William fell asleep about half way through what Mulder estimated was his three hundred and ninetieth command performance of 'Good Night, Moon.' Tucking his son into his crib, Mulder leaned on the rail for a moment, resting his cheek on his hand and trailing his fingers over the soft freckled face. 'Thank you,' he thought, just as he found himself automatically thinking more and more as Will grew older and his resemblance to his mother, both in looks and temperament, grew stronger and stronger. 'Thank you for giving me this.'
He heard the hinge on the screen door squeak. After pointlessly checking the window locks in Will's room one last time, he entered a room that was supposed to be the dining room, but instead served as a combination TV room and office. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee assailed him. Stopping in the kitchen to help himself to a cup, he followed Leah out into the backyard.
She was sitting on the edge of the deck, elbows on her knees, head in her hands, staring disconsolately at the grass between her feet.
Mulder settled himself beside her, stretching his long legs and bare feet out before him. He wriggled his toes enthusiastically in the grass. As the daylight slowly faded, a gentle breeze swept up from the lake, making the leaves of the lofty maples and oaks that stood sentinel on the grounds rattle and sigh. "Nice evening," he commented, taking an appreciative sip from his mug. Leah made great coffee.
She nodded. "Yeah," she muttered. "Nice."
"Was Will okay while I was gone?"
"Uh huh," she sighed softly. "Will's always good, Mulder." She fell silent again.
"I saw a bunch of new files on the desk. Bill leave those for me?"
"Yeah." She lifted her head. "I am supposed to tell you that," she smirked, then did her best Blank-eyed Billy voice, "there is no hurry."
Mulder smirked back. "There never is."
She leaned toward him with a conspiratorial air. "...and 'have a nice day.'"
He chuckled. "Oh, hey, sorry. You want a coffee? I figured you got yourself one already, but I can get. . ." He was half-way to his feet when she shook her head.
"No thanks." Her head was back in her hands.
Mulder drank his coffee in silence, wondering what he was supposed to say next, if anything. That Leah was upset about something was clear; whether or not it was his place to comment on it, less so. She was what amounted to his roommate, he supposed, and she was, without a doubt, his only friend, but there had always been an odd kind of distance in their relationship. She had asked no questions about his past; he'd asked none about hers. So far, the arrangement had seemed satisfactory to both of them, but at times like this Mulder found himself wishing their relationship were a little more open.
"Um, you were awfully quiet at dinner," he said, silently congratulating himself on his breath-taking grasp of the obvious.
"I'm sorry," she told the toes of her boots.
"Nothing to apologize for, Leah. I just, um, you seem upset."
There was a protracted silence. Turning her head without raising it, she looked over at him. "I am."
"Oh." Mulder scratched at an imaginary mosquito bite at the back of his neck. Clearing his throat, he said, "I know I'm only the guy you do laundry and cook meals for, but I have a degree in psychology, and Fang tells me I'm a pretty good listener. If it's something you want to talk about, I'm . . ."
"You..." she began, then stopped and cleared her throat softly. "You told me once that you knew Billy, before, right?"
"Sort of." Mulder gave a one-shoulder shrug, wondering what had brought this on. "We met about ten years ago. On a case, when I was with the FBI. Um, I don't wanna get into the details, but about seven and a half, eight years later, he contacted me again, also about a case. We weren't friends or anything."
She nodded slowly. "It's hard to imagine Billy with friends."
"Well, at the time he wasn't. . ." he gestured vaguely in the air ". . .you know."
"No. He was just a guy. Just a kid, really, when we first met. That was my first case with, um, Will's mom."
"Oh." She nodded thoughtfully. "Well what about the other ones? Did you know Fiona, before? Or Keith? Or Paul? Or um, what's her name, the one that always goes out running with you..."
Mulder shook his head. "No. None of them."
"Did you, um." She swallowed. "Did you know me?"
She looked down pensively, stuck her finger into a knot hole in the deck, frowned.
"Did Billy tell you anything about me, Mulder?" she asked, her voice thick and quiet. "About me before, I mean?"
Mulder drew a long, slow breath. The conversation was rapidly becoming more than he felt capable of handling. "Nothing." He shrugged. "As I recall, I woke up one morning and you were handing Will to me, giving me a bottle and telling me he wasn't going to bloody feed himself." Mulder smiled at the memory, as painful as it was. "A couple of days later, Billy walked in and told me you were Leah and you were here to help, so I should quit yelling at you and by the way, have a nice day. That's pretty much it."
He stared out at the backyard. "You were really, um, patient with us then, Leah. Patient with me. I don't know what would have happened to Will if you hadn't been there. Thanks."
She broke a splinter off from the knothole and crushed it between her long fingers. "You would have taken care of him, Mulder. You're a good father. Anyway, I don't think thanks are really in order. I...I'm not really here of my own free will. At least, I don't think..."
Mulder tightened his grip on his coffee mug. "Is there something I should know, Leah?"
"I don't know, Mulder," she answered, lifting her eyes to his face and gazing plaintively. "I have no idea."
"Are you saying you don't remember?"
She wrapped her arms around her knees and returned her focus to the grass. "Yes. I guess that's what I'm saying. My memory goes back about two days further than the morning I first saw you. One day I woke up here, and Billy told me this is where I'd be living, and that looking after the two of you is what I'd be doing. The next night, you and Will arrived.
Mulder rubbed the bridge of his nose with his index finger, trying to calm the rage that suddenly threatened to overwhelm him. "Oh," he whispered. "You too, huh?"
