Title: Winterlong: III. Into The Great Wide Open
Author: Neoxphile
Feedback: neoxphile@aol.com
Series Page: Winterlong series
Spoilers: mytharc up to and including The Truth
Disclaimer: I am not Chris Carter, though I envy his bank accounts, and you know by now he created our beloved characters.
Keywords: post-series, post-invasion
Summary: With a world to rebuild, there's little time to mourn the dead.


December 23rd, 2006
Early Morning

Though the farmer's sixteen children had long since grown up and moved away, they'd left behind a wealth of childhood furniture in one of the farm's two barns. It was from that cache Mulder had found the cradle and crib that Jeremiah and Jesse slept in that morning.

Pale gray light came through the window, shining weakly on Jesse's tousled hair. The baby's thumb rested on the crib mattress an inch from his lips. Mulder suspected that he was an avid thumb sucker while awake. It struck him as slightly surreal that there was so little they knew about the young refugees sleeping in their house.

Not that Jeremiah was sleeping. In Mulder's arms he steadily sucked down a bottle of the formula Scully had found in the birth center; there had been an entire closet full of newborn diapers and formula, presumably to make care packs to go home with the new parents. At first Scully had worried that he might not be a full-term baby because he was so small, but he had an adequate suck reflex.

"Morning."

Mulder turned to see Scully standing in the doorway. There was a slight smile on her lips. The way that she looked at the newborn in his arms made him feel silly for even wondering the night before if she'd give the baby away if given the opportunity. He could already tell that she wouldn't part with any of them, perhaps especially the two in the room.

"Hey."

"Monica and John are up too. They offered to let us take the van out first," Scully told him. They'd agreed the night before that one couple ought to get all of "their" respective kids' stuff before the other did, rather than juggle between the two sets.

Mulder shook his head slightly. "So their diabolical plan is to watch the kids while they're still sleeping, then? Fiendishly clever."

Instead of grousing at him for being suspicious of their offer like he expected, her smile melted into a smirk. "I know. I wish we thought of it first. How's he doing?"

"Good," Mulder said, already bringing Jeremiah up to his shoulder to burp. She'd had to reteach him how last night, since he'd only done it a couple of times before departing after William's birth.

"I was thinking, I want to poke around the attic of Jesse's house when we go there," she announced.

"Why's that?"

"I'm hoping his parents kept some of his old baby clothes. We lucked out with diapers and formula for Jeremiah, but we can't exactly jump over to the mainland and go shopping."

"Good point," Mulder said and immediately began thinking about diapers. Jesse and Lacey were both in them too. Lacey was probably old enough to potty train, but Jesse didn't even seem to be walking yet.

"Why don't you give him to me while you get dressed?"

"Sure. Do you want me to get Adam and Tyler up? They might like to help-"

"Let them sleep," She insisted. "They might enjoy it at first, but I think going to their house might be overly traumatic. Besides, without them we'll have more room in the van."

"Okay."


Fifteen Minutes Later

There could be some fortune in laziness, Mulder decided as he slid the last armload of flattened boxes into the van. He and Scully had meant to recycle their moving boxes, but they never got around to it. Instead they languished in the basement, forgotten except for Mulder's occasional thought towards using them to start fires.

"Are we ready to go?" Scully was still zipping her coat while approaching him.

He swung the van's door shut. "Let's go."

They drove much slower than they normally would, dodging cars hunkered in the road. No other drivers were out and about, which is something that struck Mulder as slightly eerie. Even on a sleepy island like Black Bear, there was always some traffic.

When they went into Olivia's house, they took care to avoid the master bedroom. It might fall to them to remove the corpse, but they weren't eager to see it again. Mulder glanced over at Scully, wanting to ask her if she was sharing the same sense of dread about the body as he was. He half expected the dead woman to sit up and berate them for stealing her child. Upon further reflection he decided against bringing it up, suspecting that she'd just remind him that they'd just see A Christmas Carol a couple of days earlier. He didn't think it was Dickens influencing his thoughts, though.

It didn't take long as long as he expected to box up the little girl's clothes and toys. In fact, it seemed to him as though time flew, even though they weren't having fun. Before terribly long a third of the van was filled with boxes Scully had carefully labeled "Olivia's clothes" and "Olivia's toys."

"What about her bed?" Scully asked, pointing at the white wooden toddler bed when they were doing a final look through the girl's bedroom. It was made up with lavender sheets and a matching quilt that looked handmade. "I think she'd be more comfortable in it than the cots we set out for the kids."

