described, on her face too. There hadn't been anything he could have done to spare her the hurt of having him go missing the way he did, but this at least he had some control over.

Staring out the dark window, he found himself thinking of something that Skinner had told him just after finding him on the porch. There had been a moment just after he went missing when Scully had thought that she was pregnant. He hadn't asked Skinner what had made her think that, but now he wondered. Skinner had claimed that he and Scully had both changed over the past three years. But had something changed before, something she hadn't been able to tell him about before he disappeared? Was it remotely possible that she had discovered that her infertility wasn't as immutable as they had once been led to believe?

That was another thing that would need to wait for another night, he already knew that.


There hadn't been rain in the forecast, at least not that Scully was aware of. But her day had started off sluggishly and she hadn't watched the news like she normally did, so maybe other people were aware that it would begin to rain that night. Slow drips gained strength, and she found that she had to turn on the wipers after just a little while. Their noise was irritating, or maybe she was already in a state of agitation even if she wouldn't admit to herself, but either way she found it difficult to concentrate on the directions she had found for Mulder's new apartment.

Once again she found herself mourning the fact that Mulder hadn't been able to come home to the apartment he had lived in the entire time she knew him. But she didn't let herself get maudlin about him losing his home, because she had never sensed that he had as deep an attachment to where he lived as many people did. Still, it was another change and challenge for a man who had been so uprooted already.

Skinner hadn't said whether or not Mulder had gone anywhere else before he spent those few days with him, pre-hospitalization. She found it unlikely that he had. The thought that he might have wandered back to his apartment before finding Skinner made her ache, and she hoped it hadn't been that way. But she could imagine him discovering other people in his apartment, and feeling lost, feeling displaced, because of this. Maybe she could ask him. But maybe not tonight.

Her thoughts ate up the miles, and before she was quite prepared for it, she was on Mulder's new street. It seemed like a quiet place, not much traffic, and plenty of places to park, so she didn't have the excuse of needing to take her time to find a place for her car. Of course, as soon as she thought the word excuse, she also began to mentally berate herself for having thought it in the first place. Why would she need an excuse? Why would she want to delay finally reuniting with him?

Both of these questions continued to haunt her as she walked up to the apartment building. There wasn't a call box, and after a moment of hesitation, she found that she could let herself into the lobby by simply opening the door. That there was nothing in the way of security to speak of bothered her a little bit, at least until she considered that it might be quite some time before Mulder could return to the FBI, and therefore might need added security. Of course, that was assuming the only possible threats to him came from things he might investigate...

Then again, the security in his old building hadn't kept him from being drugged via poisoned water filters, and hadn't protected him from the other assorted, random violence that his job brought home.

Before she could knock, his door began to open. Her eyes widened in surprise, and she told herself to knock that off before the door opened enough for Mulder to look out. She must have made more noise walking up to the door then she thought she had, because otherwise, how could he have possibly known she was standing there?

Skinner had tried to prepare her about the changes in Mulder's appearance, but it was hard not to stare at him in alarm. The only people she had ever seen who were thinner and not being rescued by the Allied forces from concentration camps in black and white film footage, were people she had met while in med school: women with cancer, men with full-blown AIDS.

But, despite how frail he looked, Mulder seemed happy to see her. A slow smile spread across his face as he said "hey."

She had promised herself that she would take things slowly, and not rush him into anything that he might not feel anymore, but all of these thoughts fell away as her arms went around him automatically. He was more substantial than smoke, real in her arms, and he hugged her back with one arm. "I've waited so long for this..." she muttered, clutching at his shirt. It still smelled new.

Mulder tightened his grip around her, and then took several steps backwards, leading her into the apartment. She barely noticed when he reached past her to shut the door. But as soon as the door shut, he put that arm around her too.

For a long moment they stood there, holding each other in a comfortable and familiar way, not clinging desperately like the other could save them from drowning. Back in each other's arms at last, it felt as though a lot of the danger they had lived through in the recent past was receding.


Mulder murmured into her ear, "There were days I despaired that I would ever get to do this again."

She looked up at him, eyes not shocked as he feared but filled with understanding. "I tried not to give up hope," Scully admitted.

He nodded minutely, but he knew that trying could be a nearly insurmountable task. Or at least it had been for him, and he hoped desperately that she had felt less to shaken her faith than he had when her mother had decided to pull the plug after her own abduction. But considering how much longer he'd been gone, it seemed unlikely. "We didn't let them win."

To his disappointment, she pulled away. "Can you... Is it okay if I ask you what happened?"

Trying not to sigh, he pointed at the couch. She sat down first, and he sat beside her, not quite touching now. "Where do I begin?"

This question seemed to throw her, and she said nothing at first. "I know that Skinner was with you, when... I just don't know why."

To another person this might have seemed like a very strange thing to say, because she could've simply asked Skinner why he had been there, but he knew that wasn't what she was asking him. Mulder looked at his hands. "It was a compulsion."

"I don't think I understand," she confessed.

Mulder shrugged, glad that doing it no longer made his bones feel like they were dry sticks rubbed together. "I always pictured a tractor beam sucking people up like a hoover vacuum at an ant hill. But I didn't think about how they'd make you want to make it easier on them."

"Make you?" Scully repeated. She was hanging on his every word.

"It's some sort of mind-control, I guess," he tried to explain. "But subtle, like it was our idea to gather there so they could pick us up."

"They made you feel like you wanted to be taken away?"

"I just thought I really, really wanted to take a walk," Mulder said with a sigh. "It felt like a good idea at that very moment, and I bet it did to everyone else they took that night too. Most people couldn't resist. I know I couldn't."

"Most people?" Even if she hadn't asked, he would have seen the question written all over her face.

He looked away. "Not everyone they called came to them. Maybe they were just stronger than the rest of us. They were able to keep themselves from obeying the compulsion." For no clear reason he imagined a boat full of sailors allowing themselves and their craft to be dashed on a stony shore after being lured closer by a siren's song.

"How do you know some people got away?" Scully asked.

The question confused him; he didn't remember how he knew. It was just something he knew. "I don't know. I just do."

"Oh." And just like that he felt some of her pleasure at seeing him again flake away.

He tried not to let it upset him, but he was getting the sense that she'd allowed herself to believe a few weeks in the hospital had cured him. As nice as it would have been to completely shipshape in his head, it wasn't reflective of reality. The hospital had been careful to make him understand that he was enough better to be functional to some degree, but he still needed time and continuing treatment if he was going to get back to where he'd been when he'd been torn from his life. "There's a lot I don't remember clearly," he added, trying to predict her reaction.

At least she didn't get up and make an excuse to leave. "Maybe it's a blessing," she

suggested tentatively, betraying a desire to say the right thing.

Maybe it was a coincidence, or perhaps it was psychosomatic, but his scar began to itch, and he had to fight the urge to scratch it. "Or maybe not," he replied, more to distract himself than anything else.

"Right." she looked at her hands. This left him feeling guilty and he wanted to hug her again but he didn't. "But you do remember some of it?"

''A lot," Mulder corrected, not having intended for his admission to shut down communication. "You can ask me questions. I'll answer those I can."

''Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. Fire away."

She glanced up at his shoulder and away again so quickly that he almost thought he'd imagined it. The time she'd shot him was so long ago that he rarely thought about it. Scully clearly thought about it still, though. It was somewhat startling to grasp the fact that she dwelled on something she'd done to harm him, and not just the other way around; too many of his regrets centered on what she'd lost or endured just because she was connected to him. Giving her a crooked smile he said "come on, don't be shy."

Scully didn't quite smile back, but she stopped looking guilty. "What was the ship like?"

"Like a prison. At least the parts of it I saw much of." He frowned without being aware of it. "Think solitary confinement, for all of us. They took so many people at the same time as they did me but for all I ever saw them, I might have been alone."

Scully nodded as he spoke. "I take it you don't know what happened to the others."

"No. Do you?" he asked impulsively.

She sighed. "Only a few of them." This surprised him, but he made a go-on gesture. "Other people, a few of them, reappeared before you did. Of course there's no way of knowing if they'd been on the same ship-"

"How long before?" he interrupted.

From watching her face he could tell that she was thinking of something specific, and the memory wasn't pleasant. "Please tell me," he asked softly. All along he'd wanted to insist that he was stronger than she thought, but he wasn't sure of that. What if what she had to say knocked him off kilter again?

Scully took a deep shuddery breath and looked away. "They didn't all come back at once. The first three that came back...it was eleven months after you were all taken. A family camping in the mountains found them. Two men, and a woman. I heard about it, and I drove all night to get there, hoping desperately that one of the two men was you.

"But before I even got to see them I'd already begun praying that neither one was you," she concluded abruptly.

"Why-" he began to ask but the look on her face made him stop. The faint horror there as she revisited the moment spoke volumes." They were dead," he stated.

"Yes." A slight nod. "And it was simply awful."

Canting his head, he considered this. A woman who had done dozens of autopsies, not only seeing death up close but touching it too, was not squeamish about the dead. She'd given bodies that had him wanting a barf bag an unflinching clinical stare. So it couldn't merely be that they were dead that bothered her.

Queasiness struck him when his brain seized upon a possible reason for her dismay. "Was it anyone we knew?" he asked hoarsely. The words caught painfully in his throat on the way out. There were so many people he hadn't spoken to yet...

Scully gave him a puzzled look. "No."

Some of the tension seeped out of him then. With some effort he was able to banish the image of Miles and Teresa stacked like cordwood with a third person who looked vaguely like one of the gunmen. "Oh." But still, he was afraid to ask if Scully knew what had happened to the man and woman who had been part of both the first and last cases he'd worked with her.

"Why did you ask that?" Now she was the one who sounded curious.

"Your expression just then. It seemed like remembering hurt. I wondered if that was why."

"No..." She stood then, crossing the room to look out the window as he stared after her.


Stalling for time, she idly watched the cars on the road pass the building. Most of the drivers were alone, and all were oblivious; none were having a painful conversation.

Eventually she turned back to him, facing his quiet, watching eyes. "That night is when I finally realized that you might never come back. Or, not alive anyway."

Mulder seemed to mouth the words 'but I did' but no sound escaped him.

Unaware that her eyes were even sadder than before, she returned to sit again. "I blame Cassandra, really."

"I don't know what you mean."

"Until I saw the bodies of those three people, their savagely broken bones and skin nearly flayed off, I'd thought it was a waiting game," she admitted. "We'd met so many people like Cassandra Spender, returnees. They'd all come back, and so would you."

Mulder had winced at her description of the bodies, which made her glad that she'd toned it down. Now he leaned forward, unconsciously reducing the distance between them; instinctively, she knew he wasn't going to kiss her. "And suddenly I might not."

''It did feel sudden to me. That's hard to explain, but... I took one look at them and found myself imagining you being found by hapless campers someday, beyond help," she admitted.

"You lost hope," he said quietly.

"No," she denied, shaking her head adamantly. "I still hoped...but I began to wonder if I was expecting too much from you. If it was fair to you."

"To me?"

Sighing again, she wondered if it was truly possible to articulate her feelings. Still, she owed it to him to try. "Cassandra always seemed so fragile to me, and she always came back. And you... you've always been strong. Physically, mentally... so if she could survive being with them and endure whatever they did to torment the people they took, of course you'd be able to survive it all too. When you were taken, it wasn't the same as when she had been. Cassandra had been experimented on-" Scully paused, remembering that the woman said she'd been pregnant when taken once and returned not. "And that was awful. But they had returned people alive and damaged..."

"Not dead."

"Exactly. I didn't examine the bodies-someone else did the autopsies-but I didn't have to-" she almost said 'cut them open' but it seemed unwise. "-be there during the internal review to know that they'd been killed deliberately."

To her shock this elicited a wry smile from him, and when he noticed this had floored her, he gestured with one hand and said, "I understand why you were worried. You were afraid I'd piss them off enough to kill me."

"Mulder," she complained.

Raising an eyebrow, he said, "Tell me that thought never crossed your mind."

This left her shrugging helplessly. "I could only pray that they were less irritable than the bounty hunter."

He snorted, inexplicably amused. "Say what you want about that guy," he said after catching her questioning look. "But at least he had the self-restraint not to kill me."

"You never spent three years around him," she couldn't help but blurt out. Before she could get too mortified, he nodded.

"Well, there's that. Getting myself killed would never get me back to you, so I showed restraint of my own."

It took all of her will to banish the mental image of him reduced to a pile of dull ivory bones hidden by brush on the side of a hiking trail. This was something that had crossed her mind repeatedly since the first three victims had been found. Mulder was alive, sitting just feet from her so that grim fantasy ought to have gone into retirement; it bothered her that it hadn't, that her brain clung to it still to remind her that it could have gone that way.

When she noticed that he was looking at her with obvious concern, she summoned up the ghost of a smile. Had she really been what had kept him from acting rashly? Maybe he simply hadn't been given the chance to rebel. "I'm so glad you did, Mulder."

For a moment he said nothing, and then he pierced her heart by saying "sometimes I am too."

Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes, but she didn't let them out. She didn't know who they'd be for. Him, for all the abuse he'd suffered and felt the phantom pains of still? Herself, for missing him so long and not getting the same man back? Both of them for not being able to pick up right where they left off? There could be no fairytale ending, she realized now, the hero had escaped a fire breathing dragon but their trajectory wasn't currently on the path to a 'then they all lived happily ever after' epilogue. As a child she'd wondered if that was a polite way of saying they died soon after, but now she wondered how she'd failed to hold on to a piece of that healthy skepticism. It would have been less disappointing.

Looking up at him she repeated "only sometimes?" and his shrug euthanized any half-formed notions she might have entertained about getting her mother to keep the kids so she could spend the night. Maybe they'd find their way back to what they'd had, and maybe it wouldn't take unbearably long, but it wouldn't be that night. And it was another reason to damn Them for having taken him away, stealing their comfort and familiarity too. He wasn't a stranger but he was no longer the man she'd once grown accustomed to stripping in front of unselfconsciously either. Instead there was a gulf between them, like an old lover you hadn't seen in ages and no longer remembered intimately. But she wanted to. She thought she still wanted to.

"Maybe it'll get better now," she suggested.

"Now that I'm out of the hospital?" he asked. "Maybe."

She wanted to scream "I mean now that you've come back to me!" but the words wouldn't come. How could she resent him not making it clear that he still wanted her, she wondered when she began to realize it was what bothered her about how subdued he was acting. How could she not, even if she realized it was unfair?

A montage of listening to male classmates pine over girls who wouldn't give them the time of day, and her irritation that they'd been so self-absorbed, cued up in her brain, obviously as a dry reminder about how unbecoming that attitude was.

Give the poor guy a break, she snarled at herself. He's gone through the sort of trauma that would make a lot of people cut their wrists and you're put out that he hasn't declared that talking to you for less than an hour makes everything all better while yanking your clothes off. Did you really think that the night would go that way?

She wanted to snap back at her bullying subconscious, to defend herself against such an unflattering incrimination, but deep down she really had. And maybe it wasn't wrong, but she was now aware that it was foolishly unrealistic. Absence might have made her heart grow fonder - or at least didn't let her ardor for him dim - but she hadn't been the one who'd been tormented for three long years.

Of course he hadn't just been sitting around longing for her. He'd been trying not to die.

An ambulance's siren wailed as it drove by the apartment, making them both jump. She gave him a sheepish smile. "Sorry. I guess my nerves are a bit frayed."

''I guess seeing someone back from the dead will do that to a person," he suggested.

"I never really believed you were dead," she insisted automatically. "Just... "

"Missing in action?"

"Out of reach."

Suddenly his gaze was piercing and his expression contemplative. "You know, I think you really mean it."

"What?" she demanded to know because he couldn't doubt that she'd felt him out of reach. There'd been light years between them after all.

"You really didn't think I was dead."

"Why is that so surprising?" she wondered if this was about the fact that she finally had accepted the existence of aliens after denying it for so long.

"Three years is a long time," Mulder pointed out instead.

"What can I say?" she asked drily. "I consider you a dependable guy."

"Thank you." He looked down. "You're probably the only person on earth with that kind of faith in me," he said huskily. Maybe he was thinking of his parents.

Scully wanted to protest that she wasn't the only one, but ultimately she thought it was probably untrue. He still had other friends, other people who would be overjoyed that he was back, but they didn't expect him to come back, hadn't been waiting for him to come home one way or another. (Even in her darkest imaginings where he didn't survive, he was still found.)

After the first year, and certainly into the second, she began to realize that although no one ever said that they thought otherwise, her continued insistences that Mulder would be found were greeted by something akin to pity, as if they were just humoring her when they didn't express their doubt to her. After long enough even her mother and Skinner no longer hid their own doubts. A part of herself that she didn't really like wished that she could have seen the look on Skinner's face when he found the man he'd given up on at his house.

"I'm sorry," she finally said.

"Don't be." After a moment he asked, "If you thought I was still alive is that why-"

"Why what?" she prompted after he broke off in mid-sentence.

His eyes clouded and it didn't surprise her when he shook his head and said "never mind."

As curious as she was about what he might have asked, she decided not to push him. "Okay. Another time."

"Yeah." He looked down and she wondered at what until she realized his eyes were on her open purse by her feet. A purple hoof poked out, part of the My Little Pony Grace had had a tantrum about not bringing to her physical the week before until Scully relented after deciding that someone having immunizations forced on her should be able to bring something along that would comfort her.

Mulder gestured at the plastic equine. "Your daughter's?"

"Grace's, yes."

"Skinner says she's three."

''Almost," she agreed. "And Tommy's five. He just started kindergarten." Scully almost prattled on about how big an adjustment this was for her son, but when she looked up at Mulder she was glad she hadn't.

"Do you have pictures? With you," he asked, sounding pained to make the request.

Skinner had pictures, but it was obvious Mulder hadn't seen them. Had he not wanted to until now, or had Skinner been reluctant to share them? The latter possibility had her wondering if Skinner had somehow guessed what she herself had required a test result to become cognizant of, but perhaps that was just a touch of paranoia. Maybe he simply didn't want to throw a solid reminder of what had changed while he was gone in Mulder's face.

"Sure," she told him, picking up her purse.

He looked confused when she handed him the pony after it got in her way, but he held it gamely. The photos were in her wallet, a possession that she had never bothered with before the kids because her license, credit card and insurance card had been all she needed to carry before. Flipping through the pictures, she found the one taken during the summer and slipped it out of its protective sleeve before handing it to him. In it Tommy had an arm slung around Grace's shoulder and they were smiling without having been prompted to by the photographer, that time.

Photo in hand, Mulder studied it long enough to leave her wondering what he was thinking about. Finally handing it and the toy both back, he said "They look just like you."

"So everyone tells me." She didn't mention how many people couldn't resist opining that this was better luck for Grace than Tommy, as if a boy having red hair was somehow a minor tragedy. Her sisters-in-law hadn't gotten the memo that red-haired men were unattractive, nor had any of her brothers' girlfriends before then, so she didn't worry too much about her son's potential at attracting a mate as an adult.

"That's good," he said, leaving her wondering what he meant by it.

"Right." She held her breath, wondering if he was going to ask her if they were his. Wondering what she'd say when he did.

Instead he looked sad. "I imagined coming home to something like this," he said, which confused her until he gestured towards the photo she was putting away. "It helped me... hold on."

"Mulder... "

Shaking his head, he said, "It was a lot to hope for, children of our own when we hadn't had any luck with the IVF before. But still, impossible things happen, and it was nice to picture something after, it helped to imagine there could be an after for us... Maybe I only imagined children because I knew how much you wanted them. Neither of my fathers was an ideal role model, but... I'm glad you found them. After what was taken from you, you deserved to have something good come of it."

What about you? she wanted to demand to know. Don't you deserve something good to come from your experiences too? One look at his face said it wasn't the time to ask that, though. He probably didn't know and the question would only wound him with its implicit expectation that he'd worked everything out already.

So instead she said, "Thank you. Once and for a long time, if someone had asked me if I'd ever be willing to go through it all again, I would have quickly said no. But that all changed two years ago when someone called me to ask if I'd ever given children up for adoption. On some level I'd always wondered if there were more children of mine in the world, but I'd never given much thought to tracking them down because I thought that they'd all of been like Emily, and my quest would end at graves. I'm so glad I was wrong."

"Me too."

"Do you want to meet them?" she asked impulsively. His imagining that he'd come back and they'd have a baby together wasn't something that could happen, but it wasn't as though he couldn't be a part of the lives of these children. If he wanted to be.

"Um..." he bit his lower lip and gave her a scared look.

Reaching for him, she put her hand on his arm, glad that he didn't pull away. "It can wait. When you're ready, if you'd like to meet them, I'd like you to."

"You're not afraid that it'll harm them to know someone as screwed up as me?" he blurted out.

"I don't think you're screwed up," she said gently. "I think it's perfectly normal not to have been able to get through your experience unscathed."

"But I was supposed to!" he insisted.

"Oh, Mulder," she sighed, wrapping her arms around him when he began to cry.

Maybe his tears should have scared her, and made her worried about how damaged he was, but they didn't strike her that way. Tears were very human, and it was a lot healthier than holding everything inside. Of course, he'd probably be more embarrassed by crying.

For a long time she held him but eventually his grip around her slacked. Pulling away slightly, she saw that he had drifted off into a troubled sleep that left his eyes screwed tightly shut. Of course he'd exhausted himself, so she shouldn't be too surprised by that.

Wondering what to do, she noticed that there was a throw blanket on the back of the couch and tried not to wince when she thought about why he got cold so easily. She stood and picked it up, but let it dangle from her hand. If she just covered him up and left, what would he think when he woke up, even if she left a note?

So she pushed against his shoulder until his eyelids fluttered. Then she bent and kissed him, softly, not expecting much back. Or getting it. "I think it's about time for you to go to bed, huh?" she suggested.

Mulder nodded. But he asked, "Can we do this again soon?"

"Absolutely," she replied, still half wishing he'd kiss her back. Patience, she reminded herself. "Maybe we can catch a movie and go to dinner over the weekend, huh?"

"That sounds... unreal," he replied with a small smile.

"Talk to you soon, Mulder."

"Yeah."

As she let herself out of his apartment and walked down to her car, she reflected that their reunion hadn't been everything she'd hoped for. But it hadn't been at the side of a grave either, so there was room for things to get better. At times even that had been more than she'd allowed herself to hope for.


The key turning in the lock of Scully's front door sounded far too loud to her, and she cringed. About the last thing she felt ready to cope with right then would be having both of her children running over to investigate. They'd be wide awake and glad to see her, and she'd have to act like she was glad to see them too; neither of them was old enough to understand that there was a seed of truth to that shopworn "it's not you, it's me" cliche and would just feel rejected if she couldn't match their enthusiasm...

Before she put her keys away, the door swung open. Her mother gave her an uncertain smile and stepped out of the doorway so she could come in. "Kids in bed?" Scully asked her, trying not to sound hopeful.

"Of course."

"Right." She put her purse on a table by the front door. Trying on a smile, she turned to her mother. "Thanks so much for watching them tonight."

Scully could almost see that her mother's instinct was to say 'of course' again, but instead Maggie said "They were unusually well-behaved. Even our waitress remarked on it." Her mother sighed. "But I think that they sensed that I was worried about you."

"About me?" Scully repeated quizzically. What had her mother thought would go wrong? She hadn't gotten very much into what was wrong with Mulder, so it was hard to believe she'd think of him as some sort of threat.

"For you," her mother amended. "Can you talk about how things went tonight?"

"Oh." For the first time Scully found herself wondering if her mother had been expecting her to come home before morning. Now she began to think not. "I guess so."

Before she did anything else, she went to the fridge and got two sodas. She would have preferred wine, but her mother would be driving home sooner than later.

Maggie accepted one of the bottles from her with a slight nod. "I'm guessing that it wasn't the reunion you'd dreamed of for the past three years."

Sipping her own drink, Scully smiled wanly. "It didn't live up to my fantasies. But it could have gone much worse, I guess. Believe me, I imagined that too." Especially today, she added silently. Especially since finding out where he'd been since he'd gotten back.

She only remembered that she hadn't explained that Mulder had been in a psych hospital when her mother patted her hand and said, "I think we all imagined him being found someday."

It was only the echo of sorrow in her mother's eyes that gave clue to that vague wording. "Dead, you mean?" she asked, assuming that's why she'd used the word found instead of returned.

"Yes, Dana. But I suppose even that would have been better than never having the chance to give him a decent burial. I'm so glad it never came to that."

Scully thought about what she'd really meant by "gone much worse," imagining Mulder too damaged to talk to, flinching away from her touch like she might harm him too, uncertain if she should tell her mother about it. In the end she decided to; her mother had wanted her to talk, so it was stupid to think she might not be prepared to handle the truth. If she herself was a strong woman surely she'd gotten some of that from her parents.

So, she steeled her nerves and said, "I told you he'd mostly been in the hospital since he got back."

Maggie looked concerned and stopped her to ask, "How bad were his injuries?"

Scully shook her head and her mother looked confused. "He wasn't hospitalized for injuries."

"Then why..." After a moment her mother trailed off. If she'd suddenly been slapped across the face she probably wouldn't have looked more surprised. "Oh."

"PTSD," Scully said, wondering for half a second if she should explain the acronym. But of course she didn't need to, she should have realized that her mother was far too well read to need her to do that.

"How bad?"

"Honestly, I'm not sure. Bad enough that he thought in-patient help was a good idea."

Maggie nodded thoughtfully. "My great-uncle George had it. From the first great war. People called in shell shocked back then, but I think it was much the same. He was still greatly affected by it even decades later."

"I didn't know that," Scully admitted, all at once wondering what other skeletons in the family closet she and her siblings had been sheltered from.

"No, you wouldn't have. My family didn't feel that mental illness was something polite people spoke about. If Uncle George could have hid his problems better, I suppose none of us children would ever had been told about it ourselves."

"Oh." Scully thought that Mulder masked his own issues reasonably well. It wouldn't occur to her just how well until her mother continued.

Giving her a rather grim smile, Maggie told her, "When we found out, it turned out to be on a Thanksgiving that none of us would ever forget."

"How so?"

"Well, it was the Thanksgiving when I was nine. Things had been going pretty well all morning and into noon, and everyone was seated with the food on the table. I was a little annoyed to still be at the kids' table but trying to console myself that my brother was too and he was two years older. We were playing a word game with our cousins and two of George's brothers were talking about the football game when it happened. A car backfired outside. That was just a little thing, usually, but not this time..." Maggie looked off in the distance. "Uncle George just freaked out. He jumped out of his seat and ran over to us kids. Before anyone could stop him, he up-ended our table and dragged all four of us behind it."

"Jesus, Mom. That sounds terrifying."

"Honestly, it was. Our plates went flying when he knocked the table over, and we had no idea what was going on, so we just crouched behind the table with Uncle George, kneeling in potatoes and cranberry sauce, hoping desperately that whatever bad men had upset him would go away instead of hurt anyone. Poor George was so upset that he practically foamed at the mouth as he spoke faster than an auctioneer. Pretty much the only thing that through was that he thought we were under attack. Naturally I thought he must mean the Germans."

"That makes sense..." Scully found herself thinking vaguely that in her mother's place, she of course would figure it was the Russians finally adding some heat to the cold war.

"Eventually our other uncles dragged him off for a nap. I now suspect that someone gave him a sedative but it wasn't the sort of thing a child knew about then."

Scully hoped that there weren't too many children who knew about them now. "What did the adults tell you about what had happened?" she asked, unable to believe that even during her mother's childhood something like that would have passed without an attempt at explanation or excuse.

"That he was over-tired and hearing the noise outside reminded him of the war," Maggie said simply. "We accepted that at face value and helped clean up. Fortunately my grandmother always made too much food so we got to eat not long afterwards."

When her mother gave her an expectant look, Scully finally realized what the point of telling this story had been. "I don't think we need to worry about Mulder ruining a dinner," she said at last.

Maggie relaxed a little. "Good. Then I won't worry about him being around the kids."

"Oh, I don't think that will be a problem. At least not at first," Scully told her. When this earned her an odd look, she felt compelled to explain. "I don't think he's up to meeting them, at least not yet."

"And you don't want to push him," he mother suggested.

"I don't," she said, feeling understood for a change. It was a nice feeling. "I do want him to get to know them, but only when he's ready to."

"That's understandable," Maggie agreed. But then her expression took on a different cast. "Dana, have you ever considered having his DNA tested against the kids'?"

Swallowing hard, Scully struggled to say, "Of course. Ever since I began to wonder if Grace could have been one of the embryos that I had made from my recovered ova, and as for Tommy, when I thought about how many times over the years that Mulder had also been unconscious or insensible over the years while in the clutches of our enemies, who have proven themselves to have no problem with stealing genetic material for their own nefarious purposes... I gave it a great deal of thought."

"Then why-"

"I've actually had those tests done recently, against hair samples from Mulder's brush," she admitted.

"And??" her mother asked eagerly.

It surprised Scully that her mother hadn't noticed her expression, which had to be as conflicted as she felt on the inside. Once she explained the results, most of the eagerness fell from her mother's face. Scully supposed she didn't blame her.

"You're going to have to tell him," Maggie scolded her gently.

"I know. But I want to wait for him to be ready to hear it all too."

"I don't know if you can wait that long," her mother startled her by saying. The shock must have been clearer on her face than before because Maggie grimaced. "Even without PTSD I can't imagine anyone being ready for news like that, ever. There's not going to be a right time, and you can't let him get too close to them without him knowing the truth."

"I know, Mom, I know."

It startled her slightly when Maggie put her hand over hers. "Dana... any time you need me to look after the kids while you try to reestablish your friendship, your relationship-" she added hesitantly, and seemed relieved when her daughter nodded. "-with Fox, just let me know. I know it's not going to be easy, so please let me help do what I can to make it less difficult."

In response Scully threw her arms around her mother's neck and hugged her tightly, the way she had as a little girl. "Thank you."

Her mother's smile was genuine. "I like Fox too, you know. He deserves to be happy again, and I'd like think you'll have a hand in that."

"God, I hope so."

When her mother left a short time later, Scully found herself curling up on the couch to think. It was late and she really ought to have gone to bed, but her mind was too busy. Mostly it was concentrating on maybes, reasonable yet hopeful maybes, and the thoughts felt worth feeling tired in the morning.


The next morning Mulder woke up with a sneeze and a vague suspicion that the sunlight pouring in through the windows was the cause of that. Even if it was, he didn't really mind. Far better than three years of dark, without the rise and setting of the sun outside the walls of his cell to help him keep track of the time. No, it was nice to have the light in the room, which is probably why he didn't plan on bothering with curtains. Of course, if Scully spent the night sometime and protested, he'd let her buy a window treatment...

Thinking of Scully had him sitting up in his bed, though not because he was alarmed. The night before hadn't gone perfectly, but it had been good enough. It was obvious now that things would take time to return to normal, but Scully had been able to see him for who he currently was, and hadn't turned her back on him. In the light of day, with the anxiety of that first reunion past him, he found himself feeling a little foolish for thinking that she might reject him out of hand. Skinner had said that she'd changed, but it was clear that those changes had been superficial, or at least not related to who she was at her core. And maybe motherhood had made her more understanding, more compassionate, not less.

After three years of captivity, Mulder's capacity for hope had been severely depleted. It hadn't been completely extinguished, which is probably the only thing that had kept him from provoking his captors into killing him to get his suffering over with, but it had become something that felt very remote to him. It had still existed in him, but he no longer felt a deep and meaningful connection to it, and it was more like a residual part of him, much like the appendix he'd had removed when he was fifteen.

But now hope was beginning to feel like it was within his grasp again. It'd take some straining to reach it, but it no longer seemed an abstract concept that he held onto because he was the sort of person who did that.

As he walked by his new computer, he noted that he had an e-mail. It wasn't from Scully like he'd hoped, but it was from a friend so he smiled anyway. Skinner's message was short, just a single question. "How did meeting up with Scully go last night?"

His response was even shorter. "Pretty good."

Feeling happier than he anticipated, Mulder got dressed in a long sleeve jersey and jeans, and combed his hair before he left for his first day at the animal shelter. He'd been dreading it the day before, but suddenly he felt a lot better about beginning his stint there.


That morning was a pretty typical one for Scully, but the kids assured that. Grace waking up grumpy was a great reality check and she found herself falling into their normal routines instead of indulging in micro-analyzing every word that Mulder had spoken the night before. And when Grace managed to knock over a lamp and shatter the base into a dozen shards that needed to be cleaned up before either child could cut themselves, she didn't have a spare thought for anything else.

At least until Tommy looked up from his pancakes and asked, "How's your friend?"

"The one I visited last night?"

"Yeah."

"Pretty good," she told him and to her surprise it didn't feel like she was sugarcoating it.

"That's good. Nicky came back to school yesterday day," he said apparently apropos of nothing, but she'd gotten used to how kids thought over the past couple of years, so she just went with it. "He said it was the flu but Elle said that her mom said that you don't throw up or haft to poop a lot when you get the flu, and her mother is a nurse so is that true?"

"Most of the time, but some people throw up whenever they get sick."

"Oh." He ate the rest of one of those last two pancakes on his plate before asking, "Does he not wanna meet people soon?"

"Nicky?" she asked blankly.

"Your friend."

"Oh, I don't know yet. I'll let you know when I do, okay?"

Tommy gave her a trusting smile that said that he believed that she would keep her promise. "Okay."

"Booberry please," Grace interrupted, giving her mother an expectant look. The toddler had refused syrup earlier, but had apparently changed her mind halfway through her breakfast.

Scully frown, eyes cutting to the shelf where the blueberry syrup normally would be. "I'm sorry, Grace, we don't have any right now. We'll have to buy some the next time we go to the grocery store. We have strawberry, though."

That said, Scully braced herself for a tantrum, but Grace surprised her. "O-kay. Strawberry please."

Her frown turned into a smile as she poured the pink liquid over what remained of Grace's pancakes. It was beginning to seem like the terrible twos were almost over, and it was a relief. At the moment, though, it could be confusing to see her little one alternate between tantrums and unexpected bouts of reasonableness. On a whole, Scully thought she preferred the confusion to weathering constant storms.


When Mulder pictured an animal shelter, all he could think of was of squat cinderblock buildings crouching on the edge of town, like it had been exiled there because no one wanted to be near a place that regularly was the site of death for healthy but unwanted animals. This image was so strong in his imagination that he found himself checking the address twice when he pulled into the parking lot.

Instead of cinder blocks, the building was white, and large windows framed the glass double door. It looked a lot like the vet's office he'd once given Scully a ride to when she'd been stricken by the dual disasters of car trouble and a sick dog in the same week. It was cheerful enough, but he thought it was just putting on a good facade.

A small bell over the door sounded when he pulled open a door along the side of the building. He'd been told not to come through the front door because the volunteers had their own entrance. It made him wish he'd ignored the edict for a moment and allowed himself to be momentarily fawned over as a potential pet owner. Having someone make a fuss over him without knowing all that he'd been through might be pleasant.

As he'd walked by the front of the building he'd seen ivory-colored carpeting through the windows, but the door he opened led to a hallway clad in tile. That was probably practical, given how many animals probably had been ushered down that corridor over the years.

The pungent smell of disinfectant couldn't fully mask the earthier scents of many dogs and cats sharing the same space. A faint but still detectable scent of urine made him think of fear, and considering that it was a traditional shelter, not a no-kill one he supposed that it was justified.

"Fox?" a voice asked, startling him. Even after his time at the hospital, it still felt wrong for people to use his first name. Still, he fought down the urge to insist that the speaker call him Mulder. This place wasn't his final destination, so what did it matter if way-station people used a name that he never really took ownership of?

Turning, he pasted the best semblance of a smile onto his face; he wasn't eager to be there but he knew how to keep his expression from betraying that. "That's me."

The woman looking back at him was middle-aged, with dark curly hair and a kind expression. He thought he must have taken her away from a task because she was wearing a scrub top decorated with cartoon ferrets, and disposable gloves. Her own appraisal of him seemed less clinical in nature, sizing him up in a way that had made him uncomfortable the way it had ever since he'd begun noticing women do it when he was sixteen, before smiling. "It's so nice to meet you."

"Likewise," he said, although so far his own opinion of her wasn't high.

She almost held out a hand for him to shake, but seemed to remember that she was wearing gloves and thought better of it. "I'm Janice," she settled on, letting the hand drop back to her side. He noted that she was careful not to touch her pants, which made him gladder that she hadn't wanted to shake hands. That she was clearly a bit uncomfortable herself made him like her a little more.

"So, Fox," she began, leading his away from the door. "Do you consider yourself more of a cat person or a dog person?"

"Cat," he answered, firmly and impulsively.

"Oh. I thought you'd say dog."

"Because a fox is a canine?" he asked evenly.

Janice laughed in an embarrassed way. "Honestly, that hadn't occurred to me. I was more thinking that men tend to prefer dogs."

"Ah. Well, I like cats because they're better at taking care of themselves. It's hard not to respect that."

"Sure. I take it you'd rather work with cats, then."

"Not if I have a choice, no," he told her.

Janice looked confused, and he supposed that it was understandable. He didn't tell her that it'd be harder to see the cats go, though. It didn't really bother him if she thought that he was being difficult. "Dogs it is, then," she said.

"Right."

As they walked down the hallway, they did pass the cats, though. The small cages stacked one on top of another were bigger than he would have predicted, but they were awfully small if they were the whole of where you could roam. It made him think uncomfortably of his own captivity, and he hurried after Janice rather than allow himself to fall down that rabbit hole of thought for long.

The section of the shelter that held dogs was easy to find because he could hear barks long before they reached the swinging doors that would let them into the area. It wasn't a particularly distressed barking, though, which is probably why he was calm himself as they walked in. Instead the barking was demanding, as though each of the dogs vocalizing was determined to get the attention of anyone he or she could.

Mulder hadn't been able to get more than a vague impression of fur before Janice turned to him while they were still crowding the doorway and asked, "Do you think you're up to walking some dogs?"

"Uh, sure," he replied. His eyes followed hers, not to the dogs in question but to peg hooks that leashes of various dark colors hung from. Somehow he'd expected brighter colors, but the colors were somber, navy blue and dark reds and purples.

Janice looked pleased. "Well, good. We've got a family coming in this afternoon who wants to see how their kids do with adult dogs, and it's probably better if they get to go out and stretch their legs before the visitors arrive. They'll be less excitable."

That made sense to him, he could imagine a cooped up dog being so thrilled to be out of its cage that it knocked a kid over. Not the sort of impression you wanted to make if you were hoping to go home with the small humans.

"Pick a leash," Janice instructed, and he reached for one of the red ones. It felt study in his hands, but he couldn't imagine why he cared about that. "Good. There's a path out back to walk them on. If they... go, don't worry about it. There's someone who picks up after them coming in later."

It was hard for him not to smile. And here he expected to get a shit job for being new, possibly literally, and it was someone who'd been there longer's task. Idly, he wondered if it was someone who had a very poor sense of smell and didn't really mind it. "Gotcha."

To his faint surprise, Janice reached into a drawer in a cart behind her, and pulled something out before handing it to him. Looking down, he noted that it was an energy bar. "These guys could use the exercise, but you don't look like you can afford the calories."

When he said nothing, she smiled thinly. "Humor me."

"Yeah, okay," he agreed and stuffed it in his pocket.

"We get sent cases of the things anyway," Janice offered. "Someone wrote a grant once, thinking from the name it was dog food, but no, it's people food. We tried to get them to send it to someone who'd make better use of it, but they seem to like us and keep on sending them anyway."

He hoped that her tale was one with a grain of truth to it, and not just a cover story because she was trying to be nice about what she saw was an obvious need to help him out. The phrase 'heroin chic' hadn't meant much to him until lately when strangers began to size him up, looking for an obvious reason for his slightness. When he noticed that their eyes lingered on his arms in the hospital, he unconsciously had begun to dress in a manner that exposed his arms, wearing a fleece vest instead of a sweater, so people could see for themselves that his arms weren't marred by track marks.

Toying the leash, he finally asked, "Who's first?" and looked over at the dogs in the next room. Unlike the cats, the dogs' cages were all on the floor, and he couldn't help but remember an insane man in a jail cell with similar bars yelling "what's so special about you?"

Inside the cages, though, these jailees were giving him far friendlier looks. No one was barking, and a couple of them actually wagged their tails when they noticed the leash in his hand; they didn't have to know him yet to understand what his purpose was.

"I think this guy, actually," Janice said, bending down and unlatching a cage. The black and white dog inside, one he figured for a mix of border collie and some sort of spaniel, surged forward, but Janice deftly caught him by the collar with one hand, and reached for the leash with the other.

The dog was so excited, it vibrated. But he didn't run the second the leash was in his hand like Mulder expected. "What's his name?" Mulder asked, holding out one hand for the dog to sniff.

"Wrigley."

Mulder reached down and rubbed between the dog's ears. "Rough luck, guy. Named after the Cubs."

"Yankees fan?" Janice asked, obviously amused.

"Sure."

She shrugged. "I guess nobody's perfect."

This had him grinning unexpectedly, even though it was "his" team that was now getting ragged on. "Lead on," he requested when Wrigley seemed ready to wriggle out of his skin. No wonder his previous owner had settled on that moniker.

Walking the dogs, Ace and Boomer and Jacques and Belle after Wrigley, turned out to be a soothing, mindless activity. It was nice to just be in the moment, waiting while the dogs stopped to smell the flowers and just about everything else. The sun was shining hard enough for him to feel it warmly on his shoulder blades, and it reminded him of being a kid and helping Samantha pick strawberries in their grandmother's raised strawberry bed.

Mulder was so relaxed that he barely noticed the time passed until Janice came out to find him while he and Belle were heading back. "So, how was your first day?"

"Not bad," he told her. "Not bad at all."

"So you'll come back?" she asked, and he heard a note of hesitation to her tone.

"Of course." He didn't add that it was an agreement he'd made to make the best of being in recovery, and he'd no more break that one than the one to see a therapist out-patient.

Janice frowned a little. "You might be surprised how many people come for a day and find reasons never to come back."

"I suppose all systems with volunteers experience significant attrition," he offered. "Something about doing a thing for free can make it feel like less of an obligation to many people."

"Maybe that's it," she said, and he gave her a questioning look. "I always assumed it was because we can't find a home for every animal, no matter how hard we try to."

"Oh."

"Well, see you tomorrow," she said, voice full of put-on cheer.

"See you then."

"You'll get lunch now, right?" Janice asked, stopping him.

Thinking a moment, he wondered if he'd taken her earlier, appraising look the wrong way. Maybe she'd just been sizing him up to try and determine if he'd completely waste away on her and make accepting him as a part-time volunteer pointless.

"Sure thing," he told her, even though it was only eleven. Maybe getting lunch out of the way early would be nice though. It'd leave him more room for ice cream in the afternoon, which had been one of the therapist's 'it's probably not the healthiest way to regain weight but... ' suggestions before he'd left. Sometimes he wondered if he'd been starved long enough to shrink his stomach, because a lack of hearty appetite was probably the biggest hindrance to his progress. Physical progress, anyway.


Quantico
Meanwhile

The bells on campus began to chime, signaling that it was now noon. Feeling unwisely impatient, Scully couldn't shake the impulse to call Mulder and see how he was. She really hadn't wanted to leave him alone the night before, and leaving him alone had left her feeling uneasy ever since she'd driven away. He hadn't seemed so depressed that she was really concerned that he'd do something to harm himself but still...

It felt strange to use autodial to call Mulder's number again after three years but also nice. In the past she'd occasionally found herself calling his old number before going to bed, especially right at the beginning, because she'd been terrified that he'd come back in the middle of the night, disoriented and panicky and needing a familiar voice to cling to. After long enough time passed this concern faded. Maybe because the longer they were apart the less it felt like he would need her; after all, if he managed to get through his ordeal without her, he could survive the aftermath too.

"Hello?" his cautious voice answered on the second ring. She would have preferred it if he'd said "Mulder" like he always used to. That he didn't was just another reminder of all that had changed without his consent.

"Hi, Mulder. How are you?" she asked trying to sound as positive as possible.

"I can't complain," he told her even though they both knew that there was plenty that he could kvetch about.

"It was really nice to see you last night," she offered.

'You too," he replied and she was reassured by the unfeigned sincerity in his tone.

"I told my mom about you coming back," Scully said without planning to.

"And how did she take the news about me turning up again like a bad penny?"

She could tell that the question was meant as a joke, but she knew him far too well not to have also have detected the vulnerable undercurrent of uncertainty to it too. Mulder tended to get along well with her mother, but she knew that there had been conversations between them while she was on life support that neither was ever willing to divulge the contents of. As a result they'd had pleasant, careful conversations since then.

"She's happy to hear that you're back," Scully explained, hoping that he would understand it was the truth. "And of all the people who knew about your disappearance, over the years she was one of the few that agreed with my assertions that you'd eventually come back without humoring me."

"Oh."

Although that one word seemed glad, she knew that she was losing him as her line of thought derailed. "What I'm getting at is that she's also happy for us, and the fact that we get an opportunity to reconnect. She says she's willing to babysit so we can-" Scully paused, wracking her brain for a word choice that wouldn't sound too juvenile or perfunctory. "-reestablish our relationship."

"Without the kids," he replied, and it bothered her that he sounded somewhat hurt. Apparently he had made the automatic assumption that she'd want to keep him from the kids for some reason.

"Well," she said lightly. "At first. As soon as you're up to getting the unwavering attention of two little people who have no compulsions against climbing all over people they've just met, let me know."

"Human jungle gym," he said and sounded amused. "That would definitely be a new role for me."

Unbidden, the thought that if Samantha had lived he might be an uncle by now rose in Scully's mind, and it fought back when she tried to push it away. Of all the what ifs she thought about when it came to thinking about how Mulder's life might have been different, the loss of his sister was always the most tragic to her. It took her a long time to realize that this was because she felt guilty. She'd done nothing to the girl, of course, but if Samantha hadn't been lost to the Mulder family the way she had been, would she and Mulder have even met?

"I think you'd be a natural," she told him, smirking a little to herself as she imagined the kids hanging off his arms.

"Thanks."

Scully hesitated for a moment, feeling oddly shy. "Do you think you're up for a movie this weekend?"

"What did you have in mind?" he asked, sounding interested.

"There's this new Jonny Depp movie, about pirates."

"Really? What is it called?"

"Pirates of the Caribbean."

"What, like the ride at Disney?" he sounded amused.

"I heard that the movie is based on the ride." She held her breath, waiting for him to make fun of the idea.

"Oh, we've got to see this," Mulder surprised her by enthusing. "I can't imagine how Ed Wood a movie based on an amusement park ride would be."

"Is that a good or a bad thing?"

"Bad. But probably bad enough to be entertaining. When were you thinking of going?"

"Friday night?"

"Okay, sounds good. Could you pick me up?" Mulder asked hesitantly. "I haven't had time to look into buying a car yet."

She winced, thinking about how terrible the car buying process usually was. He'd already been through so much, so it seemed really unfair that he'd have to be subjected to more torture just to get a vehicle. It made her wonder if there was a kinder, gentler car dealership somewhere that might be friendly to people with PTSD like there were dentists who specialized in the dental-care phobic. Probably not.

"Of course," she told him once she realized that it had been too long since she'd spoken. "Would you rather we eat before or after the movie?"

"After," he said immediately, and that had her worrying that he only thought that'd be best because he was afraid that they'd run out of things to say to each other.

"Okay."

"Good, that way we won't need to rush through dinner," he told her. "I'm not a speedy eater these days."

She smiled to herself, glad for once that he couldn't see her face. Tommy had taught her the first few months she had him how to cope with someone who takes a horribly long time to eat. Had it been Grace she wouldn't have been able to resist the impulse to take away her silverware and feed her, but she couldn't do that to a three-year-old so she just had to wait as he slowly ate his side dishes and slowly ate the main course, and slowly picked at dessert.

"That's not a problem," she began to say, but then became aware that she could hear people talking wherever Mulder was. It seemed unlikely that he'd host a gathering at his apartment, so she gave into the impulse to ask, "Mulder, where are you?"

"Dennys."

"Dennys?" she asked, amused.

"It's near the shelter. I was ordered to get lunch on my way home."

"Ordered?"

"Well, let's say she made a strong suggestion."

"She? You're taking directives from a strange woman, now?" Scully hoped he'd take that in its intended spirit: playfulness, not jealousy.

His only response was to snort.

"You better not."

"Yes ma'am."

Scully opened a webpage for movie listings and quickly checked the times for Pirates of the Caribbean. It had to be as popular as she'd heard because there were several times to choose from. She settled on an earlier one, given they were eating afterwards and she didn't know if either of them had the stamina for a late night out. "I'll pick you up at five-thirty on Friday, okay?" she asked.

"I'll be ready," he promised.

"Bye."

"Bye."

He sounded cheerful as she hung up on him, but she had a pang of regret, wondering if she should have said "Bye, love you" instead. There will be plenty of time for that later, she scolded herself, so don't say it too soon. Still, they'd known each other so long in addition to their long separation that 'too soon' was an altogether nebulous concept she hoped to understand sooner than later.


Friday Night

On the drive to Mulder's, Scully felt a sort of nervous excitement that she hadn't experienced much as an adult. She had keen memories of similar nauseous giddiness on the night of her junior prom, but she'd thought she'd outgrown being that excited to see a boy. It was kind of comforting in a way to revisit it, although it was now a man she was thrilled to pick up, not a groping teenage boy. As she walked up to his apartment she told herself to stop thinking about prom. That night had ended a lot worse than it had begun, and she didn't have Missy to help her do a post-modem, so it would just have to go well.

When he opened the door, Mulder's blue button down shirt was immaculate, and his hair neatly combed. Scully offered him a half-smile and wondered why she had expected him to be... more disheveled. He hadn't looked like a vagabond the first night she'd seen him, but somehow she'd expected him to look more casual.

It was only as he closed his door behind him that she began to wonder if it was because it was the same sort of shirt he'd worn while trying to make a good impression on local law enforcement back during their cases out of town. Then she'd been privately amused that he made an effort with his suits and ties when it was too clear from his attitude that he often didn't care about stepping on the toes of bristly cops who found their presence imposing. Still, he'd always looked the part of someone there to offer respect to them.

"Thanks for picking me up," Mulder told her, apparently unfazed that she'd sunk into her thoughts.

"Oh." She blinked. "No problem. I cleaned up, but I can't promise you won't find a desiccated mandarin orange slice somewhere under the seats."

"Mummified oranges, got it. Who eats those? In a non-mummified state, I mean," Mulder asked easily, not having to force himself to sound interested. They walked to her car and she was glad that there wasn't an offending citrus fruit in sight as they got in. If there was any, it was deeper under the seats than she could reach, and she thought it was probably better not to give too much thought to what was being colonized under there.

Scully gave a half shrug as she pulled on her seatbelt. "They both do. But I think Tommy does more to please Grace than anything else."

"It pleases her to bully her brother into eating oranges?" He raised an eyebrow.

"Well, I wouldn't exactly call it bullying, but if they both claim to like them, the odds of me buying them are better." No one was coming, so she pulled onto the street with ease. Maybe it was her lucky night after all.

"Ah. When I was a kid I could have used an ally like that on the breakfast cereal front. But my sister liked what she liked."

Trying not to show any surprise that he was talking about Samantha, she asked, "Did you always given in on what cereal you got, then?" Samantha was something he'd stopped talking about in the months before he went missing, so she wondered what had prompted the lost girl to be on his mind again. Apparently she wasn't the only one who was getting reminded of the past.

"Nah, not always." He looked away. "I insisted we get the kinds I liked sometimes too. But I did usually manage to get talked out of the prize."

"Sometimes I wish they still did that," Scully said wistfully, thinking of Bill and Charlie's elaborate negotiations surrounding plastic trinkets that they both desperately wanted. Once in a while she or Missy would wade into the fray too, but most of her cereal prize memories were about her brothers.

"Did what?" Mulder asked, obviously not reading her mind. It made her think back to the brief period when he could before his disappeared. The memory made her shiver despite it being hot and humid out. It had been such a terrible time: who knew then that in a few months thing would get even worse?

"Offer prizes in cereal boxes," she said, wrenching her mind away from thinking of the time prior to Mulder's final days pre-abduction. "I guess that's one less thing for modern kids to fight over, though. Still, there was something neat about them back when we were kids."

"Oh. I had noticed that they're less common than they used to be," Mulder commented. "The boxes got smaller, they stopped putting toys in them, but the prices stay the same."

"Uh huh." The phenomena had been going on for a lot longer than three years, so she supposed that this wasn't yet another thing to jar him after a three year absence from the world of consumerism. "Bill calls it the grocery store shrink ray. Sometimes I worry that he really thinks that there's some sort of rampant conspiracy to trick people into thinking that they're still getting their money's worth."

"Oh, Scully, there is," he joked. Mulder glanced out the window as houses whizzed by them. "Where's the movie theater?"

"Rialto drive," she said automatically, then noticed that he looked confused. Of course he did, there was no reason why he'd know where that was. "Um... it didn't exist until last year."

"The theater?"

"Or the street. The theater's actually a Loews, but I guess they wanted to name the street after a historical theater."

"Marketing," he said, and she noticed that he rolled his eyes just as she focused on traffic. "Everyone wants to cash in on our memories."

"Well," Scully said lightly, "I guess it's a good thing that this movie is a fantasy."

"You don't believe in pirates?" Mulder asked, his tone infused with mock-surprise. "I knew you didn't believe in big foot, but pirates too?"

Once he might have said 'aliens,' she noted with a pang. There was no doubt in either of their minds about the existence of aliens now, though... "Not in ones as good looking as Jonny Depp," she said with a smirk. "He's not nearly dirty enough in the trailer, either."

"Hollywood always gets that wrong," Mulder remarked. "Allowing actors in historical movies to bathe."

"And looking good after being in a coma," Scully added, thinking of how horrible she'd looked herself after regaining consciousness post-abduction. A frown threatened to take over her features as she guiltily thought about how much longer Mulder had been missing than she had been.

He gave her a slightly odd look, and she forced herself to smile before he could begin to probe why she suddenly looked like she was feeling guilty. "How are we doing on time?"

Mulder glanced at his watch. "Unless the theater's somewhere in Virginia, we should get there with plenty of time to spare." Scully didn't realize that she was smiling until he said, "What?"

Blushing, she admitted, "It's nice to ride in a car for a change with a passenger who can tell time without checking with me that they got it right."

He was still laughing when she parked the car in the lot of the theater.


Cars zipped through the lot, and Scully felt like they were wading through a herd of movie-goers as they made their way to the front of the theater, but the thong scattered to different doors, indicating that many of them knew the layout of the theater better than she did. It would have been nice to strategize like that, but on the other hand she and Mulder weren't really in a hurry.

For a moment they lingered outside, admiring the glass-encased posters for movies that were coming out in the next few months.

"I'm thinking about bringing the kids to that one," she offered when she noticed that his eyes were lingering over a particularly colorful poster.

She'd hoped that he'd say something like "We should make a plan to take them," but instead his reply was, "It looks like it'll be a big hit with the knee-high crowd."

"I guess I'll see," Scully said with a brief smile. "They're still young enough that they like the same sort of movies. I'm not looking forward to when Grace is twelve and wants to see a romantic comedy and Tommy wants to watch things blow up instead."

"That's a long way off," Mulder told her, returning her smile. "My grandmother used to scold us for talk like that, telling us not to borrow trouble."

"Wise words."

"She was pretty smart," Mulder agreed as he grabbed the door. "After you."

Fresh popcorn competed for their attention with the slightly cloying scent of fake butter the second they opened the door to the air conditioned lobby. "Let's get some," Mulder suggested immediately, and she had to stop herself from objecting automatically. She might not need the calories but Mulder certainly could use them.

"Let's get a large to share," she replied, already planning to let him eat the lion's share.

As they got to the counter, Scully expected to pay, but Mulder did before she got the chance to. She eyed him, wondering if he could really afford it. He didn't object when she paid for their tickets, though, but she'd planned to argue that as the asker she should pay if he did protest. But somehow she knew already that she'd have to come up with a reason not to let him pay for both of their tickets the next time.

The half-lit theater was already beginning to fill up with teenagers and younger adults milling around aimlessly as they made their way in, but there were still plenty of seats. Mulder looked at the ones at the back row and pointed up at them saying, "How about there?"

"Sure," Scully told him, even as the doctor in her spoke up to wonder if he was really up for all those stairs. She told it to hush and trust that he knew his limitations as they scaled the stairs. Tommy would have gotten a kick out of the lights built into the stairs, she thought, missing her little ones all of the sudden. Staring at Mulder's back, she wondered if the next weekend would be too soon to introduce him to the kids.

They settled into their seats side by side, and she found herself glad that it was warm out, so there was nothing for them to have to share their seats with other than the tub of popcorn and her purse. When there wasn't much of a crowd people happily threw winter coats into empty seats, but it was beginning to look like this movie was going to be a big hit because a steady stream of people had entered the theater after them.

"Some things never change," she said, and he gave her a quizzical look so she patted the arm rest between them. "You've always liked the back row."

"It's got the best view," Mulder told her. "And I don't have to worry about blocking the view of someone short behind me."

"That's very considerate to us short people," she teased him and he began to blush. "We appreciate your thoughts regarding an optimal viewing experience for us."

"Eat some popcorn," he mumbled, but he was smiling as he said it.


Three years had been long enough for Scully to forget the simple pleasures of going to a movie with another adult, especially one she was interested in. Several people had tried to set her up with other men during Mulder's absence, but she hadn't done anything more than go to coffee with any of the nice, unassuming guys that people inflicted her upon. Eventually everyone had given up on the idea that she would find happiness with any of the men they selected for her, realizing that she was only politely going through the motions, not looking for a real connection.

It surprised Scully a little that her mother and brothers hadn't been amongst those desperate to help her find a replacement for Mulder. Tara and other women that Scully knew thought that she must be lonely, or maybe they simply underestimated her conviction that Mulder would be back, and doggedly tried to set her up for the first year and a half after Mulder disappeared. After she got custody of the kids they seemed more determined for a while, but Scully had actually found it slightly easier to rebuff would-be suitors once she had the excuse of needing to do something with her children. This frustrated the league of matchmakers who thought that she should be more receptive to finding someone for the sake of the kids who "need a strong male role model" and couldn't understand why she wasn't eager to see things their way. It wasn't necessarily that she thought that Mulder would come back and immediately jump into the role of Daddy, but she had been reluctant to close the door on that possibility if he was interested in it.

And sitting next to him in the theater, enduring previews for movies she didn't have much interest in, she felt glad that she had continued to hope he would not only return but be part of her new life too. A boyfriend would have complicated things immensely, and she couldn't imagine that she would have done anything other than immediately dump the nice man she settled for as soon as Mulder came back, regardless of whether or not Mulder wanted to continue their past romantic relationship. Even if Mulder didn't come back and run right into her arms, it hadn't occurred to her to imagine than he wouldn't take up as much of her life as he had before.

It had taken her a long time to realize that he'd become a bigger part of her life than simply a partner, but by the time she was diagnosed with cancer, it had occurred to her that she had stopped going out with other men she met because she had slowly fallen in love with him. And it had taken her even longer to realize that he felt the same way, and once she did, she got angry at both of them for having wasted the time she might have had with him. That made it harder for her to lean on him when she was sick, but she'd done it anyway because there was no one she wanted to be around more, or trusted to help her without pitying her. Once she got better, the fact they had taken things slowly felt less frustrating again... right up until the day Mulder had been zapped out of her life.

"What are you thinking about?" Mulder leaned over to whisper, and she could feel his breath on her cheek. "This preview isn't that thought provoking."

Scully turned to him and whispered back, "That patience isn't really a virtue."

"It's not?" he asked, sounding curious.

"No." She shook her head. "We lose out when we think we have forever, and things change. We don't know how long we have to enjoy things until they've over." If they had known that Mulder would be gone for three long years, would they have waited so long to get together, she wondered. Somehow she thought not.

"Ah."

Before he could say more, and before she could probe to see if he'd really been able to read between the lines the way she hoped he would, the movie finally started. Looking towards the aisle, she frowned a little. She had been too vague, not direct enough and to the point enough, and that was somewhat ironic considering her serious contemplation about wasting time.

Scully scooped a handful of popcorn out of the bucket on Mulder's lap and thought about been a teenager again. If she'd been in her teens, she would have been disappointed that he wasn't digging into the bucket too so their hands could brush against each other. But she was an adult. She could be more aggressive than that, rather than simply hoping for touching to come by chance, without being too self-conscious about it.

But being an adult also meant thinking through the consequences instead of acting impulsively, and she worried about his readiness for her to act upon her impulses. It almost made her laugh when she thought about different worries keeping her from acting across the span of her life.

When the sailors turned into skeletons abruptly, she jumped. Mulder took her hand, the way he would when they hit turbulence on a long flight, and she felt her heart rate return to normal after that comforting touch. It wasn't a situation with any real danger to it, but it was really nice to know that he still didn't want her to be scared.


Later

"What was your favorite part of the movie?" Mulder asked her shortly after they followed a waiter to their table. The restaurant wasn't far from the theater, which Scully found herself glad of considering that her stomach was contemplating embarrassing her by growling more loudly than it already had been. She'd worried about ruining her appetite with popcorn, but as they sat at the table she wished she'd eaten more of it.

"I liked how Elizabeth was only a damsel in distress by accident," she offered. "It makes me glad that corsets were long out of fashion by the time I was a young woman."

"You're still young," Mulder said a little too quickly and she smirked at him. "Well, relatively speaking. Neither of us are exactly elderly yet, you know."

"Oh, I know," she agreed, even as she thought that she'd seen several older people who were less frail than he was. It should have been reassuring to hear Skinner say that he'd put on weight since the day he'd found him on his porch, but it just worried her that he'd once been even slighter. Still, he could put the weight back on. Maybe she could teach Grace and Tommy how to bake cookies and help him get a jumpstart on that. "I hope we'll both stick around for a few more decades," she added, and reflexively imagined Grace and Tommy as adults, presenting her with grandchildren.

"That's a good plan, let's do that." Mulder worried the edge of his menu as they spoke, and she wondered if he even realized that he didn't know what to do with his hands.

Reaching across the table, she startled him by pushing his menu to the table. From the look on his face he hadn't realized that he was fidgeting after all. "Thanks. But what about you? What was your favorite part of the movie?"

Mulder grinned. "I loved the trick Jack played with the coin." He shook his head, though. "I still can't believe how many people talking on the way out didn't understand what he'd done."

"Too many zombie movies have messed with their minds," she suggested. It had surprised her too how many of their fellow viewers had seemed to believe that Jack Sparrow had been dead all along. Had no one but her and Mulder noticed him grab a coin out of the chest? "One of use should probably trot out 'kids these days'."

"Nah. Some of the people who hadn't paid enough attention were our age."

A waiter interrupted their conversation at that point, and took up most of their attention over the next several minutes. Scully was more than a little glad when he brought their drinks and salads and went to help another table. As much as she tried to tell herself that no one was going to snatch Mulder away from her again, she couldn't help but feel irritable that the mundanities of being served was squandering her time to talk to him.

"So," Scully said as she toyed with her salad as soon as their severer left. "How do you like working at an animal shelter?"

Mulder gave her a self-deprecating smile. "You mean volunteering," he said. "They don't pay me."

"Oh." This gave her pause. She couldn't imagine how he could afford to spend his time doing a job without pay.

As if reading her mind, he offered, "Not spending a penny in three years has let me accumulate a fair amount of interest on the money I got from selling my parents' homes. Knowing I could still pay the bills without a real job is the only reason I agreed to ease back into the real world by doing this."

"You make it sound like you've been on vacation," she scolded mildly. "Your experiences were more real than most of us could cope with."

A shadow crossed his expression. "I think you sell yourself short by including yourself in the group of people who couldn't cope."

"Hmm." Behind them a bus boy accidentally knocked his tray of silverware onto the floor with a jarring crash, and began to swear softly as he bent down to gather it all back up. Then a waiter gave him the evil eye for swearing, so he apologized to everyone who had heard his fit of pique.

Once all that noise died down, Mulder turned back to her instead of continuing to stare at the young man who'd made the mess. "But as for your previous question, I like working at the shelter a fair amount."

Trying to look encouraging, she asked him to elaborate. "What sort of stuff have they been having you do?"

"Oh, you know, walking dogs."

Scully blinked. "I thought you preferred cats." She thought back to the cases they had that involved dogs and cats, and still felt scarred more by the cat experience even knowing that the canine case had put her more into danger.

"I do," Mulder said. "It wasn't just your dog I wasn't so fond of."

"Then... they didn't ask your preference?" Scully asked, thinking that maybe there was a glut of people who wanted to work with cats volunteering there. Somehow she had the impression that the average shelter volunteer was an older woman, and there were enough women who were cat obsessed to give a shine of truth to the crazy cat lady stereotype.

"No, that was actually the first thing they asked me," Mulder told her. Her brow furrowed when she tried to make sense of this, but before she could ask any more questions, he explained, "It's not a no-kill shelter, Scully."

"Oh..." She tried to imagine what it would be like to work with animals that there was a chance she'd see some of them be put down after failing to find a home. "I guess I can understand wanting to work with animals that you're less likely to get attached to. In case... well, you know."

Mulder nodded. "That was exactly my thinking. But so far all the little mutts I've worked with have gone to new homes instead of to the farm in the sky. It'll probably suck the first time I lose a dog to a needle, though. But who knows, maybe I'll luck out and they'll all get homes until I'm no longer the person who is walking them."

"I hope so."

Scully wanted to ask 'how is it other than the Spector of death hanging over the place' but didn't know how that sort of joke would go over. She hadn't failed to notice that he'd flinched when the silverware had hit the floor a couple of minutes earlier, and while he seemed to be doing well, he wasn't entirely better. "What's your favorite part of being there?"

He gave her the oddest little smile. "Other than the prayers I was taught as a little boy, I've never had much room in my heart for spirituality," he started to say, and she wondered where he was going with that non sequitur. "Especially not things like meditation. But I have to admit, there's something very soothing about being semi-alone with your thoughts."

"Semi-alone?"

"Well, I don't know what the dogs are thinking when we take walks, but they're certainly not talking to me about whatever it is," he told her, looking amused. "So it gives me a lot of time to think, but the same time I'm also doing something that has a purpose, which I like."

"I think I get that. I think I would rather spend time doing something like housework to do my thinking than yoga myself." Grace's preschool class had attempted to teach the kids yoga using a video and a semi-skilled instructor, but it hadn't worked out. All of the kids, and maybe especially Grace most of all, had hated it. This hadn't come as a huge surprise to Scully, considering they had tried it the day before using a video from the library and Grace had told her that it was no fun. So Scully hadn't found herself needing to try out any more poses than she and Grace had practiced before the school's one and only attempt to inflict meditative exercise on distractible three-year-olds. "I only tried yoga once, and found that it really wasn't for me."

To her surprise Mulder gave her a wolfish grin. When she asked what he was thinking, he smiled more broadly and said, "Tell me that you at least kept the pants."

"Maybe," she admitted with a blush. "It turns out that they are actually pretty comfortable to sleep in."

He snorted, and picked up his fork to cut a piece off of his steak. "Anyway," he said at last. "I'm enjoying working with the dogs more than I thought I would. I think they may be it's what I need to be doing at this point. I'm not going to stay there long term, and I don't think I will ever even get to the point that they offer me money to work there, but for now, it's good for me."

Scully looked at him through her lashes, thinking, and not wanting to look him directly in the eye. Somehow she had always imagined that the first thing he would do upon his return would be to fight to return to the Hoover building. It was easy to imagine him going on a crusade to not only get his own job back, but to convince her that her place was in the field, with him, helping people directly rather than preparing future FBI agents to serve the communities they would be assigned to.

And she had to admit to herself that it wouldn't have taken much to persuade her to give up her job at Quantico if she could work with him again. Teaching was not something that she enjoyed overly much, although she did seem to have some knack at it. Students probably deserved an instructor who could be enthusiastic, not just proficient.

Hearing that he was content where he was disappointed her a little bit. After spending the past few days imagining handing in her letter of resignation, it was somewhat of a letdown to realize that he wasn't going to immediately try and convince her to leave her boring, stable job behind for him. Which wasn't to say that it might not happen, just not immediately.

And that might be something else that got at the crux of her feelings since learning that he was back: at the back of her mind there was a sense of urgency surrounding everything that had to do with Mulder. As if deep in her heart she believed that things had to be done quickly, or opportunities would be lost. If she spoke to her old therapist again she was sure that the woman would tell her that it was a manifestation of the fear that he would be taken away from her again.

But as they sat there, across from each other eating their steaks, she tried to tell her heart that she didn't have to rush through things and possibly do them poorly, because he wasn't going anywhere. He was back, and there was no good reason to think that he would be pulled out of her life again. If those things wanted him back, they would have taken him by now. After all, it had been several weeks since he had been unceremoniously ousted from their ship. There weren't many clearer signs of their discontinued interest in him than that.

For a moment she imagined that her father was there at the table with them and saying the same thing he told her as a little girl when she rushed through school projects just for the sake of getting them done. "Dana, a thing worth doing is worth doing right." The corner of her mouth lifted in a half smile when she imagined him saying the same thing about reconnecting with Mulder. Her father hadn't actually met Mulder, so it was semi-absurd to imagine that he would approve of him, but still, maybe he might have. Maybe he might have given her the same advice if only he had the chance to. They'd done enough foot-dragging for a lifetime, but rushing through it all wouldn't be better.

"Penny for your thoughts?" Mulder inquired.

"Oh, you know. Your talk about how soothing it is to work with the dogs has had me thinking about taking the time to do things the right way." She had meant it as an offhand remark but he studied her face, as if he was looking for clues to a deeper meaning. It was hard not to look away under such scrutiny, but she was curious about what answers he might find there. Perhaps they would be ones that would surprise her too.


Conversation continued at an easy pace up until the waiter returned to their table with cheese cake they were promised was "to die for," something that Mulder had responded to with a tight smile that had apparently scared the kid off since he hadn't come back to see if they needed anything else. He didn't feel too bad about letting his discomfort about a joke about death show, but he did hope it wouldn't mean they'd sit around forever waiting for the check.

Glancing at Scully, he wondered if he dared bring their conversation beyond the superficial. They were both having a good time and he didn't really want to chance ruining that, but he felt like he had to. What was the point of spending time together if they couldn't deal with the hard questions like they used to?

He took the mental plunge into deeper waters by saying, "When Skinner told me that you had kids the first thing I thought was that you had found somebody else." He sneaked a glance at her, and she looked startled. "He was quick to tell me that it wasn't true."

"Well, he's right," Scully mumbled. Her fork scraped too hard against the plate, making harsh sound.

Gathering up his courage, Mulder pressed on. "Because of me, or because of lack of opportunity?"

He worried for a second that she was going to choke on her bite of cheesecake, but she eventually managed to swallow it without incident. That was good, it had been quite a long time since he had last taken a refresher course on first aid, and his Heimlich maneuver skills were quite rusty. After her near choking incident, she was quiet for several long seconds. Long enough to make him begin to regret his boldness. He thought that they were enjoying each other's company, but he was beginning to become afraid that he had read too much into their interactions thus far.

Looking him directly in the eye, she said, "It wasn't lack of opportunity. I found myself thinking tonight about the poor saps that Tara and other women I knew kept trying to set me up with." He raised an eyebrow, and she added, "I've met a lot of women at Quantico, and now even more through Tommy and Grace, other mothers, preschool teachers."

"Poor saps?" he repeated, because that felt safe to zero in on. Besides, he was more interested in knowing about the men than the women who had put her in touch with them. Quite a lot more interested in them, if he was honest with himself and he was trying to be.

Scully nodded. "For a while I felt guilty that they were taking the time and making an effort, Tara and the others, I mean, so I did end up going on several coffee dates with men they dragooned into spending an hour or so with me. You know, those noncommittal sort of outings that you're supposed to get to know somebody during."

"And did they get to know you?" he asked curiously. It was a morbid curiosity, that was true, but he still wanted to know. He couldn't help but feel faintly jealous that these men had been able to spend time with her while he had been trapped a million miles away.

"No." She seemed to startle herself by laughing, and quickly covered her mouth for a second. "All they learned about me was that I wasn't interested."

"Because they were all... dull and well-meaning?" he guessed. He could imagine the sort of staid men that Tara at least would think would make an ideal partner for Scully, the steady sort who would never dream of going missing on anyone, but he knew Scully better than that. As much as he hadn't liked any of her former suitors that he had ever met, he did recognize that they, and he himself, all had an adventurous streak that she found appealing. If she wasn't an adventurer at heart herself, she wouldn't have been merely objected to some of his more dangerous pursuits during cases, she wouldn't have actually joined in, either. All of her pretenses about things being crazy and how they shouldn't do them were just there to mask how much she enjoyed them too.

"Because they weren't you," she said softly, abruptly yanking him out of his musings. "And I knew that this day would come eventually. I didn't want to waste their time, or my own, not when I knew."

"This day?"

"Or one like it. One where we got to see each other again," she elaborated. "When we could get back to where we'd been before everything happened that tried to pull us apart."

"Oh," he said. "Oh."

She shrugged. "Eventually Tara got the hint and stopped trying to set me up. She might not have understood why I was waiting for you, but at least she respected it."

"Thank you."

"For what?" Scully asked curiously.

"For... waiting? For not letting yourself be convinced that you were wrong about me?" Mulder struggled to put what he meant into words. "For just being you, I guess."

"I don't know who else I could have been," she teased, but he was gratified to see her smile.

The waiter returned with their check then, proving that he hadn't been completely cowed by Mulder's earlier brief bout of ill-humor. He eyed the young man, wondering if his timing was some sort of revenge. From his vapidly expectant look, Mulder decided he wasn't bright enough to plot revenge and it was just a coincidence.


Being in the passenger seat of Scully's car felt a little odd to Mulder as they drove back to his apartment. During their partnership he'd been the one to drive most often, and he didn't have enough practice with being a passenger as an adult to feel comfortable with it. As much as the idea of buying a car filled him with dread, he had to admit that he really needed to grit his teeth and do it. He glanced at Scully as she parked, wondering if he could talk her into going with him once he picked a dealership.

They made their way up to his apartment without a word, but Scully gave him a look like she wanted to say something, so he didn't unlock the door immediately. Instead he waited, giving her time to say what was on her mind.

"This was fun tonight, right?" she eventually asked.

"Sure," he replied with an encouraging smile. Was she going to ask to stay the night?

"I've been thinking..." Scully looked at her feet and his heartbeat sped up a little. "Do you think. Do you think you might like to go with us when I bring the kids to that movie next weekend?"

Blinking, he told his libido to heel and considered her question. "You want me to meet your kids?"

"If you want to," she agreed shyly. "I hope you want to."

"I'd love to," Mulder told her, and he found that he was telling the truth. Her spending the night would have been great, but being let into a new part of her life... that was a really big deal too.

"Great, it's a date," she said happily, but to his disappointment she turned as if to leave.

"What, I don't get a goodbye hug?" he asked with a pout.

Scully turned back to him and got nearer, but when she put her arms around him, it was because she was pulling him close for a kiss. Even though he was surprised, he kissed her back, thinking about how right it felt to do that.

Eventually she pulled away, looking a bit dazed. "Next weekend, right?"

"Right," he agreed, sure that he was smiling like a fool himself.

She almost tripped over her own feet on her way to the stairs, and he grinned to himself, liking the fact that he had that much of an effect on her. Or at least so he assumed given that neither of them had drank anything stronger than mineral water at dinner.

