See part one for headers.
The restroom was bright, modern, and spotlessly clean, but Mulder wasn't surprised; it wasn't as if Billy was going to let him take his dirty children into a dirty bathroom. Backpack full of child supplies slung easily over one shoulder, Mulder hitched Will a little higher on the opposite hip, heedless of the mess he was making of his own shirt, and waited for the all-clear.
After checking each stall, carefully but quickly analyzing the contents of the garbage bin, and staring just a microsecond too long at the buzzing fluorescent over head, Ray stood at attention, his back to the door. "The facility appears secure, Mulder."
"Thanks, Ray," Mulder nodded absently, setting Will down on the counter next to a gleaming stainless steel sink. "At ease, or, you know, whatever." He pulled a couple of dry washcloths out of his backpack and handed one to Langly. "Let the de-stickifying commence," he said with a wry grin.
Langly gave Mulder a pointed look, but said nothing and turned on the tap.
'What?' Mulder mouthed. He turned a faucet and began filling the other sink.
Langly jerked his head slightly in Ray's direction.
Mulder raised his brows in question. "What is it?"
Langly's head bobbed toward Ray again. "I have extremely shy kidneys," he said, his eyes cutting to the sentry once more. "Could you ask your little friend to leave?"
Wiping the syrup-glossed spaces between the fingers on Will's right hand, Mulder shrugged. "Oh, yeah, sure." He caught Ray's reflected gaze in the mirror. "Ray, would you wait outside with Dee, please?"
"Mulder, it is my duty. . ."
Mulder looked down at his son. "Tell him, buddy."
Will leaned to the side so he could see around his father's body. "Ray doh out."
"Doh out," his brother echoed.
"William," Mulder admonished. "And, um, William: how do we ask?"
"Ray out *pease*."
"Pease out now."
"That's better, guys." Mulder flipped Will's hand palm up.
Ray's reflection blinked once, twice. "Yes, William." He nodded to each of the boys once and left the room.
"Bye bye!" both boys chirped in chorus.
Mulder mustered a fake cough, covering his mouth to hide a smirk. Poor Langly.
"What's so funny?" Langly lifted Will's arm so he could pull off the boy's t-shirt.
"Nothing." Shaking his head, Mulder soaked the cloth and wrung it out.
The two worked in silence.
"Langly, um. . . the last time you saw Scully, how was she?"
"Fine, I guess." Langly shrugged. "She was. . ."
"She was what?"
"Fine. I mean, um, the day before she um, you know, she stopped by the office. She was, I don't know, tired, I guess. She was working long hours. Hey, Will, lift up you arm, dude."
"Doooooooooood." Will echoed as he raised his arm.
"Yeah, doooood," Langly answered.
"She was tired?"
Langly pointed to Will with his chin. "She said he'd been cutting molars or something and neither one of them had been sleeping much."
"Been there." Mulder nodded. "So, why did she come by?"
Langly hesitated, then gave another shrug. "No reason in particular."
Mulder knew that was a lie. Scully wouldn't just drop in on the Gunmen's office. He wondered what Langly was hiding. Or *thought* he was hiding. Maybe he should just step out in the hallway and ask Ray.
He wiped Will's sticky forearm. "For what it's worth, and as you've probably figured out by now, Billy and the others can hear pretty much anything you say, whether you think they're in earshot or not. There's more to it than that, though. If it's not something you want them to know, don't even think it."
Langly had gone to work cleaning Mulder's other child, starting with one syrup and crumb-coated knee. He paused a moment, pushed his glasses up his nose with the tip of his thumb, and frowned. "How exactly am I supposed to *not* think about this stuff?"
Mulder kept his tone as neutral as he could. "Which stuff in particular?"
"Any of it. All of it." Langly shrugged. "Christ, pick somethin'."
"Give me your other hand, Will." Mulder rinsed and wrung the cloth again, buying time. He wasn't sure what to tell himself, most days, so he really wasn't sure what to tell his friend. "I, um, well. . ." he began, but faltered. Letting out a long, slow breath, he finished, "it's complicated."
The other man snorted. "No shit, Sherlock."
"NO SHIT!" Will giggled and tried to slide off the counter.
"Hey," Mulder swung his wet washcloth at his friend in mock-indignation. "Watch the potty mouth in front of my kids. Will, come here. We're not done yet."
Langly dodged the washcloth. The baby on his side of the counter tried to crawl toward his brother. "Will, don't." He pinned the boy in place with a hand on the chest and began wiping his way up one arm. He paused. "Okay, let's start there. Let's start with why you've got two kids, just about the same age, both named William."
"Oh, *that*." Mulder laughed dryly. "I, ah, -- did I mention this was complicated?"
Langly ploughed on, disregarding Mulder's attempt at humor. "Or, or, okay, Mulder, how about why you took off on Scully and one baby to be with Yves and the other."
"And if you had to do it, for whatever fucked up reason, why couldn't you just have talked to Scully about it? Christ, what was that all about, pulling that disappearing act and leaving Will behind on his grandmother's doorstep? What the hell were you thinking?"
Mulder felt something knot deep in his gut, but out of habit, he fought down the anger that threatened to unbalance him. They were safe, he reminded himself. Safe, protected, loved. He took a slow, deep breath. "Langly, I didn't-"
"Look, nevermind. How about you just tell me where the hell we are, or where the hell we're going. Monica talked to Doggett just before you showed up, and he told her they found Scully's SUV at Skyland Mountain, so why are we in the middle of the des-?"
"Wang." Wide-eyed, Will reached up and grabbed a handful of Langly's t-shirt. "Dop."
"Hang on a minute, buddy." Langly's voice trembled.
"Dop!" This came from the child in Mulder's care.
"Whoa." Mulder held up his hand. "They're right, Langly. Stop. If you get yourself worked up, you'll get the boys worked up, and if the boys get worked up, Billy's going to come charging in here like-"
"I don't care, Muld-"
"Yeah, you do, Langly. You do. That is the very last thing you want to happen." Mulder turned his attention back to Will. "Look up here so I can wash your dirty neck, big guy." The baby tilted his face accommodatingly and Mulder wiped carefully at the delicate skin. "Now, for starters, I did NOT leave Scully. And I had no idea that Will's nanny Leah was your femme-fatale Yves. Leah had no idea she was your femme-fatale Yves, either."
