Mulder had been staring at the ceiling for so long - at the same small stuccoed patch right over his head - that he was beginning to have the uncomfortable feeling that the ceiling was staring back.
He knew, from many sleepless nights and restless days spent sprawled and gazing upward, that if he looked at it long enough, hard enough, the miniature peaks and valleys would dissolve and reform, becoming a dog's head, a lion, a tree, a hand. If the shadows cast by the street light fell in a certain way, he'd see landscapes, vistas, visual shorthand, all reminders of other places and other times. Sometimes, if he was just the right combination of exhausted and aching and lonely, he'd see a face -- the face -- and he'd have to force himself to blink it away before his heart broke again.
This was one of those times.
He remembered how exhausted Scully had been, that last day, how open, how vulnerable. He'd run her a warm bath, bathed and diapered Will while she soaked, brought her freshly- washed pajamas from the dryer and laid them out on the bed for her. He'd unplugged the phone. Made her a glass of lemonade. Kissed her cheek.
He'd just thought she needed some time to herself.
Some time without them.
It hadn't occurred to him to say good bye.
He closed his eyes.
The Tylenol had worked its swift and questionable magic, and Will had been asleep, sticky-lipped and smiling, before Leah made it half-way back down the hall. Mulder had sent them back to his bed after Billy left, telling Leah he wanted to make sure all the dogs were safely back in their kennels and that he'd join them shortly. But even after the tall sandy-haired guy -- Eric? Aaron? -- had slunk back to his lair across the courtyard, even after he'd watched through the curtains as the dark haired guard resumed his usual post by the front gate, Mulder couldn't bring himself to make the trip to his room. He'd opted for the couch, instead.
They'd all had a hard night. If Leah and Will were asleep, he told himself, he didn't want to wake them. And, honestly, if only Will was sleeping, he didn't know what he would, could, or should say to Leah. 'Um, sorry I tried to rape you,' he could picture himself beginning as he very casually shed his medicine-stained shirt and tossed it back into the hamper, 'but for what it's worth, it wasn't me; it was alien mind control. No hard feelings, okay?'
He hardly believed it; he couldn't expect her to.
Mulder shifted his weight, trying to find that elusive sweet spot. The leather was cool and smooth against the backs of his legs, the cushions just the right combination of firm and yielding for his liking. When Will had been a colicky infant, Mulder had spent hour after hour in this very same position, his son tucked under his chin, humming tunelessly and rubbing circles into the baby's tiny back. But he hadn't had the ten to fifteen years necessary to break in a couch like this, and he still found it hard to get really comfortable.
Jesus. Ten years. Would he still be here in a decade, staring at the stucco, watching the watchdogs watch Will?
He hoped to hell not. A small part of him that still gave a damn wanted to believe he deserved better than this freak- in-a-fishbowl life.
And even if he didn't deserve better, Will did. Will was just a baby --
He shifted again. Just a baby. He remembered standing in Scully's bedroom, heart in his throat, telling her that. Telling her that Dr. Lev and Dr. Parenti had been mistaken, that Billy Miles and all his kind had been wrong. Telling her that Will was just a baby, just their son.
Just a miracle.
Mulder snorted. Well, at least he'd been right about something.
But if Will wasn't just a baby -- and he clearly wasn't -- what was he?
The ceiling, if it knew, wasn't saying.
Mulder sighed. All he wanted was to hear the truth from someone he could trust. That was all he'd wanted from the beginning.
There had been no phone in his apartment, of course, no internet. His early days in Toronto had been spent devising ways to escape his hosts, trying to ditch them long enough to get a collect call through to the Gunmen, to Skinner, even Doggett or Reyes, anyone who could tell him what had happened to her. Anyone who could help.
Because he didn't know a soul in the city, a public phone had seemed his only option. He had approached them on several occasions, but every time he tried, his inevitable escort would take him by the arm, very firmly and politely, and invite him to return to his home. He had tried sneaking out late at night and early in the morning, but no matter how odd the hour, one of his hosts had always appeared to accompany him. And as his desire to communicate with the outside world had grown, the number of escorts had increased. Billy, Ray, Dee, the sheepdogs who came and went, idiotic smiles on their faces, banalities on their lips -- they were always one step ahead of him. It hadn't taken Mulder long to realize that his thoughts were no longer completely his own.
Two weeks after his arrival, Mulder had left Will with Leah and gone out to buy himself a new pair of running shoes. He had taken the subway downtown, carefully focusing on the color and style he intended to purchase. He had pasted a bland smile on his face and climbed the stairs from the subway tunnel, wondering with all his might if a new pair of shoes would make his knees quit aching after every run. He had mingled with the pedestrians on Bloor Street, walking briskly and weaving through the crowd.
