Title: Dr. Scully's School for Exceptional Boys
Author: prufrock's love
Classification: Novel, MSR, Other
Summary: More than a decade had passed. Mulder had no reason to hole up in his apartment alone, wearing a Three Dog Night T-shirt with dried mustard on the hem and blue jeans that had seen better days. He wasn't "saving himself" for anyone. Especially not Her. Though she remained epically, beautifully, brilliantly kick-A-S-S.
Spoilers: We veer AU after season 7, with a few bits from 8 & 9.
Notes: With thanks to Mimic for beta-reading. Twice.
Archive: Mimic, AO3, & Gossamer only.
Disclaimer: Not mine; don't sue. This isn't intended for profit.
Nobody would ask Felix Mullins to generate a psychological profile. People asked Felix Mullins to move the soccer goals and brighten up the front flowerbed and replace a bulb in the left outfield light. If anybody asked though, Mullins could have told them why well-heeled soccer moms salivated over a fifty-two-year-old, middle school groundskeeper who earned in a year what they spent on a vacation.
It wasn't the beard - though a 1984 Kris Kristofferson beard was hipster in 2014. Whatever the hell "hipster" meant. Or that Mullins still ran a few miles each morning and used the school's weight room on weekends. Or his spiffy work uniform of beige pants and a cerulean polo shirt with the school's insignia; without his jacket, Mr. Mullins looked like he worked at some chain store at a mall. Add the cerulean blue jacket and ball cap though, and he thought he looked like a mature Lou Gehrig. With a salt and pepper beard. In the right light. But a mature Lou Gehrig wasn't what tripped the trigger of the Real Housewives of Eastern Wichita.
Mullins's profile would outline the women's fear of fading youth. Their anger and disappointment at the superfluous world that created them: their pretty, self-imposed prison. An urge to be unique, to rebel against a relentless, unachievable societal standard. A desire to prove themselves still desirable, even to a man they viewed as beneath them. Blue collar. Stereotypically masculine. Present yet anonymous. Uncomplicated.
Many adjectives described Felix Mullins's life, but "uncomplicated" wasn't among them.
Anyway, nobody would ever ask, but nearly every expensive SUV in the pick-up line had the same personality profile behind the wheel. On the plus side, the tans, yoga pants, and boob jobs were top-shelf. George W. Bush occupied the Oval Office the last time Mullins had sex with a woman in real life - "IRL," the boys said - so a BJ behind the clubhouse held some appeal. Unfortunately, Mullins found the trout mouths unsettling and the fake nails more talon-like than he wanted near his "junk." Also a term the boys used.
Also, in the apartment the private school provided, hidden in a faded blue metal box behind an old furnace grate on the wall, Felix Mullins kept contraband. He had three stolen files: his, hers, and the baby's. Her: the woman who'd permeated and propelled his life for Clinton's entire administration, and through Y2K and 9/11. Who'd shot him and saved his life, loved him, infuriated him, and held him as he cried. A polar opposite who'd shared his pain and passion and quest. Who'd helped him try to save the world. Discover the truth. Who'd patched his life together with a million neat little sutures, then ripped his heart out of his chest. Her. A woman who didn't spray-tan, bleach, or Botox, and who'd launch into a diatribe on the likelihood of fecal matter and culturing pathogens under those fake fingernails. His secret box held a few old photographs of Her - which he refused to look at, yet hadn't burned - and one of him. Despite knowing the encyclopedic ill-advisedness of keeping them, Felix Mullins also had Special Agent Fox Mulder's old badge and Dr. Dana Scully's frayed, green scrub top. He'd found the top in his suitcase after he left her apartment, twisted inside one of his sweatshirts, a wrinkled product of laundry fusion. He'd forgotten to return the top and, more than a decade later, if he pressed the faded fabric to his face, it still smelled like her.
The secret metal box, the huge silicone lips, and the voice of experience kept Mullins in his clubhouse office until the last of the SUV's pulled away.
He made the rounds. He checked the dugouts, picking up empty Gatorade bottles and candy wrappers. A broken shoelace. Forgotten baseball gear. A neat but nameless map of Kansas with the counties labeled in pencil got put aside - someone's study guide. Another optimistic tween or young teen boy had dropped a condom still in the creased, worn foil, and - Mullins held it at arm's length to see the expiration date on the edge - manufactured about the year of the owner's birth. That joined the candy wrappers and shoelace in the trash.
He pulled up the bases and collected two overlooked balls from the outfield. He switched off the outfield lights. Brandon, an eighth grader who lived on-grounds, ran back for a forgotten baseball mitt. Mr. Mullins had the mitt ready to hand over; Brandon forgot it every practice. Mullins sent a batting glove and a bat back to the residence hall with Brandon. The batting glove belonged to his roommate and the bat to a seventh grader. Brandon said "thank you," gave Mullins a fist bump, and streaked toward the dorm to be in by curfew.
Mullins began emptying the trashcans in the empty parking lot. Another boy sat on the painted cinderblock wall, reading a book and waiting for his ride. This kid was a tall, lanky, almost-thirteen-year-old with a dark buzz-cut beneath his baseball cap and - inexplicably - blue eyes. With four brown-eyed grandparents, the boy shouldn't have his mother's eyes, but he did. She probably had some perfectly rational scientific explanation for the genetic hiccup. He would have emailed her and asked, except that opened Pandora's Box of heartache.
The boy's shoulders had broadened over the winter, and the 'Van De Kamp' on the back of his baseball jersey lay flat now. Dark peach fuzz shadowed his upper lip. Like the other boys - and like Mullins at that age - he'd shave every so often but then forget for weeks. Showering and deodorant worked the same way. The kid wore the same cap as Mullins: cerulean blue with the school's insignia in white. A black duffle bag on the sidewalk had his name embroidered on the side, also in white: Mason.
They named his son "Mason." Like a bricklayer and the damn jar.
The other boys on the team used wheeled equipment bags or backpacks that held their bats as well as their uniform cleats and glove. Usually Nike or Under Armor. The boys had special bags for basketball season too, and soccer, and lacrosse and tennis. Felix Mullins had been groundskeeper for thirteen months; Mason had one black duffle and one black backpack.
Practice had run a few minutes late. The sky darkened, but the broad horizon still glowed in an artist's pallet of oranges and purples. As Mullins carried the trash to the dumpster, he asked, "Is your mother on her way?" This was not an unusual post-practice question these days.
Mason looked up from his paperback. "She texted." He pulled a flip-phone from his jacket pocket. "She just left the factory, Mr. Mullins. She's on her way. You don't have to wait with me."
This was not an unusual post-practice response these days. Mrs. Van De Kamp never arrived less than ten minutes late and, a few times, despite school policy, a coach or teacher drove Mason home if she had to work. Last spring, Mr. Van De Kamp drove a semi. Mason said he and his dad Skyped every night at 9:30. His dad had a smartphone and the truck stops had Wi-Fi. Now, 9:00 PM would pass, and 9:15. At 9:30 sometimes Mason still sat outside the basketball court or baseball field, reading a science fiction novel from the school library and waiting. Last summer, before Mason started a second year as a scholarship student at the private boys' school, a tractor rolled over at the Van De Kamp's farm. Jake Van De Kamp stopped Skyping anyone, and the kid stopped being in a hurry to get home.
Mullins asked, "Are you hungry?" Mason looked up from the book. Of course the kid was hungry. Boys spent adolescence hungry. "Thirsty? You want those Funyuns and a soda?"
Except the kid lacked a neat, salt and pepper hipster beard, Mullins could have been looking in a mirror as Mason smirked. "Didn't they show you those cautionary teen-to-teen videos in school? Condoms prevent minivans. No means no. Wear a seatbelt, floss, and don't, like, take candy from strangers."
"All good advice, but it's not, like, candy. It's soda and Funyuns." The dumpster door squealed as it slid closed. "It's like fun and onions made a delicious, deep-fried baby."
"Funyuns are primarily extruded, sliced cornmeal, Mr. Mullins."
"Fine. Would you like some extruded, sliced, onion-flavored cornmeal and a cold, canned, carbonated beverage while you wait on your mother?"
The kid nodded.
Mullins gave him a ring of keys with the correct key raised. "Go get what you want."
"From the concession stand? Again?" Those maternal genetics kicked in. Mullins was informed, "That's breaking and entering."
"It's not breaking if you have a key. You can probably even reach the rack and cooler without stepping into the room, Stretch, so you're not even entering. You're unlocking and reaching."
The school boasted an Olympic-sized pool, a state-of-the-art computer and security system, new eco-friendly dorms, and a cafeteria that served too much quinoa and organic kale. Mullins's job came with an iPhone, a new laptop, and an apartment furnished with a flat screen TV, a king-sized bed, and appliances with Wi-Fi. His dryer and dishwasher texted, and his apartment had solar panels on the roof. Some things Kansas held holy, though; his new truck - also a job perk - got thirteen miles per gallon. The trustees hunted for things to spend alumni donations on, and no one would miss a bag of chips and a can of soda. Still, Mullins fished a couple dollar bills out of his pocket and handed them over.
Doing what the school paid him to do took about five more minutes. Afterward, Mullins zipped up his jacket, got the bat from his office, and ambled to the cinderblock wall. Mason sat in the same spot, but he'd started on a bag of Funyuns, opened a can of Dr. Pepper and, in the fading light, finished most of a Star Trek novel. A second bag of Funyuns remained on reserve beside the ring of keys. Mullins would not be getting any change.
"Somebody left this in the visitors' dugout after the last game." Mullins held out a new bat. "I called the team's coach, but no one ever called back. It's yours, if you want it."
The boy's skeptical eyebrow went up, exactly as hers had. Her. The beautiful, brilliant woman who'd spent a handful of nights in Fox Mulder's bed, invited him into hers, wrestled him back from the dead, and told him to go. To figure out the truth. She'd continue their work and keep their child safe, and his presence endangered them.
"No one ever called back about a brand new, three-hundred dollar bat, Mr. Mullins?"
He shrugged. "Some people have money to burn. You're a good player; you should have a good bat. Anyway, don't you have a birthday coming up?"
"Like no one ever called about these new cleats that got left in the visitors' locker room?" Mason swung his big feet. "What are the odds they'd fit me?"
"Twenty-twenty?" Mullins guessed. "Forty-two? Heads? You want the bat or you wanna bag it as evidence and open an investigation into conspicuous consumption?"
The kid took the bat. He turned it in his hands, examining it. Despite growing about six inches in six months, Mason kept using short, lightweight bats, and the English teacher who doubled as the baseball coach hasn't advised him otherwise.
"Try a more open batting stance," Mullins suggested, "and as you shift your weight back, don’t let your back knee get outside of your back foot." He demonstrated. "Your back elbow doesn't have to stay up; that's something they tell you in Little League. As long as it's 'hands before hips' as you swing thru, start with that elbow anywhere you want it."
"You played baseball?"
"In high school. Baseball and basketball."
The bat got carefully lowered atop the duffle bag. "College?"
"My university didn't have those sports." He slid the ring of keys into his jacket pocket and eased back to sit on the wall a few feet from Mason. "Hey - I saw your science project in the library last week. Electronic Voice Phenomenon. That's pretty cool. People have been recording EVP pretty much since audio recording's been possible."
Mullins felt validated by the kid's sci-fi novel, height, and athletic ability, but those maternal genes struck again. "They're recording random background noises our brains assign meaningful patterns, Mr. Mullins. Like seeing puppies and angels in clouds. Elvis in a grilled cheese. EVP is mostly a phenomenon known as auditory pareidolia."
The kid pronounced "pareidolia" correctly and effortlessly. Of course he did.
"Did you even try?"
Mason took a long drink from the aluminum can and nodded. "Those all-in-one EVP ghost boxes on the internet are, like, five hundred bucks, so I improvised. I recorded in every room, and on the porch, and in the barn. I downloaded a program that can play audio files at different speeds. I filtered out background noise and boosted the volume way up. I ran all those files through some open source voice recognition software and compared what the software found to what I heard. According to the software, using a Wii microphone and my school laptop, I heard nothing. Like I said in my project. Which you said you saw."
"What do you hear that the computer didn't?"
The open Funyun's bag rustled. The boy didn't answer.
The sun sank another few degrees into the flat horizon, and the evening cooled. "When I was your age, one night I was home with my little sister. Our parents were out. I heard a noise outside. The lights went out and I knew- Sometimes, you know something bad is about to happen. I heard footsteps, and everything became slow motion. Then the noises and the footsteps were inside. Samantha started screaming. I tried to get my father's gun, but I couldn't stop them. They took Samantha and we never got her back." Mullins swallowed. "For years, at night, I'd hear Sam screaming for me to help her."
The boy's bravado faded further. "Did they hurt her? Whoever took her?"
"Badly enough Samantha probably wished she was dead long before she was."
The bag rustled again. The gentle May breeze urged a crumpled sheet of notebook paper across the parking lot. Felix Mullins should go pick it up. That was what the school paid him to do, after all.
"I was playing Mario Kart, so Mom let me eat dinner in my room." Mason watched the empty road to the school's back parking lot. "We thought Dad hadn't come in to eat because he wanted to finish the field, and he had to work the next morning. My dad could have been under that tractor for hours before Mom found him, and another hour before they could get it off him."
"He was dead, buddy. Killed instantly. His neck broke the second the tractor came down on top of him." Mullins cleared his throat. "Email a guy named Dr. Hugh Estep at the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena. There's a website. Tell Dr. Estep you're calling in that favor from the Watson House in 1993, and to loan you the best equipment he's got. If your dad has something he needs to tell you, you'll pick it up. If he doesn't, you'll know he said all he needed to say."
The road to the rear parking lot remained dark. In the other direction, across the broad lawn, four long rows of windows glowed in the residence hall. A sliver of moon rose. Streetlights flickered on. The piece of notebook paper reached the edge of the empty parking lot and headed toward the soccer field.
"Otherwise, don’t talk to strangers on the internet," Mullins added.
He felt those blue eyes boring into his jaw. He chanced a sideways glance. Mason's brown brows had two little lines between them, suggesting those paternal deductive genetics had crossed paths with some inherent maternal skepticism.
"Who are you?" the kid asked coolly. "Why do you know my birthday? Why do you know about EVP and how my dad died? Why are you buying me expensive cleats and Air Jordan shoes and a baseball bat? Pop? Chips? Waiting for my mom with me? Giving a kid gifts, paying attention to him, letting him steal and trespass and do little things he shouldn't: that's what creepers do."
"A middle-aged guy, lives alone, with no family, few friends, and a job allowing him access to children," he listed. "Those are good observations, and your profile is creep-tastic."
Rather than seeming frightened, Mason looked dubious. "I've seen the Sports Illustrated calendar in your office and caught you checking out Ms. Gillespie's boobs. I don't think boys are your thing."
Mulder took off his hat and nodded an admission of guilt. "I'd have paid more attention in seventh grade history if my teacher looked like that. Though not necessarily to her history lesson. Also-" He gestured to where the after-practice pick-up line formed. "-Hunter's mom has got it going on. Those are not silicone."
The boy crumpled an empty Funyuns bag and stuffed it in his pocket. He opened the second bag.
"Maybe I'm a nice non-creeper who thinks you're a nice, interesting kid," Mulder said. "Maybe I'd rather hang with you than go home to a microwave dinner, a beer, and a book. Basketball season's over. The Yankees don't play every night, and there's only so many hours a guy can spend on the internet."
Mason tipped the Dr. Pepper can upward, getting the last drops. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "You must not know about Reddit and Pornhub."
"I'm gonna assume you meant to say 'NASA Kids' Club and Pottermore.' Besides, the school firewall blocks porn."
"The school firewall has a password and, besides, it was configured by a moron. It's Swiss cheese."
Now Mulder pushed his eyebrows together. "Why do you know that?"
The boy's cleats swung forward and back, bouncing his heels against the wall. "I thought at first you were after my mom. I mean, she's pretty, she's nice, but…" He shook his head. "The fancy moms are, like, all up on you, and my mom… These days, if she's not at work, she's either asleep or crying in front of The Return of the Jedi."
Mulder remembered those days, except his mother drank Bloody Marys at breakfast, wore her bathrobe all day, and cried in front of soap operas.
"My parents were married ten years before I was born." Mason paused. "My grandmother says they tried everything to have a baby. After ten years, they got a miracle. Any chance you knew my mom about thirteen years and nine months ago?"
"No. No, buddy."
"I don't have my dad's dimples. My earlobes are detached, my pinkies bend inward, and I can curl my tongue. How 'bout you, Mr. Mullins?"
Mulder turned his face toward the boy and pointed to his own hazel eyes. "Your mother has brown eyes. Both my parents were brown-eyed. You've done your research. What eye color is dominant?"
In the same cool, even voice, Mason asked, "What are you doing here, and why do I look so much like you?" His hands curled over the cinderblock wall's front edge. The knuckles whitened, and the second bag of chips lay largely uneaten. "The only baby picture I have is fake. People make fake Facebook accounts and send me friend requests. They're not creepers or porn sites or catfishing," he said, "but they're fake people. I notice people watching me, sometimes. Sometimes I see them, sometimes I kinda feel them. My old pediatrician lost my records. My next doctor ordered all kinds of bloodwork and scans until my mother started getting my shots and physical at some health clinic. Even here at school, they have me do tests. They say the tests are for Gifted, but they're not. I did those in first grade." He seemed to watch a distant streetlight. "Do you know what the Deep Web is, Mr. Mullins?"
Mulder's insides quaked. "I do."
"There are sites about government experiments and genetically modified humans. About women being taken and experimented on so they can't have babies and they die of cancer. They take men, too. People post about finding microchips in their bodies. In their necks. There are pages about the Litchfield experiments. The Zeus Genetics experiments. Clones. Super-soldiers. Hybrids with toxic green blood. I've read about all that. The FBI has a whole office investigating whatever the government's doing, except the FBI is the government. The government's making telepathic kids. Telekinetic kids. Kids who get sick. Kids who die-"
He interrupted. "That's not what you are."
The boy's shoulders rose and fell. "But you're not gonna tell me what I am, or who you are."
A pair of headlights approached the back gate. The vehicle moved at a reasonable pace but, as if the driver noticed the dark baseball field and big, empty parking lot, the transmission downshifted and the car picked up speed.
"You're not an experiment. You won't get sick. You won't die." Mulder put his hands in his jacket pockets. "I'm the new groundskeeper. The position was open last year, I like Kansas, and I applied. Kansas is nice. My references checked out, and I passed the criminal background check with flying colors. Google 'Felix William Mullins' and you'll find where I went to high school, where else I've worked, and I've been divorced since 1991. No kids. This job comes with a pension, dental, getting to hang out with some nice - albeit stinky - boys, and one of those cool lawnmowers you stand on."
"No one who says 'soda' likes Kansas, Mr. Mullins." The headlights stopped at a distant security gate flanked by high brick walls. An arm waved a pass at the gate's sensor. Mason folded the second bag of Funyuns closed. He slid down from the wall, picked up his new bat and old duffle bag, and stowed the uneaten chips in the bag's side pocket. "We have to move. The factory's relocating to Mexico, and Mom's gonna sell the farm before the bank takes it. Once school's out, we're gonna live with my aunt in Denver. I won't be here next fall."
"Denver's nice, too."
One shoulder shrugged. "My aunt's apartment smells like patchouli, and I have to sleep on the couch."
A Subaru station wagon navigated the parking lot's perimeter, though at a pace suggesting she'd considered driving over the curbs and median barriers. Mrs. Van De Kamp stopped parallel to the cinderblock wall, and got out before the engine stopped. A slim woman about forty years old with dark, wavy shoulder-length hair, she wore a gray smock and a nametag with 'Mera' on it and an expression two degrees below panic. "Oh, Jesus Christ! Where is everyone?" She checked her watch. Her car door remained open as she hurried across the sidewalk. "You said 9:15. It's only 9:26, for cryin' out loud. Where is everyone else?"
Mason shook his head. "Eight forty-five, Mom. I told you this morning."
She had to look up to scowl at the boy. "Mason Allen, this morning you said 9:15."
Mason like the jar. Allen like the wrench included with DIY pressed-board bookcases.
Mulder bet Mason Allen had told her 9:15. Mrs. Van De Kamp had an easy, midwestern, Deborah Winger prettiness, but the Subaru and gray smock would stand out among the Lincoln Navigators and Cadillac Escalades the "fancy moms" drove. Mulder knew this trick. His own pretty mother had driven a Cadillac, but after a few Bloody Marys sometimes confused sidewalks with parking spaces.
"Practice ran late," Mulder told her. "As usual. They finished about five minutes ago."
Her suspicious appraisal of her son continued, but she addressed Mulder less tersely. "Thank you for waiting with him again. I'm so sorry. Again."
"No problem. He's a good kid, and it's not as if I'm doing anything else with my life."
Mulder told the honest-to-God truth. Whatever the colonists' intent, and whatever humans or near-humans had planned to thwart those intentions, the boy probably had a better idea than Felix Mullins. Fox Mulder would be renewing his acquaintance with the Deep Web tonight, though.
Mrs. Van De Kamp pointed an accusatory finger at Mason. "You're writing times on the calendar from now on, and I'm gonna be here ten minutes early. This can't keep happening." The kid started to wilt. She sighed tiredly. "Cheese and rice, son. What if your coach hadn't been able to wait with you? There are bad men out there, Mason."
She was right; there were bad men out there.
Rather than arguing or telling her Mullins wasn't the coach, the kid showed her the new bat. "Look what someone left after the last game. Mr. Mullins couldn't find anyone to claim it, so he let me have it."
Her chest rose and fell again. "It looks new. Someone left that? How much are those?"
"Probably fifty or sixty dollars," the boy lied.
"Wow." She pulled off the baseball cap, reached up to rub Mason's short hair, and exhaled wearily. "Come on. I'll take you home and feed you."
"Can I have that pizza in the freezer?"
"Provided the check to the power company didn't bounce: you betcha."
Mason put his duffle bag and bat in the back, gave Mulder a parting wave, and got in the passenger seat. He left the Dr. Pepper can on the cinderblock wall, but it was empty, the kid was tired, and Mulder could toss it in a recycling bin.
Mulder shut off the infield lights. He locked the clubhouse, concession stand, and outside bathroom. As he headed to check the boys' locker room, Mason reappeared. The boy watched his cleats and shuffled with the utter humiliation only possible in early adolescence or when one's FBI career and personal crusade is mocked on national television.
"If you're still here, Mom wants me to ask if you will help push," the kid told his toes, speaking without moving his lips. "I can do it by myself. Can I tell her you're not here?"
The locker room remained unsecured while Mulder followed him back to the parking lot. Upon arrival, he considered perhaps Mason Allen Van De Kamp's body language wasn't entirely genetic. His mother stood beside the station wagon with an exhausted, frustrated posture and displeased facial expression Mulder recalled the birth mother also displaying. Right before she whipped out her pistol and shot someone or something.
"It's the battery," Mrs. Van De Kamp said, "not the alternator. It will run once it starts." She raked her fingers through her dark hair and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Thank you so much. I will bake you something, Mr. Mullins."
He said again, "No problem."
"Ask for brownies," Mason suggested.
She got in the driver's seat and closed the door. Mulder put his weight against one side of the back hatch, and the boy got the other. The parking lot was flat, and the car lightweight enough, with two people, getting it moving fast enough to pop the clutch took little effort. Mason seemed an experienced pusher.
Once the engine turned over, she continued driving. Not quickly, but away, and turned toward the gate. "She is taking you home, right?" Mulder asked. "She's coming back? Or did you convince her school drop-off is at 9:30 PM?"
"She'll circle. It won't shift into reverse anymore." Mason had the expression boys get when their mothers show girlfriends naked baby pictures. "Are you sure this is my life? There's not, like, some rich, happy, carefree mother and not-dead father out there desperately searching for a long lost son? I get good grades. I'll clean my room. I'll even shower."
Mulder gave the boy's cropped brown hair a rub, like Mason's mother had. "I'm pretty sure. Clean your room and shower anyway, to be safe."
The sensation of touching Mason's hair lingered on Mulder's fingertips after he lowered his hand.
The Subaru turned toward them. The headlights reflected in the dark clubhouse windows. "She has nightmares." The boy addressed the approaching car. "She won't sleep in their bed. She sleeps on the couch with the TV on, and in the middle of the night, I hear her wake up screaming for Dad."
"After Samantha was taken, I did, too. For a long, long time."
Mason put his hands in his pockets. "You're sure my dad was killed instantly, Mr. Mullins?"
Mulder nodded. "I read his autopsy report last year. You're not the only one who can get around a firewall."
The boy turned to look at Mulder, seeming to study his profile. "Schools in Denver have groundskeepers, right? Groundskeepers who know all about my life and look exactly like me?"
Mulder shrugged a shoulder. "If not, they have janitors. Security guards. Even a gym teacher or a baseball coach."
The car stopped. The engine knocked as it idled.
"See you around, buddy," Mulder said. The boys had three more weeks of school. The baseball team had two more home games. They'd cross paths a dozen times before school let out.
The station wagon's interior lit up. Mulder got a "thank you" wave and a tired smile from Mrs. Van De Kamp. Her lips formed the word, "Brownies."
Mason opened the passenger door. Before he stooped to get in, he turned back. "Hey, Mr. Mullins-"
The boy raised his left hand in a single, jerky, smart-ass wave. Instantly, on the cinderblock wall, the Dr. Pepper can tipped on its side.
Mulder's own hand remained half-way raised to wave back.
The empty can hadn't wobbled. It hadn't blown over. In fact, it tipped toward what little breeze blew. It hadn't even bounced. It, at a flick of his son's wrist, became horizontally stationary rather than vertically stationary.
"Denver. June first," the boy told Felix Mullins. "See ya."
He should get laid.
Ms. Gillespie did possess a fine form, pretty green eyes, a thorough knowledge of American history, and a relationship status on Facebook listed as 'it's complicated.' Mulder wanted this job until the end of the school term, though. A legitimate reference for Denver would also be nice; he dreaded keeping track of another new backstory. Mr. Mullins mowed the grass and Ms. Gillespie coached the debate team, so any hard feelings the morning after might impact his vocational goals. Hunter's smokin' hot soccer mom posed a similar problem, with the additional complication of Hunter's dad being a nice guy and Hunter being a nice kid.
There were bars. Clubs. Dating websites. Even apps. "Hooking up," the boys called it.
Having a woman sign in and get a visitor's pass at the school's front security gate would probably strike the wrong note, but Wichita had hotels. Hotels with big, comfortable beds. Wichita had pretty women with smooth legs and firm breasts and long hair he could run his fingers through. The hair didn't have to be auburn. In fact, it couldn't be auburn. Not having auburn hair was a prerequisite.
Mulder could be Felix Miller for a night. Or a weekend. He could be Frank Miller. Frank Martin. Martin Franklin. He had a passport, a birth certificate, credit cards, and a driver's license for each alias. Thanks to The Gunmen, an internet search of any of those names brought up social media accounts, a trail of jobs and residences, and mentions in obituaries and tax records and small town news stories. His bearded, blurry face showed up at class reunions and Christmas parties. Frank Miller's wife died of ALS in 2002; he remained a passionate supporter of research. Felix Miller delivered the eulogy at his father's funeral in 2003. In 2005, Martin Franklin got married, but quickly divorced in Vegas. He lost a brother to lung cancer. Last year, Frank Martin even attended his sister's wedding.
Mulder - or Miller or Martin or Mullins - was an adult man. Sex wasn't against the law, he reported to no one and, so far, he didn't need those little blue pills.
More than a decade had passed. He had no reason to hole up in his apartment alone wearing a Three Dog Night T-shirt with dried mustard on the hem and blue jeans that had seen better days. He wasn't "saving himself" for anyone. Especially not Her.
This was ridiculous.
He was getting laid. Tonight. Saturday night. Other men showered, dressed up, trimmed their hipster beard, went out, met women, had drinks, got a hotel room, and got laid. Returned home, never called, moved out of the state, and changed their identity. That was his plan.
As soon as he finished his beer and read this webpage about the Zeus genetics experiments. And checked the baby's file again. And read up on the most recent encounters with super-soldiers. The Deep Web had a whole wiki about abductions and abductees, but nothing about childhood telekinesis Mulder didn't know. He wanted to know the players in the Syndicate these days. Convincing UFO sightings had waned in the US since 2012, suggesting someone, somewhere thwarted the colonists' plans. Still, he found mentions of a Project Horus in Alberta, Canada, near where he'd encountered the mute Samantha clones in 1996. That merited further investigation. Even a boots-on-the-ground inspection next weekend.