"Yeah, right." Langly snorted again.
"Yeah right what?"
"Yves is a pretty good actress."
"I've spent just about every day of the last year with her, Langly. She didn't have a clue."
"Well, she seems pretty damned territorial for a nanny, in case you haven't noticed. She practically growls at Monica every time they get within ten feet of each other."
Mulder couldn't argue with that; there'd been a distinctly combative aura surrounding Leah since the road trip began, and it had become decidedly more pronounced since Reyes had joined them.
"Leah's pretty heavily invested. She's been looking after Will since he was six weeks old. It's the only life she can remember. She probably feels threatened."
Langly gave him another hard, silent look.
"Will isn't - aren't - the only ones she's territorial about."
Mulder blinked. "What do you mean?"
"On come on, man. She's all over you like-"
"Yeah, right." It was Mulder's turn to snort. "She's not all over me like anything, Langly."
Langly wiped carefully at the baby's cheeks. His voice was low and tight. "Look, we all know - we all knew - Scully kept you on a damned short leash, and-"
Mulder felt his blood pressure jump another notch. "Scully didn't keep me on a-"
"Cut the crap, man. I like Scully. We all like her. But, Christ, you followed her around like a whipped dog for years, like you were waiting for her to throw you a bone or something. And, now, all of the sudden you've got this hot little-"
"Hang on," Mulder commanded, then stopped. Beating the shit out of Langly wouldn't do him any good, his reasonable side assured him, even thought his less reasonable side thought it was a damned fine idea. He took another long, slow breath, and released it. "One, you don't know sh-- jack about me and Scully, okay? You may think you know, but you don't. Got that?"
Langly gave a dismissive shrug. "Whatever."
Mulder squared his shoulders and went on. "Having said that, I believed Scully was dead. I understood she'd been killed in an explosion *before* Billy dragged me out of DC."
"And what? That's when you hooked up with Yves and built William II, the Sequel, there? Sorry, my man. Does not compute."
"I didn't - I haven't - hooked up with Yves. Leah. She's Will's nanny."
"Well, Monica was there when Scully went into labor, Mulder. She was there for the whole thing. Scully had one -- count 'em, one -- baby. So little Repeat there had to come from somewhere."
"Christ, what the - ? Langly, Leah's not Will's mothe-"
"Her name is Yves."
"Fine. Yves. Whatever her name is." Mulder pulled a tube of zinc cream out of his pack. "She is not William's mother. She works for me."
"So, what? You hired her? You interviewed a bunch of applicants and decided a great rack and amnesia were all the qualifications she needed?"
"No." The headache Mulder had been battling since waking flared. "She works for Billy, but she looks after me. Us, I mean. She looks after us."
"You certainly sound convinced." Langly's frown turned into a full-blown scowl. "And that's another thing. Billy Miles. Why the hell are you hanging around with this guy? Do you know how many people he's accused of killing, Mulder? How many people I've seen actual footage of him decapitating?"
"They were-" Mulder hesitated, trying to find the most accurate, least inflammatory words. "They were - threats. They had to be - to be eliminated."
"Threats? Eliminated?" The pitch of Langly's voice rose. "Are you hearing yourself, like, at all? You sound like you swallowed the NewSpeak dictionary."
Mulder nodded, not in agreement, but simply in an attempt to placate the younger man. He rubbed his throbbing forehead. "I know it must look bad. All I can tell you is that he - that all of them - have William's best interests at heart. Their only interest is in protecting him."
Langly stared at Mulder over the rim of his glasses. His voice dropped. "How do you figure that, man?"
"Put your arms up, bud, so we can get that dirty shirt off." William complied and Mulder slipped it smoothly over his head. Pulling two clean t-shirts and two pairs of shorts from the pack, Mulder handed one of each to Langly. "Change him, huh?"
"I'm on it," Langly nodded. He waited. "Answer the question, Mulder."
Mulder flattened a changing pad out on a stretch of counter next to the sink, then patted it. "Lie down so I can change your diaper, Will," he said.
"No," the baby replied.
"Diaper first." Mulder patted the pad again. "Lie still and we'll go look at the cherry picker. Deal?"
Will seemed to consider the offer. He exchanged a look with his brother. "Tay," they answered in unison. Will stretched out on the changing pad.
Langly gently tugged the clean t-shirt over the other child's head. "How do you know Billy's trying to protect William? And which William is that, by the way?"
"Both of them. And. . .I just do."
"Oh well," Langly rolled his eyes, "if you 'just do,' that's plenty good enough for me."
Mulder ground his molars in frustration. "Billy's looked after us for the last year. He's kept William and me safe. He kept Scully and - and 'THAT' William safe for as long as he could, and...look, I know it doesn't make sense, but he did that by keeping us apart. He's fed us, clothed us, sheltered us, and he's asked nothing in return."
"No one thing."
"Then why were you kept hidden in Toronto? Why weren't you allowed to contact us? You know, if you'd have called, someone -- hell, anyone -- could have told you that, heck no, Scully isn't dead, and-"
The word was out of Mulder's mouth before he could stop it. "Prophecy."
Langly stopped short. "What?"
A wave of familiar feelings -- dread, panic, fear -- all long-suppressed, but never completely eradicated, swelled inside Mulder and threatened to overwhelm him. Safe, he told himself. Safe. Protected. Loved.
"That stuff Billy is spouting all the time," Mulder began, willing himself calm. "It's - it's some kind of scripture. Some kind of prophecy."
Langly slumped against the counter, eyes wide, jaw slack. "Prophecy?"
Mulder's throat felt tight, constricted. He swallowed with some difficulty. "Billy and the others, they think William has, um, has a destiny."
Now that he had said it out loud, Mulder realized how stupid it had to sound. He wondered why Ray hadn't busted in by now, why Langly hadn't been dragged off, or worse, god, why Billy hadn't come through that door and tried to take his sons away.
"Wang? Up!" Will extended his arms.