As he walked, he had looked furtively to the left and right, but no one in his immediate vicinity seemed to be paying him any special attention. Stopping with the crowd at an intersection, he had looked around, pretending to get his bearings, and stolen a glance over his shoulder. As far as he could tell, he was not being watched.
Buoyed up by his having successfully eluded them, Mulder had crossed the busy street and increased his pace.
An unoccupied phone kiosk had appeared in his field of vision, hugging the wall between a bookstore and a small restaurant. Mulder had glanced around and then veered toward it. A teenage boy who had been walking in front of him for several blocks had veered simultaneously, arriving at the phone steps ahead of him, raising the receiver to his ear as if to make a call and staring at Mulder with a blank, ambivalent expression.
Mulder had stared back.
Several pedestrians had passed between them, continuing down the street, oblivious to the wordless confrontation. Mulder had shaken his head slowly.
He had tried hard to keep thinking about running shoes.
He scanned the crowd again and found he was being watched by at least three individuals.
Mulder had started walking again. An elderly woman rose from a bench at a bus stop and lumbered down the sidewalk just ahead of him. She was fat and awkward, only about five feet tall, clinging to an oversized handbag and lurching from side to side as she walked. Mulder had stepped to the right, intending to hurry around her, but she had drifted in the same direction, blocking his forward progress. He had dodged to the left. She had mirrored his movement.
He dodged. She blocked. He dodged. She blocked.
A pay phone had loomed ahead. Mulder had veered toward it. The old woman countered, increasing her pace to match his own and passing the phone just seconds before he did. Before he knew what was happening, she had reached out with a shriveled hand and ripped the handset loose, snapping the metal cord like a thread and depositing the now-useless receiver in a nearby waste can.
She hadn't even broken her stride.
No one around them had seemed to notice.
Heart racing, Mulder had stopped walking. He turned and looked back. Three forms watched him, motionless, standing like islands in the bustling throng.
The truth of the situation was clear, but he had refused to accept it.
He had started down the sidewalk at a near-run. The old woman had at once increased her pace, orthopedic shoes flying down the sidewalk in a most unnatural fashion. The crowd around them thickened. Taking advantage of a momentary jam in the flow of foot traffic, Mulder had dashed across the street, eliciting honks and angry stares, narrowly avoiding being hit by a speeding taxi.
There had been a phone booth waiting on the other side. He had run toward it with every ounce of his energy, thinking Frohike, call Frohike...
His foot caught on a grate set in the pavement. He went down on the sidewalk, hard, tasting concrete and blood.
"Sir, are you hurt?"
A hand had been offered. He had opened his eyes, winced with pain, looked up as he wiped blood from his smashed lower lip...
"Time to go, Sir," Billy had said. "William wants his father. Now."
Billy and his pack had herded Mulder homeward. On the trip, he had noticed for the first time that his escorts kept a strange, almost respectful distance. He had felt like a lunatic elephant being returned to its cage.
He'd tried again, twice, with identical results. After his third failed attempt, despair had set in, leaving him enervated and empty. Leaving him thinking the unthinkable.
Billy had appeared at his door one morning, smiling stupidly, Ray and Mark smiling stupidly beside him.
"You are not happy, Sir," Billy had said benevolently, sounding a lot like a talk-show therapist.
Mulder had regarded them with open hostility. "Glad to see that your powers of observation didn't get washed down the drain with your personality, Bill."
"We know you miss William's mother. We are sorry she cannot..."
"No." Mulder had held up his hand, stopping him. "We're not going to talk about her. At all. Got it?"
"As you wish." Billy nodded, stupid smile still in place. "We understand that you are anxious to return to your friends."
"'Anxious,'" Mulder had murmured, tight-lipped, shaking his head. "Christ." He spun on his heel and left them standing on the stoop.
They had followed Mulder to the kitchen, pausing in the archway, filling it completely. "There are many things you do not understand, Sir. Perhaps when you understand them you will be happy."
Mulder had jerked the refrigerator door open, staring at the neat assortment of groceries that were hand-delivered by a different sheepdog each and every Tuesday. "You're damn right there are things I need to understand," he rasped. "What Will and I are doing here, for a start." He had slammed the refrigerator door and paced toward the pantry, opening it and scanning its tidy contents with a scowl.
"William is safe, protected, and loved here, as are you." Billy stepped forward, opening his arms magnanimously. "William is a miracle, a joyful blessing foretold, a prophecy fulfilled."
Mulder had stared into the pantry. His fingers curled into two fists at his sides. Both Alex Krycek and Lizzy Gill had tried to feed him the same brand of bullshit; he still wasn't biting. "Well, Halle-fuckin'-lujah. I feel better now."