Fifteen minutes after she left, there was a knock on his door. He assumed she'd come back for some reason, but her name died on his lips when he realized it wasn't her. "Oh, hi," he said weakly as he opened the door to his unexpected guest. A guest who pushed right past him as he watched, and walked on into the apartment.


All Mulder could do was shut the door behind him. His unexpected guest definitely did not look like he would be receptive to leaving, even if he was asked nicely. So it came as little surprise when Frohike plopped himself down on the couch, and glared up at him. "When were you planning on telling us you were back?"

Mulder shrugged helplessly. It wasn't as though he didn't want to let the gunmen know that he was back, it was just that he wasn't sure if he could deal with their friendship at the moment. They were great friends, but the idea of having three people over at once felt more than a little overwhelming. Of course, he had agreed to spend time with Scully and her kids next weekend, but two of those people were very small and he knew he could still manage to outrun them if need be.

"Awesome," Frohike said sourly. Apparently a non-answer was not what he was hoping for. "How long have you been back?"

"How did you know I was back?" Mulder countered. And how had Frohike gotten his address?

"Langly hacked your bank account," the irritable man on his couch told him.

"Why?" Mulder asked, eyes wide.

This reminded him that he had never written a will. He should have. Of course, had he been gone for seven years instead of three, he might have had to deal with the awkwardness of trying to get his asserts back from Scully and the gunmen. He would have left her most of his estate considering what he had put her through over the years, but he would have donated generously to the gunmen's editorial efforts as well.

"So we could tell if someone was stealing from you when you were... gone," Frohike said impatiently, as if it was something that anyone would do for a friend who was indisposed for an extended period of time. "We found out that some place called Dolby had grabbed a chunk of your cash and asked your boss about it. He told us it was a hospital." Frohike continued to scowl at him. "When he said you actually had been there and it wasn't some sort of scam, we kind of put it together that you'd risen from the dead without bothering to tell us."

"I didn't exactly rise from the dead," Mulder protested, feeling like it was ridiculous to have to say that. Even as he did he imagined being buried alive, which was arguably worse than what he'd really gone through.

"Uh huh."

"Did Skinner tell you what kind of hospital it was? Or why I was there?" he asked, imagining that Skinner had been very careful not to tell them because he wouldn't have felt it was his place to explain what had prompted Mulder to pursue voluntary commitment.

Frohike forgot to give him a dirty look for a moment. "Actually, no. He was pretty evasive about all of that."

"Because I spent several weeks playing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

"So you're saying you were..." Frohike slowly twirled a finger near his own temple.

"Thanks." He glared at Frohike, who didn't look bothered by that. "I was, I mean I am still even now, suffering from PTSD."

"Oh, well, that's okay," Frohike blurted out. His cheeks finally colored when Mulder stared openly at him. "I'm just saying that's a lot better than coming back thinking you were Napoleon or barking like a seal."

"Right. Because pissing myself in a closet while I hide from the imaginary aliens is so much better than that."

The look the Frohike gave him suggested that he thought Mulder was joking for a second, but then realization slowly dawned on him. "Jesus, man."

"It was a real barrel of laughs when I first came back," Mulder said. He had actually expected Frohike's reaction to be more pitying, or at least filled with more horror, so maybe the fact that Frohike hadn't said more was reassuring. At least he hadn't had to hear a bunch of platitudes about things looking darkest before the dawn, or other such inane things people spout out when confronted with unpleasantries they'd rather not have to acknowledge.

"But you seem okay now," Frohike said, tone somewhat hesitant.

"I'm getting better." Mulder finally sat down, narrowly resisting the urge to grab one of the throw pillows as a shield. "I'm a lot better than I was, but you know... "

Frohike seem to think about this for a moment. "Can you get all the way better?" He paused. "I mean, can anyone? I thought that post-traumatic stress was pretty much permanent."

Mulder sighed. "I might not get all the way better. I might always be what they call 'hyper-vigilant' and always be more startled by things that wouldn't upset other people. Loud noises. Sharp objects. Things that look like aliens," he said, shooting Frohike a look.

It took the other man a moment to catch on to his joke. "So you're saying that piles of laundry in the dark might freak you out?" Frohike asked dryly.

"If they're particularly alien-shaped, they might."

After a moment, Frohike looked at him and gravely said, "I believe that Scully's daughter might be able to recommend a good nightlight for you."

"Maybe she can," Mulder said, glad that the tone of their conversation had lightened a little bit. "I'll think about asking when I meet her."

Frohike looked a little bit surprised. "You haven't met Tommy and Grace yet?"

He shook his head. "Next weekend."

"Oh." Frohike looked around. "But you have seen Scully, right?"

"A couple of times," he acknowledged.

"When?"

"Right after I got out of the hos-" he started to say but Frohike didn't let him get any farther than that.

"You mean that Scully didn't know you were back until after you were out of the hospital, either??"

"I wasn't in the state to see anyone then," Mulder snapped. Frohike's obvious disapproval made him feel defensive all of a sudden. "I didn't want her to see me like that."

For a second Frohike looked like he was going to say something heated, but then he deflated. Looking up at Mulder, he said instead, "I guess I can understand that."

"How magnanimous of you," Mulder said flatly, not really forgiving him yet. He felt like asking Frohike how he would feel if he were in the same position, but he hesitated. Frohike had a legendary lack of luck with the opposite sex, and he couldn't be sure that Frohike wouldn't see such a question as him merely rubbing that in to get back at him.

"You said you saw her a couple of times."

"Right. A few days ago, and tonight."

"Well, I guess that settles it," Frohike said, dropping his hands onto his lap.

Mulder just gave him a baffled look. "What?"

Frohike suddenly smiled. It wasn't wide, or particularly joyful, but it was a smile. "If she can forgive you for not telling her that you were back for several weeks, I guess that I have to too."

There was probably some sort of logic to that, but whatever it was, it was beyond Mulder's current comprehension. "Okay..." Rather than trying to work out the reasoning behind his friend's statement, he decided that it was probably easier just to accept the fact that Frohike seemed to be coming around to the idea of forgiving him for wanting to keep how screwed up he was to himself until he felt a little bit more fit for human companionship.

Frohike gave him a look that was hard to interpret. Mulder canted his head to the side, and asked "what?" somewhat peevishly.

The other man had the good grace to look embarrassed. "So, when you said it was like One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest... Did you have your own personal Nurse Ratched?"

"No," Mulder said, beginning to smile in spite of himself. "The staff was actually very nice. I can't say that I was abused even once all of the weeks I was there."

"And the other people there?" Frohike asked hesitantly. "How were they?"

It didn't take a genius to understand what Frohike was getting at. Countless books and movies set in institutions suggested that Mulder would have encountered some people who were completely out of their minds. Maybe he might have had he been at a facility that wasn't designed for people who were there voluntarily. He was just glad that he hadn't arrived back on Earth so damaged that he would have had to find out. "Most of them were nice. Some of them were sort of standoffish, but I think that I can understand that. It's hard to get close to people when you know that everyone will be coming and going."

"Right..." Frohike mumbled. But then he looked up at him with a wide grin. "And at least you didn't have so much electroshock therapy that your brain got scrambled and a giant Native American had to mercy-kill you."

His instinct was to protest that he hadn't had any electrical shock therapy, and he was pretty sure that the main character in the book had been okay after that sort of treatment and was finally undone by a lobotomy anyway, but he decided to let the joke lie. "At least."

"I guess we should of known," Frohike said apropos nothing.

"You should have known what?" Mulder asked, confused. They should have known that he would come back with posttraumatic stress disorder? They should have known that he would be in a facility for voluntary commitment? Or that he wouldn't meet a giant who would put him out of his misery with a pillow?

Apparently Frohike meant none of these things. "We should have known that you might come back soon," he clarified.

"Why would you know that?" Was Frohike trying to imply that one of them had been granted psychic powers in his absence? If so, he probably still had a card for Dolby.

His question seemed to startle Frohike, at least his eyes widened as he looked back at him. "You don't know."

"Probably not," Mulder said irritably. "There wasn't a newsfeed on the space ship."

Leaning forward, Frohike said, "You're not the first one back."

"I'm not?" He wasn't sure why, but this surprised him. It shouldn't have, considering how big the ship was and how infrequently he ever saw other human beings, and the fact that he knew that there were multiple ships, but still... Somehow he thought he would know if other people were let go. Maybe Frohike was referencing the corpses that Scully had seen, though it was a bit of a stretch to call those poor unfortunate people 'back.'

"Nah. Scully isn't the only one who was looking for you all of this time. We kept getting leads, over the past eight or nine months, but every time we looked into it further it turned out that it was someone else who had come back. There were a couple of times we almost flew out to Oregon, but got somebody to fax us photos of the person who had come back... "

For a moment Mulder said nothing, picturing the three gunmen packing to go to the airport, hoping that they hadn't wasted money on plane tickets before getting disappointing news. The fact that they'd gone to such an effort was touching, but he knew that Frohike would say something about him being a sap if he tried to tell him that it meant a lot to him.

"We even..." Frohike trailed off.

"You even what?" Mulder demanded to know.

Frohike looked away. "Before anyone came back we even tried to talk to a couple of people who had been on the news saying that they too had been drawn to that spot but had managed to fight the urge to go there themselves."

Mulder couldn't imagine why Frohike was so reluctant to talk about this. Did he not want Mulder to go and bother those people about their experiences? Or did he just worried that Mulder would feel bad that he hadn't been able to resist the impulse the way that they had? It was too late for the latter, he already did. "What did they say?"

It was Frohike's turn to give a helpless shrug. "We never got to talk to them."

He sank back against his chair. That was disappointing. "They wouldn't speak to you."

Frohike slowly shook his head. "We didn't get to speak to them because they're both dead. Suicide." Then he mumbled something that Mulder had difficulty hearing clearly, but seemed to suggest that they had left suicide notes that explained that they just couldn't take 'it' anymore.

That was an unexpected turn of events. Mulder had felt weak-willed when he was first on the ship, beating himself up over having given into the impulse to follow the others to where they had gathered. He had imagined all along that there were other people just as Frohike was describing, but he also imagined that they had gone on with their lives. Now it seemed that those who did have the strength to stay away hadn't fared any better. Worse even. "Oh."

"Yeah..." There was a long pause and then Frohike asked, "So, are you going to go back to the FBI?"

"At this point, I don't know." Mulder glanced at the clock, wondering how long their conversation would go on. It wasn't exactly enjoyable, but at the same time it was nice to see a friend again. "You have to realize that I'm not fit for service at the moment."

"What, the weight you lost? You can gain that back. A few cheesesteaks a week, and you'll be back to fighting weight in a few months. I'll get Langly to throw on his girly little apron and we'll be in business."

It was hard not to roll his eyes when he realized that Frohike had latched onto the wrong meaning of the word fit. "My weight. And..." He pointed at his temple.

This time Frohike seem to understand what he was getting at. "But you've made a lot of strides in just a few weeks," he said, and Mulder suddenly realized that Skinner actually had told them exactly how long he had been in the hospital. "Maybe you'll be ready by New Years," he suggested.

The thought of all he would have to go through in order to prove that he was both physically and psychologically sound enough to return to the Hoover building began to make Mulder's head ache in a not terribly subtle way. It was his goal to eventually return if he could regain access to the X-Files. He wasn't sure that he wanted to be an FBI agent just for the sake of being one if he wasn't going to be able to investigate the type of cases that he felt deserved his attention. At that point he had no idea if he would ever be allowed back, or how much effort it would take to get himself placed back on that sort of detail.

He waved off Frohike statement. "Maybe. But you know it's not up to me."

"Yeah." Frohike sighed loudly. "Those bastards."

Mulder raised an eyebrow in a way that would make Scully proud. "You do realize that they can't just let someone who might have a complete nervous breakdown out into the field. It's a matter of public safety, among other things."

Frohike scowled. "That sounds a lot like you having drank the Kool-Aid yourself."

He crossed his arms and glared at Frohike. "I am not more important than the safety of the people I am supposed to protect. If my behavior is unpredictable enough to put other people in danger, I have no business returning to the FBI. It doesn't matter what I want, if I can't do it anymore."

Frohike's angry look softened. "I know. It just... All of this has been so supremely unfair to you. I mean, damn, all you were doing was trying to keep a couple of people from one of your first cases with Scully safe, and then you get taken away. For three Goddamn years. And now maybe the experience has left you too screwed up to go back to your life's work? That's really f'd up."

"I know." Neither of them said anything for a moment, and then something occurred to him. "So, you went to Skinner and asked him about the money that I paid for my treatment, and he told you I was back. Then he gave you my address?"

"Nah." Frohike stood, apparently almost ready to leave.

"So how did you... Never mind. I really don't even want to know."

Frohike laughed, and then patted him on the shoulder awkwardly. It was only awkward considering the difference in their height. "I'll tell Langly and Byers that you're not quite up to partying with us yet. But keep in touch, okay?"

"Okay." He was somewhat grateful that Frohike had the insight to realize that he wasn't ready for even their equivalence of partying. Hopefully he would get there sooner than later, but at least Frohike wasn't going to be the one pressuring him into situations that he wasn't ready for yet.

"Good man," Frohike said, and let himself out of the apartment.

Mulder stared at the closed door for a moment. Between having a 'first' date with Scully and a confrontation with Frohike, if he really kept a journal like he used to tease Scully about it would definitely be a night to jot down his thoughts about. But he didn't, so instead he locked the front door, and headed to bed.


Monday

It surprised Scully a little how invigorating her date with Mulder had been. Technically it wasn't really their first date, but on the other hand they hadn't had a traditional first date the last time around so this sort of felt like one. Back then, when they'd really kindled their relationship for the first time, they had rented a movie after a case, drank more than was good for them, and had ended up fooling around on his couch. Their outing on Friday had been less spontaneous, and more traditional, but it had felt like the right direction to go in this time.

Her buoyant good mood followed her all the way through the weekend, and even into her first class on Monday morning. Typically she didn't really find much joy in teaching her classes, but on that particular day she was happy to see her students and enjoyed hearing their responses to her questions. Maybe they were having a particularly good day, or maybe she was just in a good enough mood to see their intelligence on full display, but all of their responses seemed well thought out and worth listening to for a change.

The fact that their instructor was unusually engaged in the class did not escape the students' notice. She began to think hard about how she came off in class when she noticed that they seemed wary about her reactions to what they said. It made her wonder just how bad her reputation was for being aloof.

This just made her want to try harder, so as the class finished, she vowed to make herself seem more approachable in the future. To this end Scully followed her students out into the hallway and they looked mildly surprised. "Have a great afternoon, everyone." A few people muttered 'you too, professor Scully' before racing off to their next task for the day.

Unfortunately she didn't realize that professor Hardy was out in the hall too until he smirked at her. She was dimly aware that he brought his pontifications out into the hallway with some regularity and it bothered her a bit to have taken a page from his playbook. Of course, in his case she thought it was either because he was a bore who was reluctant to give up the spotlight, or because he thought that a few more seconds of forced attention on him would lure unsuspecting female students into his slimy clutches.

"I'm sure they'll have wonderful afternoons," Hardy said, and she gave him a suspicious look. There was nothing object able about his words on the surface but with him there was always a good chance of distasteful subtext.

"Hmm," she uttered noncommittally.

But not unhappily enough, apparently. "You're in an awfully good mood," Hardy said, his tone insinuating, making her want to punch him. "What have you been up to?"

The fact that he sounded jealous like he had any right to bothered her, and she finally had enough of him. Turning so quickly that his eyes widened in alarm, she began to fume, "That is none of your business, Professor Hardy."

"Professor-" he protested, but she cut him off before he could work himself up into a proper righteous indignation.

"No," she snapped. "People let you get away with far too much crap when it comes to harassing your female colleagues. You poke and prod and stick your nose where it doesn't belong. You wouldn't do that to another man. You're a misogynous."

"That's a heavy accusation," he said tightly.

"It's not an accusation if it's true." A not-too-small part of her took pleasure in watching him squirm. "You treat women the way you do because it has never crossed your mind that we could possibly be your equals."

"I-"

"I won't presume to speak for any of the other women in this department but I'm done putting up with your nonsense. One more inappropriate question about my personal life instead of a necessary one about our work, and I'm going to the department with a formal complaint."

Finn Hardy looked a little green by this point and he just opened his mouth and closed it without saying anything. Then he hurried away, apparently not thinking about how undignified he looked as he scurried away from a woman he towered over like he was in fear of what she'd do to him. A few people in the hallway had stared at them as they spoke, but they all became engrossed in what they were doing after Hardy ran off.

Staring at his retreating back, Scully thought she should have been ashamed of tearing her colleague a new one publicly but it had been a long time coming. If someone didn't get him to curb his behavior, he'd probably cause some poor woman to be driven to violence. It didn't seem beyond the realm of possibility that some CSI might stand over his body one day, wondering why there was a high heel buried in his neck. Or maybe she was the only one who hated him that much.

"Dana?" a voice asked as the speaker approached her from behind. When she turned around she saw another instructor, Carrie Allens, giving her an odd look. "Are you the reason that Hardy is slinking down the hallway with his tail between his legs?"

"Um... "

Carrie smiled, obviously delighted. "Don't tell me that someone finally smacked him with a rolled up newspaper and I missed it!" Carrie didn't wait for her to reply before going on. "That's so great, maybe other women he bothers will take courage from your example."

Heat rushed to her cheeks. She'd gotten fed up with Finn, not set out to become a hero to any of their coworkers.

"You have to let me buy you a drink. Saturday night around nine?" Carrie suggested eagerly.

It was her instinct to reject the offer but Carrie was obviously sincere. "Could we do that some afternoon, right after work?" she counter-offered.

"Oh sure. I forgot for a minute that you'd have to arrange childcare at night." Scully made a face, thinking that maybe she should admit that she already had plans for the weekend, but her friend misinterpreted the grimace. "Oh, don't worry, I'm not going to tell you that it's especially terrible that Finn hits on you because you're a mom. I always hate hearing that, like being someone's mom makes it unreasonable for a man to find you desirable. Reminds me too much of Lady Macbeth's 'unsex me' speech for comfort."

Rather than even attempt to find the words to respond to this, Scully settled for smiling and shaking her head.

"You think that I've over-thought this given I don't have kids yet," Carrie said, reminding Scully that Carrie was a good ten years younger than her.

"Nope. Very few women really want to be considered sexless."

"Maybe some of the ladies at my childhood church," Carrie suggested but then she frowned. "But then, they all had eight or ten kids so their husbands obviously saw them as bed-worthy at some point."

"Right... "

Carrie grinned. Apparently she wasn't really thinking too much about the sex lives of older women, because she said instead, "What you did, that was just really awesome. I bet that Hardy won't dare to flirt with another uninterested woman for a week."

The fact that Carrie thought he might only be put off for a few days said a lot about the man's reputation. Now that she had time to consider it, maybe she would actually prefer to be thought of as disinterested by students, rather than a letch like Hardy. "Too bad it won't cure him," Scully offered. "I guess what they say about not being able to change a leopard's spots is true."

"Oh, ew." The younger woman made a face.

"What?"

Scully startled when Carrie suddenly clutched her arm. "You said leopard, and all I could imagine is, what if he wears leopard print thongs?"

"Carrie!"

The other instructor laughed unrepentantly. "Hey, you put the thought in my head. I wasn't going to be the only one to suffer with it."

"Thanks."

Carrie actually giggled, and then glanced at her watch before rushing back to her classroom. Scully shook her head and headed back to hers too. Some of the shine had worn off of her good mood, so she would probably alarm the next group of students less.


Mulder got an unexpected request at the beginning of the week, "Would you consider volunteering one night a week?" and after he worried out loud about Fridays without mentioning that he was seeing someone, he was reassured that he could pick whichever day he wished because the night person was that eager for a night off. He settled on Tuesdays.

Whoever he was covering for had in fact been very eager for the night off so he found himself talked into covering the Tuesday that very week. It seemed a bit strange to be arriving at the shelter far later than he typically left, and he was more than a little surprised to find out that the only person at the shelter was on the way out when he got there. The woman, Debbie, only lingered long enough to explain that all the animals had been fed, so he only needed to check on their water supply and give the dogs their final walks of the evening.

The dogs were less hyper than during their day walks, and it made him wonder if they were just sleepy. Once he hung up his leash, Mulder decided to check on the cats next. He could see that all the dogs had water, so he only needed to be concerned with the cats and smaller animals.

Although he had never been inside of the cat room before, he knew where it was. Unlike the dog room, where the lights were dimmed already, someone had left all of the lights on and he could see through the glass door that several of the cats were pacing impatiently. It seemed stupid to dim the lights before he filled the water bottles.

Most of the cats completely ignored him, but one of the cages contained a large gray tiger-striped tom who seemed agitated by his presence. It eyed Mulder warily, flicking back a pair of tattered ears. "Been in a lot of fights, have we?" Mulder asked in what he asked in what he hoped was a soothing tone.

The cat apparently didn't interpret it that way because it responded with a low hiss.

"Well excuse me-" Mulder's eyes flicked towards the name section of the cat's information tag to call him by name, but found that it was blank. "No name, huh?" he asked. "You have had a rough time of things, haven't you?"

Mulder hadn't at the shelter all that long, but long enough to realize that the only reason the cat wouldn't have a name listed would have been because he hadn't been surrendered by people who knew what his name was. That, coupled with his rough appearance suggested that this cat had been living on the streets before coming to the shelter.

He got close to the cage but not close enough to be in reach were the cat to become inclined to stick a paw though the bars to swat at him. "No former home of note, I see. The last place I was wasn't any sort of home, either." He shuddered to admit that even to a cat who couldn't understand him. "Guess we have that in common."

A thrill of paranoia shot though him when the cat calmed down, its ears coming up to listen to him instead of remaining flat against the skull. It's my tone, he told himself, not an indication that he understands me. Wasn't it?

"Idiot," he sighed when he understood that he had seriously entertained the idea of a cat figuring out that he thought that they had something in common. "Of course I'm on this side of the bars now."

That was more startling a thought than it really should be, if his post-hospitalization therapist was to be believed about how well he was doing.

He turned to look for the sink so he could begin filling water bowls, and noticed a sharpie marker sitting on the counter. Impulsively, he picked it up and walked over to the cage that held the gray tiger. He thought about it for a moment, then wrote Dempsey in the blank spot for a name.

To his relief nobody, including the newly christened Dempsey, scratched at him or tried to stage an escape when he opened their cages to get at their bowls. Just after being asked to work with cats too, he had imagined both hands and wrists being scored by a flurry of claws, or being the victim of cats jumping out of cages and rushing out like furry river, leaving him to scramble after them. These ideas had bothered him so much that he contemplated buying a watering can so he could fill the bowls without having to open the doors. This idea had been squelched when he had watched somebody water the cats on Monday, and saw that they also cleaned the bowls before filling them.

"You guys have a good night, okay?" Mulder asked as he reached for the light switch after filling the last bowl. "Since I'm the last human here, and I'm leaving soon, you guys are in charge. Don't tell the dogs."

Even though he knew they could not understand him, and would probably have felt condescended to if they could, he looked over his shoulder to see what their reaction was. Most of the cats had already settled down, but the gray tiger was staring at him, expression unreadable.

Mulder left the room, shaking his head and trying to remember the most direct route to the rooms that held ferrets, bunnies, and rats. At least the three of those all drank from water bottles, so he wouldn't have to worry about a fuzzy mutiny stemming from opening any more doors.


The living room was quiet, with even the volume on the TV turned down. Both kids had gone to bed a couple of hours earlier, and Scully sat with Mulder on her couch. One of his arms was loosely draped around her waist, and she was comfortable leaning against his side.

"Who would have thought?" Mulder whispered into her ear, and she felt his breath on the side of her face like a hot breeze. Her response was merely to squeeze his hand, though it did alarm her a little that his fingers were so thin, like the small branches she'd trim off the live Christmas tree she would buy the weekend after Thanksgiving.

This had her thinking of the holiday, so she turned to ask him if he'd join her and the kids, but a small voice drew her attention away, asking "Mommy?" in an uncertain tone.

When she turned to look towards the doorway, her little daughter peered back at her with an anxious expression. Grace's hair touched the shoulders of her white nightgown, and Scully noticed this with a faint confusion - how had she failed to realize that her hair was getting so long?

"What, sweetie?" Scully asked when her little one continued to stare at her, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth instead of talking.

On the TV a laugh-track roared over a joke Scully hadn't heard. She fumbled for the remote, but it was on Mulder's side of the couch so she left it with him.

Grace frowned. "Why are you sitting with the ghost?"

"What?" Scully asked, beginning to feel alarmed. She turned to Mulder, to see if he saw a ghost with them too, but he just smiled back at her as if all was right with the world. They were alone on the couch. "There's no ghost, Grace."

Instead of looking reassured, Grace seemed to grow more apprehensive. "Yes there is!"

It was growing clear to Scully that trying to talk her out of her fantasy wasn't going to help, so she decided to play along. "Where?"

Grace stepped forward, nearly stumbling as she did so, and extended a finger. There was no denying that she was pointing right at Mulder now. "Mommy, right there!"

"Mulder?" Scully asked worriedly. When she turned to him he faded away and was no longer there. The room felt colder, and Grace began to cry, stumbling the rest of the way towards her. But she didn't hold her arms out for the girl, instead she stared at the spot where Mulder was, trying to figure out how he had disappeared so suddenly.

"No!" Scully gasped, sitting up in her bed. The fact that she was in her bed instead of on the couch confused her for the space of three heartbeats, and eventually it sank in that it had all been a dream.

"Just a nightmare," she mumbled to herself while she strained to listen for the kids. After a few seconds she was relieved that she didn't seem to have woken them up too.

Was it just a dream? she wondered, though. A faint feeling of despair settled over her as she mulled over the dual possibilities of what the dream could mean.

The first interpretation of the dream was that she was simply anxious about how Mulder and the kids would respond to each other when they met in a couple of days. That her subconscious worries that it could go badly might breed a nightmare was easy enough to understand, although it spoke of being more worried than she thought she felt. She knew that there was an off chance that it could be a disaster if he didn't hit it off with them, but she thought there were much better odds that it would work out great.

So maybe it was the other possibility, the one she liked less, that had her waking in a cold sweat. Maybe she wasn't as convinced that things were going well between her and Mulder as she thought she was. They weren't back to the old place in their relationship, but in her conscious mind it felt like they were getting there. But was her subconscious picking up on signs that she was missing, ones that pointed to their relationship being irreparably damaged? Or was she just afraid that they'd find their way back to each other completely, only to have outside forces rip them apart again?

Dana, get a grip, she scolded herself and finally let herself lie back down. What's next, going to Mom's to hunt up one of Missy's old dream dictionaries so you can micro-analyze everything in the dream? Maybe the laugh-track holds a deeper meaning, or Grace's hair being too long. It was just a stupid dream, the random firing of synapses while you slept.

Still, even though the thoughts were logical, the sky outside was beginning to lighten into day before she finally fell back to sleep.


Saturday Afternoon

How crazy is crazy? Mulder found himself wondering as the city bus he was sitting in barreled down a busy street. Three rows behind him a man with dirt-smudged skin and matted hair yelled at the thin air beside himself, obviously seeing something Mulder couldn't. He was in the last row on the bus, and no one sat any closer to him than Mulder did. That suggested that he and some of the other passengers were familiar with the route, even if both were new to him.

Once he discovered that Scully's home was on the bus route and his was too, he'd thought he'd discovered a solution to visiting her that didn't involve the indignity of requesting she come pick him up like he was a ninth grader. But now that he was on the bus, watching a man who obviously had some sort of psychosis argue with someone who wasn't there, he was more eager to finally bite the bullet and go car shopping. Apparently he'd just been very lucky when a different bus brought him to the animal shelter.

If he'd bought a car sooner, he wouldn't have subjected himself to wondering if he was sufficiently saner than his co-rider the way he currently was. Seeing the obviously challenged man seemed as though it should have provided him with a measure of reassurance that he was a lot closer to normal than that poor soul, but somehow he didn't feel better. Instead he was uncomfortably reminded of his own darkest days, and how they were close enough to him still that he could almost look over his shoulder and see them in the not-so-far-off distance.

Stop it, he admonished himself. Even at your worse you never had a public disagreement with the voices in your head. Unable to resist the urge to look back, he peered over the seat at the man. By this point the 'argument' was getting violent, and he flailed around so much that one arm smacked into a metal pole that people might hold onto if they were standing, not that anyone was willing to get so close to him. But is imagining that little gray men are coming for you so very different? his brain asked mercilessly. Sure, you figured out that they were real then, but do you think that this guy never got the sense that his delusions were figments of him imagination? What if he just got tired of fighting against them? A person can get so tired that it's easier to simply accept anything. How well have you been sleeping, Fox?

"Whataya looking at?" the man complained, having finally caught Mulder's eye.

Mulder flushed when he realized that he'd never turned back around and had been staring off into space in the man's direction. His urge was to whip around in his seat, but he figured that he was in for it now that he'd drawn the man's attention, even if he looked away. "Nothing," he muttered sullenly, hoping against hope that the other man would drop the subject.

"Nothing." The other man's eyes looked oddly triumphant as he repeated the word, and he turned quickly and jabbed his finger at the air saying, "You hear that? Even he thinks you're nothing! They can all tell you're worthless, Harley, and they don't even have to hear you open your damn mouth first."

Blinking, Mulder wondered if Harley had any relation to another being with an H name, and turned to face forward again, thankful that the other guy was no longer interested in him. It came as a relief when the bus driver announced his stop, and he probably strode the length of the bus faster than was strictly necessary: the driver saw him and wasn't going to pull away from the curb before he could get off, so what was the rush.

"Hey," the driver said as Mulder reached him. "That guy give you any problems?" He glanced towards the back of the bus, as if Mulder didn't know exactly who he meant.

"No," Mulder told him truthfully. Besides making him uncomfortable about his own fragile well-being, the man hadn't actually done anything to him.

"I don't like 'em on my bus, but the boss says I gotta let them on if they pay their fare." The driver shook his head. "Where's a goddamn homeless guy got to be anyway? A job interview?"

"I don't know." Mulder shrugged and stepped off the bus before the driver could come up with anything else to say about the other passenger.


The bus ride had bothered him more than he thought it had, which was evident by him automatically going to Scully's old apartment, even though she and Skinner had been very clear about her having moved into another unit in the building. He didn't realize his mistake until he was raising his fist to knock on the familiar door. Frowning, he dropped the fist to his side, and looked for the signs in the hallway that would direct him to the right apartment. At least he hadn't gotten as far as knocking and bothering the new residents of the apartment.

It didn't take him long to find the right place, but he found himself more nervous now. He couldn't quite figure out if it was because he'd already screwed up once, even if he hadn't been caught, or because he was keenly aware that she'd moved now, which was a symbol of how much life had changed for her.

Steeling himself, he finally raised his fist and knocked this time. A flurry of muffled sound met the knock, and the door opened wide a second later. Scully wasn't standing there as he expected, but her son. From the boy's not-quite-fully-dressed appearance, he worried that he was a bit earlier than Scully wanted him to be.

"Hi, I'm here to see your mom?" Mulder found himself phrasing it as a question, almost as if he thought he needed the child's permission to visit Scully.

"I know."

"Right. I'm-"

"Oh, I know who you are," the little boy interrupted with great solemnness. His air of seriousness made the fact that he was only wearing one shoe and hadn't buttoned his shirt strike Mulder as a bit absurd, though he didn't dare laugh.

"Who's that?" he couldn't help but ask. He more than half expected the child to say "Mommy's boyfriend."

Tommy gave him an inscrutable look. "The friend Mom used to miss a lot."

"Oh." Mulder put on his best poker face, hoping Tommy wouldn't recognize his absurd burst of disappointment that he didn't label him as something closer to her than a friend. Even if they were dating, it wasn't reasonable to think that she'd of told the kids, he reminded himself, and he wasn't even sure if they were officially back together, so how could he expect her to be? Trying to smile, he asked, "How do you know she missed me?"

"She looked at your pictures all sad a lot. She'd point at you and say 'this is my friend Mulder. I miss him and hope he finds his way home to those of us that love him.' So that's how I know. I remembered your name, and you look like your picture, but less fat."

"Wow." He hadn't imagined Scully discussing him with her kids before he reappeared. It was more touching than he could comfortably admit to himself without the threat of tearing up.

Tommy looked concerned, and his next words said that he was afraid that his observation had been insulting. "You weren't fat 'fore but... "

"Now I'm skinnier," Mulder replied, hoping to reassure Tommy that he understood.

Tommy brightened. "How'd you get the name Mulder? I don't know anyone named that."

"It's my last name," he explained. "I don't like my first name very much. So my friends call me Mulder instead."

"Can I call you that too?" Tommy asked eagerly.

"Yup."

"Awesome!"

"Tommy, who are you taking to-- Did you get the door?" Scully called to her son.

"Oops. Yes, Mommy."

"We've talked about that," Scully reminded him in a mildly scolding tone as she appeared behind him. She came up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder, smiling briefly at Mulder as if to say 'you know how kids are' and he really wished that he did.

Tommy was unfazed. Shrugging exaggeratedly, he said, "I forgot."

Scully sighed. "Next time remember, huh?"

"Okay... "

She pointed back into the room. "Please go feed the fish before we leave. And brush your hair and put on your shoes."

"Yeah!" he exclaimed with enthusiasm before rushing off.

"Hi, Mulder."

"Hey."

"They're yours, you know."

"What?" He looked over at her, confused.

"The fish. They're your mollies," Scully explained, turning to get her purse. "I took them home with me when..." She broke off, shaking her head lightly. "Anyway, they've been living with us ever since."

"I didn't expect for them to live that long," Mulder told her, feeling mild guilt that he hadn't given the little creatures a thought in years. Fortunately, unlike the dogs and cats at the shelter, they hadn't demand his attention very often. As long as he fed them, they'd been content to be ignored the rest of the time.

She shrugged. "I didn't either, especially after reading how long they typically live. Maybe they were just waiting for you to come home."

Mulder offered her a crooked smile. "Maybe."

"If you want me to-" Scully started to say, but she never finished the thought.

"Who are you?" a suspicious little voice asked, and Mulder started because it came from the vicinity of his waist. Looking down, he saw a small girl staring up at him. If Emily had looked like Melissa at age three, then surely this little one looked just like Scully at the same age.

"Um..." he began, feeling slightly unnerved by her gaze.

"Mom's friend, from the pictures," Tommy announced. He was now wearing both shoes, wasn't bearing any skin, and his hair no longer stood up.

"Oh." Grace said, and then jammed a thumb into her mouth.

"Grace..." Scully said, tone one of obvious parental disapproval, but she didn't demand the girl stop sucking her thumb. Apparently it wasn't a hill she was interested in dying on right then.

"I think I make her nervous," Mulder whispered, nodding at the thumb.

"No." Scully sighed. "I should have listened to Tara when she was a baby and given her a pacifier. 'You can throw away a pacifier, but you can't get rid of a thumb.' I probably could have gotten her to switch over to a pacifier at a year old, but I waited too long. And Tara's right, you can't get rid of a thumb."

"Not legally, anyway," Mulder said with a perfectly straight face.

Snorting, Scully reached for her little girl, picking her up to put her on her hip. Grace was more than big enough to walk, so Mulder wondered if he'd been right about making her nervous after all if Scully was intending to carry her out to the car.

"Let's get the show on the road!" Tommy chirped, probably parroting something he'd heard.

Grace released her thumb so she could complain, "We going to the movies. Not the road."

"He's just being silly," Scully told her.

"I'm not silly," Tommy protested while following her out the door. "It's a fig of speech."

And that's when Mulder no longer could hide his grin.


As they got into Scully's car, he was surprised that he hadn't thought about how much longer traveling with kids would take to get going. Things were different when there were people in your party who couldn't simply open the door, seat themselves, and put on their own seatbelt. He wanted to offer to help as she helped Tommy with his booster seat and Grace into her car seat, but she obviously knew what she was doing and his offer would only slow the whole works down even further.

Tommy noticed him watching and smiled briefly. Then he asked, "How come you don't got a car? Is it broken? Can you not drive? Mommy says that there are people who live places where not every drives."

"Tommy," Scully began to object to the barrage of curious questions, but Mulder waved that off.

"Do you know what a lease is?" Mulder asked him. It wasn't surprising when Tommy shook his head. Not to be left out, Grace did too, which meant she bonked her forehead on Scully's shoulder because her mother was still belting her in.

"Okay, so you can buy a car, or you can lease one. If you buy the car, you pay some money every month until you'd paid the whole price, and then you get to keep the car forever after that. A lease is when you also pay every month but only use the car for a while, and then give it back."

Tommy looked thoughtful. "Like those commercials about renting and couches? Mommy's old boss said that it's dumb to do that."

"Kind of like that, sure." Mulder nodded, wondering how often Skinner had seen the kids. "Well, I leased a car, and when I wasn't... here, I couldn't pay for it. And the lease ended anyway. So the car dealership took the car back." He tried not to imagine the spectacle that had been put on for his former neighbors when the car had been repossessed. Hopefully it had been in the middle of the night, like it often was in the movies.

"Oh... you going to get another one?" Tommy asked.

"Pretty soon," Mulder agreed. The memory of the man's one-sided argument on the bus loomed up. "Really soon."

"I know what kind you should get," Tommy said, blue eyes sparkling eagerly.

This surprised him a little, but he thought that it probably shouldn't have. Many young kids had weird interests, so it wasn't that strange that a five-year-old might have a lot of knowledge of cars. "What kind?" he asked, curious about what Tommy recommended.

"A blue one!"

Mulder smiled. Maybe Tommy wasn't an automobile-savant after all. "Blue might be nice. I'll keep that in mind, but sometimes a car dealership doesn't have the colors you want."

"Aww."

"All done," Scully announced, stepping away from Grace. The little girl had finally stopped wiggling long enough to be secured into her seat.

"Right," Mulder mumbled and opened the passenger door.

An adult might have realized that this signaled the end of their conversation, but Tommy asked, "When you get your new car, can we ride in it?"

"If your mom wants you to," Mulder told him, wondering if he'd spend enough time with the kids to consider getting seats for them put into his car. The local fire department offered to install them for you, so he might take them up on that. He shook his head slightly, realizing that he was really getting ahead of himself.

"Cool!" Tommy exclaimed, and then he looked out the window, ending the conversation on his own terms.


"So... the movie is about fish?" Mulder asked Scully on the drive to the theater. Both kids were occupied then with playing with small plastic toys and ignoring the adults. None of the toys were ocean themed.

"It's about fish," Scully agreed, giving him a sidelong glance that asked if he had a problem with that. He didn't, not really, he just couldn't imagine what a plot involving fish would entail. Breeding? Or breading? "The reviews for it are quite good."

"Okay."

"Tommy really liked one of the studio's other movies, Toy Story."

Mulder thought about this for a moment. "To infinity and beyond?"

"That's the one." She looked like she was trying not to laugh. "I thought you didn't watch kids' movies."

"I didn't watch it," Mulder admitted. "I was trapped in a waiting room with a kid who had a toy that kept saying that over and over again." He glanced over his shoulder, glad that neither of the kid's toys were speaking. "It got pretty maddening after a while, actually."

"Oh. Well, Buzz isn't in this one," Scully replied quickly.

"Because he's not a fish."

"Yup."


Scully wanted to object when Mulder insisted on buying the kids candy and popcorn, but she decided that it was okay given it wouldn't be a regular thing. Or at least she didn't yet have any expectations that it would be... but giving the three of them a sidelong glance as Grace and Tommy pointed out what they wanted, she couldn't help but try to figure out if Mulder was enjoying the kids' company.

They clearly liked him already, but there hadn't been much doubt in her mind that they would. She had talked about him often enough that they were probably predisposed to think that he was nice, given that they were still young enough to take a lot of their cues about how to react to someone from her own reception of them.

But Mulder... There really hadn't been many indicators from his past behavior about how he felt about kids. During their cases they'd occasionally worked with children and he'd neither seemed to love or despise children. And when she'd asked him to be her donor for her failed attempt at IVF he'd been agreeable but hadn't expressed delight over the idea that any child she bore would share his DNA. At the time she'd hoped that it was because they hadn't really gotten into what she expected his role in the baby's life would have been. And now, so long after the attempt had failed, she hadn't spent much more time dwelling on it.

Grabbing him by the arm and demanding to know what he thought of Tommy and Grace was tempting, but she worried that it wouldn't get an honest answer out of him. Even if he thought that they were both brats, she doubted that he would express that opinion. No, he'd tell her that they were both great, and she'd be left with no idea of whether he really thought they were great, or if he was just saying that to be polite. Or out of guilt, because after everything that had happened to her it wasn't like she was going to have more kids in the future he might like better...

She only realized that her woolgathering had gotten out of hand when a small hand tugged on hers. "Mom, I want to sit next to Mulder, okay?" Tommy asked her.

"Me too!" Grace insisted.

"I don't know..." Scully mumbled to herself. Then she decided that she was being ridiculous. Grace might need to sit next to her, but Tommy didn't. "Okay, but Grace sits between me and Mulder. And Tommy, you can sit on his other side." She didn't glance at Mulder to see what he thought of this idea, but hoped that it was okay with him.

"Cool!" Tommy exclaimed. Usually he let his sister forge ahead, but this time he led. That was how Scully realized that he was really excited, and she hoped that part of it was because Mulder was there, not just because they were going to see Finding Nemo after having watched the preview a dozen times in the past three months.

Getting going must have taken longer than she had believed it did, because there were already trailers playing by the time they found a half empty row. It seemed as though half the children in DC were in the theater, and she was really glad that they hadn't left the house even five minutes later than they did.

"That's far enough," Mulder whispered to Tommy when they reached the middle of the row. The people who had arrived earlier had fortunately taken the seats closest to the wall. That meant they didn't have to climb over them at least.

Tommy looked up at Mulder for confirmation, and then sat in the seat he was standing in front of.

After a moment, Scully got Grace settled into her own seat, and sat too. She frowned a little when she realized that a very small part of her was annoyed that she didn't get to sit directly next to Mulder. They might be dating, if that was what they were doing, but that wasn't what this outing was about so it wasn't as though she had planned to hold hands with him.

Perhaps it was a fortunate thing that they had arrived mid trailers. She wasn't sure how many more movies she could have endured the kids saying "I want to go see that!" about before she had a nervous breakdown. There weren't many times when she longed to have lived in an earlier era, but it least her mother hadn't had to bring her and her siblings to very many movies back when she was growing up.

For the first few minutes, before the feature started, she found herself nervously glancing over at Tommy repeatedly. And of course, he was fine every single time. Eventually she was able to convince herself that he was perfectly fine, especially considering he was less than 8 feet away from her. And at that point, the movie started and she began to find herself getting into it.

And maybe she got a little bit too into it. From the expression on the kids' faces it was clear that they found the plot of the movie riveting. She would have liked to too but she found that it brought up distracting emotions that she hadn't anticipated from the trailer or reading early reviews of it. How had she not anticipated that the main character spending the entire movie looking for a lost loved one would make her think of her own search for Mulder?

Once she fully realized what the plot was, she found herself looking anxiously at Mulder now and again, instead of Tommy. If she could identify with the clown fish who was frantically looking for his lost son, did Mulder identify with Nemo? He seemed to be enjoying the movie, so perhaps it was just her who was reading way too much into it.

About half way through the movie, Tommy whispered loudly, "I need to use the bathroom."

"Oh, okay," Scully began to say, but Mulder tapped her on the shoulder, making her look up at him.

"I'll take him."

"Are you sure?" she asked doubtfully.

He leaned forward, whispering only loud enough for her to hear. "He is fully potty-trained, right? Deals with getting his pants on and off all by himself now?"

Startled, she blurted out "of course!"

Mulder grinned back at her. "Then don't worry, Mom. We'll be fine."

"Okay... "

He stood up, and looked down at Tommy. "Let's go find the men's room."

Tommy scrambled past her, and she watched them file out of the theater. Of course they would both be fine. It was probably just the theme of the movie that made her nervous.


Large prominently placed blue signs easily directed Mulder and Tommy to the men's room. He wouldn't admit it to Scully, or Tommy for that matter, but he was glad that she had reassured him that Tommy could do his business without any assistance. He had figured that a five-year-old would be okay on his own, but he hadn't thought to confirm it until Scully looked nervous when he volunteered to chaperon.

As soon as they stepped in the room, Tommy looked at the urinals. Unfortunately, they were about chest height on the boy. "I think you're a little too short for that, kiddo."

"I know," Tommy sighed. "I wish they were all like the ones that school," he said, going into one of the four stalls with a resigned look on his face.

It was just as well that Tommy had left Mulder's presence, so he wouldn't see him smirk. If all of the urinals had been the same height as they were at a school meant for children between the ages of five and eleven, Mulder could imagine a lot of disaster for tall men. He wasn't sure that he could've gyrated well enough to aim at a urinal half as high as standard. And if they were any older less able-bodied men making the attempt, there would be pee on the floor for sure.

Mulder didn't have to pee too badly, but he decided to take the opportunity that presented itself, and still managed to have already washed his hands by the time Tommy exited the stall.

Tommy let the stall door swing closed behind him. "Is it true that grown-up men who pee in the stalls are considered to be kind of weird? I heard that, at school I think."

He deliberated for a moment, before saying, "well, kind of. At least very shy, if not weird."

"But, Mulder, when you grow up it's okay to go into the stalls if you have to-" Tommy started to ask, but a man entering the bathroom interrupted them.

"Mulder?" the man said, confusing him by using his name. Until he went on. "Is that Dutch for father or something?"

I look Dutch? Mulder wondered. "No, it's my last name."

The man, who was about fifteen years his senior, looked faintly irritated. "Oh, I get it. You're one of those people who thinks it's okay for your kids to call you by your name."

"Uh, Tommy, let's get those hands washed huh?" Mulder said, hoping that the man would drop things.

And he did. Frowning a little, he just walked past Mulder and Tommy at the sinks, and entered one of the stalls.


The second half of the movie went by uneventfully, and Mulder found himself enjoying it quite thoroughly. But, he thought that he might have enjoyed listening to the kids express their delight in it even more than watching the movie itself. There was just something magical about a little kid's ability to enthuse so completely over something they liked. Both of them were still talking about the movie half an hour later, even after he and Scully had taken them to get ice cream cones.

However, it might have just been the novelty of it that appealed to him, because as they got back in the car, Scully gave them both a tired smile and ask them if they could maybe talk about something else. Or maybe not talk for a while.

The relative quiet in the car seemed to have a soothing effect because by the time they pulled into Scully's driveway, Grace was fast asleep. Mulder stood to the side and waited for Scully to unhook the elaborate array of straps that kept Grace in her car seat before saying "let me take her."

She looked torn for a second, but then she stood back, and let him pick up her sleeping child. For a second, while he tried to shift the sleeping girl into a comfortable position, he found himself remembering a time when he had had to carry Samantha home when she had fallen asleep while they had played on the beach during a vacation. He had only been about eight or nine himself, so she had been harder to carry than Grace was by far, and he wondered why his parents hadn't been around. But back in the day, Mulder and his sister had gotten a lot less supervision then modern kids did. Maybe less supervision then even their contemporaries, if he thought about it... Still, Samantha's head had lolled against his shoulder then in exactly the same way that Grace's did now, proving that times might've changed, but small children had not.

Tommy, on the other hand, was still awake and full of beans, and was the first person to reach the door. He disappeared into the house before Mulder followed Scully to her daughter's bedroom and handed her off so that Scully could put her in her pajamas.

As soon as he stepped out into the hallway, leaving Scully to complete her task, Tommy reappeared at his elbow. "Can we play a video game?"

That was a loaded question if Mulder had ever heard one. Tommy probably knew very well that Mulder had no idea if video games were allowed, and if they were, when his bedtime was. Rather than fall into a trap, Mulder said, "I don't know, I guess we'll have to ask your mom."

"Okay," Tommy said easily. Maybe it wasn't a trap after all. Maybe he just wanted to play with him.

It only took Scully a couple of more minutes in Grace's room before she met them in the living room. "Mom, can Mulder and I play a video game?" Tommy asked immediately.

She glanced at the clock, and then said, "You have twenty-five minutes before you need to get ready for bed. If Mulder wants to play with you, and that's how you want to spend your time, fine with me."

"He does," Tommy said quickly. But then he glanced worriedly at Mulder. "Right?"

"Absolutely."

This was rewarded by a sunny smile, and he was glad that he agreed. Even though he had no idea what sort of game Tommy had in mind.

As they settled down to play the videogame that involved Donkey Kong and the Mario Brothers racing go karts against other vaguely familiar characters, Mulder wondered if he was just out of touch with popular culture for the past three years, or if he should know who these other creatures were because they had been around longer. As it was, he only knew who Mario and Luigi were because of Langly.

Not really being overly familiar with the character he chose, didn't really impact his enjoyment of the race car game. Mostly he was amused when Scully picked up a third controller, and selected a character who seemed to be a Princess, and began racing her own cart against the two of them.

Between them on the couch, Tommy laughed and carried on as he accidentally drove over a cliff, and cheered his mother on when she made offensive movements against Mulder's character that caused him to spin off into what seemed to be a bunch of turtle shells.

"This is so fun," Tommy exclaimed, echoing Mulder thoughts.

"It is. But why are you a dinosaur?"

"I'm Yoshi!"

"Okay..." Mulder himself was the fat brother, Mario. If he was going to pick a fantasy avatar, why not go with the one who wasn't really skinny like he was.

Tommy opened his mouth, apparently getting ready to explain all about what a Yoshi was, but Scully cut him off before he began. "This is the last race, it's almost time for bed."

Mulder expected Tommy to protest, but he didn't. "Okay," he said good-naturedly instead.

Tommy then took the next three minutes to beat them both soundly. Smiling broadly over his win, he looked back at them and said, "You guys did really good too."

"Humility, that's what I like in a victor," Mulder told him.

"Thomas Adam Scully," Tommy stated, confusing him until he said, "but I know a man named Victor. He drives our school bus."

This made Mulder laugh, and shake his head a little bit.

Scully smiled as well. "Go brush your teeth."

"Right!" Tommy said, racing out of the room.

Mulder watched him go, wondering how he would ever sleep when he seemed to be more awake the Mulder had ever been himself in his entire life.

After a moment of silence, Scully said, "I think that tonight went really well."

Her face was tense though, and he knew that she was waiting for him to agree, or to break her heart by disagreeing. "Your kids are great. I like them both a lot, and if I'm not mistaken they seem to like me quite a bit too."

She relaxed, and he knew that he had said the right thing. And it was the right thing because he meant it. "Maybe we should do this again sometime."

He had to clamp down on his tongue before his brain made him blurt out his first thought, which was How about forever? After a moment, when he could trust himself to speak again, he said, "I would love that."

"Great," Scully replied, and then she leaned over to kiss him. "I think I need to go check on him, though," she said when they finally broke away from each other.

"Right. Next weekend?" he asked, standing up, and getting ready to leave himself.

"Sounds good."

She hugged him on her way by, and he let himself out.


On the bus ride home everyone seemed rather normal. Wherever the man from earlier had gone, he hadn't kept the same schedule as Mulder.

Since it was quiet, Mulder leaned his head back against the seat and thought for a while. When Skinner had first told him that Scully had children, he had been torn between feeling glad for her that she had become a mother and guilt that it had been that way. They hadn't really talk about the IVF failing too often, neither before he was abducted and certainly not after, but he'd really wanted to be the one to give her a child. Not only because he wanted a child with her but also because he felt as though he owed her one. After everything she had been through because of him...

That guilt was still there, not as prominent as it used to be but still detectable, and he still wished that maybe things could be different. Stranger things have happened, maybe they still could be different. Maybe someday he and Scully and Grace and Tommy would be a family, and maybe, just maybe they would find another miracle, one that would allow for him and Scully to have a baby of their own. More ova that carried her DNA might still be out there for the finding. If she wanted him to find it, he would do everything in his power to do so. Not just because he owed her, he realized now, that because he owed them both every opportunity at happiness.


At the end of one of his day shifts at the shelter, Mulder found himself in reasonably good spirits as he hung up the dogs' leashes. He'd talked Janice into letting him try walking two of the dogs who got along well at once, and he'd been amused by their antics. Even better, one of the visitors to the shelter had noticed the dogs playing and had been so charmed by the canine friendship she was talking to one of the adoption coordinators about the possibility of taking them both.

Before he left for the day Mulder stopped in the cat room, which was a habit he'd gotten into since his first night shift. Most of the cats ignored him, but Dempsey came to the front of his cage with a noise that was half greeting, half question. Grinning, Mulder put his fingers through the bars of the cage, and Dempsey pushed his furry head against them. When Mulder scratched between his ears, the cat purred. "It's nice to see you, too."

He'd been a little surprised that the cat's name had stuck: he'd been sure that someone would decide to give the animal a more appropriate name. But the other people at the shelter had liked it, and someone had even insisted that they would name the next white cat or kitten to come in without a name Sugar Ray.

Eventually the other cats began to clamor for affection too. "See you guys later," He managed to pet all those who wanted him to at least briefly, though he found that Dempsey gave him dirty looks when he paid attention to the others. "I gotta go." If he'd turned back, he would have noticed that several of the cats watched him through the window in the door until he completely disappeared out of their view.

It was breezy when Mulder stepped outside the building, and he raised a hand to shade his eyes when the wind picked up dirt in the parking lot. Since he was preoccupied with not being blinded by the flying grit, he was confused when a voice called "Fox!" Fortunately the wind died down for a while, so he was able to look around.

At first he almost didn't recognize the man who stood a few yards away from him. "Mark, you got a haircut," he blurted out. Gone was the long hair that had once hung over the young man's eyes like a curtain. Mark's dark hair was now shorter than his.

"I had to." Mark grimaced. "Agreeing to a haircut was one of the conditions of my release," he said, making it sound like parole from jail, not finishing up a stint in the hospital.

''How long have you been out?" Mulder asked, wishing that he'd been allowed to give his contact information to some of the others before he left the hospital himself. It hadn't been outright forbidden, but highly discouraged.

"A week and a half," Mark told him. "Damn, it still feels weird, though."

"Are you going to volunteer here too?" Mulder asked hopefully, envisioning how it might be to have someone to talk to there. He liked the other volunteers and staff people well enough, but they were mostly older than him, and they didn't have much in common.

"Nah."

"Oh." Mulder tried not to look too disappointed. "Why are you here, then?"

"Doc suggested I get a cat," Mark said, "something that will give me something besides myself to focus on and provide companionship, yet kind of can take care of itself and won't mind too much if I get too depressed to play with it. Since I don't want a cat with a fancy pedigree this seemed like the place to come."

"I wish I could have a pet," Mulder remarked wistfully, thinking of Dempsey. "My lease is strictly no-pets, though."

"Aww. That sucks. Other than your landlord being a tyrant, how are you?"

"Good."

"Yeah?"

Mulder leaned against the side of the building, glad that it had gotten nice out now that the wind seemed to have moved on. "Yeah. I finally got up the nerve to buy a car a few days ago, and I lived to tell the tale." He smiled wryly, wondering if his obvious anxiety had worked for or against him at the dealership when he closed the deal on his new blue Infiniti G35. "And besides working here, which is going well, I've reconnected with the woman I'd just started dating a few months before... Well. We're started seeing each other again, and I'm getting to know her kids."

"That's what I like to hear." Mark grinned. "Gives me hope, you know?"

"Huh." Mulder wasn't quite sure how he felt about being held up as a shining example of what life post-hospitalization should be.

"Did you know the kids before..." His friend waved a hand, not wanting to finish the thought any more than he had a minute earlier.

"No," Mulder admitted.

"They're little then?" Mark asked, unwittingly providing him a way to avoid explaining how Scully had come to have a son that he'd never met despite the boy having been two years old at the time of his disappearance.

"Pretty little." Please don't ask how little, he silently added.

Mark gave him a look, and Mulder realized that the other man's assumption might actually be more awkward than explaining the abduction of Scully's ova would have been: Mark must have thought that Scully hadn't waited for him, and had taken up with another man while he was gone. For some reason this made him feel slightly indignant, like Mark had implied that there was something wrong with her character... which was ridiculous considering Mark hadn't even asked a question.

"Well. So, you're back together which is great. Have you and she... ?" Mark raised his eyebrows meaningfully.

"Not since I've been out of the hospital," Mulder replied quickly. Friend or no, really didn't want to talk about his sex life.

"Oh, well, I'm sure it's just a matter of time before you get back on the horse," Mark said too cheerfully. "I don't even have a horse to get back onto myself." About a third of Mulder's previous conversations with him revolved around Mark's deplorable luck with women, so this wasn't surprising.

"Is sex the horse, or is a woman the horse?" Mulder asked, mostly to see how Mark would respond.

Mark smiled wryly. "Either way, I don't have a horse yet. You're lucky to have had someone who would take you back despite... everything, you know?"

Mulder was going to answer but a car on the street backfired, and he jumped a foot and a half. Mark's expression clouded, and Mulder looked away before Mark's look became pitying.

"So..." Mark sounded awkward now. "Can you recommend any of the cats in there?"

For a second he imagined Mark taking Dempsey home, but he didn't really want him to. In the back of his mind he still harbored hope that he could find a compelling argument to present to the landlord that would let him adopt the cat himself. "How do you feel about kittens? There's a litter of orange and black ones just old enough to leave their mom, and only half the litter's been claimed so far."

Mark looked faintly puzzled. "They're all part orange and part black, or some are orange and some are black?"

"Some are orange, others are black."

"Cool. Maybe they'd let me adopt one of each. You know what they say, the best toy for a kitten is another kitten."

"Maybe." He wondered if he should tell Mark not to mention how they knew each other if it came up, but he decided that if they didn't have a problem with a psych problem actually working with the animals there, a history of severe depression probably wouldn't hurt Mark's odds of getting a pet adoption approved. "If you end up liking one of each."

"Right." Mark seemed like he was ready to go inside and Mulder wished he wasn't, and he asked, "If you're not working here where are you going to be?" The hospital would have let them leave without plans for work or volunteering, but they really strongly advocated for a plan for spending one's time productively, so odds were Mark had plans. He knew for sure that Mark didn't have an old employer holding his job for him, either.

"I can't start until the first, but I'm going to be a university library page."

"Oh. That sounds... "

''Quiet," Mark supplied, smiling wryly. "After spending all day in a hush, I'll appreciate kittens living things up."

"True." Mulder nodded. "You got a cell phone on you?"

"Sure. Why?" Mark asked curiously.

"I'll give you my new number. You can let me know how it works out with the kittens."

"Oh yeah. And you with the girlfriend."

"Deal." It didn't take long to exchange phone numbers." Good luck."

"You too."


Bright lights. And pain. These are the two things that compete with the fact that he's restrained for Mulder's attention. If not for a searing pain in his abdomen, he might be able to focus on his indignation about being victimized yet again.

Two gray faces peer down at him, seeming to loom above him despite him realizing that he's much taller than either of them when he's not strapped to a table. Neither of them, nor any of the others in the room, appear to be more than vaguely interested in his inarticulate screams now that he's unable to keep himself from voicing his agony. In a dim corner of his mind, one that isn't completely focused on the fact that his belly is being ripped open without any anesthetic, he understands that their apparent lack of interest isn't just due to their faces not being expressive enough to convey the emotion. He'd done things that interested them often enough to be able to recognize what that expression looks like on their features. Instead they truly don't find anything extraordinary about a man withering under their hands as they slice him open.

At just the point when he thinks that he will scream himself into an aneurysm, he feels his flesh begin to separate which is somehow even worse than merely being cut was and he realizes that he can see one of their hands disappearing inside of him, its arm now only visible from mid-forearm up. He doesn't have time to wonder why it would reach into him before a fresh burst of agony and the sense that something has just given way inside of him has him arching his back and howling in torment.

The screams rip from his throat even as he felt the gray put its other hand into the incision and tug on something Mulder can't see. And he doesn't want to see what it is because that will mean knowing that they've successfully torn something out of him.

He prays for unconsciousness, or death, to claim him before he has to see what he's missing from his insides, what he's supposed to live without, but even that mercy is denied to him. The gray tugs one last time, and then holds something purplish and featureless aloft. All but one of the grays walks off to the side of the room with the thing, and begin to pay it close attention, hunching over it.

There's no context for him to understand what's been removed from him... At least until he hears a sound that is alien to the environment: an infant's cry. Straining to see past the gray who is stitching his abused flesh back together, he gets only the barest glimpse of a tiny open mouth in a wrinkled face, and a tuff of dark hair like his own.

Late to the party, the blackness of unconsciousness takes him away just when he wants to be aware the most. He falls off the table and into a void below it even as the baby continues to cry, now sounding like they're hurting it too.

"Nonono!" Mulder's scream was muffled and it took him a few seconds to understand that he could feel the floor of his bedroom under him and the only things restraining him were the blankets that tangled up and around him when he fell out of bed.

For a moment he held his breath, wondering if he'd soon hear the neighbors' indication that they were mad that he'd woken them up, but the building remained quiet. Still feeling sheepish, he got to his feet with a groan, surprised at how badly his body ached from the fall.

He frowned as he crossed the room and went to the bathroom to get some Advil and water to take it with. This wasn't the first time he had this dream, but it was the first time that he woke up on the floor.

It didn't take him long to find the right bottle and shake out a couple of pills. Once he washed them down, he leaned his forehead against the bathroom mirror's cool surface and sighed. The dreams had left for a little while, but now they were back with a vengeance. He wasn't looking forward to having to admit to his therapist that his medications didn't seem to be working as well as they did before.

And he couldn't deny that he was beginning to worry that the nightmares were punishment for trying to forget what had happened to him. What had happened to... it. The dreams seemed to be about what had happened to him just before they'd left him to starve, but the fact that he sometimes dreamed that they'd removed a baby from his body, and at other times what they removed seemed to be completely featureless and looked neither human nor reticulan bothered him, like it had gone seriously wrong in its development... yet it still cried, which horrified him even more than the thought that he might have more normal hybrid offspring out there.

More normal, he thought and had to restrain himself from giving into the impulse to thump his head against the mirror until it shattered. The very been he could hope for was that it was as human as Emily had been, and how normal had that been? Emily had been sweet and gentle and had accidentally killed someone before her tainted blood killed her too.

Yet he couldn't help but feel guilty whenever he thought about the child, his child, who was in the hands of the grays still if the dreams weren't just a morbid fantasy his mind spun to torment him. Even if it was as hideously deformed as it was in some of the dreams, it didn't deserve that. But he was helpless to rescue it.

After waking up from one of those nightmares it was hard not to think that he was being punished for telling people like Mark that things were going well when he had such a failure under his belt too.


"So... You and Fox have picked up where you left off?" Maggie asked Scully a couple of weeks later. Her tone held a hint at what she was trying to suggest.

Phone held to her ear, Scully peeked into the living room. Tommy was coloring a house he'd drawn, and she had no idea what Grace's scribblings were supposed to represent. At least both kids seemed happily occupied.

"Well, we're getting there," Scully demurred. Given that she'd had to tell her mother about how she'd once briefly believed she was pregnant, her mother knew more about her past relationship with Mulder than she was comfortable with. Once her mom asked when they'd tried a second round of IVF, the truth had all spilled out.

"Ah," Maggie said in a way that made her daughter wince. "Well, I'm sure-"

''He's going to come to Grace's birthday party," Scully said in a desperate attempt to keep her mother from completing her sentence.

"That's wonderful. It's so hard to believe that she's already turning three... "

Whatever else Maggie said was lost as Scully found herself thinking of another significant date coming up: in three weeks it would be two years since she got a phone call that changed her life forever. It had only been by chance that she'd been home to pick up the call from the PI who had been looking for her. Would he have left a message about the kids if she hadn't? Would it had been one she would have responded to if he had? Even speaking to him directly, her first thought was that it was a hoax. Sometimes she wondered if God had had a hand in making sure she picked up the phone that day. Or fate.

"Dana?"

''Hmm?"

"I asked if him coming to the party means he and the kids are getting along all right." Her mother's tone was slightly chiding; she had a low tolerance for repeating herself, so that didn't surprise Scully much.

"The kids both adore him, and he seems fond of them too." He must like them, she thought, to have volunteered to help take the kids to an amusement park last weekend. Grace was too small to go on many of the more interesting rides even with an adult, so they'd taken turns bringing Tommy on them or waiting while Grace was on the baby rides. He hadn't complained and she thought he might have actually enjoyed himself.

"That's great," her mother said, and Scully waited for her to come up with something to make the conversation uncomfortable, like asking if she thought there would be a wedding in the near future. "But they are both lovely children, so that's hardly surprising."

"Says their completely impartial grandmother," Scully replied, smirking.

"Every child deserves to have a grandparent who thinks they hung the moon," Maggie said firmly.

This had Scully smiling to herself. Her children might only have one living grandparent, but they don't lack grand-parental love. Still, comments like that had her wishing that her father had lived long enough to meet her children. Even after so many years it still made her sad that he'd never met Tommy, Grace, Mattie, or Emily. And if Bill and Tara had another child, he'd never meet that one, either.

"What are you thinking about?" Maggie asked when the pause in conversation dragged on too long for her taste.

Sighing, Scully said simply, "Dad."

"Oh." Her mother drifted into silence a moment herself before offering, "I wish he'd gotten to enjoy being a grandparent as much as I did. I have regrets for him still."

"What do you mean?"

Maggie paused, and Scully swore she could hear her shrug. "He didn't spend as much time with Charlie's kids as he could have when they were little. Your brother invited us to his house so many more times than we ever went... Your dad said he hated to travel, and he'd done enough of it for work. Maybe I should have insisted more."

"I never knew that," Scully said, wondering why her little brother had never mentioned the rejected invitations. Maybe he didn't want to be thought of as complaining about yet another thing their father had done, or hadn't. Growing up, Charlie had been a lot closer to their father than Bill had been, but their relationship had soured when Charlie had hastily married just after college. Their father had once told her, after a few too many glasses of New Year's Eve punch, that he thought Charlie's wife had gotten pregnant on purpose. Even sober, he made little effort to hide his dislike of Anne.

Thinking of the tension between the two men, she had to bite her tongue to keep from blurting out that maybe fewer visits had been for the best. Sean had only been a baby when The Captain died, but Patrick might have picked up on the fact that his grandfather didn't think much of his mother. "At least you don't make that mistake," she said instead. Her mother saw the boys several times a year, visiting Bill and Charlie's homes at least three times each, and having them visit her when they could too.

''At least," her mother agreed, but she still sounded wistful. But, she brightened a bit, saying, "Wait until you see how much they've grown at Thanksgiving. Patrick's as tall as me now!"

"Taller than me then," she replied, having trouble imaging being able to see eye to eye with a seventh grader.

"True... "


Friday

The FBI trainees were noisy in the hallway as they scurried off for lunch but Scully hardly noticed as she spoke to Mulder on her cell phone. He was in the middle of confirming their plans for the weekend. "So, what do you think the kids would like to do tomorrow?"

She paused for a moment, wondering if she should take a risk and suggest what was on her mind. In the end she decided to go for it. "I think that they would really like to spend the day with my mother."

"Oh. Well, what do you think she'd like to do?" Mulder asked awkwardly.

It took her a moment to understand why he was at all interested in what her mother would do with Tommy and Grace: he was apparently under the impression that she meant that she wanted to include Maggie in their activity. She didn't have the heart to tease him about the misunderstanding because it was very sweet of him to be willing to spend the day with her mother if that was what she wanted.

"I'm sure that the three of them will find something fun to entertain themselves," she said lightly, then paused a moment to let that sink in. "I was thinking of asking her to keep them overnight. Should I?"

Mulder only took a few seconds to answer but every one of them felt like an eternity to her. It was just long enough for her to begin to wonder if she had totally misread how they'd been getting along, and to worry that she'd jumped the gun...

"You should," he said and she could hear him swallow hard.

"I'm glad we're in agreement," she said less lightly.

By the time they'd hung up, she'd already begun planning the next day.


Saturday

"Come on in," Scully said, hoping the door open. Mulder looked a little shy when he stepped inside. "Did you find a place to park okay?"

"No problem there," Mulder said. "But dealing with a car again is taking longer to get used to than I thought it would."

"I'm sure you'll get the hang of it all again," Scully told him. "Imagine how much harder it'd be to get used to driving again if you'd ever let me drive."

"I let you drive!" He apparently noticed her look. "Sometimes."

The corners of her mouth twitched. "Uh huh."

"What's that?" Mulder asked, pointing at something on the table.

"Oh, Tommy and Grace insisted on drawing you pictures," she explained, flipping them over. "I'm not sure what Grace's picture is of, but Tommy's well, you can see for yourself."

As advertised, Grace's picture was incomprehensible. She'd used green and blue crayons to draw swirls across the page. "Grace might have a future in modern art," Mulder suggested with a small smile before he put her daughter's picture aside so he could look at Tommy's. "Oh, the amusement park," he said softly.

Tommy's drawing wasn't much better than the average kindergartner's but it was easy to recognize that it was a picture of four people on a Ferris wheel. Scully looked over his shoulder. "That day must have made a big impression on him."

"On me too."

"Oh yeah?" she asked, smiling at him.

"Yeah. I could really get used to family outings like that," Mulder told her.

She snuck a look at his face, and he seemed to be telling the truth. That filled her with a different sort of excitement than the anticipation of carrying out her plan did.

A smell coming from the kitchen alerted her that their food was done. "Come on, the pot roast seems to be done."

"You'll have to let me cook for you sometime," Mulder said as he followed her. "Once I get more practice."

"You're learning to cook?"

He looked a little embarrassed. "I went to the storage place and found my mother's old cookbooks. I figured I have enough time on my hand right now that I should finally learn how to make something that's instructions don't say 'lift corner of plastic to vent and microwave for two and a half minutes.'"

"That's great, Mulder."

"I'll lay in a supply of antacids before I do cook for you," he joked. "A family sized bottle."

A repressed smile made the corners of her mouth quirk upward. "I'll look into their safety for kids."

He winced. "Maybe just you the first time, huh? I'd hate to wipe out an entire family in one go."

"Fine, I'll make sure my will is in order before then."

He shook his head, but he still smiled, seeming to enjoy the comfortable banter as much as she did. That was good, one old pattern successfully reestablished. Scully hoped that it bode well for others too. And for a while it seemed to.


Dinner went so well that it almost felt like old times to her, except that she was the only one who had anything to drink - he politely refused a beer, saying that he wasn't sure how alcohol might react with his medications.

Although she had anticipated feeling incredibly nervous because she intended to make the first move if he did not, she discovered that making out with him on the couch after they ate and lost interest in their selection from the video store had happened in a fluid way.

So to did their journey from the couch to her bed. She couldn't read his mind, and she didn't think that he could read hers anymore, but she hoped that he was also too much in the moment to have had the chance to over-analyze their every action and worry about the consequences of each. It had just felt right and natural to have undressed each other and gotten into bed.

From the start it was wonderful. She hadn't realized how much she'd denied herself the opportunity to miss the feeling of his skin against her own until she experienced it again. Perhaps it had seemed too selfish a thing to dwell on while he was gone for her subconscious to let herself admit that part of the reason she wanted him back was due to the absence of intimacy with him or anyone else. But as he entered her she finally realized that she had been waiting to be able to resume this all along.

They didn't speak. Instead they just reveled in the joining of their bodies after such a long time apart. They hadn't even discussed birth control because it didn't seem necessary. Her disappointment just after he had been taken felt like the final coffin nail in her fertility so why be concerned about a contingency that was sure not to arise? And even if the impossible did happen, she couldn't imagine not being welcoming of the results.

So, with no need for words they just lost themselves in establishing a rhythm, relearning how to move together. It might not have been like riding a bike, but she didn't take much time before she remembered how to be with him.

She could feel that she was on the verge of succumbing to the orgasm that she had been building towards, and the suddenly ragged quality to his breath suggested that he was about to come too, when her questing fingers found the ridge of scar tissue that marred the skin of his abdomen. It was the slightest touch, a mere brushing of her fingertips, but apparently too much. Within seconds he stopped thrusting inside her and shrank away, soon withdrawing all together.

He made an unhappy, surprised sound and rolled away from her. She waited for him to say something, but instead he sat up and put his back to her. It was clear that he wasn't going to be the first one to talk about what had just gone wrong.

"Mulder?" she asked uncertain. She sat up herself so she could look at him and for no good reason she suddenly felt the urge to pull the sheet currently just draped over her tightly around herself. It was ridiculous to feel exposed when he finally looked at her considering what they'd just been doing, but somehow she couldn't shake it.

Ignoring her attempt to get his attention Mulder reached for his boxers and pants and hastily pulled both of them on.

As she watched him dress she decided that there was no likelihood that he was interested in trying again later on. Wracking her brain she wondered if it would be helpful to tell him that it happened to a lot of men, especially to those who were taking the sort of psychiatric medications he was. She decided against that because not only did she know that someone with his background must know that, she thought she heard him say the word 'mistake' under his breath.

Scully didn't have the heart to ask him if that was what he actually said because she didn't want the answer to be yes. She should have listened to the little voice at the back of her mind that had asked if he was really ready for renewing their physical relationship. Now as she saw him obviously getting ready to leave her, she couldn't help but feel like she had pressured him into it because she wanted it, rather than instigating something they were both equally interested in. And that made her feel a crushing guilt - she never wanted to make anyone feel like that, let alone him.

Mulder yanked on his shirt too, then glanced over his shoulder at her. "I'm sorry."

"Do you want to talk about-"

"No!" He offered her a sheepish look after also seeming surprised by the forcefulness of his response. "I can't. At least not tonight." It was obvious from his expression that he was worried about something, but she didn't feel like she had the right to demand to know what.

"Okay," she said gently. "We'll talk about... it at another time."

"Right," he mumbled.

And then he was gone, leaving her sitting there wrapped in a sheet and her confusion.


For a few seconds after the door slammed behind Mulder, Scully was tempted to pick up the phone and call her mom and ask her to bring the kids home, not because she wanted to see them but because she longed to throw her arms around her mother's neck and cry on her shoulder the same way she had when Denny Barnes had stood her up for the tenth grade semi-formal.

Instead she took a few deep breaths and told herself that she was an adult and didn't have the luxury of falling apart over something as trivial as that. If she could be strong while trying to live through her sister's murder, her own battle with cancer, Emily's death, and Mulder being missing for three years, she was capable of coping with a bad date.

But even as she tried to give herself a stern talking to, it was hard to ignore the feeling that this was a much bigger deal that a mere disappointing sexual experience. With everything that Mulder had been through it worried her that it would convince him that it couldn't work out between them. The last thing she wanted was for her failed attempt to bring them closer to create a rift between them.

Using a tissue to rub at her eyes, she was suddenly grateful that Mulder was also in touch with Skinner and the gunmen, so she didn't have to worry that he would be completely alone if she'd done irreparable damage to their relationship. As hard as she tried not to think of him as fragile, it made her feel better that he had other people to lean on, other people's feelings to consider if... she just hoped that no drastic actions would even cross his mind and it was just narcissism to ever think that it might.

Reasonable thoughts about the situation or not, it still took her quite a while to accept that he wasn't going to come right back and finally force herself to get out of bed and clean up. Somehow showering and getting into her pajamas felt like admitting defeat, though to what she wasn't quite sure.


It was hard for Mulder not to feel like a tremendous ass as he drove home. Poor Scully probably thought that she'd done something wrong and he was angry at himself for not doing more to reassure her that it truly was him, not her. But he just didn't have the energy to considering the inevitably that one explanation would beget another and it was the other that he couldn't currently cope with sharing.