"Hang on a second, buddy." Langly slid his glasses back up the bridge of his nose and turned to Mulder. "A destiny?"
Mulder nodded. "Yeah."
Heavy silence hung between the men as they finished dressing the children. Finally, Langly spoke.
"Mulder, honest to god, I am talking to you as your friend, man. And as your friend, I'm asking you to take a step back and try to see the whole picture here."
Mulder gnawed the inside of his cheek. "Which picture is that?"
"Think about what's been done to you, about what's being done to you. You've been misled, held captive, isolated. You've been forced to hand all control of your safety and the safety of your family, your children, over to someone who is a known dangerous felon. You've been threatened, if only indirectly. You're being emotionally controlled. They've got you convinced they can read your thoughts, Mulder, that they can read your mind. You're-"
"Langly, no, you don't under-"
Langly raised a finger. "No. Just listen. Now they've got you, a card-carrying, dues-paying member of Atheists-Are-Us spouting some quasi-religious crap. Take all that into account, Mulder, all those factors, and probably a couple dozen others I haven't figured in yet, and tell me you haven't got yourself a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome."
Mulder's eyes shot wide, and his breath caught in his throat. "What?" he choked out. "Stockho-"
"Look at everything you've told me, at everything that's happened, and tell me, if you were writing a profile, that isn't exactly what you'd diagnose."
"Ah done!" Will proclaimed.
"Ah done!" his brother echoed. "Twuck!"
The door swung open and Billy stepped in, his usual bland smile in place, but, Mulder thought, different somehow. "Mulder, William wishes to see the truck now."
Mulder stood the child on the counter, began re- packing the backpack. "In a minute, Billy."
He looked up. His eyes met Langly's in the mirror.
"Just think about what I've said, okay?" Langly asked. "Think about it, and when you're through thinking, we'll talk. Then we'll act."
The throbbing behind Mulder's eyes threatened to blind him. He nodded and scooped up his son. "C'mon, guys. Let's go see the truck."
"Hot," Leah said to no one in particular as they left the relative shelter of the restaurant's covered porch.
"Very," Mulder agreed. He raised a hand to his brow, shading his eyes. It *was* hot; far hotter, he was certain, than it had been just an hour or so ago. Or maybe the headache, which had gone from nagging to raging, just made it seem that way.
"At least it's a dry heat." Reyes said. "God, the humidity in New Orleans in the summertime." She and Langly walked just slightly ahead of Mulder and Leah; Billy, Ray, and Dee walked just slightly behind. Mulder had one William tucked on his hip while Leah led the other by the hand.
One William, Mulder thought, feeling stupid. He'd needed Langly - of all people - to remind him of the obvious. Scully had only given birth to one child. One William. Even if this other child was a product of their supposedly failed IVF attempts, even if the second boy was truly their son, one boy was too much like the other for coincidence.
And yet he'd accepted a second William without a second thought. Months of distrusting Billy and his smiling army of darkness, months of trying to find an escape, and all it had taken was one most likely drug-induced seizure and he was willing to. . .to. . .oh god. . .
He didn't realize he'd shut his eyes until the toe of his hiking boot caught on something and sent him stumbling forward.
"Mulder?" Leah's hand wrapped around his bicep and yanked him from his dangerous thoughts. "You okay?"
"Yeah." He nodded. He set William on his feet and took him by the hand. "Just clumsy."
William pointed down. "Wocks," he said.
Mulder squinted. "Yep. Rocks."
The other boy pointed, too. "Yots wocks."
Mulder nodded. "Lots of rocks."
Leah peered at him from beneath the brim of her ball cap. She frowned. "Perhaps you're dehydrated. You look peaked."
"Peaked?" Mulder gave a dry chuckle. He tugged on Will's hand and started walking again. "I haven't heard that expression since dinosaurs roamed the earth."
Leah arched a brow at him. "Pale, sickly, wan, ashen - pick one."
"This headache won't let up." Mulder rubbed his forehead with his free hand. "That's all."
"You take Tylenol?"
"Yes, mom," he muttered.
"Should have worn your hat."
Reyes looked over her shoulder at them. "You been to New Orleans, Agent Mulder?" she asked. Her tone was overly bright, he thought, but maybe he shouldn't read anything into it. Maybe that was just the way she was.
"It's just Mulder, Monica," he replied, deciding, what the hell, since they were probably risking life and limb together, they should now be officially on single-name status. "And, uh, yeah, couple of times. I liked it. Except for, like you said, the humidity."
Will tugged on the cuff of Mulder's shorts. "Twuck?"
"In a minute, buddy."
"Yo." Langly spun around and walked backwards as he spoke. "Me and Monica were thinking of checking out that store." He gestured in the direction of a low wooden building. In foot-high letters, a sign proclaimed it 'Uncle Ted's General Store and Assayer's Office'. "We wanna grab some stuff."
Mulder felt a low buzzing sensation in the base of his skull. For a moment, the air around him seemed to crackle and spark. Dee quickly moved past him and, with her usual blank smile, insinuated herself between Langly and Reyes.
"Mr. Langly, Ms Reyes," Billy said, "Dee will be honored to accompany you."
Langly stopped walking, and the rest of the group came to a halt. He looked Dee up and down, then frowned. "She isn't invited."
"Mr. Langly, Ms Reyes," Billy repeated, "Dee will be honored to accompany you."
Folding his arms across his chest, Langly gave Mulder a long, piercing look. "Call them off, Mulder," he all but snarled.
Mulder sighed. Rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands, he asked, "Billy, does Dee have to go with them?"
"Yes, Mulder," Billy said.
Mulder shrugged. "Mr. Langly, Ms Reyes, Dee will be honored to accompany you."
"Fu-" Langly kicked at the gravel parking lot, sending up a spray of fine dust and red pebbles.
"Wocks!" both boys squealed. They imitated Langly's move, creating a pair of miniature red dust storms.
"Rich," Monica said, laying a hand on Langly's shoulder, "it's no big deal." Her eyes cut to Leah, then to Mulder. "The boys need anything?"