Then, he'd get laid.
With his thumbnail, he scratched the dried mustard off his T-shirt in preparation.
For Fox Mulder, the 1990's had passed in pretty much the same manner. There'd been a couple weeks of hot and sweaty exactly thirteen years and nine months ago, and some clandestine encounters between July 2001 and May 2002. The spring of 2002, he'd met Her at the King of Prussia Hampton Inn and discovered he wasn't a father anymore.
In the aquarium on the end table, Kirk and Spock fluttered their fins and watched judgmentally. Mulder reminded the mollies, "One of you lied to the pet store about your gender, and both of you sneak behind the fake coral at night to spawn and eat your young."
Kirk, the greenish-gold molly, swam behind the fake coral and hid, but Spock, light blue, remained.
Mulder drained the beer bottle. He adjusted the screen of his laptop and slouched lower on the sofa.
A doorbell rang.
He looked at the television. He'd been kinda watching The Hobbit on Netflix, and he doubted Bilbo had a doorbell.
The bell rang a second time. Mulder sat up. Kirk emerged to investigate.
"Felix Mullins has a doorbell," Mulder told his fish. He closed the laptop. Paused the movie. The school gave him a smartphone, and everyone texted if something needed fixed, trimmed, or found.
A third time.
Mulder stepped outside, onto his balcony. Mason Van De Kamp stood at the bottom of the steps. He wore blue jeans and a zip-up hoodie with a faded Batman logo across the chest. A boy's BMX bicycle was parked on the gravel driveway, and a backpack hung over Mason's shoulder.
"Mom sent brownies." The kid held up a clear plastic container with a blue lid. "She made them this morning before work, and they're delicious. I ate three on the way here. Do you have any milk?"
Mulder stared down at him. The Van De Kamp's farm wasn't close by. The city busses had bike racks, but Mason must have peddled forever from his house, alongside a state highway, to reach a stop.
Someone should raise the seat on the boy's bike. Someone should remind the kid to shave. Feed him dinner and take him to see the new Captain America. Tell him to shower, and clean his room, and stay off Pornhub before he got blisters. Someone should take his pretty mother's station wagon to a mechanic and keep an eye on her son while she worked. Help her pay the bills. Tell the kid he wasn't a consortium experiment or a freak, and make sure those creatures that came for him on the night of his birth never realized their mistake and came back.
It made Mulder a selfish, impulsive man, but he'd spent the last few days wrestling an urge to apply for that job rather than move to Denver.
Mason made a "what's happening" gesture. He rang the doorbell a fourth time. "Are you home, Mr. Mullins?"
"Yes, the doorbell works." Barefooted, Mulder jogged halfway down the steps. "It rings every single time you press it. Buddy, what are you doing here?"
"I see why you run the Weed Eater rather than teach Language Arts." Mason met him on the eighth step. He handed Mulder the plastic container and continued up the stairs. "Maternal gratitude. Brownies. Milk."
"I'm the groundskeeper; you're a student. It's Saturday night. This is how nice, non-creepers like me get blue dots over their house on the internet." Mulder followed the boy inside the apartment and closed the door. Mason set his backpack on the leather sofa and flopped beside it. "I don't have any milk. But I could get some from the cafeteria. I have a key."
The kid pulled a tattered yellow folder from his backpack. The front had 'Math' written in red marker, and a row of dinosaur stickers across the bottom. "The Watson House. Built in 1710, and thought to be the oldest home in Grover's Mill, New Jersey." Mason opened the folder and pulled out a printed Wikipedia page. "History, history, blah, blah, blah until in 1963 a hippie couple moved in and started renovating. Shag carpet, telephones, electric lights: whatever was the new thing in, like, 1963." Next, he produced a grainy, printed photograph of a woman whose hair could serve as a helmet and a man wearing slacks with a waistband belted just below his nipples.
"I was alive in 1963, Mason." Mulder took the brownies to the kitchen. He got a chair from the kitchen table, carried it to the living room, flipped it around, and sat with his chest against the rungs. "We had telephones and electricity. Indoor plumbing, even. Did you email Dr. Estep at the AAEVP? Is he sending you some decent equipment?"
"Within weeks, the couple vanished. Food in the refrigerator, bell-bottoms in the closet, but no one home." Mason shrugged dismissively. "Hippies."
"Again: alive in 1963," Mulder said. "Those people aren't hippies."
The next printed page started out in black type but faded to blue. The man's photo at the bottom had an orange tint. "A real estate guy bought the house in 1968, lived there briefly, said the place was haunted, and apparently skipped town. In 1974, another couple moved in - an architect and his wife, a baker - and weeks later, another disappearance." The next news story was printed entirely in blue. "The Grover's Mill police decided this was suspicious, but no sign of foul play was found. The house sat abandoned for a decade, but people reported seeing ghostly figures in the windows and smelling pies and cakes baking."
It made Mulder proud: those paternal genetics in action. If he'd still owned a slide projector and a screen, he'd offer them.
"In 1989, rather than tear it down, the city council voted to turn the Watson House into the town museum." On the next printed page, the lined, blue type faded away halfway down. "No one disappeared, but museum volunteers heard strange noises. They smelled fresh bread and aftershave and hairspray. They said things fell off the shelves and moved around in the cases. The city contacted Dr. Hugh Estep with the American Association of EVP-"
Mason tossed the ragged folder and printed pages aside. He pulled a school laptop out of his backpack. He opened the laptop, entered a passcode, and the homepage of the AAEVP appeared with Dr. Estep's photo at the top left. Dr. Estep looked old.
Mulder had two thoughts. First, he understood why the kid won the seventh grade science and social studies fairs. The spelling bee and math field day. Second - even though Mulder tried not to - he kinda wished Scully could see this.
"-who, over several nights, recorded the sound of babies crying and voices seeming to say 'nothing can change.' Neither of which meant anything to anyone. Nobody had lived in the Watson House with a baby since the 1920's. A baby might have died in the house in the two hundred years before that, but no one reported anything paranormal before the 1960's."
Mulder nodded approvingly. "I've seen a few scary movies. If there's an old creepy basement, split up, take a malfunctioning flashlight, and check it."
"In 1993, a handyman replacing an old ceiling fan noticed clumps of hair and what turned out to be bits of human brain, bone, and scalp. The Federal Bureau of Investigation got involved." Mason touched the keyboard. Another webpage loaded. Agent Doggett's and Agent Reyes' photos appeared side by side. "The case makes its way to the FBI's paranormal unit: the X-Files. Currently run by these two, but in 1993, the case got assigned to Special Agent Fox Mulder and his partner Dr. Dana Scully. A profiler and a medical doctor."
In the photo on another FBI webpage, Scully wore her hair longer and lighter than when Mulder last saw her. She was older of course, but also slimmer. A biography listed her as a professor of forensic pathology at Quantico, with a vita in eight-point type stretching as far as the laptop's screen allowed. Her blue eyes stared at Mulder judgmentally.
He'd listen to the kid's ghost story, get him some milk, toss the BMX bike in the back of the groundskeeper's truck, and drive Mason home. That's it. Mulder wasn't interfering with the boy's life. Or confusing him. Or endangering him. He'd be a friend to a scared, sad kid who needed a friend. And who could tip soda cans with the power of his mind.
"She's the medical doctor. She's got it goin' on, right?" the boy asked, which appeared a redundant question. He zoomed in on Scully's photo and glanced at Mulder.
Mulder didn't comment. Since he knew how this case turned out and, in his head, Scully's angry voice dissected his "the kid needs a friend" self-serving construct, Mulder looked forward to Mason's next webpage.
"Fox Mulder was killed in the line of duty in 2001. Dr. Dana Scully's been at the FBI academy since 2002." Thankfully, the next webpage loaded their official report of the Watson House case. "It took Agent Mulder, like, ten minutes to ask what each new, missing owner probably started to change: an old water heater in the basement. The museum put in new plumbing, but the old water heater was still down there. No one had hauled it out. Behind what Dr. Dana Scully noted was a nonfunctional 1902 Dayton model 03 water heater, they discovered a hidden door to a tunnel leading to a second hidden door in the basement of a neighboring house. The secret tunnel might have been a stop on the Underground Railroad originally but in 1993, it contained the murdered bodies of the missing real estate man, both missing couples, and seven newborns."
The screen switched to an old newspaper article accompanied by a photo of police in front of the Watson House. Mulder spotted himself in the background, beneath an umbrella and beside Scully, but no one else would recognize him.
"Mr. and Mrs. McNeely," Mason continued, "the nice couple next door, got married in 1961. They were both eighteen. Mrs. McNeely's parents gave them the down payment on the old house as a wedding gift. Apparently, no one ever showed Mr. McNeely the 'condoms prevent minivans' video, because DNA testing indicated all seven newborns belonged to him and his wife. Mrs. McNeely must have hidden her pregnancies and given birth at home. Dr. Dana Scully said the babies were smothered and hidden in the tunnel over a period of thirty years. She found sedatives in the adult victim's bodies. Anytime new residents of the Watson House got close to discovering the door to the tunnel, Mrs. McNeely brought over some sleepy-time cookies, and Mr. McNeely brained them with a hammer, dragged the bodies home, and hid them in the tunnel, too."
Mason's browser loaded a newspaper announcement of the couple's thirtieth wedding anniversary. In the photograph, Mrs. McNeely was a plump, smiling woman in a floral blouse with a lace collar, and Mr. McNeely looked like an amiable fellow who felt odd dressed in his Sunday suit on a Tuesday.
"The McNeely's have never confessed, but Agent Mulder believed, with the first baby, they either didn't realize or denied Mrs. McNeely was pregnant until she gave birth. The young couple panicked. A baby would change things, and Mr. and Mrs. McNeely didn't want anything to ever change. After the trial, and after the bodies were moved to a local cemetery, no one reported any paranormal stuff in the Watson House again." Mason sat back on the sofa with a satisfied grin.
Mulder grinned back. "That is a very sad, but very cool and entirely true story." He folded his arms on top of the chair's back and tucked his bare feet behind the legs. "The Watson House is one of the best-documented cases of EVP in the United States."
"In her report, Dr. Dana Scully said Dr. Estep's EVP recordings were highly questionable, she witnessed nothing unusual in the Watson House, and deductive reasoning and forensic science contributed far more than EVP to solving the murders."
Of course she did. "Dr. Dana Scully sounds like she's no fun at sleepovers."
The boy picked up his laptop again. This time he typed about twenty seconds, waited, typed again, and turned the screen toward Mulder. "You'd know, right?"
The laptop showed the FBI's first X-Files Division page, from the mid 90's, with Mulder and Scully's headshots. The webpage looked jacked up - to use the boys' term - but the kid had found it. "Special Agent Fox William Mulder. Born October 13th, 1961 in Chilmark, Massachusetts, where I betcha they say 'soda.' His sister, Samantha, disappeared when he was twelve. Before he joined the FBI, Fox Mulder graduated from Oxford University. In England. I betcha they don't have American baseball or basketball in Oxford, England, Mr. Mullins."
The screen changed: the same page, but around 2000. "He looks different without a beard. Familiar." The boy tapped Scully's photo. "She has definitely got it goin' on. Look at those blue eyes."
"Mason, where did you find this?" The Gunmen stripped every recognizable photo and every video back to a time before the internet reached every corner of the globe and every aspect of people's lives. Googling 'Fox Mulder' brought up official mentions, random flotsam, and a 2001 obituary. Special Agent Fox Mulder had disappeared from a clearing in Oregon, and was found dead months later in Helena, Montana. Scully buried his body on Martha's Vineyard and, as far as the world knew, he'd stayed dead. He'd left no children, no family. No legacy aside from the casefiles stored in a basement office of the Hoover Building. Traces of the man who'd been Fox Mulder faded from memory until after thirteen years, weeds and vines obscured any remains.
The screen changed. A shadowy photo showed a man and woman in bed. Mulder's bed, in his old apartment in Alexandria. He recognized the alarm clock on the nightstand and the comforter barely clinging to the mattress. Mulder was nude; she wore a skirt, but no blouse. As they embraced, his hand cupped her bare breast and the other hand ran through her hair. In the next photograph, her skirt was gone. Scully straddled him, her hair tousled, back arched, her open mouth gasping. His face contorted in pleasure and his hands gripped her hips, wanting her to keep moving. Don't stop. Don't stop.
Mulder's heart pounded. There'd been a camera in his bedroom. Years ago, someone had watched. Someone knew. Not suspected or presumed: knew. "Mason-"
"Hot, yet totally, like, creep-tastic," the boy commented. "He died." The laptop showed a photo of Fox Mulder's tortured, gray body on an autopsy table: the incision down his chest, the rows of wounds on his cheeks and the marks on his wrists. "Sad. A good Photoshop, but sad." A picture of Mulder's tombstone. An ultrasound with Scully's name at the top. "So sad." A DNA paternity test. A picture of Scully, pregnant, in her living room at a baby shower. "Really sad." A photograph of Mulder in sweatpants and a T-shirt, sitting on Scully's bed, holding a tiny baby as Scully slept. "Impossibly sad, Mr. Mullins."
"Close the laptop." Mason started to press another key. Mulder jerked the laptop away and closed the browser. "How did you access that? From home? You're on the school's Wi-Fi now, right?"
Seeming stunned, the kid nodded.
Mulder grabbed his work phone off the kitchen table. "Do you have your cell phone?" He dialed one-handed. Melvin Frohike picked up on the second ring. Mulder said, "There's a problem with Cinco," and held the smartphone toward the boy. "What's your number?"
As soon as the boy recited it, Mulder hung up, dropped the school's smartphone in the fish tank, and commandeered Mason's flip phone.
Which rang five seconds later with a VOIP call bounced off servers from Toronto to Tunisia.
"Access his school laptop," Mulder ordered. "See where he's been on the internet since Thursday evening and get rid of every trace. It's probably Deep Web, and he's gotten there from home and the school's network."
Computer keys clicked rapidly. "I'm in the school's server," Frohike's voice said as Mulder's heart continued to pound. "Langly's working on the house IP."
Mulder lowered the phone and looked at the boy. "Did you use any other Wi-Fi? A neighbor's? A friend's house? Anybody?"
Wide-eyed, Mason shook his head. "No."
"Do you have an iPad at home? A PC? Any other computer or tablet or smartphone you used? A computer in the school or public library?"
"No. Just my laptop."
"Did you call anyone? Email anyone besides Dr. Estep? Text? Post? Back up or share these files? Did you tell anyone about what you found?"
Karma grudgingly, threw Mulder a bone. The boy said, "No."
"Once you have his history, wipe his laptop," Mulder told The Gunmen, probably unnecessarily. As Mulder held it, the laptop screen switched to a jumble of black and white code.
"My report is on there," the kid protested. "It's due Monday."
"We're monitoring the school security cameras," Byers' voice said. "As of right now, there's no one coming."
The laptop screen blinked an old-fashioned DOS cursor. "Is it a trap?" Mulder asked The Gunmen. "Did someone plant that stuff so he could find it? So they could find him?"
"No," Frohike said, sounding certain. Keyboards continued staccato clicking. "Cinco's a good little hacker. Tell him Numero Uno is proud, and not to do this ever again. He's interrupting taco night."
"He's not so little anymore." Mulder said into the phone, "I'm gonna move until you boys tell me otherwise."
"Go," Langly advised. "The kid's been everywhere on the Deep Web and he's used no precautions-"
"He didn't know to use precautions." It didn't matter now, but Mulder wanted that noted. "He's a kid."
"Five minutes," Frohike's voice requested. "Eastern Europe and the Philippines are about to be real unhappy. A couple servers in Russia are giving me a hard time. Get ready, but give me five minutes."
Mulder closed the flip-phone. It joined the smartphone in the fish tank. He shoved the laptop, printed pages, and yellow folder into Mason's backpack. "Where's your mom? At work?"
Mason opened his mouth to speak, failed, and nodded.
Mulder's pistol, holster, and an extra magazine were in his nightstand. He shrugged the holster on and dropped the spare magazine in his pocket. His manila envelope of aliases and another pistol: in Zip-lock bags behind the toe-kick of the kitchen sink. Next, he went to a row of encyclopedias on the living room bookshelf. The false front tilted forward to reveal a wall of green bundles. He grabbed the boy's backpack and started stuffing in stacks of fifty and hundred dollar bills. He added the manila envelope and pistol. Since the burner phone hadn't rung, Mulder got a screwdriver, removed the old register from the living room wall, and retrieved the faded blue metal box.
Nikes, Mulder remembered. He found his. Hard to run without running shoes.
And that was it. Cash, a new identity, weapons, and mementos. Shoes. The kid. Keys.
The last time Mulder did this, the kid was in a baby carrier.
Mason stood in the living room, staring at his backpack. Like his duffle bag, the black pack had 'Mason' embroidered in white letters.
The phone didn't ring.
Mulder zipped the backpack and handed it to Mason. Mulder got the container of brownies from the kitchen. He returned to the living room, set the brownies on top of the metal box, and waited.
The burner phone didn't ring.
In a seven-year-old's voice, the boy said, "My mom's gonna be mad about my phone, Mr. Mullins."
On the list of things Mulder feared, Mrs. Van De Kamp's wrath over a dead flip-phone ranked far below super-soldiers, Cancerman, and whatever the hell was happening in Alberta, Canada these days.
"My phone had minutes on it, Mr. Mullins."
Mulder didn't answer. Scully's voice yelled inside his head: selfish, impulsive, and unnecessary. Unfair. The kid could have spent a happy, mundane little life in Kansas, secretly tipping over empty soda cans.
"Whatever I did, I'm really, really sorry," Mason said.
"Is there anything else you can do?" Mulder asked. A base drum had nothing on the pounding inside his chest. "Besides moving things? Anything else?"
"I don't get sick. Like, ever." The boy's throat convulsed as he swallowed. "Mr. Mullins, why do you have these guns and all this money? Who did you call?"
Mulder stared at the aquarium and took a slow breath. Syncopating speaking with breathing required effort. "The information you found, wherever the hell you found it: if anyone's watching those sites, they'll see the pattern. They'll figure out who's looking, track you down, and come after you. They know you're alive; they just don't know where you are. Who you are."
"Who am I?" Mason's voice wavered.
"Exactly what your mother told you: you were a miracle. An answer to a million prayers. But if certain people find you, they will take you." Mulder stepped closer to Mason. "They will take you like they took my sister. Like they took Scully. Like they took me. They will hurt you. They will use you to further their own agenda. My friends are good. They'll try to erase your trail - to ensure whoever's hosting that information doesn't realize who came searching for it - but if my friends say run-" Mulder took another step forward. The boy, about Scully's height if she wore high heels, looked up at him with the same blue eyes. "-I'm going to put you and your mother in a vehicle, and you're gonna run. You're gonna change your names and your appearances and you're never looking back. You're gonna forget about Fox Mulder and Dr. Dana Scully. You're gonna forget you and I ever met."
"You're my father!"
"They will kill you," Mulder barked. The boy's chin quivered. "They've already tried. They tried before you were born, and the night you were born, and before you could even walk. How do you think you ended up in Kansas and named 'Mason Allen Van De Kamp,' William?"
A phone chimed behind Mason.
The kid turned. Kirk and Spock swam laps around the fake coral, circling in opposite directions and gaping in surprise each time one encountered the other.
"Your fish tank is ringing, Mr. Mullins."
After seven steps and a deep breath, Mulder reached between the aquarium and the wall. He retrieved the burner phone duct-taped to the tank's tropical background. He pressed the button to answer, but didn't bother speaking.
"We got it," Frohike's voice said.
Mulder sank onto the broad arm of the leather sofa. "Everything?"
"Byers is still prettying up, and Saint Petersburg won't be getting email anytime soon, but anything pointing to the kid is gone. Tell Cinco not to do that again. He's poking in some dangerous places. I don't like sticking my IP in there, no matter how well I wrap it."
Mulder ran a hand through his hair. He looked up. "Mason, a truly creep-tastic old hacker says you get to keep your current life."
Langly said, "I'm putting Cinco's report back on his laptop as-is. Proof-reading costs extra."
Mulder meant to tell the Gunmen to block porn sites while they were at it. He meant to say "thank you," but didn't know if he did. At some point, he must have ended the call, because he noticed the burner phone in his hand with the screen dark. The little phone felt sweaty and his whole body shook.
Holding the most valuable backpack since D. B. Cooper's, Mason stumbled to the sofa and sat down. Kirk and Spock fluttered their fins at the front of the aquarium. On the lovely flat-screen television the school provided, Bilbo ran off on a great adventure.
Mason watched the TV screen. "My name was 'William?'"
Though Mulder didn't know how he managed voluntary movement, he put an arm around the kid's shoulders, pulled him close, and kissed the top of his head. The boy's short, brown hair smelled like the beach at sunset. "You can't do that, buddy. I'm serious. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I gave you the bat and the shoes. I'm sorry I ran my mouth. I'm sorry I took this job. The truth- Your life, the life you know: it needs to be your truth. Okay?"
The boy looked up at Mulder and shifted away.
That blue dot over his house, Mulder reminded himself. He tossed the burner phone on the coffee table and took a big breath. "You can't ride your bike home in the dark. Not between the bus stop and your house; that road's too busy. You want me to put you in a cab, and I can drive your bike home and drop it off?"
A few final bubbles escaped the two phones at the bottom of the aquarium.
"You need a new phone," Mulder realized. "I can drop that off, too."
"You know where I live?"
Mulder closed his eyes for a few seconds. In his head, Scully's diatribe continued. Do what's best for William. We have to do what's best for William. Twelve years ago, she'd said it a thousand times. As if Mulder had some maniacal desire to do what was worst for William.
The backpack unzipped. Mulder opened his eyes. One by one, Mason moved the bundled bills from the pack to the sofa cushion beside him. "Is this real money?" he asked, as the stack became $100,000. $110,000. $120,000.
Mason kept unpacking. After the cash, he took out the manila envelope and the pistol. He slid his laptop into the pack. His chin started quivering again.
"It's okay." Mulder squatted down eye-level with the kid, but stayed back. "No one's going to hurt you. You're safe. Your mom's safe. It's okay. Just don't do that again."
The boy blinked rapidly. Started sniffing.
"I'm not angry," Mulder promised. "I understand wanting to know, but you have to understand the danger."
Dana Scully's voice, in Mulder's conscience, reached a rolling boil. Mulder's mental arguments were droplets of water in the hot oil: serving only to pop and splatter so it burned him everywhere.
"'William's' a lame name," Mason informed him. "So is 'Fox.'"
No argument there. "Felix" wasn't exactly hard-core, either. Mulder scraped the bottom of the barrel, alias-wise. Frank Martin returned from the dead in 2001. Mulder left "Frank Miller" - solid, masculine, maintaining the right initials and number of syllables - in Michigan, and "Marty Franklin" in Oklahoma City. "Floyd" lacked all his teeth, "Flynn" wore hemp and man-sandals, and Mulder wasn't a "Fred".
The kid stood. He sniffed, wiped his nose on his sleeve, and sniffed again. He jerked the backpack's zipper about three-fourths closed before the metal teeth ate enough canvas to jam. Mason slung the pack over his shoulder anyway.
Mulder scrambled to his feet. "Buddy, let me put you in a cab-"
"I'm not your buddy." The boy turned. "We aren't bros, either." He gripped the strap on his right shoulder tightly. "I don't know what we are."
Again, Mulder couldn't argue. "It's almost dark," he did insist, "and I need to replace your phone."
"I'll ride to my mom's work. Two miles, on the sidewalk. It's Kansas. What are they gonna do? Force me to eat macaroni salad or play cornhole against my will?" The kid picked up the container of brownies. "I'll tell her you weren't home and I lost the stupid phone."
"I understand. I'm sorry. I won't do it again, Mr. Mullins. See ya."
The apartment's door slammed closed. Feet jogged down the steps.
Once the sound of the bicycle's tires on the gravel driveway faded, Mulder sighed and opened his own school laptop. The cash remained piled on the sofa. Bilbo had caught up with the dwarves, and Kirk and Spock investigated their new iReef.
The Gunmen had the school's internet server back up. Mulder typed in his employee password. Click, click. Entered a second password. Three more clicks brought up the school's many security cameras. In grainy black and white, Mason peddled past the tennis courts, pack on his back and the plastic container of brownies under one arm. The bike's seat was way too low.
As Mulder watched the boy's progress, the burner phone's screen lit up. The Gunmen knew Mason was gone; they'd monitor the same cameras as Mulder. Byers would triple-check he wiped the kid's digital fingerprint from every server. Langly probably tried to salvage taco night. That left Frohike sending the text.
The phone screen read, 'shes getting married'
Mason's bike passed the outermost security camera. Mulder scraped at the mustard stain on his T-shirt a few times.
He got up long enough to drop the burner phone into the aquarium where, along with the first two, it formed a Stonehenge of worthless electronics on the gravel bottom. He got another beer from the refrigerator. He slouched back to the couch, propped his laptop on his legs and his feet on the coffee table and, using an onion router meeting with Langly's approval, pulled up a search engine. Typed a name. Hit the enter button.
On the television screen, Bilbo and the dwarves encountered trolls.
The bouncing between routers worldwide slowed the connection, but eventually photographs appeared on Mulder's screen. Her. Her speaking at conferences, lecturing at Quantico. A headshot from some medical journal, and the same photo Quantico used on her bio page. Old photos with shoulder pads and frumpy hair. Newer pictures in sleek suits and sleeker hair. Family gatherings: with her brothers and nephews. Her mother. Mulder missed her mother. In a few pictures, Scully even smiled. An engagement photo didn't come up. Either it hadn't been in a newspaper, or hadn't been announced.
Mulder had a back-up burner phone. A back-up for that back-up phone. He remembered all her numbers: her cell, her apartment, her office at Quantico. One of them might still be the same.
He wanted to call her. Hear her voice. Say he'd fucked up. Done exactly what he'd promised he wouldn't. Interfered, endangered. Deviated from the prime directive. Gotten caught up and leapt without looking, and he needed her to catch him. Bail him out. Stitch him up. Sort out this mess.
But he wouldn't. Mulder wouldn't call. He'd sit and not call. As long as it took. Because he didn't love her anymore. Or miss her like an amputee missed his limb and a sailor missed the sea. She hadn't been the sun to his elliptical orbit, the logic to his intuition. His champion, his friend, his touchstone, his everything. She hadn't given him a life only to take it away.
Once Mulder finished not calling her, he'd get laid.
He scratched the mustard stain on his shirt again. Took a long drink from the beer bottle.
It might take a while.
Mulder replaced his work phone and the kid's cheap flip-phone - with minutes on it - Sunday morning. In the interest of ameliorating crushing guilt, Mulder also acquired a new, unlocked iPhone 5 and loaded it with as many minutes and gigs of data as the store sold.
Monday morning, Mulder returned to Felix Mullins's apartment for a Band-Aid and found the plastic container of brownies waiting at the top of the steps with a carton of milk from the school cafeteria beside it. Two stale, tasty brownies remained. Monday evening, Mulder secretly slipped the new flip-phone and iPhone in the kid's duffle bag during baseball practice. Mrs. Van De Kamp arrived only seven minutes late to pick up Mason - but at the school library via the front gate rather than the baseball field and the back gate.
Nurture was the wildcard. Based solely on paternal genetics, Mulder estimated a visit Tuesday, right after school. Skipping class on Wednesday morning, at the latest. Scully's influence added twenty-four hours of calculating and rationalizing to the timeline, but testosterone and the early adolescent male brain shaved off at least a half-day.
Mulder returned from the grocery store Tuesday evening, after dusk, to his apartment door ajar and the television on, silently showing Jeopardy. Earlier, he'd left the TV news muted and the apartment unlocked, but he hadn't left the door open.
The kid sat on the floor, again wearing the Batman hoodie but in dark jeans and black Converse tennis shoes. His stealth breaking and entering - opening and reaching, rather - outfit. Mason had the furnace grate off the wall and the old metal box on the rug in front of him. Mulder didn't recognize the screwdriver beside the boy, which meant Mason brought it with him. That made Mulder so proud.
Mulder said, "I met him once."