She curled up more tightly. "I'm afraid I might be one of them, Mulder. I don't feel like one of them, but maybe they can turn it off and on somehow, like flipping a switch. Who knows? I'm not entirely like you, that much is clear. You seem to have memories, some kind of past. I don't, and I wonder about it all the time, you know? Who I was, where I was from. I worry that someone is missing me."
Mulder set his coffee on the deck and stood up. His heart was pounding. "Why are you telling me this now, Leah? Did something happen when Billy was here today?"
"Yeah," Leah answered softly, nodding. "He told me-" she paused. Taking a deep breath, she straightened her back, set her shoulders. "He told me that I have not worked out as expected, and that I would be replaced."
"What!?" Mulder's shock was genuine. "Replaced?"
She stood up quickly. "I wish, Mulder, that if you were unhappy with me, that if you found me unacceptable somehow, I wish that you would have come to me and said something." Angry tears spilled from her eyes and raced down both of her cheeks. Her voice trembled. "I would have tried to change. I would have changed."
Without realizing he was doing so, Mulder reached out and touched her shoulder. She flinched and pulled away.
"Leah, this isn't coming from me," Mulder said reassuringly, pulling his hand back. "I've never had a single unkind thought about you." He smiled gently. "Unless you count that time you made tofu quiche, and that was months ago. I'm over that."
She wiped her eyes, gave a sad little smile. "I don't really think that was the problem."
"The tofu quiche? Oh, trust me, Leah, it was a problem, all right."
"Mulder," she scolded and sniffled. "I'm serious."
"I am, too." His voice went quiet. "There must be some mistake, Leah. I am not unhappy with you. You've done a great job. You're *doing* a great job. Will's thriving, he adores you..."
"Obviously someone doesn't think so."
He sat back down on the edge of the deck, picked up his half-empty mug. "Listen, Leah, I don't know how much they told *you* about *me*, before, but..."
"They told me that Will's mother was gone and that you were half-insane with grief. I was told that you both needed looking after. Billy told me my function was to make you both happy, to give you whatever you needed. I failed, Mulder."
"I'm, um. . ." Mulder took a moment to get his emotions under control. "This doesn't have anything to do with you, Leah. I'm as happy as I can be, under the circumstances. Will's mother was, she was my world, for years and years, and her death was..." His voice quavered.
Leah sat next to him and touched his arm softly.
"If it hadn't been for Will. . ." He shrugged. "So yeah, I get, um, nostalgic, sometimes, and I'm sad, a lot. I'm not easy to live with, or work for; I understand that. I get the impression that they, you know, Billy and Ray and the others, aren't really capable of understanding what I feel."
There was a catch in Leah's voice, the sound of a rising sob. "I think maybe that's the problem, Mulder."
"What do you mean?"
She caught her breath, holding on to the edge of the deck, apparently trying to control herself. "Mulder..."
"Billy said I should have mated with you by now," Leah blurted out. "He said it was obvious that it was not going to happen, and that I would therefore be replaced."
"Mated?!" Mulder was dumb-struck. "Oh, god, Leah, I never. . ."
It hit him, then: the long, dark hair, the curvaceous body and slim, shapely legs, the dark eyes, full lips, and droll, sarcastic wit. Hell, even the slight trace of an accent. At any other time in his life, he realized, Leah's exotic beauty would have constituted a waking wet dream. It was so obvious now. He felt like a complete idiot.
Leah continued, unable to suppress her tears. "I have to tell you the truth, Mulder. I care for Will a great deal. I mean, I really love him. And you've been wonderful to me, Mulder. I wish I had been what you wanted, because now, leaving here is going to be so hard..."
"Good god, Leah, I. . ." He gestured helplessly, unsure of how to comfort her.
She leaped up from the edge of the deck and took a few aimless steps across the yard. "I'm scared, Mulder. I have no idea where I'm going because I have no idea where or what I was before."
"Leah, this is...god, I need a few minutes to think."
"Do you think it hurts?" Her aimless strolling had evolved into deliberate pacing. "When they replace you, do you think there's pain? I don't..."
"Leah, if you'll just wait for a minute, we can..."
She stopped pacing. Squeezing her eyes shut, she rubbed her forehead with the heel of her hand. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry to put this on you, Mulder. I know you don't have any more control of this situation than I do."
Mulder closed his eyes, hoping to center himself, to find the precarious balance he'd been fighting to maintain all day. Instead, as his eyes slipped shut he found himself assaulted by blinding light, cold metal, the whir of drills puncturing his sinuses and the squeal of saw blades as they ground through bone. Bars ripped through his wrists and ankles, holding him down, pinned like a bug to a display board. His heart pounded wildly in his chest, thudding against the sternum they'd cut then splayed, slitting him open as if gutting a trout.
His eyes snapped open.
He's coming, he thought.
"I have to get out of here. I'm going for a walk." She rushed toward the screen door and Mulder listened, frozen, as it banged shut behind her. As her boots tapped across the tile of the kitchen and the hardwood of the living room, the hairs on the back of his neck began to rise.
He's coming for her.
"Holy shit," he gasped, panic streaking through his nervous system. "Leah..."
The front door closed with a hollow thud. Mulder jumped to his feet and followed.
She was halfway across the cobblestone courtyard by the time he made it to his front stoop. She stopped but didn't turn, shoulders shaking a little. "What?" she choked, hands balling at her sides.
"You've got to come back inside."
"Why?" Her voice was a strangled sob.
At the four corners of the square apartment complex, four living room lights suddenly snapped to life. Mulder took a few steps out into the courtyard, holding his hand out to Leah. "Leah, please. I've got a bad feeling about this. I don't think you should try to leave here right now."
"They're going to come for me soon," she cried. "Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow. Why should I wait around?"