And that was the hell of it, he thought as he let himself into his apartment. If he couldn't tell Scully the truth about what had torn him out of the moment he ran the risk of eventually losing Scully when the truth finally outed as it must. But if he let the night's outcome fester between them he might lose her even faster.

Sighing, he collapsed into the recliner that had seemed so comfortable in the store showroom but now seemed determined to jab him with unexpected angles. He was tempted to stand up and try to smooth out the fabric of the seat in hopes of making it more comfortable but a perverse part of him was pleased to be discomforted because he felt like he deserved punishment.

In no small part his conviction that he needed punishment was due to why things had just gone so badly between them. He had no way of knowing where her thoughts had been during the act, but his own had been divided between a deep appreciation of having her in his arms again beneath him and a vague conviction that what they were doing was what they were meant to do. Without quite meaning to he'd began to imagine what it would be like if it was that way between them every night: work during the day, time spent with the two beautiful children they were raising in the evening, and nights spent so closely enjoined there was no room for breath between them.

Unfortunately, when her fingers brushed against his scar he was reminded sharply that he had another responsibility. Although, he found it difficult to figure out how he could have a duty to someone he had never met, and might not even exist. In time he might have told himself off and recovered his equilibrium, but his body's response to the surge of guilt that had coursed through him had been instantaneous. Somehow, it felt his betrayal even before it registered in his brain.

He would spend the rest of the night and all of the next day brooding over how he could tell Scully what his problem had been. His mind rejected all possible approaches as rapidly as it came up with them. By Monday morning he'd be so disheartened that he would have to force himself out of bed.


Sunday

At the same time Scully spent as much time playing with the kids after her mother brought them home the next morning as he did brooding. Throwing herself into playing pirates and princesses was the only thing that murdered the frequent impulse to call Mulder and demand that he help her understand what had happened on Saturday night, and more terrifying, if his distance the following day should be interpreted as an indication that he was giving up on their relationship.

On Sunday and Monday she tried to convince herself that she was just trying to give him a little breathing room and the space to know his own mind before she put any demands on him too. She was very persuasive, and almost believed that she maintained her own silence due to an attempt a compassionate consideration, not because she was terribly afraid that more than just an erection had been lost that night and it might already be over between them.


Monday

Even though he'd gotten out of bed at 9 AM it was still difficult for Mulder to get going when it was time for him to leave for the shelter. In the end he made a deal with himself: if he could make himself leave the house, he could let himself believe that he wasn't so depressed that he needed to make an emergency appointment with the therapist he typically was supposed to see once a month.

It was harder to fool himself than he would've liked, though, so he took to making fun of himself instead. There was no reason to be so depressed over a rough patch in a romance, he told himself, when heartache paled in comparison to everything else he'd been through, from prolonged captivity, literal torture, and being dumped back into a world that had moved on quite a bit in the three years he'd been absent it.

All of that seemed quite reasonable as long as he didn't allow himself to think about how he wasn't just afraid that Scully would break up with him over his behavior. In truth his deeper fear was that she might withdraw her friendship too, and that he couldn't bear.

He could cope if she decided that the only thing she could offer him was her platonic affection, even if that ultimately meant needed to step aside when she fell in love with another man who could fulfill her in ways he couldn't. But if she completely shut him out the way he halfway felt like he deserved...

Don't think like that, he told himself sternly as he got in his new car. Of course he thought of nothing else the entire drive.

Something felt off as soon as Mulder walked into the shelter, and he tried to tell himself that it was just his mood making him sense doom and gloom everywhere he went. Later, he'd wonder if he'd just been subconsciously keeping track of a date.

Regardless, he found his sense of unease impossible to shake as he walked in. The lights had already been turned off out front, and the unlit hallway bred shadows. ''Anyone here?" he called out, hating that he sounded nervous.

"I'm here," one of the day people announced.

He jumped, not having heard the door opened.

An older woman with a kind face stared out at him. "Oops, I'm so sorry to have startled you!" He thought her name was Sandy, but he'd only spoken to her once. Her profuse apology made him wonder if everyone at the shelter knew he's being treated For PTSD. Probably. "I'm glad I caught you, I'm on my way out."

Mulder tried not to look disapproving: he was almost ten minutes early, so her shift wasn't over yet. Unlike him, she was a paid employee, so he felt she should be even more conscientious than him, not less. "You're glad you caught me?" he asked, remembering what she said.

"Yes, I want to show you something."

He followed her, expecting to be led to a new or sick animal that required unusual care, not to a refrigerator. When they were in front of it, he gave her a questioning look.

Sandy didn't meet his eyes. Instead she spoke nervously as she opened the door. "On the top shelf there's a container with Dempsey's name on it." He could see an opaque plastic box with a masking tape label. "-with steak in it. Please bring him in to one of the visitor's rooms and give it to him tonight. You can microwave it a few seconds to get the chill off it first."

"He's on a special diet?" Mulder asked, thinking about how he was being asked to give the cat a chance to eat alone.

"No..." She looked away." Tomorrow's the day." He almost asked what day, but she went on. "We like to give them a special treat before... well, you know."

Mulder felt gutted when what she was dancing around finally sank in. "Like a prisoner on death rows last supper," he said, upset making his voice harsh.

Sandy winced. "I guess."

He didn't say any of the many things he was thinking, and Sandy beat a hasty retreat. It was hard to blame her for wanting to get away from him before he got around to speaking his mind.

Telling himself that he knew all along that unadopted pets got put down didn't make his heart feel any less heavy as he slowly walked towards the cat room. He knew that on an intellectual level, but none of the other animals he'd gotten to know had failed to find homes. He'd been rooting for the torn-eared tom he never failed to say greet to find another human, one whose lease allowed them to have pets, to find him loveable.

It would have happen, he was sure, given enough time... but Dempsey was out of time.

He should have pressured his landlord into making an exception, maybe citing the ADA if there was something relevant and/or threating to be found, he chided himself as he let himself into the cat room. Or suggested Mark adopt him, not the two kittens he'd taken home. Or begged Skinner to take him. But he knew, even if he could convince Walter now that he needed a cat, or could strong-arm his landlord into letting him have one himself, it was too late. Once the decision was made to put an animal down, no one was allowed to adopt them.

Completely unaware of what was to befall him the next day, Dempsey greeted him with a quizzical "mrrp?" and came to the front of his cage for scritches.

Seeing the cat act like it was just any night finally undid Mulder. Instead of scratching Dempsey under the chin, he sat on the floor in front of the cage and began to cry. After a minute or two of miserable sobbing he realized that his tears weren't just for the cat who was slated for execution the next day; they were for everything in his life that felt like it was spiraling out of his control.

It hadn't occurred to him until just then that he identified with the cat. Like he had been it was imprisoned and whether he lived or died was entirely up to someone else. There was nothing the cat could do to save himself, just like nothing Mulder had done for three years that made any difference whatsoever when it came to how he'd finally gained his freedom. And what had he done with his life on the other side of the bars so far? Squandered it.

He might have lost Scully for good because he hadn't been able to tell her his ugly secret. Fresh tears leaked out from under his closed eyelids as he considered the stupidity of that: in effort to keep her from thinking he was insane, he managed to push her away so hard that she no doubt thought he was a bastard who blamed her for his failure to adequately perform. Was it any better that she was to avoid him for hurting her than because she couldn't believe him? Either way, he was making more sure things were never going to be made right between them with every passing day. It's too late, he thought despondently. I can't fix any of this-

Something bumped his shoulder, making him look up. Dempsey had stuck a paw through the bars of the cage, poking him for attention.

"Hey," Mulder said weakly. Dempsey looked back at him, green eyes curious.

"You know what?" he asked, getting to his feet. "Maybe it's not too late." A new feeling of purpose began to surge within him. He could continue to believe he was helpless to do anything but accept the fortune and misfortune life offered him, or he could resume agency of his own life, trying to exert pressure on outcomes rather than just passively letting other people call the shots for him.

"Maybe we don't have to be victims of chance and just accept our lots in life, buddy." He scanned the room and soon saw what he'd been looking for: the somewhat battered cat carrier that had been left for him to bring Dempsey into the visitor's room up front.

He picked it up and smacked the carrier's latch hard against the doorknob. As expected, it bent but didn't quite break, the plastic hasp pin turning white from the stress on it. Mulder latched it, then gave a medium hard tug - and the carrier's door opened.

Humming, he put the carrier back down in the cat room and took care of all the animals before he went to get the trash. Once he returned from the dumpster he went to the fridge, took out the steak, and left it in a bowl in the visitor's room.

Still feeling cheerful, he found a pen and paper and composed a note expressing his heartfelt apology for not noticing that the latch on the carrier having issues until Dempsey threw himself at the door and sprang it open. Before he could react, Dempsey had fled out through the door he hadn't shut all the way yet because he planned to bring out the recycling while Dempsey ate. Unfortunately, even a thorough search of the block didn't produce the cat, who was apparently very good at hiding.

Note finished, he left it where it would be seen, then went to Dempsey's cage, infinitely glad the shelter didn't have security cameras. "Time to go," Mulder announced, opening the cage. The big cat went to him willingly, and didn't seem to mind being carried, but even so Mulder gave the carrier that sat on the table next to the note a longing look. As nice as using it would be, Mulder couldn't think of an excuse for why he'd left with it.

"No jumping, okay?" he whispered to the cat as he locked the door behind them.

Dempsey seemed to understand, and made no attempt to get down until he was in the backseat of the car. Mulder eyed him nervously, worried that he'd climb up under the pedals while he was driving, but the cat promptly curled up on the seat and went to sleep. He clearly trusted Mulder. It was as if he understood that he was going home.


It was pitch black out when Mulder finally pulled up in front of his building. Even though there wasn't a soul around, he still felt more than mildly anxious when he went around to the rear of the car and got Dempsey out. The cat didn't try to jump down, which was probably the only reason Mulder got him up to the apartment without anyone noticing.

As it was the cat wriggled restlessly in his arms, making it awkward to carry, him but at least he wasn't howling to be let down like Mulder's grandmother's cat always had when anyone had the gall to pick her up. And better yet, he didn't get a shoulder full of needles driven into it either. Still, even though Dempsey hadn't drawn any attention to them, he was relieved when he finally got into his apartment and was able to lower the cat to the floor. He was a bigger cat, but only about twelve pounds which shouldn't have been too much to tote around. An ache already spreading through his arms reminded him that he still had a long journey to regain his physical health too.

Once the cat was at his feet he just started at it. Was rescuing the stray a step in the right direction when it came to reclaiming his life? Or was it an impulsive sign that he wasn't finished cracking up?

Finally no longer confined in any way, Dempsey looked around and ignored the human who had brought him into the building. A cat didn't have a dog's talented nose but Mulder was sure that the cat's sense of smell was superior to his, so surely he realized that it was Mulder's home. "What do you think?"

He hadn't expected a response to the question, but his new roommate looked back at him and blinked. Waving his hand, Mulder chuckled and said "feel free to take a look around."

After a minute or two the cat actually did begin to look around. It was nice to see that he was curious instead of fearful - he'd known many people who said that the first thing their brand new cat did was to hide under a heavy piece of furniture out of human reach for two or three days.

He sat down and watched the cat roam around. He didn't really care if taking the little guy home indicated that he was even crazier than he thought: keeping him from being put down was the right thing to do. Even if it got him evicted and hunting for a new place to live. He really didn't think that it would come to that - he had a cracker jack sob story that he could trot out and use as evidence that he needed special treatment. It wasn't something he wanted to stoop to, but he was willing to use manipulation as a tool to protect Dempsey's life.

What came after the cat theft was something that he felt equipped to handle the fallout of. That left his relationship with Scully to worry about. Sighing, he wondered what was the worst thing that could happen if he was honest with her. Maybe she would decide that he was too damaged and delusional to remain in her life and in her children's. That was actually something he could understand: if his belief was entirely the fabrication of a sick mind, it would indeed be a horrible false conviction for someone to be tormented by. But he felt certain that something had really had happened to him, and the scar was proof of that.

If he told her the truth, what he felt deep in his heart was really the truth, the worst thing that could happen was that he would lose Scully. And he would lose the children that he was hoping that he would one day be able to call his own. He would be left to muddle through life without her, and it would break his heart.

But so too would losing her through inaction instead. And would he ever be able to live with himself if he sacrificed his missing child for Scully and her children? Or would he be forever haunted by the knowledge that he did nothing to try to improve its lot because he was more concerned with his own comfort? Although he had doubts about how successful he might be if he tried to find it, he wasn't sure that he could do nothing. If the child existed he had to at least try to recover it; no matter what form of life it was there had to be something better for it than to remain in the hands of the grays.

Mulder stood up and looked for Dempsey. He eventually spotted the tom trying to pull a tasseled bookmark out of a novel on the bottom shelf of the bookcase. He made a mental note to pick up some cat toys, as well as a litter box and food, while he was out. Because he realized that he was going out.

"Wish me luck," Mulder told him, going to shut his bedroom door. He didn't mind letting him have access to the rest of the apartment but if the cat needed the litter box that didn't yet exist while he was gone, he didn't want to learn that Dempsey was the sort of cat that chose its owner's bed as a location to indicate their displeasure.


It had been his intention to go to Scully's first, before he could lose his nerve, but it was so late that the pet store would be closed if he waited until after he spoke to her. So he showed up at her place with a backseat full of cat supplies. It felt ridiculous to arrive in a car that was conspicuously jingling but then, so too did the purpose of his visit. Still, he didn't let himself run away, and instead he forced himself out of the car and all the way up to her front door.

Taking a deep breath, he knocked softly, hoping it was loud enough for her to hear but not so loud that the little ones did. He waited anxiously, hoping that it would all go well, but if she just told him to leave, he'd have to accept that.

The door eventually opened and Scully looked out at him. "Mulder?" she asked, giving him a puzzled look.

"I know it's late. I'm sorry if I woke the kids... "

"They're sound asleep. Come in," she demanded, holding the door open until he did.

Giving her a sheepish look, he apologized again. "I would have called if I thought this was the sort of conversation that was possible over the phone. I'm sorry I didn't ask before coming ov-"

"Would you please stop saying that?" Scully asked impatiently. "I don't need you to keep apologizing for trivial things."

He read between the lines and concluded that she thought he did need to apologize to her for non-trivial things, which he figured was fair. If she had left as abruptly as he had, he wouldn't have known what to make of it, either.

Nodding, he told her, "I'll try. But I need to tell you that what happened a few days ago has little to do with you. It's just more evidence that I'm falling apart lately."

"What's the other evidence?" she asked evenly. It wasn't what he expected her to say.

Running a hand down his face, he sighed. "I'm not sleeping well. There's been something bothering me for a long time, and even though I've been keeping myself busy so I don't think about it during the day, as soon as I lie down it starts to haunt me all over again. The nightmares have gotten really intense over the past few weeks."

Instead of demanding to know what was worrying him, she made an unmistakable 'go on' gesture.

"My meds don't seem to be working as well as they did. The anxiety ones, I mean. I'm jumpy. I'm not hallucinating anything right now, but I'm on edge." He paused for a second. "And I stole a cat tonight."

"You stole a cat?" she repeated as if sure that she'd misheard him.

"Yeah."

"From the shelter?"

"Yes."

"Why??"

He sighed. How could he explain how he thought of the cat as a kindred spirit without being encouraged to sign himself back into the hospital. It was impossible. "They were going to put him down. And I couldn't allow that. It's not fair that he was supposed to die for the crime of not being a cute, cuddly kitten people wanted to take home."

"Are you going to steal all the cats that are going to be put down?" she asked, apparently curious about his thought processes.

"No. Just Dempsey." Scully had two brothers, both of whom were avid sports fans, so he didn't bother explaining that the cat was named after the boxer. If she didn't know, he didn't think she'd care.

"Are you going to continue to volunteer there?"

"Yes."

"And you don't think anyone's going to confront you about the missing cat?"

He shrugged slightly. "Except for one night a week when I check on all the animals, I work with dogs. And it's not like there are security cameras."

"Right." Scully pursed her lips. "Where is the cat now?"

"On my couch?" he guessed. "Or in the armchair. He I kept my bedroom door shut, so he can't be on the bed."

She just stared at him, and he wondered if her question was less specific than he'd interpreted it as. Maybe she just wanted to know if he'd kept the purloined feline or found another home for it.

"I need to explain to you what happened that night," he told her, not daring to look her in the eyes.

"I was there. You don't need to explain the mechanics of what happened to me."

Mulder shook his head. "Actually, I do." He sighed. "It happened because you touched my scar."

"Your scar?"

"My scar," he repeated. He pulled up his shirt, showing her. "This scar."

For a moment her eyes lingered on the ridge of reddish flesh, and he wondered what she was thinking about. "Did I hurt you?" She sounded concerned. "That can't have happened too long ago, or it would have faded to the color of skin-"

"You didn't hurt me," he told her. He was committed now, he had to go on and ignore the misgivings that fluttered in the back of his mind like caged birds. "It just reminded me."

"Of what?" Mulder hated to see the confusion on her face, the sort that said she was still trying to figure out what she'd done wrong that night and that she didn't understand that he was not being polite when he insisted that it hadn't been her fault, not really.

He sighed, and sat down, pulling his shirt over the scar as he did so. "We need to talk," he told her. "There's something I haven't been dealing with." Mulder paused a moment, catching her eye. "And I'm afraid that I'll never be whole again until I do."

"What?" Her eyes were wary as she sat down across from him. Then she looked towards the hallway, apparently reassuring herself that the kids were sleeping. He hadn't even thought of that, and he was glad she had.

Part of him wanted to take her hands in his, to hold onto her to keep himself calm as he spun his tale, but he didn't feel like he deserved to. And he was afraid that she'd eventually recoil from him, and he'd feel her slip through his fingers in an all too real way.


"They cut something out of me." His voice was soft and she wondered if he was aware that his hand skimmed the length of the scar as he spoke to her.

"What?" she couldn't resist asking when he paused for more than a few seconds.

His initial response was to heave a sigh. "You have to understand that I wasn't able to tell any of the doctors I saw in the hospital what I'm trying to tell you tonight." Mulder paused and caught her eyes with his own. He looked incredibly sad, which began to make her feel uneasy. This feeling only intensified when he added, "I trust you. If I told someone who hadn't seen the things we have... voluntary hospitalization or not they could have declared me incompetent to make my own medical decisions and thrown away the key."

"Okay," she said because there was really no other response that would keep him talking; as worried as she was about what he was going to say next, she was even more afraid that he would keep it to himself if he didn't feel like he could tell her. And if he was being genuine and not just rationalizing his response to her touch a few days ago she was already a minor victim of his secret. Less so than he himself was but...

For a moment he studied her expression and she wondered what he found in it that eventually made him nod to himself and say "Okay." Then he looked down the hallway again and suggested "Maybe you should check to make sure that they're still sleeping."

Scully got up then with a heavy heart. This concern that they might be awake to overhear told her more than anything else that his explanation about what had happened to him would be a truly awful one. Fortunately, both of the kids were sound asleep. She shut their doors firmly and returned to him.

"What did they cut out of you?" she asked before she lost her nerve.

"When they did it they didn't bother with any anesthesia like a human doctor would so it's hard to be entirely sure that what I thought happened really did, but I think it did." When Mulder paused she offered him an encouraging look. He went on. "Because even as they were shoving me out the hatch and I thought that I was going to die, my thought wasn't 'what's going to happen when I hit the ground' but 'what's going to happen to the baby now?'"

"What baby?" Scully blurted out, but even as the words crossed her lips she understood with horror that he had already given her all the dots she needed in order to complete the ghastly picture.

"Scully..." Mulder's voice rasped painfully.

"You believe you have a child?" she asked carefully, realizing that he was implying that he believed what they'd cut out of them had been a baby. Even as she fought to sound calm she was thinking about how they might have done something like that to him. Human technology was not equal to the task even still, but for a race of beings that had possessed the means to rob her of her entire store of gametes it seemed all too possible.

"I don't know if it is a child," he exclaimed, startling her a little. "At least by the commonly understood definition. If it exists, it's only half human. But..." He looked back, expression both angry and sad. "But it's mine."

For a second she felt a reflexive bout of distaste, but then she reminded herself that Emily had DNA that wasn't human either. And that hadn't tempered how she'd felt about the girl, so how could she expect Mulder to feel differently if he in fact had a child himself that was a hybrid?

"Did you see it?"

He looked both relieved and confused at the same time. It would take her a few moments to figure out that these emotions were unrelated - he was grateful that she hadn't dismissed his fear out of hand but still unsure of the answer to that question. "Yes. I don't know."

"You don't know?"

He began to get frustrated. "That's where my memories get unclear. I seem to remember every second of them slicing me open but eventually the pain got to be too much and I lost time as I faded in and out of consciousness..." Mulder bit his lower lip. "In my nightmares, in the ones where I relive every second of that agony, I sometimes see it."

"What... what did it look like?" she asked hesitantly. Her thoughts kept returning to what the alien fetus that had ultimately cost the life of one of their allies had looked like. It had been a hideous enough little thing that she had felt no sorrow that it hadn't lived.

Mulder shrugged. "That's the thing... it looks two different ways in those dreams. Sometimes it's a human baby, with hair as dark as mine and eyes that are that odd blue that some babies who will have dark eyes have at birth." He sighed and she fully expected that he would describe an infant with huge almond eyes and spindly limbs next, but he said "And at other times it doesn't look like a baby at all. It's just somewhat slimy and the red-purple of a deep bruise." He lowered his head. "But even in those dreams, when they take it away... I still hear it crying."

"Oh, Mulder... "

A wave of self-loathing washed over her when she realized two things: the first was that she believed him. And the second was that she considered it unfair that it had happened to him instead of her. As awful as what he believed had happened to him was, he'd been able to nurture life inside him and she never would. He'd been tortured, abused in inhuman, impossible ways, but she was still capable of being jealous of that. How can I envy that? she wondered, but her greedy heart had no answer to that question, at least not one she could understand.

Mulder went on. "I've... I've given some thought to why it looks featureless in some of the dreams."

"Yeah?" she asked, desperately trying to wrench her attention back to what he was saying. At the moment she didn't even feel like she was being a good friend, let alone anything more.

He leaned on his knees, his still too sharp knees, then looked up at her. "You and Skinner both asked me if there were other people on the ship with me. I never gave either of you more than a vague answer, because I really don't know."

"Mulder, I..." Scully trailed off, unsure what to say then. She didn't know why he was bringing that up right then, and she was afraid to ask what it had to do with anything because he was already upset enough.

"Did you see Gibson Praise after I was taken?" Mulder asked abruptly, and she felt herself growing more concerned than ever.

"Yes..." she said slowly. "I saw him a few months after you were... Why do you ask?" Scully didn't add that she'd gone to visit the boy about three months after Mulder's abduction, foolishly hoping that Gibson could provide her with some answers. He couldn't, of course. The link he'd had with the monsters didn't extend to the aliens, or at the very least not ones who were still on the ground.

"I thought I saw him, on the ship." Rather than look at her, he turned to face the window. "But it didn't really seem like him. It didn't seem to know me."

"Oh."

"So I sort of got the idea that maybe it wasn't really him," Mulder explained, finally looking back. "That maybe it was just something pretending to look like him. Like one had once pretended to be me."

All of the sudden she remembered what it had been like to have Mulder try to kill her, and how betrayed and confused she'd felt until she'd realized that it wasn't Mulder at all who was trying to choke the life from her. "You're talking about shape shifters."

"Like the alien bounty hunter, yes," he agreed. "If those kind were there too, maybe... maybe when they're small, and haven't seen people to imitate yet... "

It was almost impossible for her to imagine the bounty hunter as a child, and even less so to picture an infant him just being an amorphous blob, but who was to say that wasn't how baby bounty hunters operated?

Or maybe the image of the dark-haired baby was just an illusion that his beleaguered mind threw up to protect itself from the sort of horror that it couldn't accept, the reality of what a hybrid infant that was much more Them than him would look like. But she couldn't share this thought with him. Not when she had no proof of it. Not when he was in so much pain already. If he found it and discovered that it wasn't remotely human, he'd have to deal with it then. Not now.

It hurt her heart to realize that deep down he was hoping that the child could pass for human. Maybe she'd been lucky that Emily had looked human on the outside. "Do you have any idea if it's a boy or a girl?" Scully asked, figuring he'd say no. Even if the baby really existed, it was clear that he didn't have much contact with it.

"I think it's a boy," Mulder told her. "I never held him, but somehow..." He never finished that thought, and she supposed that she couldn't really blame him. Her mother once told her that she'd never been surprised at any of her children's births, since she'd felt like she'd known all along the genders of the babies she carried.

Birth. Trying not to look at Mulder and make her thoughts obvious, Scully tried to reason out whether or not the scar he bore was similar to the C-section scars she'd seen women sporting. It didn't look quite like one, but that probably didn't really matter since even if a man carried a child he wouldn't have a uterus as part of the equation. Or so she hoped - it would be rather difficult to explain it to a doctor if he was examined and discovered to possess one.

This line of thinking led her down another path, and she turned to him once she tired of listening to the ticking noise the ceiling fan made above their heads. "What do you want to do?" she asked awkwardly. "About the, baby." Scully hoped that only she noticed the split second pause before she said baby.

Mulder sighed and leaned back against his seat. "I don't know if I'll ever find him. I mean, he's up there," he said, pointing at the ceiling.

She wished that he just meant the attic. "Maybe they'll let him go," she suggested quickly, although she really hoped that it wouldn't be the same way that Mulder was released. "Others have come back, after all."

"Yeah, maybe." Mulder didn't sound convinced. "If they don't consider him one of them, maybe it will happen someday. If it doesn't, there isn't anything I can do."

Scully reached for his hand. "If there's any way to find him, I'll help you the best that I can."

Mulder's smile barely qualified as one. "Thanks."

"Suppose we do find him, what then?" she asked.

He shrugged. "Then I raise him to the best of my ability, though it will probably mean dodging science and government types who'd want to study him."

"Unless he looks human."

"Well there's that." Mulder looked grim. "But if he doesn't, I'm looking at life on the run if I find him. Maybe that's why I've tried to forget about him."

"Because you don't want to live like that?" Scully asked, uncertain.

Mulder shook his head. "Because if I get him back, and he's not at least as human as Emily, I still owe him my protection. Even if that means giving up you and your kids."

"Mulder-"

"I couldn't ask you to stay with me then," he said sadly. "Even if you were willing, what sort of life would that be for Tommy and Grace?"

Scully wanted to deny that running forever would be a hardship, or point out that it was premature to plan for something that might never happen, but she didn't. "Well, we'll cross that bridge when and if we come to it."

"Right." Then he offered her a ghastly smile. "With this weighing on my mind, I've been reluctant to think about your kids," he said.

"How so?" she asked, surprised. Mulder seemed to give them a lot of kindness and consideration, but somehow he didn't feel like he'd done that enough?

"I mean..." he stammered, sounding tongue-tied. "I mean I haven't really let myself hope that Tommy and Grace are-" Mulder shook his head as though he thought he was doing a poor job of explaining himself, which he was. "Can we find out if they're mine?"

"Mulder..." He gave her a look that forced her to suppress a sigh. "I've already done a DNA test on each of them."

"And?"

It reminded her of her mother saying the same thing, but his expression was guarded rather than eager. "You're Grace's father."

She watched his face as he sorted this out. At first he looked pleased, but then her words seemed to sink in all the way. "But not Tommy's," he said heavily.

"I'm sorry." That seemed like the best thing to say, though she wasn't sure what she was apologizing for. It hadn't been her choice, after all. "For what it's worth, I really hoped that you were."

"Do you have any idea who is?"

"No. And I'm not sure I want to."

"He and I aren't related at all?" Mulder asked doggedly.

It made her feel bad to say no. But this actually seemed to please him. "Well, at least he's not my half-brother."

"Oh, Jesus," she sighed. "That is a small blessing. But why-"

"My biological father kidnapped you, forced you to play dress up, and undressed you while you were sleeping. He obviously wasn't big on boundaries, and it's hard to put it past him to decide you might make an excellent mother of his future prodigy once he got to know you a bit better on that foolish trip."

Frowning at the mental image of the old man gleefully commissioning their co-offspring, she tried to do the math to see if Tommy had been created before or after that trip. "I guess there are times when the unknown is better than the devil you know."

"That's for sure," he agreed.

They stumbled into silence then, and Scully couldn't let it sit, so she blurted out what she was thinking to fill the void. "Does it... Does knowing he's not yours make you feel differently about Tommy?" As soon as the words were out, she wished she could call them back. He'd only known for minutes, and she was already asking him about his feelings. But maybe it could be that visceral, that sudden a souring of feelings.

"No," he insisted.

"Really?" she asked, not daring to look him in the eye. If he was humoring her, she'd see it there. She knew his tells.

"Really."

"Why not?" she asked, not sure why she wanted to know.

"I haven't changed my mind about him, and I'm not going to. I think he's a great kid, and I care a lot about him. And not because I also hoped he was mine."

"Then why?"

"Because he's yours," Mulder said simply.

At that very second she realized two things: the first was that she was as deeply in love with Mulder right then as she'd ever been before he was abducted. And the second was that if they ever found Mulder's child, she would love it too, no matter what form it might take, because it was his.

He seemed quite startled when she walked to him and threw her arms around him. "What's that for?" he asked faintly.

"For being you."

"I'll keep on doing that then."

Letting him go, she patted his shoulder. "I think the first thing we need to do is to have you examined by a doctor."

"I've already seen a doctor," he protested.

Shaking her head, she laughed. "Not the sort that might be able to tell us if you've... if the child really exists."

"I'm not telling some internist that I might have had an alien baby."

"No, but you can tell him that you want to know if he can tell what sort of surgery you've had. There might be physiological evidence left inside you."

He looked a little ill. "That should be reassuring, but it's not."

"Sorry."

"You're right though," Mulder told her. "That's the next step."

"Umm hmm," she murmured. They both drifted off into their own thoughts then, each wondering what the step after that would be.


A thick mist rose over the dark night, which somehow made it seem lighter out. The cool dampness clung to Mulder's skin but he hardly noticed because he was intent on finding somewhere, anywhere, he could hide. He stumbled over his feet as a chainsaw roared ominously behind him. As fast as he ran, it kept getting closer, and a stitch burning in his side made him wonder if he should just give up. It was inevitable that he was going to be caught by the maniac, so why should he keep fighting it? Suddenly, the chainsaw was even louder, and it had to be right behind him-

When Mulder finally startled himself awake, he found a pair of green eyes placidly staring at him, and realized that the chainsaw in his dream had been Dempsey's purr. "Funny," he muttered, but he put out one shaky hand so that he could pet the cat's head. Dempsey butted against his fingers, not too subtly telling him that petting the top of his head was nice, but he could really use his jawline scratched if it wasn't too much trouble.

Back when he was a kid, his grandmother Mulder had a trio of cats. They were more pampered than the barn cats that his grandfather had intended them to be when he brought them home as kittens, but even his soft-hearted grandmother had one important rule about living with cats - cats do not belong in bedrooms. This had led to tears on Samantha's part no less than three times when the cats were confiscated by one grandparent or the other when they'd slept over, but he could now see a bit of sense to the rule: back then he'd never had dreams about chainsaw welding maniacs trying to find him.

But, he reflected as he looked at his ceiling, at least the cameo of a killer from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a welcome change from his typical nightmare fare. It had been three days since he'd spilled his guts to Scully, and he hadn't had a nightmare about being back on the ship again. They say that confession is good for the soul, and he wished that he was naive enough to truly believe that.

In all honesty, he had planned on having a terrible nightmare about being on the ship again because Scully had managed to get him an appointment with someone she knew by reputation for later that morning. Mulder tried to tell himself that the odds were decent that he'd come away from the scan with no more idea of what had happened to him than he had at that very moment because an absence of evidence wasn't necessarily an evidence of absence... but he was actually more afraid that there would be something found.

What exactly could be found was something he dared not dwell on too much. At least when he was awake. In one dream earlier in the month that he hadn't shared with Scully, probably the worst dream he'd had since he's been pushed out of the ship, they hadn't just cut something out of him. They'd put something in too.

The morning after that dream he'd spent a lot of time trying to assure himself that if they'd put another monster inside of him, he'd know it by then. Reassurances to himself were more uneasy than he wanted to admit because he really had no good sense of how much time had passed between acquiring his scar and being "released." But still, nothing poked back when he jabbed fingers into his side, so hopefully that one was just another of his subconscious' attempts to make him face the problem head on. He hoped. He so desperately hoped.

By his head, Dempsey's purr slowed down, and Mulder became aware that he was still being stared at only a second or two before a large gray paw whapped him on the nose. Narrowing his eyes at the cat, who if anything looked smug rather than intimidated, Mulder just dryly asked, "Are you trying to tell me it's time for breakfast?"

These seemed to be the magic words because the cat jumped off the bed. Mulder let him think he was following him before abruptly shutting the bedroom door, leaving the cat on the other side. Dempsey yowled indignantly, but Mulder ignored him so he could get dressed. He might not take his grandparents' decree that nothing with more than two legs should sleep in a bedroom to heart, but it only took Dempsey getting too curious once while he changed his boxers to earn himself exile while Mulder changed.

He must have stayed in bed thinking longer than he had thought, because he'd barely had time to feed the cat before Scully was knocking at his door. When she suggested that she take the morning off to go with him, he had wanted to tell her that he'd be fine alone, but it wasn't true so he hadn't tried to say it would be.

"Morning," she said as he let her in. "About ready to go?"

"Just let me retie my shoes," Mulder told her, giving his new pet a dark look. The cat didn't even look up from his bowl.

Scully caught his look. "He untied them for you?" She mimed the cat snagging them with a claw.

"No," Mulder replied, imagining that the cat probably was smart enough to untie them with his clever paws, though. "Bigfoot there stepped on the laces and they came undone."

"Ah." She nodded. "I guess that's the risk you run when you acquire a forty pound cat."

"You know he's not really that heavy..." Mulder's protests were met with a smirk as they left and shut the door behind them.


If anyone at Doctor Etienne's office thought there was anything strange about Scully accompanying Mulder to his appointment, no one said anything. Instead no one said a word when she got up with him when his name was called. Mulder thought that the looks they got from the receptionist and a few passing nurses suggested that people assumed that they were a couple.

He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling at the thought, mostly because he didn't want to explain how pathetically glad he was that they still were a couple. He'd done his best to ruin things, but their newly restored relationship had more resilience to it than he dared hope, so they hadn't broken up after all.

After speaking with Scully Etienne had scheduled an MRI, but he wanted to examine Mulder first, earlier in the morning, so they were at his office first. Fortunately, his office suite shared a parking lot with the hospital, so they were able to only sacrifice Scully's morning classes.

A nurse took Mulder's height and weight, during which time Mulder carefully looked away from either woman's faces so he wouldn't have to see any pity there, and then brought him into the exam room to take his temperature and blood pressure. "Is this the first time you're seeing Doctor Etienne?" the nurse asked as she adjusted the blood pressure cuff. He tried not to notice that she was having a difficult time getting it wrapped around his arm the way she wanted it to be, but the sound that the Velcro made was a bit irritating, so he couldn't ignore it completely.

"Yes," Mulder replied simply. No details he came up with that could explain the nature of the visit seemed appropriate to share, so he clamped down on his tongue to keep from blurting them out.

"Relax!" the nurse admonished him, and for a second he wondered how she'd known he was nervous. His circulatory had betrayed him, of course, he soon realized. "I won't interrogate you."

Mulder offered her a weak smile and tried to calm down. He must have succeed because the nurse looked a lot happier about the second reading than the first one.

"The doctor will be in momentarily. Why don't you put on a gown?" she suggested and left the room before he could think of a response.

To Mulder's amusement, Scully turned away when he began to get undressed. "You don't have to do that, you've seen it all before, Scully."

"It's different at a doctor's office," she said primly and didn't turn back around.

"If you say so... "

"All right," Mulder told her after a couple of minutes. "You can turn around now without needing to worry any more about offending my dignity."

"Mulder..." She gave him a look. "Doesn't being at a doctor's office make you feel vulnerable too?"

"I've had worse experiences," he replied dryly.

"How do you want to handle the conversation with the doctor?" Her voice was hesitant. "I don't want to overstep... "

"If there are things you think you could explain better than I could, please do."

Somehow this seemed to make her feel better, at least judging by how some of the tension bled out of her expression. "Okay."

The door was politely knocked on about a minute and a half later, and the doctor entered the exam room. Mulder gave him a quick once over and was immediately pleased that the doctor looked like he was neither fresh out of med school nor days away from retirement. Instead he was solidly middle-aged.

"How are you doing, Fox?" Etienne offered.

Mulder couldn't help but greet this with a crooked smile. "I guess that's what we're trying to find out today."

"Of course. So I understand that you have a scar that you don't know the origin of?"

Mulder shook his head lightly. "I know where it happened, but not precisely when, or why they cut me open."

"Ah. How about we take a look?" Etienne gave him a pointed look as he spoke, and Mulder obligingly opened that side of the thin gown he was wearing so the doctor could see. There was a mirrored cabinet off to the side, and he found himself somewhat glad that his ribs stuck out less than the last time a doctor poked and prodded him.

"Hmm," Etienne muttered as he firmly but more or less gently examined the scar. "This was done deliberately, and not following a serious illness or an injury?" he asked.

"No..." Mulder trailed off, giving Scully a helpless look.

"As I mentioned on the phone, Fox was my partner at the FBI," Scully said evenly. "He was on a case when a group we were investigating captured him. Unfortunately, this group has a perchance for medical experimentation." She frowned as she concluded, obviously not inviting further questioning about the precise nature of 'the group' she was speaking about.

Etienne either picked up on this, or was not as morbidly curious as many people might be. He looked a bit green for a moment before recovering to ask Mulder, "So we're concerned that this scar might have come about when something was removed from your body?"

"Or inserted into," Mulder added reluctantly. He didn't miss Scully's sharp look when he said it.

"Well, we'll see what we'll see during the MRI, then." The doctor looked worried despite a best effort to keep that from showing.

Mulder almost asked him if he actually planned to be there during the MRI rather than leave it to a tech, but Etienne said, "Why don't you get dressed and we'll walk over?" which answered that question. "I'll wait in the hallway."

"Um, Scully?" Mulder asked as he pulled his pants back on. She looked over at him. "Should I be worried that he's going with us?"

"Would you feel better if I said no?"

He thought about this for a moment. "Probably not."

"Maybe he's just thinking of what other 'doctors' have done in the name of experimentation and that's what has him concerned," Scully suggested.

"Yeah, maybe."

But somehow he didn't think so.


Etienne led them from his office all the way through the hospital. Mulder wondered if the MD was worried that they might bolt if they didn't have an escort. He supposed that it was possible that there had been people before them who had run across the very same parking lot with their jonny flapping in the breeze as they headed for the highway rather than into the hospital proper.

The doctor didn't say much until they'd gone inside and through the door labeled "MRI," and what he did say surprised Mulder.

"Fox, I'm going to leave you with the tech now. Dr. Scully, would you like to join me in the booth?"

Scully shot him a look and he shrugged. If she was going to waste half a day coming with him anyway, it'd be nice if there was some sort of purpose to her presence beyond making him feel better. Maybe she'd be able to tell what was going on before Etienne debriefed him.

"I'll be fine," he murmured against her ear when she made no move to answer the doctor. "You can give me the inside scoop later." He almost said 'get it?' but she was not in the mood for bad word plays.

"Mister Mulder?" a large capable looking technician asked as soon as Scully followed Etienne out of the MRI room.

"Hmm?"

"Do you have any jewelry on?"

"Nope."

"No wedding ring, huh?"

"Um. Not yet," he said and felt his cheeks flush.

"Have you ever taken any shrapnel?"

Mulder gave the tech a blank stare. All he could think of was the chip that had once taken up cozy residence in Scully's neck. "I, uh, I don't think so. I was shot once, but the doc said it was a through and through." At least he had once Mulder actually went to see one after a layover with Albert Hosteen's people.

"Well, let's hope not. You can go behind that screen and put this on," the tech said, handing him more thin cotton clothing.

Mulder went around the screen and changed as quickly as possible. It was probably a good thing that he'd never had any aspirations towards being a male stripper because the clumsiness of his fingers told him that he'd probably be pretty terrible at it.

When he came back around, the tech smiled and patted the movable bench of the MRI machine. "Hope up here and we'll get you situated the way the doctor wants you."

"Fox?" a voice over an unseen intercom said, making him jump. "It's very important that you don't move once we start, okay?"

"Okay."

"Great."

Inside Mulder cringed, wondering if Scully had heard the entire exchange between him and the tech, including his response to the wedding ring question.

"You're going to hear a lot of noise," Etienne continued. "Some people say it sounds like drums."

"Right... "

"Here we go."

A few seconds later Mulder felt the bench below him slide forward and as soon as it stopped he began to hear the noise that Etienne warned him about. It didn't sound like drums. It sounded more like someone shooting at metal siding. The sounds bothered his ears a little, but all he could think of was that at least he understood what was going on.

At least he wasn't three years old, and completely confused about what was happening. How had Emily coped with undergoing a similar test? She had been so little. And she had lost both of her parents just before then. Scully said that she'd been a real trooper, but God, she shouldn't have had to.

And she shouldn't have died so damn young.

One thing he'd never shared with Scully, and never would, was that the first thing he thought of when he'd been shown a picture of Tommy and Grace was "thank God they don't look like Emily." Sure, Skinner had told him that they were both healthy, and he knew that Scully had had them for two years by that point, but until he knew that they didn't look like their late sister, he still worried that they were going to die young too. They were both so much more lively than the sick little girl he'd only known for a few days that he'd been able to retire that worry, at least about Tommy and Grace.

Cool air blew over him and he thought of another thing he hadn't told her, either. These days he worried about the same thing happening to him that had already happened to her - that he would find his child but it would already be too late. It seemed heartbreakingly plausible to him that Emily's alien DNA had been her death warrant, and if that was true, what hope did his child have? Emily had been mostly human, not half alien. If she'd lived three years would that mean his child would be lucky to live a year?

Or his other child, that was, considering he'd just learned that Grace was his child too. That was something he hadn't really gotten a chance to come to grips with yet, nor the fact that Tommy wasn't, either. About the latter, however, he hadn't been lying to Scully when he said that it didn't change how he felt about the boy. Tommy was a great kid, and he couldn't like him more if he shared DNA with him too.


Inside the booth, Scully wondered if Etienne was just being polite by inviting her to sit in, or if he thought that she might actually have some sort of insight into what they were seeing. She almost hoped that it was the former because she wasn't sure that she was going to have anything intelligent to offer: she'd seen enough MRIs to understand the general layout of the human body as seen by the MRI machine, but that was about it.

Etienne didn't say much at first, but once Mulder was sliding into the machine, he glanced at her and said, "He can only hear us when I turn the intercom on."

"I see."

"Given the location of his scar, I think we'll concentrate on the liver first," Etienne mentioned.

Fortunately, he was looking away so he didn't see how she went pale then. The thought that a man could carry a child to term was still in the realm of science fiction, but everyone who wrote about it, as absurd as the possibility seemed, all agreed on one thing: given the lack of a uterus, the best place for an embryo to attach inside the male body would be at his liver because it could offer a rich enough blood supply.

"I was a little surprised that you said when we set up the appointment that you thought he'd be traumatized by an ultrasound." Etienne fiddled with the controls, and the interior contents of Mulder's abdomen came into view. "I assume that's related to what was done to him?"

Scully wasn't about to tell him that Mulder had flat out refused to be given an ultrasound, snapping that even if he had ever technically been pregnant, he wasn't right then. Her explanation that there were a lot of other reasons for an ultrasound fell on deaf ears. Or actually, given how anxious he got, not really deaf at all. "Yes."

Etienne turned to look at her out of the corner of his eye. "When we say 'experimentation' we're really talking about medical torture, aren't we?"

Instead of answering, she looked down.

Etienne sighed. "It would be lovely to think that the world had seen the last of that after we dealt with the monsters during world war two but... "

After that they drifted into silence until Etienne said "Huh."

"What?" she asked sharply, sitting up straighter in her seat.

He pointed at a portion of the image. "There's scaring here."

Scully squinted. "That's the liver?" she asked, feeling like a first year med student to need the confirmation.

"That is. See here?" He made a sweeping gesture. "It's misshapen, too."

"What does that mean?" She was glad that Mulder couldn't hear their conversation right then.

"It's healing, but something was cut away, here."

Scully peered at the image, wondering if she looked long enough if she could make out vestigial remains of a placenta or something like one. Would an alien child even have had a placenta? Irreverently, she wished suddenly that she'd checked the alien fetus for the remains of an umbilical cord before they'd lost possession of it years ago. "Do you know what? Or why?"

Etienne shook his head. "Maybe when I get the report, I'll be able to figure out more. But..." Scully's heart stopped for a second, imagining that he'd mention a baby. "If I didn't know better I'd say they just did it for the hell of it."

Swallowing hard, she croaked, "Maybe they did."

The doctor shook his head before flipping on the intercom. "You did great, Fox. As soon as you're ready to, you can get redressed, okay?"

Mulder's voice was a bit muffled, but Scully was sure that she heard him say "okay."


By the time Scully returned, he was tying his shoes again. "I'm thinking of investing in some sneakers with Velcro laces," he remarked before looking up at her. "For days like today when people keep wanting me to get naked."

"You weren't entirely naked under your gown, were you?"

"Nah, I found some 100% cotton briefs, so they let me keep 'em."

"Oh."

"So, did I provide you with some quality TV entertainment?" he asked, but he finally got a good look at her face and immediately wondered what was wrong. "Scully?"

She offered him a weak smile and took his arm. "We'll talk about that later, huh?"

So she either didn't want to be overheard because she had something incredible to tell him, or she was worried about his reaction. Either way, he supposed he was glad that they'd taken her car. "Okay."

*

It seemed to take forever for them to get out of the hospital and get into her car. He watched the way she carefully put on her seatbelt before asking, "So are you going to tell me what you saw?"

"I don't know what I saw," she said, and then held up a hand when he opened his mouth to complain. "And that's weird."

"But there was definitely something to see?" he pressed.

She leaned back and sighed. "Something used to be attached to your liver, but it isn't anymore. There's some scaring on your liver, but not enough that you have to worry about impaired functioning," she added in a tone obviously crafted to be reassuring.

He wasn't reassured. "Something?"

"I don't know what." Looking away, she went on. "I'm not sure there's a way to know what. There didn't seem to be any trace of what it was left."

"I guess that's good," he said shakily, and she looked at him. "At least there's nothing in there that's going to cause me to need an abdominal D&C, which probably don't even exist."

"At least." Scully paused. "But you were sick... afterwards, weren't you?"

"I think so," Mulder allowed, wondering what she was getting at.

"I have to wonder if that's why you have so much trouble remembering exactly what happened."

He waited for her to start the car. "What do you mean?"

"Being feverish, which you would have been if there was some sort of infection, can interfere with your memories. Especially if it caused hallucinations."

"I don't think this is a hallucination," Mulder snapped, touching his side.

"No, but what if one of the 'memories' of what happened was?"

"So you're saying I either imagined it looking like a blob or like a baby?"

"Not exactly imagined, but yeah."

"That's not very reassuring, you know," he said dourly. "Especially when that could mean the blob is the accurate memory."

"I'm sorry," she offered.

"I know."

"Now what?"

Ha laughed. "I was hoping you had a good idea about that."

Rather than apologizing again, she started the car.


They arrived at Mulder's apartment half an hour after leaving the medical center, but Scully made no move to turn off her car. Instead she glanced at him and asked, "Are you sure you don't want to come back to Quantico with me?" trying not to let concern color her voice. Mulder hadn't said a lot to indicate his level of distress, but she was sure that he wasn't completely fine with what they discovered. No one could be.

To her disappointment, he shook his head lightly. "You still have two classes to teach. How would you explain my presence?"

"I don't know, Mulder, maybe today's classes could be a show and tell." She couldn't resist grinning at him. "I'll tell them that I've brought you in to tell them about one of our cases."

"Which one?" he asked, getting her hopes up a little that he was actually interested in her offer. It was a genuine one, not one made in jest, because she really did think her students could get something out of hearing a real agent speak to them. Dry texts could give you a lot of facts, but no new agent ever entered the field feeling like they'd been told enough what the job felt like.

"Your choice."

"What are you teaching these kids anyway, Scully? Slicing and dicing?" he asked. "Should it be something gory that highlights your skills there?"

"They're not kids," she corrected him, but half as a reminder to herself because their eager faces and bright eyes made that hard to remember sometimes. "And I teach forensics. You don't think I learned how to do an autopsy when I went to Quantico, do you?"

Mulder leaned back against the headrest. "I don't know how to tell you this, but Scully... I've never been able to bring myself to imagine you learning how to cut up bodies. If I'd let myself go down that road, I wouldn't be able to help wonder if you get along with Bill because you once had another brother who was even more of a pain and-"

He laughed when she put a hand over his mouth and gave him a prim look. "There were only ever just the four of us, thank you very much."

"'Just'?" he repeated.

Some of her amusement drained away when she read into his tone. There would never be 'just' four kids in her own family. When thought about that way, twice as many kids as she would have seemed like a lot.

"Just," she said firmly anyway. "So, what do you say to coming to talk to the kiddies this afternoon?"

There was a long pause, and then he predictably asked, "Can we play show and tell another day?"

She gave him a once over, wondering if he was feeling okay. He looked okay, but she knew as well any anyone that it was possible to look functional but be literally on death's door. Scully reflexively pushed this thought away - she hadn't died of cancer and there was no reason to think that Mulder would die due to what had been done to him. If he was going to die, he would have by now. His discomfort was probably entirely mental.

"Absolutely," she said, leaning over to hug him as she did so. "It was a long morning, I get that. Call you tomorrow?"

"Thank you," Mulder said and unsnapped his seatbelt.

Scully watched him get out of the car, hoping that he could handle what they'd learned at the doctor's office. And hoping that if he couldn't, he'd call on her to help him shoulder the burden.

He paused on his way to the apartment's door, turning back to wave at her. Suddenly she felt better as she drove away.


Later

It was fortunate that the office chair Mulder had bought was relatively comfortable, because he spent several hours after Scully dropped him off sitting in it in front of his computer. What the doctor had found was on his mind, but probably not in a way that Scully had envisioned.

Instead of dwelling uncomfortably on what had been done to him, he instead became deeply engrossed in looking up any signs of other possible returnees. They hadn't talked a lot about it, but Mulder knew from brief conversations with Scully and then Frohike that there had been other people who had been returned.

The thing that he had been turning over and over in his mind was that he had no real way to ever recover his offspring unless of course the ships returned. There were movies from the 80s where gallant heroes in tiny ships were able to go to the aliens rather than vice versa, but that was all fantasy. There was no way to beg, borrow, or even steal any sort of vehicle that could chase down a UFO. He had a suspicion that this would not change in his lifetime, so he instead had to dwell on what was slightly possible instead.

At that point he wasn't entirely sure what he would do if he had the chance to get on one of the ships while they were dropping off some other unfortunates that they had kidnapped at one point. He had not even a nascent plan for what to do if he happened to be in the right time and the right place. Right then, however, it seemed more important to figure out where they had been, and to see if there were any patterns to it. After all, there was no way to figure out where they would be if he had no idea where they had harvested people from.

Therefore, he spent hours looking not only for reports of unexplained sightings of lights in the sky, and other signs of UFOs, but also missing person reportings that happened to coincide with the dates on which people supposedly saw something up above.

Unfortunately, it was more difficult to find references to possible spaceships than it was missing persons. It was in moments like that one, when he tried to determine if a police log talking about a possible weather balloon in Michigan might really be connected to three people in the same town going missing, that he wished that he still had the greater access to information that his FBI clearance had once given him.

And there were so many people missing that it began to make him feel sick to his stomach. Some of the missing people were children, which of course were the worst of all to read about. Take a boy of eleven named Scotty Lane who had last been seen in his own backyard by one of the neighbors: had the boy been abducted by his estranged father as some sources suggested, the man just waiting for an opportune moment to get the child alone? Was the elderly neighbor's insistence that she'd seen a bright flash of light in the backyard a moment later a UFO or the high-slung headlights belonging to the father's truck? Neither man nor boy had been seen since that night.

These stories were depressingly common, and it was impossible to suss out from the brief reports if their abductors had been people or more unearthly beings. Instead of feeling like he was getting somewhere by continuing to winnow through the seemingly endless newspaper articles, he felt more out of his depth with every new one he added to the electronic pile.

For a while he wrestled with the idea of asking Skinner to look into things for him, but in the end he decided against it. If he was ever going to return to the FBI Skinner would be part of the vetting process, and he couldn't risk Skinner having to admit that he had asked him to research UFO sightings if it could come up as something in writing that would have to be disputed if it was ever used against him to declare that his bout with mental illness was ongoing. It was true that all of his hospital paperwork would state that he had post-traumatic stress disorder and nothing caused by brain chemistry, but it was easy to imagine that an opposing argument could be made claiming that his doctors had only been delicate when describing his condition. Likewise, he couldn't simply ask Scully for her materials given it was inevitable that she too would be asked to give an honest assessment of his fitness to return to his post.

If it became the only way that he could get more solid data on UFO sightings, he would have to consider it, but he was hoping that there were other ways to get the information that wouldn't completely destroy his chances of ever being reinstated to the FBI. At the back of his mind he guiltily wondered if his reluctance to commit career suicide was indicative of his lack of conviction that he'd be successful, but he tried not to think too hard about that. Instead he focused his energy on brainstorming ways to get more information without involving Skinner or Scully.

It took until late into the night for him to think of one of those other ways. And when he did, he nearly kicked himself. It should have been so obvious. Scully most likely hadn't asked the tattered MUFON group for help, after all. Instead she'd likely turned to a source much closer to home.


Even Later

Mulder was still dwelling on how he should have thought about it sooner when he arrived at the gunmen's home. They had helped Scully, and of course they could hack into police reports with ease, so they had other avenues available to them that he didn't. Maybe he should have taken them up on teaching him how to hack too.

Unfortunately, he didn't really give much thought to the hour as he was knocking on their door.

Byers opened it and gave Mulder a wary look that didn't immediately dissipate when he saw who it was. "Mulder."

"Hi," Mulder said shortly. "I need your help."

"Oh. Come in." Byers held the door open enough to let him pass through the doorway. He seemed a bit uncomfortable but he didn't ask him to come back later like Mulder half expected him to.

Trying to lighten the mood Mulder smiled and asked, "You got a girl in here or something?"

After he ran a hand down his face, Byers shook his head. "No. It's just kind of late, you know?"

This startled him a little and he felt a shock of surprise when his eyes found the nearest clock and noted that it was already after midnight. "Sorry," he mumbled. "I haven't exactly been required to keep a regular schedule lately. I forget that other people do. I can come back-" he supposed that he should've realized that he had gotten Byers out of bed from the way that he was wearing a plaid robe instead of a suit.

"No," Byers said tiredly. "You're already here," he added, which didn't leave Mulder feeling very welcome. He supposed he too might have a let's-get-this-over-with attitude if someone had woken him up without warning, though, so it was hard to blame Byers for his lack of enthusiasm.

"What's going on?" a peevish voice asked across the room. There was a yawn before Mulder turned that way and saw him standing there, dim lighting more than adequate to show hair standing up wildly on the speaker's head. "Burning the midnight oil, Mulder?" Frohike asked dryly.

"It seems so," he replied with a slight nod to the second man he'd roused from bed.

He was about to ask a favor," Byers explained to Frohike. His tone remained mild, but Mulder knew him well enough to know that he was still irritated about his late night visit.

"Great," Frohike drawled. He stalked across the room and dropped into an elderly easy chair before looking up at Mulder. There were dark circles around his eyes, which made Mulder feel even more guilty when he noticed them. "What do you need?"

He shrugged. "Pretty much the same thing that you were giving Scully while I was missing - any and all information you come across about sightings." Mulder half held his breath then, worried that they would say that he was mistaken, and they hadn't helped Scully look for him at all.

"But you're back now," Byers blurted out sleepily.

This evoked an ironic grin from Mulder. "I'm aware of that."

"So what do you want that information for?" Frohike asked rather brusquely.

For half a second he hesitated, imagining what they might say if he tried to explain at that hour of the night. "They took something from me. I want it back," he settled on saying. There wasn't a single word in that statement that wasn't true. And not one that shed any light on his secret, either.

Fortunately, it seemed like this was enough. "Murder and kidnapping wasn't enough for them? They needed to add thief to their crimes," Byers said, glowering at the thought of it. His expression left one wondering what he imagined had been stolen, a valuable watch torn off a reluctant wrist perhaps.

Mulder nodded, though he supposed that kidnapping was about as apt a description as theft. They'd stolen a human being from him, after all. More or less. He hoped more. And of course he himself had been stolen as well.

"We can do that," Byers said but looked at Frohike for confirmation.

The shorter man nodded. "But not tonight."

"Of course not," Mulder stammered. "I didn't expect you to do anything tonight."

The look Frohike gave him suggested that this assumption hadn't been a given. "Good, because I'm not up to getting online at this hour."

Until that very second Mulder never gave much consideration to what hours his friends kept these days. Somehow he had imagined them as insomniacs cruising the Internet until just before dawn. Maybe he was projecting, because if he had their interest in looking up the fantastical as well as the sleep maintenance insomnia that had plagued most of his adult life, he could imagine himself doing the same quite easily. But here it was, not even one o'clock in the morning, and it seemed as though he'd gotten at least two of them out of bed; Langly must sleep sounder than the others. It was interesting what information one created to fill in gaps in knowledge, even if the knowledge that was lacking was simply about the habits of others.

Byers yawned and loudly, and then gave Mulder an embarrassed smile. "It could take us a while," he warned. "Especially if you're interested in the most recent stuff."

"Yes, I'm definitely interested in the most recent stuff." Mulder nodded. "Especially any sightings that have happened since I've been back. The historical stuff would be good to have too, if you still have it."

Frohike looked around sleepily. Mulder followed his gaze, taking in file cabinets and shelves piled with some of the boxes of papers that made up their newsletter's research. "We may have some copies, somewhere."

"Great."

"Unh huh."

Then, rather impulsively, Mulder threw his arms around them. They both looked very startled. Had he ever hugged them before while sober, he wondered. "Thank you. I don't think I can do this without you."

Frohike shrugged off his arm. "Whatever they took, it must be really important to you."

To Mulder's relief he didn't demand to know what it was that Mulder wanted back. "It certainly is."

Frohike looked thoughtful. "You remind me of how Langly would react if they stole one of his stupid collectibles."

Mulder offered him a weak smile. "Well, I think it's safe to say that what I want back is more of sentimental value than anything that would fetch a price on the open market."

"That's new." Frohike yawned too. "You're getting sentimental in your old age?"

"What can I say? The years change a man."

"That they do," Frohike said with another yawn. "And they also make a man think that Ben Franklin might have had something after all."

It took a moment for Mulder to understand the reference. "Early to bed, early to rise?"

"Damn straight."

He laughed a little, and then said "then I should get going. Thanks again."

"No problem," Frohike said, looking back. Byers was already halfway out of the room. "We'll just add it to your tab."

"Can I maybe begin paying that off with beers and cheesesteaks?" Mulder asked, only halfway joking.

"Mulder, when you get back whatever it is you're missing, I expect that were going to have one hell of a party. Right?"

"Sounds like a plan," he mumbled an agreement.

With that he let himself out, allowing the gunmen to go back to bed. He really did hope that they would one day be able to celebrate. Maybe they would.


October passed more quickly than Scully could imagine that it possibly could. She saw Mulder regularly, and tried not to be too concerned that he was becoming increasingly obsessed, and frustrated, with trying to track down other returnees. She had the vague sense that he was hoping to talk to some of them, but he wasn't really getting anywhere with it. An equally vague sense of guilt had her wishing that she had the time to pitch in and help, but she didn't know what to do for him, and the kids were being more demanding of her time than usual, so she promised herself that she'd do more for him as soon as she could.

Two days before Halloween Scully was thoroughly ready for the holiday to be over with so she could get back to her regularly scheduled life. One that didn't revolve around trying to find a way to make cupcakes that with frosted applique that looked like spiders instead of blobs or trying to cajole Grace into making up her mind about whether she wanted to be a princess or a clownfish.

Her children didn't share her sentiment. Tommy was getting more excited by the day, and had already picked and rejected three pumpkin carving patterns by the time he looked up at her and asked, "Mom, can I call Mulder?"

Scully gave her son curious look. "Why?"

Tommy didn't miss a beat before saying "I want to ask him if he'll go trick-or-treating with us."

Internally she cringed, not thinking that Mulder would be eager for the experience. He was really good with the kids, both of them, but taking the kids to beg for candy was a lot to ask of anyone. "Tommy, I don't know... "

"You don't think he'll want to come?" Tommy asked, looking disappointed.

"Honestly, I have no idea if he'll want to come, Tommy," Scully admitted.

"But he likes us," Tommy protested. "I thought only people who didn't like kids don't like trick-or-treating," he added.

"I know he likes you both," Scully said patiently. "But, remember how we talked about how skinny he is?"

"He said he wasn't mad I said that," Tommy said quickly.

Scully reached down and ruffled his hair. "I know. What I mean is we talked about how he is very skinny because he didn't have enough to eat when he was missing. Do you remember talking about how food gives us energy?"

Tommy tilted his head, concentrating. "Because of calories?" It was obvious to her that he wasn't entirely sure what calories were, but did understand that they had something to do with food.

"Because of calories," she agreed. "And the other part of calories is that when we do exercise we burn them up. Walking around like when we go trick-or-treating will take a lot of calories, and he still hasn't gotten enough to make him less skinny. I don't want to make it any harder for him to get back to a healthy weight," she explained, thinking that the first time she'd felt such guilt had been at the amusement park. He'd spent a lot of time sitting on benches, though, and she still suspected that it had been more to assuage her guilt than because he felt he needed the rest.

To his surprise, her son's eyes lit up. "Mom, are candy called junk food because they have a lot of calories?"

"Yes... "

"Well, what if Grace and I give him a lot of our candy?" Tommy suggested.

Scully considered this. "That might not be too bad an idea."

"So I can ask him, then?" Tommy asked eagerly.

"Yes. But remember, it's okay if he says no." She gave him her best stern look, and he smiled in return. Apparently, it wasn't as stern an expression as she wished it to be.

"Thanks!" he chirped and reached for the phone. Once it was in his hand he hesitated. "What's his number?"

To her faint surprise she learned that she could already recite it from memory. Had she really called him that often over the last few weeks?


Mulder grabbed up the phone the second it rang. Although he was appreciative of all of the help the Gunmen had given him so far, there was only so much he could do with the reports of sightings and disappearances from before he was returned. They'd run into a snag when it came to gathering new information, but every time the phone rang he got his hopes up that it was them. "Hello?"

"Hi Mulder," a young voice greeted him.

Mulder was able to stamp out his disappointment immediately. "Hi, Tommy. What's up?"

"Will you come trick or treating with Grace and me? And mom?" Tommy asked. "Mom said it's okay if you say no."

Interestingly, Mulder was pretty sure he could hear a groan in the background. Conversations with kids are more fun before they understand what's said in confidence, he mused with a grin. "Is it actually on Halloween night?"

"Yeah. I don't know why some people do it earlier," Tommy said, signaling that he was familiar with the fact that not all places thought that trick or treating on October 31st was sacred.

"I'm sure that their towns have a reason for it," Mulder replied, even as he wondered about towns that did it a day early even when the 30th fell on a Thursday. Nothing like making sure it's on a school night for no apparent reason.

"So, can you?" Tommy asked, and it was easy to imagine his eager expression. The boy paused, before reframing the question. "I mean, will you come too, please?"

Mulder imagined what Scully's expression must have looked like to prompt the politer rewording. He himself had occasionally been on the receiving end of such a glower, he was positive. "Sure."

"Yay!" Tommy cheered, assuring that he wouldn't have to tell his mother Mulder's answer, not unless she'd suddenly left the building.

''What are you going to go as?" Mulder asked, curious about what was now the in thing for five-year-olds. Fads concerning kids moved so rapidly that he was fairly sure that he wouldn't see the same characters that had come to his door the Halloween before he had been abducted.

The little boy hesitated for a second before saying "I'm going to be a fireman. Is that okay?"

"Why wouldn't it be?" he asked blankly.

"Well... You and mom were a kind of cop, right?"

Mulder could easily imagine the little boy fidgeting as he spoke. He wondered if that was less because of how well he was beginning to know Tommy than it being part of the universal nature of little boys. He'd spent his entire childhood wriggling whenever he had to talk on a phone. It was probably even more tedious for modern children who no longer had the sensory experience of using a rotary phone. "An FBI agent is in law enforcement like a cop," he agreed, thinking about federal marshals, the secret service, DEA agents, crime scene investors and security guards as he spoke. It gave him a brief trill of amusement to imagine how insulted the average secret service agent would be if they knew they were being lumped together with mall cops. "Why?"

"Cops and firemen are on different teams, aren't they?"

"Different teams?"

"Like the Yankees and the Red Sox."

Mulder almost asked where on earth he'd gotten that idea when he figured it out - their uniforms were different. "No, buddy, they're not. They work together on the same team, along with the people who come get you in an ambulance when you need to go to the hospital right away."

"Oh," Tommy said doubtfully. It was obvious that he didn't really understand still.

"You watch baseball games, right?"

"Yeah, me and Mom do. Grace doesn't like 'em."

Smiling to himself, Mulder imagined Scully suffering through Saturday afternoon games on the TV for Tommy's sake. "Okay, well think of people needing help being like a baseball game - in baseball you have a pitcher and batters and catchers who are all doing different things but they're all working together to try to win.

"If the emergency is like a game then the firemen and police and the paramedics who come with the ambulance all do different things to make sure that the person they're helping has the best chance of being okay, just like the catcher, pitcher and batter all want to win a ball game by working as a team. Understand?" he asked, dying to know if the analogy was helpful or just gibberish to Tommy.

"Yeah!" Tommy enthused. Then he thought for a moment. "If'n there's a bad guy in the emergency is a judge like an umpire?"

Damn, that's insightful for a kindergartner, Mulder thought. "Sure."

"Did you ever dress up as a fireman when you were a kid?" Tommy asked shyly. Mulder could sense his desire for his approval.

It was his instinct to lie to make the little guy happy but he realized that it wouldn't be doing either of them any favors if he did. Disappointment was easier to get past than being lied to, Mulder reminded himself. Especially if the lie came from a parental figure like he hoped to be to the boy on day. "No," he admitted. "I might have liked to, but I mostly went as things that we from sci-fi and horror instead of costumes based on real life people."

"Oh."

"One of the neat things about Halloween is that kids dress up as so many different things so it doesn't get boring," Mulder offered.

"I know." there was a moment of muffled conversation that he couldn't quite hear, and then Tommy said "Grace wants to talk to you too so I'm gonna say goodnight."

"Okay, goodnight Tommy."

A few seconds later a chipper little voice cried "Hi!"

"Hi, Grace. Are you excited about Halloween?"

"Um huh. But Momma said I needta go to sleep and wake up and go to sleep and wake up 'fore it's Halloween.

This sort of explanation obviously made sense if you were three but Mulder found it disorienting. Once he worked out that it meant the day after next, he said "That sounds right. So, what are you going to be for Halloween?"

"A fishie-princess!"

"Um..." He could only barely image what that could look like. "Wow. That sounds neat."

"Yeah," she agreed. "Whatta you going to be?"

Her question surprised him. "I'm dressing up too?"

"Yup. Haft to. It's the rule."

Her extremely serious tone had him grinning broadly. "Well, I will have to think about it."

"K. But not too long."

"Good point." When she didn't say anything else for several seconds he asked, "Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?"

Grace thought for a moment before replying. "Mattie, he got a puppy. Can you tell my mommy that we get one too?"

Mulder blinked. "I'm sorry, sweetie, but your mom said that your apartment doesn't allow dogs or puppies. Uncle Bill could get your cousin a dog because they live in a house with a yard."

"Ooooh. Tell my mommy to buy a house," she demanded.

"I can tell her but she might not listen."

"Okay. Goodnight."

"Grace, wait," he said quickly. When she didn't immediately he went on. "Give the phone to your mom, please."

"You asked nicely, Mulder," Grace praised him and he had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing out loud.

There were strange sounds as if the phone was being dragged across a carpet and then Scully's voice was saying "Mulder?"

"Hey. What are you wearing?" he asked.

"What?" she seemed flustered.

"For Halloween," he clarified, glad she couldn't see his impetuous grin; she'd probably slug him if she could see it. "Grace informed me that costumes are not optional, and the rules require that everyone participate in dressing up."

"Sorry. Our daughter can be very rules oriented," Scully explained.

He wondered for a moment if 'our daughter' felt as strange to say as it did to hear. "The child of two FBI agents? Who would have thought that a law and order bent would show up," Mulder teased. Wanting attention, Dempsey butted his ankles until Mulder reached his free hand down to scratch between his ears.

"You don't have to wear a costume," Scully told him.

"And disappointed our little girl?" he asked lightly. It did feel strange, but in a good way, he thought. "It's not a big deal."

"If you're sure," she said but she sounded doubtful.

"I'm sure." He bent down and tossed a toy mouse for the cat to 'kill.' Dempsey instantly raced after it like a maniac.

"Thank you for doing this."

"I'm happy to."

But after he hung up, Mulder looked over at his pet. Dempsey ignored him in favor of rabbit kicking his prey. "They do make costumes for pets, you know."

He could almost read disdain on the fuzzy face. Even the cat knew he wouldn't be so cruel as to either make him dress up or go with him to trick or treat.


The Next Day

The therapist covering Mulder's appointment tilted his head at a 15 degree angle, gave him a warm look, and asked, "So, how are we doing?"

Mulder tried very hard not to roll his eyes. The other man didn't know that he had studied psychology too, so there was no reason for him to realize that Mulder knew that it was a technique he'd been taught by poor instructors.

Jesus, he's even making the corners of his eyes crinkle for 'added warmth,' Mulder thought in disgust. He looked at the calendar on the wall, wishing that his usual therapist, Hank, was going to be back from his Swiss vacation before his next appointment. It sure didn't look like he would be, though. Not from the overly-enthusiastic looking red slashes through the boxes for the next week.

He supposed that he couldn't really blame Hank for wanting to take a few weeks off. It had to be a drag to hear people's haltingly told horror stories day in and day out. Mulder himself had found that he was more fascinated by psychology's intricacies than he was in helping people overcome their conditions, so he'd done everything in his power to make sure he put himself on the path that led to profiling rather than joining a practice without a lot of need to think it over.

"Fox?" the other man prompted, his crinkling eyes beginning to look a little concerned rather than faux warm. It was clear that he found the fact that Mulder hadn't instantly responded to be a problem.

Mulder shrugged. He wouldn't mess with Hank, who had been good to him during their weekly talks ever since he got out of the hospital, but he didn't owe this Bozo anything. "What was your name again," he asked, deliberately affecting a bored tone.

"Aaron Paul."

"Well, Aaron," he said, taking a bit of joy when the other man winced. He wasn't an actual psychiatrist, so Mulder wasn't about to call him 'Doctor' Paul like he obviously wanted him to. He didn't even call his dentist Doctor so-and-so and that woman was a lot closer to an MD than Paul was. "I'm about middling."

"Hmm," Aaron leaned forward, which was obviously on the checklist about how to show interest in someone you were speaking to. "I've read in Doctor Davis's notes-" Hank wasn't a doctor either, Mulder knew. "-that you were having nightmares about your abduction as of the last time he met with you. Are those still on-going?"

This gave Mulder a moment's pause. Then he slowly nodded, deciding to throw him a bone. Hank probably wouldn't have let Aaron cover his appointments if he was a complete moron, so there was no point in letting the appointment be a waste of time just to spite him. "Not as badly as they were, but they're still happening now and again."

In the last such nightmare he'd found out that his child was a perfectly normal boy and had brought Scully into the nursery he'd set up so she could see his new son. But a gray was in the room and it grabbed the baby out of his crib and jumped out the window before Mulder or Scully could stop it. The last scene of the dream was a feeling of anguish as he stared out the window at a ship taking off into the night sky.

Aaron flicked the cap off a pen, apparently committed to taking notes on Hank's cases like he'd been paid to. This was slightly more than Mulder had expected of him. The thin, weaselly looking fellow had seemed like the type to just do a half-assed session with people and call it done, so his apparent commitment to actually doing what he was supposed was interesting. It did make him wonder how much of his instant dislike was based on the fact that he seemed far more nebbish than the solid and somewhat scruffy Hank did.

"So, what do you think caused the nightmares to taper off in frequency?"

The question startled him a little. So much so that he decided to give an honest, if cautious answer. "Well, I think it's because I finally feel like I'm doing something to resolve the issue."

"I'm sorry, Doctor Davis doesn't seem to have taken any notes on the topic of your nightmares. Do you mind...?"

"The dreams are about getting back something that was taken from me by my captors," Mulder explained blandly. Though he liked Hank much better, he didn't know much more than that about the content of the dreams that plagued Mulder. He was a nice man, but a person didn't have to be a jerk to disbelieve anything approaching the truth, so Mulder had white washed it with him too.

"And what have you done to make progress towards resolving this?"

Mulder plucked at the hem of his shirt until he noticed that he was doing it and forced himself to stop. It was a nervous habit he'd picked up since his return and he thought it was far too conspicuous an indication that he was worried for him to simply let himself continue to do it once he'd become aware of what his fingers were doing. Unfortunately, Aaron's eyes had briefly followed the movement and he'd scribbled down a note immediately after.

"I've been trying to track where it ended up."

"You don't want to say what it is," Aaron noted.

"I'm afraid I can't," Mulder said evenly.

The therapist nodded minutely. "Doctor Davis noted that you were an FBI agent. I understand if you can't disclose it because of a matter of security."

Some sort of security, Mulder thought and almost laughed, my own. "Anyway, I'm working on possible leads that might help me recover it." At least theoretically. There was still the issue of getting any of the other returnees to return his phone calls...

"And that's made your subconscious calm down, believing that your action is better than inaction." Since it was simply a statement, Mulder only nodded. Aaron leaned back, and his expression became contemplative. "That's very interesting."

"Why is that?" Mulder asked, instantly feeling wary. He was beginning to wonder if he had badly misjudged Aaron, and paranoia was beginning to creep in. What if he was asking probing questions instead of doing the bare minimum because he knew something? This question chilled him. Was Aaron too attentive and curious? Though many members of the Consortium had managed to barbeque themselves, it wasn't really beyond the realm of possibility that the Smoking man had other friends who escaped... Will he report to Them on me? he wondered anxiously. Would he tell them where he was-

"Well, what you went through, that was obviously very traumatic. So it strikes me as a bit unusual that investigating leads on what was done by the people who hurt you makes you feel better. A lot of people would begin to feel more anxiety, if not outright retraumatized, if they deliberately involved themselves in the situation again after the fact."

"I think it's fair to say I'm not your average bear," Mulder told him with a small smile. Maybe a joke would get Aaron to turn the intensity back down. Maybe he wasn't a spy. But-

"I suppose not," he agreed. "The average bear doesn't go into the FBI." He made another note then looked up at Mulder. "Has anything else happened recently that affects your mood?"

He nodded slowly, determined not to let paranoia get the best of him. "I recently learned that I have a three-year-old daughter."

A muscle in Aaron's face twitched, making Mulder wonder what emotion he was trying not to let seep into his expression. "That must have been surprising."

"It was."

"And how do you feel about it?"

"Honestly, pretty good. We were trying to have a child before I was abducted and it's nice that it worked out even if I didn't know about it," Mulder explained blandly. If Aaron was not on the up and up he would be able to figure out the details regardless of what he admitted to, but he wasn't going to make it easier on him by describing his current or past relationship with Scully.