Mason jumped, startling Kirk and Spock. The boy must have been listening for the big pickup-truck.
"Alex Trebek." Mulder gestured to the TV with his free hand. "I met him. Or at least his clone." He walked in and set a brown paper bag of groceries on the kitchen table. He'd taken the school's truck to the dealership for maintenance, had the dealership drop him at the grocery store, and walked home. "Does your mother ever have any idea where you are?"
Looking wary, Mason said, "I told her I'm at the school library. She's picking me up after her shift."
"The school library's digital. It's a room of computers. It doesn't even smell like a library." Mulder pulled a bag of Funyuns and a 12-ounce bottle of Dr. Pepper from the top of the grocery bag. The Funyuns he tossed to the kid, but the cold soda he walked over and handed. "You can access anything in it on your laptop, from home."
Mason gave him a withering look and took the bottle. "She doesn't know that, Mr. Mullins."
"I should just paint a blue dot over my apartment now." Mulder left a quart of milk, cereal, and some strawberries on the kitchen table. He sat on the sofa and propped his work boots on the coffee table. The kid remained cross-legged on the floor, and the lid remained on the box.
Mason hadn't gotten the pistol or aliases from the kitchen. The false front of the encyclopedias remained in place. He'd even bypassed the issues of Penthouse and Playboy in the nightstand. The kid went for the old metal box, exactly as Mulder would have. The question would have tormented him: what did the box contain that Felix Mullins kept hidden and didn't retrieve first, but wasn't willing to abandon?
"Don't get Funyun salt on anything, okay?" Mulder nodded at the box. "My sense memories are entirely imagined at this point, but they're mine."
"It's not, like, a bomb, right?"
"In the physical sense, no. Emotionally, metaphysically: probably. Can you do the-" He mimicked the jerky wave Mason used to tip the soda can last week.
Mason moved his hand as if flicking a bug off the knee of his blue jeans. Eight inches way, the metal box top came ajar. He flicked his fingers again. The lid slid half-way off.
Mulder grinned. "That is really cool."
"Yeah. When I was little, I could move spoons and freak out my father. Make my mom cry. Now, I can level anthills and armies of Lego men with the power of my mind. Can you do it? Can she?"
"No." Mulder crossed his legs at the ankle. "Can you move anything bigger?"
Still with a double-scoop of sarcasm, the boy said, "Maybe, if I eat my vegetables, someday I'll grow into a real superhero. I'll have a secret identity, a secret Bat Cave, and a hot, clueless girlfriend."
"Batman, it's not a 'secret' cave after the butler lets your new girlfriend in."
Mason looked at him blankly.
Right. That was 1989. Batman was Michael Keaton, not Christian Bale.
With the files relocated, the metal box was mostly empty. Mason picked up each of the old photographs. Mulder didn't have many; he and Scully never made an appointment at the Sears Portrait Studio. Two pictures of Scully came from her file: her old headshot for work, and a photo her mother supplied for a missing person report. The other pictures Frohike took years ago, in the Gunmen's Bat Cave. In all, Scully looked annoyed, and in only one did Mulder stand beside her. In the final photograph the boy examined, Mulder lay on a rumpled motel bed in boxer shorts, with a baby asleep on his bare chest. William had been a year old, and Mulder about forty-one. Both their necks tilted at the angle of deep sleep. Scully took that one.
The soda and chips remained untouched. Mason picked up the old FBI badge, opened it, and compared the younger, clean-shaven face to Mulder's bearded one. "Are you even 'Fox Mulder?'" the boy asked, "or is all this another fake name and some Photoshop?"
"What do you think?" Mulder answered.
"I think only porn stars want to call themselves 'Fox.'"
"Again: why do you know that?"
"Did you carry a gun? Did you shoot people, arrest people?"
"Shooting people requires a great deal of paperwork. Arresting them, in my department, only required going to court and making a fool of myself."
The kid asked, "Have you ever killed anybody?"
Mulder nodded. "Several people and several things, some of which even stayed dead. She's the better shot, though." He gestured to the remaining item in the box.
The folded green scrub top barely took up a corner. The inside collar had 'Scully' written in black marker. "Can I touch it?"
The boy held up the old top. After seeming to examine every thread, he said, "It's so small."
"She's small," Mulder explained, "except for the vocabulary and skepticism. Those are measured in terabytes."
"And you're dead." Mason put the top down and picked up Mulder's old badge. He traced a finger around the worn leather edge and over the gold shield. He set it aside, too. "What's not in the box, Mr. Mullins? What'd you move? Everything here could fit in that envelope under the kitchen cabinet, or behind the encyclopedias. You have, like, a million dollars in your living room, but this old box hidden in a vent."
For the record, Felix Mullins did not have, like, a million dollars hidden in his living room. He had less than a quarter-million. Cash was bulky, heavy. Traceable. Numbered Swiss accounts were not.
"Files," Mulder answered. The kid had probably seen via the Deep Web half of what was in Mulder's and Scully's files. "Official FBI files. Mine, yours, and Hers."
Mason sat up straighter. "I have an FBI file?"
"You did. It was stolen from the X-Files office years ago, and all digital copies were lost. The burglary, like my murder, remains unsolved."
"To your friends, you called me 'Cinco.' Is that a code name? A project name? Are there four more of me out there somewhere?"
"None of the above," Mulder promised. "It's what my friends called you when you were little."
"How'd you know I'd come back?" Mason asked next. "I'd want to check that box?"
"Because it's exactly what I'd do."
"That's kinda spooky."
Mulder chuckled nervously. "You're tellin' me, buddy."
Mason raised the picture of Mulder and the baby, studying it. "Have I always been able to do it? Move things?"
"You could as an infant. Until last week, I didn't realize you still could."
"You thought it was just a phase?" The kid kept looking at the photograph. "That's me? And you?"
Mulder took off his watch. He held his wrist out to the kid, showing the puckered round scar where, more than a decade ago, alien creatures put a spike through it. He offered the matching scar on his other wrist. He turned his head and ran his hand up the side of his face, showing Mason the circular column of bald patches beneath the dark whiskers. Mulder tried not to look like a lumberjack, but if he trimmed his beard too short the scars showed. "It's me."
"Someone thought I'd make a good super-soldier. The autopsy photo you found isn't Photoshop. That's my body in 2001, dead for all intents and purposes except for an alien virus incubating inside me, slowly turning me into something part zombie, part Terminator, and part of a project one hundred percent dedicated to coming after you. Scully was incubating our own side project, wanted Fox Mulder back, and refused to take 'dead' for an answer. She found me in time and, being a brilliant medical doctor, managed to stop the virus."
In the photo, the same circular scars dotted the man's stubble, and the same scars marked his wrists. The boy checked the old picture again. Mason touched the center of his own chest and looked at Mulder expectantly.
"I'm trying to avoid that blue dot," Mulder said, but sat up and skinned off his polo shirt. The rough scar down his sternum had faded from red to white, but remained. So did, occasionally, the nightmares. The flashbacks. He put his shirt on again. "Since the world thought I was dead, we thought if I had to take you and run, it'd be easier if I stayed dead. There were so many questions, so many dangers." He leaned forward, looking over the coffee table and at the pictures of Scully littering the rug. "Those women you read about, those women with chips in their necks who couldn't conceive after they were abducted and experimented on: Scully's one of those women. One who didn't die of cancer. One who had a child. A child she wanted and I wanted with her, and-"
The tidal wave swept over Mulder, as it had all those years ago: the magnitude of what they'd done. Effortlessly, at least on his part; Scully got the morning sickness and trips to the ER and labor pains. From Mulder's perspective, he and Scully had given in, loved each other. Not even a dozen times. They hadn't picked out China patterns or written vows. They'd been focused on each other - giddy, terrified friends evolving into lovers while knee-deep in zombies and genies and serial killers - and an entirely unexpected little life resulted. In the hierarchy of "welcome back from the dead" gifts, that had to take first prize.
"A child who can move things," Mason said. "A child who's not normal. Why?"
"I don't know. Maybe because of things that happened to us, maybe because of things that happened while she was pregnant. I thought I could protect you. We could protect you. And maybe we could have, but you'd have spent your life running." There. Mulder admitted it. She'd been right. She made the right decision. She could have asked him, though. "You'd have spent your life afraid, and that's exactly what we didn't want."
Mason looked at the photograph of Mulder again. "What happened?"
Mulder blinked. Given this discussion had more landmines than Afghanistan, he thought it had been going well. "I told you what happened, Mason. We wanted you, we loved you, but we couldn't protect you. We found a family who could."
"No." The boy nodded to the photos on the floor. "With her. Dr. Dana Scully. What happened between you and her?"
Mulder sat back on the sofa. Kirk and Spock watched expectantly. On the TV, the contestants moved to Double Jeopardy. "What makes you think something happened?"
"Well, you're in Kansas and she's not. All your pictures of her are old. Like, 90's old." Mason touched the old scrub top again. "This has her name on it. You have to hide it. You don't have a sexy nightgown you could keep in your dresser and, if people find it, they just think you're a perv. You keep this shirt. That means it's all you have."
Mulder cursed whichever gene passed along those deductive reasoning skills. "People might find a sexy nightgown in my dresser and think I have a girlfriend. Maybe Diana Lesky stays over occasionally and she left it here."
The bottle of Dr. Pepper gathered condensation. The Funyuns remained unopened. "She doesn't even know you're here, does she?"
"Or, people might think I'm a well-prepared host who's hoping to find a girlfriend. Although-" Mulder paused to consider. "-anytime a man asks a woman to wear a nightgown he owned before he even met her, he probably is a perv."
The boy sighed. He dropped the photo of Mulder back in the box. He tossed the rest of the pictures, the badge, and Scully's top in, as well. "I've known I was adopted since second grade. My teacher said to bring a baby picture to school. Dad got this weird look and the next morning, Mom gave me a picture printed from the internet. Google 'baby boy brown hair blue eyes,' and that picture's what shows up. I love my Mom, Mr. Mullins. I loved my Dad. I didn't go searching for you; you found me. The least you could do is give me a straight answer."
"It was a long time ago, Mason." Those blue eyes continued watching him. Mulder said, "I spent my career trying to solve my sister's abduction. I needed to know who took Samantha and why and what happened to her. The more truth I uncovered, the deeper the lies went. Lies about my family, about me, about the people I thought I could trust. My quest became my life, and Scully - because she was my friend, because she always had my back - ended up with a stake in that quest. The ghosts and mutants and serial killers were a sideline. I wanted to expose those government experiments you read about. I wanted to prove alien life had visited on Earth. A group of powerful men colluded with those aliens, trying to save themselves while sacrificing billions of innocent lives. Someone must have listened, because the world didn't end in 2012."
Mulder stopped looking at the kid and started looking at the fish.
"I don't know exactly when I fell in love with her, but I did. Incrementally, unconsciously, and until I loved her- I loved her so much it hurt. If the truth be told, I loved her too much for us to be partners. She's a kick-ass FBI agent, but anyone who hurt her, I wanted dead. No, not just dead. I wanted to personally blow his brains out, but Scully beat me to it. I was abducted, and leaving her tore pieces out of my soul: this beautiful, brilliant, remarkable woman. You came, which was a wonderful, terrifying gift. You two owned part of me, and I would have done anything to protect you. Anything. Then you were gone." Mulder watched the mollies' delicate fins moving hypnotically, silently in the water. "And I couldn't-"
It still hurt: thinking about her. The memories made the scar on his chest ache. Mulder's lungs wouldn't inflate to full capacity, so he had to breathe faster. His elbows jabbed the tops of his thighs. He still watched the fish. If he'd been honest, he would have said, "And I couldn't forgive her."
The leather creaked as he shifted on the sofa. "I couldn't go back. Too much had changed. What we had: the foundation of it crumbled at every corner. The FBI, our work, our lives, the baby. I wasn't Agent Mulder anymore, and- and there wasn't enough left."
Scully had known, too. All those years ago, Mulder had arrived first at the hotel. Checked in. Waited. He'd heard her keycard swipe in the hotel room door, and he hurried to help. Every other time, Scully had arrived juggling her overnight bag and the diaper bag and William. Exhausted, afraid. But that last evening, in Pennsylvania, she didn't have the baby. She hadn't even brought in her overnight bag. She'd known she wouldn't be staying, because neither would he.
Even if Mulder forgave her, he wondered if she'd ever forgiven him.
"I left. She stayed with the FBI. She's getting married. She went on with her life and, eventually, I went on with mine. I can go anywhere I want, be anyone I want - but not Fox Mulder."
"Does she know where you are, who you are?" Mason asked. "Does she even know if you're alive?"
Mulder shook his head.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mason's right eyebrow rise. "If you left her, why do you have old pictures and her shirt hidden in your living room wall?"
Mulder turned his head, his own brows furrowed as he looked down at the kid. "How are you liking that new iPhone, buddy?"
"It's epic. Like your story." Mason twisted the lid off the bottle of soda. "You should text her."
"No one calls anymore?"
The boy took a long drink. He swallowed, covered a burp, and considered a few seconds. "She's really kick-A-S-S?"
"She is epically, beautifully, brilliantly kick-A-S-S."
"You should text her."
Mulder shook his head again. "It was a long time ago."
On the big television, Double Jeopardy continued with two players in a dead heat and one in the hole by thousands. Mulder checked the windows. Outside Felix Mullins's well-furnished, eco-friendly apartment, the sun left a beautiful spring day on the American plains to slide into the horizon, painting the sky scarlet. The garage beneath his apartment held mowers and Weed Eaters and everything a groundskeeper could need. The school paid Felix Mullins well, treated him well, and didn't look too closely at what he did with his internet connection or work vehicle. Wichita offered baseball, hockey, and football teams - all lousy but local. The food was good, and the people of Wichita friendly and trusting. During the school year, Mulder saw William every day. Knew he was safe. Mulder missed sex that didn’t involve a magazine or website, but otherwise, his life left nothing to be desired.
He blamed the endless farmland for the restless emptiness inside him. No ocean, no mountains. Nothing hemmed him in. Day after day, mile after mile, nothing changed. Monsters and serial killers and threats to his son: those happened somewhere else. This was America's breadbasket. Small town USA. In the idyllic land of "no place like home," Mason grew up and Mulder grew older. A quiet little life, with the clock ticking toward Armageddon. Twelve-hundred miles away though, in a foreign land and another lifetime, Dana Scully was getting married.
Mason's voice said, "You didn't stop those experiments, Mr. Mullins." Mulder blinked and returned his attention to his living room rug. "Not if you're still afraid those men might find me. I'm not safe. I'm just disguised as Mason Van De Kamp rather than William-" The kid's brow furrowed. "-William Mulder?"
"Scully." Mulder had talking points ready for that, too. "William Charles Scully. William after my father, and Charles after her only brother who's not an ass- A-S-S-hole."
Kirk and Spock watched judgmentally, but Mason seemed nonplussed. "My Dad believed in UFO's and those same government conspiracies. Mom called him crazy, but he'd show her webpages and message boards. He knew something was happening, but my dad was a farmer in Kansas. You're Fox Mulder. FBI. You have photographs, scars, proof. Why aren't you doing something?" the boy asked. "Telling someone? Trying to stop it?"
Mulder thought the pain in his sternum had faded, but the ache returned. "Mason, I spent decades trying to stop it. I lost everything and, in the end nobody believed me. Fox Mulder's dead, which means he's beyond caring. Reyes and Doggett are on the X-Files, so these days, as long as you're safe, Felix Mullins is beyond caring, too. He's a groundskeeper in Kansas with weird scars and an exhaustive knowledge of the paranormal."
Now the boy looked displeased. "That kinda makes you an A-hole."
Mulder leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "I guess it kinda does. However, it's easy to say the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few until 'the few' is a kid who looks remarkably like me and the many insist on embracing their ignorance."
Mason rearranged his legs as he sat on the rug. He looked in the metal box, at the old photos of Scully. "So your strategy is to let the Wookie win? Give in to the Dark Side?"
"I find your lack of faith disturbing." Mulder could go quote-for-quote as long as they stuck to the three real Star Wars movies. He sat back, propped his feet on the coffee table, and draped an arm on the top of the sofa rather than around a woman who'd rein him in and tell him truths he didn't want to hear. "I am doing something to fight the future, Mason. In fact, I'm doing what the Dark Side fears most." He gestured to the unopened bag beside the kid. "Eat your Funyuns, Luke. You're a growing Jedi."
The chupacabra could flop at Dana Scully's feet and roll over to have its belly scratched; Scully would still claim she hadn't seen it. Or at least, she hadn't seen it clearly. In the light. After a good night's sleep and two cups of coffee. She had a bladder the size of a walnut, considered a spinach salad comfort food, and took deep offense at raised toilet seats, but she had one saving grace.
In truth, Dana Scully had infinite saving graces, but one in particular Mulder missed at the moment. Scully might have talked Mulder out of doing stupid, reckless shit like this.
Lacking Scully's voice of reason, Mulder adopted Clark Kent's: if glasses and a fedora could conceal a man's identity, a beard should render him practically invisible. Mulder wore Felix Mullins's baseball cap but, these days, he needed the reading glasses on his own. Normal type he could make out, but Dr. Estep's equipment arrived with instructions printed in a font intended for pixie use only.
"Do you need new glasses?" Mason said impatiently, as Mulder squinted at the page.
"I need newer eyes." Mulder moved to the edge of the Van De Kamp's porch, into the fading sunlight. Mason had the boxes open and the wide floorboards littered with a paranormal investigator's wet dream when Mulder arrived, twenty minutes ago. Along with the EVP recording equipment and EMF meters, Dr. Estep and the AAEVP sent about five thousand dollars' worth of full-frame film cameras, tripods, a camera rig, remote triggers - and instructions for shutter speed and lens aperture and other settings written in the ancient language of 1994. Step one involved managing to read the instructions. Step two involved Mulder remembering how real cameras worked. Giving up on his glasses, he leaned back to the kid and pointed. "Here: what's this say?"
As Mason read the instructions aloud and Mulder set the camera, the screen door creaked open. Mrs. Van De Kamp made her third trip to the front porch. She'd put on sandals, and wore a casual blouse rather than the old, oversized Kansas State Wildcat's jersey she'd had on earlier. She'd thanked Mr. Mullins twice for coming over on such short notice, prompted Mason to say "thank you," and apologized for the house being a mess. The old farmhouse did not appear "a mess," though Mulder hadn't been inside. This time, she watched them a few seconds and asked awkwardly, "Did Dr. Estep send you guys proton packs?"
"We're ghost-detecting," Mulder reminded her, keeping his head down, "not ghostbusting."
Mera Van De Kamp didn't spend all her time at work, asleep, or crying in front of Star Wars movies. At least on a Saturday afternoon in late May, she'd hung clean laundry on the clothesline, watered some hanging ferns, and made chocolate chip cookies. Excellent chocolate chip cookies, one of which Mulder ate and a few crumbs of which remained on the plate beside Mason. Now she carried two bottles: one water and one a local IPA. "How's the ghost-detecting going, then?"
Mulder got the beer. "So far, we haven't opened a portal to another dimension."
"Is that good or bad?"
"It's not the plan," he conceded, and took a sip, "but it would make for an exciting evening." Mulder set the beer aside, opened the back of the first camera, and held out a hand. "Buddy, give me a roll of film."
Mason held out the 35mm film still in the black canister. "What?" he asked as Mulder snickered.
The boy's brows drew together but rose as Mulder showed him the gray lid came off. Mulder closed the camera. The interior whirred, winding the film into place. "One down."
Mason thrust another camera and roll of film at Mulder. The boy seemed convinced the ghosts would go forever undetected if his equipment wasn't in place by dusk. Hence, Mason's text to Felix Mullins an hour ago, and hence, Fox Mulder sitting on the Van De Kamp's porch, setting up a three-camera rig and hoping Mrs. Van De Kamp didn't look too closely at his features in comparison to her son's.
"Have you done this before, Mr. Mullins?" she asked. The wide porch had a wicker chair, a loveseat, and a few little tables amid the rubble from the UPS bomb. She stood, and held the bottle of water.
"I've dabbled," Mulder said evasively. "I'm hoping to talk to Elvis." He opened the second camera. "Provided he's actually dead."
He glanced up. She watched him earnestly. Her lips twitched. With a fair Tommy Lee Jones impression, she said, "No, Elvis is not dead. He just went home."
"For the record-" Mulder dropped in a second roll of film. "-both the Men in Black and at the FBI really don't have a sense of humor they're aware of."
"Focus, old people," Mason requested. "This is for science."
Copying Mulder, Mason loaded film into the final camera and snapped it closed. Mulder fitted all three cameras into the 360-degree camera rig, and passed it to Mason. "There. Go. Detect. Do science."
Mrs. Van De Kamp offered the bottled water. The boy scrambled up, took the cameras, and barreled past her. Nearly through the screen door. Mason's tennis shoes pounded up one flight of stairs and, as the screen door banged closed, a second flight. According to Mason, all ghosts would be found in the attic. Also, that was the one place in the house his mother would let him set up the array of cameras, recording equipment, a footstep detector, and a laser grid.
His mother watched him go. She smiled and sat on a wicker chair. She still held the bottle, and Marines envied her posture. Mulder remained seated on the floor, surrounded by cardboard boxes, newspaper, and bubble wrap. Baseball cap on, head down.
"He's excited," she said, though hydrogen atoms got excited; Mason's excitement would register on a seismograph. "Thank you so much. He said you had your friend, Dr. Estep, loan him all this equipment."
"Dr. Estep's not a friend. Just someone I knew a long time ago." Mulder picked up his beer. He examined the label - another sea of tiny, blurry type. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mason's mother similarly scrutinizing the bottled water.
"I'm Mera," she said abruptly. "Did I say that, Mr. Mullins? Mera Van De Kamp."
She had said it, but Mulder answered, "My first name's Felix, but 'Mullins' is fine. Even my parents called me 'Mullins.'" Guilt jabbed a shish kabob skewer deep into his abdomen. "I'm the school's groundskeeper," he added, hoping to ward off further assaults. "I saw Mason's science project at school. He's a great kid."
There, Scully: three honest statements in a row. Mulder's Mental Scully folded her arms disapprovingly. "Interfering," Mental Scully's lips moved each time Mulder imagined her.
The chair creaked as Mera sat back. "Mason musta worked on that project for weeks. His father did things like this with him. Before he died," Mera Van De Kamp added needlessly. "They read about Bigfoot and the Bermuda Triangle. They went ghost-hunting in the cemetery. They'd even go on the roof and watch for UFO's."
"You're not a believer?"
A few seconds passed. Mulder looked up, beer in hand, hat in place. She still held the bottle she'd brought for Mason. She'd turned her face to the side, toward an empty field. Her fingertips touched the base of her throat, and the breeze rustled her dark hair. Abruptly, she asked, "Can I get you another beer, Mullins?"
He showed her the bottle with a line of liquid just below the neck. "I'm good. I have to drive home."
She ran her fingers through her hair and clasped both hands around the water again. Condensation gathered on the plastic.
"Mera?" Mulder asked curiously. "As in Aquaman's wife 'Mera?' Queen of Atlantis 'Mera?'"
She nodded. "My father worked for DC Comics in the 1960's. He drives Mason to the Kansas City Comic Con every year, and still sends Stan Lee scathing letters typed on an old word processor."
Unable to think of a profound response, he said, "I've always considered Aquaman the most underrated member of the Justice League."
She didn't offer her opinion of any member of the Justice League.
Inside the house, rapid footsteps descended steps, and ascended again. A door slammed. Through the screen door, Mulder saw cardboard boxes stacked in the foyer. Written in marker on the side were 'wedding China' and 'Mason's old toys' and 'Jake's books.'
While the rest of Kansas was a rapidly rising sea of green, the fields around the Van De Kamp house remained unplanted. A large, new metal shed covered nothing. Last year, when Mulder scoped out the farm, the shed had housed an old tractor, but also a shiny new combine and disc harrow and planter. As small farmers switched to modern planting and harvesting techniques, most paid for the expensive equipment with a second job, as Mr. Van De Kamp apparently had. Without that second income, the bank took the equipment. Without the equipment and someone to run the farm, either Mera Van De Kamp sold the place or the bank took the farm.
School let out in two weeks. Mason had friends. A baseball and basketball team.
Felix Mullins wasn't a farmer but he had, like, a quarter-million dollars hidden in his living room.
"This place has been in my husband's family for a hundred and fifty years," a female voice said, like she'd read his thoughts. Mulder returned his attention to the front porch. Mera looked inside, through the screen door, at a flight of wooden stairs. "The house is over a hundred years old, but I've never thought it was haunted."
"No unusual sounds or smells, no cold spots?" He tried the beer again. It was good. "Nothing mysteriously out of place?"
She shook her head. "Anything out of place is my fault. The smell is usually my son."
"Mason said you're moving."
She nodded. "I'll make sure the cameras and microphones and everything get mailed back to Dr. Estep." Mulder saw her glance at a box as if checking for a return address.
High overhead, a window squealed. The boy's voice yelled, "Mr. Mullins, I just took, like, eight pictures of myself walking across the room. I'm pretty sure I'm not a stupid ghost."
Mulder called back, "I'm pretty sure you'd be a smart ghost, buddy."
A cool voice responded, "You're not funny, Mr. Mullins. Dad jokes are not funny."
"Use the remote for the camera rig," Mulder suggested. "You're taking pictures of yourself because you have the laser grid or the footstep tracker triggering the cameras."
"No I don't," Mason insisted.
"Yes, you do. Do you want me to come set it up?"
An insulted, "No." The window squealed again and slammed.
The broad dusk settled quietly, but not so quietly Mulder heard the cameras click in the attic. He assumed another set of accidental photos though, because he heard Mason yell, "Darn it!"
Mulder chuckled and took a long drink from the beer bottle. "I asked Mason how many rolls of film he wanted me to pick up. He said 'Three. There are three cameras.'" He grinned. "I bought all the film Wal-Mart had, and stock in Kodak."
Mera Van De Kamp smiled back, and it was a pretty smile. "You must have children, Mullins."
Her head tilted curiously. "Why not?"
Now would be an excellent time to leave, Mental Scully suggested. Mulder had set up Mason's equipment. Now was exactly the moment Felix Mullins should finish the beer, wish Mason's mother good luck in Denver, and yell "bye" to the kid. He should get in the truck and leave. Hat on, head down.
Instead, Fox Mulder remained on the Van De Kamp's porch. "We were coworkers enraptured with each other, and getting pregnant was... 'Unplanned' is an understatement. I thought it would be okay; she thought differently. She made a choice that legally, was hers to make."
Seconds of silence followed, during which Mental Scully gaped is disbelief.
"I- I meant: you're a nice-looking man," Mera said. "You're kind. Funny. Good with kids. You have a steady job. I don't think you're gay. But, but it's okay if you are," she stammered. "But if you aren't, I just wondered why you weren't married."
"I know. I guess I wanted to answer a slightly different question. People ask, but I'm supposed to say 'it was a bad divorce' or 'the right woman never came along.'" He turned the beer bottle, inspecting the brown glass for any flaws. "It wasn't a bad divorce, twenty-three years ago." Shit. That was true. Twenty-three years. "Diana and I wanted different things, we parted, and a part of me loved her until the day she died. I spent the night at her apartment about a week before her murder, and I spoke at her funeral." Mulder continued checking the damp bottle. "As for the other: the right woman came along. She walked in one rainy Thursday morning: beautiful and whip-smart and disinclined to put up with my shenanigans. She came along. The whole wonderful, terrifying scenario came along. I didn't quite inspire enough confidence to keep it."
Inside Mulder's head, his mental image of Scully had her brows together at a displeased angle. "Asshole," Mental Scully scolded. "Don't do this."
A long, awkward silence blanketed the front porch.
Mulder worried his mouth. "They used to call it 'oversharing,'" he said. "Now, I think the boys say 'TMI.' Too Much Information. Sorry."
"Don't be sorry. I asked." She inhaled. Studied the porch ceiling. Rotated the water bottle a few times. Picked a wilted bud from a flowerpot of pansies. She watched a long-haired, brownish tabby stroll toward them on the circular driveway. A sleek black cat followed. They padded past Mulder's work truck and crouched beneath the Subaru. "That's Han and Chewie. Jake's cats. Chewie turned out to be a girl." She looked back at Mulder. "Mullins, can I get you another-" She flushed.