He thought of the small quiet girl who had yet to voice a complaint. "If we can find a screw driver, sure."

A search through the kitchen drawers produced the required tool, and he immediately set to work. It had been his thought that working with his hands would distract him from the body downstairs, but his mind kept going back to it, like a little boy picking at a scab. Olivia was fine, but her mother was dead. And her father was missing. That's what she told Scully, hadn't she? "Daddy went away." Why had Olivia survived, when her parents had not?

In the very first moments after the poison dissipated, he had assumed their survival had had a genetic component. It made sense at the time. If he and Scully were immune, it made sense that William was as well. Genetic predisposition towards succumbing to many diseases was something that had been widely accepted. So why couldn't someone also inherit genetic predisposition not to succumb to something?

But as soon as they found Olivia, that assumption was challenged. She was a child who had survived despite having two parents who did not. Each additional child they found without parents chipped away at his initial assumption. What made the children survive, when their parents had not?

His next thought had been environmental, but that didn't explain the parents' deaths. Unless the parents had shared a common employer, or some other common means of exposure, how could their children have avoided it? They lived in the same place. They spent eight hours a night sleeping under the same roofs.

"You're almost done with that?" Scully asked suddenly. He'd almost forgotten that she was there.

"Yeah. Sorry. I was woolgathering."

"I noticed," she said with a small smile. "Everything but the bed is already in the van. Including the mattress," she added pointedly.

Mulder quickly began to gather the pieces of bed frame. "You think we can hit another house before going home to unload?"

"Maybe."

They were just about to leave when Scully spotted it. Pointing, she said. "Look, Mulder."

It wasn't easy to look over the pieces of bed frame he was carrying, but did his best to follow her finger. And there in the living room, near a window, was an unlit Christmas tree. Several boxes were underneath the branches already.

December twenty-third. With all that happened the day before he'd almost forgotten that it was only two days until Christmas. But how could anyone think about Christmas when there were corpses in houses, and many more people missing altogether, presumably dead as well?

"Oh Mulder... what about Christmas? The kids..."

Instead of coming up with clever, or even articulate, reply he began to gather up boxes labeled with Olivia's name. "You didn't see any labeled 'from Santa', did you?"

"No."

"With all the labels we've collected over the years, I'm sure we can just peel off the ones that say 'from Mom and Dad' and replace them."

"I think we'll have to do more than that. We're going to have to unwrap them," she corrected him. "All signs point to the power only being on for a few days more. We'll have to weed out the sort of things that will require electricity to use. Otherwise we'll have a lot of disappointed kids on our hands who would have toys and such that they can never ever use."

Mulder stared at her. "Ever? Do you think we'll never have power again once it goes out?"

She shrugged. "With only a tenth or so of the adult population left, who's to say what's going to happen next?"

That wasn't something he wanted to think about. Though intellectually he realized that the whole world was going to be different from now on, especially with so many people dead, it was hard to grasp the fact that there was no going back to their old way of life. Somehow in the back of his mind he had the idea still that this was only temporary. Eventually things would be just like they were before, just with less people. Her comments made him realize, really realize, that things were going to be changed forever. Or if not forever, for at least a few decades. Maybe the world would be a familiar place again by the time William had children.

"You okay there, Mulder?" He blinked and saw that she was staring at him in some concern. "You seem distracted."

Mulder offered her a sheepish grin. "I'm glad that we didn't get William that Wii he asked Santa for."


Meanwhile...

As Mulder suspected, Doggett and Reyes were pleased with their victory over their friends. It turned out that they only had a short while to savor it, however. Their gloating in the kitchen over eggs and toast was interrupted by an indignant sound coming from one of the bedrooms.

Reyes put her glass of orange juice aside with a sigh. "I'll take care of him before he wakes Jesse."

Doggett gave her a look. "Are you sure?"

"Of course. It's a baby, how hard could seeing to him be?"

He wasn't surprised when less than two minutes later he heard his name being called. She sounded rather desperate to him.

Entering the room he found her looking frantic while holding a baby wearing only a diaper. Displeased to be undressed, Jeremiah cried hard. Jesse sat in his crib, looking sleepy and like he was unsure whether he ought to add his voice to the chorus. Doggett decided to start there.

He held out his key ring. "Hey, wanna play with this, Jesse?" The baby snatched the keys from his hand with surprising speed.