"You misunderstand our intentions, Mulder. We live to serve William. Our purpose is to keep him safe and happy. There is nothing more important."
"You think I don't know that? He's my son, Billy. Mine."
"William belongs to all of us, Sir."
Mulder had fought down the urge to hurl himself at Billy, forcing himself to remember the sickening feeling of the plate glass window at Parenti's office shattering against his back. "He's my son," he repeated. "I'm all he's got, now."
"There will come a time when you will understand why these things have come to pass. There will come a time when you will understand how truly blessed you are."
"Blessed?" Mulder had choked, staring at the floor.
Billy's voice had had a strange lilt to it, as if he were reciting a story he'd known since childhood. "There is a battle being waged, Sir, a struggle for heaven and earth. You know this. But your son has the ability to change what has been written. His coming was foretold. He is a miracle, Sir; he is THE miracle."
"He's a baby, Billy," Mulder whispered, sure Billy was wrong, but just as sure he could never convince him of that fact. Fanatics were fanatics, whatever their cause. "Just a baby."
There was a long pause. Finally, Billy spoke. "You are still unhappy, Mulder, in spite of what I have told you?"
Mulder had quietly closed the pantry door, leaning against it and putting a hand over his eyes. The moment was so surreal. He really was standing here, in a Better-Homes- and-Gardens kitchen in a randomly chosen neighborhood somewhere in Toronto, being lectured about his infant son's duty to save humanity by a being who'd started out as a bloated, water-logged corpse.
Mulder had wondered, then, in a vague, almost surreal way, if he was still dead. Maybe they'd never dug him up, drugged him up, gotten him back on his feet. Maybe he was still six feet under the North Carolina sod, quietly rotting away. Maybe Toronto was really Hell. That might explain the Raptors. . .
Mulder had laughed mirthlessly. "Yeah. Despite all you've told me, I'm still unhappy, Bill. Go figure."
"William wants you to be happy, Sir." Paper rustled as Billy spoke again. "We have brought something."
Jesus, what would it be this time? More expensive cotton baby clothes with the tags meticulously trimmed away? Another magic-fingers baby bouncer or programmable swing or set of ergonomically designed formula bottles? Opening his eyes would have been a waste of his rapidly fading energy, so Mulder didn't bother. "I think I've had enough for today, Bill. Whatever you brought, just leave it."
There was a pause. Billy sounded oddly sad. "We hope this will make you happy."
Curiosity forced Mulder's eyelids open. A pale, blue rectangle lay on the marble countertop, no more than three feet from where he was standing. He snatched the paper up, glancing quickly at Billy and his companions as they started away across the dining room.
Billy stopped, turned. He smiled pleasantly. "Sir?"
"This is a bus ticket."
"Yes. You are free to go whenever you want. Have a nice day."
Mulder's head felt light. It was a game, a trick... "I'm not sure I...um, what does that mean, Billy, 'free to go'?"
"If you do not wish to be here, you may leave. You are not a prisoner."
It was a lie. It had to be a lie. "So. . .what? I can just grab Will and. . ."
"William will stay safe with us, Sir. You can be sure he will be safe, protected, and loved, always." Billy had turned to leave again.
Rage had welled up inside Mulder, so strong and potent and overwhelming that it almost froze him. "You expect me to leave him behind?" he whispered through clenched teeth.
"No, Sir, we do not. But the choice is yours. Have a nice day."
Mulder closed his eyes against the memory. A nice day? As if he remembered how that was done.
He shifted again. It had been obvious to Mulder from the beginning that Billy had some sort of imperfect access his own thoughts, and it had become clear in short order that Billy knew what was going on in William's mind, too. Mulder had always assumed it was a one way relationship -- he and Will threw the psychic passes, Billy and the gang caught them. But lately, he had to wonder.
Skellie, New York? Danah Ave? Someone was trying to send a message, but what message, exactly? Billy had always been top dog, seemingly omniscient, yet the blatant clues on the drugstore bag seemed to go right over his abnormally muddled head.
So if Billy wasn't the one trying to tell him something, who was? Ray? Dee? Someone on the outside?
And whoever it was, why were they screwing it up so badly?
The sofa sighed as he rolled over. A sharp, unexpected pain shot through his thigh. He winced and sat up, examining the sore spot. A lump was forming, purple and swollen, where he and the desk had met during Billy's bottle opening demonstration.
That was also troublesome. Billy hadn't so much as threatened Mulder over the course of the past year; he had certainly never raised a hand against him since their arrival in Toronto, and Mulder had no doubts that if Billy had wanted him dead the day of their confrontation at Parenti Medical, he would have been. Even when Mulder had been at his most rebellious, Billy had treated him with nothing short of deference. He was sure Billy hadn't intended to hurt him this morning -- there had been no malice in that shove. His host had simply been on a mission; Mulder had simply been in the way.