"Is it a comfort?" Aaron asked, startling him again.

"What?"

The other man shrugged. "After all you went through, you learned that something good had happened in your absence, something you directly contributed to. I wondered if it's comforting to know that."

"Yes," Mulder said automatically. One of the myriad of emotions he felt when he thought about Grace was in fact comfort. He wasn't entirely sure how he'd helped contribute to Grace's existence, but the DNA test results Scully gave him a copy of showed that he had. Wringing his hands, he nodded. "Somehow... I feel less like I caused only pain while I was gone now that I know that I left behind a child for her mother to love."

Aaron smiled, and Mulder thought it was genuine. "That's about the best silver lining that someone in your position could ask for isn't it? To have been able to contribute to another's joy to mitigate some of the sorrow. I'd like to recommend you spend some time this week thinking about that."

"I will," Mulder promised. It was a genuine one too, but to himself rather than the untrustworthy man he was speaking to. There was no way he couldn't think about it.

The therapist glanced down again at the notes he was holding. "Are you still volunteering at the animal shelter?"

"Yup." Despite his bravo when speaking to Scully about the matter, he had been nervous to go back to the shelter after "adopting" Dempsey. They'd shrugged it off and told him tales of other animals that had escaped. He had wondered if other animals had "escaped" into volunteers' homes, but didn't dare speculate out loud that someone else might have unilaterally granted an animal slated for euthanasia a last minute pardon. As it was, he was just grateful that they hadn't been fazed by Dempsey's disappearance, and didn't seem to suspect that he'd lied.

"Do you enjoy it?" Aaron asked. "I always thought dog walking might be relaxing."

"You've never had a dog?" Mulder asked, slightly surprised. The man might not be a real doctor, but he figured the guy could afford a dog if he wanted one.

The other man frowned. "Allergic. To pretty much anything that has fur."

"Too bad."

"Hmm. I'd consider one of those hairless cats, but I've got to be honest, they kind of creep me out."

"What about fish?" Mulder suggested, hoping to run out the rest of his hour on non-invasive topics. It did remind him that the mollies were still living with Scully, though. "Or maybe a turtle."

Fortunately, Aaron seemed to forget that he was supposed to be talking about Mulder rather than merely talking to him. "Actually, I'm thinking about a leopard gecko. My cousin had one when we were kids and it was quite nice, for a lizard."

"Oh, I've seen those. They seem pretty lively."

Aaron had pretty much decided to go and look at buying a setup for a lizard that weekend when the receptionist knocked on the door and let him know his next appointment was in the waiting room.


Halloween Night

Scully was making a mental list of things left to do before heading out when a voice from another part of the house called out, "Mom, I think it's going to get dark real soon. I think."

Fortunately, Tommy didn't really need a response since his mother was also occupied with trying to get his sister dressed. Tommy had eagerly donned his miniature fireman's outfit, but Grace was making things difficult. Mostly due to excitement, Scully thought, but she was beginning to get irritated even though she understood why Grace was acting the way she was.

"Grace, please stop wiggling," Scully begged as she tried to set a plastic crown on her daughter's head. It had been far easier for Scully to dress herself, but that might be because her costume was simpler, consisting only of a pair of ears, a long tail, a leotard and a crushed velvet cloak that came down to mid-thigh on her.

"It's not me, it's the fishie, tail. It's tryin' to swim!" Grace said. The expression on her face suggested that she actually believed that the tail of the costume was moving on its own.

"No, it isn't. You're making it move, missy," Scully told her, wishing that she had the patient of Job right about then. It had taking a ridiculous amount of time and energy to bring Grace's idea of a fish princess to life and now the girl was making it difficult to even get the much desired costume on properly.

"I'm not Missy," Grace said in sudden indignation. "Gramma showed me her. She's tall!"

"She was," Scully agreed, wondering how often her mother talked about her late sister to the kids or apparently showed them Missy's photos. She hasn't been aware that she had at all, and while she wasn't exactly mad, it was a surprise. After all, her mother rarely spoke to her about Missy. "Miss is also a girl who isn't married yet," Scully told Grace.

"Oh."

"Mom, do you think it'll get dark soon?" Tommy asked as he wandered into the room. He looked more than a little anxious.

"Yes, but trick or treating starts in twenty minutes, whether it gets dark by then or not."

Tommy didn't look like he liked the explanation and sighed in resignation. Scully had to turn away so he wouldn't see her smiling over the absurdity of a kid that young heaving a world-weary sigh over something so utterly trivial. It was a big deal to you too when you were little, she reminded herself. But it was hard to look back on the days when her biggest concern revolved around how much candy she might score on a Halloween night. Maybe it's better that way, she reflected, it must make the loss of such utter innocence easier to bear if you don't remember exactly how it felt.

"Oh!" Tommy exclaimed suddenly. "I forgot my axe!" He turned and rushed away, leaving Scully and her daughter to stare at the empty doorway in his wake.

"He forgot his ask?" Grace asked, expression dubious.

"His axe, Grace." Scully tried not to laugh. "Like firemen use if they need to get into a door that won't open."

"Huh." Grace popped her thumb into her mouth and seemed to think this over.

When someone knocked firmly on the door a few minutes later, Scully hoped that it wouldn't be a child trying to get a jump on the completion by heading out before they were supposed to. She thought that her child self would have been horrified to learn that modern kids had their towns and cities dictating when they could go door to door, but her current self was happy enough that there were limits.

"Stay here, okay?" Scully asked, and Grace nodded to her relief. For a moment she was kicking herself for making it a request rather than a command.

Just in case it was a kid come too early she grabbed a bat bedecked bowl and ripped a bag of candy open, pouring it all in on her way across the living room. To her relief the person on the other side of the door was taller than her, but his outfit made identification a bit difficult.

"Mulder?" she asked, trying to catch a glimpse of his face through layers of tattered and grimy fabric.

"Yup," the mummy standing before her agreed.

She smiled weakly, feeling silly to have had any doubt. "Interesting choice."

"I thought about being a skeleton, but in the end even I thought that was too morbid." She suddenly caught a familiar smile under the bandage and it was kind of grim. A fleeting thought that at least he didn't seem to have thought of going as a concentration camp victim crossed her mind before she could squelch it. Mulder plucked at the fabric wrapped around his torso. "And this should keep me warmer too."

Poking one finger at his costume, she nodded. "Good idea too, they're saying it's going to be a windy one tonight."

The mummy head swiveled awkwardly, and she eventually realized that he was looking her up and down. "I still don't know what you are," Mulder admitted. "And not just because of these bandages getting in my line of sight."

She cocked a hip, making the long flowing tail twitch. To her it seemed realistic, but then, she'd never spent too much time around real live foxes. The closest she'd come was an old stole her grandmother kept in a closet and scolded her and Charlie about whenever they played with it. "I'm a kitsune."

"What's that?" Mulder asked.

For some reason, this startled her. "You really don't know what that is? When you know about things as obscure as the Fiji mermaid?"

"I really don't," he admitted but some of the good humor was leeching out of his tone. He didn't seem to appreciate being teased.

"It's a Japanese mythological creature," she explained, trying to make sure her own voice sounded light instead of lecturing. "They thought that some fox could turn into women. Or maybe vice versa. At any rate, they're considered trickster figures."

"Like Crow and Coyote from native American mythology?" Mulder suggested.

"I think so." Her thoughts briefly turned to the man who had helped keep Mulder alive long ago and far away. All these years later those frantic days had taken on the quality of a dream for her, and she wondered if they had for him too.

"Well, I might not know anything about them, but I like your outfit." His eyes drifted down to her legs which almost had her blushing.

A moment later she jumped when she heard "Mulder!" from another part of the apartment. The cry was punctuated by the sound of small sneakered feet dashing across the floor. Within seconds both kids came to a skittering stop in front of them.

"Cool, a mummy," Tommy enthused. "Mom says that I'm too young to watch the movie still." Tommy frowned in the middle of his breathless speech. "I don't think I'm too young, do you think I'm too young?" he asked Mulder expectantly.

"Um... "

"Tommy," Scully said sharply. "We've talked about this with grandma, haven't we?"

He looked down guiltily. "Yes... "

It was all she could do not to sigh. When she'd read all those books on child rearing and child psychology, she'd assumed that as a single mother she would never need to worry about the sections on how to handle a child deciding to see if they could play one parent off the other. Tommy had instead done pretty much the same thing with other adults in their lives like her mother and his preschool teacher. He hadn't tried it with the kindergarten teacher yet so she had allowed herself to hope he had progressed beyond that stage. Apparently not. And it was only a matter of time before Grace decided to see if it was a winning strategy.

When she glanced at Mulder it was pretty clear that he wasn't really following the convention. She offered him a weak smile and made a mental note to explain it to him later. If he was a part of the kids' lives they should have a battle plan in place before Grace decided to ask Daddy for things Mommy already said no to.

An irreverent thought crossed her mind connected to the memory of her father barking at them to "listen to your mother!" only once each before repeat offenders we dealt with harshly - if her dad was still around instead of her mother the kids would probably be even better behaved than they usually were. His reaction to Grace's 18-month-old tantrums probably would have nipped them in the bud... and scared the crap out her. Her parenting strategies weren't perfect but she did hope that they were also less traumatic.

Mulder shifted awkwardly from foot to foot as if he'd been the one who had been scolded. "So... is it about time to get going?"

Tommy shot her an anxious look and she nodded. "Let's set this bowl out in the hallway on our way out." She ran her fingers through the bowl, stirring the mix of wrapped candies on her way out. When she looked back Tommy seemed excited again instead of guilty. That was fine by her.


As they walked up to the first house Grace hung back shyly until Scully prodded her gently forward, quietly asking "what do you say?"

The little girl looked uncertain for a moment, and glanced at her older brother. He smiled at her and said "trick or treat!" to the person who answered the door and Grace mumbled it too.

"What lovely costumes," the home owner, a woman in her fifties, declared as she dropped two pieces into each child's bag. She examined Grace's a bit more closely and gave the child a puzzled smile. "Very creative."

"Thanks," Scully said brightly and began to herd the kids back down the path. She let them get slightly ahead of her and Mulder. "She always gets off to a slow start," she whispered. Grace didn't seem to hear them and was timidly following Tommy up to the next house. "But she'll get into it soon enough."

"Always?" Mulder asked, eyebrows raised. "Did you take them out trick or treating the first year you had them?"

"I did," she agreed with a nod. "And boy was that ever an experience. Tommy did okay, but she didn't want to wear the mask her costume came with, so I ended up being lent some face paint crayons at someone's house and hastily drew a kitten face on her right on their porch." She shook her head with a short laugh. "Then Tommy's bag somehow ripped open so I was desperately trying to shove candy into my pockets while doing a half-assed job tying the bottom of the bag to keep candy in it. I don't know how much candy we lost in the dark. I thought for sure that it had been so disastrous that they'd be too traumatized to want to go out again, but Tommy was eager to last year."

He thought about this for a minute. "So you're saying that we're doing well so far?"

She held up crossed fingers. "So far so good." But she winced when Grace's "tail" grazed a support beam on the porch of the next house. It didn't take a psychic to realize she was worried about whether the costume would remain intact throughout the night.

As the night wore on, they crossed paths with many other people. Most of the kids were as excited as Tommy, and Scully was right - Grace eventually did get into the spirit of things, belting out "Trick or Treat!" as loudly as her brother. Mulder was more interested in the other adults than other people's kids, but he did try to make the same sorts of benign comments about costumes being good, or pretty, or scary as Scully did. He thought it was easier for her, but eventually it began to feel more natural to him too.

Just being there began to feel less alien too. Mulder had worried that it would get awkward while they took the kids out, wondering if people would be able to tell that he didn't really belong, but no one else seemed to find his presence strange. He wondered if that was because the neighbors didn't recognize the kids as ones who had only ever come out with their mother before, or it was because no one thought his inclusion now was their business. Either way, no one interrogated him to demand to know where he'd been the last two years. Maybe they just thought he used to work nights.

It was only the adults who had made him nervous. Kids were predictable: even decades since the last time he'd held out his own plastic pumpkin for a treat, Mulder found that trick or treating hadn't changed much since the last time he'd gone out with Samantha. The costumes featured a new host of characters and maybe the house decorations had become a little more sophisticated but little else had changed.

He found unexpected solace in the unchanged ritual of knocking on doors or ringing doorbells before chanting exactly the same request as kids had for uncountable years. It was such a small thing but it could be depended upon to be the same even if circumstances took you a million miles away, literally, before you could get back.

That Christmas would be both similar and different, he thought. It was a holiday that had evolved more over the course of his life than Halloween had. Halloween had been binary - he had celebrated it when Samantha was in his life to share it and then never again afterwards. Christmas had moved from being his favorite holiday both before his sister was born through her last one with their family to a grim parody when he and his parents went through the motions before their marriage had imploded to something he half-heartedly attempted to mark with each of them separately until they were both as out of reach as his sister.

Both of the kids were up at another front door, holding out their bags, when Scully nudged him where they stood a few yards back. She pointed at another couple coming up the walk. "Isn't he cute?" she asked, meaning the baby that the man was holding.

The trio were apparently the three bears, though Mulder wasn't sure what the point was without a small blonde girl tagging along as Goldilocks. He supposed that they did look like they'd put a lot of effort into their costumes even if they were a bit on the nose - mama bear was wearing a polka dot bow in her hair, and papa a top hat. All baby bear had added to the identical (if smaller) bear costume was a pacifier, but Mulder didn't think that it was necessarily for the costume. Baby bear was awfully small, after all, probably not quite old enough to walk yet.

When he noticed that Scully seemed to be waiting for a response, he said "Pretty cute."

After the couple walked past them and brought their baby up to where the kids were, Scully sighed. "I love watching the faces of older babies and young toddlers when they go trick or treating. Really little babies don't care about what's going on and kids older than two or so get it, but those little ones in between... you can practically see them thinking that everyone they know has temporarily gone insane."

"Can you blame them?" he asked, grinning at her. "If you don't know what's going on, Halloween must seem incredibly weird."

"True," Scully agreed.

Any further conversation was cut off by the kids running back to them with slightly fuller bags. "We got big candy bars!" Tommy said excitedly as soon as he reached them.

"You did?" Scully asked as they expected her to.

"Me too, Mommy, I did too!" Grace added.

"Wow. That's very lucky. Ready to go to the next house?"

"Yeah!"

"Let's go, Mulder!" Tommy cried, grabbing one of his hands. In a second Grace had picked up the other one. He let them lead him up to the next house, but he looked back to see the bears again and found that they must have been traveling from house to house along a different pattern because they were nowhere to be found.

For the rest of the time they were trick or treating, Mulder found his eyes drawn to all the babies that they encountered. He found that Scully's generalization was more or less true regarding their reactions to what was going on around them.

But more of his thoughts were wandering off, trying to imagine what it might be like if the they'd find themselves shepherding three little ones the next year rather than just the two they had with them that night. He only let himself think of the following year going well, not tragically. So in his imagination he was carrying the littlest one while the older two walked between him and Scully.

The thought that he didn't know how old the baby would be made him frown, though, when he heard a home owner asking the parents of a baby dressed as a chicken how old their little girl was and their prompt answer. He knew that he'd been on the ship for a while after he'd been operated on, sick and starving, but he had no way of knowing if it had been a month or three. The baby had to be at least four months old already, given how long he'd been back and how healed the scar was when Skinner dragged him to the doctor's office, but he wondered if it might be older than that. The thought that he was missing out on the child's development made him feel a mixture of anxiety, anger, and sorrow.

"You okay?" Scully asked, her eyes following his gaze. The chicken was cooing up at the man who was trying to get her parents to take candy for themselves too.

"Yeah."


His response didn't reassure Scully. It was fairly transparent to her that his turn in moods had been prompted by something about the baby that was in his line of sight. Maybe it had been a mistake to point out how cute that other baby had been earlier.

Although she believed that something had been done to him, she still wasn't sure that she believed that it involved a baby. It was clear to her that he had no doubt in his mind that there was a baby of his out there somewhere but she still wondered if the baby was a hallucination.

After all, one of the last things that had been a source of pain between them before he was taken was that the IVF had failed. When she'd cried on his shoulder over her failure to retain the fertilized embryos that had been implanted, she'd seen a level of pain in his eyes that echoed his own... and she knew him well enough to understand that he hadn't been mourning their loss only because it hurt her, but because he had wanted a baby too. He had never said a lot after agreeing to be a donor for her, and they'd never gotten far enough along to really discuss what his role would have been in the baby's life if there had been one, but he'd perked up and listened carefully whenever she talked about her part of the process, the same sort of anticipatory joy she felt when it seemed to be going well was in his expression whenever they talked too.

So if he was mourning what might have been while he was away, wouldn't that be reason enough to hallucinate the baby he'd never be able to give her? Throw in the guilt he occasionally expressed over what had led to her infertility...

It wasn't his fault, and it was her responsibility to make sure that he understood that she didn't blame him and convince him not to blame himself either. Smiling at him, she noted that he looked slightly confused about what had prompted her to, but the kids distracted him by pointing out a few pumpkins before she could say anything. Maybe that was just as well; what was she supposed to say, that maybe they could adopt a newborn if it turned out that "his" baby was a figment of a horrifically abused man's imagination? That she thought that he was imagining a baby existed because babies are the living, breathing embodiment of hope and renewal, both things he must desperately need after his ordeal?

Maybe they really would adopt, though, she considered as they headed towards the last few houses that they'd make it to before trick or treating hours ended. If he was convinced beyond reason that he had a baby out there somewhere, she was becoming equally guilty of a conviction of her own: if he could keep from being destroyed by his delusion, they would end up making it as a couple and the four of them would be a family. And maybe he was right, and it wouldn't be complete without another child so adoption was something to actually consider. They could be happy, though, that she was sure of. They truly deserved to be after all they'd been through.

People could function just fine even if they held a single delusion, or so she'd learned when she'd turned to the internet for information about singular delusions not long after he told her that he thought he had an alien baby. The mind was perfectly capable of being rational about all but one thing, and she hoped his could continue to be too, despite the fact that if the baby wasn't real this was a more elaborate self-deception than the more common singular delusion that one was the lover of someone famous.

It was being faced with the reality that his delusion that wasn't real that worried her, though. Delusions only thrive when they go unexamined, and despite his traumatized state, she knew that he'd still follow reason if his hunt for the truth ultimately led to learning that there was no baby to find. Maybe she could find ways to make this less painful for him, even if she couldn't produce a child to replace the one his brain was fixated on. Of course, bringing up adoption would be absurd before they decided to get married.

For a moment her imagination fastened on the idea of them walking down the aisle while Grace and Tommy sat in the front row with her mother. After putting together a fish princess costume on her own, it'd be far easier to find Grace a little white dress that complemented her mommy's wedding gown.

"Happy this is almost over?" Mulder leaned over to whisper to her, cluing her in that she was smiling at the thought of them marrying.

"Nope," she told him, taking his hand as soon as the kids let him go so they could rush up to the next doorbell. "I'm just thinking happy thoughts." Mostly happy, anyway, she conceded to herself.

"Good to hear."

"Yup," she said, twinning her fingers in his.

But then she saw a wobbly toddler standing with a mother near her kids - it was hard to tell if the child was a boy or a girl, but the costume gave his or her head a bulbous appearance from behind. For a moment she was sure that the kid was dressed as a gray, but when he turned she realized that the costume was meant to be a dolphin, which explained the odd head shape and a lack of ears to the head of the getup.

Realizing that the kid wasn't really dressed as an alien should have made her feel better, but it didn't. Thinking about her instant interpretation that it was one said something about her own subconscious, she thought. What if Mulder wasn't delusional and she was simply in denial herself? Tommy would make an easy to raise stepchild for him, or so she hoped, but a half-gray stepson could, probably would, be a nightmare. So much so that it was easier to deny the possibility that he could even exist?

Scully was still trying to sort through this line of thinking when Tommy and Grace wandered back to her. Tommy's bag bulged as he held it up and admired it by the light of a glow stick he held in the other hand. Then he looked up at her. "Mom, that lady said it's 8. We're all done?"

She looked down at her watch. "Looks like." Trying to smile cheerfully, she waited to see if Grace would have a fit.

Instead of getting upset, Grace held out a Baby Ruth to Mulder. "For you. So you can get fatter."

For a moment she was horrified, but Mulder grinned at her before speaking to Grace. "Thank you."

"I gave him some too, right, Mulder?" Tommy asked. She was a little surprised that Tommy had remembered his plan to give Mulder candy when she herself had forgotten about it. She shouldn't have been surprised, though, Tommy didn't forget much.

"Sure did," Mulder agreed. "They were very yummy, thank you."

Scully wondered how she'd missed the exchange of chocolate... especially when she noticed that there was chocolate at the corners of Mulder's mouth.

"Mulder can have chocolate now because he's an adult and can check his own, right?" Tommy asked, clearly hoping that she'd say that no one's candy really needed to be checked before it was eaten.

"Right. And I'll check yours as soon as we get home," she told him, hoping that it would be seen as an unspoken compromise.

"Can we go home now?" Grace asked urgently.

"Absolutely."

"Yay!" They immediately began to run back in the direction of the apartment, showing a better sense of direction than Scully had ever had as a kid.

"Stay close!" Scully called before they got far away.

"Okay!"

Beside her Mulder snorted, making her look at him. He shrugged sheepishly. "I imagined them needing to be carried home after a two-hour walk around the neighborhood. Shows what I know."

"You'll learn," she assured him, and then pulled him to a stop and kissed him. The cloth of the mummy wrappings was slightly rough against her lips and he tasted like chocolate. When she pulled away he looked dazed but pleased. "Come on, the next lesson will be to throw out any fruit, baked goods, or popcorn balls."

"Sounds fun," he replied. She thought that she detected a note of sarcasm to his tone.

"It's all in a day's work for a parent."

"I think I'm going to need to borrow your notes," Mulder said gravely. "I've got a lot of catching up to do."

"We'll get you there," she promised. No matter what happened, she was pleased that he wanted to be involved with the kids. Her kids. Her own mind shied away from the thought of her ever being involved with his, even though it also left her feeling guilty.

"Thanks," he told her. He reached out and flicked her tail, making her laugh in surprise, then wrapped an arm around her.

At that moment it was easy to believe that it was all going to be okay no matter which one of them was wrong.


Mulder was yawning when he got home about three hours later. As promised, Scully showed him how to check the kids' candy, and then let him read them a bedtime story about a little old woman who wasn't afraid of various weird things she encountered on a walk at night. After that he and Scully had collapsed on the couch and watched The Haunting of Hill House on cable.

The only thing he had in mind for the remainder of the night was to find Dempsey to give him some attention, and then crawl into bed, but a flashing red light caught his attention. He let his coat fall on his chair on the way to the answering machine, and felt vaguely bad when he noticed the cat glaring at him only after he landed on him. He should have looked down before dropping it.

"Sorry, buddy," he apologized, hitting play on the machine before uncovering him. Once the sleeve that had been half covering his face was removed, the cat gave him a look like it was too little too late, which he thought was a bit of an overreaction.

There was a few seconds of whirling and clicking before someone began to speak. "Mister Mulder?" a hesitant voice asked. "I'm returning your phone call against my better judgment. But look, if you can come to Wisconsin the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I'm willing to talk to you about, um, our similar experiences. I'm not talking to anyone about it on the phone, and Tuesday is my only offer. If you're going to take me up on it, let me know tomorrow."

Eyes wide, Mulder turned to Dempsey since he was the only one there. "Holy crap."

For his part, Dempsey didn't seem impressed. He just flicked a tail and gave the coat Mulder was holding still a narrow-eyed glare.

Fortunately, despite his excitement, Mulder had the presence of mind to put the coat in the closet given that it had just been marked for death. Had he not, it probably would have been in ribbons before dawn.


November 1

A shrill ringing woke Mulder out of a sleep he hadn't remembered that he'd fallen into. He groped for the source of the noise with one hand, and managed to grab a fist full of fur instead of plastic. Soothing the startled cat with one hand, he finally managed to answer the phone with the other.

"Hello?" he asked groggily. It hadn't occurred to him yet to even wonder who might be calling him. A bleary-eyed glance at the red numbers of his digital alarm clock revealed that it was actually after nine a.m. already, so not quite the obscene hour he imagined after all.

"Mulder?"

"Oh, hey Scully." He swallowed down a yawn. "What's up?"

"There was something I wanted to ask you last night, but I didn't get around to it..." The shy tone to her voice had him feeling more alert than he had, and he sat up straighter in bed, curious to know what she was about to say to him. After a lingering pause she seemed to screw up her courage and blurted out, "Would you consider having Thanksgiving dinner with the kids, Mom, and me?"

Although he wanted to tell her yes, he paused, thinking about the message he'd come home to the night before. Scully must have taken his hesitation as him trying to find a way to let her down easy, because she began to speak nervously. "I'm sorry, it's probably too soon. I should have thought-"

"No, it's not too soon," he interrupted gently, and she came to a stop. "I'd love to spend Thanksgiving with you guys. The only problem is that I've been asked to go to Wisconsin the Tuesday of that week and I don't know if I'll make it back on time."

"Oh." Instead of nervous she now sounded confused. "What's in Wisconsin?"

"Answers, I hope," Mulder admitted. "I finally heard back from another returnee, and he's agreed to speak with me if I go there that day."

"Wow."

"Yeah."

Dempsey apparently tired of him paying attention to the phone because he flicked his tail across Mulder's nose and nearly made him sneeze. As he was gently pushing the cat away, he wondered if it would be a bad time to request that Scully come over and feed the cat while he was away.

"Mulder..." she paused, and he waited to see what she'd finally say. "Do you want me to go with you?"

"I do," Mulder blurted out, and then had to keep himself from smacking his forehead. "But I don't want to put you out having to arrange childcare while we're gone."

"We can bring them with us," she suggested, and he detected a hint of unexpected eagerness to her tone. Maybe she was also tiring of the uncertainty, he reflected, and was happy to help him move forward. Knowing Scully, she'd feel that was regardless of whether or not she actually believed that his 'missing' child existed.

As kind as that was, he didn't want to disrupt her life on his behalf. "But what if we don't get back in time?" he asked, hoping to sound practical. "Even though I plan to fly, the timeline is still iffy. Throw in an unexpected flight delay, and we might be stranded for a day or more. I'd feel like a heel if you missed Thanksgiving at your mother's."

Scully began to speak without needing to pause to think out what she wanted to say. "Mulder, you're right. Thanksgiving is about family. And you are family too." His eyes began to well up when she said this, but he was pleased that he didn't embarrass himself by making a telling sound. Instead, he listened intently. "You missed three sets of holidays. I think my mother can deal with the possibility of her missing one with us."

"Are you sure you really want to come with me?" Mulder asked, blushing a little when his voice broke on the final word. Being that obvious about his desire for her to go with him hadn't been his goal.

"Absolutely," she declared. "If there's any chance of you getting to find out things you need to, I want to be there."

As pleased as this made him, he did hesitate again. "The man I'm going to speak to, he doesn't really want me to even see him myself. I think I have to ask him if it's okay if I bring someone with me." He shut his eyes, hoping that she wouldn't tell him never mind, it was too much of a risk to think that an uncooperative person would accept her presence.

"That's understandable, he doesn't know you, and he's never even spoken to me. If he doesn't feel comfortable with me and the kids being there, we'll wait at the hotel room. Then you can tell us what he said as soon as you get back."

Okay," he found himself saying. "I'll give him a call, and then look for a flight so I can book us tickets. Oh, and a hotel room."

"Do you want to split the costs, Mulder?" she asked hesitantly.

Apparently the price of the plane tickets had finally occurred to her. "No," he said, hoping that his tone was reassuring. "You're doing this for me, and um... Well, when I checked my bank accounts before I entered the hospital and also I found out that, uh, the investments that I made after selling my parents' homes did quite well. Not just the interest on money I kept in the bank, but stocks too. So, don't worry at all about plane tickets or the hotel room. Okay?"

"Okay," she agreed.

"Right. Then it's settled," Mulder told her, fairly confident that she wouldn't disagree.

"I guess I'll let you make your phone call, and you'll let me know the details once you've booked our flight and room," Scully suggested.

"Absolutely. I'll talk to you soon."

"Bye. Love you."

"Love you too," he said, feeling a bit dazed. He continued to hold the phone until he heard the dial tone. Then he put it down and looked at Dempsey.

"Hey buddy, what would you say about staying with my friend Walter? He's a nice guy, sort of. I think you like him."

Dempsey merely gave him a narrow eyed glaze.

"All right then. Unless you object, I'm going to ask him." Mulder realized that this nonsensical conversation was just him stalling for time before he called either the man who intended to speak to him or Skinner. Honestly, he didn't know which conversation was going to be more uncomfortable.

Mulder chose to speak to the person who had left the message first and get it over with. Not, he told himself, because he was afraid that Skinner would reject his request. Worse came to worst he could ask the gunmen to look after his furball. Actually, he really would rather that not have to happen. It seemed like they were more likely to accidentally let Dempsey out, or let him electrocute himself on one of their not-quite-finished toys.

He shook his head, hoping to make the image flee. Cat tail flambe was not a pretty sight, even in one's mind's eye.

Not knowing the returnee's name made him a little nervous, and as he listened to the phone ring, he began to worry that it had been a mistake to tell Scully about him before he talked to him. For all he knew the man might change his mind, or worse, might have been playing a hurtful prank on him. He wished he had already been awake when she'd called so he would have had the presence of mind to wait to discuss it with her.

Doubts were beginning to get overwhelming when the ringtone cut off and a suspicious voice asked "who is this?"

"Um. Fox Mulder. You left a message on my machine while I was out last night." He fidgeted nervously, trying to tell if he was speaking to the same person or not. Would the speaker snap that he had no idea what he was talking about?

"Oh. You." His voice didn't hold a trace of warmth or welcome, but at least he wasn't pretending not to have a clue why he was calling. "I figured I'd hear back from you."

"Right, so... what should I call you?" Mulder blurted out. There had to be a smoother way to ask, he berated himself. "Um, sorry," he mumbled almost inaudibly.

"Spencer Braeburn." The man on the other end of the line paused. "So, are you for real?"

"Am I for real?" Mulder repeated, confused.

"I mean, are you a reporter? Just trying to wind up a crazy? Or are you really one of us?"

"I'm one of the crazies," Mulder said firmly. It almost made him laugh to put it that way, but not because he really thought it was funny, and the laughter would have been the sort he'd heard echoing in the halls of a psych ward far less nice than the site of his last hospitalization. "I got abducted a little over three years ago, and let go in August. Now I'm just trying to find answers."

"Oh." Spencer paused again. "I probably shouldn't, but I actually believe you."

"Thanks, I guess." After a moment, he asked, "You're really okay with me coming to speak to you the Tuesday before Thanksgiving?"

"Yes. I'm not going to talk about this crap over the phone-"

"I understand. I just wanted to make sure you hadn't changed your mind before I made travel arrangements," Mulder patiently assured him. As they spoke he imagined Spencer as a high-strung little man, sort of a cross between Frohike and Rick Moranis.

"I said I'd speak to you in person and I will."

"Okay, but there's one other thing I wanted to check with you." Sweat began to bead on his forehead as he hoped desperately that Spencer wouldn't yell at him or hang up on him for his audacity. "Is it okay if my girlfriend comes with me when I speak to you? She's okay with staying behind if the idea makes you uncomfortable-"

"How long has she been your girlfriend?" Spencer asked.

"I'm not sure how to an-"

"I mean, was she with you? Before?" The way he stressed the last word finally clued Mulder into what Spenser was really asking.

"Oh, yeah."

"And does she know?"

"What happened to me? Sure."

"Okay. You can bring her."

"Great," Mulder blurted out. He honestly hadn't anticipated the man consenting, so it was hard to say something more intelligent. "Then I'll book our flights and our room then."

"Right. I'll talk to you then," Spencer said in a way that was obviously meant to convey that he wasn't going to tolerate more calls from Mulder before they spoke in person.

"Thank you."

After he hung up with Spencer, it turned out that asking Skinner to watch his cat was easier than he thought it would be. The only sticky part was explaining how he actually had acquired said cat... On the plus side, Skinner had also reluctantly agreed to also take Dempsey in temporarily if the landlord got wind of his presence and demanded he be removed from the apartment.

All in all, Mulder felt much better after both conversations than he'd even hoped to.


Thanksgiving Week 2003 - Sunday

It was after nine and Scully had two suitcases open on her bed. One of them already had the kids' stuff in it, which she had grabbed out of their dressers before putting them both to bed. Somehow it had been easier to pack for them than to pack for herself.

"What are you doing?" a confused voice asked.

She turned to see Tommy standing in the doorway, hair standing up staticky, and rubbing his eyes with one fist. "I thought you were sleeping."

"I was. But I had a dream." He didn't cry or explain, so Scully decided that it hadn't been a nightmare. Tommy looked at the open suitcases on the bed. "Are we going somewhere?"

"Yes."

He took a few clumsy steps towards her, and she wondered if he would even remember this conversation in the morning. "Where?"

"We're going to a state called Wisconsin," she said brightly, now wondering if he had ever heard the state's name before. Somehow she doubted it.

"But what about school?" Tommy asked. Then he yawned very loudly.

Scully reached down and picked him up, setting him on the bed. "Tommy, you're not going to go to school this week."

"I'm not? Is there going to be snow?"

For a moment she wondered what he meant by this, but finally realized he figured she meant a snow day or, apparently three. "No. At least I hope not. School will be open until Wednesday, but we're going on a trip instead."

"But why?" Tommy asked, beginning to sound whiny. He wasn't often, but overtiredness was a trigger for it in him.

That was a good question, she thought. "Well, you know how Mulder was gone for a long time, right?"

Tommy was apparently too tired to answer, so he just nodded.

"Sometimes when bad things happen to us we feel like they haven't ended all the way," Scully explained. "Grown-ups call that a lack of closure. Sometimes, though, we can do things that make us feel better so we can get closure. Then, we can move past the bad things and start to enjoy life again."

Her small son sighed. "I don't know what any of that means."

Sitting down beside him, Scully reached over and hugged him. "Mulder needs to talk to a man who might have some answers for him about what happened to him while he was gone. We're going to go with them because it's a long trip, and we don't want him to be lonely."

"Okay."

Scully couldn't help but feel somewhat amused. "Okay?"

"Yeah." Her son thought for a moment. "How're we going to get to Wis...Wis..."

"Wisconsin," Scully supplied. "We're going to take a plane."

"We've never done that before," Tommy remarked, and she couldn't tell if he thought the idea was good or scary.

"You and Grace haven't, no. But I have."

"Oh. Can I get a glass of water before I go back to bed?" Tommy asked, apparently not too concerned about their mode of transportation after all.

"Yes you may, as long as you go to the bathroom before you go to bed too."

"Uh huh," he agreed, and wandered back out of the room.

"Note to self," Scully mumbled while she pulled more clothes out of her drawers. "Philosophic talk is meaningless to five-year-olds."

She supposed that she should have realized that her son's question had begged for a direct answer, a literal explanation of why they were going from one place to another, and that he wouldn't understand answers about motives. However, she herself was spending a great deal of time wondering about the intangible rewards the Mulder hope to gain from his trip, and speculating on the odds of him getting them. More than anything she hoped that he would come away from his trip feeling better. But it was hard to believe that the odds would be in his favor.


Later

Unfortunately, Scully wasn't the only person having doubts. Across town, Mulder sat awake in his empty apartment, wishing more than anything that Skinner hadn't already come and taken the cat to his house. Maybe having Dempsey sitting on his lap would fail to drive away his misgivings, but it couldn't have been worse.

He was supposed to get up and meet Scully in less than seven hours, but he couldn't recall a time (at least on Earth, his mind helpfully reminds him) when he'd had a harder time sleeping after discovering his sister's fate. All he kept dwelling on was the worry that not only was he going to be wasting his own time going to see Spenser, he'd be wasting Scully's too. And dragging two little kids half way across the country hardly seemed fair to them, either. He wanted to learn to be a good father, but it seemed like he was getting off to a selfish start. But on the other hand, there wasn't just Grace and Tommy to think about...

"And what do you expect to happen, anyway?" he growled to himself. "For Spenser to hold out a baby and say 'hey, is this kid yours? We wondered who he belonged to.' You idiot."

Groaning loudly, he threw himself out of bed and went to the living room. He didn't have any particular hope that he'd fall asleep there if he couldn't in his bed, but his body was beginning to ache from staying in one position too long under the covers.

A rerun of COPS at least gave him something else to focus on, even if it didn't induce drowsiness. It was also nice to see people running around half-naked who had clearly made worse life choices than his current ones.

The shrill ring of his phone pulled him out of his stupor, and he wondered if anyone would answer this time. Someone had called three times in the past two weeks and hung up without leaving a message, so the hiss of tape was the only sound the answering machine picked up when he played the message. A not-too-small part of him worried that it was Spencer calling to cancel, but he wanted to believe that he'd have the decency to speak to him about it. All the other calls had come in when he wasn't home, so he wondered if picking up the call would make a difference to the caller.

"Hello?" Mulder asked. He wanted to ask if it was Spenser but he didn't. The thought that it could be someone who wanted to hurt him or even something, bubbled up too, but he more or less successfully pushed it away.

For several seconds no one spoke on the other end of the line this time either, and he almost hung up, but something made him decide not to. After a few seconds of rustling, Mulder heard an indignant grunt, and then a feminine voice began to speak to him. "I'm so sorry, Sir. He got the phone without anyone noticing."

"He who?" Mulder asked curiously. It seemed unlikely that it was Spencer unless he'd cracked and needed to be heavily medicated, so Mulder was able to be more interested than concerned about changes to his trip.

"Tim," the woman said. "He's got a list of phone numbers here and apparently called you at random."

For a moment Mulder was thrown, but then he realized who had called him. "Wait, I know Tim."

"You do?" The woman definitely sounded skeptical.

"Sure. We were in therapy together," he explained. Either he was wrong and she'd say that this Tim hadn't been in the hospital, or he was right and she'd know what he was talking about. "We were friendly there."

"Oh," she said after a moment. "I didn't know he had made any friends here, other than that Mark boy who comes on visitor's day."

"Surprise," Mulder replied dryly. Due to her comment about Mark's supposed youth had him mentally revising his image of her to include gray hair and wire-rim glasses. "Is it okay if we talk for a while? Since he went to all the trouble of looking up my new number." As he said that, he wondered if the three messages he'd gotten that week with no one speaking on them had also been Tim, not Spenser nerving himself up to talk to him about not coming after all. He hoped so.

"It'd be an awfully one-sided conversation," the woman blurted out.

"I realize that he has autism and is virtually non-verbal," Mulder told her, thinking about how he'd only heard Tim speak twice the entire time he'd known him. "I can talk, and he can listen. That must have been what he had in mind when he called me."

"Okay," the woman said reluctantly.

"Can it be a private conversation?" Mulder pressed.

For a moment he thought that she was going to object, and he could imagine her throwing her hands up in the air as she said "Why not." Of course she would have dropped the phone if she did that.

There was no way to know if the woman, who he assumed was a nurse at Dolby considering that it was the only 'here' that likely had his new phone number for Tim to find, would keep her word but he really hoped that she would. Still, the paranoia that remained his sometimes companion despite out-patient therapy and medication reminded him not to say too much: Tim would never tell his secrets, but he couldn't count on them not being overheard.

So he didn't spill them. "Hey Tim, it's Fox. How are you doing, buddy?" He waited several seconds, wondering if Tim would ever respond. The young man didn't say anything, but Mulder could hear him breathing. "I'm happy that you decided that you should give me a call. I've wondered how you were too."

Not often enough, perhaps, but Tim crossed his mind now and then. Mostly he wondered if he'd gotten well enough to go back to Dolby, and it seemed he had. Not well enough to go home, but he was going in the right direction it seemed.

"Mark comes to see you, huh? Maybe I should too," he added.

There was a soft noise, and he almost thought it was a "yuh" but nothing else got said, so he wasn't convinced it had been real and not his imagination.

"I'll tell you what, I'll come by sometime next week, and you can decide if you want to see me then." After another pause, Mulder spoke again. "You know, I'm actually glad that you called me tonight. I'm working hard to get better too, but I know you know it's not easy. Tonight's been rough for me. I'm guessing that tonight hasn't gone your way either."

More gentle breathing was the only indication that Tim was still on the line. It was actually comforting in a way, and despite the fact that Tim didn't really talk, the call didn't feel like a waste of time to Mulder.

"What did they keep telling us in those group meetings?" he asked the nearly silent man. "That we can only take things one day at a time? I'll tell you, Tim, there are times when a whole week seems to try to get me all at once."

This evoked a laugh.

It was so unexpected that Mulder actually dropped the phone for a second, but thankfully it didn't disconnect the call when the phone landed in his lap. If it had seemed sinister he would have hung up immediately and assumed that he'd been the victim of a prank, but it was the exact sort of laugh he would have expected from a man Tim's age.

Encouraged, he went on. "I'm pretty sure tomorrow's sitting at my kitchen table, and Tuesday's making a mess of my bathroom." There was a bit more laughter at this, and Mulder grinned to himself. "I'm planning to fight back, though."

Tim continued to laugh, but Mulder's smile faded a little. There really was only one way to fight back, he realized. It was to tell the doubts to go jump in a lake and get on with the week ahead. Maybe he couldn't keep himself from worrying about what could go wrong with everything from Spenser refusing to answer the door to getting snowed in out in Wisconsin until Saturday, but he could keep those worries from dictating what he did. Or didn't do, since he was fairly certain that his problem would be more inaction than taking the wrong actions.

There was more rustling and eventually the nurse came back on the line. "Tim needs to go to bed now." Her voice left no room for argument, but also held the expectation that Mulder might try to argue anyway. It left him wondering if she would have still thought so if he hadn't mentioned how he knew Tim.

"All right." For a moment Mulder wrestled with whether or not he should tell her that Tim was getting past staff on a regular basis to use the phone since he was now fairly certain that Tim had been the one calling and not saying anything rather than Spencer. But using a phone was rather innocuous a misdeed and he didn't really want to be responsible for the young man's existence becoming even more constrained over something so trivial, so instead he asked, "When I was in-patient I was allowed to have a phone in my room. Can Tim as well?"

"If someone pays for it," she replied, a hint of disdain in her tone.

"Okay, good to know," Mulder said, wondering if he could figure out from his bills how much that service had cost. Maybe it would be cheaper to buy Tim a prepaid cell phone. "Let me say goodnight, please."

"Okay."

Once he was sure the phone was back Tim's hands he said goodnight. Not long after that Mulder discovered that he actually was tired enough to sleep after all.


Thanksgiving Week - Monday

Before she got the kids out of bed Scully checked her email and made sure that none of the messages to her students letting them know that classes would be canceled for the week had bounced. The last thing she needed while she was gone was to get a peevish voicemail complaining that one of the agents-in-training hadn't realized that class was canceled.

Coffee hadn't made her feel much more alert than she had when she'd stumbled out of bed the hour before, and she was somewhat scandalized to be awake that early on a Monday morning when she didn't plan to go into work, so she was feeling rather ill-equipped to deal with Grace's typical morning conniption. So, feeling both lazy and inspired, Scully decided to see if she could dress her without waking her the way she had when she had still been a baby. To her surprise, it more or less worked.

Tommy of course got ready without much complaining, and he seemed to sense that she wasn't having a good morning so far because he kept his questions to the minimum. Instead, as soon as he put his shoes on, he sat quietly on the couch until she noticed him.

It was only when she was about to open her mouth to suggest that they leave that she discovered a fatal flaw to her plans. Having a sleeping, completely pliant, three-year-old in her arms didn't leave her a free hand for the luggage. As it was, she was going to have a difficult time just locking the door behind them.

Looking at her son, she gave him a weak smile. "Hey... Do you think you could pull our luggage?"

The little boy gave the suitcases a skeptical look. "Are there wheels? Or is it like a sled? There's no snow. And you said you didn't want any," he added, apparently remembering their conversation from the night before after all.

"There are wheels," Scully assured him. "And, you see how I put bungee cords to keep the bags together? That means they'll stay together when you pull on them." Or so she hoped. It wasn't that difficult to imagine that they might break apart if he thumped them too hard into a corner or doorframe. "There is even a handle," she said, using the hand that wasn't supporting Grace to quickly pull the handle out before she dropped the girl.

"Unh huh." Tommy took the handle and was able to move them without too much trouble.

To her relief, she managed to lock up, and they made their way all the way to the elevator without any incidences. Fortunately, Mulder was already in the lobby when they got down there, and he would be able to put the luggage in the vehicle for her.

"Hey," Mulder said in greeting, and then his eyes went to Grace. "She's out like a light huh?"

Tommy wrinkled his nose. "Lights are light up. That saying is silly."

"No argument from me," Mulder assured him.

"Then why did you say it?" Tommy wanted to know.

"Tommy, do you really want me to give you a lecture on the topic of social niceties and why we say things because we're expected to make conversation?" Mulder asked mildly.

Tommy's eyes widened. "No, that's okay," he said quickly. His reaction had Scully wondering what sort of person his new kindergarten teacher was. She'd only met the woman once and from this and a few other things Tommy had said, she thought the woman might be one of those who lectured a lot. She'd had more than her share of that sort of teacher herself growing up.

Mulder patted Tommy on the head and took the handle to Scully's suitcase from him. "All right then."

They had decided that they would take Scully's car because she had the car seats already in it, and they would leave Mulder's car in her spot. The building manager had already been informed that a strange vehicle would be there in her space, and had been given Mulder's license plate number, so hopefully the car would be there unmolested when they returned.

As soon as Grace was strapped into her car seat she woke up, stared at Scully, and gave her a sleepy, puzzled smile. "The car can fly?"

"What?" Scully asked blankly.

"You said we're flyin." Grace looked out the window, apparently taking stock of her new surroundings. "We not there yet."

Until that moment Scully had no idea that Grace had been out of bed the night before too, but she must have overheard her conversation with Tommy. It made her wonder when Grace had developed the skill of getting out of bed without waking the house up. There were good things about that, but having a stealthier child could be a disaster too.

"Not flying in the car, dummy," Tommy groaned from the booster seat next to Grace. "On a plane!"

"Tommy, that's not nice," Scully said warningly before giving her daughter a reassuring smile. "We are going to go on a plane, but first we need to drive to the airport. That's where the planes live when they're not flying somewhere else."

"Oh," Grace said before shoving her thumb in her mouth.

"Grace," Mulder said to get her attention. "After we go on the plane we're going to drive a different car to the hotel too."

The child nodded briefly, then closed her eyes again. Shrugging, Mulder and Scully both got into the car too. The drive was brief, but they found that they had to wake Grace up when they got to the airport anyway.


Thanksgiving Week - Monday
Airport

For Mulder, the trip to Wisconsin didn't feel entirely real until the four of them were standing in the airport, and about to go through security. Everything had changed since the last time he'd flown, and he didn't want to make a fool of himself by asking Scully why. At the back of his mind he was dimly aware that the heightened, and in his opinion bizarre, security measures were related to a disaster that had happened on US soil not very long after he'd been abducted. Thousands of people had died, so he supposed that it explained the need to show that the government was doing "something" to protect its travelers, but not having experienced the tragedy in even a limited fashion himself, he was too far removed from it to feel a connection that would inform an opinion about whether the measures were appropriate or overkill.

So, instead of discussing it at length with Scully, he stumbled through the security exercises as much as Tommy and Grace did, and neither of them had ever flown before. He felt dazed as he collected his laptop and carry-on from plastic buckets and wandered over to the side to put himself back together.

Tommy didn't like the process either, and looked as put out as Mulder felt. He frowned up at Scully while she gathered her own things and his and his sister's. "Now what happens, Mommy?"

Scully confidently pointed to the boarding area. "For now we're going to go sit with those people, and then we'll wait for someone to tell us that our flight is going to board."

The little boy nodded as if this made sense to him, but Grace looked confused. "Momma, why them people? Are they goin' to the same place as us?"

Scully opened her mouth, and then closed it again. After a moment of thought she said, "They're going on the same plane as us, and will go to the same airport. Once we get to the airport, they're going to go to different places."

For a moment Mulder wondered why she put it that way, but then he thought back to his child psychology classes. If Scully had simply told her yes, those people were going with them, there was a chance that Grace would assume that they were all going to visit Spencer with them because children her age were very concrete. This left him smiling to himself, and glad that he hadn't answered too many questions ambiguously before realizing this.

Then it occurred to him to imagine Spencer's horror if a whole planeful of people showed up at his house, and it got even harder not to laugh. This must have showed on his face because Scully gave him an odd look and he could only shrug helplessly.

"Is there only one stop?" Tommy wanted to know.

"Yes. There's only one stop," Scully told him. "That's one way that flying is different from taking a train or bus."

The idea of the plane making frequent stops almost made Mulder giggle, but he was able to contain himself. He was also glad that he picked a direct flight to Madison, rather than one of the flights with a layover. Scully never learned to love flying, but at least she wouldn't be completely baffled by a layover like he suspected both kids would be. Or like he and Samantha had been when they'd flown to seen their mother's parents at similar ages. For a second he stopped what he was doing when he realized that he'd never met his father's parents. His biological grandparents, that was.

"Hey," Scully said taking his hand and startling him. "Are you okay? You look a little sick to your stomach all of the sudden and we haven't even gotten on the plane yet."

He offered her a weak smile. "Sorry. I was wool-gathering and my thoughts turned to old Smokey for a second."

"Oh-" she started to say, but then she was interrupted when Grace sternly and very loudly declared, "Only you and prebent forest fires!"

Mulder couldn't help it, he burst out laughing. Maybe it was the child's delivery, or the mangled way the slogan came out, but something about it made him laugh helplessly.

In response Grace offered him an indignant scowl, and Scully's cheeks pinked up because half a dozen passengers had turned around when her daughter offered Mulder that sage advice.

He coughed and tried to swallow down any more laughter so he could ask "Does she even know what that means?"

"It's a bear, Mulder," Grace said matter-of-factly before Scully could reply. "He wears a funny hat."

"I know, sweetie, I know."

"Kind of?" Scully told him and it took a moment to remember what he'd asked her. "They still air those commercials, obviously."

"How about the one with the Indian crying over litter?" he asked, waiting to see if she'd take the bait and correct him for using the archaic term.

Perhaps she was too distracted by Grace pointing to where she wanted to sit. "I don't think so."

Mulder affected a sigh. "The times they are a'changing."

Scully reached for his hand gave it a squeeze.

Her being affectionate in public, Mulder considered as he let his own fingers wrap around hers, well, that was one change he could let himself enjoy.


After what felt like hours - but a glance at his watch said had only been 35 minutes - their group was finally called to board. Mulder stood and held out his hand to Tommy. The little boy gave him an uncertain look. Bending so he could look him in the eye, he gave a friendly smile and explained, "The seats are in rows of four across but there is aisle in the middle. Your mom and Grace will sit together, and you and I will sit together right across from them."

To his horror, Tommy looked like he was going to cry. "I can't sit with my mom?"

"I'm sorry," Mulder said gently. "Grace needs your mom to help if she has to use the bathroom, so we can't trade seats. We'll be able to see them the whole time, though."

Tommy nodded bravely. "There's a bathroom?" he asked, sounding less wobbly.

"There sure is. Most flights are too long to make people hold it."

"Okay," the boy said and then he took Mulder's hand.

It only took a few minutes to board the plane, and since they got on relatively early, there was adequate overhead space left for their carry-on luggage just above their seats; Mulder smiled wryly as he thought back to a different flight on the way back to Oxford that had had him opening almost half of the bins before he found a place to stow his gear.

"Which seat is mine?" Tommy asked shyly. Across the row Scully was already settling Grace into the aisle seat.

"Which do you want?"

The boy looked surprised he was being offered a choice. "The window!"

"Climb on in then," Mulder instructed. He glanced across the aisle, wondering if this would prompt Grace to have a fit, clamoring to swap seats with her mother. Fortunately, she didn't.

Mulder sat and then glanced at Tommy. The child picked up the ends of his seatbelt. Holding them out to Mulder, he said "I don't get it" and sounded as confused as he looked.

"They are kind of tricky," Mulder replied and reached over to snap it together for him.

"Thanks," Tommy said. He carefully observed when Mulder put his own seat belt on. It was clear that he was trying to figure out how it worked. He decided that he shouldn't be surprised if the little guy could manage it on his own during the flight home. "You've flown before, huh?" Tommy asked. "Grace and me didn't."

"Yup. I've flown a lot so I've had a lot of practice with these belts."

"When you and my mom worked together?"

"Sure. And before then I went to college in England so I had to fly then too."

"That's where The Teletubbies live."

Mulder blinked. "I did not know that."

Tommy grinned at him and then turned away to observe what was going on outside on the tarmac.

Mulder flashed Scully a smile when he noticed her looking his way. She smiled back before returning her attention to a picture book she had packed for Grace.

His own attention wandered after that, and he amused himself by observing the other passengers until the flight attendants announced that they would be going over the flight safety information. Scully caught his eye, then pulled out the card from the seat back pocket and looked from Grace to Tommy. It took him a few seconds to interpret her message, but eventually he realized that she wanted to model paying attention to the information.

He pulled his own card out figuring that it made sense to have the kids observe them not blowing the lecture off, even though both he and Scully could probably give the lecture themselves: they might have heard the information themselves a hundred times but it was new for the kids.

As the men and women in uniform began their spiel, he found himself hoping that Tommy wouldn't actually pay too close attention himself because some of the things they casually suggested could go wrong were quite scary. He didn't seem alarmed, though, so perhaps it went over his head, or maybe he just wasn't the anxious type. It bothered Mulder that he didn't know that about the boy, but he supposed it would come in time.

Once the flight attendants finished up, Tommy poked him in the arm. "Now what?"

"The pilot is waiting for the people in that tower-" Mulder pointed out the window at the distant structure and Tommy looked at it with a great deal of interest. "-to tell him that it's okay to go."

"Why does he have to wait?"

"Planes move fast and they need a lot of room to get going so the people in that tower need to know where everyone is and where they're going so no one runs into each other."

The little boy's eyes got wide. "That would be bad."

"Sure would," he agreed. The fact that two planes colliding would likely lead to fiery death didn't need to be said, at least not to a five-year-old. "Once the pilot gets the go ahead the plane will get ready to take off. At first it will drive along the ground like a car and then it'll suddenly start going up in the air. It might feel like we're tilted back a little to you while we fly."

Tommy tilted his head. "It goes faster in the air than driving?"

Mulder had to halt a smirk as he imagined the plane chugging down the highway and scaring the crap out of drivers. "Much faster."

"Is it scary?" Tommy asked.

"To some people," he admitted and Tommy looked even more nervous. It made him glad that he hadn't mentioned that Tommy's mother used to be one of those people. "Hey," he said. "If you get scared you can hold my hand, okay?"

Mulder's dad had held his hand when he was scared as a little boy too, so he hoped it would make Tommy feel better like it had him.

Tommy swallowed hard and whispered, "Okay."

"Good."


Scully hadn't been thrilled when Mulder explained the seating arrangements because she'd hoped to have both kids next to her the first time they flew. There just wasn't anything that could be done about the layout of the seats. And of course she'd also imagined that they'd be visiting family for their first flight, so all her imaging had gone right out the window.

Tommy seemed to be doing okay without her at his side, though. He'd grabbed Mulder's hand during the takeoff, and Mulder had said something to him that must have been reassuring because he relaxed a few minutes later. She made a mental note to ask Mulder what he'd said, and to let him know that she appreciated his effort to make the experience less scary for her son.

A small musing part of her brain found itself thankful that if only one of her children was biologically Mulder's, it was Grace. Tommy was much more of a roll-with-the-punches sort of kid than his sister and would undoubtedly react better when it came time to explain that Mulder was only parent by blood to one of them; she and Mulder had decided that they were too young to understand this yet, so both kids were still under the impression that his relationship to each of the was identical and that it was simply "mommy's boyfriend."

They were still trying to decide if they had to wait for Grace to be old enough to understand too before telling Tommy the truth. There seemed to be a wealth of advantages and disadvantages to both telling him soon and to waiting, so it was making logicing their way to a decision difficult.

She was glancing over at Tommy again, wondering what he and Mulder were talking about when Grace touched her cheek. The unexpected touch startled her and she gave her daughter an apologetic smile. "What's up, sweetie?"

"Mommy, is Tommy brave?"

"Why do you ask?" Scully inquired curiously.

Grace fluttered her hands, looking mildly exasperated to be forced to explain. Scully bit her inner cheek to keep from looking amused. "He didna cry," Grace explained. "I cried."

"Only for a few seconds," Scully reminded her. She'd actually expected a much worse reaction once they took off so she had been pleasantly surprised when Grace had taken less than a minute to pull herself together. "I think you were very brave considering you've never done this before."

"Me too?" Grace looked stunned by her mother's proclamation.

"Yes! A lot more brave than I was the first time I flew."

"Nuh uh."

"Really. I tried to hide under my seat and your grandma was so embarrassed that her whole face turned red," Scully recalled.

Of course she wasn't much calmer a flier for many years and her mother got her revenge when she'd nearly died of embarrassment herself while on her first case with Mulder; he'd made a comment that heavily implied that he'd assumed that their first flight together had been hers at all, and had done his best to awkwardly reassure her that it would get better as she got more experience with flying.

Grace looked under her seat and then back up to Scully with undisguised skepticism. It became clear what she was thinking when she said doubtfully, "When you was little?" There was no way an adult could fit under the seat and this was something that was obvious to even a child who was barely three, apparently.

"I was four," Scully told her.

Grace slowly counted to five on her fingers. "Littler than Tommy?"

Scully smiled and gently folded the girl's pinky back down to her palm. "Just between you and Tommy in age."

"Okay."

"Okay?" Scully repeated, amused.

"Yup."

"Well, I'm glad you approve."

The mild sarcasm flew entirely over Grace's head and she just patted Scully's arm approvingly.

Scully sighed. Since they'd looked at all of Grace's picture books already she rummaged through the seatback pocket and pulled out a Skymall catalog.

"How about we look for a fun birthday present for Auntie Tara?"


Three quarters of the way through the flight Tommy looked up at Mulder and said "I have a question."

"What?" Mulder asked, expecting another question about flight.

"Are you going to marry my mom?"

This wasn't at all what he anticipated, so he just sat there stunned for a moment until he noticed how worried Tommy's expression looked. "Um. Tommy, you know how I've been sick?" he finally asked.

The little red-haired boy nodded. "Yup. Mommy said that you were in the hospital for a long time. Weeks."

"I was," he replied, feeling a mild bit of relief. At least the boy had some context for what he was about to explain, though he was sure that Scully hadn't shared any of the details of why he'd been hospitalized with the boy. And he thought too about how long several weeks must seem to someone who had only experienced a couple hundred of them all together.

But Tommy tilted his head to the side. "But you got better," Tommy said with a look that suggested that his presence on the plane rather than in a hospital bed made this self-evident.

"I did," Mulder said slowly. "I'm doing a lot better than when I first got home. But I'm not fully well yet. Your mom and I probably won't talk about getting married until I'm more completely healed." If that was possible, a small voice in the back of his mind reminded him. Maybe it wasn't, it insisted cruelly. He did his best to ignore it. "Understand?"

"Yeah. But Mulder, if you do marry my mom, will you be my dad?"

"I'd be your stepfather," he agreed.

But Tommy shook his head. "No. Would you be my dad?"

"Yeah, Tommy. If I marry your mom, I'll be your dad."


The rest of the flight passed without incident, and Grace did not cry when they landed. Instead she cheerfully asked if they could fly the next day too, and looked a bit disappointed that their next flight wouldn't be until the day after that.

Renting a car at the airport felt different to Mulder than it had the last time he'd flown (or at least the last time he'd flown in a plane - he tried carefully not to think of traveling the unfriendly skies with his alien abductors as "flying" because he didn't want a panic attack on a plane) but he couldn't quite put his finger on what was different. Maybe it was just that he himself was so different from the last time he'd flown. Regardless it seemed to take forever.

By the time he had the rental car's keys in hand and rejoined Scully, she'd already picked up the kids' car and booster seats from the luggage coral, and she looked more than ready to leave the airport. Both kids were sleepy and beginning to be a little whiny.

When he seemed surprised when Tommy became peevish after a simple request, Scully offered Mulder a wan smile. "I'd tell you that they're not normally like this when they're tired, but that'd be a lie."

"Do they need a nap?" he asked.

Too loudly, because Tommy gave them both an indignant look. "I'm too big for naps!"

Mulder put a hand on his shoulder, and he looked up in surprise. "No one's too old for naps."

"But-"

"No one."

The little boy gave him an odd look, but stopped trying to make an argument that he realized that he couldn't win. Scully, for her part seemed amused by the exchange, which Mulder supposed was a good thing.


By the time they finally got to the hotel, both kids were sound asleep. Mulder picked up Tommy, and left Scully with the lighter child to deal with. He wished that he was stronger so he could carry both of them at once, but so far his progress towards getting back his physical strength was as steady and slow as regaining his peace of mind. He planned to speak to his doctor soon about the possibility of joining a gym, but hadn't gotten much out of the light weights that the doctor had already approved for home use. His only hesitation about joining a gym was that he didn't really want people to see how thin he was - but maybe he'd find one with odd hours so he could go there when there were few people. The ease of keeping odd hours was one luxury of being unemployed.

Scully snagged a luggage rack, and they quickly piled all the bags onto it, and she pushed it with the hand not supporting her sleeping daughter. A tiny resentful part of him, the part that was still having trouble coping with his diminished health, wondered if she would have pushed the rack or even wanted one if he was back to normal. The only way he was able to cut off this line of thinking was to make himself aware that he had no idea how she would act because he'd never travelled with her and kids before. For all he knew, she would have wanted to even if he'd never been abducted and they'd been together when she learned of the kids' existence.

It was slightly awkward to check in with Tommy draped over one shoulder but Mulder appreciated the wry look he got from the person behind the desk. It as much as said that the other man had been there before, and had been the weary traveler on the other side of the counter. There was something of comradery in it, as if Mulder had recently been welcomedly admitted to a club whose existence he hadn't been aware of before.

Once he rejoined Scully and Grace she led the way to the elevators, and he was left wondering if she had developed a better sense of direction in the years he was away, or if she'd taken the opportunity to ask directions while he was busy at the desk. Either way, she seemed to know exactly where to go.

The elevator was empty when the doors opened, and they piled in gratefully. Glancing at her, and the way that Grace's limp form mirrored her brother's, Mulder grinned at her. "This brings back memories. Of how we never ever traveled with kids in tow on any of our cases."

"What about Kevin?" Scully asked, surprising him a little.

He shrugged without thinking about it, and was grateful when his movement didn't accidentally dislodge Tommy. "Okay, you've got me there. He never conked out on us like this, though."

"Well, that's true," she conceded.

"This is kind of nice, though," Mulder offered. She gave him a questioning look, and this time he was able to keep from reflexively shrugging. "They're making this trip more interesting."

"I guess that's one word for it."

"Oh?"

"Slightly more complicated is another."

"That's definitely more than one word," he teased.

"Mulder," she sighed, sounding just like she had so many times before, back when they'd worked together on cases. But there was a spark of amusement lightening up her eyes.


When they found their room Scully managed to get the pass card to work on the first try, and he admired the fact that she didn't need to set Grace down to do it. He'd always hated them and longed for the old days of real keys because it was a lot more obvious which side of the key went up.

Inside the room there were two beds, and at first he stood just inside the doorway and watched to see what Scully wanted to do. They hadn't really discussed if she'd prefer that he and Tommy share one bed while she and Grace shared the other or-

"You can put him down next to Grace," Scully offered as soon as she stood back up after putting Grace on the bed deepest into the room. "He must be getting heavy."

"Yeah, kind of," he mumbled. He put Tommy down, but found himself wondering what they'd say to the kids later. One of them was bound to remark on him sharing a bed with Scully, weren't they?

They spent the next few minutes putting the contents of their luggage into the dresser drawers, and it seemed to take a lot less time than he figured it would. On the other hand, since they didn't need to make sure that they were business-presentable, they were probably a lot less careful than they had been with suits.


Once there was nothing left to do, Scully noticed that there was an ice bucket and realized that she was pretty thirsty. Neither she nor Grace had needed to use the toilet on the plane, but part of that had been because she'd turned down the flight attendant's offer of drinks. Now a cold drink would be nice, and they'd have to hit up the vending machine for something to offer the kids once they woke up too.

Think of this, she suggested, "We should look for something to drink and get some ice." They could stick whatever they found for the little ones in the ice, she reckoned. It was slightly too bad the room didn't come with a mini-fridge, but ice would probably do.

He frowned slightly, and it didn't surprise her when the next words out of his mouth were "The kids-"

"Are sleeping," she said firmly. She put the ice bucket into his hands. "We can see our door from the alcove with the ice and vending machines. If they woke up and tried to leave the room to find us, we'd know it."

Some of the tension drained from him. "Okay."

It hadn't occurred to her that there might be a line at the ice machine, but a young woman holding the hand of a small blond boy was trying to get ice into her bucket and keep a grip on him both. He was about eighteen months old, and Scully had less than fond memories of Grace doing exactly what he was right then - tugging hard to get away from a parental hold. She didn't know this little one, but she could bet that if his mother let go he'd make a mad dash down the hall.

As they waited patiently for their turn to fill up their ice bucket, Scully found herself idly studying the woman: she was obviously pregnant, but not enormously so, perhaps five or six months. That was when Tara had referred to her own growing belly as "cute" and "manageable" though those terms got retired well before Matthew had made his late entrance.

After a moment the woman looked slightly startled and dropped the little boy's hand to put her own to her belly instead. It was clear that she noticed that they'd seen her reaction because she blushed slightly and said "he's just begun kicking. It still takes me by surprise" to which they both nodded solemnly, like they had any idea what that felt like from the inside.

Looking askance at Mulder, Scully wondered if she was the only one who didn't. He caught her look and bent his head to say in her ear. "If the kids are still sleeping, there's something I want to talk to you about." He smiled at the mother, and it was slightly tense if still friendly. Scully noticed that his eyes lingered over the woman's abdomen, and that made her wonder if Charlie hadn't been so wrong after all when he used to tease her about being able to read her thoughts on her face.

The woman's son apparently decided that the adults were properly distracted and began to run off, just as Scully predicted. But what she hadn't anticipated was that Mulder would scoop him up long before he reached the end of the hallway. There was no yell of indignation to wake her own kids up like she figured would happen as soon as Mulder reached for him - instead the child seemed warily interested, as if he was trying to decide if Mulder was a friend of his mother's.

"Thanks so much," the woman said as Mulder set her little boy on his feet beside her a few seconds later. Scully thought she seemed tired, and wondered why she wasn't herself. It was getting late and they'd traveled most of the day.

"You're welcome." He bent slightly and addressed the tiny boy. "Be nice to your mom, huh?"

The toddler's response was to bury his face against his mother's leg.

Scully watched Mulder, wondering if he'd get nervous about whether he'd done the right thing considering the child's reaction. To her relief he didn't seem anxious. Instead he just wished the woman a good night and finally filled the ice bucket that Scully had three-quarters forgotten about.


Both of the kids were still sleeping when they returned to the room. Scully glanced at his face, wondering if this was a good or a bad thing: there was clearly something on his mind, and she was scared to find out what it was. He must have noticed her apprehension because he offered her a weak smile as he sat on their bed. He patted it, obviously wanting her to sit beside him.

Scully tried not to make her reluctance obvious as she sat beside him. As soon as she did, she looked up at him expectantly. "You look like you want to say something," she prompted after a few seconds when no words spilled readily from him.

"I don't remember feeling anything inside me," he said after a moment. "Not like that woman at the ice machine. And that's what gives me the most doubt. Makes me wonder if I'm losing my mind imagining I ever was in the same room with my crying baby." He paused, and looked at his hands for several long seconds. "I can accept that maybe I wasn't... gestating... very long."

"Mulder," she said softly when he looked down and said nothing more. Not for the first time she noticed how long his dark lashes were - she just wished that the observation didn't only happen when his eyes were downcast in misery.

He spared her from having to think of anything else to say to offer comfort or encouragement when he cleared his throat. "After all, you were abducted in August yourself, and Emily was born in November of that year. So it's possible that a hybrid infant growing in a human might have that sort of accelerated growth too. But wouldn't that make it more memorable if it was growing and crowding one's insides at a breathtaking speed? Why wouldn't I remember something like that?" His tone held all the anguish that he felt about the uncertainty, and this time he made no attempt to hide it from her. That was probably healthier than damming it all up, she reflected as she observed that his hands were shaking as badly as his voice now.

More than anything she wished that she could give him the answers he needed so badly, the ones that would finally make him whole again, but she couldn't. So she did the only thing she could, slowly wrap her arms around him, and admit, "I don't know."

At first she didn't realize that he was crying until a tear slid down her wrist. It took her longer than that to notice that there were tears in her own eyes too. "Maybe I've imagined everything," he said hoarsely.

"Maybe you have," she said, and she immediately felt bad when he stiffened. "Maybe your poor mind conjured it all up so there would feel like there was a point to it all. That there was some sort of consolation that could be found, and so it wouldn't have just been pain without any sense or purpose at all."

To her surprise, his reaction was to laugh. "A big-eyed kid with gray skin and spindly fingers isn't the sort of thing a person tends to imagine as a reward for suffering."

"Did it look like that? When you've dreamed of that day?"

"No." Mulder frowned. "The baby looked human. He - I don't know why I keep thinking of it as a boy since I have even less proof that it's a boy that it even exists - he looked like any baby does. But it was a dream, not a memory. I can't know that the dream wasn't just what I wanted it to look like."

She tilted her head to the side, lost for a moment in thought. Looking back up at him, she asked, "But you'd feel obligated to take care of it, even if it looked as monstrous as a gray, wouldn't you?"

"Of course!" he sputtered indigently.

"Maybe it's not a prize," she mused before he could get any more wound up, idly tapping a gentle pattern on his forearm as she spoke. "Maybe it's a symbol of the responsibility you feel for having been abducted. You can't tell me that you feel completely blameless. You've beat yourself up over having taken actions that allowed them to get you."

It wasn't quite a question, and both of them realized that. "So you think I made it up to punish myself?"

"Maybe," Scully said, and she watched his face fall as he let the self-doubt flow back in. "Or... or maybe he's real."

"Do you actually believe that?" Mulder asked softly.

She shrugged reflexively. "I believe there's a good enough possibility that he's real that all of this isn't a waste of time."

Mulder laughed shakily. "Considering I'm not completely convinced I'm not a lunatic myself, I guess that's as ringing an endorsement I could hope for from someone else."

Scully wished she could offer him more, but any more stringent a proclamation would just ring hollow. Hopefully what faith in him she could muster up would be enough to get them through.


The first thing that Mulder became aware of the next morning was two small voices discussing him and Scully. Deeply curious, he determined that he would keep his eyes shut, and eavesdrop rather than make them aware that he was awake.

"Tommy, why he is in Mama's bed?"

"It's not mommy's bed. The bed belongs to the hotel," Tommy pointed out. Since it wasn't the first time he'd heard the boy correct her, it made Mulder wonder if he was always a know-it-all when it came to his sister's misconceptions. He'd been a bit that way with Samantha himself even though it had annoyed his father enough that he'd been punished for it multiple times.

There was an incongruent sound then, and Mulder had to bite his lip to keep from smiling because he was positive that he had never heard a three-year-old sigh in exasperation before. "It her bed now."

"It's okay," Tommy said reassuringly. "Someday he's going to marry her, and then he'll be our dad. When that happens they're gonna share a room every night, right?"

"Yeah?" Grace now sounded interested instead of annoyed.

"Yup. But not soon," Tommy said, note of worry in his voice as if he was afraid of implying that Mulder intended to marry their mother immediately. "First he has to get all better. I don't know how long that's going to take."

"Oh. He's sick?" Grace asked sympathetically.

"That's what he said. I I don't know what, but he did have to be in the hospital for a long time once he came back from being lost."

"Not no more!" Grace said cheerfully.

"That's true." There was a rustling then, reminding Mulder why he disliked noisy hotel bedding, and then Tommy said, "It's still dark out. I think we better try to go back to sleep before we get in trouble."

Mulder waited, wondering if Grace would protest, but there was simply a small "okay" and then he heard her lay back down. Another noise, and he was sure that Tommy did the same.

Once it had been quiet for two minutes, Mulder cracked his eyes open and looked around. It wasn't even five in the morning yet. When he dared to look over at the kids, it seemed that both had fallen back to sleep already. He envied that, and thought back to how he had had that same ability to quickly fall asleep himself, at least until his sister had been taken.

Scully slept on beside him, and he shut his own eyes again too. He didn't know if he would get back to sleep, but at least he should try.


Two hours later they all got up, and Tommy and Grace acted like they hadn't been awake earlier. Mulder debated with himself whether or not he should mention their conversation to Scully, but in the end he decided not to. There was plenty of time to discuss that sort of thing later, and he wasn't quite sure how she would react to it, frankly. She might have thought he should have told Tommy that the topic was off-limits instead of discussing it with him even as much as he had the day before.

For a moment he wondered if he hadn't been the only one awake during the kids' discussion after all when she stopped him, pulling him aside for private word. But instead of a conversation about her children's little pre-dawn chat, Scully asked, "How are you feeling about today?" The sympathetic look in her eyes conveyed more than her words did, and he wondered if she was thinking about her own abduction experience... with Tommy and Grace in her life, he supposed it couldn't be too far from her thoughts for very long.

As for his own feelings, he could have let all of the concern and worry he was feeling spill out, but- "Pretty worried," he admitted. When Scully looked empathetic, he added, "Prebenting all those forest fires is a pretty big responsibility. I'm not sure I'm up to it. I don't even know where you get equipment to bend a tree..."

As he predicted, she simply rolled her eyes. "Mulder!"

"I'm okay."

"Really?" There was a hint of skepticism to her tone.

"Really," he said firmly. He hoped so. He really did.

Whatever Scully might have said to assure him that she had faith in his ability to predict his own mental state or to protest that he didn't was lost as soon as the kids got dressed. It surprised him a little that neither of them had needed her help but he thought he remembered Scully saying that their daughter had independent days and needier ones, so apparently this was one where she was full of "I can do it!" rather than wanting help. Or, at least for the moment, anyway.

"Momma, we're hungry," Grace said insistently. She absently tugged the bottom of her purple sweater down over the hips of her green corduroy pants. Looking at her, Mulder found himself wondering what Scully thought of Grace's color palette - he'd never seen her wear pink or purple, but Grace very obviously loved both colors.

Just then Mulder heard Scully's belly rumbled. He knew that she realized he'd heard it too when her cheeks flushed. "I believe we can have breakfast downstairs," he said cheerfully, sparing her from having to explain that she was hungry too.

"Yay!" Tommy declared. He didn't even know what was on the menu, but was simply excited to have breakfast.

Grace on the other hand, looked more skeptical. "Where?"

"Downstairs."

"But where?"

Mulder laughed and picked her up. For second she looks surprised, but then she wrapped her arms around his neck. "You'll see, Grace."

"K."


Fifteen minutes later Mulder realized something very important: if he ever wanted to go out of his way to impress Scully's children, all he had to do was bring them somewhere that served a continental breakfast.

Tommy happily helped himself to a stack of pancakes, but Grace seemed harder to convince that she could pick anything she wanted. "I can get that?" she asked her mother while pointing to a cherry cheese danish.

"If that's what you want."