Mulder started to shake his head, but renewed pounding assured him this would be a very bad idea. "I don't think so. Leah?"
"No, nothing. You three run ahead and we'll meet you there, okay?"
"Fine." Langly answered, after a pause and a scowl. His tone made it clear it was anything but. He turned and stalked off. After a nervous glance at Billy, Reyes followed, Dee smiling at her heels.
"Mulder," Billy said. "We will inquire about a campsite at the main office."
"Oh. Sure." Taken aback, Mulder watched Billy and Ray march away. It was unusual, being left alone. But then, he thought, taking in the barren landscape surrounding the truck stop, there wasn't much of anywhere to run, even if he decided he wanted to.
William handed Mulder a tiny fistful of pebbles. "Wocks."
Mulder accepted the offering. "Thanks, bud."
"Pottet," William instructed.
"Yeah, okay." Mulder blew the fine grit off the rocks, then dropped them in the pocket of his shorts. "C'mon guys," Mulder told his sons, "let's get a Popsicle before we go see the truck."
Neither boy seemed to be paying attention. Tiny heads together, they squatted in the dust, pushing red rocks and dirt into a pile.
"Mulder," Leah asked, "How well do you know, um, what's-his-name...Rich, is it?"
"Langly? I've known him for years. Why?"
The corner of Leah's mouth twitched. "What about the woman, Agent Reyes? How long have you known her?"
"Not very long. But Langly vouches for her. Why?"
"I just. . .I have a bad feeling about them," Leah answered. "Nothing I can pinpoint, but. . ."
She bit her bottom lip. "I wonder if they can be trusted."
Mulder glanced over his shoulder. Billy and Ray were becoming distant specks. "Would Billy have let them come along if they couldn't be?"
Leah tilted her head. "So, what? We're trusting Billy, now?"
Heart suddenly racing, Mulder took a deep breath and watched his sons playing peacefully in the dirt. He had to stay calm. Suddenly nothing seemed more important. "I don't think this is something we should be discussing."
Leah gnawed the inside of her cheek. "She was dead, Mulder. You saw it. You were there. You were ready to move on."
"Listen to me." She took a step closer. "It's very convenient, don't you think, that one moment William's mother is dead and we're being held prisoner, and the next, oh look, no, she's not dead, after all? In fact, she's alive and well and living in Washington. But, what's this? She's suddenly in grave danger, and you, you, and only you, can save her? And let's bring along two of Mulder's friends from before to go along with this ridiculous story, and- "
"Stop." Mulder squared his shoulders and pulled himself to his full height, towering over her, glowering. His head thrummed. "We are not discussing this. Do you understand me? This conversation is over. Guys," he bent and spoke to the boys, who were still happily tossing handfuls of gravel around, "come on. We're going to the st-"
"Mulder!" Leah's voice was a low, harsh hiss. "They've done this, haven't they?"
Kneeling, Mulder brushed dust from the back of one boys' shorts and legs, then reached for the other. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Langly and that Reyes woman," she spit out. "They've convinced you I'm some sort of threat, haven't they? That I'm this dangerous Yves person, who can't be trusted. That's it, isn't it?"
She ignored his protest. "That's why you keep looking at me like I'm, I'm, some sort of, of filth, why you all do."
He dusted Will's shorts a little harder. "Leah, please."
"And why didn't you ever tell me William had a twin?"
"Because-" he bit out, then stopped himself. Taking a deep breath, he began again. "Because he doesn't. Okay?"
"He clearly does," she replied, without missing a beat. She drew her lips into a thin line. "Is that what's going on here? Were they holding one son hostage? Did you have to agree to do something so you could get him back? Is that where we're really going?"
"Mulder, look at me," she commanded.
Mulder raised his head, meeting her angry glare.
"Tell me the truth. Are we on some sort of suicide mission?"
He closed his eyes, rubbed them with his now-gritty thumb and forefinger. White stars danced on his lids and black bile rose in his gorge.
He blew out a long breath. "I don't know, Leah. I don't know."
Mulder's cheeks were burning by the time they reached the store. He was angry - really, really angry. He hadn't let himself get this mad - this completely frustrated - in so long that it was almost a new emotion. One, he quickly realized, that he had to tamp down, and fast.
The front porch of the store was wide and shaded, a welcome relief from the sun. Mulder paused at the top of the stairs, taking in the faux-antique rocking chairs, mining lamps, pick axes, and shovels that were meant, no doubt, to lend atmosphere. For a moment, he studied a tin sign that told him 'genuine, healing minerals,' were available inside. Breathing deeply, he reigned in his rage.
A blast of fabulously cold air hit them as he swung the door open. "No running," he told the boys as they barreled past him. "And no touching, either," he added almost immediately, swooping down to rescue a cactus snow-globe from his son's grubby fingers. He put the merchandise back on the shelf.
Dee was waiting near the front. "Sir," she said with a curt nod before resuming her intent study of a rack of chips near the counter.
"Dee," Mulder said, in absent acknowledgment. He scanned the aisles of the shop quickly, looking for Langly and Reyes, then glanced back at the boys. "I said no touching, guys," he said, snatching a ceramic burro from the brink of destruction.
"No touch!" William agreed, reaching for a cowboy- and-cowgirl-shaped salt and pepper set. His brother echoed his words, grabbing what purported to be a collectable spoon.
"Some company store," Leah said, taking in the aisles of bric-a brac and convenience food. "Watch them. I'm going to find the bathroom."
"Wocks!" Will shouted. He started running, his brother on his orthopedically-correct heels. "Yots wocks!"
"Stay with me, guys," Mulder called, following them toward the front counter.
The boys stopped when they reached a bin full of souvenir minerals. The stones were polished to a glossy sheen, some of them so garishly colored that they'd obviously been dyed. Many of the larger ones the boys pulled out and examined had a smallish, off- center hole drilled through them, ready for stringing.
"Looks like someone got the deluxe rock tumbler for Christmas," he said, crouching between the boys and accepting a smooth, flat oval of something that looked like jade from one of them. He handed it back. "Your Aunt Sam had one of those. You guys want a popsi-"
The clerk behind the front counter put down her magazine and leaned toward them. "Well, there's them pretty babies again!" She looked up at Mulder and smiled. "I just can't get over how cute they are."