Mulder chuckled. "Were you gonna ask to get me another beer?" His bottle remained three-fourths full.
"I was." She made an exasperated sound and covered her face with her hand. "For crying out loud."
"Are you trying to take advantage of me or get me pulled over for DUI?"
Her palm muffled her words. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry."
"It's so weird having someone here. Someone who's not Jake." She lowered her hand and, after a pause, drew clear equators around the outside of the plastic bottle with her index finger. Her cheeks remained pink. "Cheese and rice. I'm not crazy."
"I don't think you're crazy. I think you lost someone you loved. You can't sleep, you can't think, and every breath without that person is a painful, terrifying effort. I understand. I'm not crazy, either." Mulder stood and drank most of the beer in a few big swallows. "I'm gonna go. If Mr. Einstein can't figure something out - and wants to admit that - tell him to text or FaceTime me. I'll be home."
She stood quickly and stepped between Mulder and the driveway. "I can make spaghetti. Mason likes spaghetti, and I need to empty the pantry. Store-brand spaghetti with store-brand canned sauce, ground beef with freezer burn, and parmesan cheese that's probably a solid block inside the container. Stay, Mullins. I owe you dinner, at least."
The shaggy brown tabby sat on the hood of Felix Mullins's truck, so Mulder had no choice. "I like spaghetti."
Mental Scully's brows had treacherous valleys between them. Mulder told Mental Scully to go fuck herself. She'd made her choice. Mason was a lonely, frightened kid, and his mother was a nice, frightened, attractive lady who liked sci-fi movies. They had spaghetti. Those bad men pretty Mera Van De Kamp worried about: to her, they raped and murdered and molested and shot up movie theaters somewhere else. In New York or California. Mulder bet she kept a spare key beneath the flowerpot of pansies on the porch and, worst-case-scenario, planned to defend her son from an intruder with a shotgun hidden in her closet.
He looked down at Mera. She was about the same build but taller than Scully. With wavy brown hair and pretty, dark eyes. She could feed Mason and make sure he got his shots, and eventually pick the kid up after school, but those very bad men out there - she'd never see them coming.
Fox Mulder spent a lifetime getting good at one thing: stopping bad men. He was just out of practice.
"I have to leave soon, though," Mulder said. "I have to feed my fish. Kirk and Spock. Same problem, different film franchise: Spock's a girl. "
Kirk and Spock got fed once a day, in the morning.
She tilted her head. "You were enraptured?" The last word needed air quotes. "Men around here don't use that term."
Mulder nodded. "I'm not from around here. I was: absolutely enraptured. Any man with good sense would be."
"I work with some nice, single women. Are you still enraptured, Mullins?"
He hesitated for effect, not because he had to think about it. "Yeah."
"Me, too," she admitted, "but Mason still needs to eat. We still need to eat."
She pulled the handle on the screen door, but Mulder held it open for her to walk inside.
Mera was taller than Scully; Mera had to duck beneath Mulder's arm. As she did, he noticed it: a tiny bump beneath the skin on the back of her neck about an inch below her hairline. Not the oblong, dime-sized row marking a super-soldier, but the little rise above an implanted microchip. A very old microchip, still in place. Perhaps even, still unnoticed.
She had to know the kid could move things. Mason might hide it now, but as a baby he'd moved mobiles, pacifiers. Maybe Jeffrey Spender's mysterious injection damped William's ability only briefly. Or Scully had been wrong. She'd wanted a normal baby, and maybe she denied what she witnessed William still doing. Mulder hadn't been there, and she'd given their telekinetic, miracle baby to strangers.
Mulder wondered how anonymous that private, anonymous adoption had been twelve years ago.
High overhead, a floorboard creaked. The cameras must have taken another set of photos, because the kid's voice said, "Damn it!"
"Mason Allen: language," his mother called sharply. "I will shut this ghost-busting down, son." She looked over her shoulder at Mulder still standing on the porch, holding the screen door. "Would you go help him? I can't imagine how expensive 35mm film is to get developed these days." She held out the bottle of water and nodded to the stairs. "Just step over the boxes and baseball equipment, and keep going up until you hit spook central."
"No problem." Fox Mulder - or Felix Mullins, or- Hell, some middle-aged guy who looked a lot like Mason Van De Kamp - took off his baseball cap and stepped inside.
Hard work filled the hours. Days. Months. Years.
Until about 2004, Mulder continued his quest to discover the truth about super-soldiers and Cancerman and colonization but, without an FBI badge, he mostly shook his fist at the sky. Also, without Scully, without William, Mulder found his quest less of a life's mission and more of a hobby he no longer enjoyed. Any investigating by computer The Gunmen did, and did far better than Mulder. By the time Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Mulder had found a barstool in Flint, Michigan and remained on it for a couple years. He moved to Boulder, let his hair grow along with his beard, and smoked all the pot he hadn't in college. He'd stopped covertly checking up on Scully and started looking for William. And found him, or at least found a nice farm couple in Wichita, Kansas excitedly posting pictures on the internet of Mason, their bright, adorable kindergartener. Mulder moved east to St. Louis, and down to Oklahoma City, circling, and somewhere in there decided he needed a job. Something not law enforcement and something that didn't require too much thinking.
He'd mowed lawns. Painted houses. Done landscaping. One of his aliases had a heavy equipment operator's license. Mulder discovered he enjoyed being outdoors. He liked seeing tangible evidence of a day's work and being tired enough to sleep soundly once he went to bed. Tired enough he didn't dream. He liked having a tan, having rough hands and dirt beneath his fingernails. Doing something with his life somebody appreciated.
Mulder couldn't quite get it up for farming, though. He tried thinking of a tractor as a stand-on mower with a plow. He envisioned teaching Mason however-the-hell farm equipment worked: the two of them in the warm sun, tilling the rich earth. With "God Bless America" playing over the radio. He tried imagining sitting down to dinner after a hard day's work, and the wonderful sensation of stretching out, dog-tired, on cool, clean sheets.
No. No farmer boner. Even after three beers and a plate of spaghetti, Mulder couldn't close his eyes and pretend.
He could pay someone to farm.
Mason Van De Kamp showed off a bedroom containing everything a thirteen-year-old boy's room should: an Xbox and a telescope and sports posters on the walls. Mulder spotted a magazine corner between the mattress and box spring. After Mason returned to the attic, Mulder checked the magazine. Mason had the May 2014 issue of Penthouse, with Felix Mullins's post office box address on it. Last seen the previous week, in a virginal state, in Felix Mullins's nightstand.
Especially upstairs, the house smelled like cookies and old wood. Mulder saw generations of family photos on the walls, but nothing made him suspect any paranormal presence. Mera had many things boxed and labeled: books, mementos, winter clothes. Mason's bedroom remained untouched, but Mason had camped out in the attic with an array of microphones and cameras at the ready.
The cat got off his truck, so Mulder used his "feed the fish" excuse about 9:00 - dark, but still a decent hour. Mason waved goodbye from a high attic window, and Mera walked Mulder across the lawn and to the gravel driveway. Felix Mullins wore his baseball cap again. He carried a Cool Whip container of still-warm spaghetti.
He looked back at the old house. A light glowed white in a kitchen window and another bulb, a warm yellow in the attic. Chewie slept on the porch. A universe of stars glittered overhead. Fields - to explore, to build snow forts and bike ramps and bonfires - stretched for miles. Except for lacking a beach, it seemed like an ideal place for a boy.
The Van De Kamp family wouldn't be moving. Mason wouldn't be changing schools or living in an apartment with an aunt who smelled like patchouli. Mulder hadn't determined exactly how he'd manage that, but he'd decided he would.
"I betcha he'll sleep up there," Mera told Mulder, watching the attic with him. "Tomorrow night, too. All week, if I let him."
"I bet you're right." Mulder leaned against the side of the truck and studied the attic window, keys in one hand, spaghetti in the other. "Will you let him?"
"Probably. It's for science, and that boy can talk me into about anything." She carried the final beer from the six-pack in her refrigerator. "Also, if I make him go to bed, he'll just sneak back."
"That's what I would have done at his age."
She looked over her shoulder and smiled at him - the same small, brave smile Scully had during her cancer. "Me too, except with a flashlight and Nancy Drew under the covers."
"You and Nancy were a thing?"
"For about a year. For hours every night."
"Maybe I'm getting old, but that sounds exhausting."
Her smiled broadened. The breeze blew her brown hair across her face. She tucked it behind her ear. He watched the strands work free and flutter again.
Before he thought, Mulder took a step closer. His hand rose a millimeter to tuck her hair back in place.
He stopped. Lowered his hand. He resumed leaning back against the truck, holding his keys and leftovers.
Mental Scully was aghast. "Are you kidding me? She's your son's mother." In his head, Mulder reminded Scully she was also his son's mother and, though Mulder had loved seeing William, he'd loved Scully, too. Years ago, while the baby slept, the hotel bed - shower, dresser, bathroom counter, chair, balcony ledge, wall - in their room got well-used.
"Send the film to school on Monday with Mason. I'll take care of it," Mulder said. "Wal-Mart sells 35mm film; they don't develop it anymore. Go figure. I'll probably have to send it off."
She turned and looked up at him, still holding the beer bottle. "You don't need to pay-"
"He's gonna use all two dozen rolls." Earlier, Mason had removed the first three rolls of film from the 360-degree camera rig (all 108 photos taken by mistake) and checked each one for a USB port. "I instigated this pricy ghost hunt. Let me pay for it."
"I'll have to bake you more brownies."
"I'll have to let you." He looked down, slouching as he studied the gravel. "Thank you. This was nice. Nice dinner, nice company. I haven't done this in a long time."
"It was nice having someone here. Mason likes you."
"I like Mason. What happened to his father - it's so sad. For both of you. He's lost his father, but you- My father and my ex-wife were murdered. My mother committed suicide. I'm no stranger to grief, but grieving with a child- Watching his pain. That would take strength I'm not sure I possess."
"You're an FBI profiler," Mental Scully pronounced. "This should be a crime."
Mera's sandals stepped closer. Still a polite distance away but close enough, if he'd stepped forward too, he could kiss her goodnight. It would be nice to kiss a woman goodnight. Even if he didn't love her, even if she didn't love him.
He didn't step closer.
"I think-" Mulder slouched further. "I think I should go" He nudged a lump of gravel with the toe of his boot. "Send the film with the kid. I'll get the pictures back to him ASAP."
She didn't answer. Mulder looked up. She studied him like there'd be a test.
A long silence followed. The kind ticking down to a ‘boom.’
"You look like..." In a shaky voice, Mera said, "So much. Not just the features, but how you move. Are you- You said this woman you love, she got pregnant and she made a choice. That choice wasn't an abortion, was it?"
"No." Mulder checked his boots again. He tapped a toe against the driveway. "When he was about a year old, it was an anonymous adoption."
"You're Mason's father, aren't you? His biological father?"
Mulder's head movement could have been an affirmative nod or a subtle attempt to dodge a bee. "His father died. I saw the obituary."
She held the beer bottle with both hands, her knuckles white. "Does Mason know?"
"He's adopted? Yes, but I didn't tell him." Mulder clenched his fist. The sharp metal keys bit his palm. "He figured it out years ago."
"I told Jake Mason would never believe a baby photo off the internet." Her words tumbled out and over each other. "Mason doesn't believe anything. In first grade that boy worked out Santa couldn't possibly visit every child in one night and if he did how much his sleigh would weigh."
Mulder nodded, this time obviously and sympathetically. Those would be Scully's genetics. Mulder still hung a stocking and hoped. In the interest of full disclosure, he said, "Your son has also noticed a certain family resemblance. Also not something I told him."
He held the Cool Whip container tight, wondering how many seconds he had before she joined Mental Scully's "asshole" chorus and took back her spaghetti. And her son. Told Felix Mullins to leave. His presence didn't help anyone and he should go.
"I had no plan to tell him, no plan to even speak to him," Mulder said. "I wanted to know he was okay. I wanted to make sure he had a winter coat and got his teeth cleaned. He knew how to hit a baseball. His parents loved him. Unfortunately, Mr. Einstein figured it out, and I won't lie to him." He checked the driveway again. "Maybe selfishly, I did want him to know- I loved him, too. I, I want to resent the strangers who took him and changed his name and gave him an entirely different life." He glanced up. "Somehow, that's not working out."
Mental Scully gave a slow, melodramatic clap. "Thank the Academy," she reminded him.
More seconds ticked past.
Mera's shoulders lowered. Her chest rose but her voice remained unsteady. "What do you want?"
"I want him to be safe," Mulder said honestly. "That's all. He's your son, and his father's dead. Period. Of course I play the 'what if' game in my head. I loved Her. I still love Her. I went to the Lamaze classes, I held him minutes after he was born, I changed diapers and did dawn patrol. But that ship has sailed. Now, sometimes he needs a friend. A soda. Help hitting a baseball-"
"With a three-hundred dollar baseball bat? Like he needed expensive basketball shoes?"
"His father died. The kid was crying behind the gym. I had a coupon."
She put a hand on her hip. "What about a brand new iPhone? No friend at school gave Mason a new iPhone."
"Mera, my guilt could crush a 1976 Buick. Could you give me a break?" Mulder pleaded. "Yes, I have an agenda. If that dovetails with what Mason needs, fine. If not- He comes first. Protecting him comes first. He's special; you must know that. The woman with whom I was - with whom I remain - enraptured: she did what she thought was right for him. She and I disagreed heatedly on the means, but we share the same end goal. For him to be safe. That's why he's with you. Not me. I'm not going to try to take him away from you. I don't want a Father's Day card, but I want him to be safe. I want him to have a normal life."
"You know you're an abductee, don't you?" Mulder asked. The keys in his hand felt warm and slippery against his damp palm. "The missing time, flashes of memory, the nightmares? Waking up places you didn't go to sleep, wearing inside-out or no clothes? The doctor having no explanation for why a healthy young woman would have no ova?"
Mera stared at him.
"So is she," he said. "His biological mother. She had the same little bump on the back of her neck. The same nightmares. Except she got pregnant. We had a baby she thought we couldn't protect. That anonymous adoption: I don't think it was. I think someone knows. I think someone's monitoring him."
She lowered the beer bottle - or probably, it succumbed to gravity. She brought a hand to her throat. She touched the back of her neck. Her fingertip stopped an inch below her hairline. "It's a mole. It's been there forever."
"It's not a mole. A mole wouldn't get you detained at metal detectors."
The trembling spread through her arm until her shoulders shook. "What is it?"
"A microchip put there during your abduction by a government project that probably doesn't even exist anymore. Don't remove it. There's a self-destruct function. The chip doesn't self-destruct. You do, of an inoperable, untreatable malignant brain tumor."
"Who are 'they'? Who's watching?" she demanded. "What do they want with my son?"
"I don't know. I've been asking those questions since before he was born, and I still don't know."
Her shaking hand slid to her throat again. "I can't-"
"I can. I can keep him safe."
"I want you to go."
The shish-kabob skewers pierced his gut from at least six angles, but Mulder nodded. "Okay. I'm sorry. I…" He opened the truck's door and set the warm container on the center console.
"I understand why you'd want to find him. I do." He heard a ragged breath behind him. "Jesus Christ, if someone gave my child away- I think you're a nice man, and you want what's best for him. I- I know Mason's special. He's very special. He's my son."
Mulder got in the truck. He wiped his palm on his pants leg, and started the ignition. Instead of closing the door and driving away he put his head against the back of the seat, looked up, blinked quickly, and swallowed. If Scully had been around he'd have her check for some sort of internal hemorrhage. He hurt that badly.
"He's my son, too." Mulder repeated it inside his head, but didn't say it. Instead, he put his forearm across the top of the steering wheel and rested his forehead on his wrist.
A hand touched his shoulder. After all these years, he still jumped.
"Mullins-" He raised his head and looked at her. Her face was flushed. "If you don't know who's watching or what they want, how can you keep Mason safe?"
He slid a damp hand back and forth over the top of the steering wheel. "I have an alter-ego who's a self-centered asshole but has extensive training in firearms and hand-to-hand combat."
"Jesus Christ." She ran her fingers through her hair and stepped back. "Is 'Felix Mullins' even your real name?"
"No. But aside from that everything I told you is the truth."
She stepped back again. He closed the door. His heart pounded as he pulled the seatbelt over his shoulder.
Mera Van De Kamp continued standing beside his truck, one hand at the base of her throat and the other holding a probably long-forgotten beer.
She stepped forward. Mulder pushed a button. Motors whirred and the window sank into the door. The dome light dimmed. High in the house, the yellow bulb in the attic continued glowing.
"The first year Jake and I were married, I got pregnant." She looked into the truck, but past Mulder. "That was our plan. Jake had almost finished at Kansas State; I was working as an assistant manager at a hotel. We had an apartment off-campus. One morning, Jake found me on the balcony with my T-shirt and underwear on inside out. I don't like heights, and I never liked that balcony. I remembered going to bed the night before. Jake remembered me coming to bed. I remember a bright light outside the windows of our fourth floor apartment. Then, until Jake woke me, nothing. But I wasn't eight weeks' pregnant anymore."
The truck's headlights pressed far into the darkness. Mulder saw insects flit through the beams. In the distance, a rabbit crossed a fallow field. Mera put a hand on the truck's door.
"The doctor said it happens," she continued, "and to wait a few months and try again. Once we got Jake's student loans paid off, we saw a fertility specialist for a while. In 2002, we decided to adopt. Every agency told us it would be years. A decade. We said we'd take any baby they had. An older child. A handicapped child." She looked at Mulder with trusting brown eyes. "Three weeks. Three weeks, and a social worker brought us this perfect toddler I couldn't imagine anyone giving up."
"I didn't give him up. I understand why she did but I know I can keep him safe," Mulder promised. "This time, give me a chance to."
A male silhouette appeared in the attic window, looking out. "He's so smart but sometimes, he just knows things." Her throat convulsed. She whispered, "He could move things when he was small. Move things without touching them."
"He always could. He still can. He hides it because he doesn't want to frighten you."
The silhouette watched them: slim, tall for his age. A boy beginning to look like a man, but still a boy.
Mera turned, following Mulder's gaze. After several seconds, she asked, "What's your real name, Felix Mullins?"
Mulder took a deep breath. "Frank Martin."
She looked at Mulder again. She said, "I'll send the film with Mason on Monday," and stepped back. "Goodnight, Frank Martin. Felix Mullins. Whoever you are."
"Goodnight, Mera Van De Kamp."
Mental Scully had harped on Mulder until he switched her to mute and focused his attention elsewhere: on real Scully.
He'd taken some "alone time" late last night in his apartment and recalled real Scully in great detail. How her breasts felt in his hands. How a trail of fine, transparent hair on her abdomen led to the silky, dark auburn hair between her legs. He remembered her atop him, in front of him. Her panting, trembling, tensing, moaning. Her beautiful red hair falling over her flushed face. The smell of her skin. Her pink lips and how they felt around him. In conclusion, Mulder recollected in a satisfactory manner, and fell asleep.
Understandably, expensive private schools frowned on public masturbation, so Mulder spent his work day mowing and focused on Special Agent Scully, who'd leap-frogged between obscure scientific facts for a decade as Mulder tried to solve their cases. She'd usually been dead wrong, but so distractingly sexy in her stubborn wrongness he should have charged her with obstructing a federal investigation. Interfering with a lonely, randy federal agent. Maybe Mulder suffered from a convenient memory lapse, but he recalled no cases Scully's hypothesis proved one-hundred percent correct.
Except one. Scully, William C., Case File #22325913. Once in twenty years, Scully got it right.
Back in the day, the baby's blue eyes enthralled Mulder, and the hair - when William finally had hair - was lighter. Plus, all babies bore a striking resemblance to Winston Churchill. But Mulder could be the bigger person. Admit his mistake. Despite being dead wrong roughly ten billion times, Scully got one thing dead right: little Cinco looked more like Mulder.
When Mulder wasn't crouched behind a dumpster shielding Scully and praying William would stay quiet as an army of super-soldiers passed, Mulder had time to consider these things. Also, it helped if his subject weighed more than thirteen pounds and didn't drool. Mason's build, the coloring, the facial structure: all Team Mulder. The nose too, unfortunately. The eyes came from Team Scully, and Mason had her methodical, meticulous studiousness. The sarcastic wit could go either way.
The genetic roll of the dice fascinated Mulder. In fact, he kinda wished - since his contribution to Scully's pregnancy involved some premier sex followed by a multi-month dirt nap followed by a few boring Lamaze classes - they'd had more children. Seen how the little creatures turned out. Gone two out of three for blue eyes/brown eyes.
Maybe she could have ripped his heart out three times instead of once.
Maybe Mulder needed another round of "alone time."
Maybe Mulder needed to stop playing with fire with the one Mini-Me he had, and that child's nice, trusting, attractive, shell-shocked mother.
Maybe Felix Mullins's alter ego was an asshole and seriously, chronically fucked up.
As Mulder drove up, Mason stood at the bottom of the apartment's steps, channeling Dana Scully's posture and annoyed expression. Even the vocal cadence sounded similar as Mason said, "You're late, Mr. Mullins. Where were you? You said you'd be back by 4:00. It's 4:07. School's been out for thirty-seven minutes."
Mulder still wore his work uniform. Grass clippings covered his pants and work boots. "I had to wait at the post office. The door's not locked and there's soda in the fridge. Think of it as seven extra minutes to pilfer my magazines." Mason leaned on the open, passenger-side window. From behind the wheel, Mulder said, "I've seen you wait for your mother for forty-five minutes and not say a word."
"You're not Mom," the boy stipulated. Mason stipulated a lot. Mulder blamed Team Scully genetics. "I know Mom's gonna be late."
"Let's work on lowering your expectations of me, too. Everyone will be happier." Mulder moved the big manila envelope from the floorboards to the passenger seat. "Here. Happy Friday. Get in."
Mental Scully stood in Mulder's peripheral vision, hands on her hips, irate furrow between her brows. Her mouth moved rapidly but mute remained on.
Mason tossed his backpack in the bed of the truck and climbed in the cab. Baseball season had ended for the year. The boy wore his school uniform - the same cerulean blue polo shirt and beige pants as Mulder, but marginally cleaner. Mulder rolled up the windows, turned the air conditioner and radio on, and headed out of town.
"Are these my pictures?"
"No. I cut to the chase and ordered an actual ghost," Mulder said. "It has no mass, form, voice, or visibility in this dimension. There's no warranty, so don't drop it."
The skeptical eyebrow: Her.
"Yes, they're your pictures."
Twenty-four rolls of film with twenty-four exposures per roll, plus overnight shipping each way, plus rush developing, worked out to more than the cost of Mason's birthday bat. In all likelihood, the photographs captured nothing paranormal. Dr. Estep's laser grid and footstep detector detected nothing this week except a thirteen year old. Mulder and Mason had spent hours fiddling with the audio recordings, hunting Electronic Voice Phenomena. Played fast, slow, backward, soft, loud - the voice recognition software transcribed gibberish. The kid had Mulder's "the truth is out there" mentality combined with Scully's "the answers are there if you know where to look" approach. Last night, Mera put the kibosh on paranormal research at 11:00 and sent Mason to bed. She'd walked Felix Mullins to his truck, shooed Chewie off the hood, and told Mullins goodnight.
"You want the negatives," Mulder said as the boy flipped through the thick stack of photographs. "You might get lucky with the pictures and see an orb or some form, but it's more likely to be on the negatives. Don't get fingerprints on them. If you find something, we'll scan and enlarge it. Once we have a few suspects, we start filtering out noise and boosting color and contrast. Do some enhancing. See what's there from beyond this world."
Touching the edges, Mason held a strip of negatives up to the window. The boy squinted at the tiny image, seeming dismayed. He glanced at the hundreds of photographs. Some paternal genetics kicked in: Mason held the negative up to the light a second time.
"In the back," Mulder said, and nodded to the space behind Mason's seat. "I ordered a light box. I'll show you how to use it." Before Mason could ask, he said, "Yes, you have to wait until you get home. Twenty minutes. Try not to spontaneously combust."
According to the internet, the fancy light box would magnify negatives and convert them to a high resolution digital format. Mulder opened the light box package earlier. It had ports and gigs of memory and a booklet of blurry little instructions Mulder hoped Mason understood. Mulder had Amazon throw in a jeweler's loupe and, on a whim, a bumper sticker reading 'Ghosts don't believe in you, either.' They still sold 'I want to believe' posters, but from an affiliated merchant who didn't offer express shipping. So the poster would arrive Wednesday.
"I should feed you. Feed us," Mulder said, before they passed the last of the drive-thru hamburger places. "What do you want?"
"Mom's home. She'll make dinner." Mason carefully checked the seventh of six hundred four-by-six photographs. "She works tomorrow and Sunday. It's her last weekend as a manager at the factory. Everyone's last weekend."
"Oh," Mulder said, and watched the road. He adjusted his hands on the steering wheel. "Okay."
Two miles later, Mason looked up. "Mom went to college. Like, two years. The same college as Dad. She used to manage hotels, before I came." The kid spoke as if he couldn't fathom that. "She's gonna interview at some fancy new hotel downtown on Monday."
Mulder said, "Oh," again. The traffic thinned but Mulder remained vigilant. The boy resumed examining his pictures.
Three miles of state highway after that, Mason arrived at apparently, his least pressing news. "We don't have to move. Dad had a life insurance policy through the trucking company. Mom thought he'd let it lapse, but some guy called early this morning. Mom cried."
That guy was John Fitzgerald Byers, calling from The Lone Gunmen's HQ and transferring the money from one of Mulder's accounts.
Mulder turned onto the Van De Kamp's long gravel driveway and said, "Oh."
Mason checked another photo.
"If your mom's working this weekend, do you want to play paintball on Saturday?"
"You betcha. I'm a good shot. Dad and I entered contests. We used to shoot trap."
"What did Trap ever do to you?"
A weary sigh. "Mr. Mullins, the ghost stuff is cool, but you're one dad joke from wearing socks with sandals. You used to be, like, an FBI Agent, remember?"
"Let's keep that between you and me." Mera must have heard them coming. She stood on the front porch, watching. Mulder asked the kid, "Hey- Do you know what you get if you cross Bambi with a ghost?"
Mason slid the photos and negatives into the envelope. "Back in the day, girls went for this?"
"Girls didn't." Mulder studied Mason's mother. "A few women did."
As Mulder stopped in front of the house, Mason turned toward him, looking crushed. "A few? You had, like, sex with someone besides Dr. Dana Scully? You said you loved her. You said she was beautiful and brilliant and kick-A-S-S. How many is 'a few?'"
Mulder stammered. "I-I- Of course. A few. I was almost forty years old. Of course there were-"
"You cheated?" The boy's brows were both perplexed and irate.
"No. Of course not. Of course I didn't." Just a vampire, his ex-wife, his prom date, a few randos, and a British sadist. "But before Scully-"
"Before her, you have sex with 'a few' women you didn't love?" Mason needed clarification as to how to direct his disappointment. "That's okay? That's what guys do? Have sex with-"
"No." Across the yard, Mera stepped to the edge of the porch. Mulder thanked God for the truck's closed windows and big engine. "No, it's not okay. Even when you love someone, sex is serious and wonderful and terrifying. Men have responsibilities. You have to think about STD's and pregnancy. No means no, and-"
"What about oral? Oral doesn't count, right?"
Mulder's face grew hot. "Yes, it counts. Oral, vaginal - any sex counts. It's all a big deal."
Mulder's mouth opened but wordless breath came out.
He heard a snort. A giggle. "Oh, my God." The boy rolled his eyes. "It's too easy. I should be ashamed of myself."
Mulder frowned, and Mental Scully stopped lecturing to snicker. This also seemed attributable to her DNA.
"That was mean, Mason." The remorseless kid agreed, and Mulder chuckled.
Mera stood with one hand at the base of her throat and one arm across her abdomen. Han and Chewie each occupied a wicker chair. Mason got out of the truck, carrying his photos and the light box. He shrugged away from his mother's kiss on the cheek and made a bee line for the front door.
She smiled a tiny smile and waved back. Her hand returned to her throat.
He rolled down the passenger window and leaned toward the house. "Your maniacal son and I just talked about playing paintball tomorrow," he called. She walked toward the truck. Mera wore no shoes but a little makeup. The breeze blew her hair and pushed the thin fabric of her blouse against her breasts. "He said you're working. I can pick him up, and I'll feed him before I bring him home. He needs some old clothes."