Four porch lights snapped on. Four front doors swung silently open.
Leah spun, looking around the courtyard wildly. "See, Mulder? It doesn't matter what I do. It doesn't matter what you do, either. In the end we'll always do what they want."
He approached her cautiously, tenderly, his hand still outstretched. He lowered his voice. "We don't know that. This is dangerous. You've got to come back inside."
Four dark figures appeared in four doorways.
Mulder turned toward the voice. It was Ray, rising slowly from a bench near the fountain at the center of the courtyard. Where did he come from?
"Go back inside, Mulder."
"This is between Leah and me."
"He's right, Mulder," Leah muttered. "You should do what he says. I'll see you...I'll see you sometime."
She started walking again, moving rapidly toward the front gate. Ray followed, his footsteps steady and determined. A young man with dark hair emerged from the shadows near the gate and stood in its exact center, hands on hips. As he took position, Leah increased her pace.
Dammit, Mulder thought. She thinks she's getting through that guy somehow.
"Ray!" he called, moving to intercept his stone-faced acquaintance. "She's upset. She doesn't know what she's doing. Just give me a minute and I'll talk her out of it."
"Go back inside, Mulder," Ray repeated, his forward progress unimpeded. "William wants his father."
Mulder speeded up, stepping in front of Ray, blocking his path. "Ray, William wants Leah, too. I think you know this. I need to talk to Billy. Can you get him? Where is he?"
"Billy is not here right now. Billy will return."
Four dark figures left four doorways and began advancing toward the gate.
"We are sorry that Leah is not what you wanted, Mulder," Ray continued as he walked steadily forward. "She will be replaced and then you will be happy."
"No, Ray," Mulder implored. "Leah's fine. She's good for William. She's good for me. Replacing her will not make me happy. I don't want her to be replaced."
As he neared the gate he felt it again, the electric wave of foreboding, lifting the hairs on his body, twisting his stomach, stealing his breath.
He's coming for her, he thought. He's going to take her back there.
Samantha, Bill, Melissa, Teena...the all-too-familiar litany of people he had been unable to save. Scully, he thought desperately. I never had a chance to help her...
God, Mulder, do something. Do it now.
Leah stopped cold in front of the dark-haired young man, who stood dispassionately, guarding the gate. "Let me through," she demanded.
The young man stared past her, ignoring her command.
Four dark figures walked swiftly into the courtyard, their motions synchronous, as if they were characters in some kind of sinister Swiss clock. Mulder arrived at the gate mere steps ahead of Ray. He grabbed Leah by the shoulders, jerked her around to face him.
She stared at him in shock. "Mulder, what are you doing?"
"Saving you, I hope."
He swept her into his arms and kissed her.
Ray stopped. He lowered his arms to his sides.
"Mu-" Leah's protest was quickly muffled as Mulder pressed his lips against hers. He picked her up Rhett Butler-style and headed immediately for his front door. She wrapped her arms around his neck and as he walked he kissed her again, for good measure, to make sure their audience could not mistake his intentions. With the second kiss her lips parted slightly, softening, beginning to yield.
"You don't have to do this," she whispered tearfully as he hurried across the courtyard.
He stopped on the front stoop, breathing hard, heart threatening to burst from its moorings. He could feel the sheepdogs watching his back. He could feel them inside his head.
"I know," he told her, lowering his mouth toward hers, finding himself thinking about her in ways that had never occurred to him, never even crossed his mind.
He's coming, he thought. Oh god, he's still coming. Coming to turn her into who knows what.
"Kiss me," he told her urgently. "Make it a good one, Leah."
She complied, and he allowed his lips to drift apart, allowed the tip of her tongue to probe softly between them. He allowed himself to notice the satin texture of her skin, opened his senses to her cinnamon aroma.
He felt a wave of desire as she kissed him. I can do this, he thought. We can do this.
"I'm taking you to my bedroom," he told her. "I'm not going to let them take you."
The day had finally drained away, sinking the apartment into darkness. Mulder kicked the front door shut behind them. A forty-watt gleam oozed from a small lamp on Mulder's desk in the central dining room/office, and he skirted the edges of the dim circle of light, trying not to notice the way it enhanced the contours of Leah's stricken expression.
It occurred to him that he should probably set her down now. There was really no reason to carry her further. Leah did not loosen her grip on his neck, though, and his sense of urgency was growing by the minute. Instead of putting her on the floor, he pulled her closer and wheeled toward his bedroom.
"Are they going to follow us, Mulder?" she whispered, unable to hide the fear in her voice.
He didn't know exactly how he could be sure of that.
He nudged his bedroom door open with his foot and carried her inside. His feeling of intense dread had risen to the point that it bordered on sheer terror. He released Leah to the floor with trembling hands.
She stood rooted to the spot where he had put her, arms folded tightly over her chest, voice shaking. "You can't be serious about this, Mulder."
"I am serious." He paced in the darkness. "I'm not letting them take you. I'm not letting them replace you. If, um...god, I can't believe I'm saying this. If making love to you will keep you safe, will keep you here with Will and me then...it's not like it would be a big hardship for me, Leah. You're my friend. You love my son. We can..." He threw his hands helplessly into the air. "Look, if you can see another way out of this...shit, Leah, I'm open to suggestions."
She fell silent, drawing a long, quivering breath. Finally she spoke, mustering up a small, defeated voice. "I want to stay with you and Will. I'm just...I'm really, really scared."
He reached down and flipped on a small bedside lamp, nodding. "I'm going to go turn the baby monitor on..."
"Yeah, go, do that," she whispered.