"John, what do I do?" Reyes pitched her voice to be heard over the unhappy newborn. The bleating cry reminded Doggett of lambs.

"First put him down. You're hardly going to change his diaper while holding him." Doggett waited until she'd gingerly placed him on the dresser Scully intended to use instead of a changing table; his first wife had dismissed changing tables as unnecessary crap as well. To his pleasure she didn't need to be told she needed to keep a hand on the baby to keep him from falling. "Now, the tabs go under his backside. But when you take off the dirty diaper, use it as a shield. He'll probably pee on you if you don't."

True to Doggett's prediction, Jeremiah peed as soon as he was exposed to the cool morning air. Even though she'd managed to catch most of it with the old diaper, Reyes looked disgusted. Glancing at her husband, she said fiercely, "We're only having daughters from now on. Good thing Seth's six," she added in a mutter.

This made him laugh. But it stopped abruptly when he heard Jesse making an unhappy "ah! ah!" noise. When he turned, the baby was pointing at him. "What did he do with my keys?"

Before Doggett found his keys, or Reyes got a diaper to stay on the smaller baby, William burst into the room. He looked cheerful and awake, and totally oblivious to the struggles the adults faced. "Found you! We're awake, can we have pancakes for breakfast?"

"We? Who is awake besides you?" Doggett asked warily.

William looked over his shoulder, and seemed to be assessing the situation. "Everyone, I think," he said with a smile. "I know where Mom keeps the maple syrup."

"Great." Eyeing his wife, Doggett wondered if she had any more of a clue about how to cook pancakes then he did. He definitely had never played short order cook before.

"These your keys?" William asked, bending to pick up something off the floor.

"Yeah, thanks," Doggett replied, pocketing them. "Why doesn't someone bring Jesse downstairs?" Without waiting for a volunteer he handed the baby to one of the twins. "I'll be down once we change Jerry."

"Eww, don't call him that." William's nose wrinkled in distaste. "Mom said it's like the bullfrog song, and the frog doesn't get called Jerry, so the baby shouldn't either."

"Duly noted."


Though time seemed to pass quickly at first, retrieving the kids' belongings from their former homes took the better part the day. Mulder had never met the Mayor, but he thought it was wise of the man to plan for the town meeting to take place in the afternoon. He was sure that the other makeshift families were having just as much difficulty gathering the necessary equipment for their new children too. Maybe they had even more trouble given he wasn't sure how old the other remaining children on the island were. The other group he'd seen the night before had a couple of very small children with them too.

"Mulder, I'm going to put this stuff for Jesse and Jeremiah away." Scully had her arms full of baby clothes.

As she had hoped, Jesse's parents had held onto his clothing from months earlier. It hadn't surprised Mulder, because his mother had held onto his small sweaters until after he was old enough to drive.

"Sure," he said, staring at the boxes that the adults had spent all morning packing and hauling back to the house. He decided that the older children should be expected to help out. This apparently was not something that they took any pleasure in, given they stood and stared at him as if he had just suggested they go and dig ditches.

"Well, if you guys don't want your stuff I guess we can just throw it out. There's no sense in having it take up room in the house, and it's not going to just sit here in the middle of the living room," he said, reaching for a stuffed animal poking out of a nearby box. "I guess I'd better it started bringing the stuff to the dump-"

Seth's eyes widened in horror. "But that's my bunny!" He raced forward and snatched the faux rabbit out of Mulder's hands. Doggett had been relieved to learn that Seth had lived less than a mile away from his cousin, so they'd been able to bring his things back too.

"Stuffed animals do not belong in the living room," Mulder said impatiently even as he thought about the effort Doggett and Reyes had gone to for that very bunny among other things. "If you want to keep it, you better bring up upstairs."

The little boy eyed the box that Mulder had taken the rabbit from. He picked up the entire box and began to trot towards the stairs, apparently waiting for Mulder to take everything from him if he hesitated.

Mulder's hand didn't even reach the next toy before the owner of the possessions nearest him came forward to take them up stairs. Within a matter of minutes most of the living room looks like a living room again, and not the storage room of a junk store.

He smiled to himself, thinking that it was an easy victory. Then he frowned. Knowing kids, there weren't going to be too many of those. There had been a great many standoffs since getting William back.

As he watched the kids go, he wondered if any of them knew how to use a hammer. There was a corner of the basement that would make a good playroom, but he'd need more help on the project than just Doggett's.