Mulder stood a little too quickly, causing a head rush that nearly blew off the top of his skull. Swallowing hard, he tried to focus his vision. "Thanks. Um, weren't you just working in the restaurant? Or are you twins, too?"
"Nope." Carleena's brow raised, her features taking on a martyred expression. "My sister Bobbi usually works mornings up here, but she had to go to the foot doctor 'cause her corns is actin' up. Like *my* corns ain't after coming in to work at five AM, but you know, family's family."
Mulder blinked, noticing, for the first time, Carleena's brightly painted face and round, watery eyes. Her features seemed too soft, her eyes too bright. He quickly looked away.
He found himself looking at a shelf full of breakfast cereal, the pictures on the boxes glowing like neon. It was taking his eyes a long time to adjust to the indoor lighting, he thought. But he remembered that photosensitivity could be a symptom of dehydration. Maybe Leah was right. Maybe what he really needed was a bottle of water. . .
"Dada! Wock." Will offered him a black chunk of stone roughly shaped like a pyramid.
"No thanks, buddy," Mulder muttered, fighting a wave of nausea. "I'm all set on rocks." He dropped it back into the bin.
Looking around, he spotted a metal folding chair next to the door, and gestured toward it. "Would it be all right if I sat down over there?"
"Oh heck yes," Carleena replied. "Let them babies play. Set on down."
Mulder's eyes cut to Dee, who was still studying bags of Doritos and popcorn. She turned and met his gaze, her smile too wide, somehow, much brighter than usual. Feeling bewildered, Mulder sat, placing his elbows on his knees and cradling his forehead in his hands. The room seemed to be humming, filling with a low, whispering sound that was vaguely familiar. For a moment, he thought someone was singing, very softly, into his left ear.
Straightening, he scanned the empty aisle before him, glanced over at Dee again, and looked up at the ceiling. There was a speaker positioned just above where he was sitting. Reassured, he resumed his earlier position and closed his eyes. That's all it was, he thought. Just a speaker. Nothing weird there.
"Wock, Dada." Will held another pyramid of stone toward him, this one smaller than the last.
"No thanks, buddy," Mulder muttered.
"You can take that rock home, baby," Carleena said, her voice sticky-sweet. "Your brother can have one, too. They're called lodestones. They're for fixin' things, like arthritis and bad luck. They're magnetic, too."
Raising his head, Mulder looked at the stone his son was holding. He blinked at it, then blinked again. Stones don't glow, he told himself, even though the one in William's palm didn't seem to understand this, because it was emitting a faint, purplish light. Mulder dropped his head again. The whispering he'd heard before seemed to be growing louder. "Put that back, Will."
"I think the word is 'traumatized,' Rich."
Mulder's head shot up, sending a fresh surge of pounding across his temples. Monica Reyes was murmuring, somewhere nearby. But he couldn't get a fix on which direction her words were coming from. He couldn't see her at all.
"You okay?" Carleena asked. "You look kinda peaked."
"Peaked?" Mulder mumbled. "I'm fine."
"Wock." One of the boys placed a stone on Mulder's knee.
"Guys," he said, his voice strained. "Enough with the rocks, okay?" He handed the stone to the boy. Water. He needed -
"Them rocks, now there's a funny thing." Carleena said. "Shows you what a visionary my daddy's always been. He was in full time service to the Lord when he first came west, you know, workin' as a Deacon in one a them old-timey travelin' revivals, remember them? Settin' up the tent and passin' the plate and winnin' all the souls they could. But then he saw this chunk of barren land in the middle of the desert, and found out the government was just about beggin' someone to take it. He used to tell us the Lord gave him a vision, right there on the spot, a vision about what that land could be. So he asked his daddy to lend him the money to open the diner, and Paw-paw said, 'boy, you're crazy! You don't even know how to cook....'"
Mulder massaged his temples, trying to make sense of what Carleena had said. Something didn't quite--
"Don't make excuses for him." Langly's voice drifted toward him.
"I'm not. But I think Mulder's been through a hell of a lot." Reyes' hushed tones mingled with the growing hum. Mulder glanced carefully over his shoulder, then looked around the store again. Where the hell were they standing?
"I'm not arguing that," Langly's voice faded in, then out again. "-mething's not right with him, and even you know it. Everybody's worried, Monica. They're ready to help."
"Like them rocks," Carleena went on. "That just shows what a natural-born businessman daddy was. He got the idea to sell healin' stones long before all them hippies-" her voice faded.
"What do you mean, 'everyone'?" Reyes asked somewhere off in the distance. Her voice became stronger, clearer, "Who else did you call?"
"Nobody else. Only Frohike," Langly answered. "I needed to check on Byers, for Christ's sake. Shit, he'd only been out of the hospital a few hours when we just fucking deserted them."
Mulder glanced around again. Langly and Reyes didn't seem to be anywhere nearby, so his battered brain must be cooking this up on its own, giving voice, perhaps, to the doubts Langly had raised earlier. At any rate, he told himself, there was no chance Langly was going to be able to make the kind of call he seemed to be describing. Billy's 'no phone' policy was set in stone - he would certainly enforce it.
He took a deep breath. He'd just convinced himself he was hallucinating. Could you be hallucinating if you had to talk yourself into it, he wondered. And why, he wanted to know, had they turned off the air conditioning?
"'Course daddy's in the nursin' home now, poor thing," Carleena's voice again, louder. "And even up there they still call him Uncle Ted. Oh my yes, he's respected in these parts, has been for years..."
The wash of static poured over Mulder's senses. He lifted his head.
"Dada!" Will stood before him, holding one dark rock in each outstretched palm. "Yook."
"Rocks. Great," Mulder muttered. Dee could get him a bottle of water. He looked up, searching for her. She was no longer by the chips. He looked around. Where would she go?
"...hard at first, but then they opened that museum in Grants, you know, the World's Only Underground Uranium Mining Museum? And the visitor's center up the road. And a couple of Indian reservations, though I don't think they call them that now, something with 'native' in it instead, and the park, of course, and..." Carleena droned on.