At first Mulder wondered if she had asked because a danish is a bit sophisticated for a toddler, but then Grace asked, "But how many moneys? Is it too many?"

"We already paid for breakfast so don't worry about how much money," Scully said, after she asked this for the second time. Mulder gave her a look, and she smiled. "I've been trying to impress upon her how much things cost that she frequently asks for the grocery store, and apparently she's remembered that."

"I remember that sort of lesson," Mulder told her with a lack of fondness. "For a while there, I thought my parents were really poor."

He felt bad when she looked stricken - he hadn't been trying to make a pointed remark, but it was apparent that she'd taken it that way. "I never thought of that."

"It's okay," he said reassuringly. "My mother really laid it on thick." Not like you seem to be doing, or I hope you're not, he silently added.

"Good to know," she murmured, looking slightly less guilty.

A couple of minutes later Grace pulled at his hand. "I can get orange juice?" she asked, gesturing to the machine she'd figured out dispensed beverages.

"You sure can," he said, grabbing a child sized glass for her.

Instead of this reassuring her, she looked conflicted. "What about milk?"

"Do you want both?"

She nodded. "I am thirsty."

"Okay then," he agreed, giving her cheerful smile. Since the controls for the drink machine were far above her reach, Mulder filled two glasses two thirds full for her. She might be thirsty, but he didn't figure she was thirsty enough to have a full glass of each. And even if she was, he wasn't thrilled by the idea of needing to find a bathroom an hour later. With luck they'd be well on their way to Spencer's house at that point.

As soon as he put the glasses down in his tray he looked for Tommy to see what he wanted, but the boy was across the room with his mother. There was already a glass on the tray that Scully was carrying for him, and he wondered how he had missed her filling it for him.

"Hey, why don't we go find a table?" Mulder suggested, wondering how it was that he ended up overseeing Grace. He and Scully hadn't discussed splitting up the kids, but somehow it did happen naturally. It almost made him feel like that's what would happen when he married Scully, as Tommy was convinced he would.

"Next to the windows, okay?" Grace said.

"That sounds good." He began carrying their tray over to a table next to a window, but then he stopped suddenly, and Grace almost walked into him. Looking down at her he asked "are you sure you don't like bacon?"

Grace shrugged. "I forget."

He looked at the stack of bacon on his tray, nestled against two fried eggs and some toast. "If you want to, you can try mine."

"Momma said no sharing food. You get sick dat way," Grace said with unexpected vehemence.

All of the sudden he could picture her in kindergarten, two years down the road, telling people what Her Mommy said and how they should listen because Scully Is A Doctor and knows everything. That was a far cry from what he might have said himself if he'd had an inkling of what Bill Mulder did for a living - my daddy is part of The Conspiracy, and if he says everything is gonna go to hell in our lifetimes, you should listen.

"Oh. Well, you shouldn't share food that someone has already started eating it, but I think it's okay if you take a piece that no one has put in their mouth or bitten yet. We can ask her though."

"Okay." Before he could quite wrap his head around the fact that the topic was closed as far as Grace was concerned, the little girl was running for the windows at the other end of the dining room, leaving him to stare after her as he juggled their food and drinks. For one moment he worried that she was going to veer for the doors instead and he'd have to give chase, but she stopped in front of one of the wooden tables and patted it, saying "This one, okay?"

For a second he looked back at the table he'd been about to suggest, but he decided not to make an issue of it; there was nothing inherently better about the table he'd had his eye on than the one she wanted. 'Pick your battles, Teena' had been something he'd heard his grandmother say more than once and now he was beginning to understand what she'd meant.

Rather than saying anything, Mulder signaled his approval by putting the tray on top of the chosen table. He waited for Grace to sit down, but she only gave him an expectant look he couldn't quite understand. Eventually the little girl frowned at him. "Too high, Mulder! I need help," she said, pointing at the seat of the chair.

"Oh! Of course," he mumbled, feeling a bit dumb. The chairs had been designed with an adult in mind, and though he'd seen Grace sitting in chairs he hadn't thought about how she managed to get into them. She didn't seem to weigh anything when he picked her up and plopped her down on the seat next to him.

"Thanks!" she said cheerfully, apparently having already forgiven him for not having had the foresight to help her without prompting.

"There they are," a voice a few yards away announced. Tommy had just spotted them.

It only took a few more seconds before Scully and Tommy joined them. Mulder observed that even Tommy had a little trouble clambering up onto the chair despite being several inches taller than his sister.

Scully looked around, expression approving, before saying, "This is a nice spot."

"I picked it," Grace announced proudly. "Mulder let me!"

He smirked to himself, thinking that her definition of "let" was a bit different than his own.

"Well, that was nice of him."

"Yeah," Grace simply agreed, apparently unaware that her mother was subtly trying to cue her to say thank you. Scully looked at Mulder and shrugged. He just smiled at her.

Tommy had ignored the entire exchange in favor of paying attention to his food. He looked up from cutting his pancakes to say, "Mulder, mom said we're here because you need to find something."

"That's right," Mulder mumbled, wondering how detailed an explanation he should offer. Not very, he thought.

The little boy thought for a moment, worrying him what might come out of his mouth next. Mulder wracked his brain, hoping hard that he hadn't been wrong to think they'd been asleep when he and Scully talked the night before, or that they'd unknowingly slipped up and talked about something that they shouldn't in the kids' presence.

"She said it's called..." Tommy trailed off, obviously having forgotten his mother's turn of phrase. His face brightened after a moment. "Closure."

"Uh... sure. That's one term for it."

The little boy leaned forward, his interest very apparent. "Like Velcro?"

For a second Mulder just gave him a blank stare. "Um. No."

"I knew I didn't do a good job explaining this," Scully said in a fluster.

"Tommy," Mulder said and the boy looked him right in the eye, which was slightly unnerving. "Closure is basically finding the answers you need in order to feel better about something bad that has happened to you."

"And we're going to see someone who has those answers?"

"Maybe some of them."

Tommy frowned, looking a lot like Grace had a few minutes earlier. "Only some?"

"The questions I have are pretty complex, Tommy. There probably isn't a single person on Earth who knows all of them."

"Oh." Tommy toyed with his fork. "It's not 42?"

This surprised Mulder so much he laughed and this earned him a hesitant smile from Scully's son. "That's the meaning of life. That one isn't on my list. Where did you hear that, anyway?"

"I don't remember."

"It's from a pretty famous book," Mulder informed him. "I bet you'll like to read it when you get older. I did."

"I like to read. We go to story-time at the library. Will you take us too when you-" Tommy bit his tongue and then shrugged. "You know."

There was a question on Scully's face but he decided to pretend that he didn't know that she wanted to know what they were talking about. He just said "we'll see" and began to eat his own breakfast.


Spencer Braeburn's house was a thirty-five minute drive from the hotel. As he piloted their rental car along the route that MapQuest had provided, Mulder perversely felt that he wished the drive could be longer. It didn't take his psychology background to realize that his mixed feelings about meeting Spencer were born out of an anticipation of answers and the fear that the other returnee would not be able to provide them.

As he drove Mulder occasionally glanced at Scully's face, wondering what she was thinking about. Twice she noticed and looked back at him, and he was somewhat relieved to see that there was no pity in her expression. If she actually believed that this was a futile effort, she was a better actress then he remembered her being.

At one point Grace's voice piped up from the back seat asking "we be there soon?" and this led Mulder to wondering how strange this must seem for them. One of the indignities of childhood was that you were so often involved in activities where no one had consulted you to find out if you wanted to be. And unfortunately, this was one of those cases. Sure, the kids actually seemed to be having a relatively good time, even if they had no idea what was going on, but neither he nor Scully had thought for a moment about whether or not the kids should be consulted. Maybe they would've been happier staying behind with Maggie.

"Pretty soon, Grace," Scully said, startling Mulder when he realized that he had never answered Grace's question. For a moment he held his breath, hoping that she wouldn't next complain that she needed to use the potty.

"Okay, good," she said, much to his relief.

"Do you have somewhere you need to be today?" Scully asked Grace, and he turned his head enough to see her lips twitch.

"I don't think so."

"Mulder, can we see a really big cheese?" Tommy asked, confusing him. After a second he realized that Tommy thought that their mother was accepting suggestions for things they could also do.

"Um. Maybe if we run across one."

"Can we get hats that are shaped like cheese?" Tommy asked.

"I think that would kill your uncle Bill," Scully said gravely. "It really might."

Mulder smirked to himself. "So would be wrong of me to buy him a Green Bay jersey for Christmas?"

"Very," she said. "But you're an adult. It's not like I can stop you."

"One Green Bay jersey it is then. Do you happen to know his size?"

"I bet they're good at moving," Tommy commented, much to the bafflement of both Mulder and his mother.

"Why?" Mulder asked cautiously.

"They're the Packers, duh."

Mulder and Scully were both giggling still when they finally reached Spencer's road.


Trees lined the road which itself was gravel instead of paved. It reminded Scully of some of the places her parents had told her and her siblings not to play near their base housing. Because of this, she had to consult the cdirections twice one Mulder pulled up in front of one of the houses.

A friend of a friend back in her 20s had been a real estate agent, and she had always like to say after a few too many drinks that she advised her clients that they didn't want the most expensive house on the block. Spencer Braeburn obviously didn't hear this piece of advice. The home was lovely, and at least on the outside meticulously kept up. She found herself wondering how many bedrooms the three-story slate blue house contained.

Behind her Grace squealed, "we here now!"

"Nice digs," Mulder muttered, apparently having the same reaction that she did.

Glancing at his face, she wondered if he was thinking about the fact that apparently even well-off people got kidnapped by aliens. She hadn't met Spencer yet, but already she couldn't imagine him being out in a stereotypical pickup truck drinking the first time he got snatched.

"Dig with what?" Tommy asked.

Mulder shot her a confused look and opened his mouth but no words came out. "I'll explain later, Tommy," she assured her son.

O-kay."

"We get in' out now?" Grace asked, and Scully could tell by Mulder's expression that he was torn.

"Yes, but I'd like for you and your mom to wait here by the car until I get to talk to the man we're visiting first. He knows that your mom is with me, but not you two."

"He doesn't like kids?" Tommy guessed.

"He doesn't like surprises," Mulder said judiciously.

Scully was impressed by this-he was learning how to talk to kids fast, and had obviously realized that agreeing with Tommy might make the kids dislike Spencer, which wasn't fair to the man given he could adore kids he knew.

"Oh. I bet he doesn't like birthday parties," Tommy remarked.

"It's hard to guess - birthdays aren't too surprising since they happen every year, so maybe he expects a party," Mulder said. "Stay here until I wave, okay?"

"Okay," both kids agreed.

Scully busied herself with getting the kids out of their booster and car seats while Mulder walked up to the house. She was in no rush because she wanted to respect his request that they hang back, So by the time she helped Grace out of the car, the door had already opened. She only half heard the men's introductions to each other because of a noisy truck passing by the road just behind them, but it went on its way just in time to hear Spencer clearly ask him "are those your kids?"

"Yeah," Mulder agreed, and she found herself wondering if he just said that to avoid a complicated explanation... or if he'd honestly meant it when he'd told her that he cared just as much about Tommy as Grace because they were both hers. "Sorry to spring them on you," Mulder went on in apology.

"I should have thought to mention they'd be with us."

"Don't worry about it," Spencer told him before calling to Scully and the kids, "Please join us up here and get out of the cold."

Scully waved to them before taking the kids by the hands. "It is kinda cold, mommy," Tommy told her as they walked up the driveway.

"Oh, Tommy, why didn't you tell me you were cold?" she asked, noticing how windy it had gotten. "I could have had you stay in the car."

Her little boy shrugged. "It's not that cold."

"I'm not cold, momma," Grace said earnestly. "My fuzzy coat is warm."

"It's fleece," Tommy told her.

"Dat's what I said."

Scully squeezed their hands just hard enough to get their attention, and they both quieted down as they joined Mulder. They both grinned when Mulder touched the kids' heads, saying "this is Grace, Tommy, and Dana" in way of introduction.

"Nice to meet you," Spencer said with a faint smile.

Finally able to get a good look at him, Scully saw that Mulder's prediction of what he'd look like were way off. Rather than small and fussy like Mulder had imagined from their phone exchanges, Spence was tall and slightly overweight. He didn't wear glasses, either. And his dirty blond hair was fashionably cut, so so much for the image of a nebbish Frohike.

"You too," Tommy said politely.

Scully nudged Grace, which she understood. Sort of. "You have a nice big house. The old woman would like to live here."

"The old woman?" Spencer repeated blankly, and Mulder shrugged helplessly.

"Inna shoe!"

Scully forced herself not to cringe. To her relief, Spencer laughed. "Well, I do have a lot of bedrooms she could use for her children."

"Yeah."

Looking at Scully, Spencer said, "Maybe the maid could give you the nickel tour while I speak with your folks, if it's okay with your mom."

Both kids gave her eager looks until she nodded and said, "That sounds fun."

"Great, I'll call her," Spencer said before going to an intercom.

As soon as Spencer turned away, Grace looked up at them and whispered "Can we have nickels?"

"Please?" Tommy added, making it clear that he wasn't sure what Spencer's turn of phrase meant either.

She was about to explain when Mulder pulled a handful of change out of his pocket and handed them each five cents. Scully shook her head when he grinned unrepentantly at her. Both kids remembered their manners enough not to run to the maid when she appeared. Scully gave the woman the once over, but she seemed harmless enough, so she let the kids go with her.

"I hope you don't mind," Spencer commented after the retreating footsteps faded from hearing. "I had the feeling that there were things that might be said during this conversation that you wouldn't want little ears to overhear."

"That's true," Mulder mumbled beside her.

"Why don't we go to my office?" Spencer suggested. "Hilda will probably look there for us once the kids get bored, anyway." Both Mulder and Scully followed him without a word.

His "office" turned out to be a medium-size library. Bookshelves lined the walls from floor to ceiling. Scully was surprised that her first thought was of the haunted house Mulder had dragged her to one Christmas Eve. Fortunately, this room didn't have a balcony, and she was willing to bet there were fewer corpses under the floorboards.

Spencer motioned towards the trio of leather chairs near the windows, and took his own seat while waiting for them to do likewise.

Scully waited for him to lean forward and asked them about Mulder's abduction experience, but the first thing he said instead was, "How do you like Wisconsin so far?"

"This time? Much better than the two times we visited the state before," Scully offered. "It's nice to be here when we aren't working." Not that either of them were investigating any cases anywhere officially at the present.

"Oh, I didn't know you'd been here before. What were you doing then?"

Scully gave him a bland smile. "Once we had a missing persons case, and another time we investigated a crash." As she hoped her banal descriptions didn't invite further questioning from Spencer. They might've been on okay ground if she gave him some more details about the alleged UFO crash considering he obviously had a more open mind about that than the average person, but she didn't feel comfortable bringing up the red museum cult to a person who lived near enough to pester them if he felt like it. If they still were in the state, that was. She didn't have the inclination to find that out herself.

Turning to Mulder, Spencer offered him a grim smile. "I take it you weren't kidding about being a former FBI agent."

"No, I wasn't," Mulder said quietly.

"And that's how you got the attention of..." Spencer trailed off, waving a hand towards the clear blue sky outside one of the large windows.

"Dana and I were both agents in a department that explored the unknown," Mulder told him. "We encountered many things that defy description, not the least of them are otherworldly visitors. Circumstances had us revisiting our very first case, which did in fact involve abductions, and I was taken as a result of that."

Spencer looked at Scully. "But you weren't."

She shook her head. "No." Inevitably the memory of being picked up by some unseen force and shaken bubbled to the surface of her consciousness. There was a time when she wondered if she actually had been pregnant at one point, and if the baby had been stolen from her then like Cassandra Spender had claimed about one of hers. That sort of thought had stopped bothering her before she got the phone call about Tommy and Grace - by that time she realized the ill-fated pregnancy test she'd taken just hours later probably would have still come back positive at that point unless the aliens were able to remove all traces of pregnancy hormones from her body at the same time as the embryo.

"Well, you can consider yourself fortunate," Spencer said, to her mild surprise. He smiled wanly when he noticed the effect his words had on her. "I'm sure that Fox here has told you quite a lot about his own experiences, and I daresay that mine were not much better."

"I do consider myself lucky," she said, meaning it. In her heart she wanted to be the type of person who would have rather had been abducted the Mulder, but still, as ashamed as it made her, she would have hesitated if someone like that genie had reappeared in her life and offered her the choice.

"What about you?" Mulder finally asked. "You haven't said how you came to be abducted, but I assume that you weren't involved in an investigation of the unknown."

Spencer smirked. "I'm a lawyer." When Mulder nodded in acknowledgment Spencer went on. "I'm in real estate law, always for the rich, and often for the famous. Part of my job is to go and look at prospective properties that my clients wish to acquire, and I was on my way home from one of those visits when it happened."

Mulder nodded again. "Blinding white light, overwhelming urge to go and stand with a bunch of other people?" he asked.

"Basically," Spencer agreed. "It felt a lot like being herded, like cattle or sheep."

"When?" Scully broke in. Both men turned and looked at her. Refusing to blush, she merely shrugged.

"October of 2001," Spencer said.

Mulder blinked in surprise. "Oh," is all he said.

Spencer looked interested, however. "I take it you were taken at a different time?"

"Yes. Over a year before that."

The other man shivered. "Sorry to hear that. What I endured was bad enough. Never mind an extra year of it."

Sitting beside Mulder, Scully fought to school her emotions so they wouldn't show on her face. It was unfair. She didn't exactly begrudge Spencer for his lessened term with the aliens, but it wasn't fair that Mulder's had been so much longer. Right then, there wasn't much she wouldn't of voluntarily given up if she could change time to allow him to have come back so much sooner.

"When did you come back?" Mulder asked.

"In January." He frowned when he noticed that Mulder didn't look pleased. "I take it you didn't come back in January, either."

"No," he agreed." Under that "Not until August."

Spencer looked horrified. "Wonder why they kept you so much longer," he said, sounding a bit shaky.

"As do we," Scully told him.

"Do you have any theories?" Spencer asked. "Was there any indication as to why, although I suppose that's a silly question since they didn't really communicate with us..."

Scully startled, wondering why she had never thought to ask Mulder if there was a way for him to communicate with his captors. Once upon a time he told her about alleged time travel back to World War II, but even then he alleged that he'd been able to speak to the Germans in some fashion.

She waited to see what Mulder would say, and eventually he did speak. "Yes. I have a theory."

Spencer waved a hand, indicating that Mulder should share it.

Mulder sighed, and leaned back against the seat. "Did they... do anything to you?"

"Spencer was obviously confused. "Do? Besides abduct me and hold me against my will, you mean?"

Mulder nodded slowly. "I have a scar. Across my side."

"Okay..."

Mulder sighed in frustration. "Did you see any children on the ship?"

Beside him, Scully was surprised that he was that direct. It made her wonder if he would continue to be so.

Spencer nodded this time though he clearly seemed to think that this question was a non sequitur. "A few." I felt bad for the poor little buggers. It's bad enough to have been abducted when you are an adult, never mind as a child."

"How old were they?" Mulder leaned forward and asked, and Spencer seemed to be wary of his persistence.

Shrugging, Spencer said, "eight? Ten maybe? I've never been really good at guessing children's ages."

Mulder seemed to deflate, and Scully reached out to hold his hand. "That old?" Mulder said, sounding suddenly tired.

"I think so. Considerably older than your children, anyway."

It took Mulder a moment to gather his thoughts before he could ask "and they looked human?"

"Well, they weren't alien children, if that's what you're getting at. I honestly would have no idea how to tell how old they were because I have an feeling that baby aliens aren't cute."

When Mulder said nothing for a moment, Scully finally spoke up. "No, he's asking about alien human hybrids."

"Why would you...?" Then Spencer's expression changed from confusion to sick certainty. "Oh. Is that what you think the scar is from?"

It felt mildly surreal to Scully that Spencer seemed interested in what Mulder had to say, rather than immediately telling him that there was no way the aliens would have used a man to create a half human baby.

Mulder's grip on her hand tightened slightly as he nodded to Spencer's question. "I have dreams. And in some of those dreams there cutting something out of me. And it cries."

"We've had a doctor confirmed that something was cut away from Mulder's liver, harming it," Scully said quietly. "Something that might have been attached there once."

"If that's true, I'm so sorry," Spencer said, shaking his head softly. "But unfortunately, I don't know anything about that sort of... thing having happen to anyone."

To Scully's confusion Mulder started to stand then. He said "well, thank you for your time. I really appreciate you being willing to take the time to speak to me."

"Wait!" Spencer said, starting to stand himself. Mulder stopped. "There's a group of us. Returnees. We meet online on a message board."

"You do?"

"We do. I think that you should join our group. I'm not sure that anybody will have the type of answers you're looking for, but it's worth a shot."

Mulder gave him a skeptical look. "How do you keep the riffraff out? Surely there are people who would get a real charge out of winding up people for their amusement."

"You won't find it by looking on the internet. You can look on Google and other search engines for as long as you want, but you won't find any sign of it. The only way that people are allowed to join the group is by referral. And I'm willing to extend one for you."

As Scully watched, Mulder's shoulders became less tense. "I appreciate that. Thank you."

"No problem." Spencer hesitated. Then, he finally seemed to screw up his courage and asked, "Can I see it?"

After a beat, Mulder asked "do you mean my scar?"

"Yeah."

Mulder shrugged. And then he pulled up his shirt. It almost made Scully to wince to see that it was still so shiny and pink.

Spencer seemed impressed with the thin rope of tissue too. "Does it hurt?"

Mulder sighed. "Not physically. Not anymore. I think there was an infection once. I think that's why I don't remember things quite as well as I could," he said, looking at Scully. She nodded. That had been her theory, and she was glad that he had finally internalized it given it was probably the truth. Unless, of course, the aliens had drubbed him, or use some sort of mind control which were not entirely outside the bounds of possibility.

"You don't know what happened to... It?" Spencer asked.

"The baby?" Mulder asked, and Spencer nodded nervously. "It cried. I think it lived. If it did, it's still with them." He did not mention his doubts about whether or not the child actually existed. It made her wonder if he truly had them, or he just let her suppose that he did so she would be more accepting.

Scully waited for Spencer to suggest that it was better than the alternative, but he just winced. "You coming here today, you're trying to find it."

"If I can," Mulder admitted.

"Can I... Can I tell the board about this? It will go a pretty far away towards having people accept you when you begin posting."

After a long pause, Mulder finally said "okay."

"I can't make any promises, but if I was a betting man, I say that this group is your best chance of finding out what happened to your child," Spencer said.

"I think logically I have to assume that it is with them still," Mulder told him. "What I can do about that, I don't know."

"Don't you ever just wish we could get back at them?" Spencer asked, sounding more animated than he had during most of the conversation. It was clear to Scully that he had spent a lot of time thinking about this possibility of revenge.

"Every single day," Mulder said heavily.

"Maybe someday we will," Spencer said adamantly. "And if we do, you can get it back."

"Here's hoping," Mulder said.

"Mommy," two little voices said at just that moment. They all turned, and saw that the maid and both children were standing in the doorway.

For a moment Scully searched the woman's expression, hoping not to find signs that the kids had been there very long, but the maid seems to placid enough, and unless she was a very good actress it seemed unlikely that she had heard anything untoward. She also seemed slightly confused when Scully offered her a faint smile.

Holding her arms out, Scully asked the children, "did you have a good time?"

"Yeah!" Tommy said before his sister could speak up. "Mister Spencer has the biggest fish tank I have ever seen. He could have practically a bazillion mollies in it."

Spencer looked amused. "Mollies? Is that what you have, young man?"

"Yes. They live in my house." The boy looked up at Mulder unexpectedly. "But they used to be his, back before he went away for a long while."

For a second there was a flash of pity to his expression, but Tommy didn't seem to notice. Of course Spencer was probably under the impression that Tommy had been very small when Mulder disappeared, leaving the boy temporarily without his father. It made her feel slightly bad that Spencer was laboring under this misconception, but she wasn't sure that it would be better to correct it.

"Well, I bet they're glad to see him now that he's back," Spencer said gently.

Tommy looked puzzled. "It's hard to tell if a fish is happy."

"Yes, I suppose they are not the most expressive of God's creatures," Spencer agreed gravely.

Bored of this, Grace held her arms up to Scully until her mother picked her up. She expected the girl to ask her if they were leaving soon, but she didn't. Instead she just put her head on Scully's shoulder, and she was pretty sure that she could feel her move her arm enough to maneuver her left thumb into her mouth.

Spencer smiled. "Looks like somebody is missing naptime."

Scully braced herself for an outburst, but Grace didn't complain at the man had so generously taken the time to speak to them. "Guess so," she commented herself.

"Well, if you will wait just one moment, I need to print something off for Fox, and then you can be on your way."

True to his word, Spencer handed Mulder the printouts and said that he'd expect to get approval for Mulder's account soon. The two men shook hands and then they were back outside.

"Did you find your answers, Mulder?" Tommy asked on the way out to the car.

"Not all of them, no," Mulder admitted.

"Oh," Tommy looked down. "Are you sad that you didn't get your closure?"

"A little. But that man is going to introduce me to people who might be able to help me learn more."

"Oh, like spies."

Smiling a little, Mulder just nodded. "Something like that."


Early Wednesday

At the back of her mind Scully had always wondered what sort of people - besides Mulder in his younger, more enthusiastic days - visited roadside attractions. It had never been anything she'd spent a lot of thought on, but as they'd passed by one sign or another, signs that Mulder had never failed to point out, perhaps to irritate her, she'd wondered who had looked up at the lurid roadside billboards and thought to themselves that their life would really be improved by stopping to see a really big ball of twine or the pelt of a 100% genuine imitation bigfoot.

Now, as her kids stared wide-eyed at a block of cheese over a dozen feet tall, she knew. It wasn't people who were looking for a thrill. It was road-weary travelers who hoped that maybe stopping off there or at a flea circus on the way to Grandma's would pacify their children well enough to put an end to the seemingly endless bickering between them in the backseat of cars that overflowed with sleeping bags and luggage.

Or so she assumed from the glazed looks of other parents surrounding her and Mulder. The overheard conversations also told the same stories.

Of course, she wasn't there to keep the kids from fighting because so far they rarely did, though all bets were off if that would continue to be the case as they grew older and their interests diverged more at puberty, but so far she was content that their infrequent arguments passed like spring showers. So her reason for agreeing to stop and look at cheese when they begged to was different - she felt that they owed the kids some fun after dragging them halfway across the country.

Neither of them had complained at all, but this didn't make her feel much better about it because she suspected that they were too young to think about complaining that the errand had nothing to do with them and held little interest for them, the nickel tour at Spencer's aside. She herself remembered being small enough not to wonder if there was anything in her parents plans for her, and not realizing that she could protest instead of going along with whatever it was that they wanted to do; for her this had also included much bigger things than being pulled out of school for three days and missing out on making turkeys out of construction paper, such as being moved to a house on another base.

Mulder nudged her, and from the grin on his face he was clearly not dwelling on negative childhood memories too, which she supposed was good considering that the grimness some of his put hers to shame. "Who knew that they'd like cheese so much?" he asked.

"Well, they do both enjoy a good grilled cheese sandwich," she deadpanned, and his grin got broader. "Tommy already asked me if we could have those for lunch, and yes, the menu we walked by did have them featured."

To her surprise, he shivered. "That seems a bit wrong, like cannibalism somehow."

"I won't tell the giant cheese if you won't," she promised, and he laughed. Since he was in a good mood she decided to broach a subject that had been on her mind. "Are you really up for going to my mother's tomorrow?"

His smile melted away instantly. "Of course," he said rather stiffly.

"Are you sure?" she asked, not meeting his eyes because she knew that the question was going to annoy him even though it needed to be asked. "My mother won't be offended if you-"

"I'm not an invalid," he snapped. "You don't need to worry that this trip has been too taxing for me like a goddamn canc-" Mulder seemed to become aware mid-word how offensive she might find the comparison considering her own history and bit rest of the word off. Still, he glowered at her to show that he himself had been offended by her question.

She just nodded and said "well, okay," in a mild tone, though secretly she was thrilled that this had gotten a rise out of him. Everyone had been treating him like he was fragile, and he hadn't done much to disabuse anyone of that notion until now. If he no longer thought of himself as sickly, he'd get better faster, or so she reasoned. Not that his recovery wasn't impressive so far anyway.

"Good," he practically growled. "I'm glad we're in agreement that I can manage the harrowing experience of having dinner with a troop of ogres like your family."

Desperately wishing that she had a poker face half as good as his had been before he'd been abducted, she forced herself not to smile as she said, "That's hardly fair. A whole troop of ogres?"

"Bill jr. is going to be there, isn't he?" Mulder asked, and she nodded, wondering where he was going with the question. He sighed dramatically before saying, "Well, there you have it. A bad apple spoils the bunch and all of that."

"Oh, Mulder," she sighed, breaking off into a laugh. He suddenly looked a lot less peeved too.

"Momma, Mulder!" a small voice called, and she wasn't surprised to see Grace running towards them. Tommy was only a step or three behind his little sister. "Take us a picture, please!"

"You want us to take a picture of you?" she asked, a bit puzzled.

"With the big cheese," Tommy said excitedly. "It's a big cheese like being a boss-guy, right?"

"I guess it is a bit like that," she agreed, wondering where he'd heard such a hackney description of power. It made her wonder if she should pay a bit more attention to the cartoons that the kids watched.

"There are tee-shirts too," Tommy went on. "They say 'I'm the big cheese.'"

"Do they come in kids' sizes?" Mulder asked.

"Yeah!"

"Then we'd better get some," he suggested.

Tommy looked delighted. And a bit suspicious. "Really?"

"Absolutely. I'd love to buy you those shirts."

Scully almost protested that he didn't need to spend money on her children, but she stopped cold. He didn't really think of them as her children anymore, and that was becoming more evident with each passing day. It was fairly clear to her that he wasn't the only one who saw them as having a future as a family... and this thought left her with a pang of regret about asking if he was up to Thanksgiving dinner - if he was beginning to think of them as a family unit, he'd probably been offended not only by her insinuation that he was still sickly, but also that he'd shirk his duty to said family by wanting to skip a family gathering. Luckily, it seemed as though he forgave her for her clumsiness.

She slide her arm around his waist, gratified that he no longer flinched when she touched the area of his scar, and then smiled up at him. "Maybe we can find them in adult sizes too, hmm?"

"Maybe we can."

"Can we all be the big cheese?" Tommy wanted to know.

"Sure, why not," Mulder replied easily. "We can all be different cheeses. You can be cheddar and I'll be gorgonzola."

"That a cheese?" Grace asked with a frown.

"It sure is."

"You are silly, Mulder," Tommy giggled.

"No, I'm Fox Mulder."

"No, you're silly Mulder!"

"Do I need to pull out my license and show you?" Mulder asked, sounding serious.

The kids knew he was still joking and laughed harder. And then they led them both to the designated area for taking photos with the cheese, pointing out the gift shop along the way.


In a suspiciously fortuitous turn of events, none of the delays Mulder worried about happened, and they were able to leave on their afternoon flight exactly on schedule. It wasn't until they were in line to board that Mulder admitted to himself that he'd been more than a little worried that something was going to go wrong and they wouldn't make it home in time to be at Maggie's at 10:30am on Thursday. He knew that Maggie would have taken them being late or absent altogether with a kindly resignation, and somehow that knowledge made him feel worse. Though he got along well enough with Scully's mother, they both knew from the time when Scully had been missing that he'd put her through enough, and he didn't want to give her any more ammunition against him that she'd never allow herself to use. He kept this worry to himself because Scully would have just told him that her mother didn't mind, and she would have believed it. He just allowed himself to feel grateful when the flight left the tarmac at the right time, so it never had to be brought up at all as far as he was concerned.

Once again Mulder and Tommy sat across the aisle from Scully and Grace, and this time the little guy was far more at ease than on the flight in the opposite direction. In fact, it turned out that he was calmer than Mulder: to his credit Mulder made it one and nine tenths of the way through flying without succumbing to the horror of realizing how painfully close flying in a plane is to being enslaved on an alien spacecraft, but then it happened. They were almost all the way back to DC when the landing gear extended with a noisy thump. It was this sound, the thumping, that triggered a memory for him. Unfortunately, that memory was of the sound of the hatch on the spaceship opening just before he was pushed out.

Sweat began to bead on his forehead, but he didn't make a sound. Instead, he silently tried to reassure himself that there were no aliens on their flight, and he didn't have to worry about being rushed at by tall gracile beings intent on heaving him to his death. He'd stay exactly where he was, safely belted into his seat, until the jet landed and they all got off together.

Given his lack of distressed noises, Mulder was surprised when he understood that his fear wasn't as invisible as he hoped. A very small, warm hand was placed over his own. When he looked down, Tommy gave him a rather wry smile. "It's okay to be afraid, right?" the little boy asked.

Mulder didn't smile in return because he suspected it would look rather ghastly. Instead, he nodded. "Yes, it is. Thank you for reminding me of that."

"Sure. You held my hand when I was scared, so it's fair."

"Yup," Mulder agreed, trying not to tear up. His therapist had explained that being what Mulder himself considered over-emotional was to be expected after experiencing the level of trauma he had, but it was still hard for him to accept his newly imperfect control over his emotions.

"Maybe next time neither of us will be afraid to fly," Tommy philosophized. "'cause we've done it together before."

This time Mulder did allow himself to smile. "I bet you're right."

"Yeah," Tommy said happily, obviously pleased by his agreement.


Besides his moment of panic over the landing gear, the flight home was uneventful, and someone must have forgotten to bring a crying baby onboard because it was quiet enough for Grace to sleep until they left the airport...which of course meant that she was wide awake when they pulled into the parking lot at Scully's apartment complex. She was so excited to be home that she inadvertently made it hard for her mother to help her out of the car.

Tommy, on the other hand, was drooling on his own shoulder, having fallen asleep nearly the moment they climbed into the car. "I'll get him," Mulder said before Scully could go around the car and do so herself.

"Are you sure?" she asked, sound like she didn't want to put him out, rather than like she thought he was too weak to, so he realized that their earlier conversation about his health had made an impact on her.

He looked at her holding onto Grace's hand as the little girl practically levitated, barely containing herself. Mulder got the sense that they'd be chasing her down if Scully dared let her go.

"Yup."

Scully flashed him a grateful smile and began to herd her daughter towards the house, leaving Mulder standing in the parking lot outside her already unlocked car. For a moment he enjoyed the crispness of the night air, and the brightly shining moon before opening the rear door to reach in for Tommy.

The boy sleepily asked "home?" as Mulder got him out of the car, but he was asleep again, resting his head on Mulder's shoulder before he could answer.

"Yeah, you're home, buddy," Mulder murmured, just in case he could hear. A soft snore in his right ear was the only response.

The moon seemed to shine a spotlight on the pair as Mulder slowly made his way up a path that was icy enough to make him wonder if they'd have a snowy Thanksgiving the next morning. He hoped not. A white Christmas was much preferable to a white Thanksgiving.

It must have taken him longer to reach Scully's apartment than he thought because Scully was trying to wrestle Grace into a pair of pink pajamas already when he found them. Scully looked up. "Could you put him on his bed? I'll undress him as soon as I'm done here." Grace made another lunge for freedom, but Scully grabbed her back before she could get past Mulder in the doorway.

"No problem."

After Mulder lowered Tommy onto his bed, he wondered if he should cover him, but he decided against it. Scully would only be another couple of minutes, he was sure.

He took a minute to look at the mollies swimming in the fish tank nearly the boy's dresser, marveling that they were still alive. They all swam towards him and for a moment he fancied that they recognized him, but he quickly realized they were just hungry - the time release block of food in the bottom of the tank was nearly gone. Smiling ruefully at his mistake, he quickly fed them their usual fish food flakes.

"Can we switch?" Scully asked from the doorway. Grace was on her hip, and Scully at least looked tired.

"Of course," he said quickly, holding his arms out for his daughter. "If the fish tell you they still need to be fed, they're lying, I just fed them."

"Fishies don't talk, Mulder," Grace said seriously as he took her from Scully.

"I know."

"Then why did-"

"I was making a funny," he told her as they walked out of the room.

"Nuh uh."

"Everyone's a critic," he sighed. Grace just giggled at his theatrics.

He brought her into the living room and looked through a stack of picture books on the coffee table. He'd hoped to find one that would evoke sleepiness but the cartoon characters on the covers all seemed to be having pretty good adventures. Grace sat on the couch and watched him quietly.

Before he completely gave up on the books, Grace asked, "Mulder, you gonna sleep at our house tonight?"

He shook his head. Fortunately, he and Scully had already approached the subject so the conversation was less awkward than it could be. "No."

"But-!"

"Sorry, I need to take care of my cat. He's been staying with a friend and I need to go get him to bring him home." Mulder had already arranged that, too.

"You have a kitty?" Grace looked fascinated. He suddenly remembered their conversation about her cousin Matthew's puppy with a twinge of nervousness. But Grace didn't take the opportunity to demand again that he 'make' Scully let them have a pet. "What's his name? What's his color?"

"He's a gray tomcat-"

"Oh, his name is Tom," she said as if this had just dawned on her.

"No, his name is Dempsey."

Grace stared at him. "You said tom."

"I know I did. Tom is the name of a boy-"

"Tom is a name of a boy." Grace nodded in agreement. "A grown-up boy. Tommy gonna be Tom, maybe."

"Okay...." Mulder pulled her onto his lap and tried to think of how to explain things in a way a three-year-old might understand. "Grace, do you know what a bull is?"

"A boy cow!"

"That's right. And do you know what a rooster is?"

"Boy chickens?" she asked, sounding less sure now.

"Exactly. There are some other animals like that where we call the boy one name and the girl another." He abruptly reminded himself not to bring up dogs because Scully wouldn't thank him for it. "Though people don't use the boy/girl terms too much for some of them. Cats are one of them: a boy cat is a tom, and a girl cat is a queen."

"A queen?"

"Yup."

"I wanna be a princess." Grace looked serious. "Real one. Not just a fishie for halow'n."

Mulder wanted to tell her that as far as he was concerned she already was a princess, but he worried about how appropriate that would be - there was still so much he and Scully needed to talk about... So instead he said, "I guess we need to find you a prince then."

"Okay," Grace said. "But no froggie-kissing. Nope."

"Hmm. I think I can agree to those terms," he said, stifling a laugh at both her words and her expression.

"Good." Grace looked up at him with a winsome smile. "After feedin' your kitty, we see you again?" She paused for a moment. "Tomorrow," she clarified, lest he think she was asking him to drive back after the cat was fed.

"Of course. I'm going to go to dinner with you at your grandma's house."

"You gonna make a wish?" she asked, and he couldn't figure out why until he realized she was referring to the turkey's wishbone. He hadn't thought about that tradition for a very long time; not since his mother would let him and Samantha break the one she saved and dried from a previous turkey. When Samantha was little she'd pout over not being allowed to play with the fresh one, but eventually their mother was able to make her understand that they were too bendy to break for quite a while.

"I don't know," Mulder said slowly, wondering if Maggie saved wishbones too. "Maybe you and Tommy should wish, huh?"

"Oh, I wish a lot," Grace told him earnestly.

"Really?" he asked, curiously. "What for?"

Grace spread her arms, and he wondered if she wanted a hug, but then she said, "The moon!"

"The moon?" Mulder bit his inner cheek to keep from laughing. "What would you do with it if you go it?"

"See if'n it bounces."

"What?" he asked blankly.

"It's a ball, Mulder." The look on her face suggested that any idiot should know that.

He thought about it for a moment, wondering if he'd realized at three that the moon looked small because it was so far away. Probably not.

"What do you wish for?" Grace asked. She then yawned.

"Oh, a lot of things," he replied.

"That's good." The little girl yawned again. "Wishin' good for you."

Mulder stood up and put her on his hip. She snuggled against him sleepily. "Who says?"

"Grandma. She knows everything."

"Well, she is pretty darn smart," Mulder said, but her head dropped to his shoulder.

It only took a few seconds to get her into her room, and he was soon covering her up. The amount of blankets on the bed seemed excessive, so he made a mental note to mention it to Scully lest the girl be awake and throwing up in the middle of the night like he used to when he was young and got overheated while asleep. Then he paused, looking down at her and the way she balled one fist and pressed it against her cheek - he had no idea if she took after him in that way. Or in what ways at all, really. Not yet.

Sighing, he turned to look out the girl's window, half-way wondering why Scully had put up gauzy pink curtains when they were never drawn. Outside the moon was still brightly shining on everything below it, though a parking lot full of moonlit cars didn't make all that pretty a picture.

Grace wished for a moon to bounce, to become a princess, and for a pet. What did he wish for, in his heart of hearts? To make this girl and her brother his family with Scully. To stop starting at loud noises or waking up from horrible dreams. Not exactly to forget what had been done to him, but at least not mind as much. To find out what happened-

A gentle touch on his shoulder had him nearly leaping out of his skin. When he whipped around to see, Scully gave him a contrite smile. "Sorry!" she whispered, eyes cutting to Grace sleeping in her white framed bed. "I should have thought better than sneaking up on you. I just wondered what you were thinking about - you looked so melancholy."

"I did?" he asked, surprised. He hadn't really felt sad, had he?

"Yes." When neither of them said anything for several seconds, she snapped her fingers as if annoyed with herself. "Dammit. Your phone rang."

"It did?" Mulder asked, wondering who might have called him.

"Yes, about five minutes ago," she said, sounding a bit guilty.

"Well, maybe they left a message."

"Oh, maybe," she agreed, looking relieved.


The message turned out to be Skinner, asking if Mulder minded a lot if he waited until the next morning to pick up Dempsey. He didn't, and called him back to say so, saying "What's up, do you have a hot date or something?" seconds after Skinner picked up the phone.

"Um," Skinner said uncomfortably. "Yes, actually."

Shocked, Mulder threw himself onto Scully's couch. "You old dog," he teased. "Why didn't you say that you had plans when I asked you to cat-sit?"

"I didn't have them then," Skinner said, sounding like the world's oldest teenage boy. "It just came up."

"Oh ho! Anyone I know?" Mulder asked, not expecting the answer to be yes considering that he'd been gone so long.

"You remember Kimberly?" Skinner asked shyly. "She'd been my secretary-"

"I didn't realize she no longer was," Mulder admitted; since he couldn't go back to the X-Files in his current condition, he made a conscious effort not to think too much about them because dwelling on it was only good for torturing himself.

"Of course she isn't," Skinner blustered. "It would be entirely inappropriate to have a relationship with a subordinate."

"Whoa, whoa, who's accusing you of doing anything wrong?" Mulder protested. "I'm serious, I had no idea she wasn't working for you anymore, or that you were seeing each other."

"Oh," Skinner sounded sheepish. "Even though she's now working at the state house, there have been some comments, so I'm a bit defensive."

"Jesus, some people have no lives," Mulder muttered, which was apparently the right thing to say.

"I know."

"So the state house, huh? Tell her I'm impressed that she's moved on to bigger and better things," he remarked, knowing that even if she was still an admin there was a lot more prestige in working for a politician than for an FBI AD.

"I will," Skinner said, a hint of pride in his tone that Mulder found interesting. He got the sense that the plans had been unexpected but that it wasn't the first time Skinner had seen her socially. It made him wonder if his staying with Skinner back during the summer had put a crimp in the older man's social life, or it the relationship had come about sometime afterwards.

"And of course I'm happy to wait until tomorrow to pick up my bratty cat as long as you can stand him another night." He sort of hoped the night would end with Skinner's firmly shut door and his cat on Skinner's couch like a friend down on his luck. The thought of it made him smirk, though he didn't dare suggest anything of the sort to his former boss.

"He's been really good," Skinner assured him. "He only hissed at me once and has kept his claws to himself."

This made Mulder wonder what cat behavior Skinner was used to if he considered being hissed at only once gold star behavior. "That's, uh, good. Is nine tomorrow morning okay?" he asked, hoping it was so he had more than enough time to get to Maggie's.

"It's great," Skinner said happily. In the background Mulder heard a feminine voice say something, and Skinner smothered a laugh.

"Well, I'll let you go..." Mulder hoped it didn't sound too awkward.

If it did, Skinner didn't comment. "See you in the morning."

"Bye, Walt."

A soft touch on his shoulder made him turn around. "It was Skinner?" she asked, and he remembered that she'd told him about the phone ringing in the first place.

"He wanted to know if I could pick Dempsey up tomorrow morning."

"Did he say why?" Scully asked curiously.

"He's got a date." Her eyes widened in surprise. "I take it that you didn't know that he's dating Kimberly either?"

"No, what??" she sputtered. "Is that why she left the Hoover building?"

"I'm not sure, but it's possible," Mulder replied.

They lapsed into a contemplative silence for a couple of minutes before Scully got a strange look on her face. He almost asked her what was on her mind when she finally spoke up. "So... if you're not going to go pick Dempsey up until tomorrow, do you want to spend the night after all?"

For half a second he hesitated, thinking about the first time he spent the night. But back then his problem had been because of the burden of keeping his secret to himself weighing on him...hadn't it? There was really only one way to find out.

"I'd love to," he admitted.

Her smile lit up her features, and he felt a burst of love for her. "Good."

An hour later Mulder had his answer. He enjoyed drowsing with her in his arms, the knowledge that all systems were still fully functional gave him relief, and he thought it gave her peace of mind too. She'd touched his scar again and it hadn't had any ill effect this time. He didn't ask, but he had a feeling that it had been deliberate, meaning that she had been thinking about how deeply damaged his psyche might be too.

"What are you thinking about?" she sleepily asked when she seemed to realize that he was still awake too.

"How good we are together," he said, kissing her neck. "How happy I am that we, um... were more successful this time." He felt a ridiculous blush creep across his cheeks, and was glad that it was dark in her bedroom.

"We are good together, aren't we?" she replied, snuggling against him.

He thought about all sorts of things he could say in response to that, but she was already asleep. Before very long, so was he.


There was only one car in Skinner's driveway when Mulder got there the next morning, and for some reason this left him vaguely disappointed. He'd liked Kim well enough, but really hadn't been dying to talk to her, so it took a bit of self-analysis to realize that he'd only wanted to know if she'd really spent the night.

Her not being there didn't prove that Skinner hadn't gotten as lucky as he had: she could have spent the night before leaving for elsewhere, he reflected as he parked. After all, he'd left Scully's before either of the kids woke up. Although, that was mostly because they didn't want to confuse the kids or field endless questions from Grace about why he hadn't gone home to feed his cat.

Skinner met him at the door, pet carrier in hand. This surprised him a little, at least until Skinner looked past him, and he began to realize that Kimberly wasn't there now, but Skinner obviously expected her to be returning. Mulder almost asked him if she'd gone off to get breakfast, but he decided that it wasn't exactly an appropriate question and held his tongue.

"Thank you so much for looking after him," Mulder said instead. "I really appreciate it."

"No problem," Skinner replied, still looking over his shoulder. "He wasn't a bother."

"Glad to hear it."

Skinner paused, and for a moment Mulder wondered if his friend was going to ask him why he and Scully had taken the kids on a trip so close to Thanksgiving. The bespectacled man pursed his lips for a moment, then his features smoothed back out. "Have a good Thanksgiving, Mulder."

"Oh, you too," Mulder told him, hefting the pet carrier by the handle. He really should put Dempsey on a diet, he thought, considering he weighed as much as a bull moose calf.

"Are you spending it with Scully?" Skinner asked tentatively.

"Yup." Once Mulder answered, he seemed relieved that he hadn't accidentally brought up a sore subject. "After I drop this guy off at home we're going to her mother's."

"That's nice." Skinner smiled a bit. Mulder almost asked him about his own plans, but to his surprise Skinner volunteered them. "Neither of us is up to going all the way home this year, so we're going to have dinner at The Green Barn," he said, naming a restaurant that sounded vaguely familiar. It was a moderately expensive one that Mulder recalled, only remembering this because the pedestrian name suggested otherwise. "Neither of us have ever done this-" "This" presumably be having Thanksgiving out, Mulder guessed. "-but we're hopeful that it's as good as the reviews say."

"Let me know how it turns out," Mulder invited. He almost dropped the carrier when Dempsey suddenly lunged forward in it for unknown reasons.

"I'll e-mail you this weekend," Skinner promised.

"Great. Looking forward to it," Mulder told him, and he found that he was. In a strange way the trip had left him less stressed, even though it hadn't provided what he'd been looking for. Still, it was nice to have the mental space required to take interest in friend's lives again.

"Bye," Skinner said. The door gently shut behind Mulder before he was halfway down the driveway.

He'd gotten both him and the cat situated in the car and was beginning to back out by the time another vehicle pulled into the driveway. Wanting to be personable, he waved cheerily and waited for Kimberly to wave back before he pulled out onto the road. She was already out of her car by the time he drove past the house.

"So, what do you think?" Mulder asked Dempsey, ignoring the faint growls that came from the carrier. "Is she good enough for him?"

There was a sound then, halfway between a hiss and an inquisitive meow.

"Yeah, I think she is too. She put up with a lot from Dana and me, kiddo. They both did, really, but at least he was paid more to. I'm a little surprised a timid girl like her is interested in a former marine, but what do I know? The heart wants what the heart wants. They might be really good together for all I know."

If Dempsey had any other thoughts about Skinner's former secretary, the striped tom kept them to himself.


By the time Mulder had been at Maggie's for half an hour, he was honestly glad that he'd driven his own car. As much as he loved being around the kids, he wasn't sure if another half an hour of being asked if he liked turkey and every other thing on the menu would have done his sanity any favors. At one point he even asked if he could help Maggie by peeling some vegetables to escape that line of questioning, but he'd been shooed out of the kitchen by Scully and her sister-in-law.

To his relief, Tommy, Grace, and Bill's son Matthew eventually became entranced by the Thanksgiving Day Parade on the TV. He too tried to lose himself in the parade, but it no longer held the magic for him that it had when he'd been a small boy.

Instead he and Bill made some awkward small talk about their respective flights, how long it would be before Bill and Tara had to get back home, and even compared notes on how Matthew and Tommy's kindergarten curriculums struck them. It was slightly uncomfortable, but they didn't wade into any dangerous waters. At least not at first.

He became nervous when he noticed Bill giving the three kids a speculative look. All three were oblivious to the adults in the room, and instead chattered amongst themselves about the colorful floats on the screen.

"Mulder," Bill Junior said then, surprising him by not calling him Fox to irritate him. "Can we talk?"

Even though he was cringing inside, Mulder nodded. Bill put down his soda, and then motioned for Mulder to follow him outside. None of the kids even looked up to see what was going on. The door squeaked and Mulder thought that perhaps he or Bill should do something about that for Maggie before they left. He glanced at Scully's older brother, wondering if he had any better idea where Maggie might keep WD-40 than he did.

Maggie's lawn furniture was still outside, which also surprise Mulder little. It made him feel guilty in a way he couldn't quite explain because Maggie wasn't his mother and not his responsibility. But he had done a lot of similar chores for his own mother, so it was probably that that was bothering him. Both Bill and Charlie lived quite far away, so they didn't seem to offer their mother as much help as he had been expected to.

"Sit," Bill said, and it wasn't quite so much an invitation as a command.

Trying not to get immediately irritated by this, Mulder sat on one of the red cushioned chairs and gave Bill an expectant look. He hoped desperately that Bill wasn't going to ask him about having spent the night before with his sister. He also hoped that the glaze of frost on the chair wasn't going to melt enough to thoroughly wet the back of his pants.

For a second Bill just nodded to himself, as if he was agreeing with an internal suggestion of how the conversation should proceed. Eventually his gaze drifted to Mulder. His first words were, "You know, I didn't think you would be back." As if anticipating a protest, he held up a hand to silence Mulder, although Mulder hadn't opened his mouth. "I'm not accusing you of abandoning my sister, because that thought really hadn't crossed my mind while you were missing." Even Bill himself seemed a little surprised by this statement. But he went on. "But everything my sister told me about you over the years... Honestly, I figured you'd gotten yourself killed finally."

Mulder shrugged. That was harsh, but fair. And Scully hadn't even told Bill the half of it he was sure.

"So imagine my surprise when my sister calls to tell me that you're back. At first she didn't even know where you were all that time," Bill commented, and Mulder quailed a bit. Exactly what had Scully told Bill about where he had been for the past three years? He realized in resignation that he was about to find out. "And I'll tell you, I began to have my doubts about you. Like I said, I hadn't really considered the possibility that you had run off on her. No, instead I pictured you in an unnamed grave somewhere. So to hear that you were back... My first impulse was to drive to your house and beat the stuffing out of you. But then she explained what had happened to you."

"Oh," Mulder said as noncommittally as possible.

Now Scully's brother looked grim. "I can't imagine how terrible it would be to be a political prisoner," Bill said, tone taking on an unexpected sympathy. "Or actually, I can, and perhaps that makes things worse. Every member of the military knows that there's a possibility of being taken as a prisoner of war. Even if you try to prepare for it, I'm sure there's no... And you? You're not in the military, even if you are law enforcement, but FBI agents don't get kidnapped like enlisted people do."

This made Mulder involuntarily raises eyebrows, and Bill obviously noticed because he swallowed and hastily said, "Or if they do, it's a matter of being snagged by a random nut, like that guy who took Dana." Mulder nodded, which seemed to make Bill feel better, but still he wondered which random nut Bill was referring to. After a moment he decided that Bill must mean Duane Barry, and he wondered if Scully had ever told her brother about Donnie Pfaster, Gerald Schnauz, Jack Willis, or Phillip Padgett. Somehow he thought not. Bill went on for a moment more, "It must've taken you by surprise..."

After several seconds Mulder decided that Bill had run out of words. "It did. Being taken then was pretty much the last thing on my mind that day." Somehow, it really had been. Billy and Teresa had been taken, but they had been civilians, they hadn't had the run-ins he had with the rebels, so he had thought he was more prepared. Better able to defend himself. And then he had found out he was wrong. He had been so very wrong.

To his utter surprise, Bill cuffed them on the shoulder. "But you made it through. A lot of people wouldn't have the strength to cope for so long without breaking. I know you didn't know my dad, but he would have been proud that Dana had picked someone as strong as you. Honestly, I think that's what he wanted most for both of my sisters - the type of men who didn't crumble when things went badly, but who could carry on despite it all."

"Wow," Mulder said, because that was the only word that bounced around his skull after Bill's declaration.

Bill just nodded again, probably mostly to himself. "You probably would've ticked him off a lot too, but I think he would've liked you deep down."

Mulder couldn't help it, he snorted out loud. When Bill gave him a questioning look he asked, "Are you saying you like me deep down?"

Bill shook his head, expression amused. "Let's just say I'm working on building up a tolerance to you."

Mulder laughed. Really, what else was there to do?

When the other man stood abruptly, Mulder got to his feet too. Bill's expression changed, becoming more calculating now. "So, should I expect my sister to be telling me about wedding plans any time in the near future?"

"God, I hope so," Mulder admitted before he could stop himself. To his relief, Bill look like he welcomed this rather than was again tempted to punch him out. "We've talked about it, or rather talked in circles around it, but I think once I regain my health completely..."

"Good. I know you can't ask our father like I did Tara's, but I think that I speak for both Charlie and I in saying that you have the family's blessing. Our mother has an inexplicable fondness for you, so I know you don't need to ask her for permission," Bill said with a grin. His amusement said that he really couldn't understand why Maggie liked him. "Speaking of your health, you're looking pretty well for someone who spent as long in the hospital as Dana said you did. You must be eating right, and getting your exercise."

Mulder was about to make a flippant remark about that, when he realized that he could detect a measure of pity in Bill's eyes. Apparently Scully hadn't pulled any punches when she explained what sort of shape he had been when he got back. He did wonder if she had told Bill that it had been a psych hospital, but he didn't really want to bring that up in case Bill had been under the impression he was just at Memorial General.

"I've gotten a fair amount to help with that," Mulder told him. "A few specialists, I mean. I even have a nutritionist. Can you believe it? Me. A nutritionist." As soon as he said that he remembered that he was supposed to make another appointment with the nutritionist for the following week. Fortunately, he saw the nutritionist and the physical therapist far less frequently than his psychologist. Somehow it was easier for him to get lectured about his mental health than his diet or physical activity.

"I hear tell that my niece and nephew are trying to fatten you up with candy too," Bill remarked. It startled Mulder a little bit to realize that even mundane conversations like about Halloween apparently included him in the details.

"They mean well," Mulder said with a smile.

Now that the conversation had veered towards Tommy and Grace, he wondered if Bill was going to ask questions or make comments that indicated that he knew that Mulder was Grace's father, but if he did know, he kept that kind of commentary to himself. Instead he just said "they're good kids, both of them."

"They certainly are."

For half a second Mulder waited for Bill to bring up the baby, which was a fear he couldn't shake even thought it would be ridiculous considering Bill obviously thought he'd been abducted by people with a political agenda not aliens, but it soon became clear that there were some things that Scully didn't share even with her family. "Come on, before people begin to wonder if I did something to you," Bill said.

Mulder's laughter followed Bill back into the house.


Scully was savoring the mashed potatoes on her plate and wishing that her own attempts ever came out half as well as her mother's when it happened. Tara was talking to Mulder and Grace about what might make good floats in the next year's parade when she got a funny look on her face. Brow furrowing, she said, "Grace's eyes look like Mulder's."

She put her fork down and gave her sister-in-law a nervous look.

Bill, however, objected, "No, they look like Dana's. They're blue, after all." And that was true. Both Grace and Tommy had eyes that were Scully blue.

Still frowning, Tara shook her head. "I mean the shape."

Mulder didn't say anything, but Scully could sense that he was now studying Grace. She found that she was too. Now that it had been pointed out, it was obvious that Grace's eyes were shaped like Mulder's. It made her wonder why she hadn't noticed it sooner, especially back when she had been the most disappointed that the kids looked like her.

This got Bill's attention. For a moment he studied the man and the girl before blurting out, "Dana, is he-"

"Let's talk about this later," Scully said sharply. She cut her eyes towards the kids and instantly Bill and Tara held their tongues. Apparently their curiosity didn't completely override their sense or their desire not to upset their niece and nephew.

The rest of the meal passed fairly quietly, but as soon as the three kids were settled into playing a game of Candyland, Tara and Bill silently insisted that the adults reconvene in the kitchen on the pretense of washing the dishes.

They actually did start to wash the dishes, but it wasn't long before Bill spoke up. "Is Mulder Grace's father?"

Scully put down the gravy boat she'd been scrubbing. "Yes."

"How is that possible?"

She shrugged. "We're not sure. The men Duane Barry handed me over to after abducting me had access to Mulder too over the years," she said quietly, hoping that this didn't invite further intimate questions.

"Right," Bill said heavily. He sat at the kitchen table and ignored Mulder's raised eyebrows. "You mentioned that he went missing before, though only a few days the other time."

Nodding, Scully remembered a frantic phone call from Mulder that resulted in discovering him in a motel room covered in blood, finding him at Ellen's Air Force Base, the times he'd been hospitalized involuntarily, and every other time Mulder disappeared for hours or days only to be discovered later with fuzzy memories of what had been done to him in his absence.

"So that explains that," Tara offered tentatively. She looked vaguely relieved when no one corrected her. "And Tommy...?"

"No," Scully told her with an unnecessary firmness that had Bill's wife wilting.

"Oh."

"Do you know who is?" Bill asked.

"No, I have no idea," Scully admitted. "The DNA tests were conclusive, though: Tommy is definitely not Mulder's, though Grace is."

Bill turned to Mulder. "You don't care, though, do you?"

"Of course I care!" Mulder protested. "What if someone showed up and claimed to be his father and wanted custody?" he asked, startling her because she'd never considered the possibility herself. It seemed absurd that it could happen, though, because to do so would have Tommy's father all but admitting that he was part of the experiment because how could another innocent victim know about him?

"That's not what I meant," Bill grumbled. "I meant that you don't treat them differently. Even though she's yours, and he isn't."

"Why would I?" Mulder asked him, and it seemed as though he was not being disingenuous in the question.

Bill shook his head sharply. "You can't tell me that you don't realize that it would make a big difference to a lot of men."

"A lot of men who find out that a child isn't theirs have completely different circumstances than I do," Mulder told him. "The most common circumstance is that the mother of his child has cheated on him. Obviously this is not the case here. So again, I ask why would I treat them differently."

"I think it's good that you treat them the same," Tara offered, not looking at her husband. "It's definitely good for Tommy."

Bill sighed. "And it's probably good for Grace too. She's not old enough to understand why she and her brother would be treated differently, but definitely old enough to notice and take advantage of it."

Scully looked at her brother, wondering which of her siblings he thought took advantage of being their father's favorite. From talking to Missy and Charlie she knew that neither of them had considered themselves their father's favorite, and she certainly didn't as well. It felt as though he hadn't particularly favorite any of them, though she supposed he must have.

"This has all been fascinating," Maggie interrupted. "But I think it's about time that some of you help me bring dessert to the table. Bill, would you get the children and bring them back to the table?"

Maggie hadn't scolded anyone, not even those who deserved it, but they all knew that the conversation was over. Scully glanced at Mulder, wondering if she was the only one who felt relief about it. She thought not.


All three children sat on one side of the table, with Bill and Mulder at either end of the trio. It made for odd bookends, Scully thought, and she tried not to grin. She and Tara put the pies on the table and she at least admired them. How her mother got pies perfect every single time, Scully did not know.

When she looked up, she realized that she wasn't alone in admiring the pies. From the hungry looks they were given, one might think it had been hours since anyone ate, rather than 45 minutes.

"Momma, can I have apple and pum'kin?" Grace asked. Her puppy-dog eyes left her mother wondering how she'd ever failed to notice their resemblance to Mulder's.

"Yes, you may."

"Really?"

"Really."

"Me too?" Tommy asked, looking a bit scared that he wasn't going to be granted the same boon as his little sister.

"Of course, Tommy."

"Why can we have two desserts?" her son asked.

"Because it's Thanksgiving," Scully replied. "It's a special occasion."

"That's why Uncle Mulder is here, right Aunt Dana?" Mattie piped up suddenly.

For a second Scully froze, not daring to look at her own brother to see his reaction.

To her utter shock, Bill just reached down and ruffled his little boy's dark hair. "That's right, Sport."

"Yup, sure is," Scully muttered, hoping that she wouldn't break the spell if she spoke softly. Mulder reached for her hand beneath the table, and when she glanced at him, he smiled. It made her wonder exactly what the two men had spoken about outside, but that could wait until later.

Now it was time to eat pie and enjoy a hopefully not-too-fragile peace.


December 28, 2003

By mid-December things had fallen into a comfortable pattern between Mulder and Scully. Or at least she thought so. Mulder spent a lot of his time at her apartment, and Dempsey had been there so often too that the cat already had favorite hiding places from the kids when their affection got to be too much for him.

Mulder had helped her do all of her Christmas shopping for both kids, and had patiently spent hours decorating the tree with them. He helped the kids make cookies, and it turned out that he was a better baker than she was. They'd put the kids to bed after leaving cookies for Santa, and then had both exclaimed over the presents that Santa had left the next morning. Together they had brought the kids to her mother's for a Christmas Day lunch.

He had even volunteered to babysit later that week while she went to check into the office on a few things that couldn't wait until she got back after New Year's. So that was what she was doing when she began to dwell on how Mulder appeared to be doing apart from his interactions with her and the kids.

As much as she appreciated all of the time that Mulder was spending with her and the kids, she was still worried about him. Their trip had seemed to of been a turning point for him, and since then he'd begun keeping a lot of his worries to himself. He almost never brought up his missing child, though she was positive that he hadn't forgotten about it. There had been too many nights that she found him out of bed and looking up something on the internet, only to see him close the browser before she could read the webpage to think that. It might've been comforting to think that he was looking at porn, but she was sure he wasn't.

She wasn't a psychologist, but she was beginning to worry about depression. Maybe it would turn out be something as mild as seasonal depression since that often struck people in December, but she didn't think so. Instead she worried that he was suffering from a depression brought on by a sense of hopelessness, because although he obviously hadn't given up trying to do what he could, there was still nothing he could act upon, and that was wearing him down. She'd often racked her brain trying to think of ways to help him, and considered asking him more about his future plans for his on-going quest, but it didn't feel right. On some level both of them knew that he was more convinced than she was, and it wouldn't feel as if her interest was authentic if she was the one to bring up the topic.

And on some level she also was reluctant to bring the child up because thinking about it, him, made her feel guilty. She wasn't even sure if he was real, but it was she herself and Grace and Tommy who were taking him away from his search for the truth, so it made her feel vaguely like a bad guy even though she'd done and said nothing to belittle Mulder's quest nor had she asked him to put it aside so they could get on with the business of moving closer towards becoming a classic nuclear family. Whenever she thought about it, she ended up confused, unsure if she felt like she owed Mulder or his baby more than she'd given either of them in time or effort so far. The guilt had been so strong she'd almost given into the desire to buy the baby toys for Christmas, but what could you possibly buy a being that occasionally was described by its own father as potentially being as smooth and featureless as a center cut steak? In the end she'd left all the baby toys on the shelf and allowed herself to be distracted by Mulder's enthusiastic suggestions of what a boy Tommy's age might like instead.

Unfortunately, she hadn't thought of a delicate way to suggest that Mulder speak to his mental health team about being assessed for depression by the time she parked her car at Quantico. Thinking that she'd put a pin in it, she let herself into the quiet building.

The halls were empty, and it was odd to see that her classroom was deserted. All of her fledgling agents-in-training were probably at home with their families, or were living it up somewhere with friends if they weren't. Certainly none of them were there, and she envied them for not feeling the need to come in during a vacation. If not for a few lonely cars in the lot and the occasional echoing sound down a hall, she might have been able to convince herself that she was completely alone.

She left the deserted classroom and headed towards where their small, cramped offices were. Most of them were very much like closets, and hers was no exception. Usually she didn't mind the office too much, despite its size, given she didn't spend much time in it compared to in the classroom but that afternoon the windowless space bothered her, and she was glad that it took less than an hour to go through emails, and respond to a few messages that had been left on her voicemail. Nothing earthshaking had happened in her absence, and she wondered why she had bothered to come in at all.

A sharp knock on the door startled her, and she looked up to see one of the legions of receptionists staring in at her. The young woman offered her a sheepish smile before saying, "Good afternoon, Doctor Scully. Since you're here I wanted to ask you, do you know a man named Billy?"

Scully blinked. "I do," she said cautiously, trying to remember the receptionist's name. It was Bailey, or maybe Reilly, she thought. "Is this Billy's last name Miles?" she asked hesitantly, thinking that it was extremely unlikely considering that he had disappeared like Mulder had. Under almost identical circumstances. The only other Billy she knew was a ghost, and she was fairly certain that he at least hadn't left any phone messages for her.

The young receptionist nodded, much to her surprise. "Yes, that's him. He's called a handful of times over the last week, saying that he'd been given the number by someone at the Hoover building," she said, which explained how he knew to call for her at Quantico. "I tried to get him to let me transfer him so he could leave a voicemail message for you, but he seemed really anxious and refused to. Eventually the third or fourth time he called I got him to let me take a message for you. Honestly, I didn't expect to see you in before break ended, so I don't have it with me. But I can just run back to my desk and grab it."

The look on the girl's face said that she hoped Scully wouldn't make her do that, and she seemed a bit disappointed when Scully said "thank you, that would be wonderful."

"Right, be right back," she said a little less brightly, and turned to leave.

Scully watched after her, thinking that she wasn't exactly sure where this particular receptionist spent most of her time. Honestly, she had no idea if the girl was going to a room a few doors down, or halfway across the building. She hoped the former, since she didn't really want to put her out too much.

While she waited, Scully checked her Outlook calendar, and made sure that the holiday dates she put in it a few weeks ago still matched the recently revised Quantico official schedule. She'd gotten as far as Veterans Day when footsteps returning indicated that she'd better finish at another time.

"Here you go," the receptionist said, extending a piece of paper to Scully.

It was from a standard message book, but she was somewhat surprised that they still use them. On the other hand, the last computer she had used a severely outdated version of WordPerfect, so it did seem as though the FBI training facility held on to antiques whenever they could. "Thank you very much. Hopefully if he calls back I'll be able to answer the call myself."

"Great," she said. "I hope you don't mind me saying this, but he seems on the nervous side."

Scully nodded. "I met Billy on my very first case as an FBI agent. Things have not gone smoothly for him since, either. You know what I mean?"

The receptionist's eyes brightened with interest, but then it dimmed when she realized it wasn't entirely appropriate to be asking about the subject of that investigation. "Oh, I suppose talking to someone you know because of the case could make a person nervous."

"Indeed."

"Well, it's been nice seeing you. See you again in January," the receptionist offered.

"Right, see you then," Scully said, wondering if a box of chocolates was an adequate thank you gift for her help. Of course, she would have to figure out where she was stationed first... Trying not to be obvious about it, Scully walked to the door and watched her walk away, so at least she knew which direction she had headed in.

Once the young receptionist was out of sight, Scully finally read the message. The girl had very neat handwriting, which was probably something to be thankful for. All the message said was "agent Scully, I need to know the whereabouts of Fox Mulder. Please return my phone call at 541-555-7171 if you can help me locate him. Billy Miles"

For a moment she stared at the message, imagining bringing it home to Mulder, and giving it to him. This didn't feel right on multiple levels. First of all, Billy was obviously expecting a reply from her, not Mulder. She didn't know Billy well, but she knew him well enough to know that he was a high strung young man, although she supposed that none of them were exactly young anymore. He probably would not be very welcoming of a call from the person he was looking for, if only because it would be so unexpected.

And then there was Mulder himself. Would he even want to talk to Billy? More than a small part of her feared that the reason the Billy wanted to talk to Mulder was to throw recriminations at him, and declare that it was his fault that he'd had been abducted not once, but twice on their watch. Mulder was getting better, but she wasn't sure that his fragile mental well-being could withstand such an assault.

No, it didn't feel right. Sighing, she shut the door tightly, and returned to her desk. Before she could lose her nerve, she picked up the phone and dialed the number.

The call connected on the first ring, and for half a second she imagined that Billy had been sitting by the phone, and merely waiting for her to call him. This mental image was reinforced when his first words were "Agent Scully?" and she nearly dropped the phone, but then had to laugh at herself when she realized that he probably had caller ID.

"Billy?" she asked, though she wasn't sure why. It was obviously Billy. "I got your message."

"Is he back?" Billy asked eagerly. "Agent Mulder, I mean. Is he back?"

"Yes," she said slowly. "He's back."

For a moment Billy hesitated, and then he asked, "Alive?"

"Oh, of course!" she said, chiding herself when she realized that her less than eager tone had probably given him that wrong idea. "I'm sorry to make you doubt that."

"It's okay. How long as he been back?" Billy went on.

"Since August," Scully said, feeling a little odd to be merely exchanging facts. Billy had never had been one for social niceties so long as she knew him, though.

"That long?" he asked, but she soon realized it was a rhetorical question. "I suppose that explains some things."

"Billy? How long have you been back?" Scully asked, figuring that she should get some of her own questions answered as well.

"Jeez!" he exclaimed, finally sounding animate. "Just since last week."

"And your first order of business was to look for Mulder?" Scully asked, unable to keep the skepticism out of her tone. It did strike her as rather odd. Mulder and Billy had gotten along, as well as Mulder did with any of the people they helped, but they hadn't exactly been friends. Even if they hadn't both been tragically kidnapped by aliens, she was pretty sure Mulder wouldn't have gotten a Christmas card from Billy.

"Well, it's important."

"Why?" she asked, now feeling more impatient with him. It probably wasn't fair, but he was beginning to irritate her.

"Um..." Billy said nervously, and she began to wonder if he would ever manage to get around to making his point. "Theresa and I, we didn't know that we were on the same ship as agent Mulder until... Did you watch the news last week?"

"No," she said flatly. Nothing Billy was saying made a lot of sense to her.

"Okay. The ship, it crashed last week. That's how we were able to get free."

"You and Theresa?"

"And the others. Most of us made it," Billy said, sounding a little reluctant. Reading between the lines, she realized that the crash hadn't been without casualties.

Cradling the phone against her collarbone, she began to look up UFO crashes on the internet. "Where did you crash?"

"Oregon..." Billy said, which explained the area code in the message. The aliens had brought him back home. How nice of them. Then again, they had shoved Mulder out of the ship not terribly far from where he lived too. It was like a bizarre taxi service in a way, she reflected, and then realized that she was beginning to lose her train of thought.

Forcing herself to focus, Scully typed the words Oregon and crash into her web browser, and selected results from the past two weeks in case Billy was being vague and it had happened plus or minus a few days rather than a literal week ago. To her surprise, there had been a crash reported in Oregon. But it was of a passenger plane according to the story, not a UFO. Which of course made a great deal of sense because the news really couldn't tell people that a UFO had crashed in the middle of a state on the West Coast.

While Billy gathered his own thoughts, she skimmed the first article. According to the earnest reporters authorities had determined that the flight had been on course to San Diego when it had unfortunately crash landed just outside of Rockaway Beach, Oregon. As Billy had suggested they had recovered the remains of half a dozen people. The article delicately mentioned trauma and burns, without going into a great deal of detail about either cause of death. On a more positive note, nearly four dozen people were treated at a nearby hospital and released shortly thereafter.

"Do you suppose they were bringing you home?" Scully asked, thinking about how close to home Billy had been... "dropped off" didn't quite capture the chain of events, but it was about as near as her thoughts were currently capable of coming up with.

"I don't know?" Billy asked, which struck her strange until she considered how stressed he was. "All I know is we suddenly lost altitude, and there was a lot of shaking going on like airplane turbulence, and then we were picking our way out of the wreckage."

"What happened to the aliens?" Scully asked, scarcely able to believe that she had just use the word alien in a sentence.

"Well, they weren't dead. I mean, the bodies we saw, they were unfortunately all human. Someone said that they thought they saw a smaller craft jetting off into the sky, so maybe it was an escape pod?"

"That sounds likely," she said heavily. From what she knew about the aliens, they were definitely not go down with the ship types. As much as she hated to admit it, she could understand the desire to put as much distance between them and the crashed ship as possible - if they had been captured, life would not be pleasant for them. Some government agency or another would assure that.

"Guess it's a good thing," Billy offered. "I mean, as you probably have already discovered from looking it up online since I could hear you typing, that they thought we were on a plane. And, you know, we didn't really tell them otherwise. You get locked up one time after telling people you were abducted by aliens, you learn not to volunteer that sort of information," he said, and she had to bite her cheek to keep from laughing. It wasn't really funny, but she understood exactly what he meant.

"Since they thought we were on an airplane, they were more concerned with things like a lack of flight plan, and not knowing where the flight came from than examining us to determine if we had been contaminated by alien contact."

"I hear you," she said. "But why are you looking for Mulder? Did you want to compare notes or something?" she asked, hoping to forward the conversation. She didn't really mind talking to Billy, but she was still pretty confused, and that was uncomfortable.

"Oh!" Billy sounded like he was startled by his own forgetfulness. "Theresa and I, we said the baby was our nephew. So... They let us keep him rather than put him into foster care. But really, we should give him to Mulder now that we have a way to get in touch with him."

"The baby?" she repeated, realizing that her mind had just gone completely blank with shock.

"Mulder's baby?" Billy asked, obviously not asking if it was Mulder's baby, but rather if she knew about it. "Sorry..." he added, apparently deciding that this was all news to her.

She wanted to ask Billy if he knew that the baby was Mulder's because he'd seen him on the ship while pregnant, but she suddenly remembered Billy saying they only found out that they'd shared a ship in the crash. So there had to be another way that he'd connected the baby to Mulder.