"I want him back with both eyes and all ten fingers, Mullins." A door slammed inside the house. She looked over her shoulder. "What does he have in the box?"
"His ghost photos and a light box to look at the negatives," Mulder said. The truck's engine remained running and the transmission in gear. "If he can't figure it out, I'll help him tomorrow."
"Mason said you aren't moving. You're changing jobs."
"Okay," Mulder said awkwardly. "Good." Mera turned away. He lifted his foot from the brake. The truck rolled five feet, and he remembered. "Backpack."
Mulder got out, reached into the bed of the truck, and fished out the pack. Mera walked across the grass to get it. He met her halfway. Mulder thought he kept in shape, but perhaps not; his heart beat surprisingly fast for the effort involved in carrying a kid's backpack thirty feet.
Without shoes, she seemed small. The naked little toes on the grass looked vulnerable compared to his dirty work boots. Mulder wished for a shower, and a neutral topic of conversation, and not to be so tall. Or so familiar with how the human mind worked.
In the Arctic, glaciers advanced miles.
"One of us has to speak," Mera said.
Mulder shook his head. "There's modern dance. Texting with little smiley faces. Passing notes. Mime. The Khoisan languages of Africa contain a unique 'click' consonant. Kata Kolok is a sign language used by the Balinese which has no relation to the structure of any spoken language. We could learn that."
"I'm sure there's a YouTube video," he said. Mera held the backpack against her chest. Mulder studied its shadow on the grass. Those glaciers crept another few miles. "If we speak, we have to figure out what to say."
Chewie eased from a chair on the porch and ambled down the driveway. She strolled toward Mulder's work truck like a furry, judgmental moth to a flame.
"I have no idea what to say," Mera confessed. "The last time I kissed a man besides Jake was 1993."
"1999. My ex-wife." Mulder shoved his hands in his pants pockets. "And She Who Shall Not Be Named: 2002." He shifted his weight between his heels and toes. "If you and I were androids, we'd have stood in the dark for twenty minutes, waiting while our software updated. I hope there's not a new version of sex available; I'll never figure it out. I'll hit the wrong button and everything will lock up and go blue."
A green sleet of grass covered Mulder's boots. Her toenails were painted pale lilac.
"While I heavily recommend repression and denial," Mulder said, "if you insist on conversing on this plane, in spoken, standard American English-" He fidgeted with the keys in his pocket. "-I think our choices are 'That was nice; let's do it again,' or 'That was a mistake; it won't happen again.'"
"It was nice. You're a nice man-"
Mulder interrupted. "I'm not. You're a forty-one year-old widow whose life just got upended even more. I'm a stranger who looks like your son. I barged into your home a week ago and said there's a chip in your neck and someone monitoring Mason. I like you, but the woman I love: she's a thousand miles away and planning her wedding. I look at Mason and see Her. I see a remarkable chapter of my life, but a chapter that's ended. He's all I'll ever have of her, and he's your son. That combination doesn't make me a nice guy."
"Don't you think I feel guilty?" She spoke softly and addressed the backpack. "Mason's looking for ghosts in the attic, but the real ghost is in my bed. I wake up at night and expect him to be there. I think he's in the kitchen if I'm upstairs. In the barn while I'm in the house. I have dinner in the oven for three people because I can't remember to buy for just Mason and me. I still have three chairs at the kitchen table, and you're the only person who ever occupies the third one. Cheese and rice, don't you think I know how eff-ed up this is?" She stopped to take a slow breath. "But I miss-"
"So do I." He stepped toward her.
Footsteps approached inside the house. Mulder looked up, and Mera turned.
"Bamboo." Mason stood on the other side of the screen. "If you cross Bambi with a ghost, you get Bam-boo." He pushed open the old door and stuck his head out. "What are you doing out here? Having a meeting of the Boring Society? Mom, I'm starving. What's for dinner? Mr. Mullins, I thought you were helping me with the pictures. Are you gonna help, or what?"
Mulder inhaled. He took his hands from his pockets and wiped his palms on his pants. "Yeah." He glanced at Mera, who nodded. "Sure. No problem."
Mera led the way into the house and disappeared into the kitchen. Mulder followed Mason to the living room: ghost-hunting HQ for the past week. Mason had stacked Dr. Estep's empty cardboard boxes in a corner. An extension cord and surge protector stretched across the rug. Mera had collected their drinking glasses from last night. The room possessed a comfortable, masculine feel, with a deer head above the fireplace and a sofa with built-in cup-holders. Mera must be the family photographer because the framed snapshots on the mantle featured Jake and Mason Van De Kamp. Mason learning to ride a bike, shoot a rifle. Sitting on a tractor, decorating a Christmas tree. A smiling, happy, normal life, except now missing a principal player.
Mulder could pay someone to farm. And to drop some chlorine in his conscience, because it was so far from clear it qualified as opaque.
"Mullins," Mason called, startling Mulder and sounding annoyed.
Mulder turned away from the mantle. "Are you ready?"
"I've been ready. You're the one messing around with my mom."
On the coffee table, Mason had his laptop connected to the light box, and the light box connected to the surge protector. The directions remained pristine. The box glowed, and a negative appeared on Mason's laptop screen before Mulder remembered which pocket held his reading glasses.
In two keystrokes, the first negative filled the screen. One of the first dozen taken by mistake. Mulder saw no shadows, no orbs, no bright spots. The form captured on camera was Mason holding an EMF meter and looking pensive.
"Did you see something in that one?"
"A geeky-looking kid." Mason enlarged the image, and made it swoop and sweep around the screen.
"He's not geeky-looking."
"You're not objective." The enlarged negative stopped moving. "Thanks for the nose, by the way. The feet." Mason adjusted the strip of negatives. The light box glowed, and an identical image appeared on the laptop.
"The nose and feet come with an upside. You're welcome." Mulder, sitting on the edge of the sofa, leaned forward. "Buddy, why don't you look at the negative first and, if you see something unusual, scan it and blow it up?"
Team Scully's skeptical expression appeared. "But I can scan all of them."
"But you don't need to. Scan the ones you want to enlarge."
"But I can scan all of them."
Mulder started to ask if Mason planned to scan, save, and microscopically examine six hundred negatives for any smudge, speck, or spook, but considered the boy's genetic makeup. Of course the kid planned to. Probably twice.
In the kitchen, a spoon tapped against something metal. An oven door closed. Plates clinked.
Another super-sized negative rocked around the laptop's screen, and Mulder's stomach rocked with it. He made it another three negatives before telling Mason, "Be right back," and heading to the kitchen.
"Good news," Mulder said to Mera, "Mason has his summer planned. Do you have any Dramamine?"
She stood at the sink, hand-washing a glass pitcher. "No."
"It's gonna be a long summer."
She rinsed the pitcher and set it upside-down on the dish drain. She turned, drying her hands on a towel. Water spotted the front of her blouse. "Dinner's in an hour. Baked steaks. I'm running-"
"Late," he said for her. "What are the odds?"
She leaned back against the sink. "I remembered you were bringing Mason home and I need to feed him. I moved laundry from the washer to the dryer and turned the dryer on. I slept four hours last night and only cried twice today. For me, this is good."
Mulder stood in her kitchen like an actor hitting his mark. Not too close, not too far away. "Do you want me to do anything? I'm an expert on 'peel back corner to vent.'"
She crossed her arms. "Mullins, do you know anything about autopsies? Why would it take a year for an insurance company to receive a completed one? What report takes that long?"
Mulder shrugged. "Ask me about hedges. I know hedges. I'm taking a correspondence course in topiary."
She stepped toward him. "Whoever you are, Felix Mullins, you're not a man who's an expert on hedges."
"I am the Edward Scissorhands of hedges." Mulder held his position. "The Michelangelo of the hedgerow. The Vivaldi of the verge."
"You're very good at not answering me."
Mulder checked his boots again. "Maybe someone questioned why a man with years of farming experience rolled a tractor. Did something affect his judgement? His motor coordination? A coroner could check a blood alcohol level and screen for common substances, but exotic toxicology reports take time. The samples are sent to specialized labs, the tests take time to run, and those labs usually have a backlog. The results can get misplaced. Lost." He rubbed the back of his head. The short hair felt stiff with dried sweat. "Without a formal criminal investigation or a family demanding a report, it's possible the incomplete autopsy sat on someone's desk all this time."
No, it wasn't. An autopsy report took ninety days, tops – if Scully insisted on checking for some toxin with a mile-long Latin name found in three Nepalese dung beetles - but Mera didn't know that.
"But it was an accident."
"Accidental mechanical failure in equipment your husband maintained?" From what Mason said about his father, Jake Van De Kamp and Dana Scully would have enjoyed each other's company. Both had the oil in their car changed every 3,000 miles, paid bills long before the due date, and arrived everywhere twenty minutes early. "Or did your husband forget how to operate a tractor he inherited from his father? Maybe it was an accident. Or maybe-" Mulder stepped closer. "Someone dropped a sedative in his lemonade and sabotaged the brakes."
She wrapped her arms around her waist as if hugging herself.
He took another step, so she looked up at him. "Just because the coroner in Wichita, Kansas didn't find something doesn't mean nothing was there."
Her brown eyes glistened. "You think someone killed Jake?"
"I think, given Mason, it's a possibility worth considering." Mulder put his hands on her shoulders. "If I wanted to kill someone and make it look like an accident though, that's not how I'd do it."
"Mullins, when you say things like that…" After a shaky breath, she asked, "Who are you?"
"I'm the guy who considers possibilities like that. Who notices details and convenient coincidences. Who gets paranoid and asks impertinent questions." He kissed her forehead. "I'm the guy who's gonna keep the two of you safe."
He leaned down and kissed her lips. Warm, soft lips. The kiss, like the one last night, felt nice. Mulder cupped her face with his palm. Closed his eyes. Ran a hand down her waist. Opened his mouth. He felt her exhale and put her hand on his chest. The pleasant dance was familiar, with a skilled but different partner. Sex was serious, adult business, and they were both adults.
"I'm not gonna let anything happen to you," Mulder promised. "They won't hurt you again. They won't hurt him."
He moved to kiss her again. A floorboard squeaked in the front of the house. Mulder stepped back and Mera whirled to face the empty kitchen sink. She picked up a dishtowel to dry nothing.
Mulder put his hands on the back of a kitchen chair. He shoved them in his pockets, where he found his reading glasses, keys, and some bits of leaf. After a moment, a toilet flushed in the downstairs bathroom. Water ran. A faucet squealed off.
Scully said she did what was best for William. All those years ago, during a yelling, shoving, screaming match that brought police to their hotel room door, she'd said it again and again. They couldn't keep him safe. They couldn't give him a normal life. Their baby deserved a normal life.
Mulder – or Felix Mullins - could give their child a normal life. He could keep the boy safe.
Mera dried the already-dry pitcher as Mulder studied the back of her head. She stared out the kitchen window at the gravel driveway. Chewie lay curled on the hood of Felix Mullins's truck like one of them belonged there.
"I'm gonna go help Mason with his negatives," Mulder said. "I'm here to help him, not mess around with you in the kitchen."
"If you need me to do something, though, tell me. I like to earn my keep. Getting crockpots from high shelves, opening pickle jars, going after anyone or anything threatening the people I care about: I'm useful and versatile. But don't think I'm a nice guy. I'm way, way too fucked up to be a nice guy. At least when it comes to him. And Her."
Still looking out the window, she nodded.
Mera didn't ask if Felix Mullins killed Jake Van De Kamp. Mulder hadn't, by the way, but that question would cross any FBI agent's mind. Any detective or profiler's mind. Any bad man's mind.
He ran his palms over the smooth wooden arch of the chair again. "In the interest of full disclosure: I hate cats. I don't even like dogs. I'm a fish guy. Fish respect my space, and I respect theirs."
She looked over her shoulder. "I've killed every fish I've ever had."
"So have I," Mulder said, and she laughed nervously. He walked over and put his hands on her shoulders. He looked out the window with her, at the flat expanse of empty fields. He kissed her cheek and, as she tilted her head, the curve of her neck. "You know where I live. Come over sometime," he said softly, "if you want. Alone. Meet Kirk and Spock."
The boys called it "friends with benefits." No romantic entanglement. An adult, mutually enjoyable arrangement.
He slid one hand down her bare arm and another across her shoulder blade, up the back of her neck, and to her hair. Her shoulders rose as she inhaled. "Are you working tomorrow?"
He kissed the last bit of skin before the collar of her blouse. "You said I could take Mason to play paintball tomorrow." He ran his fingers through her hair. The color differed, but the silky, luxurious strands felt the same. "I'm to feed and return him with both eyes and all ten fingers."
He heard an exasperated sigh. She swatted the countertop with the dishtowel. "I knew that. Mullins, I swear I'm not crazy."
"I don't think you're crazy," Mulder promised. He inhaled. She smelled faintly of shampoo and feminine skin and normal things. "The first decade's the hardest. Try to remember I get up early, and I don't plan to pick Mason up until about noon. I assume he likes to sleep in."
"He does. My shift starts at 11:00, but the car needs to go to the mechanic. I think the garage opens at 8:00 on Saturdays."
"Call me. I'll pick you up at the garage." After one final kiss below her left ear, he said, "And drop you off at work, later. Then, I'll pick up Mason. Go play paintball."
So "a few" would be: a vampire, his ex-wife, his prom date, a few randos, a British sadist, the love of his life, and his son's other mother. Who thought nothing of going alone, on a walled, gated campus, to the isolated apartment of a man she barely knew.
After a lengthy pause, he said, "I'm gonna- I'm gonna help Mason with his pictures."
She said, "Okay," again.
Mental Scully stood in the corner of the big, old-fashioned kitchen with her arms crossed and her brow furrowed. She glared as Mulder walked past.
Dr. Dana Scully's scientific explanation hadn't solved a single X-file in Mulder's memory. Regular cases, sure, and the woman could operate a scalpel and a mass spectrometer with the best of them, but actual X-Files: she'd been wrong every time.
But she'd been right about William. The baby - their baby - had been a miracle. Theirs. Human. Normal, or at least as normal as could be expected given the kid's progenitors each had their own X-file. And she'd said William was special. Frighteningly, amazingly special enough shadow agents and super-solders and Alex Krycek wanted him. Or wanted him dead.
Scully said Mulder's presence endangered the baby. She'd made Mulder promise not to try to find their son. She said she couldn't protect William. Mulder couldn't protect him. Sobbing, shaking, she'd pleaded for Mulder to do what was best for William: let their son go. Let Fox Mulder stay dead.
Mental Scully relocated to the living room, where she stood beside the stack of cardboard boxes and continued staring daggers into him.
Mera remained in the kitchen, and dinner started to smell good. "Friends with benefits," the boys said. That sounded mature. More polite, and less sweaty and dry-humpy than "fuck buddies."
As Mason and Felix Mullins examined negative after negative, Mulder couldn't think of a single X-file where Scully's hypothesis proved entirely correct. But he couldn't think of a single time she'd been wrong about William, either.
After extensive sampling and several bouts of brain-freeze, Mulder agreed with Mason: blue was a flavor. A purple slushy tasted like an overly-sweet grape, a green one was vaguely lime, and a red one tasted like a cherry bitten by a radioactive spider. The other flavors were obvious: bubble gum, root beer, Coke - just on steroids. A blue slushy tasted like blue.
The boy possessed a criminal ignorance of classic monster movies and questionable personal hygiene, but brilliant insight regarding semi-frozen beverages.
The boy also possessed a Batman hoodie still in the cab of Felix Mullins's truck. Mera and Mason went to Sunday school that morning, and Mera left directly for work. Mullins picked the kid up from church. Mason - also an ardent follower of the Church of DC Comics - wore the Batman hoodie but left it in the truck so he could complain about Mulder's cold apartment while watching the classic Godzilla. The hoodie remained in the truck through the new Godzilla in a frigid theater downtown, and when Mulder dropped Mason off at Mera's house twenty minutes ago.
Mulder sampled the slushy again. Definitely blue-flavored.
He parked behind Felix Mullins's apartment, admired the sunset a moment, and gave the hoodie a sniff. As a public service, a trip through the high efficiency washing machine seemed in order.
The boy had never seen the original King Kong. Or Kronos. Or Mothra. There was Godzilla vs. King Kong. Mothra vs. Godzilla. Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster. Godzilla had battled pretty much every giant monster ever. For a while Tokyo suffered more disasters than London at Christmastime on Doctor Who. The Van De Kamp family worshipped at the feet of George Lucas and DC comics, but Mason had never spent all of The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman hoping to see up the 50-foot woman's skirt. For some things, a boy needed his father.
Felix Mullins's job and Mason's last week of seventh grade prohibited any serious Sci-Fi marathons. Mera might want in, but her job interview wasn't until tomorrow, so she wouldn't know her new work schedule for a while. Between monster movies, Mulder wouldn't mind her stopping by his apartment again. Mason liked to sleep late, and the boring old people got up early. Yesterday morning that combination worked out nicely. To their mutual, adult enjoyment.
Mulder checked his cell phone as he jogged up the wooden stairs to his apartment. He stopped on the top step and juggled the hoodie, slushy, and his keys long enough to text Mason 'Bambi Meets Godzilla.'
The boy responded 'fake.'
Mulder grinned and texted back 'real.'
Mulder got the monster movie category; Mason had video games. So far, Mason had been taken in by 'Frankenstein Conquers the World' (real) and 'The Bride of Godzilla' (fake), but Mulder had over-estimated human stupidity and gone for 'Bronies, The Game' (fake), and been duped again by a video game entitled 'Ninjabread Men' (real).
His iPhone screen read 'Stalin vs. Martians.'
The apartment door was ajar again. Several inches ajar.
He lowered the phone.
Since Mulder didn't pay the electric bill, he left the TV and lights on, but he thought he remembered closing the door. They'd run late leaving for the movie theater this afternoon. He couldn't remember if he or Mason was the last one out.
Mulder eased the door open.
The flat screen TV still showed the DVD menu for the first - and by far the best - Godzilla. An empty pizza box and several soda bottles remained on the coffee table. Nothing looked out of place except the beautiful woman sitting on Felix Mullins's sofa. She didn't belong in his apartment. Or life.
For a millisecond the room had a too-bright glow and too little air.
Mulder dropped his keys on a little table inside the door. They clattered against the reclaimed wood. He folded the hoodie to conceal the Batman logo. Put it down. He turned off his phone's screen. After a long, noisy drink of slushy, he informed his intruder, "You're not supposed to be on campus without a visitor's pass."
Scully sat ramrod straight, as if about to be called in for a meeting with AD Skinner. She wore dark slacks, a tailored blue shirt, and high heels - impractical given she must have parked on the street and walked. She had her hair longer and stick-straight, but a medium rather than dark auburn. The color from 1993. He'd judged correctly from her work photo on the internet: she was slimmer. Five, even ten pounds: fashionably slim. Cancer slim. The diamond engagement ring on her finger could put an eye out. Otherwise, except for being a decade older, she looked far too much like Dana Scully.
After all those years on the X-Files - fighting for the truth, battling Armageddon – but transferring back to Quantico the second that quest got lonely- After both saving and ending Fox Mulder's life, and giving him a son and giving his son away- After giving herself to him body and soul, but not bothering to so much as send a text in all this time, she had the nerve to say, "What's wrong?"
He raised his eyebrows. "You're in my living room," Mulder guessed, "on an otherwise pleasant Sunday evening?"
Another text from 'Cinco' appeared on Mulder's phone. 'Real or fake?'
Mulder turned the screen off again.
Scully stood. She slid her palms over the fabric of her slacks, smoothing the front, then hips. "I received an email containing only your birthdate. It was sent from this school's server to my work account."
He should have known. Mulder lacked the ability to leave well enough alone, and Scully had that genetic predilection for second-guessing. Of course the kid meddled.
Mulder sucked a noisy drink through the straw. "Well, congratulations. Merry Christmas. Happy Easter. Best wishes on your upcoming wedding. Get the fuck out."
Her forehead creased with three displeased vertical lines. She stepped closer. Mulder remained in the doorway, door open. He felt her eyes scan him. Dana Scully, MD: cataloguing every detail. It made him glad of the new jeans, recent haircut, and time in the weight room, but question his dedication to his Three Dog Night T-shirt and its mustard stain.
She, of course, looked breathtaking. In a cruel, faithless bitch way. Especially her mouth. Those pretty lips and the perfect, understated lipstick on them moved in a breathtaking, hypnotic, faithless bitch manner. "Why did you send me an email? What's wrong?"
"If you got an email, why did you fly all the way out here rather than just emailing back?" Mulder asked. "Are you planning to take in the sights? A little weekend getaway? I doubt it. Googling 'Kansas tourism' gets ads for Wyoming. What do you want, Scully?"
Another text from Mason appeared. 'No internet, Mullins.' Mulder put the phone screen-down on top of Mason's sweatshirt and left it. He glanced around the apartment. The kid's Dr. Pepper bottle was on the coffee table. He'd left a half-empty bag of Funyuns and a couple pizza crusts. Mulder had one of their ghost photographs on his refrigerator, but it featured a floating orb, not Mera or the boy.
Mera forgot a pair of earrings yesterday morning, but Mulder hid them in a dresser drawer before picking Mason up today. Mulder desperately wished they'd hop out of that drawer and into his former lover's line of sight.
Scully took three steps toward the doorway. "You emailed me. I'm here. What's happening, Mulder?"
He held up one cautionary finger. "That is not my name." His heart beat faster as she said it, though. She still had the tiny mole above her upper lip. The delicate hollow at the base of her throat. She still wore the little gold cross. If he ran his fingers through her hair, it would feel the same. If he kissed her, her mouth would taste the same.
"Speaking of which - why are you pretending to be a groundskeeper? What are you doing here? Literally: here. What made you move to Kansas, call yourself 'Felix Mullins,' and decide to trim hedges and plant tulips all day?"
"A great dental plan. All state and federal holidays, plus two weeks' paid vacation. A work vehicle. Free cable and Wi-Fi. My stand-on mower is just to die for."
"I'm a forensic pathologist. This is the Midwest. In my experience, after enough alcohol, all mowers become stand-on mowers." She crossed her arms. Her brows moved closer together. "Why a boys' school, Mulder?"
"It's a good job. I went to a school like this. Maybe I like watching them and playing the 'what might have been' game." He looked down at her disdainfully. "Speaking of which-" He tapped his ring finger with his thumb "-what did you tell Mr. Wonderful about our disposable little bundle of joy?"
Her jaw broadened. "Why would I tell him anything?"
Mulder's cell phone played the Ghostbusters' theme song. Along with the second-guessing and meddling gene, their son had inherited their mutual ability to hyper-focus and, of course, chose exactly the wrong moment to demonstrate it.
Mulder pushed the door so it slammed shut. He continued holding the blue slushy. In the scheme of obnoxious props, an almost empty slushy cup made top ten. "Is Mr. Wonderful blind? Or are you waiting for the wedding night?" He paused to drink. "You had a baby. You have, um-" With his free hand, Mulder gestured to his abdomen. His hip. His left pectoral muscle.
Her head tilted slowly to a dangerous angle. "Not that it's any of your business, but I told him about Emily. I had a child and that child died. Both those things are true."
He slurped and tipped his damp cup toward her approvingly. "Good thinking. Building a marriage on an honest foundation. And flying all the way to Kansas for one last roll in the hay. I see nothing but happiness in your future."
"You emailed me, Mulder. I haven't heard from you in twelve years. Twelve years." She got progressively louder. "The last time I saw you, you walked out of our hotel room, crying, after putting your fist through a wall. All this time, I didn't know where you were. Skinner doesn't know - or says he doesn't. Doggett doesn't know. The Gunmen wouldn't tell me. They still won't return my telephone calls or let me in. I didn't know if you were dead or-" Her voice tightened. "I went through every teacher's biography on this school's website. I pulled every criminal background check the school requested in the past decade. Felix Mullins was the right age. I ran his fingerprints-"
She stepped closer. Close enough Mulder could extend an arm and touch her.
"- and your picture came up on the screen: Fox William Mulder: deceased. For a second before I remembered I thought-" Her blue eyes glistened. "I thought-"
As if to complete her sentence he said, "You thought I was a dead man who got no say over our son. Who wasn't an FBI agent anymore. Who wasn't anyone anymore."
"Mulder, don't." Her voice sounded too small for Scully. "I-" She raised her hand to touch his bearded face.
He almost let her.
The damn cell phone rang again. Ghostbusters.
Mulder shied away like her hand and the ring on it were dirty.
Mason's backpack. Across the living room, beside the fish tank, Mulder noticed the black pack with 'Mason' embroidered in white thread. Kirk and Spock looked concerned.
"What? You what, Scully?" Mulder asked coolly. "I don't remember emailing you. If you got an email from me, a great deal of alcohol prompted it. Last I checked, you had the same apartment in Georgetown and the same office at Quantico. I know where to find you, and I don't feel the need to have lunch and catch up. I'm sorry you wasted the frequent flyer points, but you could have just emailed back. Or picked up a phone. My home phone number is listed, and my cell phone is on the school's website. I would have told you Felix Mullins has a nice life that doesn't include Dana Scully. So-" He tapped her right shoulder, right clavicle, left clavicle, and left shoulder as he recited the letters. "-G-T-F-O. Get. The. Fuck. Out."
She looked up at him with glistening blue eyes. She sniffed, and his chest hurt. "It's been twelve years, Mulder. I did what was right for-"
He held up a hand for her to stop. "Out."
Her chest rose, pushing her breasts against the fabric of her shirt. Her cheeks flushed. He smelled her perfume. The perfume she never wore but kept a bottle of on her dresser. She used to tuck little paper samples of it from magazines into her dresser drawers and suitcase. He smelled her shampoo. The starch in her shirt. Everything familiar from his old life as her partner. It had been the two of them against every evil imaginable. They planned to save the world together.
"Fine," she said tightly. "I'm glad you're alive. From now on, don't drink and email." Her composure returned: Dr. Dana Scully, buttoned up and ice cold. "Have a nice life, Felix Mullins."
She stepped around him, leaving.
Mulder said, "Goddamn it." He grabbed her wrist and jerked her back.
And kissed her.
The almost-empty slushy cup hit the floor. He pushed her against the closed door, held the back of her head with his hand, closed his eyes, and kissed her. Roughly. Hungrily. As if he craved her and he'd starved for the past decade. He opened his lips and urged hers apart. Pushed his cold tongue into her warm mouth. He caressed her breast, her hip. Ran his fingers though her hair.
As he unbuttoned her blouse he heard, "Mulder" in his ear, and every shred of reason fell by the wayside.
He had a hand inside her shirt, and the front of her lacy black bra unclasped. "I fucking hate you." He consumed her, inhaled her: a shoulder, her neck, her ear. Mouth again, kissing her so hard his lips throbbed. A final button on her blouse either came open or popped off. "Goddamn you. What the hell are you doing here?"
Her breathless response: "I'm getting married."
"In a month."
He guided her hand to the front of his jeans. Her fingers cupped. He gasped, pressed against her hand, and once again expressed his hatred of her using four-letter words.
Mulder started to kiss her again but changed his mind. He took her wrist and pulled her past Godzilla on the TV and past the aquarium, where Kirk and Spock exchanged glances. Mulder kinda made his bed that morning and dumped a basket of clean sheets and laundry on top of the comforter. He skinned off his T-shirt, toed off his tennis shoes, and pushed her blouse off her shoulders.
"I can't do this." She pulled the fabric together that he'd pushed apart.
In response he unfastened her slacks. Opened the zipper. It caught on some bit of fabric, and he jerked hard. He slid his hand down her backside, feeling lacy panties. He'd bet the quarter-million dollars in his living room the panties exactly matched the wispy black bra and both were new. "For a woman who's getting married and can't do this, you came over smelling nice and wearing nice underwear."
"I'm getting married," she repeated, which in no way impeded him getting her blouse and bra off. "Mulder, I can't do this."
He bent down to yank off her high heels. She shifted her weight to let him. Each shoe landed with a thump somewhere in his bedroom. Her slacks and panties he pulled down in one jumble of fabric. He pushed her back on the bed to pull them off. That left knee-hi stockings, which got tossed after the shoes. She lay nude amid the towels and socks and cerulean blue polo shirts. Her cheeks flushed, and the blush spread to her chest.
He unbuttoned his jeans.