So why, he wondered, had Billy been so desperate this morning? And why so adamant about getting Mulder's permission to administer that medicine to Will? Clearly, it didn't matter, in the end, if Mulder gave his permission or not. Billy had certainly never sought it in other matters. Something had changed, but what?
Mulder wondered how much longer Billy and the rest of the hounds would continue the pretense of seeking Mulder's cooperation in all these matters. Up to this point, Will's wants had been simple and fairly harmless - If he wanted a toy, a dog, or a sandbox, Billy saw to it that he got them, no questions asked. But Will was growing, becoming more determined and more self-aware. What would happen when William wanted a Ferrari, an airplane, a gun? What would happen when Mulder said 'no'?
What WOULD happen?
Ominous thoughts circled his sleep-deprived mind like ravenous vultures. He shook his head, hoping to clear it, dry-scrubbed his face, and yawned. He needed to get up, to ice his thigh, to get some strong coffee into him, to get his thoughts organized, to. . .
"Dada!" Will's voice, coming from the far side of Mulder's bedroom door, echoed down the hallway, "Dadadadada! Out!"
Out, Mulder thought. Maybe that's what he needed. Maybe that's what they both needed. "Coming, buddy." Mulder rose and went down the hallway.
Will's small hand thumped against the door. "Out!" he insisted.
Mulder opened the door slowly, so that Will would have time to get out of the way. "Move back, Will. I'll let you out."
"Dada." Will stared at him imploringly. "Dadadadada."
"How you doing, guy?" He reached around the door and scooped Will up.
"Out!" His son's cheeks were bright pink, his lips wet with drool. He was still a little warm, but not as warm as he had been, Mulder noted with relief. He didn't think he could take a repeat visit from Doctor Billy's Traveling Medicine Show.
"You want some breakfast? A bottle?" Mulder whispered soothingly, casting a quick glance at Leah, who was curled into a tight ball, sound asleep in the middle of the bed.
"Out," Will repeated, seizing his dad's face with both hands.
Mulder shook his head. "Shhh. Leah's sleeping. How about a bath?"
"'Kay, buddy. Just a minute." Mulder carried Will back to his own room. "You need a clean butt before we can go anywhere." He placed him on the changing table.
Will drummed his heels against the foam pad. "Outoutoutoutoutoutoutout..." he chanted.
"Yeah, yeah." Mulder handed Will a board-book, hoping to distract him, and swiftly replaced the soiled diaper with a fresh one. "So we'll go out. Hang on."
Will tossed the book onto the floor. "Dada."
Mulder bent to retrieve it. "Yes?"
"Dada," Will repeated, his voice hushed.
"Ye-es?" Mulder asked again. He pulled a bottle of sunscreen from beneath the table and began strategically applying it.
"Dada." A whisper, this time.
Mulder slipped a clean pair of shorts on the boy, tossed his pajamas in the general direction of the hamper. He gazed down into his son's face. Will stared up at him. "Yes, William, what is it you want to tell me, hmm?"
Will looked Mulder straight in the eye.
Mulder was suddenly seized with a very disturbing idea.
Could it be...?
"Dada," Will whispered, and reached out to touch Mulder's arm.
It happened again, the wave of dread: gut-clenching fear ripping the air from his lungs, lifting he fine hairs on the back of his neck, submerging every nerve-ending in ice cold terror.
Mulder stared down at his son, fighting the urge to snatch him up and run. Will stared back, his blue eyes shining with intelligence and purpose.
Oh God, Mulder thought, taking a deep breath, it couldn't be.
"Dada." Will's lips moved, but this time, the boy made no sound.
Mulder brought his face close to his son's. His mouth was dry. He swallowed hard. "What is it, Will?" he croaked.
Will's eyes searched Mulder's face, moving intently from feature to feature. Then, in one smooth, swift motion, he reached up and grabbed Mulder by the nose.
"Beep beep!" Will squealed, then giggled delightedly.
Mulder slumped forward, suddenly boneless. "Jesus, Will," he mumbled, his forehead dropping to the changing table pad. For some reason, that made Will laugh harder.
He was letting his imagination get the better of him, Mulder told himself as he straightened, lifting his still giggling son. He was over-tired, stressed, decaffeinated, and he probably had low blood sugar on top of it all.
"Come on, Will," he said, settling Will's Yankees cap on his head. "Let me get a cup of coffee and then we'll hit the beach."
Our Lawyer says: Chris Carter owns M&S; Fox owns The XFiles; we own this story. No infringement intended.