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It was a Polaroid, which was how you could tell it was old. William didn’t want to look at it. It felt slippery and unfamiliar in his hands. He didn’t want to look at it, but expectant eyes were bearing into him, so he forced himself.

The woman–Scully, he reminded himself, Dana Scully–was sitting on a striped couch in front of a Christmas tree. She was smiling, and William barely knew the woman outside of months he didn’t remember, but he knew that kind of smile was unusual. She looked a muted sort of happy, like something was missing. But there was an unquestionable amount of love in her eyes as she looked down at the baby (him) in her arms. He was dressed in the dumbest UFO onesie and was chewing on a teething ring. Scully (his mother, his birth mother) was cupping his head in one hand and had the pointer finger of her other hand captured in his tiny fingers. She actually looked like a mother. She was dressed in a worn Oxford sweatshirt that was clearly too large for her, and it didn’t take a detective (or the apparent son of two FBI agents) to figure out whose it was. Who was missing from the picture.

It was painful to look at. William swallowed hard, looked away. Looked up at the man who’d handed him the picture. Mulder stood awkwardly, one hand in his pocket, his eyes full of apology. The same way they’d been since they’d met for the first (second) time a few days ago. They both seemed to be full of regret, his birth parents. But it didn’t change anything. 

“I’m sorry to, uh, dump this on you,” Mulder said. He was looking at the ground. It seemed to be painful for him to look at his son, and William felt the fresh sting of that every time. “It’s just. I can only guess at all the things you must be feeling, the questions you must have. And I just. I just want you to know that she loved you. Loves you. So much.” He cleared his throat, and when he spoke again, he sounded on the verge of tears. “You were all she ever wanted. Giving you up like that, it almost killed her. And I know things are complicated, and you don’t have to love us–you, uh, you don’t have any reason to–but I just, I just wanted you to know that she loves you.”

Mulder looked up at William, and his eyes were so full of emotion that William had to look away. God, this was hard. He hadn’t expected it to be this hard. He hadn’t expected to resent his birth parents. He hadn’t expected them to make it so hard to resent them. 

Mulder added shakily, “And there’s no photographic evidence of this, but… I love you, too. I always have.”

William bit his lip so hard he tasted blood. It doesn’t matter, he thought about saying. I don’t care, he thought about saying. But he remembered the night they’d met–Scully’s look of astonishment when she’d seen him, the tears that had sprung to her eyes. The unconscious way she’d lifted her arms for a hug and the inevitable hurt that she’d tried to hide when he hadn’t responded. He looked down at the picture again. Dana and William, Christmas 2001, someone had written on the back. Once upon a time, this woman had been his mother. Once upon a time, she stopped, and she sent him away, and he found a new family he was happy with. Once upon a time, this woman had kept going with her life without her son, and she’d regretted it every day. 

William couldn’t quite forgive, and he certainly couldn’t forget. A tangle of dark emotions dredged up as he considered his birth parents, ones that might never go away. But he couldn’t bring himself to blow them off completely either. He touched his birth mother’s face, frozen in 2001, looked up to meet Mulder’s eyes, and said, “Thank you.”