Town Hall
2:45 pm

When they got to town hall, it was clear that someone had gotten in early because folding chairs stood in neat rows. A few people had already claimed spots, but the vast majority were still unoccupied.

"I guess a lot of people are planning on being fashionably late," Reyes muttered, echoing Mulder's thoughts.

"Hey!" a familiar voice called behind them. They turned to see Helen waving at them.

She was accompanied by two teenagers perhaps fifteen years old. When she reached them, she looked pleased. "Mister Mulder, it's a good thing you dropped me home when you did because I soon had company. Peter here worked after school for me some days. And this is his neighbor Lily."

Peter and Lily ducked their heads shyly. Looking at the way they stuck to Helen made him feel better. After her comment the night before about being too old to raise William if they got themselves killed, he'd worried that she was giving up. Now she was beginning to remind him of the woman who greeted him cheerfully every time he entered her store.

"There's a register to sign over by the stage," Peter offered shyly. "So they know who's...here."

The book had hand-written columns. One said "Name (child's legal surname if known)", another for address, a third for age, and the last asked for "Present guardians, if minor."

Mulder let Doggett go first, knowing that it would take him less time to fill in the information for his two, six, and eight-year-old charges. Once Doggett passed the book to him, he filled it in for the rest of them. Seeing his own name printed beside the names of five children he hadn't known two days earlier struck him as surreal, but no more so than many of the other things he'd experienced over the past thirty hours.

Before he put the book back, he noticed that Lily and Peter's names printed beside Helen's. This made him smile with unexpected pleasure the old Helen was back all right.

Not long after that the room filled quickly as many people poured in. There wasn't much noise from the children, but a few babies and toddlers goggled at the crowd and crowed their approval. When a man walked to the front of the room, they were hushed by the adults.

Nelson, the man Mulder and Doggett met the night before, stood up and announced, "Mayor Lamb."

Paul Lamb was a somber looking man about a decade older than Mulder. His expression was sad as he looked out at the crowd over a podium intended for very different speeches. "Citizens of Black Bear Island, I'm sorry that we're meeting today to discuss how to proceed after yesterday's devastating tragedy. We lost a lot of fine friends and neighbors yesterday, the parents of many children still with us among them. I propose we observe a moment of silence."

All through the hall heads bowed in quiet reflection. It was unclear if some of the youngest kids understood the intent, but most of them followed the adults' example. Exactly sixty seconds passed before the mayor lifted his chin and began to speak again. "Though our lost ones deserve longer, a moment is all we have to spare today.

"The first thing we need to establish is guardianship of the minors who were so recently orphaned. Is there anyone here who is unable, or unwilling, to assume permanent guardianship of the children currently in their care?" He looked out, searching their faces. "If anyone needs to speak to me privately, that's all right as well."

No one looked inclined to take him up on the offer, so he appeared somewhat relieved as he went on. "We'll need to regroup now that there are so few people living here on the island. There's a lot of work to be done in order to function in the days ahead."

A mummer of agreement interrupted, and Lamb rode it out.

"First we'll tackle what needs to be done immediately, beginning early tomorrow morning. What I propose is, as much as we can manage, people be responsible for their own streets. We need to drive any cars on the roads back into driveways, and take out all the food from the empty houses. Anything perishable you don't think your families can eat before it spoils ought to be brought downtown, the rest to the town gym. Between the supermarket and the restaurants, we should have enough walk-in freezers to store a lot of the fresh and frozen stuff. Those places have generators too, so they'll keep. At least for a while.

"The reason we need the stuff out of the houses now is that you're also going to turn off the power in the empty houses. Most of the houses on the island have the same circuit breakers so it shouldn't be too hard as long as you're familiar with the one in your own home."

"Why are we doing that?" a man sitting near Helen asked.

"Right now we're still getting the news, and they said the fewer buildings we have drawing power, the longer it'll be until the lights go out."

"What about after that?" Helen asked.

"Well, there are about a dozen generators over at the hardware store. Now that Phil and Betty Welch are gone, I guess they belong to the town."

"We're going to need more than that," someone protested, and Mulder was inclined to agree. The fifty-five adults were grouped into more than twelve homes, even though a few other families seemed inclined to double up like at their farm house.