He turned to go to Will's room. It was all he could do to leave her behind. Each step he took away from her resulted in a fresh surge of adrenaline, a more powerful feeling of apprehension.
William's bedroom was a mass of shadows, security lights casting a pale yellow glow just beyond the sheer curtains. The toddler lay on his stomach, his thumb planted firmly in his mouth, one arm thrown over an oversized Teletubbie. Mulder reached into the crib and brushed his fingers lightly over the top of his son's head. Then he turned on the baby monitor and picked up the parent unit.
Suddenly Leah was standing beside him, looking up at him apprehensively, her shoulder just brushing against his.
"I wasn't planning to run away." He didn't know if he was trying to reassure her or himself.
"I know." Silent and pensive, she looked down at Will.
A shadow shifted across the curtains, catching Mulder's attention. He took a step toward the window. A silhouette stood watching. "Will's fine, Leah," Mulder murmured hoarsely, moving back toward his son, toward her. "He's perfectly safe."
Her hair smelled like ginger. Or was it nutmeg? Mulder's pulse quickened. Wondering vaguely what her skin would taste like, he lowered his head almost imperceptibly, letting her scent wash over him.
She sighed. "You're doing this for him, aren't you?"
He answered her tightly. "I don't know. I suppose."
Light from the dining room traced her slim form and delicate features. She's beautiful, he found himself thinking. She's a wonderful companion. She's meant so much to William.
Her essence washed over him like a light spring rain. Lime, he thought. Or was it coriander?
"I don't know," he repeated, softer this time. "Maybe it's not just for him."
He reached for her hand, twined his fingers with hers, leaned toward her slowly. She *is* beautiful, he thought. I don't know why I've never noticed. A thrill ran through his body as he entered the wet silk of her mouth. He snaked his tongue along her lower lip, caressing it gently.
Leah inhaled sharply, turned, fled toward the door.
Follow her. Follow her now.
Three quick steps and he had her by the arm.
"Leah," he whispered. "Leah, wait."
Her skin was cold. She didn't speak.
He pulled her close again.
"Mulder, stop. This doesn't feel right..." Her voice had a tremor in it. "This is...I don't remember this. When you kissed me it felt kind of...familiar, but..."
He ran the back of his index finger tenderly down her tear-stained cheek. "This is so unfair to you," he said quietly. "And I don't know why, all of the sudden, we . . ."
His voice sounded far away.
She gave a quick nod, looking down. He caught her chin with his fingertips and lifted her face toward his. "It's like I'm the first one," he told her, wondering whose voice that was, coming out of his mouth. "It's good, Leah. It's right. Don't be afraid."
Don't be afraid, he thought. Why the hell did I say that?
Suddenly his arm tightened around her waist, its motion swift and automatic, like his body had developed a will of its own. She gasped. "You're hurting me."
He forced himself to let go of her. Took a step back. Turned away.
She touched his shoulder, bewildered. "Mulder..."
He tried not to answer her, but the words escaped anyway. "I just need a minute, Leah. Go to my bedroom. I'm coming."
Silhouettes occupied every window. Waiting expectantly.
Mulder took his time crossing the dining room, only vaguely aware of the brush of his bare feet on the smooth hardwood floor. His heart was beating more slowly now, his blood pressure sinking steadily.
Something moved. Instantly on guard, he spun toward the disturbance. A splash of white huddled near William's bedroom door. Fang. Only Fang. The little dog was drawn up tight, trembling.
"Hey buddy," Mulder murmured. "What's the matter?"
Fang growled and backed away.
Mulder paused. This is bad, he thought. Wrong. I shouldn't be doing this. Why am I doing this?
He could hear Leah stirring, in his bedroom. The box-spring gave a feathery sigh as she sat down gingerly on the edge of his bed.
Go to her. Go to her now.
He stopped himself in the bedroom door. She rose and moved toward him, her voice light but laced with genuine concern. "Feeling better?"
His body was aching.
"Turn out the light," he choked, clinging to the door frame to hold himself back.
"If it's dark, it'll be...faceless. I...I want to be able to see that it's you."
Talk to her, Mulder, he told himself. Talk, Mulder. Just keep talking.
"Leah, if they hadn't threatened you today, would you want to...I mean, have you ever thought about doing this, with me, before?"
She shook her head. "I've never thought about doing this at all."
Mulder nodded, as if he understood. "I. . ." he began, but he couldn't find any words to follow.
"Every moment I've known you, Mulder, every moment of my life, you've been grieving William's mother. There hasn't been room in your grief for anyone else."
He stared at his left hand, which was busy gripping the door frame, forcing himself to look at the gold band that still circled its fourth finger. He made himself remember that they had bought the rings three weeks after William's birth, to keep casual acquaintances from asking uncomfortable questions. He tried to picture the discount jewelry outlet they had gone to in Alexandria. They'd bought the simplest gold bands, the least expensive. He'd wanted something else, something more, but she had demurred. They'd joked and laughed as they'd picked them out, their lighthearted manner masking real tension. But later that night, when they slid them onto each other's fingers, something had changed between them. There had been a new sense of permanence, of a promise being made.
His eyes stung. One year ago today.
This ring, he thought. This is what I have left of her. This ring, and my son and...
Leah was right. For a year, he had been grieving. For a year, he'd been alone. Deeply alone, so locked away in his sadness that he had not even noticed the paucity of human contact in his life. The warmth he had found in Will had sustained him and he had looked no further. Now, the pressure of Leah's hand on his reminded him of another time in his life when he had locked himself away, another time in his life when he'd deprived himself of human warmth for months, for years, on end.
He remembered the person who'd released him from that prison. Remembered how much faith she had always had in him. Mulder raised his gaze to Leah's face.