Scully opened her mouth to ask, but a great deal of noise in the background nearly drowned Billy out for several seconds. She realized that he was saying goodbye before she could gather her wits back about her enough to comprehend the sudden interruption. "I'm sorry, I have to go. But please, have Mulder come see us. We're living at my dad's place for now, so he knows where that is, right?"

"Yes, of course," she said faintly.

Before she could say anything else, Billy quickly said "Okay, great. I hope we see him really soon." And just like that the call disconnected.

Scully stared at the phone in disbelief for good forty-five seconds before any other thoughts force their way through her mental haze. Mulder had been right. Good God, what did it mean that he had been right? Billy had said nothing about the baby other than it was Mulder's. He hadn't said it was human, he hadn't said otherwise. What exactly were Billy and Theresa looking after?


She only realized how distractible she was when she almost rear-ended a car at a red light because she hadn't immediately realized it had stopped at the end of the yellow light. So, despite her reluctance to talk to Mulder about Billy's phone call, it still came as a relief to her to get home. At least she would no longer be putting anyone else at risk with her currently less than stellar driving skills.

Scully expected to hear the kids before she saw them, but it was quiet when she opened the door to the apartment. Looking around, she was puzzled at first until she noticed that Mulder was sitting on the couch and reading a book.

"Hey," he said when he saw her. "Your mom came and got the kids about an hour ago."

"Oh," she replied, kicking herself for forgetting that her mother had planned to bring the kids to a movie in the afternoon. Mulder had been invited but he had declined, quietly indicating that he could cope with watching kids' movies in the apartment, but had no interest in seeking out new ones in the theater.

Now that she remembered that the kids weren't there, she felt dumb because she had spent half of her drive home trying to rack her brains for ways to keep them occupied while she spoke to Mulder. It spoke volumes about the state of shock Billy's revelations had left her in.

Mulder gave her a curious look. "Are you okay?"

"Why?" she asked, stalling for time.

He didn't seem aware of this. "You just don't look right. Did you get egg salad in the cafeteria again or something?" he asked, face serious, making her wonder if she actually looked like she had food poisoning again. She certainly did feel slightly sick to her stomach.

"I'm not sick," she told him. Then she sat on the couch, aware that his eyes never left her face. "Mulder, we need to talk."

"I'm going to try not to leap to conclusions that are negative," he said, joking weakly. "You know how much people love relationship conversations that start with 'we need to talk.'"

"It's not a relationship type of conversation," she said, feeling guilty for making him worry about the wrong thing. Especially since he was going to have plenty to worry about on the topic at hand. "It's about a phone call I took. At the office."

This had him sitting up straighter, and she couldn't tell why he was already alarmed until he said, "They don't intend to transfer you or anything, do they?"

"No. No. Not a work type phone call either." These words didn't seem to make him feel any better, so she put her hand on his and said, "I got a phone call from Billy Miles."

Mulder recoiled, obviously shocked. "He's back?"

Nodding she said, "That plane crash last week? It wasn't a plane."

"Dammit," he growled, surprising her. "Why didn't it ever occur to me that any news outlet covering a return would make it sound like something ordinary?"

It wasn't really a question he wanted an answer to, so she just shrugged.

"And he called you?"

"Looking for you," she admitted.

Mulder frowned. "Why was he looking for me?"

And that was the million dollar question. "He wants you to come see him in Oregon as soon as possible," she said, realizing that there was no point to building things up. It wouldn't soften the blow no matter what she said as a preface. "He and Theresa... He and Theresa have your baby son."

He just stared at her, for so long that she worried that he had gone catatonic. Did catatonia come on that quickly, she wondered. She should've taken more psychology classes in college when she had the chance.

"Mulder?" she asked nervously.

He blinked, and then he asked, "Were they on the same ship as I was?" in a tone that was bizarrely casual, as if he was asking after the health of Billy's family.

"He indicated that, yes. Though he said he didn't realize it until the crash." The thought of how isolated the people were not to be aware of each other made her heart ache all over again, perhaps more so than even before to know now that it hadn't just been him who had been kept apart from the human contact that might have granted the abductees a small measure of comfort. The aliens were complete bastards, she thought.

"And there actually is a baby," Mulder said slowly.

"Apparently."

"My baby."

"That's what he said."

"A human baby?" Mulder asked and she cringed.

Billy hadn't said that. She really, really wanted to tell Mulder that the baby was human, but Billy had never said anything about the baby's appearance. She bit her lip for a moment, thinking, and then had an epiphany. "The authorities believed Billy when he said that the baby was his nephew. That suggests strongly that it looks like a normal baby, right?"

She had expected this to be reassuring to him, but he slowly shook his head. "The alien bounty hunter could change his appearance," he said, reminding her of that theory of his. "What if this is a case like that?"

Not knowing what else to do, she shrugged her shoulders. "Even if so, at least you don't have to worry about explaining a kid with a bulbous head and enormous eyes," she said in an attempt to reassure him.

He snorted. "I suppose that is a blessing." He thought for a moment and then sarcastically added, "And if he has long spindly fingers, I suppose I can hope that he has a good ear for music too, and can grow up to be a piano virtuoso. He could be the first alien Mozart."

Scully wanted to chide him that it wasn't an appropriate thing to joke about, but she knew that he had to deflect things with humor in order to cope with them sometimes. "When do you want to go see Billy?"

Mulder's eyes flicked towards the laptop he had set up on her coffee table. "Whenever I can get a flight out there."

She squeezed his hand. "Book two seats. I'll get my mom to watch the kids."

The look he gave her was grimly amused. "And what do you plan to tell her about what we're up to this time?" he asked, knowing that they'd claimed to have gone to visit a sick friend of Mulder's in November.

"I plan to tell her as little as possible. We can explain things when we get back," she said lightly, although she knew that putting her mother off until then would not be any small feat.

"When we get back, with a baby, that may be human or not."

"Yup."

Mulder shook his head and then said, "Sometimes I just don't know what I did to deserve you. Must've been something really good in a past life."

She wrapped her arms around him. "I don't know, Mulder. Some of the things you've done in this life have been pretty good too."

He let her hold onto him for a moment longer, and then pulled away to pick up the laptop. "Two seats?" he asked nervously, as if he was terrified that she was going to change her mind and make him go on his own.

"Two seats," she repeated firmly.


Later That Night

"Good night, Tommy," Scully whispered and closed her son's bedroom door. Grace was already asleep, and Tommy wouldn't come back out of his room so it was the perfect time to call her mother.

But what felt like an entire lake of lava burned in her belly, and she really didn't want to make the phone call.

Don't be stupid, she told herself. Mom won't... she won't what? Won't ask too many questions that she couldn't, or shouldn't, answer? Won't judge, won't freak out?

Now that Mulder's child had been proven to be real, Scully wasn't really sure how that fit into her life, which felt selfish to think about, but also something she should really think about.

Everything could change yet again, and perhaps what she was really afraid of was not having her mother ask where the baby came from, but how he'd fit in when Mulder brought him home... and that was something she felt terrifyingly unsure of.

"Just..." she muttered to herself and picked up the phone, dialing her mother's number before she lost her nerve.

"Dana?" her mother asked, and she wondered how her mother knew it was her given that she still refused to pay for caller ID.

"Hi, Mom," she answered sheepishly. "How are you?"

"Good..." Maggie paused. "It's late. Is something wrong?"

"No! Um, well..." Out with it, she chided herself. "I promised Mulder that I'd go with him when he flies to Oregon tomorrow. Do you think you could take Tommy and Grace while I'm gone?" as she asked, she realized with dismay that she didn't have a backup plan if her mother did the unexpected and refused.

"Of course, sweetheart," Maggie replied, much to her relief. "But I'm surprised you're going on another trip so soon."

"Hopefully this is the last one," she blurted out, and heat rushed to her cheeks. If she had wanted to avoid invoking complicated questions, she'd just blown it.

Or maybe not. "I'm happy to hear that his issue is on the path towards a resolution," Maggie commented. There might have been an invitation to share more in those words, but Scully chose to ignore it.

"Thanks so much for doing this, Mom."

"Not a problem." Maggie gathered her thoughts for a moment. "I'm pleased that you're so willing to help a friend in need, Dana."

Scully laughed a bit shakily. "I guess you raised me right, then."

"I tried," Maggie agreed, sounding amused. "When are you leaving?"

"Oh," Scully began, and then explained her anticipated departure time. "Hey, Mom," Scully asked hesitantly. "This is probably more than I should ask, but how do you feel about cat-sitting too?"


A Few Hours Later

"No. No!"

Mulder jerked back from the tentacles that reached for him, and then scared himself awake. He blinked, breathing hard, and realized that the long, green tentacle across his face wasn't anything more than Dempsey's tail.

"Oh, God, cat..." Mulder muttered and dropped his head back onto his pillow. Dempsey blinked slowly at him before reaching out with one big paw and kneading Mulder's cheek until he was pushed away. "Ick, stop. You have no idea how awful having your face kneaded feels...do you?" Mulder asked, giving the cat a suspicious look. It was possible he knew but didn't care.

Unperturbed, the tom turned his attention to one of Mulder's pillows instead. At least the pillow didn't mind the misguided attention.

A glance at the clock on his dresser revealed that daylight was still more than three hours away, and this made Mulder sigh. His nightmare had been bad enough that he wasn't overly eager to go back to sleep, yet he realized that he'd be a zombie the next day if he didn't.

"Do you get nightmares?" Mulder asked the cat who was still giving his spare pillow a massage. His grandmother had owned a cat who'd seemed to, twitching and whimpering in her sleep, but Mulder had never seen his own pet similarly plagued, at least not so far. "I don't recommend them."

As bad as the nightmare had been, at least he hadn't dreamed about the grays again. He'd almost expected to, but it had been something out of an old anime movie Langly had shared with him years ago that had decided to populate his dream, not the beings that had tortured him for real. And, fortunately, he'd woken up before the tentacle'd monster had been able to abuse him in the way it had the animated woman wearing a sailor suit in that movie. Talk about ick, he thought, remembering those scenes with distaste.

"All right," Mulder said out loud. "It's time to go back to sleep. We've both got a big day head of us." He paused, thinking about how Maggie and the cat might get along. Well, he hoped. "You're going to like Scully's mom, Demps. She enjoys feeding people, so I'd be surprised if she didn't feed you too much too."

Dempsey gave him a languid look that suggested that there was no such thing as overfeeding a cat, and that he thought Mulder was silly for thinking there might be.

Rather than argue with someone who couldn't talk back, Mulder rolled onto his side and tried to go back to sleep.


The Next Morning

Scully felt a little guilty about letting the kids think that there was nothing atypical about the following morning, but she just wasn't up to arguing, so she decided not to give them any advance warning that she'd be leaving. Instead she packed before she got them to get dressed and fed them breakfast just like on any other weekday.

But both kids looked up from their cereal when the door was knocked on.

"I can get it?" Grace asked eagerly, looking at Scully.

"You may," Scully agreed with a nod.

The little girl scrambled out of her chair and raced to the door, flinging it open. As she did, Scully couldn't help but muse that Grace must expect that the person on the other side was going to be someone she'd want to see. That must be nice, she thought.

"Grandma!" Grace hollered, throwing her arms around Maggie's waist. Scully noted that her mother needed to take a step back to avoid losing her balance. Grace was getting bigger.

"Good morning, sweetheart," Maggie greeted her. Then she looked over at Tommy and smiled. "Good morning, Tommy."

"Morning, Grandma," Tommy called.

"Grandma is going to stay with you while I take a short trip," Scully explained. "I'm going to be back late tomorrow night."

Tommy immediately pouted, asking, "Why can't we go with you?"

All sorts of explanations crossed her mind, but she just didn't have the strength to deflect the protests that each would be met with. "Because I said so," she said evenly.

He frowned at her, but after a moment he looked down at his half empty bowl. "Okay."

"Can we have ice cream?" Grace asked Maggie.

"I think so. Perhaps after dinner tonight."

"And manwin oranges?" Grace wheedled.

"Sure."

"Okay." Grace nodded thoughtfully before looking over at Scully. "Bye, Mommy."

Scully coughed to cover up a laugh. Grace's responses always kept her on her feet, that was for sure.

Grace's hug was big when Scully paused by the door with her suitcase a few minutes later, and Tommy's was less grudging than she worried about.

Just before she stepped out the door, Maggie pulled Scully aside.

Bracing herself for a last-minute onslaught of questions, Scully tried to remind herself of how grateful she should be that her mother was willing to drop everything and babysit the kids.

In the end Maggie didn't ask any uncomfortable questions. Scully supposed there was something about her own demeanor that told her they weren't welcome, and instead her mother's eyes just said that they would need to have a long sit down when they got back. Hugging her, Maggie just said, "Be safe. And look after Fox."

"I will, Mom."

"We'll be fine here, don't you worry." Maggie smiled at her. "But call us, if you can."

"Definitely."

The door was knocked on a second time, and Mulder stood nervously on the other side, the handle of a pet carrier gripped tightly in one of his hands. "Hi, Maggie. This is Dempsey."

Maggie peered into the carrier, and Scully was relieved when the cat didn't hiss at her. "Nice to meet you, young man," her mother said mildly.

"He's not a man, grandma," Grace pointed out. "He's a cat."

"But he's not a kitten," Tommy told his sister. "So he's a grown up. Like a man."

"Oh..."

"Both of you will help grandma take care of him, won't you?" Scully asked. "And not chase him if he's had enough of playing?"

"Yep," Tommy agreed. "My friend Ben got all scratched when he tried to pull his cat out from under a chair."

"Ouch," Grace remarked. All three adults looked at her, each hopeful that she'd keep this in mind if she thought about cornering Mulder's cat.

"Ready to go?" Scully asked Mulder.

He nodded, and she thought that he looked nervous. She supposed that she would feel nervous to in the same situation. Glancing at her children, she remembered suddenly that she had.

"Hey guys, come here," she called, and both Tommy and Grace looked up from the cat. She gestured for them to join her, and when stated she gave them both big hugs. "I love you. Be good for grandma."

"We will," Tommy said easily.

"Yes, we will!" Grace declared.

Trying to hide a smile, Scully held out her arms to her mother. "Thank you, Mom."

"You're welcome."

To her surprise, as soon as she let her mother go, Mulder hugged the older woman too. "Thanks so much, Mrs. Scully. For everything."

"You're welcome too, Fox," Maggie said a bit awkwardly, and when Scully caught her expression, it seemed that her mother had also been surprised by his action. "Look at the time, the two of you had better get going."

"Bye!" Scully said brightly.

Everybody gave her smiles, and she was happy that the kids, and Mulder's cat, were in good hands.

Once they were on the hallway she looked up at Mulder and said, "Let's get this show on the road, shall we?"

"Yes," he replied...But had she just imagined the tightness in his voice?


Later That Day

It was just as well that the kids didn't go along with them, Scully decided, because Mulder clearly had no interest in talking while they flew to Oregon. He spent the entire flight lost in his thoughts, and from the look on his face they weren't pleasant ones. At first Scully tried to look as though she would be receptive to conversation if he decided to talk, but eventually she got bored of that and read the paperback that had caught her eye in the airport gift shop instead. He knew she could be torn away from the thriller if she needed to be, she rationalized.

They landed, got a rental car, and hit the road before he said anything much to her at all. "This is what I wanted, right?" he asked as she drove, following the directions she'd printed out before she'd finished packing.

"Yes?" Scully asked, wondering if he'd been seeking an answer from her at all, or merely thinking out loud.

Mulder sighed. "I didn't picture it ending this way," he confided. "I envisioned a fight. I always imagined having the lead role in getting him back, maybe killing a few aliens along the way. Like a hero. And here I am, entirely inconsequential to solving the problem."

She opened her mouth to protest that he made it sound like a fool's errand, and that he'd done a lot for his long lost son, but in the end she realized that he was right. Nothing he'd done had made any effect on getting the little boy back. All of his efforts had been for nothing because it was a mutiny on board the ship while he was on Earth or even just a mechanical error that brought his son, and all the others, to ground.

"How often was your father an actual hero during your childhood?" she eventually asked him.

Mulder shrugged. "I think he was lucky not to be more often cast as the villain. You did mean Bill, right?" he asked, not waiting for her to respond. "My biological father put Cruella and Maleficent to shame, of course."

"Yes, I meant Bill," she said, still not entirely comfortable with the idea that Mulder's mother had once had an affair with the smoking man. "Other than not coming to your sister's rescue, you don't hate him for his lack of heroics, do you?"

"Other than that," he laughed grimly before sobering. It reminded her uncomfortably of a college history class during which one of her fellow students had earnestly asked why the Chinese hated the Japanese other than the massive slaughter of Chinese citizens carried out by Unit 731. "No, I hadn't really thought less of him for not burnishing his armor and riding a white horse in my name," Mulder admitted. "It's not like he didn't try to make my life better."

That had to be true given Mulder's previous descriptions of Bill's efforts to keep the smoking man away from him and Samantha when they were small. "Exactly," she declared, earning a curious look. "Most kids don't picture their parents in the hero role, or at least not in actual knock down drag out fights. I don't think your son-" Mulder had a son, God, he actually had a son. "-will be disappointed that you didn't need to kick any alien ass to bring him home. Kids just don't think that way."

"I would have liked to kick some alien ass, though," Mulder told her. The look in his eyes told her that he was dead serious.

"Don't we all?" she asked.

He finally laughed. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. "I don't know how I'm going to cope with all the questions when we get back."

"The questions?"

"Who's the mother? What happened to her? Do you have sole custody, or will she be part of his life? What does your girlfriend think of all of this?" he recited from a list he'd obviously mentally catalogued already.

"You can tell them that your girlfriend thinks they can go to hell with their nosiness," Scully insisted. "And that she's happy for you."

"Still, they're going to ask all of that and more," he reminded her. It pleased her that he wasn't at all thrown by her referring to herself as his girlfriend. "What are we going to tell your mother? What are we going to tell my landlord?"

"The landlord you see so infrequently that he still hasn't noticed that you have a rather large cat?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.

"I'm pretty sure a baby is going to be noisier than my cat," Mulder protested.

She almost quipped that aliens were pretty quiet, so maybe he'd luck out and his son would take after his mother, but she stopped herself in the nick of time. The mother of the boy wasn't a joking matter and might never be.

"We'll figure it all out," she promised when she realized he was waiting for her to say something, though not that.

"Will we?" Mulder sighed.

"What choice do we have?"

That was the real question, they both realized, and one that drove them both back into silence.


En Route to Billy's House

The one thing that Mulder kept to himself, and had held back whenever he talked to Scully about his worries, was that he was afraid that Billy Miles had been lying to them both. Not about the child's existence, which was something he trusted to be true, but that he'd merely been letting them believe that the authorities had seen his son and hadn't found his humanity wanting. What if the truth was that Billy had smuggled the boy out of the wreckage and hadn't let anyone who might have taken interest in the boy lay eyes on him?

Sadly, it was far too easy for Mulder to imagine a man like Billy taking pity on a tiny misfit, and not willing to let him be taken away and dissected, even if he looked wholly alien. Billy was on the timid side too, so he could also picture him luring Mulder there in order to force him to deal with it so he didn't have to make any more decisions about what to do with him, either.

These things were easy to imagine because he could picture himself doing both of them in Billy's shoes. They would have been really easy for him to rationalize, too, especially if the little alien was the child of someone he'd liked.

Beside him Scully shifted in her seat, and Mulder glanced quickly at her face. One thing that hadn't been taken from him during his ordeal was his ability to read her like a book. It had been that way from practically the beginning, and he dated it back to a night spent in this same town, when he'd known that she was in terror over the bumps on her skin being more than bug bites. Even in the quick glance he'd just made, the question on her face was pretty plain - it all but asked him why he wasn't happier.

Not willing to put a voice to the answer, he settled for reaching over and squeezing her hand at a red light. She squeezed his back, and he wondered if she could read him too.

About a mile down the road Scully asked, "That's it, isn't it?" while pointing at a house with her free hand.

He reluctantly answered, "That's it."

After she parked and they got out he began to hope that stomach acid could kill the butterflies in there.


After a firm yet still polite knock on the door, it swung open, releveling a stranger. Mulder stared at her in dismay - he'd mentally prepared himself to need to greet Billy or perhaps Teresa in a civilized manner instead of demanding that they bring his son to him so he could get the horror or delight over with, but he hadn't thought that anyone else might be there.

The young woman, barely more than a girl in his estimation and perhaps a college student, gave him an uncertain smile, and he couldn't help but feel that his expression was upsetting her. "Are you agent Mulder?" she asked warily.

His instinct was to answer 'I was' but he fought it back because that response would only confuse her. "Fox Mulder, that's me."

"Right." The girl worried her bottom lip between her teeth a moment before asking, "Do you have ID on you?"

"Yes, we both do," Scully said, nudging him. The girl only seemed to notice her then, flinching at the sound of her voice.

For a moment Mulder fumbled through the pockets of his overcoat, and finally found his wallet. He pulled his shiny new license out of its windowed pocket and handed it over. Scully did the same.

The girl looked down at them both, obviously unsure of what she was supposed to do with their IDs now that she had them. She settled for running a thumb nail along the edges of each, which struck him as peculiar until he realized that she was making sure that they hadn't been sliced open and then repaired. As soon as he understood this, he realized that she was brighter than he'd initially assumed and felt a bit more respect for her.

"Okay," she said, handing them back their IDs. As soon as they'd tucked them away, she opened the door more and said, "Here's the deal. Teresa's in-laws have her daughter, and she wants her back, of course. When the lawyers say jump, she has to ask how high, and to make a long story short Billy took her to their office today for a last minute meeting," the girl explained.

"Oh," Mulder answered, hoping that his disappointment didn't show too badly. Though he could hardly begrudge Teresa's desire to regain her child, the disappointing thought of having to wait even longer to find out anything about his own son threatened to crush him entirely.

However, Mulder felt himself beginning to perk up when the girl considered them for a moment. Her look didn't say that she expected them to leave immediately. "I guess you want to see the baby?" she suggested.

"Um, yes," he said, swallowing hard. The girl and Scully both shot him looks, and he lowered his eyes rather than meet them. He didn't really care what the girl thought of his obvious reluctance, but Scully had the right to wonder why he wasn't thrilled.

It seemed like it would be easier to just see what Billy had been babysitting than to explain his inner turmoil, so he offered the girl a weak smile and said, "After you."

All of Mulder's thoughts had been focused on his angst, but Scully proved that she had the wherewithal to think about other things when she hesitantly asked, "So...how do you know Billy?" After pausing a fraction of a second, she followed that up with adding, "Were you, uh, taken too?"

The girl blinked. "No, of course not," she practically snapped, and Mulder cringed inside, hoping that the girl feeling offended didn't lead to them being tossed out on their ears.

"Oh."

"I'm Amy Miles. Billy is my dad?" the girl said, and it took him a moment to realize that she wasn't asking a question after all. She was tall and lithe, but he mentally subtracted a few years from his estimate of her age. If she was still speaking like that, she was probably at the opposite end of her teens than he'd first thought.

"Is he?" Scully asked, then she hesitated. "Was Peggy your mom?"

Instead of continuing to look irritated, Amy seemed surprised. "You knew my mom?"

"We met her once," Scully said warmly, though she didn't add any more details about how they'd met the late Peggy O'Dell.

"Dad didn't mention that."

'Sorry?"

Amy looked a little sad. "It's okay. Dad doesn't talk about her very often." It was obvious that this bothered her, and Mulder had the absurd impulse to hug her like he might Grace or Tommy when they were upset. Doing so to a strange teenager seemed like a bad idea, however, so he kept his arms to himself.

"Come on," the girl told them, and they followed her rather than continuing to stand their awkwardly. "I fed him and changed him about an hour ago before his nap. He's probably still asleep."

"Right."

Eventually the three of them came to a stop in front of a closed door. Amy gave Mulder a look, like he was supposed to know what to do. In a way, he supposed that he did.

Throughout his struggle towards truth, Mulder had been convinced that he wanted to know once and for all what happened to him on that ship. As he stood outside the door that might be the entrance to a room that held all the answers, he found himself hesitating. It was ridiculous, but he was afraid; he was deeply afraid that knowing what happened would be worse than not knowing, in the same way that missing children's families felt about knowing what happened to their loved ones.

Taking a deep breath, he turned the doorknob and pushed the door open.

There was a crib in the center of the room. From where he stood, Mulder couldn't see into it. Amy seemed calm, but what if she'd just been raised by Billy to think that practically anything could be normal? Having a mother who'd died so young and a father who was in and out of spaceships and institutions, likely dumping her on Peggy's parents at those times, had to give a person a less than stable foundation for knowing what constituted normal, There was no way he could rely on Amy's indifference as an indicator that the baby was normal.

Feeling like a man on his way to be executed, he forced himself to take step after step, and looked into the crib.

The baby inside the crib was not asleep. Instead he looked up at Mulder with sleepy hazel eyes. Damp brown hair clung to it perfectly ordinarily sized head. A hand with appropriately stubby fingers waved lazily when the boy noticed him.

"I think you're human," Mulder said, surprised. "Maybe mostly human."

The little boy, on the other hand, was not surprised. If only because he had no idea what the word human meant.

Behind him Mulder could hear Amy whispering to Scully, asking her what he meant by that. A rubbing sound of fabric suggested that Scully had shrugged in response, and that the sound had been the winter coat she was still wearing. When he glanced down at himself he was more than a little surprised to remember that they'd been there such a short time that they still had their coats on.

Looking back at the two women - or woman and girl, he reminded himself - he caught Amy's eye. "Can I pick him up?"

The teenager's expression all but asked why he was asking her. "He's your baby," Amy mumbled.

Taking this as permission, Mulder reached into the crib and scooped the little boy up. He hadn't handled many babies, but somehow he figured out how to hold him. The little guy was warm from his nap, and Mulder couldn't decide if he didn't protest over being man-handled because he was still sleepy, or because he was just placid in nature. He supposed he'd find out.

As soon as he had that thought, his knees nearly buckled. He was really holding his son in his arms. The child was real, was alive, and he'd found him even if it hadn't happened in the way he imagined it would.

"You okay?" A hand on his shoulder stabilized him.

He flashed Scully a grateful smile. "For the first time in a long time, I think I really am."


Unfortunately Mulder's peace of mind was short-lived: when heard a door open and it was his first instinct to scoop up the baby, grab Scully, and find some place to hide. But before he could do anything, Amy casually said, "Oh, my dad's home."

"Right," Mulder mumbled. He could barely hear himself over his still frantically beating heart. However, before he completely succumbed to humiliation, he realized that neither Scully nor Amy were giving him strange looks, which he was sure they would if his feelings had been half as transparent as he'd feared. Baby steps, he reminded himself. Being able to project calm in the face of panic was a step in the right direction, though he wasn't sure it was something his therapist would be very approving of.

Still holding the baby, Mulder followed Amy out of the bedroom and back into the living room where Billy was standing with Theresa. "You're here!" Theresa greeted them enthusiastically.

Glancing at her, Mulder tried to smile, and wondered if her good mood was an indication that things had gone well at the lawyer's office. "We're here."

"And you've met the baby, I see," she observed.

He looked down at the child in his arms and wondered if interacting with an infant only a few months old was literally meeting them, but he supposed that the baby was alert enough for that to technically be true. To be sociable he nodded an agreement.

"The little guy looks just like you," Billy offered with a warm smile that reminded Mulder that Billy had seemed to like Theresa's child as a baby too.

As for Billy's comment... Mulder cocked his head, wondering if that was true, if the baby looked like him beyond sharing his coloring. Unfortunately, in a fit of pique about ten months after Samantha disappeared, his mother had destroyed the vast majority of family photos that she could get her hands on so it wasn't like he could compare the little one to his own baby pictures: the photo of him and Samantha that he'd kept in his office had only managed to survive because it had once been part of a school assignment and his mother had no idea he'd still had it. "Hmm."

"Is that how you figured out that he's Mulder's?" Scully asked quietly.

Startled by the question, Mulder looked at her. She levelly met his gaze.

"No," Billy said abruptly.

"Then...how?" Scully asked before Mulder had the chance to.

"Did you work?" Billy asked, turning to Mulder, who just gave him a blank look. "On the ship. Did they give you a job, I mean."

"No, I was locked up the entire time," he said, trying not to think again about how the last portion of that experience had been like, once they stopped feeding him. Not that it had been any picnic when they still had been throwing food into the cell with him..."Wasn't everyone?"

"No," both Billy and Theresa replied, shaking their heads. When he continued to look confused, Billy offered him a wry look. "You caused trouble, didn't you?"

Mulder stared at them, desperately wanting to ask 'didn't you'?' back, but he didn't. Billy and Theresa weren't the fighters that he was, and probably had approached their own confinements by keeping their heads down so they didn't experience any more pain than they'd had to. Shrugging, Mulder just said, "I wouldn't be me if I didn't."

Next to him Scully swallowed a snigger and he tried not to notice that.

Billy nodded thoughtfully, as if Mulder's confession was exactly what he expected of him. "There were a lot of people who got themselves locked up like you did," he explained, and Mulder had the sense that he was telling him this so he wouldn't feel too bad about his poor behavior. "But a lot of us didn't."

"So what happened to you, did you have the run of the ship?" Scully asked.

"No..." Billy said slowly. "They put us to work, but we were restricted to only going where our chores required." The way Billy shivered involuntarily at the memory suggested that he was thinking about the consequences of not staying in their assigned quadrant.

"Oh," Scully muttered. Mulder thought that she was beginning to sound frustrated with how slowly Billy was telling his story. He could relate.

Something broke through to Billy because he gave them a chagrined look and turned to Theresa, "You should explain."

Theresa shrugged. "Billy was tasked with bringing people who were locked up food-" Mulder gave her a sharp look at this, wondering why Billy had never been the one to bring him his meals. Perhaps his behavior had been considered especially bad because he couldn't recall ever seeing another human with his meal trays...when they were still feeding him, that was. He must have worried the grays, maybe making them wonder if he'd instigate a riot if given half a chance, because they apparently didn't trust other people around him or vice versa. "For most of the time I was on the ship I cleaned. But for the last couple of months up there, I worked in the nursery," she concluded.

"The nursery?" Mulder asked, nearly choking on his tongue.

"Yes."

"And he was there?" he asked, softly bumping the baby's head with the point of his chin.

"Among others."

"There were other babies?" Scully asked. She didn't bother to hide her surprise. Or revulsion.

"Yes, and more towards the end - I think that's how I got reassigned, they needed more help with them. A few of the abductees proved to be pregnant-" Theresa said impassively, and he shuddered because she was casually telling them that those babies had been taken from their mothers. "- so some of those babies were toddlers, and of course there were grays of both sexes. They didn't let stealing humans get in the way of raising their families. Those babies were only there during the day, though, and taken back to their parents' quarters when they weren't doing whatever the hell it was that they'd done for three years."

Mulder stared at her, his head crowded with questions. What did a baby gray look like? Were they cute? Hideous? Was there anything about his baby that reminded her of Them?

"Good God," Scully exclaimed in disgust. Mulder wondered if she was remembering the small preserved alien fetus that had cost one of their compatriots his life too. "Were more people abducted while you were... Being held?"

This idea startled him. He hadn't given any thought to the possibility that the ship had ever been near Earth again after it had grabbed him, and before it had pushed him out. The idea that they may have returned to pick up more people-

"Not that I'm aware of," Theresa replied. "So, most of the children of abductees, those they had been pregnant with when they had been picked up with that is, were somewhere around two years old."

A million thoughts raced through Mulder's mind, but his baby shifted in his arms, and brought his attention back to him.

Trying not to be too nervous, Mulder forced himself to speak to Billy and Theresa. "Okay... I understand that you knew about him because you worked with the babies, but how did you know he was mine? Did they, um, tell you that?" he asked, thinking about how he'd heard them speaking to each other dozens of times, but that he'd never understood even a word they said... unless they paired those words with force, which made their intentions plain enough.

She shook her head. "I've never met anyone who could understand their language. But they could put images into our heads and communicate with us that way."

"Not into mine," Mulder denied. They may have been able to do unimaginable awful things to his body, but they hadn't broken into the sanctuary of his mind. At least not in ways beyond what his PTSD had allowed after the fact.

"Well, not everyone's. You probably fought them too hard for it to work." Billy smirked. "Even I had trouble being receptive to their messaging at first, and I'm more easy-going than you."

Indignation flared in Mulder for a moment because he didn't consider the anxious younger man to be easy-going at all. He forgot all about it when Theresa spoke up again, though.

"They were thinking about you when they were around him," she explained. "So that's how I knew he was connected to you."

Mulder nodded as she explained, but then he realized that it was likely that there were no written records that she might have gotten information from. Which of course was silly to be disappointed about because it wasn't as though they'd have been written in English. Still, apparently that had been a hope in the back of his mind, despite the fact that even possessing such records would be completely futile unless he found someone who could translate but wasn't completely insane after being around Them for long enough to understand their written language.

"Do you know his first name?" Scully asked. Since Theresa looked confused, Scully added, "the baby's, I mean."

"Oh. No. He didn't... He hasn't ever had one," Theresa replied. "Since I knew he was yours, I referred to him as 'baby Mulder' and it caught on."

It puzzled Mulder that he hadn't given any thought to what the boy might be called already. How hadn't he thought of that? Shouldn't he have at least been angry that someone else might have named his little boy?

At least he won't have to learn another name, Mulder told himself. But then his thoughts wandered back to a unit in one of his psychology courses about reactive attachment disorder, and poorly treated soviet orphans-

"So you were looking after Mulder's son and some toddlers?" Scully asked Theresa, apparently thinking of the babies that belonged to women who'd been pregnant when they'd been collected.

"There were a few younger babies, too," Theresa admitted in a small voice. "Ones like this little guy here, that weren't born to already pregnant women."

"Oh," Mulder said blankly. Most thoughts flew out of his mind then. After a moment he was able to gather a few strays before they were lost entirely. "Hybrids?"

Theresa shrugged helplessly. "I'm not sure. I think I heard a woman scream at them once to give her her baby back. But I don't know if the father was human."

"How awful," Scully muttered. Mulder shot her a sidelong look - apparently she hadn't imagined that these babies' parents had been two humans desperate for comfort while trapped on the ship any more than he had. It would be nice to think that the other babies had parents who had interacted, but Mulder found it hard to imagine that there were humans on that ship who had been less abused, and more lucky than he had. No, he could only imagine that the aliens had intervened, not that two humans had any furtive interactions.

This however, did not preclude the possibility that the grays had put only human DNA in their Petri dishes.

Mulder stared at Theresa and Billy, wondering for the first time if it was possible that the baby's mother might be human too. He frowned, though, dismissing the thought. If the boy's mother had been a human woman, the baby would have ended up in her belly, not his.

They didn't know, he realized with a start. His instinctual recoil from the thought made him nearly drop his son. Theresa only began working the babies a couple of months ago, so that meant that she was still on clean up duty when he'd been born and enrolled in the nursery. She had no idea that there were expectant fathers on the ship too, not just expectant mothers. This made him wonder bleakly if there was a returnee out there who actually did know something about how the men (or was he the only one?) who'd carried their children had been experimented on or why.

He had to be sure though. "You didn't see any, um, pregnant people?" he asked Theresa, trying to speak calmly, and not give her a reason to think that he was crazy. Sure, of all of the people he knew Theresa and Billy were among the most tolerant of abduction related details, but with just the wrong words even they could be made uneasy about how much of his sanity he had managed to squirrel away for safekeeping while on the ship.

If either Billy or Theresa had thought that his choice of the word 'people' rather than 'women' was unusual, neither of them let on. Perhaps they too had been so traumatized that it took a much higher degree of oddness to ping their radars.

To his disappointment, when she considered his question Theresa shook her head. "No. I got the sense that they had been sequestered somewhere, and not allowed to see other people."

"Probably to prevent mutiny," Billy said grimly.

"What you mean?" Scully asked, sounding genuinely curious.

The lanky man shrugged. "When you keep people apart isolation makes them feel weak. Keeping them together with others, that helps them drawn each other strength. Which is about the last thing you want when you are prepared to forcibly remove someone's child from them."

Theresa nodded, apparently in agreement with her friend. "It must've been so awful, all alone and knowing that there was nothing they could do to protect their children." She shuddered.

Mulder wondered vaguely if it had been awful. For himself. Honestly, it came as something of a comfort that he hadn't retained many memories of that part of his ordeal. He had never come out and told his psychologist what it happened to him, but it made up a similar enough story so that he could be reassured that sometimes a person's mind protected itself and maybe those memories were best left in darkness, and not examined in a fuller light.

It had been such a desperate struggle to hold onto a semblance of himself, that he wasn't eager to disturb anything that might make holding on impossibly difficult. Glancing at Scully, he wondered how he would react if she pressured him to remember. It wouldn't go well, and he could only hope that she knew him well enough to leave it alone.

"Or to prevent self-harm," Scully suggested darkly.

Mulder stared at her. What she was implying suggested not only isolation but restraint as well. Had that been part of the memories that hid from him? Had he been so obsessed with not having an alien entity within him he'd been chained up to keep himself from cutting himself open out of desperation? This didn't feel like it rang true to him, but perhaps it was and that was of the things his brain shied away from.

"Perhaps," Billy agreed with a slight nod. When Mulder looked at him, he turned to his friend.

Theresa gave Mulder a sickly smile. "I guess you really pissed them off."

"Why?" he asked, both disturbed and curious. The baby shifted again, and Mulder adjusted his hold to keep him secure without thinking about it until after he'd done it. Perhaps part of parenthood was instinctual after all.

She shrugged. "They took the babies out of the nursery sometimes. The human ones, I mean. All of them except yours."

"What did they do with them?" Mulder asked. His arms tightened around the baby involuntarily, but he consciously loosened his grip when the baby whimpered in protest. His thoughts went in the direction of the babies being experimented on, but he didn't feel much relief when Theresa explained.

"They were allowed to see their parents. Or parent, probably. I don't know if there were any couples who were taken."

"Oh," Mulder mumbled faintly. It was unfair. Why had the others been able to see their children and he hadn't been able to? Why had his child been deprived of a parent's attention? "How often?"

She shrugged again. "About once a week."

"Just often enough to keep the parents in line," Billy said bitterly. Mulder gave him a sharp look, and Billy met it with a grimace. "Wouldn't you have been more cooperative if you'd gotten to see him? And knew that your behavior was the only leverage you had to keep the visits up?" The thin man sighed. "They probably wished they had something like that over all of us." Billy didn't have to glance in his teenage daughter's direction to make it obvious that he was thinking about Amy. Mulder did look at the girl, and felt a brief burst of gratitude that both she and Theresa's baby had been spared abduction.

"I wonder why they didn't 'gift' more people with offspring to worry about," Scully said. All three of them looked at her. "As Theresa said, it's a good tool to keep people complacent."

Theresa shrugged. "Maybe the only did that to people he couldn't keep in line with intimidation and physical force. It is, after all, a lot of effort to go through."

Mulder was overcome by a hideous urge to giggle. Gestating offspring for nine months was a hell of a lot more effort on the part of the parent than it would be on the grays. Sure, mixing up DNA in a petri dish and then implanting it in an unwilling host was a bit more effort than was typical of a human male when it came to reproduction, but it didn't compare.

Glancing at Billy and Theresa, Mulder had the sudden realization that he wasn't going to be getting any more answers about what it happened to him. The answers he now had would have to be sufficient. Every stone had been unturned, and there was nowhere else to go in order to learn more.

This realization should have plunged him into a depression, but as he held on to the small boy in his arms, he found that letting go of the quest wasn't as devastating as he imagined it would be. Maybe it really was enough to know that he hadn't been crazy, and that the child actually existed.

All of the adults drifted off into a silence, but Amy seemed agitated and left the room, apparently going to the kitchen to make herself a snack. For half a second Mulder pictured himself a dozen or more years into the future, the father of a teenager who had to cope with his weird friends showing up. The idea made him smile.

Billy roused himself from his malaise, and actually physically started before tentatively asking, "Agent Mulder, do you still have the sort of friends who can doctor paperwork?"

Nodding, Mulder's thought of the gunmen for the first time in what was probably a few days, and wondered how he would break the news to them about the baby. Perhaps asking them to counterfeit a birth certificate was just the opening he was looking for. "I do," he said, realizing that he hadn't actually replied to Billy's question.

The tall man instantly relaxed. "That's good, you're going to need help from somebody like that. There were obviously no birth certificates on the ship."

"Obviously," Mulder echoed, thinking again about the lack of paperwork.

"Fortunately, I don't think you'll need his birth certificate to get him on a plane."

Mulder blinked. He hadn't really thought about their return flight yet. Were you supposed to buy a ticket for an infant? He hadn't. However, before he could really begin to worry himself, Scully said "at least he can be a lap sit baby."

Cocking his head, Mulder turned to her and asked "what on earth is that?"

"Children under the age of two don't need a seat of their own. Well, you can buy them their own seat, but you also are allowed to just have them sit on your lap during the flight. Since we didn't buy him a ticket, I guess that's what we'll have to do."

"How do you know that?" he asked curiously.

Scully waved a hand. "My brothers. I took Tommy and Grace to see them both before Grace turned two."

The thought of her - no, he corrected himself, their - rambunctious daughter sitting still on Scully's lap almost made him laugh out loud. Maybe Grace was more mellow as a one year-old, but somehow he doubted it. "And how did that go?" he couldn't resist asking.

"Okay," Scully said. "It could have gone worse," she added, obviously remembering a flight that had not gone ideally.

"Hmmm." Mulder wondered if there had been yelling, or throwing things, that day. Knowing Grace, perhaps both. He could also bet that Tommy had sat quietly, ignoring the chaos that his sister was stirring up.

Breaking the silence Theresa looked at them and asked "when's your flight?"

Mulder realized then that he had no idea. He gave Scully a frantic look, but she just smiled. "In four hours."

"Oh." Theresa looked disappointed. "With the way things have been since 9/11, I guess that means we don't have time to go out to dinner with you."

Scully reached out and patted the woman's arm. "Another time, then."

"Sure."

Mulder carefully kept his expression blank. Theresa and Billy were not bad people, and he even liked Billy's daughter, but nothing good ever came of their visits. If he never saw Billy or Theresa in person again, that would be perfectly fine with him. Despite Theresa's polite distress, he thought the deep down same was probably true for both of them as well. Keeping in touch their email seemed like a safe idea, though.

"Mulder, actually think we might want to get going," Scully tentatively suggested.

"Okay," he said, and then he startled her by putting the baby in her arms, and turning to both Billy and Theresa and giving them hugs. Scully actually seemed more surprised by his spontaneous display of affection than they did.

Still hugging Theresa, Mulder said, "I don't know how I can ever repay you. Both of you. Thank you so very much for taking care of him when I couldn't."

Theresa tightened her grip around him, and said, "Just love him. That's repayment enough."

"I will," he promised, and he meant it with all of his heart.

"Take care of yourselves," Scully said, holding the baby, and not looking terribly inclined to hug anybody.

"You too."

They began to walk towards the front door, when Billy said "oh, wait!" and then ran out of the room, leaving them to stare after him in confusion.

Three minutes later Billy returned toting an overstuffed diaper bag. "I fit as much stuff in here as I could," he said, handing it to Mulder. "Since we have no use for it you're more than welcome to have it."

Mulder took the diaper bag, and wondered how much money they had spent his son. He had this feeling that Billy would refuse a check if offered one right then and there, but maybe he could send him a gift card for that Amazon place online that Scully herself seemed so fond of. "Thanks again," he said.

Billy nodded, and Mulder followed Scully out the front door.


Although he knew he should be happy that the ordeal was over, a bout of sudden paranoia hit Mulder a moment later. It didn't seem as though it could possibly be as easy as them getting in the car and leaving. He was waiting for someone, or something, to show up and keep them from leaving. Maybe it would be some grays that would make him wish that he was still able to carry his FBI-issued glock. Maybe it would be the bastard who had fathered him, casually threatening him out around a cigarette clenched between yellowed teeth.

It was almost impossible to stop himself from rushing to the car in a defensive crouch, but he managed to because not only was Scully watching him, Billy, Theresa and Amy were too. The paranoia didn't begin to leach out of his system until they managed to get to the rental car without an issue. For half a second he panicked again as he stood there with the baby held in his arms, and then he remembered that they had requested a child seat, with all of the fervent hope that they would need one.

It took him longer to buckle the nameless baby into the seat that it did to get Grace into hers, but his hands never shook that badly with nervousness when he had assisted with the toddler. Of course, the first several times that had happened, he hadn't realized that Grace was his child too, not just Scully's.

Scully slipped into the driver's seat, and for once he was glad that somebody else was taking the wheel. Looking at her, watching her put the key in the ignition, he said, "I can hardly believe this is real."

To his surprise, she shook her head. "No, you do. You've had faith all along."

Mulder glanced over the seat at the baby, watching the little boy use both hands to bat at the straps that confined him in his seat. "I have, haven't I?"

Instead of replying, Scully just nodded, and turned the engine over. In a few moments they were driving away from Billy's house, and into whatever future awaited them.


An Hour and a Half Later

The realities of juggling both his luggage and a baby nearly overwhelmed Mulder, so for once he allowed himself to be led through the airport by a mildly impatient Scully. To be fair, however, her irritation was with the process of going through the security line and the slow people around them, not him.

Confronted with the need to remove his shoes for some reason, he cast Scully a helpless look.

Predictably, she'd held out her arms, saying, "I'll take him."

"You're a lifesaver." He flashed her a grateful smile when she took the baby so he could strip off his shoes.

Distracted and still not entirely use to the new pageantry surrounding airports and their security, Mulder hadn't paid much attention to the other people in the airport until he'd been reunited with his shoes and had slipped them on without lacing them when someone behind him spoke in such a way that it was clear that they were talking about another baby.

"Oh my goodness, she's gotten so big since I saw her last!" an unseen woman declared.

"She's growing like a weed," the proud parent readily agreed. Mulder wondered if he would ever speak about his baby in such glowing tones. He hoped so.

"How old is she now?" the admirer asked, revealing herself not to be a family member or especially close to the infant's family.

"Fifteen weeks," the father told her.

After smirking to himself over the man giving the baby's age in weeks rather than rounding up to four months, Mulder decided to take a peek and was surprised to see that the baby in question was much smaller than his son.

I wonder if she was premature, Mulder found himself thinking. That would explain why she's so small. And why they are making such a big deal about how much she has grown.

But the father soon shot this theory to pieces. "She's so much bigger than Ava was at this age. The doctor told us that her height and weight are both at the 80th percentile. She's bigger than half the boys he sees her age, he said."

"I hope she isn't going to grow up to be too tall," the older woman commented. "I had a cousin who was six feet tall and it was never easy for her. My aunt worried that she would never marry."

"Oh," the father said nervously. "I think it's a bit too soon to worry about things like that."

"I suppose, dear," the woman said indulgently. If it was obvious to Mulder that she was humoring him, it was obvious to the young father too.

"Mulder?" Scully called, making him look over at him. She was obviously wondering why it was taking him so long to tie his shoes.

After a few more seconds of tugging on his laces Mulder found that he was no longer able to distract himself from the uncomfortable idea that the strangers' conversation had evoked. He looked from his son in Scully's arms to the baby girl one more time and then looked away.

"Are you all right?" Scully asked, sounding a little worried. Something must have shown on his face.

"I'm fine," he said, turning away so she wouldn't realize that he was using her old definition of that word.

To his relief, she didn't press him further.


One thing that Scully had never grown to tolerate very well was waiting for a flight to depart. She really hated the seating around the departure gates, always seemed to be equally uncomfortable at every airport she ever entered. Usually Mulder kept up a lively banter that helped her take her mind off of things, but at the moment Mulder was staring off into space and it began to bother her a little. "Hey." Mulder turned to look at her without any particular interest. "What are you thinking about?" Scully asked.

Mulder didn't seem to notice that the loosely held child sitting on his lap was frowning in confusion because Mulder was ignoring him too, not just her.

For a moment Mulder just frowned at her, unconsciously mirroring his son. "How old do you think he is?" Mulder finally asked her.

She thought back to her Peds rotation during her residency and the more recent chronicle of Matthew Scully's first year of life. "Can I hold him?" she asked, and he nodded. He seemed a bit reluctant to let her, though, which struck her as odd considering she had already held the little boy.

The baby didn't immediately cry when she picked him up, which she thought that it was probably a good omen about their flight and his behavior during it. He weighed somewhat less than Grace did when she and Tommy had come to live with her, and he wasn't as tall either. But he wasn't a lot smaller than that.

Looking over her shoulder at Mulder, she said, "I'd say he's about eight months old. Possibly nine."

"That old?"

"I suppose he could be younger and big for his age," she said doubtfully.

Mulder sighed. "It bothers me whenever I think about how poorly I understood the passage of time while I was...gone."

She nodded, realizing that he'd been thinking about how he'd only been back for a bit over four months. How frightening it must be to know that your memories of entire months were jumbled and gaped. It reminded her uncomfortably of how little she could recall of what had happened to her when Duane Barry had given her to his "aliens."

Scully didn't really like to think much about whether or not she too had been the victim of aliens like Mulder had been, or, as she suspected, the Consortium. For a long while she had obsessed over wanting to know what had really happened, but eventually the realization that knowing the details wouldn't make a damn bit of difference about the outcome had finally put a damper on her frantic enthusiasm.

Of course, it had led to things like impulsively getting a tattoo before that point.

When she realized that Mulder was still frowning, she patted him on the thigh. "Once we get home I'll give you the phone number for Tommy and Grace's pediatrician. I'm sure that she will give the baby a clean bill of health."

"Okay," Mulder sighed.

Scully would have liked to continue the conversation and try to determine what was bothering him, but their group was called to board. Any thoughts she had on the matter dissolved as they wrangled their bags and headed for the gate.


Somehow she and Mulder had ended up boarding the plane close to last. That was okay, because it definitely wasn't a particularly crowded flight, and it seemed unlikely that they would have to bump into other passengers in order to get to two seats together. She had never enjoyed Southwest's first come first served seating, but she didn't mind it so much on this flight.

Scully looked around the airplane, and noted that there were several empty seats. Looking at Mulder she asked, "I don't think anyone else is going to sit in this row. Would you rather have him sit between us?" She was already glancing around, looking for a flight attendant to ask if that would be okay.

Mulder shook his head. "No," he said, looking tense.

Scully shrugged. She couldn't imagine spending an entire flight with a baby on her lap, but perhaps Mulder was just afraid to put him down. She could remember feeling the same way about Grace and Tommy when she first got them. It had been hard to even leave them in their cribs at night, or toddler bed Tommy's case, to sleep.

If Mulder wanted to hold onto the baby, because he was actually, or maybe figuratively, worried that somebody would snatch him away, she really couldn't fault for that. Not after everything Mulder had been through and everything he had done to try to gain custody of the boy again. Or, she mentally corrected herself, for the first time, actually.

"Oh, okay." For a moment she made faces at the baby, enjoying his smile, and cast about for a safe topic to discuss with Mulder. "Have you given any thought to a name?"

"No, not yet," he said, sounding somewhat agitated.

Apparently not a safe topic, she told herself. Instead of continuing the conversation, she just nodded, and reached into the pocket on the back of the seat in front of her for the in-flight magazine. If he didn't want to talk, that was okay. It had been a very long, very emotional day, and even getting to their flight on time had been stressful because returning their rental car had taken forty-five minutes longer than anticipated... so she couldn't blame him for wanting to be left with his thoughts for a while.


Somehow their completely uneventful flight managed to remind her of the first time she had flown with him and they had hit turbulence. At that point they had barely known each other, but he had helped her calm down at a point when she was about ready to jump out of her skin.

At the moment he seemed about ready to flee from his own skin too. And things got even more awkward once their plane arrived and their baggage was gathered.

Scully glanced over at Mulder, who held his son on one arm and was pulling his suitcase with his free hand. "Do you want to come back to my place?" she asked, imaging him introducing the baby to Tommy and Grace; she imagined that Tommy would be quietly accepting of the situation, as usual, and maybe Grace would be very excited ... or jealous. The little girl still wasn't aware that Mulder's real relationship to her was paternal, but that wouldn't make her any more inclined to want to share him.

Mulder paused and let go of the suitcase's handle, and then wiped a hand across his brow. "I'm sorry, no," he said, surprising her. "Just not up to it."

"Oh, okay." He must be tired, she decided. Who wouldn't be? Not only was travel physically tiring, the emotional toll had to be enormous too. "I'll drop you off at your place, then."

"Thanks," he replied quietly.

Once they got to her car Scully took the baby from him and put him in Grace's car seat, but it was immediately obvious that it was too big for him. "You'll have to get a seat his size," she told. "But I guess this will have to do for tonight."

"Yeah."

Thinking about this, she realized that he'd need just about everything for the baby, and she had to fight the impulse to offer to bring him shopping to buy absolutely everything- it wouldn't be fair to drag them from store to store, not when Mulder was clearly exhausted. Besides, he might want to figure it all out on his own.

So she just asked, "Do you want to stop a 7-11 for diapers or anything?" Billy had probably put a few in the diaper bag, but babies went through so many.

For a moment he seemed like he'd say no, but he eventually nodded. "That's probably a good idea."


Half an hour later, Scully decided that not going on a shopping spree had been for the best: Mulder shuffled through the tiny convince store at a pace that rivaled the zombies they'd spent a New Year's Eve with. The clerk noticed and spoke to Scully. "Teething?"

"I'm sorry?" Scully asked, puzzled.

"Just wondering if the baby's keeping him up with teething."

She had no idea if the baby was teething yet. He didn't have teeth yet that she noticed, but probably should have checked when Mulder asked her opinion about his age. She shrugged.

"Single dad, right?" the clerk asked. "I've seen more than a few dead on their feet like this."

Scully stared at him, trying not to let her dismay show. The fact that the baby boy looked nothing like her didn't bother her too much because she'd never held much hope that he'd prove to be hers too, if he was real, but the word "single" did sting. Was it unclear that she was with Mulder? Was she too standoffish with him, was she expecting him to shoulder his burdens too independently?

Her expression must have given away too much of her thoughts because the clerk just muttered, "I guess it's none of my business, huh?"

It was her impulse to apologize, but she found that she just didn't have the energy to either.

Instead, she waited for Mulder to complete his selections and bring them to the front of the store. On impulse she bought a candy bar for herself, thinking that after the day she had had she deserved it.


The ride was quiet, and the heat pouring through the vents and gentle motion of Scully's car served to lull Mulder into a doze. Eventually the car's motion ceased, though.

"We're here," Scully said in a tentative way that suggested that she was unsure if he was awake.

He was awake. At least somewhat. Mulder opened his eyes, which both felt like someone had rubbed a handful of sand into them, and wondered blearily how he'd managed to come so close to falling asleep. It took him almost ten seconds to wonder why the baby was so quiet, and whip his head around to look at him.

The infant was sound asleep, a bubble of spit on his pink lips.

"You okay?" Scully asked quietly.

For no good reason her compassionate tone left him bristling, and he had to fight down irritation. "Thanks for the ride," he said, pleased that his voice wasn't surly, and fully aware that it wasn't a response to her question.

"You're welcome."

His joints felt oddly stiff as he opened the passenger side door and got out. He'd never really learned to relax during flights, even if he'd long since mastered looking like flying was completely blase, and this always led to him feeling like he'd been misfolded once he was finally off a plane.

After Mulder got out of Scully's car, he hesitated for just a moment, but he ignored the impulse to say something meaningful to Scully, and got the baby out of the car instead. And then went around to grab his bag too.

"Thanks again," he told her, shutting the rear door before she had a chance to reply.

She looked at him for a moment, seeming to expect something, and then drove off.

The walk up to the apartment jostled the baby boy enough that he was wide awake and squirming by the time Mulder had reached his own door. "You'll get along fabulously with Dempsey," Mulder muttered as he tried to aim the key at the lock despite all the movement within his arms. "He hates being carried too."

Using his knee, Mulder managed to nudge his wheeled suitcase through the finally open door, and managed not to drop the baby, grateful that Dempsey had not chosen that moment to make a break for freedom through the too widely opened door. It was only as he walked in and used his foot to push the door closed did he realize that he could smell something unfamiliar and faintly offensive. It wasn't the litter box.

"You need to be changed, huh?" Mulder asked. The baby merely stared back at him.

It only took him a moment to realize that not only could he not open the new package of diapers while holding the baby, it would be to his peril if he left the package alone on the floor for even a minute given Dempsey's glee when it came to shredding all rolls of paper towels and toilet paper foolishly left at his eye level.

He put the baby on the floor, saying, "I'll be back in a minute," and stepped into his kitchenette. It was only a few feet away from the living room, but the counter would block his view and it made him nervous - so nervous that his fingers felt stiff and clumsy as he tried to open the package of diapers without tearing the whole thing open. Or maybe the stiffness was from the flight still. After an eternity that was only several seconds long, he was able to extract a diaper without sending a cascade of the other diapers to the floor.

The hard-won diaper fell from his fingers as soon as he returned to the living room. Ignoring him, the baby was up on his hands and knees. He wasn't entirely steady, but it was fairly clear that this was not a first attempt. After a few more seconds the baby crawled forward with relative ease.

"Oh," Mulder whispered. He sat in his chair without even thinking about picking the diaper up from where it had landed. "You shouldn't be able to do this. I know you shouldn't."

All of the facts he had once learned in a childhood development course began to tumble through his mind. Almost no five and a half-month-old baby was capable of crawling up on their hands and knees rather than just scooting on their bellies like an army commando at best. And when he'd been left alone at Skinner's he'd spent hours comparing his scar to that of photos of surgical scars...he hadn't been healed up enough for it to have been four months since his surgery at the time of his return, no matter how old Scully had guestimated the boy's age.

Lifting his head at the sound of Mulder's voice, at first the baby smiled at him, as if to ask 'aren't you proud of me?' but Mulder's lack of encouraging return expression had him frowning in puzzlement almost immediately.

This made Mulder's heart catch in his throat with guilt, and he forced himself to smile down at the little guy.

Dempsey walking into the room provided Mulder a needed distraction, buy when he noticed his cat's body language, he became wary. The stripped tom skirted around the baby, his movements stiff except for a lashing tail. "Hey, Buddy," Mulder called, holding out his hand.

The cat cautiously walked to him, but he gave him a reproachful look. "Don't look like that. This is-" Mulder paused, not sure how to explain the nameless baby to a cat. "Our new mini human."

He didn't look very impressed. Leaping up onto the back of the chair, Dempsey peered down at the baby over his shoulder, making Mulder feel like a pirate, and reminding him of a long-ago conversation with Scully about peg legs. It didn't feel funny now.


Meanwhile...

It didn't surprise Scully to hear the TV on in her apartment as she stood outside the door and juggled her purse and overnight bag in her hands, looking for her key. The thought that her mother could open the door for her if she knocked passed through her mind, but it was after both kids' bedtimes, so she didn't want to risk waking them. Not when she had so much to talk to her mother about.

After another few seconds she managed to find the key and insert it in the lock, and there was a soft click as the lock disengaged. It hadn't been very loud, and the door opened even quieter than that, but Maggie was staring expectantly at her from the couch so it had been loud enough. Cringing, Scully looked around, more than half expecting one or both kids to run into the room too.

As if reading her mind, Maggie said, "They're both asleep" and patted the couch cushion next to her.

Scully offered her mother a wan smile and sat in the arm chair instead, so she could look her mother in the eye as they spoke. "Thanks, Mom."

"You're welcome. I'm glad that your flight came in on time-" she held up a hand, warding off comments. "Not that I would've minded staying longer, it's just that you've had a long day as it is."

"You have no idea," Scully said tiredly.

Maggie Scully instantly looked concerned. "Did things not work out?"

"Oh no, they did."

"Well, that's good."

Scully studied her mother's face for a moment before deciding to plunge into the deep end. "Mom, there's something I need to tell you."

"What?" Maggie asked, looking more alert all of the sudden.

Just tell her, Scully demanded of herself the second anxiety threatened to overwhelm her resolve. "I think you have the right to know what Mulder's been looking for."

"Answers, I thought," Maggie offered, looking slightly puzzled that her daughter would think that she needed to know. "About what happened to him."

"Yes and no," Scully said with a sigh. "Mulder has a scar along his side. I didn't really wonder too hard about it, at least not until I accidentally brushed against it and caused him to freak out so badly he immediately left and didn't talk to me for days," she explained, deciding that glossing over the fact that she and Mulder had been having sex when she'd touched the scar was for the best.

"That's..." Maggie trailed off, apparently at a loss about how to say something polite about his odd behavior.

"Eventually he came over to apologize, and explained that there was something he hadn't told anyone about that was tearing him apart inside." Scully crossed her leg, which she was aware was an unconscious diversionary tactic, and forced herself to go on. "The very last thing on Earth I expected him to tell me was that he thought he'd had a child while he was missing."

To her credit, Maggie only looked stunned for a moment, and quickly recovered herself. "I see."

"No," Scully sighed. "You probably don't. He thought that the scar was from the baby being removed from his body."

"He thought he was the one to carry the child?" Maggie asked, this time less able to hide her astonishment.

Apparently she'd immediately thought that he'd had a voluntary relationship with another abductee. It was hard for Scully to blame her for jumping to that conclusion because in absence of other evidence, that's where 99.98% of people's thoughts would turn. The other .02% of people were more like Mulder's late friend Max or hers, Penny, and even they probably wouldn't have been the first to bring up the possibility of a man carrying a child.

"Yes, he did. And when we had some scans run, there were some abnormalities that, while they didn't suggest that he really had, they didn't entirely rule it out, either. He'd definitely had abdominal surgery while he was missing, for example," Scully said, thinking about whether or not to mention the scaring on Mulder's liver too. She decided it was too graphic for that hour, and skipped it to avoid giving her mother vivid nightmares. "After what they'd done to me, I'd be a fool to discount out of hand the possibility of them having other technology to tamper with human reproduction."

"So you believe that this child exists too?" Maggie asked carefully.

"I struggled at first, but eventually I came to," Scully explained. "And I agreed to help him in any way I could... to recover the baby if possible. Even if the baby turned out not to be as human as Emily had been."

Her mother shuddered, and Scully hoped that it was because she was thinking about a small gray-hued baby, and not out of distaste over being reminded of Tommy and Grace's late older sister. "Oh."

"And we did," Scully added quietly. "We found it."

Maggie's eyes flew to her face. "You did!"

"Yes. And thankfully, he looks like a human infant. Until we saw him, and I realized that he didn't look any different than Emily, I hadn't realized how scared I was that this baby would turn out to be monstrous."

"It's a boy?" Maggie asked, still sounding dazed.

"Yes." Scully thought about how the baby had been sleeping in Mulder's arms the last she'd seen of either of them that night.

"Then Grace has a little brother. Half-brother," Maggie quickly added.

"I guess she does," Scully replied, considering the idea for the first time. Only then did it really sink in that sooner than later she'd have to have a child appropriate version of this same conversation with her children. Not to say that she'd tell them about the familial entanglements between Grace, Mulder, and the baby, but she'd need to explain that Mulder had a baby, that she'd been gone to help him get it, and hope they weren't yet savvy enough to ask too many questions about the baby's origins. Her earlier imaginings of introducing the baby to the kids hadn't taken nearly enough into account.

"What does he look like?" Maggie eventually asked. From her tone it was clear Maggie was really hoping that the little boy looked normal. This was not a request that she reconfirm that he did not look like a gray, Scully realized, but a concern there were plenty of genetic disorders that made 100% human children look unusual, so did he, with such a questionable alphabet soup of DNA, look typical as well as human.

Scully didn't blame her - as soon as she came to the reluctant conclusion that he might really exist, it was one of her biggest hopes for him. Perhaps she should have worried more about his health or his IQ but really, most of all she'd hoped that he wouldn't get teased on the playground for being too odd looking.

"Oh," Scully murmured, reaching for her digital camera. "I took some pictures." She opened the slideshow and passed the phone to her mother.

Maggie studied the images intently before looking up at her. "I bet Fox looked a lot like this as a baby himself."

"Do you think so? Billy Miles thought he was chip off the old block too."

"I do. It's nice."

"It is?"

Maggie smiled at her. "Grace looks just like you. It's nice for him to have a mini-him too, don't you think?"

"I suppose," Scully answered. The trite insistences that children are one's immortality that filled literature had never really resonated with her, so perhaps she was atypically underwhelmed that Grace was her in miniature. Tommy was too, of course, probably bearing a closer resemblance to his maternal uncles than he did his unknown father.

"It will be strange for you, to go back to interacting with an infant," Maggie commented, reminding Scully how close in age she and all her siblings were. Maggie had a three-year-old and an infant at the same time, but she'd also had an eighteen-month-old at the time too.

"A lot of this is pretty strange, Mom," she muttered.

"I'll bet," Maggie said, and swooped in with a hug. "But I want you to remember one thing for me."

"What's that?" Scully asked into her mother's shoulder.

"Back when it was your turn, he'd flown all the way to California to support you, even though your brother hated him, and even though you weren't anything more than friends."

The first time, Scully found herself thinking. The second time he'd been gone and she'd been left to deal with her two children alone. It wasn't his fault, but still...

"I know, and I love him for it," Scully settled on saying. It was true, even if the statement left a lot out.

"Good. Make sure that whatever happens now, you make him love you for your part in it too."

It had been on the tip of her tongue to promise that she would, but she paused and gave her mother a look. "You say that like you don't think the hard part is over now," she remarked, wondering if she was reading her mother wrong.

"It's not," Maggie said quietly. "Planned for or not, you know that children have a way of completely upending your life. You know that."

For half a second old resentment bubbled up to the surface, reminding her that she'd been robbed of the chance to know what it was like to have a child you planned for, but she did see her mother's point. "I'm sure he's up for it."

"Are you?" Maggie asked mildly.

The question made Scully wonder just how much she'd told her mother about Mulder's PTSD. That wouldn't keep him from being a good parent. She hoped.


Later

That night Mulder remembered his grandfather telling him about how had been put into a drawer as a baby because his great-grandparents had had no money to buy a crib. It hadn't been splendid, but the drawer had proved a serviceable enough bed. Grandpa Mulder had meant as a newborn, and it was clear that even if the baby could fit into a dresser drawer he was far too active to keep in one.

So that night, Mulder moved the mattress of the guest room bed onto the floor, and put the baby on it towards the wall. He figured that his own body should block the baby from getting very far if he proved to turn out to be adventurous at night.

What he didn't do, was consider buying a crib.

Not when he had no idea how long he'd need one.

Ever since the encounter in the airport Mulder found himself dwelling on the fact that the baby seemed to be large for his age. Once he'd seen him up on his hands and knees, his concerns took a darker turn. Was it possible that the baby was like Emily? This was something that couldn't keep himself from thinking about.

Scully had been abducted in August, and she found herself the mother of the child was born that same November. They never discussed the fact that Emily had apparently grown to full term in just a handful of months... much sooner than a fully human child would. It was unlikely that a totally human child could under any circumstances have developed at that pace, so he thought, and had always thought, that it must be her alien DNA that had sped up her gestation.

He and Scully had never discussed it, but when Scully had called him from California and told him that she'd discovered that she had a child, his initial reaction had been not to believe. It hadn't been her he'd doubted because she would never lie to him, but his concern had been that someone had lied to her. That someone was playing a cruel hoax on a woman who desperately wanted a child. Until he'd seen the DNA results for himself, he hadn't really believed, even though he'd already flown to her by that point.

Thinking of her DNA forced his thoughts back to the baby's development. Who knew how long aliens developed in their own mothers' wombs, or if in fact female aliens actually had wombs. He supposed that they must, but the thought of two aliens procreating was something that even he didn't have the stomach for thinking about for very long.

As Mulder lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, his agitated brain kept circling back to one unpleasant thought: he'd seen an analysis of Emily's DNA. Her DNA had been relatively human. The girl hadn't been half human and half alien, though one might have thought that was how hybridization worked. Instead there had been alien DNA in some of her cells and not others. It was similar to a sometimes milder form of Down syndrome, often called mosaic Down syndrome, because only some cells were affected by trisomy, and others had the same number of chromosomes as everyone else's cells. Because of this there had been nothing alarming in her DNA profile, at least not to those who had done the tests, and there was nothing that had caused any sort of alarm. Even Mulder wasn't quite cynical enough to worry that the DNA test had possibly been intercepted by Consortium goons - after all, the goons would've removed any trace of alien DNA if they had a chance to.

Instead, they had just given Scully the results of the DNA test as if Emily had been a normal human girl. Other than a handful of abnormal cells, the scans he'd seen looked like every other set of DNA he'd seen...except for Scully's branched DNA after her abduction. Emily's had looked more human than hers. And that was what worried Mulder the most.

His child was half alien. You really couldn't get any more hybrid than that. And if Emily had developed so quickly in utero, what did that mean for his son? How long the baby had developed didn't really concerned Mulder, although perhaps it would explain why he had so few memories of gestating the baby. If it had been quick, if it had been really quick... maybe it was the timeframe and not just trauma that caused him to not remember much.

His biggest concern was not in fact with the baby's uterine development, but development now. If he was already large for his age, would that mean that he was going to have a rapid life? How long could a baby live if he was developing at approximately twice the rate of a normal child? Would that mean he would only live thirty or forty years? Or would the child be perhaps even less fortunate that that?

One other thing bothered him to think about Emily. What if the shots she'd been given had not just been keeping her vicious form of anemia in check? He couldn't help but wonder if there had been something in the monthly injection that had been keeping her rapid growth under control too.

The doctor who had treated Emily was gone. A frenetic search of the internet for hours the night before proved that there was no trace of him on the internet, so he might as well have stepped off the planet himself. If Calderon had kept the girl from aging faster out of the womb than she had within it, his child was doomed. There was no one left to help.

But what would he have done if Calderon was still reachable? Bundled the baby up against both winter chill and prying eyes, and frantically brought him to him, confessing his fears that the baby would someday shed his utterly human husk in favor of...something else, turning into a monster like Wilbur Whateley who'd grown to man-size by age ten, or that doomed half-alien girl from Species who'd grown much faster. As an angst-ridden adolescent the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood had brought him a macabre-tinged comfort, but now thinking of Lovecraft's tales sent a wave of nausea through him.

Even if the doctor who'd treated Emily was embroiled in the Consortium's dark deeds, he'd still very likely react to Mulder's concern the same way everyone in did Lavinia Whateley from Lovecraft's Dunwich Horror. Then again, Lavinia had probably been too afraid to show off too many the changes that time wrought in her rapidly-growing boy...

Even without the threat of unpleasant tentacles barely concealed by clothing, Mulder couldn't picture anyone being able to sooth his concerns... not after the way things had been left with Calderon.

Thinking about Emily's DNA led to thinking about her blood. Her green, noxious, blood. If he went into the kitchen and got a knife, perhaps that small one a person was supposed to use to par fruit with though he never had, and he made a tiny nick on the baby's finger, would his blood be red? Or green? The two colors most strongly associated with Christmas, Mulder observed, but instead of green signifying everlasting life it would spell death. The irony was not lost on him.

The baby beside him stretched in his sleep and made a small grunting sound before falling silent once more. This more than anything dragged Mulder out of his grim reverie. For however long he was with him, the baby was alive and needed his care.

Mulder held himself still for a moment, wondering if the boy would wake up, and then relaxed when he didn't. It would do neither of them any good for him to continue to agitate on the mystery of the boy's potential lifespan, so he told himself firmly that he must sleep. Eventually he did.


It would have been nice to wake slowly after a long, stressful day, but the sun had barely risen when Mulder was startled out of a sound sleep by a blow to his nose. Fearing another attack, his eyes popped open, and he was slightly startled to see that it had been a tiny fist that had smacked him awake.

"Hey, so you weren't a dream after all," he said through a yawn.

The fact that his words were slurred by the yawn didn't bother the baby, who was asleep again with his offending fist now resting on Mulder's shoulder. Sighing, Mulder put his head back down... at least until he noticed that his toes were brushing something furry.

Craning his head as much as he could without dislodging the baby, he was barely able to make out the curled up form of Dempsey at his feet. He had no idea when the cat had joined them in the room, but could make out the slightly open door in his peripheral line of sight.

"This could be a lot worse," he muttered out loud before closing his eyes again.


All of his resolve to keep his mind focused on the present fell away when Scully called that morning. Fortunately he had already made the baby a bottle when the phone rang, and the little guy had proven to be able to hold it himself. Mulder tried not to think about whether or not that was developmentally appropriate.

Scully sounded relatively cheerful considering how tired she must have still been after yesterday. "How did last night go?" she asked.

"Okay," Mulder said noncommittally. "Dempsey wasn't pleased when he first noticed the baby, but he acted better than I thought he would."

She paused for a moment, and he could imagine her wondering why he was so concerned about his cat's reaction to the baby. But honestly, it had been a worry. It wasn't as though the landlord would discover the baby and scratch them across the face leaving scars that would need plastic surgery, after all. And other than hers, who else's reactions did he need to concern himself with anyway?

"Where did you put him down to sleep?" Scully asked, being practical. Being a mother.

"We both slept in the guestroom last night. I took the mattress off the frame, and we slept that way. I figured it wasn't very far to fall if he happened to roll off."

"Well, that's true..." she murmured. He could tell by her tone that she didn't entirely approve.

"Did you want to shop for a crib today?"

"No!" he said, worried about how forceful that response sounded to his own ears. "Um, no thank you."

She didn't get it. He knew this because her very next question was, "Oh, would you like to borrow Grace's, then?" Her friendly, slightly concerned look suggested that her thoughts had turned to expense, perhaps concern that he'd spent too much on travel over the past few months to be able to readily afford to spend lavishly on the baby now that he'd finally procured him.

Mulder worried his lower lip in his teeth, agonized that he couldn't express his real concerns with her. She'd been more than tolerant already, but how could he tell her that he was terrified that his child would continue to grow an uncontrollable rate. What had Lavinia Whateley thought when she'd realized that her son wasn't growing the way a boy should? Lovecraft described her as keeping to herself until her untimely death, and little wonder. "No, thank you, he said after too long a pause had grown between them.

Okay," she said, sounding extremely uncertain.

Mulder was tempted to ask her if he could call her back later, but then, he would be obliged to call her back later. Casting about for something to say rather than end the conversation prematurely, Mulder asked, "did you have that phone number for your pediatrician?"

This it seemed like a safe thing to say, because he knew that Scully, Billy, and Theresa were right. He would have to bring the baby in for a checkup. He dreaded it, but the odds of the doctor being able to give him bad news were pretty slim. It wasn't as though the doctor would do a DNA test, and show him where tiny time bombs in the boy's genetic makeup meant that he would die young...

"Oh! You know, I do. Do you have a pen?" Scully said. She sounded relieved to change the subject too.

"Yup. Fire when ready," he teased. She recited the phone number and he wrote it down.

"I'm sure that Doctor Grover will give him a clean bill of health," she enthused.

"Doctor Grover?" Mulder asked. "I'm sure the kids love that."

"You would think so," Scully said. "So far neither of them seems to connect her to the Sesame Street muppet."

"Perhaps they are put in mind of our twenty-second president instead," he suggested.

"Mulder... They're both smart, don't get me wrong, but neither of them are that smart," she said dourly.

"For now. But just you wait, when I buy them a children's book about American presidents, they'll knock your socks off."

Just then, the baby began to fuss. It must of been obvious, because Scully said, "well, it sounds like I better let you go for now. Talk to you later."

"Love you, talk to you later."

Mulder turned and looked at his son, and noticed that the bottle was now empty. "That wasn't bad timing, kiddo. Keep it up."