"And hopefully we'll figure that out before the power cuts out," the mayor said. "What I'm proposing for tomorrow sounds easy, but it isn't really. We're going to need everyone's help. And I do mean everyone. I figured that the adults will go out to the houses to gather food and shut things down, taking the teenagers with them. We'll want to have all the kids in the gym. Those who are old enough to read will be a big help with sorting the stuff you folks bring back. A couple of adults will stay behind as well to keep an eye on the tiny ones you have with you tonight."

To Mulder surprise the kids' faces light up. After their lack of enthusiasm at moving their stuff into their new rooms, he expected that by now they would be grumbling that they couldn't play video games, and here they were, appearing eager to help out with something that seemed boring to him.

Lamb suddenly looked grim. "Once that chore is done, we'll have to see to the departed." His eyes were on some children when he added, "We'll want to get started on that bright and early on the twenty-sixth."

Mulder couldn't help but approve of the idea. Leaving the dead behind too long invited disease, but he couldn't see anyone spending Christmas day totting corpses out of houses.

"I'll lead that effort, Mayor," Nelson announced. Lamb nodded. A few muttered voices sounded less eager to deal with the dead. Mulder's wasn't one of them, nor was Scully's. They'd had more experience with the dead than most of the other survivors, he figured.


The details of a few more necessary chores were hammered out before the mayor grinned at his audience.

"On a more positive note, we're fortunate that Mr. and Mrs. Kimble are still with us, because they're both taught on the mainland for many years. They've volunteered to teach all the children six years and older here at the town hall after the first of the year."

"What about me?" William stood up unexpectedly and asked loudly. "I'm five but I'm in first grade. Do I gotta wait 'til next year to do more school?"

The mayor smiled at him. "You too, then. I should have said any children in first through twelfth grade."

Looking satisfied, William sat back down.

Beside William, Scully was thinking. Five out of nine children would be off at "school" every day, leaving only the four little ones to look after. It would probably mean three out of four adults could be doing the work details at any given time.

A few of the teenagers grumbled in a way that suggested they didn't see the point of continuing their educations. As much as she hated to admit it, they might have a point. There was definite value in teaching the elementary age kids, but what did the older ones gain from it? There were no longer colleges and careers to consider after graduation. There might be such things again by the time the little ones grew up, but not for those already in their teens.

There was a commotion a few rows over when a man got to his feet so suddenly that he banged into one of the metal folding chairs. "Mayor Lamb, there's something we need to deal with, and quite urgently." The man's voice did sound distraught.

"What's that, Art?"

"The other islands. The small ones. Even with most people gone, we've still got enough to make a go of it. But Deerhoof and Clareborne only had a couple hundred people between the two of them to start with. If there are any kids trapped in houses there..." Art trailed off, apparently not wanting to make his point clearly in front of so many children.

Beside him, Scully looked horrified. She got to her feet as well. "Is that really a possibility? Babies can't go much longer than they already would have without dying of dehydration."

As if waiting for just such a catalyst, several people began to speak loudly right then, and without much discussion a group of men and women raced from the town hall, apparently going to a boat owned by one of them. Scully still looked stricken as she watched the search party leave.

"Don't look like that," Mulder whispered to her when she retook her seat. "There's no point grieving over something that might very well not have happened."

"All right," she said, but the haunted look didn't leave her face.

The meeting broke up shortly after that, ending when Nelson and Mayor Lamb said they'd place a white-board in the gym to collect ideas of what people thought would need seeing to in the days ahead. "No one person can think of everything that will need doing, but hopefully we'll figure it out if we all brainstorm."

Many of the adults nodded their approval, apparently pleased by the mayor's honestly. It made Mulder wonder suddenly how many other de facto community leaders would be so inclusive of other's ideas. A disaster like this was bound to spawn more than a handful of newly minted dictators.


Ten p.m.

The rest of the day was noisy and hectic. As they could have predicted, most of the kids wanted to sleep in their own beds, not the cots that Mulder had purchased thinking of bedding down fellow rebels. The little kids got underfoot while the bed reconstruction was underway, but the older kids were fairly helpful. It took hours, but the beds were all assembled before bed time.

One minor issue arose during the process, however. It had been Mulder and Scully's intention to give each child their own room, but the twins rejected the idea. They insisted that they wanted to share a room as they had in their own home.

"We want to stay together," Adam had said, speaking for both boys. Tyler said nothing, but he nodded his agreement.

"But there's enough rooms so you can each have your own," Mulder told them. It seemed to Scully that he believed they were trying to be nice so the other kids could have their own.