Be a whole person, Mulder. Be what she always wanted you to be. She would want this for you. She would want this for her son.
William wants a family, Mulder.
Mulder stared at Leah, paralyzed. But, I can't do this, he thought. Not today.
Leah moved closer.
"Mulder," - she took his right hand, - "are you all right?"
A surge of need ran through his body. It was followed very quickly by a wave of shame.
He glanced over at the window. The silhouettes still hovered.
William wants a family, Mulder.
Do it. Do it now.
"I'm all right," he rasped, raising their joined hands. "I'm fine," he murmured, turning Leah's arm to expose the skin of her wrist. He ran his lips slowly over the milky flesh, then leaned toward her and tasted each cheekbone, her forehead, the tip of her nose, the soft swell of her chin.
He reached for her braid, lifted it away from her back. "I want. . .I want to see your tattoo."
Her eyes went wide, but she nodded. She took a step back and lifted the yellow tank top over her head to expose a taut belly and small breasts veiled in lemon-colored lace. She turned. The emerald vine sprouted from a bed of foliage in the small of her back and wound up her spinal column, carrying purple flowers toward her nape. He leaned close to her ear. "It's beautiful. You're beautiful."
His fingers followed the vine, pausing for a moment to unfasten her lingerie, pushing the garment away. He unwound the band from her braid and slowly freed her hair, combing through it with his fingers as it spilled around her shoulders. He had never seen her hair unbound. He buried his face in it, inhaled deeply.
Ginger. Or was it nutmeg?
His hands moved up her back and over her shoulders, turning her to face him. He ran his fingertips lightly down her chest, pausing for a moment to stroke soft, golden breasts.
Before he knew what he was doing he was pulling his own shirt over his head.
It was good. It was right.
It was. . .wasn't it?
His voice was barely functioning. "Leah...are we...is this okay with you?"
She did not answer.
She's waiting for me, he found himself thinking. She belongs to me.
He wrapped his arms around her quickly, pulled her body against his own. The unaccustomed warmth of flesh on flesh was almost more than his senses could handle. His eyes clouded. He closed them tightly.
God, was she crying? Her shoulders were shaking.
Somehow it didn't matter.
Inside her. Inside her now.
Mulder lifted Leah off her feet with a hoarse cry, slinging her toward the bed and depositing her there. He shed the rest of his clothing quickly and flung himself over her, ripping open the clasp of her shorts, shoving his hands inside them, sliding the shorts and panties down, off, gasping and moaning, barely able to take in the sight of her shapely pubis and sparse dark brown hair, barely able to register the fact that she was pushing at his shoulders, begging him to stop...
Was he doing this? How could he do this?
Inside her. Inside her now.
The baby monitor crackled. William gurgled. Warbled. Wailed.
In the dining room, Fang began barking hysterically, running in circles, his toenails clipping the floor.
"Mulder," Leah begged him, sobbing. "Mulder, stop. Go get Will. Mulder please, please, he's crying..."
She shoved him away and he collapsed beside her on the bed, mind slowly registering his son's intense screaming.
William wants his father, Mulder. Wants his father, now.
Barely able to breathe, Mulder rolled dizzily off the bed and tried to find his shorts. Leah curled into a ball, her entire body shuddering.
Mulder shook his head hard but his vision wouldn't clear.
Why is Leah crying, he wondered dully. "Leah, what's the..."
"Just go." Her voice was a raw whisper. "Go get him, Mulder."
The room revolved slowly. Mulder stumbled toward the door.
Will had pulled himself up to standing and was holding on to the bedrail, screaming for all he was worth and somehow still managing to chew on his fist. Mulder lifted him smoothly up and over the barrier, cradling him against his chest.
"S'matter, Will?" he mumbled, his heart beating out of control. "Your teeth, again?" Will was warm against his bare skin, but he didn't seem fevered. "Or is this turning into the worst day of your life, too?"
Fang had followed him into the nursery, still barking, circling Mulder's ankles and nipping at his feet. Mulder felt an overwhelming urge to kick the little dog, kick him hard. Send him flying, crashing against the far wall. . .
Will shrieked again.
"Jesus Christ," Mulder muttered, horrified by his own thoughts. Kick Fang? What the fuck was wrong with him?
"Shut the hell up, Fang," he said, the way he always did. The dog, knowing his cue, obeyed.
The light over the stove was still on. Mulder glanced at the digital clock as he rummaged in the cupboard for a sippy cup and lid. 9:30? How could that be?
"You want some milk?" Will let out a long, shuddering sob, pressing his face against his father's pectoral. "Okay," Mulder murmured, taking a few unsteady steps toward the refrigerator, "guess I'll take that as a 'yes'..."
"Can you sit a minute, Big Guy?" He maneuvered Will's diapered butt onto the counter, fiddled with the milk, the cup, the lid, finally placed the cup between his child's waiting hands. Red-faced and crying, Will crammed the cold spout into his mouth, chewing vigorously.
Mulder's arms were shaking. He flattened his palms against the countertop on either side of Will's body and leaned in, resting on his forearms, their foreheads touching lightly. "God, buddy, what the hell's going on?"
The shaking in his arms spread rapidly over his entire body. He closed his eyes, inhaling deeply, over and over, hoping to calm himself and calm Will in the process. Will smelled clean, like freshly bathed baby and Ivory Snow and Johnson & Johnson's and deep sleep and oh god, Mulder realized, his fingers gripping the hard edge of the countertop, Will smelled like...
A noiseless moan ripped through his body.
Why were they doing this to him?