If the baby knew what he was talking about, he didn't let on. Instead, he continued to cry until Mulder pick them up and patted him on the back to elicit a gigantic burp. For a second he wanted to believe that needing to be burped was evidence that the baby was merely really big for his age, but he remembered reading an article that said some babies needed to be burped all the way up until the age of eight months.

"I really don't know about you," Mulder murmured into the baby's soft brown hair.


Mulder was surprised when someone knocked on his door later that morning. When he opened the door and saw Frohike standing there, he frowned a little and asked, "Did Scully send you over?"

"Why would Scully have sent me?" Frohike asked blankly.

"Because of the baby."

"What baby??"

Mulder yawned and resisted banging his head against the door frame. "Why are you here, Melvin?"

''That's not important," Frohike said, waving off Mulder's question. "What baby? Did you knock the lovely Dana up?" he asked, glowering.

"What? No. I haven't knocked anyone up," Mulder said snippily.

It was irrational but it bothered him that Frohike still carried a torch for Scully. In a grumpier mood he might have pointed out that his short friend had never had a chance with her, so having his feathers ruffled at the thought of a child between them was ridiculous. Of course, if he really wanted to devastate Frohike he could discuss Grace's paternity.

"Oh." Frohike looked no less confused and no more satisfied by this. "Then what the hell baby are you talking about?"

Mulder opened the door wide enough for the short man to see into the apartment. "That baby," he said, pointing at the infant who was currently corralled by milk crates strategically placed around him.

"I'll be damned," Frohike muttered. "I figured you were going to show me your new kitten or something."

"Not a kitten."

"Where'd you find him?" Frohike gave him an expectant look which almost immediately wilted. "You did find him, didn't you? Tell me that this is a Silas Marner type story, Mulder, not one where you cheated on Dana."

"I didn't cheat on anybody," Mulder said, sounding annoyed. "I was abducted by aliens. Who the hell do you think I would have cheated on her with?"

"I guess it wasn't really social place, up there," Frohike said sheepishly.

"You got that right. I was basically locked up in what was the equivalent of solitary confinement. Although, instead of being locked away from the other prisoners, I was kept in a box and not fed very much by the aliens."

"Jesus, man."

"Yeah it was paradise," Mulder snarked.

Looking slightly braver, Frohike asked, "And where did the kid come from?"

"Do you remember me telling you about the first case that Scully and I ever investigated? Those catatonic kids in Oregon. Well, two of them were on the same ship as I was. And they somehow managed to rescue him when the ship crashed not too long ago. Billy contacted Scully looking for me, and the rest is history."

This did not satisfy Frohike's curiosity. Shaking his head he said, "No, man. Where did he come from?" in a way that made it obvious that he was more interested in the boy's origin story than his recent travel itinerary.

In response Mulder abruptly yanked up his shirt. The ridge of scar tissue across his side stood out in sharp relief against his otherwise smooth skin.

Frohike didn't say anything. His eyes were glued to the scar. "Out of you?" he asked after a hard swallow.

"Out of me," Mulder repeated grimly.

Frohike reacted with squeamish one of the few times Mulder had ever seen; he honestly wondered if he should hand him the waste basket next to his recliner. Frohike took a couple of deep breaths before asking, "And how did he get in there exactly," he asked, his eyes cutting to the baby on the floor.

"Frohike, your guess is as good as mine. I have no fucking idea what they did to me."

"I don't know man. Maybe it's for the best that you don't know the details. If it was me, I don't think I would want to know."

For a moment Mulder just stared at him. It was on the tip of his tongue to lash out and say that Frohike damn well would want to know what happened to him, but he didn't.

Maybe Frohike honestly wouldn't have wanted to know. They were probably millions of people who, in the same situation, would rather not know, ever. They would just be happy that the horrible experience was over. And be glad that they could resume what was left of their life.

It always startled him to think about how different other people were. Not just from himself but from each other in general. And it wasn't just people who didn't know each other, hadn't grown up together. There were siblings who had completely different tastes despite being raised in the exact same household by the exact same people at the exact same time. Twins even. The thought of twins made Mulder shudder, because he was certainly glad the unnamed baby was a singleton-

"Hey, you okay, man?" Frohike then asked. "You have this distant look on your face like you were thinking about something terrible..." he trailed off, giving him an uncertain look.

Mulder shook his head lightly. "I was just thinking about twins. And how glad I am that the baby wasn't."

To his surprise Frohike nodded. "Yeah, I can see that. If you only know where one of them was..."

That wasn't at all what he meant, but that was even worse. That was so incredibly much worse.

I have to believe he's the only one or I will go completely insane, Mulder calmly told himself. So very calmly. It was a fleeting thought, but he realized it was true. For the first time, and probably what would be the only time, he found himself minutely grateful that he'd been the one to carry the child. Had he only been a donor, who knew how many women could have been inseminated with his spawn.

"Mulder?" Frohike's voice was small, worried.

Mulder shook his head, as if to clear of cobwebs. "Sorry. I was just thinking about what it would have been like if women had carried him and other babies like him."

"You don't think they did?" Frohike asked.

"No," he said firmly enough to discontinue that line of thought.

"Right," Frohike muttered. "Why on earth would they do things the normal way when they could hurt people like you instead?"

Mulder smiled at them, but it was quite ghastly. "You can almost imagine them at this tall," Mulder said, holding his hand at not quite shoulder level, "tearing the wings off of intergalactic flies, can't you?"

His friend nodded. "I guess you should be glad that they didn't burn you with a magnifying glass."

"I guess."

After a moment or two Frohike looked up at him. "So, fatherhood. None of us saw that coming."

"I guess not," Mulder said. "At least not like this."

"Huh, no." Frohike looked chagrined. "At least not without having thrown you a bachelor party first."

"Right."

To his surprise, Frohike continued in this vein. "Maybe you'll still have one," he suggested.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"I don't know, man. You've got a kid, Scully's got two kids. Why wouldn't you raise them together, instead of both doing the hard, single parent thing? You can get married, kill two birds with one stone."

To say that Frohike suggestion was surprising to him would be an understatement. The thought had of course crossed his mind, and he wouldn't be surprised if it'd also crossed Scully's, but to hear Frohike suggest it...

"Too soon?" Frohike asked.

This time Mulder smile was barely there. "I think so."

"Well, the kids are young. You have time to figure these things out."

"Yeah..." He suddenly remembered something that Billy and Theresa had suggested. "Speaking of figuring things out while they're young, do you have time to create a birth certificate for this guy?"

"We should," Frohike agreed. "What's his name, and who do we say is the mother?"

This through Mulder for a loop. He didn't know why he hadn't thought of these things as being pertinent pieces of information, but somehow he hadn't. "Um. I'm going to have to get back to you on that."

"About the mom, or the name?" Frohike asked.

Mulder squirmed uncomfortably. "Both."

"He doesn't have a name?" Frohike looked incredulous. On some level, he didn't blame him.

"Not yet."

Frohike opened his mouth, and then shut it for several seconds. When he spoke again, he looks sympathetic. "I guess you couldn't pronounce what they called him on the ship, huh?"

"Right."

By the time Frohike left, Mulder realized that he was going to have to find something to call the baby other than "the baby" or he would have trouble when he called to make an appointment for that pediatrician.

Glancing at the baby who was more than happy to play with cat toy that Mulder hadn't thought would be dangerous, he decided that the name he gave the baby didn't have to be his real name. He could think of it as a codename, to be changed later once he figured out if the kid would live long enough to ever respond to a name.


Once he had called the pediatrician's office, and spoke to the woman making appointments, Mulder sincerely hoped that he would not meet her in person when he brought the baby in. His responses to what should have been simple questions probably left her wondering if he had some sort of intellectual disability, or perhaps if he was just merely mildly insane.

Hanging the phone up, he winced as he remembered the conversation that he had just finished.

"Good morning, you have reached the Silver Creek medical offices. How may help you?" a very professional sounding woman had asked him.

"Are you accepting new patients?" he asked nervously. "My... Best friend gave me her doctor's name. Well, I've course mean her children's doctor's name. Doctor Grover?"

"Yes, Doctor Grover is currently accepting new patients. You have a child that you wish to be seen?"

It was hard not to ascribe suspicion to her tone. Was she asking about a child because he already seemed so confused that she was worried that he might himself wish to be seen? "Yes, I have a baby son who needs a primary care physician."

"Great. How old is your son?"

Mulder thought about this for what seemed like several minutes, before hesitantly suggesting "Eight months?"

"Eight months," she repeated evenly, as if he hadn't just sounded like he had been asking her the baby's age. "And what's his name?"

"Well... His last name is Mulder, like mine, but..."

"But?" she had repeated patiently.

"What if I change his name later?"

"I'm sorry?"

"I'm calling him Adam right now," he invented right then and there, thinking about the Adams and the Eves that he and Scully had once investigated, though he wasn't sure if such an association was healthy. "But honestly, I'm not sure I like that. I may decide to call him something else later."

The woman's puzzled silence all but suggested that he had stumped her. "If you change his name, you can just let us know at the office the next time you visit." He had to admire her for responding in a way that suggested that people randomly changing their child's name was something that the practice dealt with on a regular basis. If he was a betting man, he would bet hard cash that they had never had anyone change a baby's name on them, at least not when they were probably about eight months old. Changing a name seemed more like something you would do before the baby was a couple of weeks old and even knew what their own name was. Not that he was sure eight-month-old babies knew their names either.

"Okay, I will do that then."

"I just looked at the calendar, and it looks like we have an opening at 10 AM on Tuesday. With that suit you?"

He could tell from the way she said it that she was hoping that he could give her a straight answer to this question at least. Throwing her a bone he said, "Sure. That sounds great."

"Excellent," she said sounding relieved. "We'll see you, and... Adam, on Tuesday."

"See you then," he said cheerfully, before hanging up the phone, and covering his face with both hands.

His hands were still on his face when he realized that he could feel something hard and furry nudging his ankles. Looking down, he gave Dempsey a weak smile. "Demps, that woman probably thinks I'm a moron."

Dempsey stopped head-butting Mulder, and looked at him. The cat slowly blinked at him.

"You do have a point, what do I care if she thinks I'm an idiot?"

Already bored of the conversation, Dempsey stretched up until Mulder reached down to scratch him on the head. Mulder obligingly continued to offer him scritches until the baby woke up crying.


Saturday

It was snowing, and Scully let the kids sleep in. She was sitting in her robe and watching the snow fall when she decided that she'd given Mulder long enough to adjust to his new role of fatherhood. Then she grimaced, and wondered where she got that idea from - it had taken her more than a handful of days to adjust to being a mom, after all.

Still, she hoped that she'd given him enough space. This thought in mind, she picked up the phone and dialed Mulder. "Mulder," he answered, and she wondered if the note of wariness she thought she detected was really there, or if it was just her imagination. The thought that it was really there bothered her because she knew he used caller ID.

"Good morning. How are you?"

"I'm okay. How are you?"

"Same old, same old," she said, wishing that her response wasn't so damn insipid. "I was thinking...It's supposed to stop snowing any time now. Would you like to bring the baby over for lunch?"

"No," he said, quickly and decisively. And then, before her disappointment really even got the chance to register, he asked, "Have you told Tommy and Grace about the baby yet?"

"Not yet," Scully replied, feeling uncertain. It was obvious that he wanted the answer to be no, but she wasn't sure why.

"Good."

"Good?" she repeated, not bothering to hide her dismay.

Mulder sighed. "Look, I just want to make sure that he's healthy before we do, okay?"

"Okay," she said automatically. But then she thought for a moment, about his response, and his distantness. "Mulder... is there something wrong with him that you're not telling me?" she asked as gently as she could.

Was that it? Was there something wrong with the baby that he hadn't been able to bring himself to tell her? This had her thoughts spiraling unpleasantly: there was just so much that they didn't know about what effects being on an alien ship could have on a person. Did Penny and the others that she associated with die because of what had been done to them? Even if they hadn't really left Earth - something Scully thought of as a matter of debate even still - at the very least they'd been subjected to the use of non-terrestrial technology. All of those poor women had died of cancer. And they hadn't spent their whole lives amongst such technology...

After what felt like forever, Mulder finally answered her. "He seems healthy, Scully. But what if he's not?"

For half a second she wondered if there was something specific that spooked him, and then realized that of course there was. Emily. Emily, who had been adorable, and sweet, and who had at the moment Scully had met her seemed the picture of health.

"Mulder. It doesn't have to be like Emily," she said quietly. But what she was thinking was, just because I suffered a devastating loss doesn't mean you're destined to, too. Our fates may be intertwined, but they're not mirror images.

"I...I just want to make sure he's healthy first," he merely reiterated. "I've made him an appointment with your Doctor Grover for this week, so I promise it shouldn't be too much longer."

"Okay," Scully found herself agreeing. She didn't want to, but it wasn't her baby, so she didn't have a leg to stand on when it came to contradicting his wishes.

"Thank you."

"You're-" she started to say, but he'd already hung up.

"Are you sad?" a voice asked a moment later. Scully blinked, and looked over her shoulder. Tommy stood there, looking faintly worried.

"I'm okay, baby," Scully said, holding her arms out to him.

"Are you sure?" he asked, making her forget for a moment that he was only five. How could he be so empathetic that young?

"I'm sure. Everything is going to be just fine."

She really hoped it would be, for all of their sakes.

"Uh huh. What're we doing today?"

"I was thinking that could go to the library, and then get hot cocoa. How does that sound?"

"Great!" Tommy said brightly. "Can we get that book about the animals that live in a mitten?"

"If someone else hasn't checked it out, sure," Scully told him, thinking about the popularity of that Jan Brett book. The kids both loved the story, she recalled, and it made her wonder if they should swing by the bookstore and buy a copy of their own. Grace was surprisingly good about turning pages gently, so maybe it was time to buy them more of their favorite books.

"Goodie. I'll tell Grace."

"Thanks." Scully wondered if she should buy the baby a board book too... but Mulder was acting so strangely about him, she wasn't sure if the gesture would go over well.


Sunday

The knock on Mulder's door made his stomach feel wobbily, and he was reluctant to go to the door and open it. He knew he was being ridiculous because his visitor was there at his request, but still...

Mulder mentally berated himself for being an idiot, and opened the door. "Thanks for coming to see me," he greeted the man.

"No problem," his landlord answered. After he followed Mulder into the apartment, he said, "You said there was something urgent you needed to speak to me about?"

"Yes," Mulder told him, gesturing to indicate that his landlord could take a seat. They both sat at Mulder's small kitchen table. "It's about the terms of my lease."

This had the landlord looking alarmed. "You know a lease is a binding agreement, don't you?" he asked, sounding equal parts worried and annoyed. "It's no small thing to abruptly break one. There are potential penalties-"

Mulder held up a hand to stop his flow of words. "I have no interest in moving so that's why I needed to speak to you."

"I don't understand."

"When I signed the lease, I was supposed to be the only person living here. But circumstances have changed-"

"You want to add a girlfriend to your lease?" the landlord predicted, probably based upon experience with other tenants.

"No," Mulder said, shaking his head. "My son."

"Your son?" The landlord looked around, as if he expected a child to appear in the room.

"Yes. I've just gotten sole custody of my baby son."

"Oh."

At that very moment Dempsey managed to get the bedroom door open, and escaped from where Mulder had shut him up. He stalked into the room and came to a stop three feet from where the landlord sat. Mulder thought the cat was smirking at him.

Mulder swallowed hard. "And my ex's cat."

Dempsey gave the landlord what Mulder could swear was a challenging look, and he could practically feel the need to find a new place to live ready itself to coil and strike.

For several seconds the landlord stared at the big grey tom's torn ear. Then he looked over at Mulder. "I don't normally allow pets, but you're a good tenant. Quiet, keep to yourself, and I know you haven't had an easy time of things-" Mulder wondered if Skinner had once said something to him, or if he was basing the observation on his thinness. "-so I'll make an exception for you."

"Oh, thank you," Mulder said, relief flooding his voice.

"Now, where's that baby?" the landlord asked. When Mulder seemed surprised, he grinned at him. "I love kids. I've got seven of my own, you know."

"I had no idea."

"Oh yeah," he continued happily. "My oldest just got married, and the youngest, twins, are in the 8th grade. They grow up fast, you know."

All of Mulder's happiness over the landlord's cooperativeness was dissolved in a wave of stomach acid. No one knew better than he did how fast some kids grew up.


Silver Creek Medical
Tuesday, 10 AM

The doctor's office was much larger than Mulder had anticipated, and the map in the lobby was far less helpful too. He found himself wandering what seemed to be a rabbits' warren of loosely connected hallways until only a minute or two before the baby's appointment.

He was half out of breath when he rushed up to the receptionist desk and said "my son Adam has a 10 o'clock appointment."

"What brings you in today, Mister Mulder?" the nurse at the reception desk asked. To his relief she didn't give him any crap about being nearly late.

Mulder shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably, and only stopped when the baby whined in annoyance. "Oh, um, he needs a checkup."

"Who has he seen in the past?" she asked, a perfectly reasonable question for which he had no logical answer.

"I don't know," Mulder said, figuring that simplicity was the best response.

She looked concerned. "You don't know?" Perhaps she was thinking that his wife typically handled baby doctor visits.

"No."

The nurse tilted her head, considering this for a moment. "Is he adopted?" She looked from the baby to him, seeing the obvious similarities, which probably explained her doubtful tone.

"No," he repeated. The indignant thought that he might've been, that someone else might have ended up raising him had Billy and Theresa not rescued him, and the even more vile thought that the someone might not have necessarily been human, occurred to him. And made him bite his lip to keep from saying anything about that.

"Okay... We'll still need to get as much of a family history as you can provide, though." She handed him a clipboard. He wondered what he was supposed to do with it, considering holding onto the baby took a free hand.

Clearly recognizing his dilemma, the nurse smiled. "You can sit him on the floor. We have somebody vacuum twice a day."

"Thanks," he said, although he didn't mean it.

Fortunately, the waiting room was mostly empty, so he didn't have to worry about the baby being coughed or sneezed on. He did, however, have to worry about him making a break for it considering how well he crawled. For the most part, though, Mulder did manage to corral him as he filled out a family history that was entirely of the boy's paternal side of the family.

He had just put the pen down on the clipboard when his name was called, so he scooped up the baby, handed the woman he was following the clipboard, and walked into an exam room.

Mulder watched nervously as the woman picked up the baby, and began to take measurements. "As soon as I'm done taking his height and weight, I let the doctor know that you're waiting to see her. It shouldn't be too long; for once appointments are running on time."

"Thanks," he said, not really happy about the whole situation until she had returned his son to his arms.

"The nurse said that you don't know who he has seen in the past," Doctor Grover said. She looked like this was difficult to believe.

"I don't," Mulder said evenly. "I've only just gotten custody of him, so I don't know much of anything about his medical history until now."

"Oh," she said nodding knowingly. Now she was beginning to understand, and he thought it was unlikely that he was the first parent she had dealt with in that situation. Although, he was sure that she hadn't had other patients whose child's previous guardian had been a Reticulin. "Well, the only real difference that's going to make right now is that we'll have to assume that he hasn't had any shots yet."

"Is it dangerous to receive the same vaccination twice?" Mulder asked.

"There isn't any more risk getting it twice than there is getting the first time," Grover explained, then went on to reassure him. "And the risks are very low with the types of vaccines we give infants."

"Okay."

"You're single father?" Grover asked.

"Yes," he said reluctantly. The thought of what Frohike had suggested about him and Scully teaming up to raise their children crossed his mind.

"Well, that happens," Grover said, sounding fairly friendly. "But I take it that you and his mother are estranged?"

For a moment he almost demanded to know what made her think that, and worse, he had the impulse to accuse her of being involved somehow, through the Consortium or otherwise, but then he realized that she thought that because he had told her that he had no idea what his son's medical history was.

"Yes very. We even had an intermediary deliver the baby to me when I assumed custody." He hoped that it sounded like it was a painful estrangement, so painful that she wouldn't want to talk about it any further.

Doctor Grover winced sympathetically. "Why don't we just begin the exam now, and see how he is?"

"All right," Mulder said, forcing himself not to sound reluctant. Of course he wanted her to examine the baby. That's why he had brought him in.

As the doctor examined the baby, Mulder found himself fascinated that the baby kept seeking him out with his eyes. Even though they barely knew each other, it was him that the baby looked for reassurance from. And he did his best to look like he thought everything was going to be just fine, for the baby sake. This didn't seem to keep the little guy calm.

"I have to tell you, Mister Mulder," the doctor began, and he felt his heart in his throat. "That you have a very healthy baby here."

"I do?" he asked, too surprised to train the doubt out of his response.

"Sure do. I know that you and your ex aren't on good terms, but she seems to have done a very good job with him up until now."

The thought of the aliens being called his "ex" almost had him laughing in an utterly hysterical way, so much so that he probably would've had to talk to a psychiatrist in order to avoid a three day psych hold. That wouldn't make anything easier on the baby, so he managed to just barely hold onto more rational emotions. Once he thought he could respond without giggling he said, "that's, um, good to hear."

"I think what we'll do next is have you take him back, so I can retrieve the vaccines. Most parents find that holding the baby while I administer the shot leads to less tears, and less struggling."

"Right," Mulder said quickly. The doctor settled the baby back into his arms, and left the room. He could hear her talking to someone, probably a nurse or another doctor, in the hallway for a couple of minutes before she came back with a tray.

Glancing down at the baby, Mulder could see that the child had no idea what he was in for. In a way it made him feel bad for him, but on the other hand, at least he wasn't suffering from the sort of anticipatory horror that Mulder remembered experiencing the last few times he had been given vaccines as a little boy. He also vaguely remembered watching Samantha get hers, and feeling envious that she didn't know it was going to hurt.

Doctor Grover picked up the first syringe, and gave him a wan smile. "If he was a little older, this would be the point when I told him that it wouldn't hurt much, but clearly he wouldn't understand me."

Mulder nodded, and found that he couldn't take his eyes away from the needle.

In a worse state of mind he might have been concerned about what the syringe contained, but he actually trusted the doctor. It felt it as though she was moving in slow motion as the needle made its way towards the baby's chubby little arm. Eventually she pressed it against his skin hard enough to break it, and the needle slid in smoothly. The baby screamed.

Mulder tightened his arms around the now flailing baby, and listened as the doctor tried to soothe him. "Oh, I'm sorry, Adam. You don't know this, but this is for your own good. You would much rather have this shot than get measles later."

Distracted for a moment, Mulder was still cuddling the baby when she pulled the needle out of his arm. "Oops, she said, scaring him half to death. "There is a little blood, so I'm going to go over to the cabinet here and grab some Band-Aids."

"Okay," Mulder said faintly. He probably sounded as though he was one of those people who got ill at the sight of blood, but really, he was only half paying attention to her. Instead, his eyes were on the drop of blood that had beaded up upon the baby's skin. It was a fat red droplet. Not green. He almost passed out from relief.

If Doctor Grover noticed his reaction, she was polite enough to pretend she hadn't. Instead, she deftly stuck a Band-Aid over the tiny hole, and gave Mulder a smile. "You think we should take a minute to regroup before we do the next one?"

In his arms the baby continued to struggle and cry, not calming down at all until Mulder put him on his shoulder. The baby snuffled into his neck as Mulder talk to the doctor. "Yes, I think he could use a minute or two before we continue."

The baby, who was not actually named Adam, screamed throughout all of his shots. And just when Mulder thought the worst was over, Doctor Grover said, "Since we don't have any history on him, let's take a couple of vials of blood too."

The wailing became all out shrieks when the doctor began to remove fluid from the baby's body instead of putting it in. Mulder was relieved to see that each vial was filled with absolutely ordinary red blood, but he wasn't sure who was more exhausted by the time she was done, him or the baby. No amount of cuddling calmed the baby back down. He continued to sob until he didn't have the strength to anymore.

"That's hard to see," the doctor said, sounding as sympathetic as she could. "I don't like to see it when it's my babies, either," she added, and it took him a moment to realize that she meant her own offspring, not her baby patients. "I promise you that they do get over it quickly. Feed him once you leave the office, and put him down for nap, and he'll be okay when he wakes up."

"I hope so."

To his surprise, she patted him on the shoulder. "I promise you, even though they carry on, none of them actually hate their parents once this is over. Me, I can't be sure of," she added in a self-deprecating way.

With nothing else to say, Mulder asked, "how long would it probably be until you get the blood test results back?" He tried not to ask what she might be testing for. It probably wouldn't do his mental health any favors if he spent however long it took for the test role results to come back to investigate every possible disorder or disease she might find in the samples.

"I think two days. The lab is pretty good about getting things back as timely as possible."

"That fast?" he asked, mildly surprised.

"Being a pediatrician does have some perks. All I need to do is talk about nervous parents to a few people in the lab, and they start to get the sense that it's in their best interest to do things relatively quickly, before parents decide to call them directly." When he looked up at her, he saw that she had a naughty grin.

"My girlfriend has a medical degree too, but she's not the type of person to get that kind of service. Unfortunately, nobody really cares about pathology reports the way that they do about living patients."

"No, I suppose they don't." Doctor Grover seemed amused. "Not unless the pathology reports are on someone particularly famous."

"True..."

Grover smiled suddenly. "I think he's calming down now."

Mulder looked down at the baby in his arms, surprised that he hadn't realized he was quieter. In fact, he wasn't mistaken, he thought he might be falling asleep. "Thank you for your help today," Mulder offered, standing up. He waited for her to tell him that there was more to be done, but she didn't.

"That's what I'm here for. You can see the receptionist about the co-pay on your way out. And, I'll see you again in a few months unless he has some sort of issue crop up between now and then."

Suspicion perked up then, but then he realized that most babies got sick on a regular basis, so that's probably what she was referring to, not any sort of dire warning that he had something fatal, or otherwise incurable.

Red blood, Mulder thought as he redressed the baby. That had to mean something, but he wasn't sure exactly what.


It was only a few minutes later when his relief wilted. His gaze had wandered while he waited for the receptionist to take his co-pay, and he found himself watching a drama at the other end of the waiting room. A little boy, probably barely two years old, didn't heed his mother's warnings not to climb on the coffee table that held magazines, and predictably, the toddler fell. There was a lot of bawling, and a nurse walking by jogged back to one of the exam rooms and grabbed a band-aid for the little boy's scraped knee.

Watching this, Mulder frowned, reminded of a time when Samantha had tumbled down a couple of stairs at eighteen months old, and split her lip. His sister had shrieked in pain and surprised, and he'd been frightened by the way blood had streaked down her tiny chin. Noticing his distress, his mother had soothed Samantha, and assured him that all new walkers collected bumps and bruises at the same pace that older boys like him collected baseball cards.

Could Emily have gotten through the first three years of her life without managing to break her skin? It seemed unimaginable. And she'd gotten shots too, like the baby's that had just bled. Yet no one had been injured or even alarmed until a few hours before her death. It seemed that the shots she'd gotten had kept the devastation of her blood at bay. Had it given it a healthy red hue, too?

And if it had, was it wrong to let his son's red blood lull him into a false sense of security? Who knew what would happen once the boy was away from the ship for a few months.

"Mr. Mulder?" a voice asked, breaking him out of his doubts. "Your receipt," the receptionist said, offering him a sheet of paper. He folded it awkwardly with one hand, and shoved it into a pocket. "Thanks," he said, but his heart wasn't in it.

For a moment the woman looked at him like she wanted to say something, but eventually she looked away without a word. He left without another, too.


A noise over the baby monitor roused Scully out of a sound sleep. She glanced over at Mulder's side of the bed, expecting him to deal with the crying, but he wasn't there. It had been a long day of chasing after all three kids, and she had no idea how he'd apparently gotten the energy to get up and do something after she'd gone to bed. Hopeful that he was already checking on the baby, she held still, hoping to hear him murmur some endearments over the monitor which would signify that she was safe to go back to sleep.

Sighing, she reluctantly got out of his bed, and went to look in the living room and kitchenette for him when it became clear from the escalating noise over the baby monitor that he wasn't in the spare room with the baby.

"Mulder?" she called, expecting him to call back that he was in the bathroom.

There was no reply. The door to the room where Grace and Tommy's slept was tightly shut, suggesting that neither of them had gotten him out of bed, either. And when she wandered by the front door, she realized that his keys weren't on the hook he kept them on.

This made her frown, but she decided that he wouldn't have left without having a reason to.

In the nursery the crying became louder, as if the baby was getting frantic because the adults were callously ignoring his clearly expressed needs. "I'm coming," she muttered.

If anything, the baby's cries became louder as she entered the room, suggesting that he wasn't comforted at all by her presence. "Hey, hey, it's not that bad is it?" she said, remembering greeting Grace the same way more than once when she'd been small enough to imprison in a crib.

Small hands flailed upwards in response.

"Oh, come on, it's okay," Scully soothed. She reached the crib and leaned into it, about to pick him up. He probably needed to be changed, or maybe he was entering a growth spurt and needed a late night bottle to get him through the rest of the night.

As she leaned over, the little hands continued to reach up for her, and eventually closed around her neck. "Hey," she protested mildly when the hands gripped a little too tightly.

The pressure on her neck didn't abate, and she began to feel uncomfortable. "Too tight," she complained, beginning to pull away from him.

To her surprise, and growing concern, the baby's hands weren't easy to escape. "Stop!" she said sternly, yanking away from him.

When she looked down at the baby, she recoiled in horror. Instead of a chubby-cheeked Mulder in miniature, the face she saw was coldly arrogant, and too familiar.

"No!" she howled, pulling away.

Inside the crib the child continued to stare at her, looking far, far too aware for his age.

"This can't be happening," Scully whispered to herself, trying to decide what she should do. Would Mulder understand if she ran back to his room for a pillow to smother the baby with? She knew that he considered the baby his son, but he couldn't raise an alien bounty hunter.

To her utter horror, all choice in the matter was taken away as the shape shifting alien shifted, limbs pushing out of the crib until he was made ridiculous - a grown man on his back inside a crib meant for someone no more than three feet tall.

She backed away as he found his leverage, and threw his legs over one side of the crib rail in a purposeful manner. It would only be a moment or two longer before he sprang out of the crib and renewed his effort to strangle her. The memory of the last time he'd done so resurfaced, and a small part of her was grateful that this time he wouldn't be wearing Mulder's face when he did it-

"No!" Scully shrieked, sitting up in in her own bed.

She was so surprised to find herself in her bedroom rather than Mulder's that she nearly fell out of her bed. Even though it was only a dream her heart continued to race like the threat to her was real.

"Holy mixed feelings, Batman," she muttered to herself. It didn't take a psychology degree to realize that she had reservations about incorporating Mulder's child into her life.

The worst part was that the longer Mulder insisted on keeping the baby to himself, the more doubt cropped up about how well things would go when they finally did blend their two little families together. On the flight home she thought the transition would be seamless, but giving Mulder his space meant space for her worries and doubts to catalogue themselves in her mind too.

Maybe it would have been better to just plunge into their new lives all together, rather than let Mulder stick his toes into the shallow end. Without the sense of inevitableness, there were so many things to think of, so many things that could all go wrong.

"Or maybe I'm just making myself crazy by thinking of the ways things could go wrong so I don't feel as bad if Mulder decides that we're not destined to be together after all," she said out loud before bonelessly dropping her head back to her pillow.

What if all the doubts were just a way to sooth herself if he decided that he didn't want to become the Brady Bunch after all? It was easier to accept a life apart instead if that life together was going to be chaotic and far less than ideal.

"I wish you'd stop pushing me away," Scully told the moon shining into her room because she couldn't tell Mulder.


Scully was not the only one with troubled sleep that night. Unlike hers, Mulder's nightmare was set upon already familiar ground. For the third time Mulder dreamed that he had set up a nursery and the baby's window was open. There was also a crib, although there wasn't one in real life. At first a gentle breeze blew the curtains back and forth, and watching them sway was almost soothing.

But then a long skinny arm, one that was gray in color, snaked its way through the open window.

Mulder wanted to scream, and run at the being that was breaking into the nursery, but he found that his feet were rooted to the spot.

He watched helplessly as the rest of the alien followed the arm into the room. Chittering to itself, the alien looked at him and then slowly and methodically reached into the crib, and tucked the baby under its arm.

"Leave him alone, you son of a bitch!" Mulder screamed.

For a second to the alien regarded him with a cocked head, but it seemed to shrug off his fierceness once he realized that Mulder was actually no threat.

"No!" Mulder screamed, watching the alien climb back through the window, taking his baby son with it. Just as it had the first two times his brain had cooked up the scenario.

"No!" Mulder screamed again, sitting up in bed. As soon as he did, there was a squeak of protest, and he looked down to see that his baby was still by his side like he intended him to be. "Oh my God," he muttered, looking down at the infant. "I guess you're okay, huh?" Mulder asked the baby.

The baby just looked up at him, seeming somewhat confused, but mostly sleepy.

"You're not going to say how foolish I was, huh?" Mulder asked. He could still feel how badly his pulse was racing, and he gingerly lay back down. The baby, however, continued to sit up. "Let's go back to sleep," Mulder suggested tiredly.

Perhaps the baby understood him, because without any further prompting he settled back down and closed his eyes willing enough.

Mulder himself did not sleep. His brain kept turning over the details of the dream, trying to understand how the puzzle pieces fit together. What did it mean that the alien always stole the baby out of a crib? Did it mean that growing complacent enough to allow the baby to sleep in another room was something his subconscious thought was dangerous? And even if it did, did it mean that was true?

Sighing, he tried to make himself comfortable. They had discussed dreams in his psychology classes, but it always been in what he considered a very deeply unsatisfying way. For all that neurologists and psychologists and psychiatrists knew about brains and thoughts, dreams were still a mystery. And it was an area of study that was filled with contention, with everybody absolutely convinced that their theory was right.

"I am probably not psychic," Mulder muttered in the dark. "But I can't rule out an anxiety disorder. That would pair nicely with PTSD, wouldn't it?"

Beside him the baby rolled over, and dug small feet into his ribs. Mulder looked down at him and chuffed. "I know. 'Go to sleep, Dad.'"

Eventually he did.


When has hiding things from Scully ever helped a situation? Mulder asked himself late the next afternoon as he brought the baby back into the apartment after a trip to the grocery store. Eventually she's going to start asking you why you're so reluctant to do things like buy him a crib or let Tommy and Grace meet him. If you bring it up now, it'll probably go better.

"We're going to have to come clean again," Mulder told his son with a sigh.

If only I hadn't seen that family today, he thought to himself ruefully. He had encountered them in the produce aisle. A man, a woman, two small children who favored the father, and twin toddlers who looked like the mother. The six of them had been having a ball, making the mundane chore of selecting fruit a feast of giggling and whispered comments. As soon as he noticed them his heart asked why it couldn't be that way for him and Scully, and then immediately answered itself: because of his fearfulness. "Because we can't stay this way forever," Mulder murmured. "Even if I wanted us to. And I don't think I want us to."

The baby merely stared at him until Mulder placed him amongst the milk crates and handed him one of Dempsey's jiggly cat toys to play with.

"Hopefully it'll go better than it did last time..." he said, but he was more thinking about the last time he should've told her something and didn't, rather than when he'd finally been honest.

Outside it began to snow lightly, and it reminded him that he'd never really liked winter weather. Snow was beautiful, but it caused so many problems. Kind of like Diana when she was young, he found himself thinking. His sudden snort of laughter made the baby look over at him.

A phone call, he decided. It was late enough in the day that Scully had almost certainly collected the kids from the sitter's and headed home. He had enough to feel guilty about to add the possibility of her having a fender bender on the way to see him. "Wish me luck," he told the boy and the cat.

Both of them stared at him, and for the first time he noticed that the baby's eyes were already beginning to lose the bluish shade common to Caucasian newborns. His own mother had once told him that his eyes had turned hazel sooner than she expected, so he supposed that he oughtn't be surprised. Even still, the thought that a lot of babies didn't develop their final eye color until they were two crossed his mind, as if his brain thought that he needed yet another reason to worry that he was aging too quickly.

He intended to call right then and there, but the baby began to rub his eyes and fuss, so he knew he was over tired. So Mulder put the baby down on their mattress for a nap, and as soon as the little boy fell asleep, he headed into the kitchen with his phone.

"Well, here goes nothing..." It seemed to take an eternity for Scully to pick up, and as soon as she did, he nervously asked, "Hey Scully, is now a good time to talk?"

"Sure. The kids are playing while dinner cooks. And it won't be ready for half an hour."

"Oh, that's good." After a few seconds he gathered his thoughts. "I wanted to talk to you about why I haven't let Tommy and Grace met the baby yet."

"Yes?" Her voice trembled.

This made him feel even more guilty, because it was clear that she expected him to say something terrible, and he'd never wanted his doubts to impact anyone else. "I told you that I was worried about him being healthy, but...Scully, have you ever thought the length of Emily's gestation?"

There was a pause for a long moment, and he wondered if maybe they'd been disconnected. Landlines would provide a definite dial tone but it was often impossible to tell on a cell phone. But after a moment she spoke. "Of course, Mulder. You don't need to be a doctor, or even very good at math to realize that she was born way too soon after my abduction for the pregnancy to be normal."

"Right." Mulder sighed. "And she wasn't half alien."

"Okay..." He heard the confusion in that single word.

"Scully, I've only been back less than five months, and everyone is convinced he's closer to nine months old. That's almost twice as old as he should be because there's absolutely no way I wouldn't have starved to death if I wasn't feed for four months. That must mean that he's been aging faster than normal...just like Emily's gestation. What if he continues to age this fast? Or even faster?" he asked, voice breaking. "He's far more alien than she was, Scully."

"Oh, Mulder..."

"I'm afraid to get too attached. And I'm an adult. If I have to lose him soon, I can handle it. It will hurt like hell, but I can cope. How can I ask that of two little kids, though? I was twelve when Samantha was taken and it almost killed me. How can I ask that of kids less than half that age?"

"We don't know that he'll continue to age rapidly," Scully tried to point out. "Emily didn't."

"I've given that a lot of thought. I think that whatever was in those injections Emily was given also kept her from aging as fast as she did before birth, in addition to keeping her blood disorder in check."

"Then there's hope even if he does continue to-" she began, but he cut her off.

"Is there?" he challenged. "We have no idea what they gave her, and no way of ever knowing." Mulder stared out the window. It was snowing harder now, and he could already see half an inch on the window ledges of the apartment directly across the street. "Emily's doctor seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth."

For once I'm glad that they took Emily's body and replaced it with sand, Mulder found himself thinking grimly. If they hadn't, I don't trust myself not to become desperate enough to beg Scully to have her body exhumed. And she loves me, so she'd eventually agree to such a ghoulish request.

There was a moment of silence, and then she asked him, "Mulder, what would you have done if the IVF had worked, and we found out that the baby had a fatal illness after we'd gotten Tommy and Grace?"

This question stumped him for a moment, but he then realized that there was no reason to assume that there was any connection at all between his abduction and the fact that Scully had gotten back two children created from her stolen ova. After all, she hadn't sought them out, they'd been more or less dumped in her lap by fate. Given this, it was entirely possible that the two of them might now have had a child a bit younger than Grace if the IVF had worked, and that she still would've gotten Tommy and Grace when she had.

"Mulder?" Her voice sounded uncertain.

He tried not to sigh because he knew that would worry her as much as his silence obviously did. "If we had a sick child, we'd have to help Grace and Tommy with the loss of their little brother or sister," he said eventually. "But this is different-"

"Because they don't have to know him?" she asked.

"Exactly." For a moment he felt satisfaction that they were on the same page.

At least until she sighed. "So what you're telling me is that you want to stop seeing each other."

"What?" he protested in confusion. "I didn't say anything like that!"

"Of course you did." Before he could interject again, she went on. "We're talking about a child, Mulder. Even if he doesn't live long, how do you propose hiding his existence from the kids? If we kept seeing each other, would you whisk him into a sound proof room and hire a nurse to look after him every time I came over with them?"

"Don't be-"

"We couldn't live together. Marry. Not if you're trying to shield Tommy and Grace from something that may or may not happen," Scully said evenly. "I'm not putting up with a life like that, you hiding in your apartment, keeping a vigil over a baby who seems perfectly healthy right now-"

"Emily must've seemed healthy once too," he blurted out, wondering why he chose that moment to defend himself from what she was saying. "But then she wasn't."

She ignored this, not willing to circle back to that part of his argument. "-while I raise my kids on my own in a separate house. I've done fine as a single mom, Mulder, but I don't want to be if there's an alternative."

"You're saying you'd look for someone else." Mulder angrily imagined her setting up a profile on a dating site as soon as they hung up their phones. She was a catch, she'd have so many messages from men who would think that he was a fool to give her up-

"No. I'm saying that I want to make a life with you. And I want it to be a real life, Mulder. Do you get that?"

It was on the tip of his tongue to continue to protest, but his heart wasn't really in it because he knew she was right. There had never been any doubt in his mind that she would stick by him...the doubt had been whether or not it was right to expect her to. And if she really wanted to take on everything that supporting him and the baby both meant, who was he to stop her? "I do."

"And what do you think about that?" she asked him.

"When I spoke to my landlord about the baby and Dempsey he reminded me that I can't break my lease until the end of September," Mulder told her and instantly wondered why.

"Mulder, I wasn't talking about moving in together now-"

He didn't let her go on because he had already figured that out. "I know. And I think that I've been trying to protect you from things you don't need me to," he admitted.

"I thought you were trying to protect Tommy and Grace," she said, but she didn't sound confused.

"Well, them too. But I've already put you though so much... it seemed unfair to make you endure losing another child," Mulder elaborated. "I know how bad I feel that there was nothing I could do to save Emily...I guess this really is about not wanting you to go through the same thing. Plus, if you got attached to him, that would add another layer to complicate your feelings."

"In a way it's probably nice that you feel so protective of me, Mulder. But I don't need you to be. I'm a big girl," she said evenly.

"I know," he said, but even he heard the doubt in his own voice.

"Uh huh. Look, I can't promise that things are going to work out okay with the baby. After all that has happened to both of us over the years I'd be a fool to. But I can promise you that I can handle whatever life tosses our way," Scully said firmly. "And I think you can too, even if you doubt that right now."

I wonder what I did to earn such loyalty, he found himself thinking. I don't think that I really could have earned it. This just must be the type of person she has always been meant to be. And I hope that Grace grows up to be more like her than me. A good person.

"I've been thinking about Christian," Mulder blurted out.

"Christians?"

"No. Christian. The name." He paused and then added, "For the baby, I mean." Then he felt silly because of course she must have figured that out.

"You have?" she asked in a way that didn't give her thoughts away at all.

"I can't exactly name him Faith," he deadpanned.

To his relief this elicited a genuine chuckle from her. "No. That would be as bad as Sue. But Faith, Christian...?"

"You know what they say, Scully. Fake it until you make it," he said, hoping that it would make sense to her that he would pick a name that would tangentially remind him that he had been right in his insistence that the child was real. If he could hold onto that without any proof maybe he could learn to have faith that he wouldn't have been allowed to get him back only for it to lead to more suffering.

"At times I feel like I know that better than anyone," she said with a little sigh that made him wonder exactly what she meant by that. Unfortunately, he could think of several possible reasons, and he supposed that just proved her point.

"Yep."

"Christian Mulder. That's not half bad."

Mulder snorted. "Thank you for your approval."

"Any time, Mulder."

He gathered his thoughts for a moment before asking, "Do you have plans for tomorrow night?"

"Not presently, no."

"Then I would like to ask you and the kids over for dinner," he said nervously.

For a moment she said nothing, and he began to worry, but then she replied. "Okay."

"Okay? Great. We'll, um, see you then. Then."

"Are you planning to cook?" she asked, her tone mildly teasing.

"Are you suggesting that I can't?" he retorted.

"I don't think it's an insinuation, Mulder. I thought it was a point of fact."

"I- okay, that's true. But did you know that there are several services that will deliver precooked food, that you can keep in your freezer until you want to heat it up?"

"I think I may have heard of those."

"We'll have the pork roast," he said expansively. She giggled, and it made him smile.

Soon after he hung up the phone, he heard a voice calling "Aaaahh!!" from the other room. He smiled again to himself, and that smile didn't fade until he reached the baby. The infant looked happy to see him, but he felt guilt wash over him even as he reached down to scoop him up off the mattress he'd been napping on.

"I haven't been very fair to you, have I?" he asked quietly as he stood up with the baby in his arms. "You're not sick. At least not now, and here I've been acting like you've already been given a death sentence. That's no way to live, is it, kid?"

The baby's response was to pat him gently on the cheek and coo.

"I wish I was the forgive-and-forget type like you, Christian. Hey, do you like that?" he asked as he pulled the boy away from his shoulder so he could see his face. "Christian Mulder, that's you."

Christian grinned at him.

"I think I know how to begin making this up to you," Mulder told him as he carried him out into the living room. He spotted his cat on a chair and said, "Demps, we'll be back. You're in charge while we're gone."

The tom cat blinked slowly at him, and he fancied it was in approval, but probably because the cat was pleased that he'd be able to nap in peace for a while. Still, he hummed happily to himself as he grabbed a bottle of formula out of the fridge and made sure that there were a couple of diapers in his knapsack, and wrapped the baby up so he'd be safe from the cold. "See ya," he called, closing the door and heading off with his son.


Late the Next Afternoon

"Momma, what are you doing?" Grace asked Scully's rear end. In the girl's defense, that was the only part of Scully that was not currently in the storage area reserved for their apartment. They had been down there for five minutes, which was exactly how long ago Scully arrived home from picking up Tommy from kindergarten, and Grace from her sitter.

"Looking for your highchair," Scully told her.

"But mama! I'm a big girl! I don't need it!" Grace protested in horror.

Scully straightened back up, pulling herself out of the cage, and looked down at her daughter. "I know that you're a big girl who doesn't need to sit in it anymore. But I am going to lend it to somebody. For their baby."

"Oh." Grace then pointed into a shadowed corner of the storage cage. "Right there."

To Scully's surprise, it was exactly where Grace is pointing. "Oh!" Glancing over her shoulder, she wondered when Grace had noticed it. Somehow, she didn't think it had been after being reassured that it wasn't going to be used on her again.

Somewhere behind them, she was sure that she heard Tommy mutter "they are so silly."

After another moment or two, Scully was able to wrestle the highchair out of the storage area, and set it next to her. It was all she could do to keep from panting. Her time in the field didn't seem so long ago, but she was disheartened by how out of shape she felt.

"Mom, can I ask you question?" Tommy asked.

"Of course," she said. And she fully expected him to ask who they were lending Grace's highchair to.

"Did you ever keep bad guys down here?"

"What?" she asked blankly. Scully had no idea what he was talking about.

Tommy pointed at the cage that was made out of chain-link. "In there?"

She blinked. "No, why do you ask that?"

"It's a jail cell."

Finally, she understood what he was getting at. The basement was divided into neat squares framed with chain-link so that there could be air circulation in an otherwise possibly damp or musty basement. Each tenant had access to the storage area, and the squares were neatly labeled with the apartment number, right next to the door that was secured with a padlock.

"No, it just sort of looks like a jail cell," Scully explained patiently. "A real jail cell would be made out of steel bars, so you couldn't bend it and get out."

"You could get out?" Tommy asked, giving her a skeptical look. The little boy glance between her and the top of the cage, obviously seriously considering her relatively short stature.

"Well, I'm sure Mulder could." As soon as she said it, she remembered him climbing trees to impress her. That had been such a long time ago.

"Oh yeah, he could."

For half a second she wondered if she should be insulted that Tommy thought that Mulder, even in his current still halfway emaciated state, would be better at escaping than she was, but she decided not to read too much into it. After all, over the years she had entertained the boy with stories about her then-missing partner. She couldn't blame him for attributing superpowers to Mulder no matter what his current state of health.

Scully gathered the highchair under her arm, and looked at the kids. "Let's go."


A Short Time Later

She wasn't aware that Tommy was paying attention as she drove until he spoke up from the backseat as she parked, "Mom, this is Mulder's apartment building."

"Yes, it is," she said.

Tommy looked a little confused. "But where is the highchair going?"

"Upstairs," Scully told him. She waited for him to ask more questions, but he just stared at her. "You'll see."

Ever since the night before she had internally debated about whether or not she should prepare the kids for meeting the baby, but in the end she decided not to. They probably wouldn't really mind the baby being a surprise, and she really wasn't up for playing twenty questions, not when she didn't really have answers for them. And what if she guessed at an answer, and Mulder later said something that contradicted it? No, it was better to let them ask Mulder directly. Even if that decision did leave her feeling a little cowardly.

She was glad that there was an elevator in his apartment, and grateful that Mulder's apartment wasn't too far from it because carting around the highchair continued to be awkward. "Tommy, could you knock, please?" she asked, both hands still on it.

"Uh huh."

"Hey," Mulder greeted them as his door swung open a few seconds later. "Thanks for coming over for dinner."

"Hi Mulder," Grace said gleefully. She walked under his arm, and Scully snorted in amusement.

"Let me help you with that," Mulder told her, taking the highchair from her and dragging it through the doorway.

As soon as she stepped into the apartment, she saw that a lot of things were different very quickly. Mulder must have gone shopping as soon as he'd hung up the night before, because gone were the milk crates he'd told her he'd fashioned into a playpen, and in its place was a real playpen. A basket of baby toys stood next to it, and she could see through the partly opened door to his spare room that there wasn't a mattress on the floor anymore.

Mulder dragged the highchair over to his table, and then unfolded the legs. As soon as he did, he looked back at them where they still stood just inside the living room, the door still open behind them. "Scully, could you close that please?" he asked with a gesture. "It's a bit chilly out in the hallway."

"Oh, of course," she mumbled awkwardly before reaching behind her to pull it closed.

"Wait here a minute, okay?" he asked, leaning forward slightly to address the kids.

"Uh huh," they agreed, giving him curious looks.

Scully distracted the kids momentarily by taking off their coats. It was such an automatic thing to do that she didn't need to look while she did it, and her eyes followed Mulder instead.

He slipped into the spare room, and as he did so, Scully could see the outline of a brand new crib placed along the far wall. As soon as she did, something a lot like relief blossomed in her heart. He's finally planning on the baby living, she found herself thinking.

When Mulder returned, he had a sleepy baby in his arms. The little boy yawned, and then looked over at Tommy and Grace with a half-smile on his tiny face.

Mulder gave the two children a bright smile himself. "Tommy, Grace, this is my son, Christian."

"Dat's a big name, Mulder," Grace commented.

"Well yes," Mulder admitted, obviously thinking about how many letters in the name Christian.

"He is widdle."

"Huh."

"He's your baby?" Tommy asked, looking from the baby to Mulder. Even a five-year-old could see their resemblance, Scully realized.

"Yes," Mulder said nervously. "He was born while I was...gone."

Scully braced herself, waiting for her son to ask about Christian's mother, but his question instead was, "Why didn't he go to the movies with us? And trick or treating?"

Maybe it's because he and Grace haven't had a Dad, Scully thought wistfully. Maybe he doesn't realize that having two parents is the normal order of things quite yet.

"Oh, well, your mom and I flew to get him a couple of weeks ago," Mulder explained. "He was staying with a friend of mine until we could go get him."

"And he's your baby?" Tommy asked. "You're his daddy?"

"That's right."

The little boy seemed to mull this over for a few seconds. "So he'll be our little brother when you and Mommy get married?" Tommy asked.

Mulder just stared at him, but Scully smiled and placed her hand on his. "If we get married, yes, he would be." She didn't bother to tell him that Christian was already Grace's brother, because that was far too confusing a conversation for any of them at the moment.

"Okay." Tommy looked towards Mulder's kitchenette. "What's for dinner?"

"Pork roast," Mulder said.

"Really?" Scully asked, skeptical.

"Really," he said, looking a tiny bit hurt. "I did my research before suggesting it."

"Is research cooking?" Tommy asked.

"No kiddo, it's ordering. I may need to take some cooking classes, because right now all I'm up to is heating up food somebody else already cooked," Mulder said, leading them to his small dining set. "There are also potatoes, and carrots, and applesauce, and cake."

"Oh," Grace said as she scrambled into her seat. "I'll have cake."

"You'll have all of it," Scully said firmly. This earned her a scowl from her daughter. Mulder grinned.


Mulder bent and cautiously placed Christian in the highchair. He waited with baited breath, wondering how the infant would react to being in a highchair for the very first time. Even though he had only been Tommy's age at the time, he remembered his sister's reaction to being introduced to a highchair as most resembling someone trying to scald a cat. To his relief, Christian kicked his feet and babbled enthusiastically.

"He likes it!" Tommy said, revealing that he too was studying the baby's reaction.

Grace stared at the baby. "Huh. That's weird."

Turning to Scully, Mulder asked, "Do you mind keeping an eye on him while I dish out and heat things up?"

"It would be my pleasure."

Several minutes later Mulder sat down after they all had their plates in front of them. "I'm glad we did this," he commented, picking up his silverware.

"Me too," Scully said firmly, looking up from cutting Grace's meat. "And are you feeling better about..." She let the thought trail off, knowing that he would understand what she meant.

He shrugged slightly. "Maybe a little. But you are right, I can't just go through my days with a fatalistic sense that they are numbered. It's not fair to us, and most of all it's not fair to him."

"I know."

"And as we discussed, there's nothing now to suggest that my worries are valid," he said, trying to articulate what he was thinking but at the same time not worry Tommy, who was old enough to understand words like health or lifespan. "With luck, there never will be."

"Mulder," Scully said quietly. "I think you're going to have to test his DNA if you're ever going to have complete piece of mind."

"Maybe," he replied glumly.

"What's denah?" Tommy asked. They both looked at him, confused.

"What?"

"I know you're spelling it 'cause I'm not supposed to know what you're talking about, but I don't even know what denah is," Tommy told them.

"Oh..." Mulder smiled at him once he realized that Tommy was trying to sound it out. "It's not a word, Tommy. It's an acronym." When the little boy just started at him in puzzlement, he went on. "It's like how your mom works for the FBI, or when we go to the ATM to get money from our banks." Mulder didn't bother to tell him that the letters stood for something, because at that moment it wasn't the concept he was trying to hammer home. Tommy would learn that all later, anyway.

"So what is DNA, then?" Tommy wanted to know.

"It's a set of blueprints that tells your body how to be before you're even born," Scully replied. "It tells your body to give you red hair like ours, or brown like Mulder and Christian's. And it determines if you'll be short or tall, or a boy or a girl. Stuff like that."

"But peace of mind means be happy," Tommy said worriedly. He'd obviously paid closer attention than they'd thought.

"Well, yes," Scully admitted. "DNA can also tell if you might have some diseases."

Tommy turned to look at Christian, who grinned at him. "You think he's sick?" His incredulous expression made it clear that he, at least, couldn't think of anything that could be wrong with the baby. He didn't even have a cold.

"No, not right now. But we don't know much about him..." Mulder said, trailing off in a fluster. There was no way he could tell a kindergartener that they didn't know how much alien DNA the baby had.

"Because he usta live with your friend? While you was here?"

"That's right." Mulder looked relieved.

"Huh."

Scully caught his eye, and he sensed that she wanted to drop the conversation if Tommy would let them. He nodded slightly, more than happy to pick it up later, once the kids weren't around.


That Night

It was a school night for Tommy, so Scully took the kids home not terribly long after they finished eating. Grace had insisted that the cake was the best and Mulder thought that she was angling to get him to let her take the leftovers home, but Scully didn't pay any attention to that so he didn't offer.

Instead, there was a round of hugs, and a chorus of goodbyes, and then suddenly he and Christian were alone. "I think that went pretty well," Mulder commented, looking at the baby who was sitting in his playpen, surrounded by his new toys. "Tommy and Grace both seem to like you. And, although you can't really tell me, I get the feeling that you liked them too."

Mulder had hoped for a smile, or laugh in response, not to have a foam ball hurtled at his face. With reflexes quicker than he would have credit himself with, he did manage to bat it away before it hit him.

"Well, that was a non sequitur. Nice arm though. We'll have to think about Little League soon." Mulder looked down at the baby, who was not attempting to stand up. "Well... Maybe tee ball first. Or, standing and walking, and then tee ball, and then Little League."

This time the baby smiled. And he smiled back. And then he realized that he had just given some painless thought to the baby's future. To the baby having a future. And it had felt nice.


Across Town

Already having had put Grace to bed, Scully was in the middle of helping Tommy put car-themed sheets that Maggie had bought him on his bed when she asked, "Did you have a good time today?"

"Yes!" he exclaimed happily. He let go of his corner of the sheet to pull his pajamas top down more - for a five-year-old linen changing is a full contact, clothes mussing sport. "I like Mulder's baby."

"You do?"

"Yes. I always wanted a baby brother and now I am going to have one," he looked at her and then quickly added, "someday" before she corrected him.

It actually was her instinct to caution him against getting his hopes up but she wasn't sure why anymore. The whole point of pushing Mulder to let the kids meet was moving all of them forward, towards becoming the family that she knew in her heart that they were meant to be. "Someday," she agreed and her son grinned at her.

"I feel bad for Grace, though," Tommy said, catching her by surprise.

"How come?" she asked gently.

Tommy shrugged dramatically. "When you marry Mulder I get a little brother but she gets a little brother too," he said, but clearly figured out that this statement confused her because he immediately went on. "Girls want sisters, right, Mom?"

"Oh. Well, a lot of girls do want sisters, but not all do. Some are happier having awesome brothers like you."

Tommy's expression was doubt-filled. "Why??"

"Sometimes they have the same interests as their brothers. Sometimes it can be hard to have a sister and want the same things as her like toys and clothes-" and boys, she didn't add. "Girls can be pretty competitive with their sisters but usually not as much with brothers."

"They want to win, beat their sisters?"

"A lot of girls but not all." She emphasized, definitely not wanting to give her impressionable little boy the idea that all women grow up in fierce competition with their sisters. And then she waited for him to ask her about Missy. As soon as she had the thought she became aware of the familiar ache that welled up whenever she thought about her sister. It was easier to cope with now that a few years had passed but she didn't think it would ever be painless.

Instead, when Tommy punched her in the gut the blow came from another angle. "Maybe we'll get a baby sister later," he said innocently.

But probably not, her brain corrected evenly. Not unless you convince Mulder to adopt.

"Hey," she said weakly. "Weren't we putting new sheets on your bed?"

"Oh yeah!" he said, grabbing a handful of sheet again. "I like these new sheets, but Christian's crib has clouds on 'em and I don't like those. Do you think he does?"

"I don't think that babies care as much about what their sheets look like as they do what they feel like."

"Soft is better, right?"

"Yes, especially when you aren't big enough to tell someone if they are uncomfortable to sleep on." A flare of memory about her brief rotation in the geriatric ward while training as a doctor arose but she didn't mention it; her mother was still light years from needing care so there was no point in worrying him prematurely. And besides, when the time came for that, she would have Mulder's support. Not, that you helped him very much with his mom, a voice spoke up in the back for mind. Maybe if you had...

"Mom?" Tommy asked, sounding uncertain.

"Yes sweetheart?" she asked, determinedly pushing her reflexive guilt aside. There was no way of knowing if Mrs. Mulder's final illness being less of a strain on Mulder would have made any difference in what had happened to him months later. But somehow, that little nagging voice of guilt always found ways for things to be her fault. I can't change the past, I can only influence the future, she reminded herself.

"Can we read a story?" Tommy asked, reminding her that they had been having conversation.

"Of course. Why don't you grab a book and I'll tuck you in."

"Okay!" Tommy exclaimed happily, and darted towards his bookshelf.

A moment later Scully tucked him in, under the comforter that matched his new sheets, and took the book from him. She had expected it to be a story about cars, since that's what he wanted to read lately, but she saw that the book in her hands was Peter's Chair, a story about a little boy who, after a lot of soul-searching, helped paints his old favorite chair that he has outgrown for his baby sister.

Scully gave her son a long look, wondering if he would give any indication that the story wasn't chosen at random, but Tommy just looked back expectantly, waiting for her to start the story.


Mulder called the gunmen the next morning, partly because he was eager to show Scully that he was taking her advice seriously, and partly because he thought if he didn't act immediately he would lose his nerve. The phone was answered by an obviously sleepy Langly which struck Mulder as a bit odd considering it was nine-thirty. Nevertheless, he put Christian in the car, and drove over to their lair about an hour later.

Fortunately, the door was opened at his first knock, which proved that Langly hadn't fallen back to sleep after speaking to him.

"Hey Mulder," Langly greeted him. "Hey little dude," he added, pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose as he eyed Mulder's son a bit nervously.

The gesture made Mulder bite his inner cheek - it seemed to him that virtually every glasses-wearer he'd ever seen interact with an infant had the same fear that the glasses would be snatched from their faces. Well, except for that one guy-

"What's the smirk for?" Langly asked suspiciously.

Mulder blinked; he should've bit harder. Shrugging, he said, "When Samantha was a few months old a coworker of our dad's came over to look at the baby when Mom brought us to the office one afternoon. He must not've had much experience with babies because he got into her face... and as quick as a flash she yanked off his glasses and hurled them across the room."

"They broke?"

"Into several pieces," Mulder agreed.

"That's an expensive visit," Langly remarked.

"Well, my parents paid for a replacement."

"Hmm. What did you say you needed?" Langly eventually asked. He swallowed a yawn.

Mulder shifted his stance when the baby squirmed in his arms. "Do you guys still have the ability to analyze DNA?"

"Ability?" the blond man asked with a smirk. "We still know how. But the equipment isn't in our possession anymore."

Glancing around, Mulder wondered when the gunmen had had their fire sale. He also wondered how he'd failed to notice how much they'd pared down their collection of mysterious electronic equipment. Anxiety apparently made him way too self-focused. "Oh," he said awkwardly when he noticed that Langly was looking at him, not the baby.

"Why'd you ask?"

"I want to compare his DNA to my own."

Langly took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Are you worried that he's not yours? Cause I got to tell you, that nose definitely came from your family tree."

"No," he said defensively. Without really noticing he cuddled the baby a little closer, as if he thought Christian was the one who was feeling uneasy, not himself. "I'm absolutely sure he's mine."

"So you're worried who else's he is," Langly concluded.

The words stuck in his throat so he just nodded.

"Are you still in contact with your friend Danny? He looked at some DNA for Scully, didn't he?"

"Now that you mention it, I think he did."

"Maybe you can ask him," Langly suggested. "We'd love to help you but you probably don't want to have to buy equipment you won't use again so we can."

A wave of queasiness washed over him as Langly finished expressing his thought; how could he possibly cope if he someday got a phone call like Scully had, one that revealed that his son wasn't a unique creation? After all, he was only guessing that there'd been a reason not to have a human woman carry the child in his arms - what if they hadn't had her do it because she'd been pregnant already? And why stop at one woman, his brain asked darkly. There could be dozens of uber-Mulders out there.

"I'll see if he can do it. If not, we'll talk about a plan to buy you the equipment," Mulder said after a while. Please God, let this baby be the only one, he silently begged, even though he knew that praying would change a damn thing if They'd already exploited his DNA more. Please don't kill them off if they already exist, though, he mentally added, feeling even more sick to his stomach.

Who am I, Job? he asked himself. Not every bad thing that could happen to me had, he reminded himself, thinking of Scully, Tommy, and Grace. There is still a lot of good with the bad.

Unless karma is a much bigger bitch than I think she is, I don't have to spend all my time worrying about what else will go wrong.

"Uhhh..." Langly stammered nervously. "You ok, dude?"

Mulder blinked at him before saying, "Yeah I'm fine. I just thought of something pointless to worry about for a few moments there."

"Okay..."

"You had a good suggestion. I will talk to Danny before doing anything else."

"Good."

Mulder took another look around. "You guys doing ok?" he blurted out.

Langly looked annoyed. "We're fine. That kid is already a bad influence on you, Dad."

For a moment he couldn't figure out what he meant but eventually realized that the blond man was implying that he was being paternal. Maybe he was. After all he himself hadn't seen fit to immediately share all of his own difficulties with the gunmen...they had a right to keep their own worries private too.

"Maybe a little," he admitted.

"Hey, Frohike said that when you mentioned the baby his first thought was that you knocked up Scully."

"Yes, his mind did immediately rush into the gutter," Mulder growled.

Langly's response was to smirk. "Well, if you ever do, we have an ultrasound machine."

"You have a...?"

"Ultrasound," Langly repeated, a little more loudly this time, as if convinced that Mulder simply hadn't heard him the first time.

"Why the hell do you have an ultrasound machine?"

Langly shrugged. "We won it in a poker game."

"No, seriously. Why?"

"I am being serious, dude. We played poker with the doctor who had a bad hand but a belief that he could turn it around. He didn't. And you know what, it turns out that few people want to buy a used ultrasound machine after all. It really made us wish we insisted he put up something different as collateral in the game."

"Well, if there's ever a miracle, I'll keep that in mind."

Langly looked abashed. "Oh yeah. I sort of forgot about the whole barrenness thing."

"I figured."

"Well, you never know," Langly said in a consoling tone. "Stranger things have happened. Especially to you."

For a moment Mulder just stared at him. But really, he couldn't argue with that.

Langly grinned at the baby. "What did you say his name is again? I couldn't quite hear you over the phone."

"Christian," Mulder answered, remembering dimly that he was supposed to follow up with them about a birth certificate now that Christian had a permanent name.

"That's a pretty long name for a pretty short guy," Langly commented.

This had Mulder cracking up laughing. And when Langly gave him a confused look, he only laughed harder. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. It's just... Grace said almost exactly the same thing."

Langly scowled at him. "So you're saying that I'm as witty as a three-year-old."

"Did I say that?"

"No." Langly narrowed his eyes. "You just implied it."

"You know it's only because I respect you too much to say it outright." He smiled as he said it, but immediately realized that Langly wasn't in a joking mood.

"You were going now, weren't you?" Langly asked.

"Aww, don't be mad."

"Goodbye," Langly said in a civilized tone that was belied by the fact that he nearly took Mulder's nose off shutting the door.

"Uh oh, daddy made uncle Langly mad." Mulder tickled Christian to make him laugh. "Don't tell him I said so, but I know he'll get over it. Besides, your sister is too cute for anyone to really get mad at being compared to."

Still being tickled, Christian made noises that could have been interpreted as agreement, but were probably just happiness.

"Still, I guess we'll have to ask uncle Frohike about getting you papers, huh?" Mulder asked, making faces at the baby. The little guy continued to chuckle. "He's not mad at me. Right now."


To Mulder's relief Danny agreed to meet with him that same afternoon.

It was cold enough that afternoon for Mulder to see his breath, which made him very glad that he had picked up a royal blue snowsuit for Christian when he had gone on the shopping spree for baby things. Fortunately, he wasn't left standing there with the baby on his hip for very long before Danny opened the door.

Having just visited the gunmen, Mulder was struck again about how on paper Danny and Frohike seemed quite similar. They were both short men who wore glasses and had dark hair. But Danny wouldn't be caught dead wearing a leather jacket, and Danny's button-down cardigans would've seemed absurdly out of place on Frohike. Not to mention he couldn't imagine Frohike getting his hair trimmed every month.

"Fox!" Danny crowed. "Good to see you. It has been far too long, man."

Mulder shrugged a little bit, trying to navigate the doorway without bumping Christian into it. "Well, being abducted and held captive by aliens for three years does tend to put a damper on one's social life."

"All of that was true then?" Danny asked quietly. When Mulder nodded, he looked a little pale. "I know that agent Scully was looking for you..." he trailed off, shaking his head.

"You were in touch with her?" Mulder asked curiously.

"No. I was with Walter Skinner."

Mulder blinked. When was the last time he had spoken to Skinner, he wondered. It'd been too long. Or maybe, it hadn't been a long time, it was just that a very lot had happened in less than three weeks. There had been two other times since his return when they had gone nearly a month without speaking, but neither of those time frames had been so event filled. For all he knew, Skinner might have gotten engaged since they'd last spoken.

"I'm glad you're back," Danny offered. "And who is this little guy?" he added, speaking directly to Christian, because he was already aware from their previous conversation that Christian was Mulder's son.

"I don't think Christian is up to telling you his name quite yet," Mulder said dryly.

Danny nodded. "I guess as silver linings go, you couldn't ask for cuter one."

"I'd say," Mulder murmured, liking the idea of other people considering Christian a positive outcome to his experience. He did himself, so it was gratifying that others recognized that too. Scully of course did, but he wasn't sure that others would, and was glad when they did.

Danny played with the baby for a couple of minutes, before Mulder asked, "So... How does a DNA test get administered?"

Danny gave him a confused look. "You don't know?"

"Would I have asked if I knew?"

"Oh. You know, it's just that I'm surprised you haven't taken a DNA test before."

"Have you taken many?" Mulder asked.

Danny laughed." Me? No."

"Danny... Are you trying to say that you think I'm some sort of man whore?" That was the only thing he could come up with, why Danny would think he needed to have done DNA tests but not himself. If that was the case, Danny had the totally wrong idea about him. He couldn't have gotten into a monastery, but for many years after he opened the X-Files it had been pretty close.

Danny blushed. "Actually... I was thinking more about your concerns about your biological father."

"Oh!" Mulder blinked, wondering why that hadn't occurred to him as a possibility. "Yeah. I didn't actually take a DNA test for that, but I know that evil bastard is my father. Um, biologically speaking."

"How?" Danny asked, now more curious than embarrassed.

Mulder shrugged. "When they did brain surgery on me, part of it was because they wanted me to be a tissue donor for him. That strongly implies that we are blood relatives."

Danny nodded. "Yep. It really does." He bent down, and picked up a package. Opening it, he pulled out two wooden handled cotton swabs. "So this is what we do, first you going to swallow all of the spit in your mouth, and then I'm going to take one of the swabs and scrub the inside of your cheek. It won't hurt. Then we'll have to do the same to this little guy here," Danny said, smiling over at Christian. "Although I doubt we will convince him to swallow for us."

"That's it?"

"That's it."

"I figured there would be needles involved," Mulder admitted.

"Well, I guess you could do it that way. But most people don't like getting blood taken for the hell of it."

"Not for the hell of it. But is this as accurate?"

"If it wasn't as accurate, I wouldn't suggest doing it this way," Danny said evenly.

"Okay," Mulder attempted to placate him. He didn't really want to piss off another friend that day. "You're the expert here."

"Damn straight."

Danny was right. Although it felt a little strange to have the cotton swabs rubbed in his inner cheeks, it didn't hurt at all. But that didn't stop Christian from screaming his head off, apparently terrified that they were trying to murder him in a creative way.

As soon as Danny put the cotton swabs away, Mulder held Christian to him, and rubbed his little boy's back. "It's okay, we're all done, you're okay." After a few moments Christian's hysterical tears dried up. Looking at Danny, Mulder said, "This isn't actually as bad as when he got his vaccinations. I think he'll be fine in another minute or two."

Mulder was a little surprised by the smile that Danny gave him. It was generally the sort of expression that he saw on the faces of older women, like Scully's mother. "You're good with him," Danny commented.

"I'm trying."

"No, I mean it. You can tell that he trusts you. That's pretty important when it comes to kids."

"So I've heard. And how about you and Gwen, are you planning on having any?" Mulder asked, referring to the woman that Danny had married five years earlier. He'd been a bit surprised to learn that they were still childless, but fortunately it'd come up when they'd spoke on the phone so he hadn't had to make sure his expression didn't give him away.

"Gwen wants to pass the bar first later this year, but then we'll probably be ready." Danny gave him a rueful smile. "Because being a brand-new attorney is a wonderful time to have children."

"I'm sure you'll manage just fine." And he was, too. Mulder had only met Danny's wife a few times, but all of Danny's stories about her made it sound like she was the type of person who could do anything that she put her mind to... a lot like Scully, actually.

Danny sighed. "It's really unfortunate that the best time to have kids overlaps with the best time to establish your career. Biology really isn't fair to women, but don't tell Gwen I said that."

"I won't," Mulder promised. But he wasn't really thinking about when right then. He was more thinking about how biology had been unfair to Scully.

Conversation petered out then, and then Mulder noticed that Danny was still holding the packaged swabs in his hand. "How soon...?"

"A week, maybe ten days," Danny said, his tone mildly apologetic. "You implied that you're concerned that they might've given him a small amount of alien DNA like Scully's older daughter had-"

Mulder nodded as Danny spoke, realizing that he'd probably undersold his concerns. It was apparent from Danny's tone that he didn't realize that Mulder was actually terrified that fully half of his little boy's DNA was alien. The only thing that kept him hopeful at all was the fact that there was nothing at all about the child's appearance that suggested that. He almost blurted out his worries about alien DNA but managed to hold his tongue because he didn't want Danny to stop smiling at Christian the way he currently was.

"That's fine," Mulder eventually said. "I know you can't magic the results as fast as a lab could, and frankly I'm just grateful that someone I know is able to do it for me. It would be very awkward to try to explain that I don't know who my son's mother was."

"Yeah, it would be, wouldn't it?" Danny asked. "Sperm donors aside, most men have at least met the biological mother of their children."

Mulder sighed. "I always seem to do things the hard way, don't I?" he asked rhetorically. "Thank you again for doing this. You don't know how much it means to me."

As if reading his mind, Danny said, "I think I have an idea. Having to tell people that you were abducted by aliens and gave birth to a baby, that seems pretty awkward."

"Tell me about it," Mulder groaned, wondering if having a baby carved out of you was considered giving birth. He'd have to look more into the philosophy surrounding C-sections, he supposed.

Danny cocked his head. "Have you given any thought to what you are going to tell people? I mean, obviously the whole 'his mother is a woman I never actually met who was also abducted by aliens' thing is out."

"I think I will most likely go with 'I met a woman and had a brief relationship, a few weeks later we found out that she was unexpectedly pregnant, and I convinced her not to have an abortion. She has no desire to have anything further to do with me or Christian, and really, it's a painful subject I would rather not dwell on, so could you drop it.'"

"Most people would probably buy that. And those that don't... Well, fuck them."

"Danny, you give the best advice," Mulder laughed.

"I try." Danny bowed. Then, straightening up, he looked at Mulder. "Speaking of advice, if you ever need help picking out an engagement ring, let me know. I know this jeweler who has exquisite taste."

Mulder zipped Christian back into his snowsuit, before looking over at Danny and saying "I'll keep that in mind."

Danny looked surprised. "No protest that you won't need an engagement ring anytime soon?"

"My mother didn't leave me hers." Mulder pick Christian up, and settled him on his hip once more. "So I will have to buy one."

"Wow. The great Fox Mulder is really, truly considering settling down. I didn't think I would live to see the day."

"We all have to grow up someday, Danny. Even me."

"Are you saying if I get one of these-" Danny pointed at Christian. "-I'll need to be a grown up too?"

"That's usually the best idea." Mulder glanced out the window at the falling snow before pulling Christian's hood over his head. Christian whined in displeasure. "Things generally don't go great for kids whose parents don't."

"That's true," Danny said, following Mulder and Christian to the door. "Really, it was great seeing you. And I hope the next time I speak to you I have news that makes you feel less unsettled."

Mulder looked back at him. "Fingers crossed for no trace of alien DNA, is what you're saying."

Danny's only response was to hold up two crossed fingers.


Friday
International House of Pancakes

Although they had decided to eat dinner together as a family on Friday night, Mulder took his own car to IHOP so Scully didn't have to make a long detour to get him and the baby. This had seemed like a rational idea at the time, but the restaurant was so busy when he arrived toting Christian's baby seat he began to despair ever finding them. For a long moment he stood parallelized in the doorway to the dining room, searching the sea of faces for Scully's.