"We know. You said that. We don't want to be all alone."

"Come on, even Lacey is brave enough to have her own room," Mulder coaxed, not mentioning that her room was right next to John and Monica's. "You could have rooms next to each other."

"Don't wanna," Tyler said suddenly. "We like to share."

"But-"

"Mulder, just put both beds in one room," Scully told him, looking exasperated. "If they change their minds later, we can rearrange things."

He'd been reluctant to do so, but didn't say so until the kids were in bed for the night.

"Scully, are you sure we should let them share a room?"

"Am I sure we should let two traumatized little boys share a room with the only family member they each have left? Yes. What does it hurt?"

"Their independence?"

"They're identical twins. That was probably going to be an issue either way. I don't think this will add to it much."

"All right." He looked annoyed, but he let the matter drop.

He'd gone to bed himself not long afterwards, but she found herself too wired still to join him. If she had she would have tossed and turned, keeping him up as well as herself. "I'll settle the little ones for the night, then to bed."

"Okay," he'd replied, kissing her.

Even after she'd feed and changed the babies, her mind refused to shut down. In their room Mulder was already snoring softly, so she stayed only long enough to grab the book she'd been reading earlier in the week off her nightstand. She was still curled up reading about more conventional lives when there was a loud knock on the front door. She left the book open on the couch as she cautiously approached the door.

"Hello?" she said, opening the door only a couple of inches.

"Doctor Scully?" a voice asked, and she opened the door the rest of the way. The man who stood before her was the one who'd volunteered to deal with the dead. "I'm Nelson, I met your husband last night."

"Yes, of course, you're the major's assistant. What can I do for you?"

"Nothing, actually. I took note of how alarmed you were by Art Grondin's outburst, so I decided that it would be wrong to leave you to worry all night. They didn't find any babies or toddlers. The search party came back with thirty-five people, all adults and school-age children. Apparently those islands haven't been having much of a baby boom lately," Nelson said, smiling faintly.

"And the other islands?" Scully asked.

Nelson shrugged. "There's only so much we can do. I pray that everyone is safe, and all the children who survived elsewhere found the kindness of folks like our young ones have, but there's only so far you can go with the sort of boats the people on this island own."

"Of course," Scully murmured. As hard as it was to accept, the man had a point. Though she had the spirit and desire to save everyone, she was just one woman. And there weren't that many left on the island to add to what she could do. There had to be some good people left everywhere humanity remained, and she had to believe they'd do what they could for the other survivors too. "You said they brought some people back?"

"Yes. There's no way a couple handfuls of people could survive on the other two islands, so we've asked them to come join us. Everyone accepted the proposal. It'll bolster our numbers a bit, and it's not as though there isn't room for them here."

"That's a good idea," Scully agreed. "Nelson, thank you for taking the time to let me know what happened. You're right, it would have kept me up all night."

He grinned at her. "Don't think anything of it. I'm a night owl, and I could use the exercise anyway." His right hand patted a considerable paunch. "My wife would have insisted if I hadn't volunteered anyway."

The noise of someone crying drifted down the stairs. "Well, it sounds like you might be up tonight yet. I'll let you deal with that. Goodnight, Doctor Scully."

"Goodnight," Scully hastily replied before rushing up the stairs. From the sound of the crying it had to be Olivia or Lacey. Everyone else must have been deeply asleep not to have reacted to it, but she was sure that wouldn't last.


The blankets were tangled around Olivia's waist, and she sat up in her small bed, tears streaming down her pale cheeks. When she saw Scully she wailed "I want my Mommy!"

Scully sat on the floor next to her bed and pulled the blankets free before gathering her into her arms. "I know you do. She's not coming back. I'm so sorry."

"Why?"

For a moment she wondered if she was asking why she was sorry, but she realized that sort of question was beyond most three-year-olds. "She got sick and she didn't get better. She can't take care of you any more, so we will."

"She gone like Daddy?" Olivia asked, her tears slowing a bit.

"Yes. They're both gone."

To her surprise, Olivia reached up and jabbed her in the shoulder. "You stay."

"I will. I promise."

This seemed to satisfy the little one, and she climbed off her lap.

While she righted the girl's blankets and tucked her in again, Scully thought of a similar scene from her own childhood. The night that Charlie had been born, her father had been left alone with the three older kids. Missy and Billy had both spent nights apart from their mother before, but Dana had not.