He'd spent the last year living in this beautifully furnished stucco cage, having all his wants and needs taken care of by beings he knew, somehow, had Will's best interest in mind. Except for meaningful human contact, he and Will wanted for nothing. As long as Mulder was a good little sheep - no yelling, no angry thoughts, no trying to run - he'd been allowed to hole up in this comfortable, well-decorated corner and lick his perpetually unhealed wounds.
But was this what his life was going to be from now on? Was this what he had to look forward to? A succession of violated women he was required to fuck or toss out on the curb?
He reached for Will, clung to his son tightly, sagged against the counter, knees almost buckling under the weight of his rage.
I will not, he told his keepers, though he did not speak out loud. I will not live this way. William will not live this way. You can kill us if you want. We'd be better off dead.
Will screamed, jerking him out of the morass of his thoughts. "Dadadadadadadada...."
"God, Will, no..." Mulder lifted him, tucked him securely under his chin. "I didn't mean that, Buddy. Shhhh. I'd never...god, no. Never."
Will drew a quivering breath and fell silent, head pressed wearily against his father's shoulder, milk cup jammed into his mouth, sucking furiously.
"Mulder." Leah was standing in the archway, eyes red- rimmed, expression resigned. She was swimming in his recently discarded t-shirt, the hem falling almost to her knees. She sniffed discreetly, held out her hand. "Come back to bed, okay?"
Mulder rocked his son and closed his eyes, breathing Will in again, breathing Scully in.
"Will was six weeks old, Leah." He cleared his throat and made himself speak, even though his lungs were on fire and his throat felt as if it had been filled with concrete. "Will's mother, she had, well, 'difficult' doesn't even begin to describe her pregnancy. And I missed most of it. So, um, when I got back, it seemed like she was doing okay without me, and I assumed that was how she wanted it. But I thought..." He spoke faster, rushing the words across his lips in the futile hope that they would win the race with the tears that threatened to spill down his cheeks. "I thought if I hung around enough, made myself useful, helped out without getting in the way, maybe she'd let me see him, Will, I mean, once in a while. You know, weekends and ball games, Christmas, or whatever..."
A sympathetic "Oh" drifted quietly out of Leah's body. She crossed the kitchen in just a few steps, touched his arm cautiously. He pulled away from her, sagged against the counter, shutting his eyes more tightly.
"But then when Will was born, it was like everything snapped into focus, you know, like everything finally slid into place. We knew we wanted to be together, we wanted to be a family. I wanted to get married right away, but she wanted to wait until the doctor said she was healed enough to, um ..." His voice went so hoarse he could barely speak. "Shit." He opened his stinging eyes, took a breath, continued. "She wanted us to have a honeymoon."
"Oh Mulder." Leah leaned against the counter next to him. "I'm so sorry."
Mulder's mouth opened, but nothing would come out. His vocal cords seemed paralyzed, frozen.
Will stared mournfully at Leah, eyes bright with leftover tears. "Weaa." He reached for her.
"It's okay, sweetie." She grasped his chubby hand and gave it a quick kiss. "Want me to take him?" she asked Mulder softly.
Mulder shook his head 'no' but handed Will to her without a word. He covered his face with his hands, digging his fingers into his forehead, trying to suppress the scream that threatened to overwhelm him. It didn't seem possible - how could he have survived so long? Continued existing in a world without her?
He had not spoken her name out loud since the day she died. Most days he couldn't even bring himself to think it.
"Dana Scully," he whispered. "That was her name, Leah. Scully. When Will was six weeks old, um, we were having a rough time with him. William's mom, she, um, Scully, she hadn't been getting any sleep at all. That's how it is with nursing mothers. I couldn't really help much. If Will wanted to nurse all night, I could bring him to her, but she was the one who had to stay awake. So, ah, that afternoon, I turned up the air conditioning, I tucked a blanket around her - she was like that, she liked to have the air conditioning blasting and then huddle under a blanket - I kissed her on the cheek, I packed Will into the car, and I took him out for a few hours. We went to lunch, walked in the park, did some shopping, whatever. I just thought she needed some time to herself, you know?"
Leah watched him intently, rocking back and forth with Will. Her dark eyes were shining with tears. She nodded. "Yeah."
He turned his back to her, gripping the countertop. One tear, then two, then a torrent. Rage, like a fire. He stifled a violent sob.
He had never felt so alone.
"Mulder," Leah whispered, "What happened?"
Speak for Scully, he thought. Stand up for her. Now.
He gasped for air, spun, paced across the kitchen, desperately trying to control himself. "After I left with William that day...I...I never saw her again. We came home and there were cops and fire trucks and almost nothing left of the building. There were bodies lined up on the grass but they were...oh shit, they were in pieces, and burned..."
He wrapped his arms around himself and pressed his forehead against the smooth wood of the archway, feeling himself imploding, crumbling, falling...
"They said a gas main had blown, but . . ."
Leah murmured soothingly, padded toward him, reached out with her free hand to stroke his back. "Why would someone. . .?
He leaned against the archway, trying to calm his thoughts, lower his voice, make his emotions behave. "I don't know who did it," he muttered into the molding, a powerful wave of grief coursing through him. "I'm not even sure why. Before I could talk to the officer in charge, Billy was there. That's the last thing I remember - empty eyes and empty voice telling me Scully was gone and Will was in danger and we were leaving. And I knew he was right. So I followed him. I woke up here."
Leah bit her lip. "It wasn't . . .them? They didn't. . .?"
Mulder shook his head. "That's the only thing I am sure of, and I can't even explain why. They - Billy and the rest of them - they weren't behind it. I just - I just know."
Leah swallowed audibly. "Maybe it's like the Home Depot guys, Mulder. Maybe they just made you think. . ."