"Yook," Will repeated, stepping so close that Mulder could feel the boy's warm, sweet breath on his clammy skin.
Mulder looked at the dark rocks in his son's hands.
"Mama wock," Will lifted one palm a little, then the other. "Dada wock."
His brother grinned, holding another, smaller stone out to him. "Bubby wock."
"The rock family. I get it." Mulder said. "Dee, I need some wa-"
"...Frohike's been in touch with Skinner, Monica, and they're coming out here. No one thinks what we're doing is a good idea..."
Carleena's voice jarred Mulder back to the here and now. "...see, it was 'Uncle Ted's Good Eats,' and just between you and me, Mama always hated that name, but daddy said, 'no, that's the name.' It had to be, 'cause he'd had a vision about that too, see, and..."
Langly's voice emerged from the static again. "...der's being controlled. We're out on a limb, here, Monica. We need some backup."
"It's not like that. Rich, I'd explain this to you if I could."
"Funny, that's what Mulder just said to me. You working for Billy Miles now, too?"
"Yook!" both boys insisted.
Battling another wave of nausea, Mulder stood. He blinked, once, twice, three times, trying hard to focus. It was as if the boys were at the far end of a mile-long tunnel.
Will made the rocks dance, bouncing them up and down. "Mama wock, Dada wock," the boy said again. The stones, still glowing, hopped in his palms.
Only now, it seemed, time had slowed. The rocks stayed in the air longer than they should have, hovering just above William's hand. No matter how hard or how often Mulder blinked, the stones hung in the air, resting on a cushion of indigo light.
His breath caught in his throat. The air around him was blurring, turning an unappealing shade of lavender. His stomach lurched. "William, how-"
Reyes sounded anguished. "No, of course not. It's just...Rich, right before Mulder showed up, Will touched me, and...I had a dream. A vision. "
"Monica? What the fuck?"
"I know we're doing the right thing. Please, you've got to be patient..."
The floor seemed to shift under his feet. Mulder reached for the counter, steadying himself. Carleena kept talking. "So when he opened the campground, there was a theme for it, all ready to go, and..."
Mulder felt the blood drain from his face. Resisting the urge to clap his hands to his ears, he tried to focus on the cartoon that was Carleena's face, tried to find his voice, which seemed to have dried up like a roadkill in the desert sun.
"So now it's...Uncle Ted's Good Eats and...MINING." Carleena laughed again. "Kind of silly, ain't it? He never mined nothing in his life."
Another voice emerged. "She is blessed among women. The perfect vessel. Rejoice." The voice was harsh. It was right behind him.
Mulder felt his heart stop cold.
"Huh?" He spun. There was no one. He stared up at the speaker. "Who is?"
Carleena's voice was suddenly sharp. "You alright, sir?"
"I'm fi-" he said, swallowing bile.
Bells tinkled and an automatic door whooshed shut.
"Oh, sir - your boys!"
"Your boys just ran out the door. That blonde lady just let them get right past her and-"
"Will..." Mulder glanced wildly at the rock bin where the boys had been standing. They were gone.
He lurched toward the door, blood boiling. Where was Leah? What the hell was Dee doing letting the boys out?
He burst onto the porch. Ray was waiting for him, blocking the stairs.
"What the fuck, Ray?" Mulder barked, pushing past. "Where are the kids?"
"'And in that place,'" Ray said, gesturing toward the parking lot, seemingly unable to contain his delight, "'a sign was given.'"
Mulder squinted in the searing light. The boys were over halfway across the parking lot, holding hands, their tiny legs pumping as they ran. Dee followed them at a distance - too great a distance for Mulder's liking.
"William!" Mulder yelled, taking off toward them at a dead run. His legs felt like lead weights. "Dammit, stop!" he shouted.
Beyond the lot, the cherry picker that had been working on the billboard was pulling out, slowly making its way across the field. The boys were running toward it.
"Will!" There was a distant shout. Langly and Reyes, who had apparently been standing by a bank of pay phones on the far side of the parking lot, were rushing toward the boys.
"Mulder!" Leah's voice rang out, far behind him, sounding shrill and terrified.
The truck was gaining speed.
Mulder ran faster, heart in his throat, head pounding, vision blurring. William - all that mattered now was William, he thought, just before he tripped. He sprawled in the gravel for what felt like weeks before he ordered his weary body to get up and move again.
Waving her arms, Reyes dashed into the path of the on-coming truck. Within moments, Langly was heading the boys off, grabbing one by the hand and snaring the back of the other's shirt.
"Bye-bye! Bye-bye!" Heedless of the commotion they'd caused, the boys waved at the truck, which slowed, changed course, and went on its way.
Mulder made it to the curb, snatching up the first boy in his path and holding on for dear life.
"It's okay," Langly panted. "They're okay."
Taking the other child from Langly's arms, Mulder spun on Ray and Dee, who were now standing just a few feet away. He was so angry he could barely speak. "What the fuck were you thinking?"
Ray smiled. "William is protected. He is loved, as always."
"Shut the hell up." Langly started toward them. "That's bullshit and you know it."
"Rich, no." Alarmed, Reyes caught hold of Langly's arm. He pulled away with a curse.
Billy had arrived at the edge of the field and now he opened his arms toward them, his eyes wide, lifting his face and gazing toward the heavens with an intensity that Mulder had never witnessed before.
"What the-" Mulder began, but his words were lost in a rumble of thunder. The sky, which had been cloudless blue moments before, grew pewter-dark as the wind rose.
"Lo," Billy said, "The storm approaches."
"Billy, goddammit, what-" he tried again, but something reached into his chest and squeezed the air out of his lungs. He set the boys down and bent double, his hands on his scraped and bloody knees, his body shaking wildly. He panted, fighting to draw air into his lungs.
"'A sign was given unto them," he heard Billy say.
"What?!" Langly asked. "*That's* the sign?"
"Mama!" William called and echoed. "Mama!"
Mulder fell to his knees.
"Mulder!" Reyes' voice sounded panicked. "What's the matter? Are you all right?"