At first, when her father told her that her mom was at the hospital with the baby, she'd expected that it was going to be a short visit, like when Billy had fallen off his bike and broke his arm two months earlier. By bedtime she was deeply confused, and had trouble sleeping without Maggie there. When she'd woken up around three a.m. her father discovered her in the same state as Olivia.

But Olivia's mother wasn't coming home with a new baby brother two days later. She wouldn't be coming home at all. It reminded Scully that she and the rest of them were going to have to take care to remember that even little kids grieved, so while the youngest girls in the house might not be able to express their sorrow as well as the oldest four, they weren't wholly unaware of their losses like the infants. Lacey and Olivia were hurting as deeply as the bigger kids, they just didn't know how to tell anyone.

"We'll try to learn how to listen," Scully whispered as she leaned down to kiss the girl on the forehead. Olivia was already asleep.


December 24th, 2006

There was less chaos in the farmhouse the next morning, but not much less. The younger kids decided that they hated the old fashioned high chairs, and conspired to escape as soon as they could. They then ran around the kitchen until Mulder shooed them out. Tyler got up from the table and followed them into the living room.

"What's up?" Mulder asked once he noticed that he had a pair of eyes studying him.

"I have a question." Tyler looked bashful.

Mulder patted the couch and the boy immediately sat down next to him. "What's on your mind?" As he waited for the boy to speak, he was secretly pleased that he was coming around. His withdrawn behavior two days earlier appeared to be temporary.

"Is Will your son?"

"Yes. He's my biological son."

Tyler looked slightly disappointed. "So he's your real son? Not like Adam and me."

To the little boy's surprise, Mulder poked him in the shoulder. "Wow, robots are pretty lifelike these days. I was sure you kids were real. Do you run on batteries?"

"No," Tyler said, beginning to smile. "I'm not a robot."

Mulder rapped Tyler's knee gently with his knuckles. "Well, I'm pretty sure you're not made of wood like Pinocchio either. Are you sure you're not a real boy?"

When Mulder gave him a suspicious look, Tyler began to giggle. "I am a real boy!"

"That's exactly what I thought." Mulder nodded to himself. "No more of this 'real son' stuff, all right? It doesn't matter how you became part of this family, just that you did. Got it?"

"Got it," Tyler replied still giggling a little.

"Good. Will's never had brothers or sisters before, so he's going to need someone to show him the ropes. Do you think you and Adam are up to that?"

"Yeah! We know all about being brothers. We can be good teachers."

"I'm glad to hear that. Though he probably won't say so, he'll be looking to you two for cues how to treat the little kids. Being role models is a big responsibility."

"I can handle that," the boy declared with pride.

"I knew I could count on you," Mulder declared. "Can you go remind people that we're leaving in fifteen minutes, so they better finish breakfast?"

"Uh huh."

A few seconds later Mulder heard him loudly inform those still in the kitchen that they soon needed to leave. He coughed to mask a laugh.


Later

Once the kids were dropped off, the four adults began to carry out the mayor's requests. Systematically, they emptied the food out of each home and shut off the power. On the way to the gym with the first load of food, they passed Helen giving Peter a quick driving lesson. Mulder mentally shrugged. It wasn't as though the owners would care that an inexperienced driver was putting their no longer needed cars back in their driveways.

When they arrived at the gymnasium, the entire place was awash with activity. Some of the older kids had been chosen to keep things organized, and they lorded it over the other kids with a superior air. Exactly as you would expect most pre-teens to act in such a situation. The younger kids, for their part, didn't actually seem to care. Most of them were running back and forth bringing foods to their designated spots. Mulder saw William and Adam run by with their arms full. They looked like they were having fun.

A moment later he was set upon by about five children, none that he recognized. The immediately began to rifle through the box that they had snatched from his arms. In less than a minute the entire box was empty and all the kids were running off in different directions. Shaking his head, Mulder decided to wander over to the least crowded corner of the gym.

It turned out to be the corner where coffee and tea had been set. A couple of men were staring at the items in question. "Would you look at that," one the men said. "There's enough coffee here for year."

His companion shook his head. "Can't stand the stuff. You can have my share."

"No thank you," the first man said. "I've never been a coffee drinker myself."

Mulder stared at the pile for a second, and then felt as though a light bulb went off over his head. He could see Helen standing over by the boxes of cereal, so he rushed over to her. "Helen, do you drink coffee?" he said out of breath.