"Would we be having this conversation if they had?"
"Oh," she answered, realizing he was right.
Mulder turned toward her. "Listen, Leah. I don't know what happened tonight. I don't know why, all of the sudden, they want me to...go to bed with you."
"But. . .it isn't sudden, is it? When Billy was here earlier, he said..."
"I think Billy says whatever he thinks will get results. This is going to sound crazy, Leah, but I think they may have been trying to, god, it's sick..."
"I think they were trying to cheer me up."
Leah's eyes went wide. "Wha. . .?"
"I know," Mulder answered, completely at a loss for how to help her understand. "I know, it's insane. But I want you to know that what happened in there, just now, it wasn't me. I would never...I'm not like that."
Leah wrapped her arm around his waist and pulled him close. He pressed his face against her hair and slipped his arms around her, around Will, and clung to them both.
"I'm sorry, Mulder. I didn't know what to think," she whispered. "I thought I just wasn't doing it right..."
"No, Leah, no. It's all right. It's okay," he responded, holding them both more tightly. "It won't happen again. Not like that. I promise."
They leaned against each other in mournful silence, rocking slightly, rocking Will to sleep. Mulder calmed, breathed slowly, deliberately.
They weren't animals. They were not going to live in this cage. At any and all costs, he would find a way to leave it behind.
Will slumped in Leah's arms at last like a miniature sack of potatoes. Mulder reached for the empty milk cup that dangled from his tiny fist.
"I'll put him to bed," Leah said quietly.
Mulder released her, staring, hollow, forlorn.
"Are you all right?"
He nodded. "You?"
"I'll be okay. We should sleep."
He watched her gather Will closer, watched her turn to leave the room.
He missed the feel of her skin against his. "Leah?"
"Sleep in my bed."
************************ Right Bookend
Doggett hit the buzzer and looked up at the security camera, knowing someone would be on the other end, watching. "S'me, guys." He didn't smile. It was too damned hot to smile.
A series of locks, electronic and manual, snapped open one by one and the heavy door swung wide. "Agent Doggett." Frohike waved him in with his half- gloved hand, closed the door carefully behind him, then headed directly for the nearby fridge. "How was Provo?"
"Hotter 'n hell, thanks."
"Beverage?" Frohike offered up a bottle.
"On duty," Doggett replied, real regret in his voice.
"Shame," Frohike answered, twisting off the cap and bringing the bottle to his lips. "Water? Soda? Liquid nitrogen bath?"
Doggett shook his head. "Monica here, somewhere? She left me a message. . ."
"This way." Frohike gestured with his chin, then led the taller man though the labyrinth that was the Lone Gunmen offices. Doggett had been to the Gunmen's lair often enough to know you had to watch where you were walking to avoid cords, wires, junction boxes, and any number of other tripping hazards, but not often enough to make his way through the maze without a guide, a compass, and maybe a machete.
"Did you see Jimmy out there? We sent him for pizza about a month ago."
"Dammit," Frohike grumbled. "So, uh, how was your flight?"
"You know." Doggett shrugged and stepped carefully over a bank of power bars. "Crowded, cramped, over- sold, and the peanuts were stale. Same old."
"Flight 1198 from Salt Lake to Chicago, right? One of those new Bitove 120 CloudTrains?"
Doggett veered left around some huge piece of buzzing, whirring, blinking equipment he couldn't begin to identify. "Guess so."
"Lucky you didn't fall right out of the sky. Damned things fly like bricks." Frohike shook his head in disgust. "The Roushtech co-processors in the navigation systems in those things, Jesus . . ."
"Snappy line of patter you got there." Doggett ducked beneath a series of co-ax cables hanging like coated wire cobwebs from an overhead beam. "You ever consider becoming a travel agent?"
"What?" Frohike stopped in front of a door marked 'editing.' He waved his empty hand around in an all- encompassing gesture. "And give up all this?"
Inside the darkened room, Monica and Langly were sitting side by side before a bank of computers, control boards, and monitors. Langly, wearing a head set, was twisting knobs and flipping switches; Monica, wearing an anxious expression, was watching him.
"John." Monica greeted him with a cheery smile, and rose. She seemed grateful for the distraction. "How was the conference?"
Langly, noticing her movements, looked up.
"'Bout like you'd expect, only duller. Hey, Langly," he nodded.
Langly grunted, either in greeting or disgust, and turned back to his panel.
Frohike pushed a squeaky-wheeled chair in Doggett's direction. "Sit."
He sat, pulled his already loosened tie out of his collar and shoved it in his suit pocket. "So what's going on?"
"Thanks for coming right away." Monica returned to her chair. "You remember that stuff I got from Rob Duncan? About the lawyer who disappeared from Kisatchie and now seems to be running loose in Canada?"
Monica lifted the folder off the desk. "Something about this photo was nagging at me for days and I just couldn't figure out what it was."
She handed him a black and white 8x10. Obviously a surveillance photo, it showed a striking blonde woman in jogging clothes in some sort of small shop or variety store as seen through a fish eye lens. She looked for all the world like she was standing at attention.
"Yeah," Doggett nodded again. "So, is it her?"
"As far as we can tell, yeah," Frohike answered. "We've run her through everything there is to run her through. That," he pointed to the picture in Doggett's hand, "is Denise Hill."
Doggett was hit by a sickening wave of déjà vu. "Or someone who looks exactly like her, right? Is that what comes next?"
"Maybe," Monica answered. "Something about that picture was bugging me, like I said, so," she turned to a large monitor, hit a few keystrokes, "I asked Rich to take a look."
Doggett looked at Frohike. "Rich?" he mouthed.