He pushed her legs apart and put his mouth between them. To taste her, to fact-check his memories. She gasped and arched her back. She tried to close her thighs. He held them apart and thrust his tongue inside her. In and out. Up and over her clitoris as she panted and moaned. He'd been semi-hard at the sight of her but at the taste- His erection hurt and the need to bury it in her became primal. Politically incorrect. The reason soldiers sought out women after a battle, and the Sioux carried off females from neighboring tribes. Why the lion bit the neck of the lioness. The instinct to claim, to dominate rather than just to mate.
He moved up, covering her, and put his hands over hers. Holding her down. Kissing her again, roughly. Feeling her breasts against his chest, her palms hot and damp, pressing against his. "Mulder, I-"
She shifted beneath him and turned her head. So he kissed her neck, her shoulder. He smelled her. Tasted her skin. He put a leg between her knees, wanting them apart.
"Mulder, I can't," she insisted, and tried to twist away. He had the advantage, though. "I'm getting-"
He looked down at her. Her swollen lips, flushed face, her hair a churning red sea around her head. "Say 'no,'" he suggested. "No means no. Stop saying you're getting married. Stop saying you can’t do this. You're naked. In my bed. Either say 'no' and leave, or shut up or let me fuck you. Like you fucked me."
She stared up at him with her red, swollen lips apart. Eyes big and blue. Face flushed and beautiful.
He hated her. He didn’t even have words for how much he hated her.
She stopped struggling.
Mulder put his right hand around her throat. His fingers pressed against the soft skin covering the fragile bones and muscles and windpipe. His hand fit so perfectly. He licked his lips and massaged little circles in her pale skin with his fingertips.
Looking up at him, she opened her legs.
He slid his hand from her neck to her shoulder. Down her arm, and wrist, and palm. He interlaced his fingers with hers.
He kissed her again, his lips throbbing, stinging. Beneath him, her skin felt moist and her breaths fast and hot against his neck.
It meant letting her move, but he wanted his fingers in her hair. Wanted his hand on her breast. And between her legs, rubbing the slick little knob of flesh until she grabbed at the sheets and begged.
He shoved his jeans and boxers down rather than bothering to take them off. And he was inside her. She gasped. Her back arched again as her head fell back. Eyes closed. He thrust and heard her cry out, felt her hands tighten on his shoulders, her teeth graze his neck. Again, deeper. Deeper, but still not enough.
He wanted to be buried inside her. All the way. Hip-deep, whether or not she was ready, whether or not it hurt her. She'd been ready in her hotel room, he told her, as she'd shaved her legs and put on her pretty panties. She'd known what she wanted as she bought a plane ticket to the sunflower state. You want it. Come on, Scully. All of it, he told her as her body shook. He watched her face: that perfect balance of pleasure and pain. She panted, she gasped, and she cursed. Her head thrashed side to side and her fingernails dug into his shoulders. At the last, most satisfying inch – as she had to surrender completely - she cried out and said his name, but she didn't say "stop." She didn't say "no."
Mulder didn't say he still loved her. He held her down. He thrust hard, deep, and asked if she liked it. He asked if she closed her eyes with Mr. Wonderful and pretended it was Mulder's dick inside her. She answered, but he told her to shut up. She was a liar. He told her to open her eyes and look at him. As she came, he reiterated he hated her. She was a bitch and a coward and beautiful. But he didn't say he still loved her. Mulder was fairly, maybe certain he didn't say he loved her at any point.
He heard Scully say many things beneath him, as she let him fuck her, but he never heard "no."
He'd change sheets between lovers. Given the sudden hotbed of activity Felix Mullin's bed was this weekend, that should get him a gold star.
Mera, yesterday morning, had been nice. Satisfying. She had a sweet, earnest quirkiness he found endearing. And great tits. It was an all-around - though largely missionary - pleasant experience for all participants. Casual, yet intimate. Something he'd like to do again. The sexual equivalent of brunch.
Scully, sixty seconds ago- American English lacked the necessary words. Probably, so did ever other tongue, including Klingon and that African click language.
Mulder's clean laundry, Scully's bra, her blouse, his shirt: fabric lay everywhere in his bedroom. The comforter was on the floor. He must have taken off his jeans at some point; he spotted them in the corner. Scully sat against the headboard, naked, with a sheet pulled between her legs and around her chest. It was a clean sheet from the dryer not yet folded, not the clean top sheet on his bed.
Mulder lay beside her, also naked, still breathing hard. Sweat beaded on his temples and the center of his chest. He contemplated his laundry, his life choices, and the ceiling. He cut his eyes sideways at Scully and told the ceiling angrily, "Shit."
Scully didn't weigh in.
As soon as he could move, Mulder got up and found a pair of boxers - not the ones he'd taken off in the melee. He pulled them on. Took a breath. Took another breath. Glanced at her. His body hummed and his heart still pounded like he'd run a marathon, but he managed an annoyed expression. "I’d like to lose another seven minutes of my life, starting exactly seven minutes ago."
Her face and neck were red, and her hair fell around her face, no longer perfectly straight or neatly parted. Her eye makeup smudged shadows beneath her eyes and the tasteful lipstick had worn away, though her lips remained red and swollen. She looked tousled and flushed and perfect. Like she had the first time they made love. Like she had the last time.
"Turns out, you're right: I am crazy." From the bedroom doorway - he'd chosen the pair of boxers farthest from the bed - Mulder pointed to her vaguely. "This, uh- This is did not happen."
She adjusted the sheet beneath her arms. Sat up higher. Watched him.
"You got what you came for. Get up. Get dressed. Get out." He found his jeans and put them on. "Thank you for the nice parting gift. Let's keep it between the two of us."
The polish on her toenails matched the color on her fingernails. Her legs had felt smooth, and her pubic hair short and neat. Barring being lost in the forest or on her deathbed, Scully was never poorly groomed, but the bikini wax meant she and Mr. Wonderful weren't waiting for the wedding night.
Mulder opened a dresser drawer, chose a T-shirt without a mustard stain or a band name, and palmed one of Mera's earrings. "We're done, sweetheart." He spoke to her reflection. "Put the money on the nightstand and go."
On the bed behind him, Scully still hadn't moved. Or spoken.
He looked at his reflection in the mirror: a tall, slim man with salt and pepper beard, gray temples, a horrible scar for each of the past three decades. He'd told Mera the scar on his chest went with the one on his shoulder, damage to his heart done by the same magic bullet. Yesterday morning, same bed, different sheets, lying to her hadn't pricked his conscience one bit. As looked at the reflection of Scully on the bed behind him, every lie, every cruel word pared away a sliver of his soul.
Mulder braced his hands on the edge of the dresser. He sighed wearily and let his head hang a few seconds as his inner asshole recharged. He checked his reflection again. He turned. Watching the floor, he took the shirt and earring, and went to the bed. With his other hand, he rubbed his face with fingers smelling like her.
He sat on the edge of the mattress and checked the clock on his nightstand. He still sounded angry, but like he'd lost a fight rather than wanted to pick one. "Scully, you're out of town. I'm not, and it's a small town. Congratulations on your upcoming nuptials but I have a life, too. I need you to go." He offered Scully her black bra. A knee-hi stocking from the floor. A small, silver hoop earring. Mera took them off to shower yesterday morning and, of course, forgot them in his bathroom.
Scully wore small, gold earrings - one in each ear. She bit her lip and picked up the lacy bra. With her other hand, she pushed her hair back from her face. Several strands fell forward again, like they always did.
He didn't ask if she wanted to rinse off. Would she like something to drink? Or if she wanted to sleep. If she wanted him to stay as she slept and wake her up in time for work. He didn't say "that was nice," though nice didn't begin to describe it. Asking "was that nice for you?" was entirely unnecessary.
She continued holding the bra – or, the delicate black outline of a bra with some fancy lace here and there. The stocking lay on the bed. Mulder closed his hand around the silver earring.
He shifted a couple inches closer. "I'd be lying if I said I never thought about you," he confessed, "never thought about this, although in those thoughts we're in that basement office, and your skirt and high heels stay on. There was a time when you were everything to me. But that was a long time ago. Scully, you can't be here. This-"
"Who is 'Mason'?"
"There's a backpack in your living room with 'Mason' embroidered on it. Who's Mason?"
Mulder shrugged one bare shoulder. "One of the students. He left it on the bleachers. I haven't walked it up to the school. He doesn't live on-campus. He won't need it until Monday."
He worried his lip and nodded like he agreed with some statement she'd made. He asked abruptly, "Why are you so skinny? Are you sick? Is your cancer back?"
"No. I'm fine. He- He's a runner. We run together. There's a race coming up." Her throat convulsed. "The last time you saw me, I had a toddler and a full-time job. I was still breast-feeding."
"We had a toddler." Mulder corrected her more as a weary stipulation, less as a verbal grenade. Grudgingly he asked, "He's a good guy? This Mr. Wonderful?"
Her lips moved in a tight smile. "He's a great guy. He has adult children. A granddaughter." She adjusted the sheet. "I didn't mean for this to happen. I- I just wanted to know you were okay."
"I'm okay. I drink too much sometimes and, until recently, spent too much time alone, but I'm okay." He moved another few inches toward her. In a softer voice, he repeated, "Scully, I don't cheat. You know that. I can be a selfish bastard in a million other ways but I don't screw around. You and me, this was- I need you to get dressed and leave."
She leaned forward and traced the long scar running down his sternum. The diamond engagement ring glittered every color on her finger.
Mulder remained still but said, "Mason's her son."
Scully lowered her hand.
He looked at a single sock near her elbow. He'd washed and dried it still balled up.
"She has a son. She has a little boy who likes baseball and DC comic books and monster movies. He thinks my jokes are funny. He thinks my scars and proficiency at shooting soda cans come from my former career as a crime-fighting superhero." He looked directly at the woman he once trusted with his life. "She- She knows I'm not who I say I am, but also that I can't tell her the truth. She says she can live with that. She's younger than me, and we - We'd like Mason to have a sister. I want this: her, her little boy, and let's see if we get lucky. Let's see if we get a little girl. I want the whole wonderful, terrifying enchilada." He put his hand on the mattress, near but not on her leg. "I won't get another chance. Not with her. Not at a family."
He heard her inhale. "Is Mason a student here?"
"This school is 6th through 8th, and the tuition is about a third of my salary." Mulder brushed some imaginary lint from the sheet. "Until 8:00 PM - so for the next ten minutes - she has a job involving a sexy smock that in no way makes her look like a svelte rhino. After tonight, she has no job." He looked at her again. "I need you to get dressed and walk out of here like nothing happened, because as far as I'm concerned, nothing did."
She nodded. Her eyes seemed to focus on the scar on his wrist. "I'm glad," she said, though she had to work to sound like it was the truth. "That explains your lunch. I saw the leftovers and considered writing you a prescription for Lipitor."
Mulder's laugh felt dry in his throat. "I can't imagine what Dr. Pepper and Funyuns must taste like together. Mason likes Pop Rocks, too. He pours the whole thing into his mouth and follows me around going-" He opened his mouth wide, imitating Godzilla on a rampage. "They're energetic little creatures. Fifty-two years old: now is when you say, 'you're crazy, Mulder.'"
"I don't think you're crazy."
"Say it anyway, for old times' sake." He touched the outside of her knee. "You're okay?"
She nodded without looking at him.
"We're in the clear, right?" She glanced at him quizzically. He clarified. "You can't get pregnant anymore, can you?"
After a heartbeat, her head shook side-to-side. "You might want to reconsider leaving your door unlocked. Also, the acid and acidic byproducts in soda are horrible for the enamel on a small child's teeth, not to mention the impact on their bone density, the adrenal cortex, and neural development."
"I'll take both under advisement." He retrieved the bundle of slacks and panties from the floor. Found her other stocking, and blouse, and both shoes. He stood. "This didn't happen, Scully."
She nodded again.
He tipped his chin toward the bathroom. "Clean up. Get dressed. I'll be in the living room."
Mulder closed the bedroom door as he left, barefooted and still carrying an earring and a clean T-shirt.
The keys to a Lariat rental car lay on an end table beside a smartphone even fancier than Mason's new one. He checked her text messages. 'Mom' asked about a conference, and 'Douglas' asked if Scully's flight landed okay. Douglas's text message ended with a red heart. Emoji. Mulder knew how to use emojis; Mason showed him. The FBI showed Mulder how to use a handgun during his former career as a crime-fighting superhero.
Nothing in Felix Mullins's living room looked out of place. The grate remained on the wall and the false front of encyclopedias hadn't moved. Mera had a pass to get through the front or back gate, of course, but on a quiet Sunday evening campus security wouldn't hassle an affluent-looking woman walking across the campus. They'd assume Scully was some student's mother.
A correct assumption.
Water ran in the bathroom.
The empty paper cup remained on the floor near the door, beside a pool of blue liquid.
Mulder went to the kitchen. He put Mera's earring on the windowsill, and he washed his hands. Got a drink of water. Splashed some water on his face, dried off, and put his shirt on. He leaned back against the counter and covered his face with both hands. He pressed his palms against his eyelids and his fingers against his forehead until his skull ached. His chest hurt as he took a breath. He hated this woman. He'd loved her more than life and she'd destroyed him. Abandoned their work, abandoned their son. He wouldn't cry.
He might get on a plane to DC and put a bullet in Mr. Wonderful, though. Scully had been Mulder's partner. She was William's mother. No other man - even a nice guy with a granddaughter- should be enjoying her bikini wax and pedicure. Buying her expensive jewelry. Sending her emoji hearts. While Mulder recognized the blatant double-standard he invoked, it did nothing to lessen the impulse.
The bedroom door opened. He wiped his face and walked quickly to the living room. She looked like Scully after a long day: hair mussed, make-up mostly gone, but wearing tailored slacks, starched button-up shirt, and fuck-me pumps. The third button of her blouse was missing.
She paused at the fish tank. Both mollies swam to one end. "What are their names?"
"Why do you think they have names?" Mulder's voice sounded even. Modulated. Annoyed, but mostly impatient and embarrassed. He really should thank the Academy.
"I've known you for more than two decades. Your fish always have names."
"Kirk and Spock. Her cats are Han and Chewie. We have incompatible pets and film franchises."
She touched the glass and identified correctly, "Kirk" and "Spock." The fish fluttered their fins. She seemed to look through the glass yet see nothing. "I couldn't do it without you." She studied the fish but addressed Mulder. "William, the X-Files: I couldn't do it alone. I told you I could, and I thought I could, but I needed you. I'm sorry. I never meant to..."
"Let you down." Those were the words she didn't say: I didn't mean to let you down, Mulder.
He hadn't meant to let her down, either.
"It's ancient history, Scully." He stood with his hand on the doorknob. "I need you to go."
She nodded. She picked up her phone and keys as she passed the couch. She squared her shoulders and looked up at him. "Good luck, Felix Mullins. With her. With Mason. With-" She faltered, and her hesitation shoved a dull sword through his chest. "With everything."
"Good luck, Dr. Dana Scully." He opened the door for her. "What will your name be after you're married?"
She stopped on the little deck, turned, and looked him in the eye. "Dr. Dana Scully."
Mulder managed a chuckle, told her goodbye again, and got the door closed. As the high heels clicked down the wooden stairs outside, he sank to the floor, back against the door, palms to his forehead again. He shook. He didn't tremble; the whole world quaked. His chest hurt. His head pounded.
The click-click of her shoes paused on a step.
Jaw clenched, chin quivering, he raised his head and looked at the backpack across the living room. His nose dripped. He blinked, trying to see, but he didn't get up. He didn't go after her.
Her presence endangered their son.
He heard a few steps on the sidewalk. She had grass between the sidewalk and the rest of the school campus, and the gravel road to the service gate. Mulder would get up and check which way she went, but his legs wouldn’t move and invisible creatures bludgeoned him from every side. Cowering was the best bet.
Scully wanted William safe. She wanted William to have a normal life.
To all but six people on the planet, Fox Mulder was dead. Felix Mullins could keep the boy safe. He could give Mason a normal life with monster movies and paintball and pizza. Hunt ghosts, play baseball. Dr. Dana Scully could save the world and bring back the dead, but she couldn't keep their son safe. Not more than a decade ago. Not now.
Mulder reached up and pulled Mason's sweatshirt off the table beside the door. Mulder's phone and keys fell with it. The phone he caught, but the keys clattered to the floor and landed in the blue-flavored puddle.
He sniffed, wiped his face, and checked the phone's screen. It showed a half-dozen texts and two voicemails from 'Cinco,' all insisting Mullins decide if some video game called Stalin vs. Martians existed. No google. No asking anyone. 'Are you there, Mullins?' 'Are we still playing?' 'Mullins?'
Mason's first text came fifteen minutes ago and the last, seconds. Mulder would have sworn hours had passed. He couldn't have gotten so bruised and battered in fifteen minutes. Browbeating, fucking, and deceiving the love of his life – and letting her apologize for his failure and walk out of his life - must take more than a quarter-hour.
Mulder hadn't meant to let her down, either.
Scully gave away his son and he hated her for that. But beneath Mulder's self-righteous anger and the layers of protection it offered glowed an awful pilot light of truth. In 2002, Mulder never tried to establish paternity. He hadn't returned to life, gone to a judge, and gotten William back. Mulder hadn't moved to a small town in the Pacific Northwest with his toddler son, adopted new names, and said his wife died or ran off with their accountant. Scully took away Mulder's chance at fatherhood, but also his chance at failing as a father. Of failing her as a father. His risk of - without her - losing course, and confabulating fear and a hunger for power with his instinct to protect. Trafficking in evil and calling it love and a future for his child. Like Bill Mulder had. When she'd given William away, under Mulder's rage lay a horrible sense of relief.
From a farmhouse twenty minutes away, a (far from little) boy called him 'Quitter.'
As much as Mulder had bigger concerns than whether or not someone spent money to design a game where Joseph Stalin battled Martians, he sniffed again and typed, 'Real.'
He buried his face in the Batman sweatshirt. It smelled of fake onions and a locker room and teenage boy funk, but somewhere under that the scent was the same. Like Scully's skin smelled exactly the same. Mulder could shower all he wanted; he'd imagine he smelled like her for weeks. He wouldn't change the sheets on his bed or move any of that laundry until he had to. Hell, if he found the button from her blouse, he'd probably keep it in the box with the X-Files and old photos and scrub top.
The immediate text balloon from Mason read 'Real.'
The M name with two syllables was important: Martin, Mullins, Miller. Mulder had done enough undercover work to know the rules. He never got drunk at a bar and ran his mouth. He never let his backstory get so complicated he messed up details. He tried to be friendly but keep to himself. He tried not to piss people off. He signed an M and a scribble. In the middle of the night though, after thirteen years, if the phone rang he still picked it up and mumbled, "Mulder."
And he still expected the caller to be Scully. Every damn time.
"Mullins?" a woman's voice asked.
Mulder sat up in bed. "Yeah. Mullins," he amended after a second. "Mera?"
She spoke softly and quickly. The phone echoed like she stood in a stairwell. "I'm sorry to wake you. I'm so, so sorry."
"It's okay." He swung his feet over the side. The clock read after two am, and no woman occupied the other half of the bed. More than fifty hours - a sexual drought by current standards. "What's wrong?"
Mulder drove Mason home Monday after school. Mera fed them dinner. Mulder and Mason threw a baseball around a while. Mason did homework and, once it got dark, fired up his Xbox and disappeared into Portal, leaving the boring old people to their own devices. After splitting a six-pack of beer, Mera walked Mullins to his truck via the barn and - with the foresight to wear a skirt - let him tell her goodnight as she sat on the edge of her husband's workbench, then stood on tiptoe, bent over it. Quick, clandestine sex had felt pleasantly empty but not guilty. Tuesday afternoon, Mera attended the school's awards assembly. Mulder saw her new car in the front parking lot, but the groundskeeper belonged outside, not in the auditorium. Tuesday night though, as Mulder killed a six-pack on his own, Mason messaged him pictures of many, many awards. They swapped a few texts about monster movies, said goodnight, and Mulder hadn't heard from the boy since 9:45.
"Mason had a bad dream," Mera whispered. "I can't get him to calm down. He's home and I- I can't leave. I'm supposed to be at the front desk. I'm supposed to be training."
Mulder rubbed the sleep from his eyes and scratched the back of his head. The side of his face. "I thought Mason was staying with his grandfather while you're working nights."
Her whispered words tumbled over each other. "My father doesn’t have internet. Mason wanted to stay home alone tonight."
"He's thirteen years old."
"Jesus Christ, I know he's thirteen years old, Mullins." He detected displeasure at his unnecessary observation. "But he talked me into it and he was sound asleep when I left at 11:30. All he had to do was get up at 6:45 when his alarm went off. He's calling me, terrified. If I call Jake's sister, I have to explain why I left her thirteen-year-old nephew home alone. My father's almost eighty. Dad will drive Mason to school in the morning but I can't ask him to come over at 2:00 AM."
"I'm on it." He rubbed his eyes again and switched on the lamp.
"I will owe you." Her voice was barely audible. "Beyond brownies and meatloaf. I will really, really make this up to you."
Mulder found his pants. "You mean it?" Socks. One shoe. Two shoes. "There's something I really, really like. Something I wasn't sure about asking you to do."
Phoebe Green had never met a fetish or fantasy she didn't embrace. Diana took an enjoyably broad-minded "we're married now" approach to sexual boundaries, and Dana I'm-A-Medical-Doctor Scully could quote some statistic rationalizing anything from coloring outside the lines to acts Mulder didn't care to discuss with his thirteen-year-old son. Mera seemed comfortable in her skin but, in the Midwest a kink happened in the garden hose, not in bed. Asking her to turn around in the barn Monday night had gotten a wide-eyed expression.
After a long pause, Mulder heard an uncertain, "Maybe."
He let her wait while he pulled on yesterday's shirt. "Will you bake a pie for me? A sweet potato pie? No one sells sweet potato pies out here."
A tired, relieved, "Yes. You betcha. I will find a recipe for a sweet potato pie. Just get my son to calm down and go back to sleep."
"Twenty minutes," he promised, and hung up. He paused long enough to brush his teeth, and left the apartment with his keys, wallet, phone, and a 9mm pistol in a shoulder holster
No light glowed in any window on campus except his apartment. As soon as the engine turned over, Mulder plugged his iPhone into a USB port on the dash. Through some electronic Bluetooth Apple sorcery, Mulder could touch 'Cinco' on the phone and call Mason over the radio.
In the darkness, in the middle of the otherwise quiet night, the frightened young voice that said, "Mullins?" over the truck's stereo sounded so much like Scully's.
"It's me," Mulder said. He put the truck in gear. "Your mom called. I'm headed over. Are you okay?"
The kid sniffed. His other mother's voice came out of his mouth again, and sounded as unconvincing. "I'm fine, Mullins."
The tires crunched down the gravel road. "I've been instructed to come over and make sure you're fine."
The school's service gate opened, the traffic light turned green, and Mulder turned left, away from town. He rolled the truck's window down. The cool night breeze rustled his hair.
"Talk to me. Tell me what happened, Mason."
"You dreamed about your sister, right?" Mason's voice asked over the stereo. "Did you ever dream she was, like, alive? Like you opened your eyes and she was standing there? Trying to tell you something?"
"I used to."
Another left turn and a few blocks brought him to the highway. For a while dark strip malls and chain restaurants lined the road. Mulder passed a couple motels with the lobby lit. Bright signs for convenience stores. A few office buildings. A lone McDonald's. The city faded into the rearview mirror and planted fields spread for a thousand miles.
"What did your sister want to tell you?"
The speed limit was fifty-five. Mulder rolled the window up and did seventy-five. "Samantha wanted me to find her. To find her body or figure out what happened to her. Once I did, the dreams stopped. If I dream about her now, they're nice dreams: Sam and me as kids, playing baseball, playing on the beach."
No headlights approached or followed. As Mulder drove, he heard silence on Mason's end of the phone. No television or music in the background. No footsteps. "I know what happened to my dad. I saw his body. He was dead."
"Some dreams are just dreams, buddy."
The truck's tires hummed against the asphalt. Mulder glanced at his phone. The screen showed the length of the call. Ten minutes. Twelve.
The past couple nights, Mulder's dreams featured Scully. Duane Barry carrying Scully - her head lolling, one arm hanging limp - atop Skyland Mountain. In the dream, Mulder ran toward them with his heart pounding and his pistol drawn. Desperate to reach her, to rescue the beautiful, brilliant, kick-ass partner he didn't know he needed until the rainy Thursday afternoon she'd walked into his office. In his dream, Duane Barry offered Scully's body to the stars. A light appeared above them, shining down from nothing. The light flashed, and Scully was gone. Mulder failed her. He lost her. Again and again.
Some dreams were just dreams.
He'd found the button from Scully's blouse. He put it on the kitchen windowsill with Mera's earrings, not in the metal contraband box. Because that was only sorta crazy, not obsessive full-on crazy.
Mulder rubbed his eyes, blinked a few times, and focused on the road.
"Hey - Mullins?"
Something rustled. "You said my dad was killed instantly. His neck broke. That's what his autopsy said. How'd you hack and read the autopsy report last year if the insurance company just got it?"
Gray metal and black plastic mailboxes blurred past. "Mason, there's such a thing as being too smart for your own good. Have you discussed this observation with your mother?"
"Let's keep it that way," Mulder requested. "There's half a sweet potato pie in it for you."
A disgusted, "Eww."
"Could you have my mom win a trip to the beach?" The boy's voice still sounded small and lost in the vast darkness. "I've never been to the beach."
"You have," Mulder said before he thought. "We took you."
A few seconds passed. "You and Dr. Dana Scully?"
It didn't transmit over the microphone, but Mulder nodded.
William had been a year old. They'd met in Ocean City, Maryland, and taken the baby to splash and bounce in the water on the seashore. William had started walking, but Mulder carried him on the boardwalk. One member of their party forgot to reapply her sunscreen. Two in their party ate crab cakes for dinner; one had diced fruit, yogurt, a cracker, and boob. Mulder and Scully talked: about her work and his investigation of the super-soldiers and remnants of the Syndicate, but mostly about William. They made love, they fell asleep. About two AM, Mulder found an all-night pharmacy selling Orajel, Tums, and Solarcaine so everyone could get back to sleep. They got up to watch the sunrise. Had coffee on the balcony, breakfast in the hotel restaurant. That afternoon, using Mulder's camera, Scully took the picture of Mulder and William asleep on the bed together. Mulder noticed it months later, after William was gone.
"Mullins, are you still there? Are you close?"
"Yeah." Mulder found the right combination of telephone pole, mailbox, and fencepost, and turned into the Van De Kamp's driveway. Every window in the house was dark. "That's me," Mulder told a microphone somewhere in the truck's cab. "See the headlights?"
More rustling. "Yeah."
"Where are you?"
"In my room." The boy's voice still sounded shaky.
A minute later, Mulder parked in front of the house. "Can you come downstairs and let me in?"
"Can you- Can you come in?" Mason asked. "The key's under the flowerpot."
Mulder saw no sign of any intruder. No UFO over the house, no super-soldiers in the barn. He had to unlock the front door to enter. Han and Chewie rushed to rub cat hair on his pants. A purple, insulated lunch bag sat on a table near the door - probably a midnight lunch Mera packed to take to work but forgot.
He flipped the switch for the upstairs hall light, and called to Mason as he came up the steps.
Mason sat in a bare-chested ball on his bed, in the dark, surrounded by one of Dr. Estep's cameras and an EVP recorder and an EMF meter. Frightened, but holding his position. The boy had both windows in his bedroom open. Mulder had ended the phone call, but Mason still clutched his new iPhone. Mulder's iPhone agreed with Mason's bedside clock: 2:33 AM.
Mason had the new 'Ghosts don't believe in you, either' bumper-sticker on his door.
"I wanna see him again." Mason watched an empty corner of his bedroom. "I want to know what he needs to tell me."
While Mulder disliked Mera letting the kid stay home alone, perhaps Mulder had instigated too much high-tech ghost-detecting with a grieving young teenager. In more than a week, with the best equipment available, they'd found nothing. A few orbs in the photos fascinated Mason, but even Mulder dismissed them as lens flares. They'd recorded no electronic voice phenomena and discovered no unexplained electronic fields. If ever an old house was not haunted, it was the Van De Kamp's.
Mulder leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb.