"Never touch the stuff. Why do you ask?" She looked puzzled.

"What about soda?" Mulder asked impatiently. "Tea?"

"Neither. Why do you-" she started to ask, but he'd gone before the entire question was out of her mouth.

A sort of tense excitement was bubbling up in Mulder. He didn't like coffee, and neither did Scully. He'd never seen Doggett or Reyes drink it either. As for tea, he hadn't had a taste for it for years, and he'd been the only one with a fondness for it. Scully had once teased Doggett about being "the world's only southerner who doesn't love tea."

When Lacey started to walk by grabbed her shoulder, and startled her. "Sorry for scaring you. I have a question for you."

"What, Mister Mulder?"

"Did your mom and dad drink a lot of coffee or soda?"

"Yeah. All the time."

"What about you?"

They seem wrinkled her nose. "Eww. Coffee is gross."

"What about soda?"

"Mom and Dad wouldn't let me have any. They said it rots your teeth."

Mulder nodded to himself. "I bet your aunt and uncle were the same, huh?"

"Mom used to say Aunt Cindy ought to of opened a Starbucks, 'cause she drank that much coffee herself," Lacey confirmed.

"EVERYONE STOP!"

The room went dead silent as everyone stopped and looked at Mulder.

"This is important," Mulder said at a more normal volume. "By a show of hands, how many of you regularly drank coffee, tea, or soda?"

No one's hands went up.

"I'm serious here, this could be very important. I need to know how many of you-"

"-didn't raise my hand because I don't-"
"-don't touch the stuff-"
"Mom and dad never let us have any."

Mulder stared at the crowd when he realized that no one had raised their hands, because no one had indulged in those drinks often. A slow rumble of questions, particularly 'what is this all about?' began to build by the time Mulder gathered his thoughts. "How many of you lost people who did drink coffee and soda frequently?" he managed asked above the crowd noise.

Every hand in the gym went up.


Mulder had expected a cathartic experience once a clue surfaced as to why some had survived while most other had not. Apparently he was alone in this expectation. No one else looked relieved that the pieces were falling into place. No one actually seemed to care.

Within a minute or two everyone got back to the tasks at hand while Mulder stared at them dumbfounded. When Scully walked up to him, outrage clearly shined in his hazel eyes. "Don't they think this is important enough to discuss?"

Her shoulders rose in an infuriating shrug. "What is talking about it going to prove?"

"I don't know, but maybe..." he trailed off, unable to put his feelings into words.

"I'll look it up when we get home," Scully promised.

"You think there will be something about caffeine's reaction with alien poisons on the internet?"

"Of course not," she snapped. "But there might be some clue."

"If the power holds out that long," Mulder grumbled petulantly.

"God willing." She calmly walked away, as intent on returning to her chore as everyone else in the gym. Eventually he caught up with her.


December 25th, 2006

Some Christmas Days Mulder had found himself longing for the Christmases of his childhood. The ones before his sister had been taken were remembered with a warm golden glow he had never seemed to be able to capture since. Once in a while he was able to remind himself that they hadn't been that great then, either. But it was easier to pretend that the days had been idyllic from sun up until bed time.

The temptation to make the comparison was particularly strong during Christmas of 2006. It had been Scully's hope that they could make the day special for the kids, but over the course of the morning he watched her dream turn to ash.

At best the kids spent the day in a mechanical numbness. They'd gone through the kids' presents and kept only those that didn't require power to run them. Mulder had advocated going with his earlier suggestion - relabeling everything "from Santa" - but Reyes insisted that they leave "From Mom and Dad" on the best gifts.

"These are the last gifts their parents picked out for them. That has to mean something, and they deserve to feel that way," she'd insisted.

Eventually even Mulder had caved to that logic.

None of the kids seemed to even read the tags as they opened their gifts. It took a lot of goading to get them to even tear the paper off. Instead they were prone to daydreaming and tears.

After the gifts were opened, it looked to Mulder like Scully was on the verge of tears herself. He was about to cross the room to give her a supportive hug when she sprang to her feet like a jack-in-the-box.

"I'm going to go get the Christmas cookies," she said tightly, and very few of the kids even bothered to look up. "You guys will like them."

Mulder watched her walk into the kitchen to pick up a tray. She was only half way back to the living room before the lights went out.

The End... for now.

Read Winterlong: IV. Ashes and Ghosts now.

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