Frohike rolled his eyes and jerked a thumb at Langly. "Rich," he mouthed back.
Doggett suppressed a very real need to cringe.
"So, he ran it through some software . . ." Monica hit some keys. The image popped up on the monitor. "Right here, see?" She pointed to the extreme top left corner of the screen. "The security mirror?"
Doggett squinted. "Yeah?"
"Well," a few more keystrokes, "Rich worked some of his magic on it and this is what we got."
The area in question magnified and sharpened over and over until the picture finally cleared.
"Shit," Doggett breathed. It was a face he had both sincerely and naively hoped he'd never have to see again. No such fucking luck, Johnny, he thought sourly. "Billy Miles."
"Or whatever it was Billy Miles turned into," Frohike added.
"Wonderful." Doggett wasn't surprised to feel a sudden headache coming on. Was this shit ever going to end? "So what's the connection? Was Denise Hill an abductee?"
Monica shrugged. "No one ever suggested it during the investigation, but then it's not the sort of thing a lot of people want to talk about. It would certainly explain her disappearance. And this blob here, see?" The specks resolved themselves. "Database says there's an eighty-two per cent match with Deputy Raymond Hoese of the Bellefleur, Oregon Sheriff's department."
"Theresa's husband." Doggett squeezed his eyes shut. "Shit shit shit."
"There was only a few seconds of action on the tape Duncan sent me, just the part that those screen captures were lifted from. The rest of it had been blanked out." Reyes resumed her seat. "I asked the RCMP for a copy of the entire original surveillance cassette, but they gave me a song and dance. So Rich is trying to restore. . ."
"YES!" Langly pumped his fist in the air, interrupting her. He whipped his head phones off, let them hang around his neck, and leapt from his chair. "I've got something!"
Monica grinned and waggled her eyebrows suggestively. "He's got something."
Doggett kept his expression neutral, but it was a struggle. Frohike quietly choked on his beer.
"Pizza's here." Byers stuck his head around the corner. "Oh, hey, Agent Doggett."
"Byers," Doggett acknowledged.
"Come take a look." Going to a larger monitor, Langly attached and adjusted some cable, spun dials, then hit the remote. Frohike, Reyes, Byers, and Doggett crowded around.
"Is this that tape, Agent Reyes?" Byers was peering at the screen.
"Yeah," she nodded. "Rich has been working on it."
"Rich?" Byers blinked, nonplussed. "Oh. I see."
The screen filled with salt and pepper static. More followed.
"You got snow, Langly," Doggett commented dryly.
Langly ignored him. "Just about. . .here." He pressed a button. "Here, see? That shadow? Someone else is walking into the shot and I think. . ." He hit the frame by frame scan. "Here," Langly pointed. He clicked the remote a few more times. "Look."
The picture jumped and jiggled, then cleared. A shapely, clearly female back filled the screen.
Frohike leaned in. "Who's that?"
Doggett pointed. "And what's that?"
Frowning, Monica pulled back, tilted her head to one side, then the other. "I think. . . oh! It's a foot."
"A foot?" Frohike squinted.
"Right." Byers traced the shape with his finger. "A baby's foot. If you were carrying the baby on your hip, like this." He demonstrated. "It's just too close to the lens."
"So, is she anybody?" Frohike wondered.
"Hey guys." Jimmy wandered in. "The pizza is getting cold. What are you guys . . .?" He stopped just behind Doggett. "Hey, where'd you get the tape of Yves?"
As one, the others turned, confusion and astonishment written on their features.
"Yves?" Monica asked. "Harlow? Your, um. . .that's her?"
"Sure," Jimmy nodded confidently.
"How can you tell?"
"That." Jimmy's finger touched the screen. "That tattoo."
"Yves has a tattoo?" Byers asked.
"Yves has a tattoo you've seen?" Frohike added.
"Yeah." Jimmy nodded. "It starts way down. .. " he gestured vaguely toward his lower back, ". . .and goes all the way up to. . ." he pointed to his neck. He wrinkled up his nose. "She never showed you guys?"
"I think I'd remember that," Langly replied wryly.
Monica shot him a look, then turned back to Jimmy. "Are you positive, Jimmy? This is really important."
"Oh yeah. That's her. See that little scar, there? She said she got it in a sword fight. Seriously. Only. . ." Jimmy squinted in concentration ". . .last time I saw the tattoo, the top wasn't all inked. It looks like. . .Hey! This tape is from after she disappeared, isn't it?"
"Must be," Langly commented. He turned back to the keyboard and panel. "Let's see what else we can find."
Doggett brought his hand to his forehead, but it didn't help the pounding. "So, okay, say that's Yves. So we've got Denise Hill, Billy Miles, Ray Hoese, and Yves Harlow all together on an RCMP surveillance tape from sometime in May. So what? What's the connection?"
"Holy fuck," Langly muttered. "Holy fuck, holy fuck, holy fuck!"
"Oh man. The connection." Langly hit another key. "That's the connection, right there."
The screen filled with another image. A dark haired man taking the child from the woman they'd identified as Yves. He was dressed in a sweat shirt and baseball cap, his handsome, familiar face smiling broadly.
A stunned, brittle silence settled over the group.
"Oh my god," Monica breathed at last, shattering the quiet.
"Jesus H. Christ," Frohike added.
"Hey, isn't that. . .?" Jimmy began.
"Shit!" Byers hissed. "Shit." He reached for the phone on the desk.
Frohike slammed his hand down on top of Byers', driving the handset back into the stand with a resounding crack. "What the hell are you doing?"
"What am I doing?" Byers glared. "What do you think I'm doing? I'm calling Scully."
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