"You don't believe me?"
"Mason, I believe in ghosts. I believe in all sorts of things, but I don't think there's anything your father needs to tell you." Mulder tried to sound soothing. Last time he had to get his son to sleep, William couldn't argue. Or walk without holding on. "I think it was just a dream."
With absolute conviction and no regard for facts or reasonability or another human's biological need for rest, Mason said, "But what if it wasn't? I have to know."
From somewhere in the DC area, probably in a comfortable bed beside Mr. Wonderful, Mental Scully snickered at Mulder.
A cat strolled in. Han. That meant Chewie sat on top of Mullins's truck, looking out over her dark Kansas kingdom. Mason glanced away from the corner, still wide-eyed, but looking expectant.
Mulder sighed. He stepped over library books, a pile of clothes, and a game controller. He sat on the edge of the mattress. The curtains fluttered in the cool breeze - an absolute perfect night for sleeping.
"Text your mom and tell her I'm here and everything's okay."
Without seeming to look at the phone and with thumbs moving at super-speed, Mason composed and sent the text. He resumed his uneasy watch. Mulder toed off his shoes. "Shove over, Stretch."
"Mom wants to know if you can stay."
He nodded. Mason sent another text.
"Any chance your mom drinks coffee?"
"Tea." Mason handed Mulder the EMF detector. Han jumped on the bed, strolled around, and lay exactly where Mulder planned to put his feet. "Mullins, you have a gun."
Mulder looked down. He did. He'd carried a sidearm so many years, he'd felt naked when he stopped. Now, like a once-familiar path or an old lover, the renewed acquaintance felt natural.
That probably wasn't the best analogy tonight.
He put a pillow behind his back and a protective arm, not around the boy, but on the headboard.
"Don't shoot my dad."
"I won't shoot your dad," Mulder promised. "I'll shoot anything that's not your dad."
"Does that work?"
"Depends." Careful not to disturb the cat, Mulder crossed his legs at the ankle. "Obviously, I can't shoot a ghost, but if it's flesh and blood enough bullets usually kill it. Demons, mutants, monsters, creepers, murders, serial killers," he listed. "Zombies, bullets dissuade but don't generally kill. A stake to the heart will stop a vampire but only as long as it's in place. Pull it out and the vampire reanimates. Silver bullets for werewolves; everybody knows that. If it's alien or an alien-human hybrid, you need a certain weapon." He gestured over his shoulder. "Back of the neck. If it's a super-soldier, unless someone's developed magnetite bullets, you're screwed. Drop your gun and run like hell."
Mason turned to look at Mulder, blue eyes even wider.
Probably not the best night for such a thorough answer.
The boy pulled his knees closer to his chest, picked up the EVP recorder, and aimed it at the corner. "I saw him," Mason insisted.
"I'm not saying you didn't."
Two forty-one AM.
Last year, Mulder had seen Jake and Mason Van De Kamp together, and watched Mason in the months after his father's death. Based solely on how much the boy missed his father, this ghost watch could last hours. Factor in Team Mulder-Scully genetics and it looked to be a long, decaffeinated night.
Mulder sighed. After a few minutes, he set the EMP detector aside and fiddled with his phone. "Hey - during this stakeout - you wanna try out my new app? Renew an old acquaintance via modern technology? "
"Dr. Dana Scully?"
Mason leaned sideways to see Mulder's screen. "You never, like, hear from her?"
Mulder repeated evenly, "No."
"Will any of these people be naked?"
Mulder turned on a little lamp on the nightstand. Picked up the phone again. "No promises. If they are, you're in for a treat. Frohike has a trucker girlfriend who feeds him if she's in town. Last I saw, he'd gained twenty pounds and a lovely set of moobs."
Mason's EVP recorder lowered to the mattress. He shifted closer to Mulder. "They'll be awake?"
"Oh, yeah. This is computer nerd primetime." Mulder bent his legs and rested the phone on his knees, screen toward them. FaceTime with the Gunmen was forbidden and Skype too unsecure. Langly called his new creation "E.T." - for when someone needed to phone home. The app texted and called - via Tunisia, Toronto, Tokyo and Thailand - one number from any smartphone. To Mulder's knowledge, two phones in the world had the program hidden in the Utilities box: Felix Mullins's and Mason Van De Kamp's. "Prepare yourself. Next stop, The Twilight Zone."
The screen remained black a few seconds. The video feed showed a grizzled, troll-like man staring directly into the camera. Frohike's concerned face moved side-to-side. The old man stepped back and appeared, thankfully, fully clothed.
"We're good," Mulder told him. "We're killing time. I have a partner in crime you haven't seen in a while."
Frohike gestured for someone in the room to come over. He seemed to wait for Mulder's cue. Even during an anonymous, untraceable call, the Gunmen wouldn't say Mulder or William's name. No locations would be revealed, and no details. "I see that." Byers and Langly appeared on the screen. Behind them Mulder saw the same tables and the piles of junk the Gunmen's Bat Cave held in 1999, and probably 1989. Frohike asked with a false casualness, "What are you fellows doing?"
"Cinco and I are waitin' on a ghost." Mulder put his arm around the boy's shoulders. "These are The Lone Gunmen. They knew you as a baby. Introduce yourselves, boys."
Frohike folded his arms across his chest and atop a Santa-like belly. "I'm Numero Uno, kid. The first and the best."
Mulder told Mason, "They rank by girth."
"Damn right," Frohike responded proudly, "and by length and skill."
Richard Langly - still with stringy blond hair down his back and probably the same Clash T-shirt - made the peace sign with his right hand and said, "I'm The Deuce."
Mason looked at Mulder with a mountain range of creases between his brows. Mulder earned the same expression a week ago after insisting 8==D meant a face with a big smile. A long face, like the Easter Island statues. Mason enlightened him, and Felix Mullins spent an evening deleting months of what he'd thought were joyful Facebook comments.
"That's right." Langly pointed a finger at the camera. "The Deuce. I'm the shit, Cinco. Bow to my back door skills. Worship before my porcelain hacker throne."
That got a giggle.
Byers stood in a suit and tie at almost 3:00 AM. Every hair in place. Frohike elbowed him. He looked annoyed.
"I'm Numero Uno," Frohike repeated expectantly.
Making the peace gesture again, Langly said, "I'm The Deuce."
John Byers frowned at the camera. "I'm John Fitzgerald Byers."
"No," the other two Gunmen yelled at him. "Triad. You're Triad."
"You idiot," Langly snapped, "we're only the triple threat if we're a triple. Learn your line."
Now Byers folded his arms. "It's late for a child to be up, Agent-" He stepped closer to the camera. "Research at a major university - immediately suppressed by Big Pharma - has linked nocturnal use of electric devices to adolescent mental health symptoms." He made air quotes at 'symptoms.' "Also, I should make you aware our government is concealing the exponential rise of malignant brain tumors in today's youth. Keeping the boy at least three feet from the cell phone should limit its carcinogenic effect, but with the fluoridation conspiracy, it's impossible to know to what degree."
Mason turned to Mulder with a grin like summer sunrise. "I, like, love these people."
"These people can, like, erase your identity. They can crash the economy of a small country. They can hack a military satellite and look in your windows. They can even change your permanent record and fix overdue library fines," Mulder promised. "Yet they use their powers only for good. And tacos and porn."
The kid looked Scully-skeptical again.
Frohike leaned forward. "While I recommend the natural, lovely Miss Anita Queen featured in the Juggs April 2011 issue, I know you favor the Jasmine Caro spread in a May 2014 issue of Penthouse that started out with your father's address on-"
Frohike bit his lower lip. He checked something on the floor of the Bat Cave. Langly shoved his hands in the pockets of his blue jeans and examined the same spot.
"It's okay," Mulder assured them. "He knows. I know. Don't put it on a billboard, but it's not taboo."
Mason nodded in agreement.
"Don't listen to Uno Moons Ago, kid," Langly advised. "Follow your dreams. Nothing wrong with silicone."
The oldest, shortest, and stoutest of the Gunmen scowled. "Who's had intimate contact, in person, with a live human female since 1996?"
Frohike's hand went up. Langly's and Byers' hands remained down.
After a second Mulder balanced the phone on his bent leg and held up his hand. Given a span of eighteen years, he could hold up three hands. He had proof of one encounter sitting beside him.
Mason's hand rose like he knew a correct answer in class. "Last month, at math field day, a girl, like, let me touch her boobs."
Mulder laughed so hard the phone slid to the mattress. He retrieved the phone and held it. Frohike and Byers stood center screen, and Langly lay on the floor clutching his ribcage as he laughed. In a box in the corner of the screen, Mulder saw himself and Mason sitting close, smiling.
"I'm so proud," Mulder said, and kissed the top of his son's head.
Mulder's happiness must have disturbed the cat. At the foot of the bed, Han flattened his ears and hissed. Rising directly upward, back arched, tail upright, the cat yowled and spat. Using its claws for traction and Mulder's leg as a diving platform, Han leapt off the bed and scampered for the hall.
Mulder cursed the stupid cat but did get to straighten one leg. He kept an arm around Mason.
Above the phone screen, in the corner of Mason's bedroom, something caught Mulder's eye. Something making him forget the unprovoked assault on his person and even his son's first time on second base.
"Who's he?" Mason's voice asked, seeming to mean Mulder. "Quarto? The fourth horseman?"
Frohike answered as Mulder watched the dark corner. The breeze fluttered the curtains, but the icy air against Mulder's face blew from the opposite direction.
The fourth among the Gunmen had been The Thinker, and The Thinker was dead.
The light in the hall went dark, like someone flipped the switch. The hall light had two switches: one at the top of the stairs, and one at the bottom. The lamp beside Mason's bed flickered off.
The semi-transparent form of a man about Mulder's age hovered above the floor. A pleasant-looking man of average build. Not of this world, but recently deceased. A full-bodied, floating, manifestation: the holy grail of ghost-hunting. The figure was dark-haired, balding, and wore a denim button-down shirt and blue jeans. He held something with a long wooden handle - a shovel, a hoe - and leaned on it as if taking a brief break.
Downstairs, photographs of the man decorated the mantle.
Jake Van De Kamp.
The hair on Mulder's arms bristled. The Electromagnetic Frequency meter, on the mattress, flashed frantically. The ceiling fan had stopped humming. It turned on momentum.
Without speaking, Mulder tapped Mason's shoulder. He nodded to the corner and turned the iPhone screen around. The Gunmen would record the video call. They always did.
Mason shifted closer, pressing against Mulder. Chill bumps covered the kid's skin. "It's okay," Mulder whispered, even though his heart pounded. Nothing about the ghost seemed threatening. Still, his insides shivered along with the rest of him.
With no streetlights, no neighbors, no traffic, the only light came from the iPhone and the figure in the corner, beyond the bed. Far down the hall the cat continued hissing and yowling. Mulder held the phone to record the ghost. He kept his other arm tight around the boy.
A gust of wind sent the curtains whipping. Rather than blowing against the ghost, the fabric fluttered through it in a way Mulder's brain had a hard time reconciling.
The ceiling fan slowed. Mulder saw Mason's alarm clock out of the corner of his eye. The display was black. On the other side of the bed the EVP recorder clicked on and off. On, and off again. Mason wasn't touching it.
"Dad?" Mason's voice trembled.
"You can stop them," Mason's other father assured them kindly. He spoke the way Mulder might give the kid a pep talk about hitting a baseball or a target. Stay calm. You can do it. I know you can. "You can stop them," the ghost repeated.
And faded into the shadows.
The cat stopped hissing. The EFM meter stopped flashing, but the curtains kept fluttering in the empty corner. The ceiling fan rotated slowly, one final circle, to a standstill.
After a few seconds, the hall light and the lamp came back on. The fan hummed and resumed spinning. Mason's bedside clock flashed midnight, though Mulder's iPhone and analog wristwatch read 2:46.
Men Mulder's age had children. Many - even most - of the boys at the school had fathers in their fifties and sixties. The mothers were younger, but the fathers had mourned Jimi Hendrix and Sid Vicious rather than Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse. Scully had chanted "high risk," but she meant the risk to her at thirty-seven; Mulder hadn't given fatherhood at forty much thought. He did his share of two AM diaper changes and three AM floor walking and four AM oh-please-stop-crying-baby duty, too. If Mulder was present, he took care of William and - except for nursing every few hours when William was tiny - Scully could sleep. Mulder never had to pull a baby all-nighter and get up for work the next morning, though. At the time, being dead limited his vocational options.
Some men Mulder's age had babies. Not at forty. At fifty, sixty. Not tweens or teens or adult children, either: infants.
Hopefully, those men had live-in nannies.
For the record, Wednesday morning arrived without Jake Van De Kamp's ghost reappearing. Mason watched diligently until about 4:30 AM, when he'd put Felix Mullins in charge and nodded off. The kid refused to get up at 6:45. And at 6:52. And 6:59. By 7:13, as Mulder physically dragged Mason out of bed, the yelling and threatening would have met with AD Skinner's approval, though probably not Dr. Spock's or Dr. Phil's.
Mulder and Mason had an audio recording of the ghost. High-quality video. They had three excited, somewhat reliable witnesses, not counting the cat. Once the boy's shaking subsided, Mason seemed validated. They'd agreed Mera didn't need to know about their paranormal encounter, but the late Jake Van De Kamp might be the best documented ghost in history. Mulder would have been on cloud nine except every square inch of him either ached, burned, or smelled bad.
And the other fly in his ointment: he couldn't show Scully. He couldn’t show her a slide or play a recording or even text a screenshot. The triumph of documenting a paranormal being's existence lost something without Scully's ten-minute scientific diatribe about sleep deprivation and the power of suggestion and camera angles.
Dunkin' Donuts didn't administer caffeine IVs, or Mulder would have held his arm out the window at the drive-thru. Instead, he bought the biggest, blackest cup of coffee they sold. He found a parking space downtown, and took the cup and Mason's damn permission slip through a revolving door and into the posh lobby of a new, boutique hotel.
At 7:59 AM, Mera stood behind the front desk with the same expression as a flight attendant after a twelve-hour redeye. She wore a navy blue blazer and a badge engraved with 'Mera' on the first line and 'Manager' on the second. A ribbon on the badge indicated she was 'Training,' and her gold star must reflect good progress. She spotted Mulder, and her forced smile faded to pure weariness.
The lobby featured a modern chandelier and an elaborate floral arrangement of green hydrangeas, white lilies, and twigs. A mahogany front desk formed a half-moon in front of a Zen-like wall of falling water. The elevators had brass doors, the walls held abstract art, and no sofa in the whole room was big enough for a nap.
Wichita might not be ready for a modern boutique hotel; no guests checked in or out.
Mera extended a hand for the field day permission slip that, according to Mason, she should have signed last night and must be turned in this morning. Team Scully genetics had struck again: Mulder forging Mera's signature would constitute a capital offense, according to their son.
As Mera scrawled her name on the line and dropped the form on a fax machine, Mulder leaned on one side of the curved front desk, his back to the lobby door. "Mason brushed his teeth. He ate a Pop-Tart in the truck. I think he's wearing the same polo shirt as yesterday, but he's at school." He sipped his coffee. "I remember the pacifier and the Snugli as more effective."
Her smiled looked exhausted but genuine. "Did he ever sleep?"
"A couple hours."
Mulder shook his head. "How many more nights do you have the graveyard shift?"
"One more night. After that, it's 8:00 to 4:00."
The stone surface of the desk felt cool, and the hardwood side kept him upright. "No more sexy rhino smock?"
Her mouth opened, eyes widened, and her mouth closed again. "Mullins-" She whispered, though the hall to the elevator remained empty. "-you're wearing a gun."
Mulder looked down. He still was. He also still wore his jeans, shirt, and boxers from yesterday. "I have a permit for it." Which was true. Provided his name was Frank Martin. Or Felix Miller. He couldn't remember. "When does your shift end?"
"Now. He'll be right back." She leaned forward on the fancy desk. "I'm going home and collapsing. Would you like to play hooky from work and come with me?"
Mulder picked up the hot cup of coffee. "I once flew across an ocean to get laid. As much as I like the blue blazer, this morning I'm not willing to drive out of town. How sad is that?"
"Really sad." She tilted her head. "This afternoon? After a shower and a nap?"
"This afternoon, I have to pick up your son from school," he reminded her. "In the meantime, I have a job involving sharp implements and spinning blades. A job I'm late for because Mason's the one boy on the planet who can't or won't forge his mother's name on a note. Raincheck?"
"You betcha. A raincheck, and your God-awful-sounding pie after dinner. For being a great guy." She reached across the desk and touched his jaw, stroking the whiskers with her fingers. "I'm still waiting for your evil alter-ego to show up."
He didn't deserve extra credit for taking care of his own son. Before he could point that out, a female voice behind him said, "Excuse me."
Mera straightened. Her mouth resumed the polite, forced smile, and Mulder's heart went from a slow, sleep-deprived trudge to presto forte. He closed his stinging eyes, hoping he'd fallen asleep. Perhaps, at the moment, he sprawled beside Mason, in bed, at Mera's house. The kid was late for school, and Mulder was late for work, and Dana Scully wasn't standing behind him in a hotel lobby.
"I think my key is demagnetized again. It worked earlier, but now-"
Mulder turned. Scully wore running shorts and shoes, and her hair pulled back in a ponytail. No make-up. Her sweaty T-shirt advertised a recent race in DC. She carried the same fancy smartphone she had in his apartment, now with earbuds plugged into it. She would probably run several miles-per-hour faster without the weight and air resistance from her huge engagement ring.
Her falter lasted milliseconds. Scully saw Mulder, glanced at Mera, blinked, and continued. "-I can't get back in my room."
He detected the sudden tension in her voice. No one else would.
He watched Scully catalogue every detail. Mera's badge. Mulder's wrinkled shirt. His keys, his coffee. His gun. Then focus on her plastic keycard.
Mulder set down his cup of coffee. It met the desk two inches higher than he'd expected.
"Let's try a new card, Dr. Scully," Mera said politely. "This one's given you enough problems." She glanced down at some list. "Room 402?"
Without looking at Mulder, Scully said, "Yes."
She was flushed, with perspiration on her forehead and at the base of her throat. She looked and smelled like she did after they had sex. Both three days and thirteen years ago.
A young blond man in a blazer like Mera's emerged from a door down the hall, near the elevators. "I can take care of that, Dr. Scully. I'm sorry it's given you so much trouble." He stepped behind the desk. 'Christopher' the 'Assistant Manager' had three stars on his name badge, and no 'Training' ribbon.
Scully should have been on Eastern Standard Time. The Wichita Mid-Continent Airport could get her to Atlanta or Chicago by Monday afternoon at the latest. Scully should have been in DC for dinner with Mr. Douglas Wonderful on Monday night, not in a hotel lobby in Kansas on Wednesday morning.
A hand touched his forearm, and a voice not Scully's said, "Mullins?" Mera stood in front of the desk, looking up at him. She held an ugly fabric purse. "I'm done."
Five feet away, Scully waited on her room key, though her expression indicated she considered kicking in the door of room 402.
"Okay." His three functional neurons sparked desperately.
After a few seconds of stationary silence, Mera asked, "Are you okay?"
"I'm- Yeah." He saw Scully watching them out of the corner of her eye. "I'm tired."
Scully suspected something. She knew something or she wouldn't still be here.
"No more monster movies and ghost-hunting," Mera (who suspected nothing) said. "You two need a hobby that won't cause nightmares."
"Surfing." He put an arm around Mera's shoulders and steered her toward the elevators. "We'll start surfing."
He didn't have to look. He felt Scully's eyes as he passed.
Mera pointed to the door with a restricted access sign the Assistant Manager Christopher had emerged from. "Where are you gonna surf in Kansas?"
Mulder moved his hand to her hip, touching her like they were teenagers at the mall, not middle-aged adults. "I'm putting in a backyard pool. A big pool. A wave pool," he decided. "You don't use the yard much. I have a shovel in the truck."
Mera stopped to swipe a keycard. "You're crazy, Mullins." The door unlocked. He held it open for her. "And you smell very, very bad."
"You should smell your son," Mulder replied.
The door clicked closed behind them.
A stark tunnel passed a time clock and a break room, and led to a mostly empty parking garage. Felix Mullins walked Mera to her car, kissed her goodbye, and said he was headed to work. As soon as she drove away, he didn't head to work, of course.
Mulder didn't need to steal a master keycard off a maid's cart. Scully hadn't bothered pushing the door of room 402 completely closed. So he didn't bother knocking. She stood outside the bathroom, contemplating a row of dark suits hanging in an open closet. She hadn't changed out of her running clothes, but she had put on mascara.
He pushed the door of her room closed. The slam echoed. "What the hell are you doing?" he demanded. He stepped forward. She stepped back, deeper into a room where anything not white was charcoal gray or chrome. "Why are you doing this?"
Her pajamas lay at the foot of a low, unmade bed. Cosmetics littered the bathroom counter. Her cellphone charged on the nightstand, and a laptop sat on a desk near the window, with an empty mug, her holster, and car keys beside it.
Mulder's coffee must remain on the front desk, downstairs.
"I'm sorry." She stepped back again. "I got the room on Priceline. I had no idea-"
Beside her laptop and weapon, Scully had a 2013 yearbook with white lettering and a cerulean blue cover. Mulder had one too, and every third page featured Mason getting some award.
"Even if that's true, why are you still here, Scully? You got what you wanted. Get on a plane and go the fuck home." He loomed over her, head and heart pounding. "I'm not calling Mr. Wonderful and telling him you were raking your fingernails down my back Sunday evening. It happened, Scully. It was a mistake. It doesn't change anything. It doesn't make things right between us, and it doesn't give you the right to screw with my life."
"I'm not screwing with your life." She retreated another step and bumped the end of a sleek, charcoal-colored dresser. "She's reset my keycard twice, and I said 'thank you.' That's all. She seems nice."
Scully tried to retreat farther. He moved sideways, trapping her beside the dresser and backing her toward a wall. She glanced at her holster, ten feet away, and at her cell phone on the nightstand.
"You're not telling her," he said in a low, deadly voice. "She has no idea you and I ever existed. She has no idea what you did." He tucked some damp pieces of hair behind her ear. She stepped back again. Her heel and the back of her head met the wall. "When the kid won't sleep and you still gotta work in the morning - it's rough. You're dead on your feet, and the kid still needs breakfast. He still needs you to care for him, protect him. Shit, it's exhausting, Scully. Yet the rest of the world does it. She does it. I do it. Nineteen-year-old single mothers and eighty-year-old grandparents do it, but you couldn't. You're an FBI agent and a medical doctor, but you couldn't take care of your son."
"Enough," she warned.
"Right. That ship has sailed." He nodded curtly in agreement. "Can't shake the cold bitch tree and have a mom fall out. Ancient history." He stroked the side of her neck with his fingertips, petting her. "So why are you still here? What do I have to do?" Mulder put his whole hand on her throat, slowly pushing her jaw upward. "What is it you want, Scully? Round two? You wanna add that to the list of reasons I can't sleep? You want me up here fucking you while she's at the store buying groceries for dinner? Or are you not quite done punishing Mr. Wonderful for not being me?"
Her throat moved as she swallowed. Mulder didn't squeeze but his hand remained. "Mulder-"
"That's not my name," he barked. "Fox Mulder is dead. You destroyed him. You destroyed everything. This is all that's left, and you're jealous of it? She has a son. We-"
"About that," Scully said, sounding nonplussed. "About your girlfriend and her young son, Mason. The school where Felix Mullins works has one student named 'Mason.' Mason Van De Kamp."
He gritted his teeth. "Yes, I'm sleeping with a student's mother. Yes, it's against school policy. It's also none of your damn business. You aren't here in any official capacity. You can't walk into where I work and flash your badge-"
"I didn't walk into where you work. I walked into a public library." Though he could have crushed her windpipe, Scully continued calmly, evenly, reciting facts as only she could. "There are three Van De Kamp's in the Wichita telephone book. One of those men had his picture in the paper in 2012 after winning a father-son shooting contest. Jake Van De Kamp, local farmer, Mason's father, and according to the courthouse, husband to Mera Van De Kamp: a woman saddled with a name evoking both Aquaman comics and a can of baked beans. Mason Van De Kamp is practically your clone, and he attends that school on a scholarship I suspect has you behind it. You wanna drop the crazy act, take your hand off me, and tell me the truth, Mulder?"
He took his hand off her and put it on the wall beside her head. Bracing himself.
"What is Mason Van De Kamp? Is he like Emily? Is he sick? Is he a clone? A legacy of the Syndicate?" She sounded afraid to hear the answers. "Are there others? Those must be your genetics, Mulder. I don't need to run a DNA test. He must be your biological son."
"He's not sick. He's not a hybrid or a clone. He's not my son." Mulder inhaled. "He's our son."
"Oh my God." Her voice quieted further. "Are you certain?"
Someone pulled his plug and every emotion in him drained away. All the rage. The shame. He didn't even have the energy for fear. After a long silence, he leaned down and put his forehead against hers. The white wallpaper beneath his palm had a velvety texture, as soft as her skin.
"He earned the scholarship on his own," Mulder said, equally quietly. "The life insurance settlement that paid for his mother's house: that had me behind it."
"It's William?" she whispered. "You're certain?"
"Don't, Scully. Please don't do this." Speaking took so much effort. "Get on a plane and go home. Marry Mr. Douglas Wonderful. I'm sure he's a great guy, I'm sure he loves you. Love him. Spoil his granddaughter. I love you, Scully. I'm always gonna love you. But you can't be here. You can't do this."
"You're endangering our son." Her breath was warm against his skin. "I won't let you do that."
"You're endangering our son." Mulder corrected her. "How can I endanger him? Fox Mulder died more than a decade ago."
"Jake Van De Kamp died last year. Right after you started work at that school. Did you kill him?"
"No." His forehead twisted against hers as he shook his head. "I don't think the Syndicate did, either. It was an accident. A horrible accident."
"You are sleeping with Mera Van De Kamp. Does she know you're William's father?"
"Mason." He corrected her again. "Yes, she knows. Mera knows as much as I can tell her, and Mason knows far more than he should. Mason knows I'm Fox Mulder. Mera only knows I'm not Felix Mullins."
"But you are sleeping with Mera Van De Kamp." Scully seemed stuck on that detail.
"Yes," he admitted, "I am. So what? I'm never gonna love another woman. Why not like a nice one who looks like Deborah Winger and happens to love my son?" He shifted so his temple pressed against hers. "He can still do it, Scully. Move things. Little things - coins, soda cans, paperclips. Sometimes he just knows things. He's exactly what we worried he was, and you're leading the Syndicate right to him."
He felt her trembling.
"Mason sent you that email after I specifically told him not to." He moved his hand a few inches to the side. The wallpaper there felt smoother and less velvety. "He's fascinated with you - 'Dr. Dana Scully.' He says your full name. He's fascinated with us working for the FBI. With the X-files. I've told him to stay off the Deep Web, but I don't think he is. I think he just got better at covering his tracks."
Scully put a hand high on Mulder's shoulder. "His name is Mason?"
Mulder nodded. "He's got Einstein's IQ, Mickey Mantle's talent, and he's a bigger nerd than Wil Wheaton. He says 'allegedly' and 'auditory pareidolia.' He reads Star Trek novels, and last month he made it to second base with a girl. You'd love him."
She repeated in the same shaky, skeptical tone, "His name is Mason?"
"Mason Allen. Like the Goddamn jar and the wrench." He exhaled. "He's our son, Scully."
Scully's hand stayed on his shoulder, and in the two heartbeats before Mulder's next breath, he felt whole. He felt like the man he used to be: scarred, scared, weary, but with a righteous cause and a reason to keep fighting. A riptide pulled him back to a time he'd fought the future not to save six billion lives, but to protect two. Mulder recognized the danger, but he couldn't let that man slip away again. Not yet. Despite everything he'd insisted a moment earlier, he gave in to the seductive current and asked, "You wanna see him?"
She didn't answer. Mulder tucked her sweaty hair behind her ear again. Scully seemed to watch his throat.
"You could, Scully. It's the end of the school year. They have some field day. Races, silly contests, games. Trash everywhere." As reason fell by the wayside, an ocean of possibilities presented itself. "The boys will be running around outside, acting like hooligans. It will be chaos. You can ride in through the service gate with me. Stay in my apartment. You'll be able to see him."