Disregarding the pain, he turned his gaze to the boys.
They were both pointing. Pointing to the billboard.
He turned his head.
The boys turned to him. "Wock, dada," they said, each holding a lump of lodestone out to him. "Wock. See?"
With a gust of wind, the static he had heard in the store returned full-force, the white noise deafening, teeming with voices, the voices of every soul around him, every soul on the planet. The voices whispered reassurance. They bellowed accusations. They laughed with joy and wailed with despair.
In the midst of the clamor, one voice begged for mercy.
"Scul-" he whispered. The edges of his vision were darkening.
"Mulder, tell us what's wrong, how can we help..." Someone was speaking to him, but the voice seemed a thousand miles away.
"See?" William said again. As Mulder watched, the rocks lifted from the boys' hands. They hovered a moment, then flew toward the billboard, crashing through the sign, leaving a single gaping whole in its center.
"'The way was shown to them," he heard Billy say. "'Their path was made clear.'"
"Hallelujah," Ray's voice whispered inside Mulder's head. He felt himself jerk forward and land in the dust.
"Hallelujah," Dee's voice echoed softly, filling his mind.
"Hallelujah," he thought, though he didn't know why.
Then everything went black.
A bird was turning lazy circles in the hazy sky above him, coasting on a current of air. Mulder watched the creature wheel away from him, then come back again, over and over. It was cooler now that the sun wasn't beating down, and his head had finally stopped pounding.
Nice, he thought, watching the gull spiral lower. He rarely found himself flat on his back without someone poking him, prodding him, trying to strap him into restraints, or more recently, attempting to climb over him or shove Happy Meal toys up his nose. He closed his eyes, listened to the surf, and thought about what a soothing sound it was.
"You were supposed to help me!" a young voice said, somewhere off in the distance to his right.
"I am helping you!" an identical voice answered.
Mulder wondered, briefly, how he'd gotten from the desert to the ocean. New Mexico was a long way from here, wherever here was.
"Ha, to you!"
The voice was at once familiar and foreign. Something from an old movie, maybe?
"Not like that!"
"Ahhhhhhh! Now look what you did!"
"I didn't do anything!"
Or someone from the past - an old case? If he thought about it, he could probably-
That voice wasn't as far away as the others. That voice was grown-up, feminine, and, if he ignored it, he hoped, it and its owner would go away.
"Um, excuse me?"
"Yes?" Mulder reluctantly opened an eye and gave the owner of the voice a long look, taking in her features. She was young, in the twenty to twenty- five range, and was wearing cutoffs, a faded blue sweatshirt, and an un-branded red ball cap with a suede bill. A long, brown ponytail fell forward over her right shoulder. Nothing about her seemed at all familiar.
She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Are those yours?"
Mulder lifted his head. The *those* in question were two sandy-haired boys, five or six years old, armed with shovels and pails, who were scrambling over a hillock of sand. Both *those* and the beach where they played looked familiar. Very familiar.
"Yeah." Mulder nodded and sat the rest of the way up. He knew where he was now, and that was comforting. "Yeah. At least, I think so."
The young woman pulled back and gave him a puzzled frown. "You 'think' so?"
Mulder watched the boys argue for a moment. One threw a handful of sand at the other. "Um, I mean, until about a week ago I was pretty sure at least one of them was mine. Now I'm not sure either of them is." He looked up at her. She was watching him with unreadable gray eyes. "Have we met?"
"Not yet," she replied, extending her hand. "I'm Sophie."
She pointed to the patch of sand beside him. "Mind if I sit?"
"Be my guest." Mulder nodded and scooted away a little. "So what's a nice girl like you doing in my subconscious?"
Sophie's brows rose. "Is that where we are?"
"That's my best guess."
"Oh. Well, then. Nice subconscious you've got here." She scanned the horizon. "A little damp, though. Kinda foggy. Someone goes to the beach, even in their mind, and you'd think they'd want it nice and sunny and -" she gestured toward a couple of gulls specking at the waterline, "- sans sky-rats."
"You would think that, wouldn't you?" He looked down at his feet. They were bare and sandy and cold and a patch of tar clung to one side of his left foot. He wiggled his toes and wondered why he hadn't imagined himself with shoes. He tried, picturing himself wearing his favorite beat-up court shoes, or even a warm, dry pair of socks, but his feet remained stubbornly bare. "I seem to have about as much control over my subconscious as I do over anything else."
"Not like that!" One of the boys shouted at the other, waving his arms at the sand pile. "That's wrong! That's all wrong!"
"Yes, like this!" the other replied. "Just like this!"
Whatever was said next between the boys was lost in the crash of the surf.
"So, what are you guys doing here?" Sophie asked eventually.
Mulder paused to consider his answer. "Not entirely sure," he finally said. "This is usually where I end up when reality and I part company."
"Oh." She nodded as if that were a perfectly reasonable thing for someone she'd just met to say. "That happen a lot?"
"Often enough." He blinked at her. "Why are you here?"
"I don't know." Sophie plucked a sand dollar from the sand between them. It was about the size of a poker chip and as white as bleached bone. She held it in her palm, star side up, and brushed a few grains of sand away. "Girl's gotta be somewhere, right?"
"I suppose so." A thought, at once disturbing and oddly intriguing, crossed his mind, and he wondered, for a moment, if he dared give it voice. Finally, he cleared his throat. "You aren't coming on to me, are you?"
"Ew! No!" Sophie's lip curled. "Don't be gross."
"Just checking." He gave a soft, self-deprecating chuckle. "It's just that you've never been here with me before. With us before. I'd remember you, I think."
She smiled, the kindness in her eyes showing him she had taken no offense, and intended none, either. "Besides - " She nodded toward the ring on his left hand. "You're spoken for, right?"
He gave a non-committal tilt of the head, and turned to watch his boys at work in the sand.
Mulder's head dropped to his chest and he rubbed hard circles in his forehead with his knuckles. Jesus, what a mess.
Sophie must not have liked his non-reply, because after a moment, she asked him again, more emphatically: "Mulder? You *are* taken, right?"