Apparently his confusion was plain on his face because a friendly voice behind him asked, "Are you meeting someone?"

He turned and flashed a grateful smile. "Yes, my girlfriend and her two children."

"What do they look like?"

"All three of them are redheads," he offered. "The boy's five, girl's three."

"Oh, that should make it easy," the hostess said. She stepped aside and flagged down a waiter who listened for a moment and then gestured as he answered.

The hostess thanked him and then returned to Mulder. "Right this way."

They wove their way around tables and Mulder was thankful that he didn't manage to knock the baby seat into anyone. Scully had thought ahead and there was a high chair parked next to the empty chair at the table.

"Thanks," he mumbled to the server before awkwardly parking Christian and taking his seat. Was he blushing? he wondered. The heat in his cheeks made him think he must be.

"Why you all pink?" Grace asked, as if reading his mind. This just made him blush all the harder.

Tommy leaned over to her and said, "It's hot in here" before shooting Mulder a look.

The three-year-old accepted her brother's statement at face value and nodded as if Tommy had something wise.

"I'm glad you made it," Scully said warmly, completely ignoring her children's chatter. She then stood and fussed with Christian's baby seat, apparently securing it better in the wooden high chair than he had.

"Mulder," Tommy exclaimed. "We get a long weekend. Are there tall weekends too?"

Mulder stared at him for a moment, lost in the thought that kids thought the strangest things. When he noticed that the little boy was giving him an expectant look he realized that he was actually supposed to answer the question. "Um. No. A long weekend is when you get Friday or Monday off too."

"But Friday and Monday are week days. Only Saturday and Sunday are the weekend." Tommy's earnestness was the type displayed only by those who have recently mastered a piece of knowledge.

"I know, buddy."

"Then why-"

"When you get older you'll understand that there are an awful lot of words in English but there are still concepts that we can't adequately express with them so we have to rely on clumsy expressions like 'long weekends,' Tommy," Mulder said, wondering how soon Christian would be able to speak and ask equally difficult questions.

"That's dumb," Tommy mumbled.

"That's for sure but we're kind of stuck with the term."

"This long weekend is going to give me hives," Scully said sourly.

"Scully, you've changed," Mulder teased her. "Since when do you not relish having an extra day off? Is teaching the recruits that fulfilling?"

Her first response was to make a derisive noise but then she explained. "My mom asked me to bring her to an eye doctor's appointment that day since you're not supposed to drive after they dilate your pupils. Normally that would be fine but the kids' sitter let me know a couple of days ago that she's going away for the weekend and won't to back until Monday night. That means that I need to bring these two with us and they're going to be bored out of their minds."

"You don't have to bring them with you," he told her.

"Of course I do. They're far too young to stay home alone," she snapped in a way that suggested that he had just made her doubt his parenting skills.

"Obviously that's not what I mean," he said with a hurt look. "I mean that I can take them for the morning or afternoon, whichever the appointment is."

"Late morning. And are you sure?"

"Of course. I do some research and-"

"We're ordering food?" Tommy asked.

He almost said that they probably would until he noticed that the little boy was smirking at him: only then did he remember their conversation about the pork roast.

"Smart aleck." He stuck his tongue out at the little boy.

"No," the little boy giggled. "I'm Tommy!"

"Tommy Wisenheimer," Mulder pronounced.

"Nuh uh, Thomas Scully!"

Scully obviously didn't remember the discussion about Mulder researching food because she looked at the two of them like she was weighing the need to ask what on earth they were talking about. She must have decided that it wasn't worth it because she just said, "I really appreciate that."

"No big deal. It's not like I'm busy. Especially not until I line up a sitter for the baby so I can go back to the shelter next month."

"I never did ask you what you told them about your sudden lack of availability," she commented.

He shrugged. "They didn't really ask about it. I guess that's one of the hazards of depending on people that you don't pay. Sometimes they flake on you."

"You're not exactly blowing them off for nothing," she said, sounding a little defensive on his behalf. Or maybe she sounded that way because of Christian? He could tell that she was becoming attached to baby in the same way he was to her kids.

Changing the subject, he said, "I was going to say that I can research some things to do with kids that day."

"Us?" Grace looked up, obviously paying attention for the first time in quite a while. When he looked over at her he noticed that she'd nearly finished coloring the sheet she must've been given shortly after being seated. The cat was a brilliant blue and surprisingly carefully colored in. He couldn't fault her color choice since she'd only been given crayons in the three primary colors and green.

"Course us," Tommy replied in that long suffering way kids have when talking to their younger siblings who are obviously less worldly than they are. "What other kids does he know?"

"I could know a lot of kids. You don't know," Mulder told him, looking up from Grace's artwork.

"I guess..." Tommy said, voice dripping with doubt.

"Hi, are you ready to order?" a perky voice asked just behind them, and Mulder flinched violently. His cheeks flamed up again and he had to bite his tongue to resist the urge to apologize for such a small manifestation of his PTSD.

Mulder felt Scully reach for his hand under the table and give it a squeeze. By the time he looked at her, she was smiling and addressing the waiter. "Yes, I'd like the strawberry crepes, and the kids will have..."

Feeling a lot less foolish, Mulder had let his embarrassment go long before he put in an order for himself and Christian. It was nice to concentrate on choosing an easy-to-chew entree that he thought Christian might like trying rather than dwelling on the shame his hypervigilance still caused him. When he gave Scully a grateful smile, she smiled back without asking him why and that was just one of the many things he loved about her.


MLK Day
January 19, 2004

After doing a couple of hours of research online Mulder decided that the best thing that he could do with the kids was to bring them to an art museum that was geared towards children's art. The thing that sold him on it was that they featured art from several independently published children's books, with the promise that the books would be available in the gift shop. Scully had told him that both kids loved to be read to - even though Tommy could read slightly above grade level - so he hoped that a book related art program would be a hit with them.

As he left his apartment with Christian in his arms and a diaper bag slung over his shoulder, snorted derisively as he tried to imagine Bill Mulder putting even half this much thought into doing something with him and Samantha.

To his surprise Christian reached up and patted his cheek with one chubby hand.

"Daddy was just thinking about your grandpa, sport. Man, he didn't love kids but I really think that he would have dug you."

Given his lack of success in love far into his thirties, Mulder had never given a lot of thought to what his parents would have been like as grandparents. Now they were grandparents to two (or perhaps three, assuming that he would someday have a legal connection to Tommy if not a biological one) children and neither of them would ever know it. Thinking about it now he realized that they would have had a lot of flaws as grandparents but it still made him sad that neither of them would ever have even an opportunity to pleasantly surprise him.

"Your grandma would have been very taken with you too. I'm sure of it," he said with a confidence that startled him. It felt true, though. Upon reflection he realized that he was thinking back to the sort of mother Teena had been when he and his sister were small, the warm, caring Mommy they'd had before Bill had invited the smoking man and all the stress into their home.

"Ababab," Christian babbled back, looking like he was taking what Mulder said quite seriously.

Mulder started to smile, but it faded when he wondered if Christian would say his first word soon. Most parents would be delighted to hear their child's first utterance. But most parents weren't worried about their kids literally growing up too soon.

Shaking his head, he forced himself to smile at Christian. "We've gotta go. It's going to be a good day, right?"

One full of things to distract your nervous old dad, I hope, he thought, reaching behind him to make sure his apartment door was locked.


When Mulder got to Scully's she and both kids were already outside waiting for him. This made him feel bad, until a glance at the clock on his dashboard said he was three minutes earlier than promised. Guess she's impatient to get Maggie's appointment over with, he thought before smiling and waving to them from the driver's seat.

As soon as he hit the unlock button for the doors, Scully opened the back door and had the kids climb in. He tried not to smirk when she gave a quick, mostly discreet, tug to each of the newly installed car and booster seats. He was almost surprised when she didn't reach farther in and check on Christian's car seat too. "In you go," Scully told Tommy and Grace, who both stood behind her, shivering in their blue and purple jackets.

Grace hesitated, and then turned to her mother with a pout. "I don't wanna be middle."

"Grace, we talked about how Mulder's car would be different because of the baby's car seat too," Scully reminded her. "You said that was okay."

"I forgetted to remember," Grace said with an unrepentant little shrug.

After a bit more coaxing, Scully was able to get her strapped into the pink contraption. Tommy rolled his eyes, and settled himself into his booster seat and immediately began to rummage through the tote bag he'd brought in with him. He did allow Scully to strap him in, though Mulder was sure that the boy could do it himself.

"Tell your mom that we're going to be fine today," Mulder prompted as Scully was backing awkwardly out of the car.

"Why?" Grace asked.

"Because moms worry."

"But we behave!" she protested innocently.

Mulder's smile slipped a little as he looked at Grace and Christian in his rear view mirror. If only the only thing a parent had to worry about was their children's behavior. "I know. But she'd still want to hear it."

Grace shrugged. "We'll gonna be fine, Momma."

Scully smiled at her, but Mulder could see that it didn't really reach the corners of her eyes. "I'm glad to hear that." She looked somewhat preoccupied, and it made him wonder if there was something more than a routine test going on with her mother. He certainly hoped not.

"Yup, we will, Mom," Tommy added, not looking up from the book he'd already taken out of his bag.

"We'll see you this afternoon," Mulder told her.

"Right. Love you all," Scully said, blowing kisses to the kids and making them giggle. Even Christian did, catching on that the older kids found something funny. "And Mulder, I really owe you."

"I know," he said, making her roll her eyes. She didn't look annoyed, though, just pleased that they were back to their old ways of interacting once more.

Mulder waited for Scully to go back inside before he drove off. It really will be okay, he told himself as he pulled up to the stop sign. It's going to be the best day.


A Short Time Later

When Scully pulled up to her mother's house, she took a deep breath. She hadn't exactly lied to Mulder about what she and her mother were doing, but it was definitely a sin of omission: Maggie's appointment that morning wasn't exactly routine. Maggie had confessed to her that she'd experienced some worrisome symptoms over the past few days, and they'd managed to beg for the soonest appointment her eye doctor had available.

I can't burden him with more worries, Scully thought as she watched her mother's door open. If it's as bad as we fear, I'll tell him then. The way she justified this was that they didn't know for sure yet that there was really a problem. Thank God Mom didn't decide to suffer stoically. If this is serious, we need to act quickly.

It might not be serious, but they'd know one way or the other after the appointment.

Maggie opened the passenger side door with a tense smile. "Where are the kids?"

"Mulder's taking them to a children's museum."

"Well, that's nice of him." Maggie got herself settled into her seat and put on the seatbelt. "They'll surely have a better time with him than in a waiting room."

"That was his thought." Scully glanced at her. "Ready to go?"

"Ready as I'll ever be," the older woman muttered.

Scully empathized. After a few more seconds, they hit the road.


An Hour Later

"Mulder, can mice eat chocolate?" Tommy asked. The four of them were standing in front of an enormous painting of a mouse wearing a hard hat. Mulder was lost in thought, wondering if a mouse would be statistically less effective on a road crew than a person, so it took a moment for the question to sink in. By far this was the most interesting painting they'd looked at since their arrival forty-five minutes earlier.

"I don't know," he admitted. "Why do you ask?" If Tommy was angling for a pet, he thought he'd better give Scully a heads up ASAP. His own mother had freaked out when Mulder had smuggled a pet rat into his room when he was eleven. He'd never considered how strongly some people felt about rats until he'd been subjected to an hour-long monologue on the topic.

"My teacher read us a book about giving a mouse a cookie," Tommy explained. "Mom said that you can never ever give a dog chocolate so I wondered about mice."

"Even if you can't give them chocolate either, there are cookies without chocolate chips," Mulder pointed out, just to see what he would say.

Tommy wrinkled his nose. "But not good ones."

Mulder snorted.

"Oh!" a voice exclaimed behind them, making Mulder turn. He found himself looking at a woman about ten years older than himself. She was waving a couple of fingers at Christian.

"Hi," Mulder said uncertainly, wondering if he should recognize her. He didn't, though.

"Your children are gorgeous," the woman gushed.

"Thanks," he responded. As soon as he did, he looked at Tommy, wondering if this would prompt a reaction. But the little guy didn't ask why he just accepted the compliment without explaining that only Christian was his.

Smiling at the kids, the woman added, "Their mother must be beautiful too."

"She's really something else," Mulder mumbled shyly.

He smiled back at the woman as she walked away, but then his hand got a vicious tug. When he looked down, Grace was scowling up at him. "What?"

"What, what?" Mulder asked, confused.

"If momma's not beautiful, what else she?"

"Grace, I didn't-"

"No, you said dat," Grace said, and he could tell that she was as full of indignation as a three-year-old could be. She was actually trembling with fury.

"Tommy, please?" Mulder asked, indicating the handles of Christian's stroller, which the little boy immediately took from him. Mulder could swear that Scully's son felt bad for him. Probably because at times he'd undoubtedly been the object of Grace's ire too.

As soon as his hands were empty, Mulder bent and picked Grace up. He was surprised that she didn't kick him. "Hey," he said, gently turning her face so she'd look at him. "When someone says that someone is 'something else' it's a good thing. I wasn't saying that your Mommy isn't pretty, Grace. I meant she's so special that beautiful isn't good enough a word for her."

"She's special?" Grace asked.

"She is very, very special," Mulder assured her.

"Oh." This explanation seemed to satisfy her, which Mulder was beyond grateful for.

"On that note," he announced, taking the handles of the stroller back from Tommy, "I think it's time to get lunch."

"Good, I'm hungry," Tommy said.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"I dunno."


Waiting Room

"Dana?"

Scully snapped the magazine she'd been reading closed, and gave her mother a wavering smile. "Hi."

As soon as she stood, Maggie placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "The doctor said it's not glaucoma."

A dizzying wave of relief flooded her, and she looked at her mother with pleased confusion. "But the headaches and blurred vision?"

Maggie looked embarrassed. "I need glasses."

"Oh, thank God that's all it is."

Her mother frowned. "Don't get me wrong, I'm beyond grateful that that's all it is, but I don't want glasses. I'm going to look so silly."

"Millions of people wear glasses, Mom."

"Yes, but those people aren't me!" Maggie blushed. "Listen to me: a grandmother of four, and still this vain."

Scully slung an arm around her. "We're all vain about something, Mom." Maggie leaned her head against her shoulder for a moment, and then the two made their way to the receptionist's desk so Maggie could make her co-payment and leave. "Maybe you can do contacts."

Maggie, who was in the process of handing over a check, shuddered. "The thought of touching my eye makes me nauseous."

"Okay, then maybe not contacts."

"They're not as bad as you'd think," the young receptionist said as he took Maggie's check. "Believe it or not, you do get used to it."

The look Maggie gave him was politely skeptical, and Scully realized that glasses would need to prove themselves highly inconvenient before her mother would even consider trying contacts.

Thank God she only needs glasses, Scully found herself thinking as they left. She couldn't cope with blindness. Not when she hasn't been helpless a day in her life.

At the back of her mind she was also thinking that the same had pretty much been true of herself too...right up until cancer made her dependent. She didn't think about that much anymore, thought the fear it returned had been what had prompted her to go to the hospital when Mulder was taken...

"Dana?"

"Hmm?" she asked, realizing that her mother had been talking.

"I asked if you'd help me pick out frames."

"Of course, Mom."


The cafe in the building was just about exactly what Mulder imagined it would be: slightly over-priced for the things he and the kids ordered (burgers for him and Tommy, and grilled cheese for Grace and Christian), slightly undersized for how many visitors were there, and noisy as less well-behaved kids than his trio ordered and/or ate. It wasn't terrible, though it was a bit overwhelming.

For the first few minutes no one said much of anything. So once both Tommy and Grace were eating, he divided his time between feeding Christian manageable pieces of his sandwich, and taking bites of his burger. He was beyond grateful that both of the older kids could adequately feed themselves.

"Mulder?" Tommy asked as he toyed with his french fries. "Grandma said something to Mommy I didn't understand."

"What's that?" he asked, hoping it wasn't something that would be terribly embarrassing.

"Grandma asked her if she would ever consider taking your name. Take it where?" The little red-haired boy looked deeply puzzled.

Mulder nearly swallowed his tongue in an effort not to laugh out loud. Tommy's expression turned to one of vague indignation, because he obviously realized that the source of Mulder's sudden mirth was his question. This made it even harder for him not to laugh out loud.

Scully didn't tell me that it was this hard to parent kids who can talk, or this funny, he found himself thinking. Calm yourself, he demanded of himself.

After a few seconds, he found that he was able to reply without giggling. "Do I remember correctly that your mom said that your preschool teacher got married last year?"

Tommy frowned at him, obviously thinking that the question was unrelated to his own. "Yeah..."

"What was her name before she got married?"

"Miss Blake."

"And what did people call her after she got married?"

"Mrs. Goode."

"Do you know why her name changed?"

Tommy gave him a look that suggested that the question was asinine, so he had to stifle another burst of inappropriate laughter. "Because she got married."

"Yes, but why do you think that particular last name became hers?" Mulder asked pointedly.

"I...don't know."

Mulder got the nagging sense that Tommy was under the impression that a new surname was assigned at random when a person married. "Well, it's because her new husband's last name is Goode," he explained, pleased to see that Tommy suddenly looked like he understood. "When a woman gets married she can either keep the last name she got from her parents, or she can change her last name to match her husband's. That's what it means to 'take his last name.'"

"So grandma wants to know if Mom would be Dana Mulder if you get married?"

"Exactly."

"I hope not," Tommy told him.

This left Mulder curious. "Why?"

"Because you're Mulder. I don't wanna call you Fox."

"Well, if she did decide to be Dana Mulder, you could still call me Mulder. It would mostly be people who don't know you, like your mom's coworkers, who'd use her whole name, so it wouldn't be too confusing."

"Oh, that's good."


Later

Scully and Maggie headed back to Scully's to make lunch after picking out frames Maggie didn't hate. They'd only begun to cut up veggies for a salad when there was a knock on the door.

"Do you suppose it's Fox?" Maggie asked, glancing at the door as if they could see through it.

"Not unless something's gone wrong," Scully muttered, imagining Grace having an epic meltdown. "He was planning to keep them until two," she added. What she didn't say is that when they'd made the day's itinerary, she'd secretly negotiated some time to quietly freak out after the appointment in case the news was bad because she hadn't wanted the kids to see her cry if they'd found out Maggie would potentially go blind.

"Then I wonder who...?"

Scully shrugged. It surprised her a little to peer through the peep hole and see her former boss standing on the other side of the door. Over her shoulder she said, "It's Walter Skinner."

"Oh."

"Hello?" Scully said as she opened the door to him.

"Hi. Is this a bad time?" Skinner asked pleasantly.

"No, not at all. Come on in."

"Hello, Walter," Maggie greeted him.

Scully wracked her brain, wondering if her mother and Skinner had met before. From their decidedly not shy expressions, she figured they must have.

"I'm sorry for stopping by unannounced, but I was hoping you could help me with something," Skinner said.

"What's that?"

He held out a manila folder. "Apparently the accounting department discovered that one of the employees they let go last year had gotten overwhelmed and instead of asking for help, had shoved a number of files under his desk. Fortunately, this one was the only one from our cases."

Scully took the file from him and thumbed through it. "I remember this case," she said. A number of people had spontaneously beaten the crap out of others in Kansas City. "What can I do to help?"

"If you can verify the dates you and Mulder were there, I think they'll be able to process the files."

"Sure, no problem," she agreed.

"Thanks." Skinner paused. "Are the kids around? It's awfully quiet."

"No, Fox has all three of the kids today," Maggie mentioned.

"Three? Is your nephew visiting?" Skinner asked Scully.

"No," Maggie said before Scully could formulate an answer. "He has the baby as well as Tommy and Grace."

"What baby?" Skinner sounded bewildered.

Scully glanced at Skinner, her face clearly broadcasting her surprise. "Mulder didn't say anything about this to you?"

"No," Skinner said, his tone a little too sharp for her comfort.

"Oh." Should she mention the scar, she wondered. If Mulder didn't mention the fact that he'd been worrying himself sick for months over the possible existence of a baby, Skinner sure as hell wouldn't have wondered if the scar was a C-section scar even if he had noticed it.

"Whose baby are you talking about?"

"His," Scully admitted. She looked away as she said it, so he wouldn't see her face.

"When did he have time to find a girlfriend?" Skinner asked, deftly proving her theory. He seemed almost angry. Perhaps because he was the last to know, even after her mother, and he'd been so generous to Mulder when he'd reappeared a broken man. "Did you know about this before he was taken?"

"Um...." Scully stammered helplessly. She wasn't sure what to say because Skinner obviously thought that the 'baby' in question was a toddler from a relationship before Mulder had been taken out of the world.

Her mother touched her shoulder and gave Skinner a kind look. "He didn't have another girlfriend, Walter. Fox's little son is a product of his abduction," she said, giving the most delicate explanation possible. "Isn't that right, dear?"

"Yes, Mom," Scully sighed.

"Well," Skinner said gruffly, but he seemed to relax a little. It was only as she noted this that it sunk in that he'd been offended on her behalf. "How old is the boy?"

Scully shrugged. "We're not entirely sure. Eight months, maybe?" she suggested, even though Mulder was sure he wasn't that old.

"And the mother? Is she still in the picture?" Skinner asked.

"We're not even sure she's human," Scully blurted out, and immediately wished that she hadn't.

Skinner looked disgusted. "Are you implying that Mulder and some alien...?"

Scully blinked. Poor Skinner, she thought, no wonder he looked horrified when I said that the mother may not be human. "Absolutely not."

"I'm not trying to suggest that Mulder would have voluntarily-" Skinner started to say, but he stopped when Scully shook her head violently.

"No, nothing like that. Nothing."

Some of the strong emotions faded out of Skinner's expression. "We're talking about some sort of petri dish situation here."

"Nothing natural, that's for sure," Maggie said grimly.

"What does she mean?" Skinner asked, turning to Scully.

Scully swallowed hard. "Evidence seems to suggest that Mulder was the one who gestated the baby."

"You're kidding."

"I wish I was."

"Those bastards," Skinner growled. "So, that's what his scar was about. I've always wondered..."

"I didn't know you noticed," Scully said.

"When I found him that night, he wasn't wearing much. I couldn't help but notice it. He didn't talk about it, so I didn't ask."

"That's probably for the best. I don't think he was in any state to talk about what happened at that point. It took him quite a while before he would tell me, either." Although as soon as the words were out of her mouth, she realized that Mulder hadn't actually told Skinner at all, at least not yet.

Three of them drifted off into silence. At least until Maggie spoke up. "He's cute."

"What?" Skinner asked, obviously confused.

"The baby. Christian. I've only seen him in pictures so far, but he's cute."

For a second Scully wondered why her mother was telling Skinner this, but then she realized that it was her way of telling him that even if Christian had an alien for her mother, he looked normal. And why wouldn't that concern Skinner, she wondered. It had been one of her own major concerns before they found Christian, after all. Looking up at Skinner she said, "He looks an awful lot like Mulder."

"Well," Skinner said gruffly. "From hearing various women talk, that is apparently not a bad thing."

"Walter!" Maggie exclaimed, and then broke into a laugh. "If I didn't know better, I would think that you were jealous."

"Me? No," Skinner denied. But after a moment he grinned. "I'm just glad that I'm Kim's type, not him."

"Me? No," Skinner denied. But after a moment he grinned. "I'm just glad that I'm Kim's type, not him."

"How is that going, anyway?" Scully asked. "Mulder told me that you had her over the night before Thanksgiving...oops, maybe I wasn't supposed to let on that I knew..."

"No, that's fine," Skinner said. "It's not supposed to be a secret."

She thought for a second before saying, "Well, that's good. Honestly, though, I wasn't surprised. About you and Kim, I mean."

"You weren't," Skinner said, not quite asking a question.

"No," she repeated. "Not when I think about the way that Kim looked at you whenever she called you out to speak to us."

"I don't..." Skinner mumbled. And then Scully saw something that she never thought she would: the ex-Marine blushing.


Meanwhile

Mulder and the kids were making a final sweep of the museum when the cellphone in Mulder's pocket began to ring. He fished it out and saw that it was Danny. "I need to take this call. Stay right here, okay?" he asked Tommy and Grace. Both little redheads nodded, so he rolled Christian's stroller three yards away so they wouldn't overhear.

"Mulder," he answered nervously. His chest felt very tight all of the sudden, and he began to wonder how badly things would go if he had a panic attack when he was in charge of three children.

"Hey, it's Danny." Before he could say that he knew that, Danny went on. "I just wanted to let you know that the results are going to take a few more days."

"Oh," Mulder whispered. "Okay."

"Sorry about that," Danny apologized. "Something went wrong so I need to re-run the samples. That happens sometimes."

"I know," Mulder said, speaking up a bit more as the real or psychosomatic chest constriction began to loosen now that he knew Danny wasn't calling to give him awful news about his son. "Scully and I had that happen during several cases, and those were professional labs."

"I'll hit you up again when I'm done, okay? Probably four days from now."

"Sounds good."

"Bye."

"Bye."

When Mulder looked up, he half expected the kids to be long gone, but they were both still obediently standing by a display of clay figurines made to look like cheerful snowmen. He grinned at them as his half-formed worry about looking all throughout the vast building for them dissolved. "Who's ready to visit the gift shop and then get cocoa?"

Their eyes lit up. Tommy slung an arm around his sister's shoulders. "We are!"

"Yep, us," Grace agreed.

"Well, that's good," Mulder told them. He turned them in the direction of the gift shop, intending to let them each get a toy or book. "Because we're ready too, right Christian?"

In the stroller the infant laughed, and the last of his anxiety fell away.


2pm

Mulder decided to leave the stroller in the car when he got to Scully's. It was actually easier to carry the baby than to get the thing into an elevator there. I'll be glad when she doesn't live here anymore - he found himself thinking idly as they made their way down a too-narrow hallway. Right up until Tommy tapped him on the arm.

"Hmm?"

"If it's your own house, do you gotta knock?" Tommy asked, peering at the door they were rapidly approaching.

"Uh...your mom would probably think that was polite," he said after a moment's thought. Honestly, he had no idea what Scully would prefer, and this seemed like a better err on the side of caution situation. Who knew what she and her mother might be talking about?

"I wanna knock," Grace insisted.

"Go ahead," Tommy said, giving her the stink eye. His immediate, if reluctant, move to give in made Mulder wonder how many times Maggie had nagged him to "let your little sister..." do something to keep the peace.

Grace smiled and knocked much louder than needed. As soon as the door opened, she threw herself at Maggie. "Grandma!"

Maggie bent and gathered the little girl up in her arms. "Hello, sweetheart." As soon as she straightened up, she offered warm looks to the others. "Hello, Tommy. And you must be Christian," she added, leaning in towards the baby.

"Grandma, he don't talk," Grace told her, sounding very serious.

"No, I suppose he wouldn't. Yet."

"Would you like to hold him?" Mulder offered, suddenly feeling shy.

"Yes, I would." Maggie took the baby from him, and walked back into the apartment, making Mulder follow her. "I've heard so much about this little one from Dana, and I'm very glad to finally get to meet him in the flesh."

Mulder didn't mind following her through the apartment, presumably on their way to see Scully, but his smile turned into confusion as his eyes fell upon the man sitting on Scully's couch. "S-Skinner?"

"Walter," the other man corrected reflexively. Then Skinner nodded to the baby that Maggie was currently cooing over. "Cute kid."

"Um...thanks." Mulder noticed out of the corner of his eye that Scully had intercepted Tommy and Grace, and seemed to be leading them to one of the kids' rooms. Damn, he thought as he watched them recede from view. Just when I could use their charm as a buffer. "I, uh, I meant to get in touch with you after the holidays..."

Maggie gently placed Christian on Skinner's lap as she stood up. Smiling at Skinner's startled look, she said, "I'd better go look in on those grandchildren of mine before I leave."

She disappeared out of the room in an instant, leaving Mulder and Skinner to stare at each other. Christian flailed about a little, and Skinner responded by settling him more securely on his lap.

Glancing over at Mulder, he said, "You could have told me."

Mulder lowered his eyes. "I think I knew that." He sighed. "But I wanted to know... that he was real before I burdened anyone else. Since then... I'm sorry. Somehow I didn't grasp how busy having him would make me, but I should have still found the time to talk to you anyway."

"It's okay," Skinner said simply.

Mulder shook his head. "No, it's not."

Skinner's expression suggested that he agreed but he was too kind to agree out loud. "I probably wouldn't have been shouting it from the rooftops either."

"Hmm."

"Besides," Skinner said expansively. "It's not like I don't have my own secrets."

"You do?" Mulder blurted out. When Skinner scowled at him, he sighed. "You know I didn't mean it like that-"

"I've asked Kim to move in with me," Skinner interrupted. "And she said yes."

"Woah, I guess you do have your own secrets," Mulder mumbled to himself. "Congratulations, Skinman."

"I've told you not to call me that," Skinner complained.

"I'm aware."

"But thank you." Skinner grinned at him. "I wasn't sure she'd said yes."

"I was," he immediately claimed.

"You were?" Skinner scoffed. "You didn't even know I was going to ask her!"

"Maybe I did," Mulder countered. "Maybe I can still read minds like I did after I came in contact with that artifact."

"Well, I sure as hell hope not."

Mulder raised his eyebrows in a way that would do Scully proud. Skinner just blushed for the second time that day.


9:45pm

"Those are the forwards, Demps," Mulder said, reaching over to scratch the tom's battered ears as the cat sat on the arm of his chair. "They score most of the points. However, there was once a defenseman named-"

The ringing of the phone interrupted Mulder's explanation about the greatest hockey player who ever donned a pair of skates, but the cat didn't seem to mind. Instead he just shifted slightly on Mulder's armrest when Mulder reached for his phone.

"Hello?"

"Hey, did I wake you?" Scully asked immediately.

"At quarter to ten? No. Not even I need that much sleep."

"Oh, are you busy?"

"Nah. Christian's sleeping so Dempsey and I were just watching the hockey game." He noted absently that the other team had just managed to get one around the goalie and suppressed a sigh.

"Not basketball?" she asked, sounding surprised.

"It's not on tonight. And I'm trying to branch out a little."

"Well," Scully said hesitantly. "If you're busy..."

"No, no, I'm not. We're losing anyway. What's up?"

"I wanted to apologize," Scully told him.

"For what?" His brow crinkled in mild confusion as he wracked his brain trying to think of what she might have done to wrong him. Other than accidently insult one of his favorite guys on the Knicks while discussing something on the news, nothing at all came to mind.

"For earlier. The last few days, actually," Scully replied, clearing up nothing. "I shouldn't have kept my concerns about my mother from you the way that I did."

"That's okay," Mulder said automatically.

"No, it's really not," Scully corrected him. "After how much friction there was between us when you tried to protect me...and I just turned around and did the exact same thing to you. It was equally wrong."

Mulder threw Dempsey a toy and smirked when his overgrown cat pounced clumsily on it, more like an enormous kitten than a mighty hunter. Regarding Scully's words, he said, "I guess we both have to try harder to respect each other as competent grown ups that can take bad news in stride, huh?"

She laughed softly. "I guess so."

"Then it's settled."

"Okay. Good night, Mulder."

" 'night, Scully."


The Next Afternoon

Scully has several errands to run after picking up the kids, so she hoped that pick up would go quickly. Unfortunately, the preschool teacher was in a chatting mood when she arrived at Grace's classroom.

"I overheard the cutest conversation," Grace's preschool teacher remarked to Scully as they gathered the little girl's belongings.

"Oh?"

"A few of the kids were talking to each other and the topic turned to where babies came from-" Scully forced herself not to cringe, knowing that something Grace said would be the next thing the woman told her. "Grace told them quite confidently that she knew where babies came from."

"Where's that?"

"She told them that in order to get a baby, first you have to go on an airplane, and then go pick it up. Isn't that the cutest thing ever?"

"Oh boy," Scully mumbled. "My boyfriend recently got custody of his infant son and had to travel across the country to get him, so I suppose that's where she got the idea."

"At least it's better than thinking that babies came from under a cabbage patch," the teacher said with a smile and a shrug. Scully was grateful that she didn't ask how the boyfriend ended up with a baby obviously by another woman. "My cousin teaches first grade and you wouldn't believe how many seven-year-olds still don't know where babies really come from."

"I suppose so..." Scully said, wondering what age was appropriate for correcting that misconception. Tommy had only asked her about where babies came from the year before, and she didn't think he had spent much time considering it before that.

To her surprise, the woman touched her arm to get her attention. When Scully looked up, she gave her a slightly apologetic look. "I think you should know that Ava and Henry went home today with a stomach bug. We didn't know that they were sick until Ava threw up after lunch."

"Oh." Scully frowned to herself, thinking about how virulent stomach bugs could be.

"Maybe they went home before they had time to infect anybody else," the teacher suggested optimistically.

"Maybe..."

"Momma!" Grace noticed that Scully was there, and came and threw herself at her knees. "I maded a picture for you." She proudly held out a crayon drawing of what was probably a shakily drawn tree.

"Oh, how pretty."

Grace wrinkled her nose. "Dis is Mulder. He is not pretty."

"I don't know, Grace, I've always thought he was," Scully said, only half joking.

"You are silly," the three-year-old declared.

"And you are stuck with me," Scully said, swooping the girl up off her feet and making her giggle. "Ready to go grocery shopping?"

"Where's Tommy?" Grace asked, craning her neck.

"Are you ready to go grab Tommy from kindergarten and then go grocery shopping?" Scully asked, amending her question.

"Yes!"

"Then let's go."

As Scully carried her daughter out of the room, dangling the girl's lunchbox from her free hand, she hoped that Grace's cheerfulness was a solid indication that she wouldn't come down with her classmates' illness.


Two Days Later

Scully awoke suddenly and when she glanced at her alarm clock, she sighed. In seven minutes it'd go off rudely, and there definitely wasn't time to fall back to sleep. Worse, it was the type of cold morning that had Scully wanting nothing more than to stay nestled in her warm blankets, but she had a busy day ahead, so she knew that she'd have to get up very soon. When she heard Tommy in the bathroom, she sighed and decided it was time to get Grace up too. The alarm had only just begun to blare when she smacked it on her way out the door.

Opening the Grace's door, Scully began to say "rise and shine" but stopped herself when she saw her daughter.

Grace usually slept curled up in a ball under her covers, but this morning she was lying on her back with her arms thrown out. Sweat glued her hair to her forehead, and even in the dim light of morning Scully could see that she was pale...a remarkable feat considering her fair complexion.

Thinking of Grace's teacher's words about the two children who'd gone home sick earlier in the week, Scully could only sigh "dammit" before kneeling next to Grace's bed.

"Don't say 'dammit', Momma," Grace chided her, peeling her eyes open. She looked exhausted. "Dat's a bad word."

"You don't feel good, huh?" Scully asked, gently gathering her in her arms.

"Nope," Grace whispered.

Scully cast a look at the clock. Her class had an exam and it was definitely too late to try and reschedule it.


Five Minutes Later

Pretty much the last thing that Mulder expected was for his phone to ring at 7am, but he did manage to grab it before the caller hung up. "Hello?" he asked sleepily. He had fallen asleep again after feeding Christian only two hours ago.

"Mulder?"

"Hey Scully, what's up?" he asked around a yawn.

She hesitated for a moment and he began to worry. "I hate to ask, but Grace isn't feeling well... do you think that you could watch her today? Her preschool won't take her if she's ill, and I have an exam to give."

"Of course," he found himself saying before he thought it through. Feeling dumb, he asked, "Um. How sick is she?" The thought that she might give something to the baby that might shorten what could possibly be a pitifully short life anyway frankly terrified him. Don't say the flu, his brain urged her silently, if she says the flu, you have to back out.

"It seems to be an intestinal bug," Scully told him.

"She's throwing up?"

"Um... no."

"Oh."

Mulder did some quick thinking: although Grace probably wouldn't agree, in a way that sort of "sick" was probably better than if she was coughing, sneezing, or throwing up all over the place. It would certainly be easier to contain than other bodily fluids, and therefore less likely to infect Christian too... just as long as he bathed everything in disinfectant and made ample use of hand sanitizer between touching things belonging to either kid.

"Sorry?" Scully offered.

"No, it's okay. You can bring her by before you go to work."

The one drawback to having set up the spare room as Christian's nursery was that he could already foresee that he would have to put her in his bed and then need to spend the night doing laundry before he could go to bed himself. Unless...

"Hey Scully?"

"Yes?"

"I don't have much in the way of bedding. Could you buy me a set of queen-size sheets before you pick her up this afternoon?"

It only took half a second before she responded. "Absolutely. And I'll do your laundry too. We'll just bag any bedding that she'll have come in contact with."

"Thanks," he said gratefully.

"Don't thank me, you're doing me the favor."

"Yeah... I guess that's true," he teased.

"Mulder... But seriously, thank you."

"No problem," he said with a bravo he didn't really feel. Who knew what kind of problems there could be?


It scared Mulder a bit when Scully arrived to see that Grace was listless in her arms. His grandmother would've said that Grace was customarily "full of beans" but she certainly wasn't then.

Scully gave him an apologetic smile as she set the little girl down on his couch. "Thank you so much for doing this."

"No worries," he said distractedly. Grace was the very picture of misery.

"If she gets worse, please call me. I would then cancel my classes."

"Is she likely to get worse?" Mulder asked worriedly.

Scully sighed. "I sure hope not." She shook her head. "When I dropped Tommy off at school a few parents were talking about this, and it seems that most kids were better in just a day or two."

"Huh."

"Be good for Mulder, sweetie," Scully said, and then bent to kiss Grace on the top of the head. Watching this, Mulder couldn't help but wince a little. Hopefully Scully wouldn't get whatever it was too. Looking over her shoulder, Scully said "thanks again" before rushing out.

It was only after the door had shut behind Scully that he realized that Grace was still wearing her jacket. "Hey, why don't we take this off?" he asked, reaching for her. She didn't respond or resist.

Once he had the jacket off, he saw that she was in her pajamas, which was probably a good thing considering. He picked her up gently, briefly surprised how much more she weighed when Christian. Of course she was more than two years older, but she always seemed so small and delicate to him. "Your mom isn't as light as she looks either," he said, thinking out loud about rescuing Scully from the aliens in the spaceship that to that day she still swore she didn't see take off.

A few moments later he tucked her into his bed, and turned off the light. "If you need anything, I am going to be out in the living room."

He thought that she said okay as he left the room.


A about an hour later a small hand tugged on Mulder's shirt, and he was surprised that a sick three-year-old could sneak up on him. "Yes, Grace?" he asked, putting aside his magazine and looking down at her. As he did he briefly wondered if the fact that he had assumed that the small hand belonged to his daughter rather than an alien was a sign of progress, but her wan face snapped him out of his self-directed thoughts. "What's the matter?"

"My belly hurts," she whispered miserably.

"Do you feel little you have to throw up?" he asked, wondering if a kid that young would be able to tell. He had a vague memory of unexpectedly throwing up on his dad at about that age. To say that Bill hasn't been amused would have been an understatement, but the thing that stuck in Mulder's mind was that his father hadn't scolded him, just cleaned up both of them and tucked him back into bed.

"No," Grace insisted. "Not frow up."

"Does it hurt here?" he asked, touching his lower abdomen, trying to get at the idea of intestinal distress instead.

"Yeah," she agreed, apparently understanding his pantomime.

"Oh...We better get you onto the potty."

"No. Pullup," Grace protested weakly.

Until that moment he'd forgotten that Scully complained that she still wasn't toilet trained. The idea of touching a messy Pullup and possibly getting sick and even worse possibly giving it to the baby made him blanche. He couldn't do it. "I'm sorry, Grace, but no. Do you know what a germ is?" Mulder asked.

"Make you sick," she said sullenly.

"That's right. Germs make us sick when we get coughed or sneezed on, or touching something that got cough or sneeze germs on them. And when we have a sick belly our throw up and poop have germs that make people sick in them too. Babies get sick real easy so the more poop we get in the potty instead of a Pullup that can leak the better."

Plus, he half wondered if a little girl could end up with a UTI if she sat around in a soiled Pullup anyway. He had no idea how he'd explain that to her, though, so he skipped it.

Grace bit her lower lip and gave him an uncertain look. "Okay," she said after a while.

Mulder glanced over at the playpen, and saw that Christian was playing quietly. It should be okay to leave him alone momentarily. There was nothing dangerous nearby, and it wasn't as though he couldn't hear the living room from the bathroom.

"Good girl." Mulder took her hand. He didn't want her to develop a complex though so he tried to expand his explanation. "It's okay if you don't make it to the potty every time but the more times you try to the better. Sometimes even grownups don't get to the bathroom on time, and it doesn't mean they're bad, just too sick." Maybe if he bleached his hands he could keep from getting it, if it came to that…

"Uh huh. And the baby won't get sick?" Grace asked.

"Hopefully not. And me neither. All because of you being so responsible!" he praised, thinking that if ever there was a time to flatter a little kid's ego, it was when they needed to do something they were this reluctant to.

Once they got to the bathroom Mulder quickly found the little white plastic child seat he'd been sold when buying things to set up the spare room for Christian, thinking that Scully's kids visited often enough it'd be good to have on hand. It fit neatly onto the regular seat and made the bowl look smaller which he bet was less scary when you were only three feet tall.

"Oh," he said as the little girl gave the toilet an apprehensive look. From her point of view the toilet must seem very high. "There's a stool to climb up too. Um, somewhere..."

After a moment's thought he finally remembered where he'd stashed it. He yanked open the bathroom closet door and found the stool there as hoped. While Grace watched he unfolded the stool and put it into place, then offered a little flourish. "Ta da."

Grace didn't look all that impressed. "Mulder, it's blue. I'm a girl!"

"But my bathroom is blue," he said, which was the first thing that popped into his head at all. At least he hadn't been inspired to insist that the stool was in fact a boy stool, which would have been funny but also confusing to her.

"Oh." She looked up at the blue title on his bathroom walls. "It matches?"

"Yes..." he replied, hoping that was the answer that would lead to cooperation instead of a tantrum.

"Okay." Grace sighed, climbed onto the stool and pulled down her pajama bottom, proving that she'd paid at least that much attention to Scully's unfruitful toileting instruction. "Like this?" she asked easily climbing onto the padded plastic seat.

"Yup." He was at a loss about what to do after that though. Did you leave the kid in peace or would the potty trainee get scared if they were left alone? "Um...Grace, do you want me to stay here, or go out in the hall?"

Grace waved a hand dismissively. "I call you I need you."

"Right," he mumbled, and wandered into the hallway.

After a few minutes, he heard the toilet flush, which surprised him a little because he'd heard that toddlers often found flushing scary. Then there was a scraping sound, which he identified as the stool moving across the tile floor when the sink came on.

Grace exited the bathroom a moment later, hands dripping water. "All done."

"You, um, wiped up and everything?" Mulder asked, cheeks going red.

"Yup. No stinky butt." She grinned at him. "Momma show me and show me!"

I bet she did, he found himself thinking in amusement. He bet that Scully had no idea that Grace had actually been paying attention after all. "Good girl."

"I'm tired," Grace told him, yawning and holding up her arms to him. It was this gesture that made him realize that despite being so much more capable than the baby, Grace was still very, very young too.

Mulder scooped her up. "Thank you for being such a big girl to keep Christian from getting sick too," he told her, feeling a deep gratitude that for once she wasn't as intractable as Scully often complained she was.

"Welcome," Grace said before yawning in his face.


Mulder carried her back into his bedroom and put her back in his bed. After a few moments of fussing, he managed to get the sheet and comforter tucked around her.

"How's that?" he asked. "Comfortable?"

"Yep."

"Good." He waited for her to close her eyes, but she didn't. Instead she gazed up at him from her nest of plaid bedding.

Mulder?" Grace asked.

"Yes?" He expected her to ask for water or a story.

"Do you work your arf off?"

"Um..." Mulder stared at her, puzzled. "I'm not sure what you mean."

Grace shrugged. "I hear Mommy's old-boss say she worked her arf off for years. Do you?"

"Well," Mulder stammered, trying not to laugh. "Not right now, but I have most of my life."

"Oh." Grace looked at him with interest. "With dogs?"

"Haha." He blushed when that nervous laugh escaped. "I do walk dogs at the shelter."

"What's a shelter?" the tiny redhead asked.

"A place where dogs and cats live until they get new families. It's where I got Dempsey, actually," he said, deciding not to mention that the feline was purloined. Even though the thought of a purloined cat was kind of funny.

"We're his family now, right?" Grace asked. "You and me, and Mommy and Tommy."

"Sure." At least we're working on it.

"Good." It came out as a sigh, and he wasn't surprised that her eyelids fluttered closed after that.


Mulder was in the middle of shutting the door to the room when it occurred to him that she hadn't included his baby as part of her litany about who made up Dempsey's family. It was an innocent oversight, but it left him with an unpleasant skin crawling feeling anyway.

The baby boy was still playing quietly in the playpen where Mulder had corralled him, and didn't protest when Mulder scooped him up into his arms. "It doesn't mean anything," Mulder said soothingly, although it was clear that he was the only one in distress. "She's just a little girl, not a fortune teller. She was sleepy and forgot to mention you, that's all."

Christian was warm and heavy, and snuggled against Mulder's chest as soon as Mulder sat in his recliner. Mulder cupped the back of the boy's head for a moment and ran his hand down the baby's soft brown hair.

He felt warm and vital, Mulder realized. There was nothing about the baby that made any of his worries about him having a shortened life feel true. But...

But had Emily been a sickly infant? Mulder found himself wondering again. Had there been anything about the girl that had made the Sims look at her at the start and think that they weren't going to have her long? Had there been clues before she'd gotten sick enough to require the treatment Scully decided not to keep up? Probably not, he decided. They hadn't known that they'd die before her, so how could they have known that she wouldn't see her 4th birthday?


After another two hours passed, and Mulder had put Christian down for nap, the door to his bedroom opened, and Grace came out. Mulder got up at once. "Do you need to use the potty again?"

"Yes," Grace agreed with a nod. But she stopped nodding immediately, and it made him wonder if doing so had made her dizzy. "And I am hungry."

"Okay. First you go to the bathroom, and then we'll see about getting lunch."

When Grace came out of the bathroom she looked gray and tired still, but she was able to sit at the table without needing him to help her into the chair. "Grace, would you like tuna fish?"

"I'm not old enough to eat tuna fish."

"You're not?"

For a moment it seemed as though she was going to shake her head, but she stopped before she did, which bolstered his idea that she was kind of dizzy. "Nope."

Curious, Mulder wanted to know more about this. He knew that pregnant women weren't supposed to eat a lot of fish, and he had never heard of the kid being too young to eat tuna fish. At least, not a child old enough to have teeth, that was. "When will you be old enough to eat tuna?" he asked, wondering what guidelines Scully had given her children. Was Tommy old enough to eat tuna?

"Never!"

"You'll never be old enough to eat tuna?" he asked, confused now. It didn't seem like Scully to ban a food entirely, at least not one that was usually considered fairly healthy.

"Mulder, I don't like it." Grace sounded exasperated.

All of the sudden a lightbulb went off over Mulder's head. He had to give Grace credit, saying she wasn't old enough was quite an interesting way to justify not having to eat something. He almost wished that he'd thought of it, back during kindergarten when he got served liver.

"How about peanut butter and jelly?" he offered.

"I'm old enough to eat dat."


The rest of the early afternoon passed without incident and both kids took another nap, leaving him with plenty of time to read a novel that he'd picked up a few days earlier. He was just getting to a good part, where the hero was vindicated when the president asked him to lead a war against a shadow government, when a small sleepy voice said, "read to us."

When he looked down, he thought that Grace must mean her and the stuffed shark that she had barely let out of her grasp since Scully dropped her off, but when he said okay and patted the seat next to him she shook her head and whined "No! Baby too!"

 "Ah, okay... " he said hesitantly, wondering how likely the baby was to be exposed to her germs. She wasn't coughing or sneezing. "How about you sit on this side of me and Christian sits here?"

 "So he don't get sick? " Grace asked, blue eyes wide.

"That's right." he agreed. "And this way you'll both be able to see the pictures."

 "Okay!"

"Climb up here and I'll go get him."  She must not have been feeling as much better as he thought because she needed his help. "Comfy?" He put a pillow against her side, and she smiled weakly at him. "Be right back."

 Christian was barely awake when Mulder went to get him from his crib, but he didn't protest when he was picked up. "Hey kiddo, let's go read a story." Since he didn't talk he said nothing, but snuggled into his father's arms.

On the way out of the nursery he grabbed a handful of the many picture books people like the guys and Scully's mom had already bought the baby. He didn't pick up The Giving Tree because he knew Scully hated it, having once drank too much and told him all about it back before his abduction. Instead he ended up with a book by Dr. Seus, a book by Jan Brett, and one by Eric Carle.

As he settled between the two little ones, he showed Grace the covers of the books. "Which one?"

Grace pointed at the cover of the Jan Brett book, and Mulder propped Christian against his side before opening the cover. From what he'd been told about child development back in college it was unlikely that the baby understood yet that the pictures were representative of real people and animals, but he seemed to like the colors anyway, and lightly patted the corner of the page he could reach with one pudgy little hand.

"Once there was a boy named Nicki," Mulder read, and both kids stared down at the page. "He wanted mittens as white as snow…"


Late That Afternoon

Scully's day could've gone better. Both exams ran over, the store had been mobbed when stopped for Mulder's requested sheets, and she found herself arriving at Tommy's school ten minutes later than usual. There were surprisingly few cars at the school when she pulled up, and she was pleased to see that Tommy's teacher and an aide had led the remaining kids outside to play for an impromptu recess in the snow that'd fallen the night before.

"Hey," Scully called once she'd gotten out of the car and opened the back door, and Tommy ran up to her, breathless and pink cheeked from the cold. "How's my boy?"

"Good!" he exclaimed, letting her settle him in his booster seat.

"Not feeling sick?" she asked, hoping that his rosy complexion wasn't due to fever in addition to the outside play.

"Nope. Grace is, huh?"

"Yes. I'm hoping you and I don't catch it."

"Where is she?" Tommy asked, looking at the empty booster seat next to him.

"I took her to Mulder's house to spend the day with him and Christian."

"Lucky," Tommy sighed.

She gave him a look. "An upset tummy, and she's lucky?" Scully asked archly.

Unperturbed, Tommy nodded. "Getting to spend the day with Mulder is lucky, Mommy."

"Oh, is it?" she teased.

"Yup. And someday we'll get to be lucky every day, right?" Tommy asked innocently.

In reply Scully just hummed to herself, closed his door, and got in the car herself.


Scully half expected that Grace would run to the door and greet her and Tommy but when the door swung open it was Mulder on the other side.  She immediately began to worry that her little one was feeling worse than when she left her.

"Hi." She greeted him with a hug.  For a second he seemed surprised, but after a beat he hugged her back. "How is she?" she asked.

"Ok, I think. I'll get her for you," he said, and once he turned towards his room she realized that Grace must be sleeping.

"Mommy, Grace is sleeping?" Tommy apparently had come to the same conclusion. "She hates naps!"

"She's sick-"

"Here she is," Mulder announced, carrying the three-year-old in his arms. Grace's skin was pink from sleep and her red curls in wild disarray. "Hey, Grace, your mommy is here to bring you home."

"Aww, Sweetie," Scully cooed as she reached her arms out to take her. "Are you ready to go home?"

"Noooo…" Grace whined, shaking her head so violently that Scully couldn't get a grip on her. "Wanna kiss the baby goodbye!"

"Hey, hey," Mulder cajoled her, "You can't kiss the baby. Germs remember?"

"I 'member," she said thickly, still half crying in irritation.

"But you could blow him a kiss," he suggested.

"What's dat?"

To Scully's amusement, he demonstrated. Grace gave him a skeptical look. "Like that. And the kiss flies through the air, and finds the person you blew it to."

"Really?"

"Would I lie?" Mulder asked, cutting Scully a warning look. She just shrugged almost imperceptibly.

"No…"

"So you try it," Mulder encouraged. "Christian!" he then called, so the little boy sitting in the playpen would look in their direction.

Grace didn't look thrilled by the compromise, but she did kiss her hand and blow on it. Christian, entertained by what she was doing, laughed. And then Grace's eyes lit up. "It got him!"

"Sure." 

Scully was pleased that there were no more tears or whining when they left about ten minutes later. Mulder had kissed her on the cheek after she picked up Grace and the sheets she promised to launder, and she instantly wished that Grace was feeling a lot better so they could spend the night.

She'd sighed and left, promising herself that there'd be another opportunity to spend time together once none of them were contagious.


A short while later Scully found that Grace perked up a tiny bit when they got home. To her surprise, the girl was willing to eat a little of her dinner.

A phone call pulled Scully away from the kitchen while the kids were still eating. When she read the caller ID and saw that it was work, she stepped into the next room. It was a brief conversation about one of her colleagues opening a virus-laced email, and unfortunately allowing the virus to infect several other computers in the network. Since she knew that she hadn't opened any emails with attachments, she swore on her life that she wouldn't the following day and was finally able to hang up the phone.

Coming back into the kitchen, she noticed that Tommy was at the table, but Grace was nowhere to be seen. "Where's your sister?"

Tommy shrugged. "Don't know. She said she had to go."

Scully wanted to ask him why he didn't think this was odd, but Grace was three. About 75% of what she said to anybody was odd, and Tommy was probably just use to it. "Go where?" Tommy shrugged, so Scully asked worriedly, "She didn't leave the apartment, did she?"

"Nope. She definitely didn't, Mommy."

"Huh."

The apartment wasn't overly large, but Grace was being uncharacteristically quiet, so her mother had to conduct a room by room search. Looking in the bedrooms, even peeking under the bed skirts, revealed nothing. However, before she could get seriously worried, Scully heard a cry for help. "Mama! Mama, I need find it."

It only took her second to realize that the tiny voice was coming from the bathroom. Scully open the bathroom door, and looked in to see Grace standing there, a distressed look on her face. "What's wrong?" Scully asked.

"I need the steppy thing." And then Grace thought for a second. "And dat seat!"

It took Scully a minute to figure out what her daughter was talking about. But then, suddenly a light dawned. Tearing open the linen closet, she pulled out the potty seat, and the tiny purple stepstool that the two of them had carefully picked out six months earlier, and then had barely ever touched. "These?" she asked.

"Yes!"

Scully put this potty seat on top of the toilet, but had the stool ripped out of her hands. To her surprise, Grace made shooing motions. "Out, Mama. Go out."

"Uh... Okay."

As soon as she stepped out, the door was shut in her face.

For a minute, maybe two, Scully just stood there, staring at the closed door. She jumped a foot when Tommy came up behind her. "Find her?"

"Yeah. She's in the bathroom."

Tommy looked puzzled. "But we don't take baths all by ourselves."

"No, it's not bath time yet."

"Then-?"

Tommy's question was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of the toilet flushing. Scully's first impulse was to cringe. It had been over a year since Grace had flushed anything valuable, or awkwardly shaped, down the toilet, but still… Next there was a sound of running water, and then the door opened.

Grace looked at them curiously, water dripping from her hands, before saying to Scully "Mama, I'm tired."

Although she was dying to go into the bathroom and figure out what Grace did, instead she scooped her daughter up, and headed to the girl's room. It was early for bed, but sick kids usually needed more sleep.

As soon as Scully came out of Grace's room after tucking her in, she found that Tommy was her shadow again. Looking at her, he asked, "What was she doing in the bathroom?"

Shrugging, she admitted, "Tommy, I have no idea. And I better go look."

"I'll come too," Tommy offered bravely.

Expecting the worst, Scully hesitantly flicked on the bathroom light, and was pleasantly surprised. The potty seat was still ensconced on top of the toilet, but the tiny stepstool was folded up neatly, and the toilet was flushed.

"Did she… go?" Tommy asked, giving the toilet a skeptical look.

"I'm not sure. But I think she tried to."

"Weird," he commented.

She thought she ought to say something in defense of Grace, but her boy wasn't wrong. This was entirely uncharacteristic of the tiny, stubborn, redhead. "Yeah," she agreed.


Two Days Later

"Hey, how is it going?" Mulder asked, glad that he'd grabbed the phone on its first ring. Christian was sleeping, and he hadn't gone down easily. He'd been droolly as well as cranky and Mulder thought he felt a tooth about to erupt in the baby's upper jaw.

He was still thinking about this, and wondering if Scully would have advice about baby Tylenol when she asked, "Mulder, did you potty train my daughter?"

"Yes?" he hesitantly replied, kneading the tail of his shirt as he spoke into the phone. Until that moment he had neither thought that Grace might continue to use the potty once she was over her bug nor had he thought about how Scully might feel about his taking over the task. Now he wondered if he had stepped on her toes.

To his utter shock she squealed happily, "Bless you! I was worried that she'd still be in diapers in kindergarten."

"Oh." Mulder was confused by this confession, and from her tone it was definitely a confession, not a joke - did she really think that Grace would still be untrained in a year and a half? His mother told him that boys were harder to train and Scully had never mentioned any trouble training Tommy...but then he considered that Grace was more headstrong than her easy-going sibling. A lot more.

"I shouldn't be too surprised given that my mom keeps says that Missy almost drove her to a nervous breakdown before she was dry all day. Missy's preschool threatened to kick her out over it," Scully confided. "I really lucked out that her preschool is one of the few in the area that doesn't require kids to be dry all day, but all the kindergartens do.

"You know, Tommy only took a week to train just after I got them and that gave me the false impression that I was good at toilet training..."

As he listened to her talk about how nice it was that he had taken an active role in potty training their daughter, he was overwhelmed with the urge to ask her to marry him.

This impulse had him blinking in confusion – where had it come from? Grace, he thought. Even if every one of his fears about his son came to pass, he would still be her father. It wasn't like when Emily died had been for Scully: the loss of his son, if it came to that, didn't mean his entire identity as a parent was going to be amputated.

This thought gave him pause. Unless their older members of their own families suffered similar tragedies, men didn't have too many role models about how to carry on after losing a part of their families. Instead books and action movies meant to appeal to guys were full off men who sought revenge after their wife and/or child were murdered, not characters who were filled with grief for one child taken far too early by disease, but still had to be there for those who survived.

We'd get through it, he realized. It would hurt so very much, but we would have each other to lean on. Scully wouldn't let him go though it alone, even if he insisted that he wanted to. No more than he had let her shut him out and suffer alone after being diagnosed with cancer.

I can't ask her to marry me over the phone. The realization made him sad but it would be best to wait. At least until they were face to face.

"Mulder?" she sounded concerned, and he noticed that it had been quite a while since he'd said anything.

"Sorry, wool gathering," he said sheepishly. "What were you saying?"

"I said that I'm glad that the kids are good for you."

He chuckled. "You say that like they aren't usually well behaved."

"Well, they aren't always. Ask my brother. He had a hell of a time when he looked after them the last time we visited him and Tara."

"He probably wonders if they're both mine," he suggested with a smirk he was glad she couldn't see.

"You know, I think he does," she laughed. "I can't wait to see how he reacts to meeting Christian this summer. The baby looks so much like you that I'm sure he'll have some clever remarks about it."

"This summer?" Mulder asked, surprised that she was thinking about introducing his son to her brother.

"Oh, didn't I tell you? Mom has talked him into bringing Tara and Mattie here to spend the week of July 4th at her house. We're already invited to her cookout."

"That's nice," he said vaguely. His eyes had cut towards the door to the baby's room.

"I wonder how long it will take with Christian," Scully said next, apropos of nothing, or so he thought.

"What will?"

"I wonder how long it'll take you to potty train him," she said patiently.

"Oh. I don't know." The familiar sick lurch to his stomach came back as it always did when he tried to give serious thought to his son's future, despite his realization that he could survive the worst, if he had to. On some level he realized that if he told his therapist or the psychiatrist about his anxiety around Christian, which he wouldn't because telling anything even approaching the truth would get him recommitted, he would be told that this too was part of his own personal brand of PTSD. It made perfect sense, but he wondered if adjusting his anti-anxiety medications would help nearly as much as would undoubtably be suggested to him even if he managed to impart a quarter-truth.

"Well, we'll have to see," she was saying when he next really heard her, and he hoped they wouldn't see too soon. Then there was a commotion on the other end of the line, and Scully apologized, "Sorry, I've got to go. Tommy says that there's a delivery person at the door who needs to me to sign for a package."

"Talk to you later, then."

"Thanks again for potty training Grace," Scully exclaimed hurriedly. "Love you."

"Love you too."

As the call disconnected, Mulder listened to hear if the baby was stirring yet. He wasn't, but Dempsey sauntered through then, letting his tail brush Mulder's legs as he passed him.

Mulder bent down and gave the tom's head a good scratch. "Scully's making plans like Christian is going to be okay. Guess I should too, huh?" It could happen - in the weeks since he got the boy he hadn't done too much more rapid growing, had he? He was too afraid to actually measure him, though.

The cat said nothing, but Mulder would swear that his eyes said 'of course you should, dummy.'


Exactly ten days after Mulder visited Danny, his phone rang.

Unaware that Mulder had caller ID, Danny identified himself. "Mulder, it's Danny. Are you sitting down?"

"No," Mulder replied, torn between being amused and being alarmed.

"You should be sitting down," Danny said gravely.

He pulled out a kitchen chair noisily enough that Danny must have heard it over the phone, and then perched on it. "I'm sitting. What is all of this about?"

"I ran the samples again. And there was the same outcome-" Danny said, apparently forgetting that he hadn't actually told Mulder what the problem had been. He seemed to remember this because he added, "It came back as only one set of data."

"Then there must be something wrong with your machine," Mulder said impatiently.

He heard a sound like cloth rubbing transmit over the phone and realized it must be Danny shaking his head with the phone pressed up against his shoulder. "I compared the sample I took from the baby to Scully's – she'd asked me to compare hers to another sample once but called it off the next day before I could, saying she didn't need it anymore –" Danny said, probably not realizing that the other sample had undoubtedly belonged to Emily. "And they showed as quite different, so it's not the machine."

Staring at the window nearby, he wondered if Danny realized that he'd just ruled Scully out as the baby's mother. On a logical level he knew that it was next to impossible that she could be, but it was still hard to get confirmation of that. "So what are you trying to say?" he asked impatiently when Danny made a nervous noise that forced his thoughts away from that disappointment.

"The baby has your DNA."

"We know that," Mulder sighed.

"Mulder, you don't understand..." Danny sounded frustrated, Mulder noted absently. "The baby has only your DNA. He only inherited one set of parental DNA. Yours."

"You mean mine and DNA you can't identify," Mulder said heavily. Of course Danny's machine wasn't calibrated to identify alien DNA. It might not even be calibrated to identify non-human terrestrial mammal DNA.

"No, Mulder," Danny replied. "I mean his DNA and yours are an exact match 100% through."

Outside a squirrel climbed a tree, knocking a clump of snow to the ground. Mulder watched it transfixed until Danny said his name, sounding concerned. Tearing his eyes from the arboreal rodent, Mulder gathered his thoughts with effort. "How could he have ended up with only one set of parental DNA?" he asked, mostly of himself. Trying to work through the puzzle aloud, he went on. "If he only has my DNA, you're saying he..."

"Is a clone," Danny helpfully supplied. "Someone cloned you. Unless you think it's possible that your parents had your identical twin frozen in time like Ted Williams' frozen head."

Mulder startled. "Ted Williams is dead?"

"Oh, right, that happened while you were gone," Danny muttered. "His head was removed and cryogenically frozen. Some idiots think he'll be brought back someday. But did you hear the rest of what I said?"

"That the baby is my clone," Mulder repeated slowly.

"I'm sorry?" Danny offered, sounding uncertain.

Mulder began to laugh and he got the sense that he had made Danny uncomfortable. Forcing himself to pull it together, he stopped laughing and said, "You don't understand, Danny. This is wonderful news."

"You're happy that some mad scientist cloned you?" Danny asked doubtfully. "I can't figure out how that could be something you're happy about."

"I never would have asked someone to clone me-" Or at least he believed that to be the case. Although perhaps if it was the only way that he and Scully could have experienced parenthood and someone offered... "But it's far, far better than the alternative."

"What's the alternative?"

"Do you really want to know?" Mulder asked, barely holding in another laugh.

"No," Danny blurted out. "Oh, what the hell. Tell me."

"I was worried that he was only half human. My half."

"And the other half?"

The question surprised him, but maybe Danny was too confused to be mentally agile enough to have readily guessed. "I was gone for three years after being abducted by aliens," he reminded him. "So... Yeah."

"You were worried that he was half little green man," Danny concluded. He said it a little less doubtfully than most people would, probably due to his familiarity with the work Mulder had done over the years with Diana and then Scully.

"Gray," he corrected automatically. "But yes. I was terrified that we were going to discover that half of his DNA was of alien origin."

"Why would that be so bad?" Danny asked, which threw him at first. But it became more clear when Danny went on. "He's not green or gray. No bug eyes, oversize noggin, or long spindly limbs and extremities. He looks like he'd fit in, but you still worried. Were you worried that he'd end up with spooky powers or something?"

"Danny," Mulder said slowly. The idea that the baby might be able to do mine control or read thoughts had never crossed his. "Dana's oldest child had some alien DNA. Remember?"

"The little girl who died? Oh," Danny said heavily as soon as he caught on.

"Emily only had a small amount of alien DNA and she was barely three when she died. I was afraid that my son would die even sooner." Much sooner, he didn't say.

"But he's not actually your son," Danny remarked cheerfully. "He's your clone."

"Whose son is he?" Mulder demanded to know. "My parents'?"

"Well no," Danny said reluctantly. "I suppose not."

"Exactly."

"In a way," Danny began, "you're both his mother and father."

"I don't think he could be any more my child than that," Mulder reasoned. His mind it already rejected the idea that the baby was his identical twin. That might be true in some sense, but it wasn't something that would make sense to anyone, even, or perhaps especially, him. "It will be easier on him if we all get used to calling him my son right now. There will be fewer questions and that will be better for everyone, especially him."

"Yeah, I guess. 'How did you end up being a clone?' would be a lot less comfortable a playground question than having people remark that he looks just like his dad." Danny chuckled. "People will probably say that he's a chip off the old block, and they'll never know how true that is."

For a moment Mulder considered Chip as a nickname, but he rejected it. He'd known a couple of Chips growing up, and he'd always dislike the moniker. Besides, people might assume he was named after Scully's younger brother, and he didn't want to add envy to the reason that Bill Scully resented him.

"Hopefully most of the gossip will be about me, not him. Or at least not overheard by him."

"Why would people gossip about you?" Danny asked. Because he was a good friend he didn't frame it as additional gossip, but they both knew that there was some already.

"Danny, I was gone for three years. People who knew us both saw Scully in the interim, they know she was never pregnant. So suddenly I have a baby? They'll know it's not Scully's. They'll figure I screwed around on her while I was gone." He could already imagine people whispering about how something must to happen to the mother for him to have gotten custody. And that Scully was a saint for taking in the child of the dead woman who had messed around with her boyfriend while he was supposedly missing.

"Geez, Mulder, I doubt anyone will say anything like that. Not if they saw what rough shape you were in when you escaped from the gulag," Danny said, referencing the fact that the story they'd fed to Skinner's doctor had been so readily accepted by the M.D. that it had become everyone's go to explanation for where he had been for three years. When you said the phrase "political prisoner," people didn't tend to ask too many uncomfortable questions.

"Then maybe they'll think I was sure I was going to die when I cheated on her, not out horn dogging." Even though Danny couldn't see him, he shrugged.

"Well, they might," Danny conceded. "But it's a lot more sympathetic an error in judgment during a life or death situation than chasing showgirls in Vegas."

"Ha!" Mulder said sourly. "I suppose so."

"A lot of people will feel so bad that they'll never bring it up to you," Danny added. There was no mention of such measured restraint in private, though, Mulder noted. "There's your little gray lining."

"Nah," Mulder tested out how he felt about being cloned. It really was a lot better than the alternative. But more than that... "The baby is a little gray lining."

"You really sound like you believe that." Danny's voice held a note of admiration. "You're honestly glad that your abduction nightmare resulted in you being saddled with a kid."

"It's my fault that Scully can't have another child." Mulder spoke over Danny's reflexive insistence that what had happened to destroy Scully's fertility wasn't his fault. "And now I have a baby we can raise together with the two kids she already has. It's not as good as giving her a child that also is biologically hers, but it's something."

"Mulder." Danny's sigh was audible and Mulder figured he deserved it. "You've said that her daughter is yours too, and her son isn't. Right?"

"Yes..." He warily wondered where Danny was going with that question. "Grace is mine biologically, but we don't know who Tommy's biological father is." And he didn't know if they ever would - so far Scully seemed uninterested in trying to find out.

"Well, I guess yours is going to be one of those real 'Yours, Mine, and Ours' situations. Though in most cases the' ours' is the youngest. That's really like you both, though, always finding a way to be different."

"Thanks?"

"The people in that movie seemed to have a pretty great life. Hopefully you, Scully, and all three kids will too."

Under his breath Mulder repeated the thought that was bouncing around his head. "They cloned me. I didn't have an alien baby, they cloned me." If his son wasn't at all alien, Danny was right: his whole life had to be considered now. If he wasn't half gray, he'd have a life. Hopefully a long healthy one. There was no need to keep him at arm's length because he was no more likely to die tragically young than any other baby boy.

At length he remembered Danny's comment. "I'll have to discuss that with Scully." He had so much to tell her now.

"Well, best of luck to you and Christian. Christian, huh? Glad you didn't go with Fox Junior," Danny joked.

"Funny. That would seriously undermine efforts to convince people that he is not my double. People believing he looks just like me is okay, but figuring out that he is me, biologically speaking, isn't."

"He's not really you," Danny said, suddenly serious. "He'll grow up to be his own man one day."

"I know." There was a knock on the door. "Someone's knocking, so I better go see who it is. Talk to you soon."

"Bye. Best of luck with... All of it, really."

"Thanks."

Mulder put the phone back as he walked towards the door. It didn't surprise him at all to find Scully on the other side, standing there as if his thoughts had summoned her. She offered him a tentative smile. "I don't have class this afternoon, so I was hoping to take you out for lunch."

"That would be great, but sit, please. I have news. Not the sort of thing I want overheard by other lunch goers."

The apprehension on her face made him feel bad. "Okay..." she said uneasily.

He sat across from her and smiled, hoping it was a reassuring one. "It's not anything bad, I promise."

"Oh. What is it?"

At least she looked a little less alarmed. He made a mental note to figure out better ways to introduce topics when the news wasn't devastating. Apparently there had been so much bad news in his life lately that she made the automatic assumption that all of his news would be.

"I just spoke to Danny at length," he explained. "I asked him to run Christian's DNA against mine. He ran the samples twice, and there was the same outcome: the two samples were identical."

For a moment she looked puzzled, but then she stared at him. "They cloned you?"

He wondered if she caught on sooner because she was slightly distanced from the situation compared to him. He watched her face as he nodded, glad to see no feelings of horror on it. "I don't know why, but yes. He has no alien DNA. And no DNA at all that isn't mine."

There hadn't been time for him to spend much anticipating her reaction, but her jumping out of her chair and rushing to hug him hadn't been on the short list of possibilities he'd come up with. "You must be so relieved, Mulder. I'm so relieved too."

He smiled, and moved his head enough to get her hair out of his eyes and off his mouth. "I am relieved," he assured her. "That I no longer need to worry that anything related to having alien DNA will happen to him." Like being found dead in his crib, he didn't say. Or morphing into something grotesque as he aged. Or any of the equally terrible fates he'd imagined in his nightmares.

The look she gave him was filled with warmth. "It really must be a huge relief, knowing that you can now just look ahead to him having a normal future."

"Sure, as normal a future as a kid cloned by alien technology can have," he said, half-joking.

"Mulder..."

"The only thing it doesn't explain is why he's growing so fast," Mulder said, sharing the only concern he still had after Danny's revelation.

"Some kids are just bigger than others." Scully didn't seem to be nearly as bothered as he was. "And we're talking about him being the size of a kid a handful of months older than he is. It's not like people would mistake him for a two-year-old or anything."

"They probably wouldn't think he was one," Mulder said quickly.

"Exactly. It's not as though he's walking yet or speaking."

"He babbles, though," Mulder said worriedly.

"And my brother said his first word at seven months," she remarked calmly.

"What was that?" he asked, expecting her to say mama or dada. Which hardly counted since they were the easiest noises for babies to make.

"Mine."

"Oh, that figures," he laughed.

She laughed too.

"Could you wait here for a minute?" he asked just then.

She looked a bit puzzled by the abrupt request, but nodded. "Of course."

Feeling butterflies in his stomach, Mulder forced himself to make a quick dash into his bedroom, though he realized that Scully was probably waiting for him to bring Christian out to her. Instead he opened his sock drawer and rummaged through it for something he hadn't seen since shortly after he moved into the apartment.

Eventually his questing fingers brushed against his prize - a small velvet flocked box. He pulled the box open, and flipped the top. The ring inside it wasn't any worse for wear, despite having languished in storage with all his other belongings for the three years he was missing, and then tossed into the drawer.

For the longest time he worried that there would never be a good time to give it to her, and at least once a week he kicked himself for not having asked her to marry him when he'd impulsively bought the thing back three weeks before he returned to Belfour. But now...

Now was perfect.


Before he lost his nerve, he walked back out into the living room where she waited. "There's something I want to show you."

She looked at his hands, and he wondered if she thought he'd printed the DNA results. Not seeing anything, she asked, "What?"

Mulder dropped to his knee before her, and pulled the ring box out of his pocket. "I spent a very long time wishing that I'd not decided to wait for the mythical right moment before...before. So I'm not going to wait again and let another chance pass me by." He didn't dare glance at her face before he flicked the box open. The hinge made a tiny creak. "Dana Scully, will you do me the immense honor of agreeing to be my wife?"

"Oh, Mulder," she said, so softly he barely heard her. He started to look up when she threw her arms around him. "Of course I will."

"Thank God. I didn't have anything rehearsed for the possibility that you'd say no." He said, laughing into her shoulder.

She pulled away to help him to his feet, and looked amused. "Was this rehearsed?"

"Ah, no. I kind of threw away the original script when I was blinded by the light."

Scully titled her head. "You've really had this since before you were taken?"

He hid a smile. If she didn't know that, he imagined she'd simply dumped his dresser drawers into boxes instead of going through the contents when she'd packed his belongings up. "I really did."

"We hadn't been dating very long-"

Mulder smirked at her. "Not officially, no. Though I'd guess we'd been having what all the magazines around the hospital referred to as 'an emotional affair'."

"Oh Mulder, how bored were you to read Cosmo?" she asked, laughing hard enough to cause her eyes to tear. Her arms found their way around him again.

"Pretty bored," he agreed before becoming more serious. "I've known for years that you were the one for me, Scully. I just hoped that I was the one for you too."

"You are, Mulder. You are." She tightened their embrace. "You must know that."

"Well..." He blushed faintly. "I had a hopeful suspicion."

Scully took a moment to admire the ring in its box before he took it from her and slipped it onto her finger. She held it up, letting the light catch it. "You know that we're going to have to tell everyone eventually, don't you?"

"No, I was thinking we could marry in complete secrecy and not let on until the next time one of us faced a life or death situation and the other had to confess in order to be allowed to make medical decisions," Mulder deadpanned. "Of course I know we'll have to tell everyone, and probably pretty soon. But there are two people we should tell first."

"Who?" she asked. She nodded enthusiastically when he explained.

To Be Continued


Note: thanks for your continued patience

Now that it's been two whole months since Dad's last hospitalization, I've finally finished writing this story. Please check back twice a week until you see the word epilogue =)

feedback? Neoxphile@aol.com


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