He was almost surprised to hear himself speak. "I've had some time to think about that over the last couple of days and I realize that my last few marriage proposals were met with something less than enthusiasm on her part. So, um" - he twisted the gold band on his finger and studied it for a moment - "I'm not entirely sure how 'taken' I am."
"Ah. I see." She turned the sand dollar over in her hand. "You know, you don't seem to be entirely sure of much at the moment."
He nodded. "Good call."
"So," She said, bringing the sand dollar closer to her face, examining it minutely, "what brings on this sudden crisis of faith?"
Mulder eyed her narrowly. "Interesting choice of words."
Sophie shrugged. "Seriously. What's wrong?"
"What's wrong?" He blew out a long, slow breath. "I've been kidnapped, held prisoner, dragged across the continent, handed a second child I didn't know I had, participated in the forcible confinement of a couple of friends, found out my sons' nanny may or may not be an internationally wanted criminal, discovered the dead woman I love may not be dead after all, and have realized that my place in the grand scheme of things, which seemed pretty obvious and almost reasonable a couple of days ago, now seems ridiculous and very probably hazardous to my health."
"All that, huh?" Sophie's brows drew together. She peered at him from beneath the brim of her cap, giving him a hard, analytical look. "On the up side, you still have most of your hair. That must count for something."
"Yes yes yes!" One of the boys shouted as the other smoothed a cone of sand. "We did it!"
"That 'place in the grand scheme of things' stuff," Sophie said. "It's a big deal, huh?"
"I think it might be," Mulder agreed. "I'm just not-"
"Sure at the moment?" she finished for him.
Mulder grinned and ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah."
Sophie put the sand dollar down between them again. She pulled her knees up and hugged them close to her chest. "What would it take to reassure you?"
Mulder pursed his lips in thought. "I don't know," he answered finally. "I - I have spent my entire adult life trying to do the right thing. And this time, I have no idea what the right thing is."
Sophie nodded thoughtfully. "Well, what are your choices?"
"That's the problem, or part of it," he answered. "I don't think I have any."
"Oh, so it's more of a destiny thing? Fate stepping in and smacking you upside the head?"
"Pretty much." Mulder nodded. "Apparently, at some point I don't recall, I chose to be chosen. Since then, it's been out of my hands."
"Hmm." The girl was quiet a moment, as if deep in thought. "How's that a problem, then? You don't have to actually make any decisions, right? You just have to do what has to be done."
"Well," Sophie's expression brightened, "what exactly does this whole 'destiny' thing involve?"
"It's not really clear." Mulder scratched at his cheek. He needed a shave. "It's either rescuing Scully, or-"
"'Scully' being. . .?"
He gestured to the sand pile. "Their mother. Um, *probably* their mother."
"The not-dead woman you aren't sure you belong to?"
"One and the same."
"Oh. Okay. So you either have to- ?"
He turned to her. "Either rescue her or save the planet."
"Oh." Sophie blinked once, twice. "But you aren't sure which?"
Mulder shook his head.
Sophie gave a low whistle. "Wow."
"See what I mean?"
She smiled. "So I suppose a comment about having your own teeth wouldn't help right now?"
Mulder bared his teeth, tapped on the top left side. "These three are caps."
"Shit," the girl replied.
"Yeah," Mulder agreed. "Shit."
"Oh no oh no oh no!" One of the boys groaned as a wall of sand collapsed.
"Argh! Ahhhh!" the other wailed.
"You sure it's an either-or deal, Mulder?"
"As you yourself pointed out, I'm not entirely sure about a lot, right now." He scraped his foot against the sand, trying to rub the tar away. "I just - I have a feeling we can't all live through this."
A soft sympathetic sound rose for the girl's throat. She reached out and placed her warm hand on his bare forearm. "This must hard for you."
His voice dropped to a whisper. "I'm afraid it's been nothing but lies, you know? What if I wanted to understand so badly, wanted so much to make sense of something that in and of itself made no sense, that allowed myself to be led? I'm afraid I've been connecting the dots all these years, joining A to B to C to D, only to realize that, in the end, it's going to spell out *sucker*. I can't stand to think it's all been for nothing."
"Nothing comes without a price," she said.
"No one knows that better than I do," he answered. "And for some reason, I just go on paying it."
They sat in uncomfortable silence for a while, watching the boys pouring and shaping their buckets of sand.
"What are those two doing, anyway?" Sophie asked.
"They're building a spaceship."
"Out of sand?"
Mulder nodded. "They've been working on it a long time."
Sophie frowned. "What's the point of building a spaceship from sand?"
"I don't know," Mulder answered honestly. "I used to assume it was symbolic. Now, I'm not so sur--"
Sophie held up a hand. "Don't say it."
Another sand wall caved in. Both boys howled in frustration. Sophie turned to him. "They seem like nice kids, Mulder."
"Thanks. They are nice kids." A surge of pride washed through him. "But I can't take all the credit. Scully's been raising one of them."
Sophie squinted at the boys. "Which one?"
Mulder squinted at them, too, trying to tell which boy was his and which was Scully's. But it was pointless. He gave a wry chuckle. "I have no idea."
"It doesn't really matter if they're yours or not, does it? You love them anyway."
His answer was automatic and honest. "I do."
"It's the same for her isn't it?" Sophie pressed. "You love her even when you aren't sure she's going to love you back?"
Mulder's throat was suddenly tight and dry. He swallowed and nodded.
She gave him a long look. "It looks like your sons could use some help."
Mulder sighed out his frustration. "Haven't you been listening? I don't know what to do. I don't know how to help."
"Yes, you do. You just told me you do." Sophie rose to her feet and offered him her hand. "Now, get up on your feet, walk over to that pile of sand, and meet your destiny."
He let her help him up. Now that they were both standing, he towered over her. "Just like that?"
"All shall be as has been written." she said in a tone of voice that sounded too much like Billy's. "You cannot doubt that."
"I don't." Mulder closed his eyes and rubbed them. "I don't doubt it. I just don't understand it."
"You don't have to." She bent down and retrieved the sand dollar. Turning, she threw it into the sea. It skipped three times before it sank beneath the surface. "Your family needs you. Just go do what has to be done."
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