Her hand tightened on his shoulder.
"Of all the things we did together, Scully, he's the best. You should see him."
"You can," he urged. "You can meet him, even. After school. He could show you his grades, tell you about all his awards. You won't be interfering or confusing him. He looks like me but he thinks like you. He knows who he is and who he loves and who loves him. Given his life and his biological parents, he's a remarkably well-adjusted kid."
"I can't," she said in a strangled voice.
"But he'd be thrilled. I promise."
"I can't." She sniffed. "I can't see our son and get on a plane and go on with my life."
Mulder stepped back.
"Am I jealous of you and Mera Van De Kamp? You see our son every day. You eat pizza with him and watch monster movies. You've been up with him all night." She spoke louder but unsteadily. "I'm so jealous I can't see straight. Who is this girl he's feeling up? Have you talked with him about sex and diseases and consent and pregnancy?"
Mulder opened his mouth to say "yes," but didn't get the chance.
"Does he wear a helmet when he rides his bicycle? Wear sunscreen? How much television is he watching? Why is he having nightmares? Godzilla shouldn't give a teenage boy nightmares. Is too much caffeine disrupting his sleep cycle? If this is a chronic problem, has a metabolic disorder been ruled out? Sleep apnea? Is there a bully at school? What about social media and on-line harassment? Could he be experimenting with-"
"He misses his dad," Mulder said, "like you miss your father and I miss mine. Except he's thirteen."
Her teary blue eyes darted over his face. "Why are you wearing a gun?"
"So I could shoot any monsters that showed up in his room."
"Oh my God; that's adorable." She melted against the wall. "Mulder, I can't." She shook her head side-to-side. "You can stay. You're right: Fox Mulder is dead. Felix Mullins is picking our son up from school. But I'm not. I can't stay and I can't stand to leave him twice."
He pulled her close and put his arms around her. Her face felt hot and wet against his neck.
Mulder spent months tracking William down. Sorting through records, having the Gunmen hack adoption databases. Anytime in the last twelve years, Special Agent Dana Scully could have picked up a telephone. She knew the name of the adoption agency; Mulder hadn't. She still worked for the FBI; he didn't. She could have called in a favor and located William's adoptive family within hours.
"He's discovered internet porn, which is totally screwing up his expectations." Mulder talked to the top of her head. "No one gets a plumber or cable guy to show up that fast in real life. He does like Dr. Pepper with Funyuns, and yes - I let him stay up too late and drink too much soda. He misses his father. He worries about his mother, who also misses his father and is a little lost these days. Aside from that, he's okay." He kissed her hair. "I promise. He has the life you wanted for him. He's a normal kid. A genius, athletic, telekinetic, smartass kid, but a normal kid."
Her shoulders shook. He heard a strangled sob. Her hands gripped the fabric of his shirt.
"You did the right thing," he assured her. "You did something harder than I had the strength for, and you were braver than I could be. You were selfless when I was selfish. You did the right thing. You know it, I know it, and he knows it."
"But you're here." His shoulder muffled her voice. "You see him. You're with him. You're his father."
Mulder stepped back and looked down. Mascara smudged beneath her eyes and tears streaked her flushed face. "Scully, I'm not. His father's dead. Fox Mulder died in 2001 and Jake Van De Kamp died in 2013. Mason knows I love him, and he understands I used to be Fox Mulder, but I'm not his father. That's gone, and I have to let it go or the crazy act won't be an act."
"I can't do that. I can't not be his mother. He gestated inside my body. I gave him life. Not an hour of my life passes I don't think about him, worry about him. He's my son."
He studied her, again trying to get his sleep-deprived brain to kick start. William was Mulder's son, too. Mulder knew every wrinkle on the boy's feet, every fold on his ears. He could probably identify William by smell alone. She hadn't cornered the market on loving their son.
"Take off your shirt."
She turned away, sniffed, and sounded annoyed. "No, Mulder. That will make things harder. Besides, both of us smell very, very bad."
"You should smell our son." He took her keycard from the dresser. "Come with me."
Scully wiped her face and like she had during all their years as partners, she followed. Whatever crazy plan he hatched, wherever he headed, she wouldn't let him go alone.
A door at the end of the hall led to metal stairs which emptied into the lobby, but also out to the street. Mulder had parked down the block, behind the hotel. Fifteen minutes earlier, the street was empty. Now, a utility truck blocked an alley, and orange road cones decorated a patch of asphalt near a corner. Men in hardhats studied an open manhole. On the sidewalk, a pile of bulging black trash bags grew warm in the sun.
In the passenger side of his truck, Mulder found the Pop-Tart wrapper and a lot of crumbs. A ticket stub from Godzilla. Several empty soda cups. A receipt from the film lab and another from the paintball place. A couple French fries. Mason had sat next to him for hours and slept against his shoulder. Mulder sniffed his own shirt. His own BO overshadowed any smell of the kid's skin.
He had the Batman hoodie behind the seat. Clean, folded. Waiting to be forgotten again.
Mulder fished it out and handed it to Scully. "I washed it, but it's all I have. It's from Sunday, right before you showed up in my apartment. It's his favorite. He's worn it all spring."
She looked at the fabric. At Mulder. At the hoodie. Her finger traced the faded logo.
"I'll buy him another hoodie, and I'll send something he's worn to the Gunmen," he promised. "And pictures, grades, videos - whatever you want. They'll get it to you. Give me your shirt."
Now Scully stared at him, seeming stunned. Whatever business set out the pile of trash must specialize in vomit, rotten fish, and ripe diapers. The men in hardhats fired up a jackhammer. Mulder put Scully in the cab, closed the door, walked around the truck, and got behind the wheel.
With the jackhammer less deafening, he repeated, "Take off your shirt. Take his hoodie. He has one of your old scrub tops but it doesn't smell like you anymore." That bordered the truth. Mulder had the top and Mason knew its location. "Give me the shirt you're wearing."
She studied the hoodie like it was evidence for a case. For ages she chronicled every frayed cuff, every stain, and where the plastic end had come off the drawstring. The same way Mason had studied her old scrub top. She refolded the hoodie and set it on the dashboard. He watched her take a slow breath. "I want him to be safe. To have a normal life. Make sure that happens, Mulder." She squared her shoulders. "Don't send me anything. Don't have the Gunmen contact me. Don't contact me yourself. If I ever contact you or if you ever see me again, assume I'm a super-soldier or being controlled by the microchip in my neck."
"Okay, Scully, but you can still take his-"
She barked, "I can't take his shirt."
Mulder would have taken even the Pop-Tart wrapper, but he said, "Okay."
Like it was the next obvious question, she asked, "Mulder, where's your girlfriend?"
"Didn't you just pick her up from work?"
He shook his head. "Mera's headed home. Mason needed a permission slip I, as his father, couldn't legally sign."
Scully turned her head, looking out the window. Insects circled the pile of trash bags. "Are you and Mrs. Aquaman having a baby?"
"She's an abductee, Scully. Like you. She has the same microchip in her neck. The Van De Kamps saw fertility specialists for years before they adopted."
She didn't look at him, but her chest rose. "That can't be coincidence."
Mulder agreed. "Someone knows, but it's not someone who's come after him. Someone could even be protecting him. The world didn't end in 2012. Someone's out there doing something."
"That someone should be you," she told the sidewalk.
"Well, it's not. I'm here. Mowing lawns and driving Mason home from school. Keeping the monsters out of his bedroom. I'm sleeping with a nice lady who has no idea who I am and, when I promise to keep her son safe, never thinks to ask 'safe from what?'"
Sweat beaded on his temples. He could sit in the truck with the engine off, smell the trash faintly and be hot, or start the engine, run the air conditioner and have his olfactory sense assaulted by the trash. Mulder chose the latter.
He stared through the windshield at the men prepping the jackhammer for another round.
"Don't screw with her head, Mulder," Scully said. "You had me going, and I know you. She loves our son. Be nice to her."
"I have every intention of being nice to her. Why would I screw with her head? She's the mother of my child."
The sentence escaped Mulder's mouth. He couldn't take it back. Scully's head pivoted slowly, like an eagle tracking prey, until her blue eyes glared at him. "Morning sickness. No caffeine or alcohol for nine months, including after I attended your funeral. The-" She gestured with a finger to her abdomen and the side of her breast. "- and a placental abruption. Forty-one weeks of pregnancy. The backwoods vaginal delivery of an eight-pound, eight ounce infant. Four perineal stitches-" Mulder grimaced. "- and twelve months of breast-feeding which also included no alcohol and no caffeine. You're welcome."
"Felix Mullins is a nice guy," Mulder said. "He has an alter-ego who's an asshole, though."
After a moment, he said, "Mason can talk Mera into anything and he knows it. So he does, using your point-by-point rationalization while holding an 'adopted' card he's yet to play, but both of them know he has. He isn't quite honest about where he is while she's at work or who he's with or what he's doing. If she figures it out, he claims he told her and she forgot. Permission slips he never gave her, twenty dollars missing from her purse, chores that didn't get done: all her fault. He's cleaned his room by stuffing everything under his bed, including some dirty dishes and stiff socks. The kid spells out curse words and goes to church every Sunday but if Mera would lift his mattress, she'd find porn he's stolen from me, from his other late father, and from every convenience store in Wichita. Is any of this helping?"
"Yes. Strangely, it is."
Mulder smiled. "He's the best thing we ever did, Scully."
He thought of asking her again: go to the school, see their son. Meet him. Let Mason meet her. Mason would love even a hundred-yard wave from Dr. Dana Scully. Mulder had heard her answer; he didn't understand her reasoning. Why nothing was better than something, how not knowing was easier. Maybe because she was the mother. Maybe because she'd given their son up but Mulder hadn't. Or because she was Scully and reason had to triumph over emotion.
Mulder memorized every inch of the truck's windshield as the minutes passed. The morning sun didn't get any lower on the horizon and no new option presented itself. Dr. Dana Scully still existed, her son required protection, and so she needed to go home.
She sat. She looked at the Batman hoodie, didn't touch it, and didn't move. Twelve years ago, Mulder couldn't have left William, and now Scully couldn't leave them.
She didn't say it, so he did. "Tell me goodbye. Tell me goodbye and-" He said "get on a plane," but the jackhammer started again, drowning him out.
Instead of telling him goodbye, she kissed him. She turned sideways in the seat, flipped up the center console, moved closer, and kissed him. With her eyes closed, arms around his neck, mouth open. She smelled sour and musky, and her mouth tasted faintly of mint. Mint tea, minty toothpaste, or spearmint gum. Her fingers slid over his hair, down his beard. Mulder felt her warm breath as she said something in his ear, but he couldn't hear over the jackhammer. If he had to guess, he'd bet she said she still loved him.
As her lips met his again, he remembered the first time they'd kissed, all those years ago. On a whim. Bowing to a New Year's Eve tradition. That first kiss between friends, partners - fourteen and a half years ago - started a journey Mulder could have never envisioned.
A journey ending here: on a side street in downtown Wichita with men in hardhats and orange vests destroying the pavement and bags of trash rotting on the sidewalk. One last kiss. When she stopped, there wouldn't be another. Ever.
She stopped, of course.
She skinned off her sweaty shirt and left it on the seat. She didn't take Mason's hoodie.
Whatever she said as she got out of his truck, Mulder didn't hear either.
He'd meant to apologize for letting her down. For not being there when she'd needed him. For having doubts. For being afraid.
He saw the passenger door close. He saw the jackhammer operator pause and admire as Scully hurried across the street in running shorts and a sports bra. He saw her swipe her keycard three times and curse before the hotel's side door opened. The stairwell had windows on each landing. Mulder saw her through the second floor window, and the third, and the fourth.
She was gone.
The men resumed their vendetta against the asphalt. The trash still stunk. Felix Mullins was an hour late for work. Fox Mulder would get him there, as soon as both of them stopped shaking and sniffing.
Mulder texted in heartsick and thought he'd sleep until noon. Instead, he laid in bed and looked out the window, watching for east-bound flights. He saw three planes, and each made him a different shade of sad. The first felt like a sucker-punch, the second like a bad bruise and, by the third, being beaten to the point the blows stopped hurting.
Between planes, he listened to the boys play outside. The water balloon tosses and egg-on-a-spoon relays brought triumphant whoops and encouraging yells. He heard Mason in the din, laughing and cheering. Sounding happy. Carefree. Screaming himself hoarse like a thirteen-year-old boy should.
Mulder homed in on his son's voice. Mulder could give the boy a normal life. Keep him safe. Dr. Dana Scully would return to DC, and Felix Mullins could continue a quiet existence in Kansas. With a pretty wife who managed a hotel and baked brownies and had great little breasts. A son who liked sci-fi movies and video games, and was prophesized to either save or destroy the human race.
At 11:55, Mulder went outside, leaned on the wooden railing at the top of the apartment steps, and watched a sack race, then a three-legged relay race. Mason gave Mulder a crooked grin after getting tangled in a burlap sack and later, looked up as if making sure Mulder saw a three-legged victory. A distant eighth graders versus seventh graders tug-of-war ended in two equally privileged, cerulean blue piles.
Seeing a fourth east-bound plane over the soccer field felt no worse than seeing the third. And no different from being tortured to death. Mulder knew from experience at some point pain slowed and stopped. It didn't stop existing; it stopped increasing. He'd reached the event horizon of heartbreak.
Since it was happy hour somewhere, he poured a beer into a tall, opaque cup, and watched the boys until they filed inside for lunch. He poured a second beer. He put Scully's shirt in the old metal box, added the button from her blouse, and returned the box to its hiding place. He fed the fish. Mason texted asking if Mulder was sick, and the bearded, burly PE teacher (last month, a recipient of several texts ending in the long smiley face emoticon) texted asking if Mullins needed anything. Mulder answered 'no' and 'no.'
He napped on the sofa and, before 2:00, got in the low-flow, motion-sensing, eco-friendly shower. He brushed his teeth and put on his work uniform. The mail carrier brought Mason's 'I want to believe' poster. The sun glowed high in the west, warming Mulder's face and pushing shadows away.
He heard another plane overhead but didn't look up. Heartache continued but it didn't increase. The pain would stretch out like space-time at the edge of the universe, until he barely noticed.
His wristwatch promised the dismissal bell in a couple minutes, so Mulder sat at the top of the steps to wait on the kid. In one direction, he saw the sports fields, the clubhouse, and the rear parking lot. The other way, across a wide green lawn, was the gymnasium and pool, the dark dormitory, and the main school building. The campus included other buildings beyond that - a library, an auditorium, the administrative offices - but Mulder's eyes kept returning to the back of the academic building. The after-school pick-up line formed in front of that building. He could see the vehicles entering the main gate, but not those directly in the front lot or the front security gate.
He checked the time on his iPhone like he had something on his agenda besides driving Mason home. And eating sweet potato pie. Clandestinely cashing in that raincheck with a nice lady he didn't love, but who had great tits and a son he did love. Tomorrow he'd clean up the bits of balloon and other debris left from field day, and Felix Mullins's quiet little life would go on.
Mulder focused on the doors of the main building. He stood, leaned on the railing of the little deck, and waited on those doors to open.
Mulder fiddled with his keys. The bells rang on an electronic, computer-controlled system. They could be rung manually but to be late, someone must override the computer. He alternated between watching the time and watching the building.
A green bar appeared at the top of his phone screen, explaining the delay. A school lockdown. The boys wouldn't be dismissed until the threat passed. A domestic dispute in the parking lot, a parent under the influence, an unauthorized adult trying to pick up a student - even a boy having a medical emergency or a meltdown in the hall: some relatively benign reason kept the students inside their classrooms at least once a month. Mason had advanced algebra. First floor, room 126. Mulder saw the window dim along with all the others. Standard protocol.
The employee handbook said everyone should be inside a dark, locked building, but Mulder kept watching those twin steel fire doors.
Sirens approached in the distance.
Fifteen years ago, in a basement office in the Hoover Building, Mulder had a row of filing cabinets documenting things in which Dana Scully didn't believe. She scoffed at ghosts and ESP and premonitions. But of all things, she believed in women's intuition.
Sometimes Scully knew something was wrong or Mulder needed her. She'd sense it. Even more so with William. Mulder could figure out the baby had diaper rash or a craving for pureed pears - by process of elimination and after a great deal of cursing - but Scully would just know. She'd walk in, take the baby, and look at Mulder like he was mercifully free from the ravages of intelligence.
His men's intuition kicked in. Mulder just knew something was wrong. With William. He felt it coming like a storm.
As Mulder shrugged on his holster, he heard the gunshot. Small caliber. From the front of the campus. A second shot, and his heart pounded. He grabbed the extra magazine and bolted outside. Instead of staying in the classrooms, terrified boys spilled out the back of the main building and from the doors on each end. Teachers ran with them, racing across the lawn. The school secretary, the lunch ladies. Some adults tried to herd their classes. Some ran.
Petrified. That was the right word. As an uneven, light blue tide left the distant brick building, for an instant, he couldn't move or think or even truly comprehend. His son was in that building, along with some nut-job with a gun.
Another heartbeat, and Mulder's head cleared. His lungs worked again. In his former life, Mulder had expertise in nut-jobs with guns. He'd spent his life getting good at one thing: stopping bad men.
Some boys headed for the dorm or library but most fled across the open field. In the chaos, at the front of the pack, Mulder saw Mason. Backpack over his shoulder, putting those long legs and athletic ability to good use.
"Run," Mulder yelled, though Mason couldn't possibly hear him amid the screaming. The kids had no cover. The rest of the campus had shade trees and benches and flowerbeds. Gazebos, picnic tables. The lawn between the school buildings and the playing fields was a flat, freshly-mowed quarter mile of open field.
A third shot, from inside the main building. More screams. The single police siren became a chorus.
Gun drawn, pointed at the ground, Mulder headed toward his son.
The herd of sobbing, flushed boys, many with phones in hand, fled for the back parking lot. Mason ran toward Mulder, separating from the group, exactly what Mulder wanted. School shooters weren't usually skilled snipers. They shot the people close by first and fired into the crowd.
Mulder pulled Mason behind the building, putting two thick walls between the boy and the shooter. After one of the most relieved hugs in his life, Mulder kissed the boy's forehead. Hugged him again. "Who's shooting? What kind of weapon? Does he have hostages?"
"No." Between panting and trembling, Mason struggled to speak. "He was in the hall. I saw him."
"You stay here." Mulder wiped the boy's face. "Get inside the building, lights out, lock the door, and stay down. Call your mother."
Mulder turned away but Mason grabbed his hand. "He's not shooting. He's not a man."
Between gasps Mason answered, "Mr. Buchanan. Twice. The man, he- He got back up. He threw Mr. Buchanan into the display case. I-I think he's dead."
"Mr. Buchanan's dead?" The school's head of security was a retired Secret Service guy and unlikely to miss. "But the man he shot got back up?"
Mason nodded. "He's not a man."
"How do you know?" PCP. Meth. A bullet-proof vest-
"I just know."
"Jesus Christ. Shit." Scully led a super-soldier right to their son. "Get in the truck. Get in."
Mulder put the kid in the truck's passenger seat and scrambled behind the wheel. Parents left their vehicles in the rear parking lot and crossed the playing fields on foot, trying to reach their sons. Mothers in designer jeans and halter tops ran barefooted, outpaced by the yoga pants and ponytail set. He saw fathers in hospital scrubs and business suits, and a housekeeper in a black uniform. Most of the adults held phones, but several carried guns.
A fourth and a fifth shot cracked near the front gate.
As Mulder started the engine, an adult figure veered away from the crowd and toward Felix Mullins's apartment.
Detective Billy Miles, formerly of Bellefleur, Oregon. Abducted with Mulder. Tortured with Mulder. Found floating at sea and presumed dead. Last seen, according to Scully, walking out of a North Carolina hospital April 2001 after having washed off the last of his human in the shower.
That Billy Miles. Or, specifically, a super-soldier that wore Billy Miles' skin.
Mr. Buchanan's bullets left holes in Billy's shirt, but no blood stained the fabric. Mulder's pistol held a round in the chamber and fifteen bullets in the magazine. Fifteen more in the spare magazine in his pocket. None of which would do more than annoy a super-soldier. Mulder might as well throw pebbles.
He put the transmission in reverse and floored the gas, spraying gravel. "Hold on," he told Mason, and swung the truck around.
Billy Miles. Push him off a roof, crush him in a garbage truck, and watch him get back up - that Billy Miles. Undead, unstoppable Billy Miles.
"Seatbelt on," Mulder barked. In the rearview mirror, the super-soldier kept coming, running after the truck with his efficient, untiring movements. Magnetite stopped super-soldiers, at least according to the internet. The online Tinfoil Hat Society didn’t specify how much magnetite, but the consensus was a shitload. A handful didn't do the trick.
The closest deposit of magnetite was an hour north but the quarries lay three hours northeast, around Kansas City. The big truck's fuel gauge read an eighth of a tank.
Mulder rolled down his window and had the security pass ready. He waved it at the sensor. Waved it again, as Billy Miles gained ground. A hundred feet. Eighty feet. The service gate was steel and formidable, and the high brick walls on either side, solid.
Mason twisted in his seat, looking out the rear window. "What does he want? Why's he following us?"
Mulder didn't answer.
The gate opened like a butler graciously ushering them out.
Forty feet. Mason continued watching behind them. "Mullins…"
The tires spun and gravel flew again. The truck nudged the end of the gate with a metal-on-metal shriek, but they were out. Mulder ran the stoplight and headed downtown, in the opposite direction of the entire Wichita Police Department.
Once he reached a main artery he chose the middle lane and kept clear of other cars. Took a breath. Tried to think. Even if magnetite worked, Mulder couldn't keep Mason in a quarry. Super-soldiers got their orders from somewhere. If Billy didn't succeed, HQ would dispatch another assassin. Probably, HQ already had. Mulder needed to change vehicles and he needed to make Mason vanish. Again. Get Mason and his mother somewhere safe while the Gunmen created new identities, new birth certificates. Credit cards and a driver's license for Mera. A bank account. A school record for the kid who sat in the passenger seat, holding his backpack, still sniffing and trembling.
The Van De Kamp's farm was twenty minutes in the opposite direction. Mera had no idea what a super-soldier was, let alone any way to escape one.
Mulder spotted an entrance ramp for the highway. He took it, heading west. He got in the fast lane and put his foot down.
"He's still, like, following us," Mason said in a little voice.
No cars had merged behind them, and no one followed as Mulder weaved through early rush hour traffic. "Can you sense him?"
The boy nodded.
"Can you sense more?"
Mason nodded again.
Another wave of terror passed through Mulder. Worse than Scully's cancer. Worse than Samantha's abduction, even. The bone-chilling, breath-stealing paralytic fear from nightmares, at the point other people woke up. Mulder had a cell phone, his wallet and keys, a pistol in his holster, thirty-one bullets, and a truck technically belonging to the school. A Batman hoodie. A new 'I want to believe' poster and a Pop-Tart wrapper.
The truck's low fuel light came on.
Voice wavering, Mason said, "Behind us."
Mulder checked his mirrors as he played Pole Position. Again, he spotted no one behind them. He glanced at his son. Mason sat hunched in the passenger seat, clutching his backpack and staring at the windshield.
Mulder's cell phone rang.
In the rear-view mirror, a small, older model SUV gained ground. Mulder's speedometer read eighty five. Ninety. The SUV edged closer. The pretty, dark-haired woman driving raised a pistol and took aim. "Down," Mulder ordered, and again, "Hold on."
The first bullet struck something metal at the back of the truck. The second shot shattered the passenger-side mirror.
Mulder cut behind a long line of tractor trailers, pissed off the drivers in the slow lane, and exited the highway at seventy and in the emergency lane. Slowed. A couple blocks later, he merged back on the same highway, now a mile behind the old SUV and in time for the downtown snarl of interstates meeting, merging, and divvying vehicles.
Mason stayed curled on the seat. Mulder put a hand on the boy's shoulder. He heard sniffing and felt shaking.
Traffic slowed; Mulder's heartrate didn't. That SUV hadn't followed them from the school. The super-soldiers must have access to the traffic cameras. Or a spy satellite. Or a helicopter. Several news helicopters flew overhead, toward Mason's school. Mulder's truck could have a tracking device. Or they could be tracking his phone. Or Mason's phone. A GPS chip smaller than a dime could be in Mason's backpack. In their clothes or shoes. The phrase "it could be anywhere" never served to decrease his paranoia.
This morning, Scully sat in the truck. She'd been in Mulder's apartment. The super-soldiers could have tracked the chip in her neck. Found Mulder. Tracked Mulder to the boy.
Mulder’s phone rang again and he nearly rear-ended a Chevy.
The caller ID showed a once-familiar and welcome number. Mulder had Mason plug the phone into the stereo system. Over the speakers Scully asked urgently, "Mulder, it's me. I'm sorry. I'll, I'll never call again. Tell me: is he okay? I heard on the radio- Tell me he's okay."
"He's okay." Mulder's knuckles remained white on the steering wheel but the quake inside him subsided to manageable. "He's with me."
He heard her exhale. Three seconds and a shaky inhalation passed.
"Mulder, I told you never to answer if I called. Were you even listening to me this morning? Do you understand the ramifications of this?" she demanded. "Anyone following me or with access to your or my carrier's network can triangulate the location of our cellular phones in milliseconds. How do you even know I'm calling of my own volition? How do you know it's me? Mulder, it's entirely plausible-"
Mulder interrupted. "Call it a hunch. Scully, we could use some help."
"It's Billy Miles and Billy's BFFs. We need a ride out of town, and I need someone to pick up his mother and keep her safe. She's home."
"Oh my God, Mulder. Shit." He heard her inhale. "Where are you?"
"Downtown." Mulder took the next exit, this time at a sane speed. "Wichita," he added for clarity, since "downtown" no longer meant the Hoover Building. "They're tracking us. I'm gonna switch vehicles, see if I can throw them off."
Mason raised his head, looking at Mulder's phone. Mulder shoved the kid down on the seat again.
"Can you get to McConnell Air Force Base? What about the airport?" she asked. "I'll have AD Skinner send a helicopter."
"To a military base? Through the chain of command? How are you still unclear on what 'infiltrated the government at the highest level' means?" The God of Green Lights smiled on Mulder. He had a nice, wide, paved road and his pick of the parking garages serving the arena and the convention center. Stealing a car would be a fun father-son activity. Maybe Indian Guides gave a badge. "The airport is across town and exactly what they'd expect."
As Mulder slowed to turn into a multi-story garage, Scully's voice asked, "What about one order directly from Skinner, one pilot, an FBI chopper, and a private helipad? Via Christi, downtown, as a helipad."
Mulder's foot hovered over the brake pedal. "How are you gonna manage that?" He couldn't wave a badge around anymore and they needed a lift now. Not after the bureaucratic paperwork wove through the FAA and the hospital's administrators.
"I'll meet you at the hospital."
Mulder didn't ask. He hung up and put his boot on the gas again. Heading north, toward the hospital.
Mason said warningly, "Mullins."
"Where?" A taxi cab blurred past. A college-age girl pedaled a bicycle on the sidewalk. A city bus approached from the opposite direction. The woman driving the little convertible ahead of Mulder sang along with the radio. The hospital should be another few blocks. Ahead, a paving crew had traffic down to one lane, with dump trucks feeding the machine laying hot asphalt. "Point."
Eyebrows barely above the dashboard, Mason looked like a machine gunner on the old fighter planes. "I don't know."
Beyond the next underpass, Mulder saw the white top of the hospital. A line of orange cones stretched right to the front door with nothing except a couple stoplights in his way.
A block ahead, an angry horn blared. Mulder saw the taxicab swerve. The convertible driver honked and slammed on her brakes. He heard a crash. The little sports car landed on the sidewalk, and a hotel shuttle van kept moving. Mulder had a millisecond of confusion - like encountering a semi-truck towing a second, backward-facing semi-truck. From the opposite direction, in Mulder's lane, the shuttle van bore down on them. Billy Miles drove.
Mason didn't bother pointing. The paving men waved their arms and yelled that the van drove on the wrong side of the road. Billy held a pistol out the window. A woman in the passenger seat had a rifle.
Mulder had a lane of steaming asphalt to his left, paving equipment in the median and, on the other side, a sidewalk punctuated with shade trees. No driveways and no entrance to the parking lot.
The light at the intersection turned red. The shuttle didn't slow. Mulder decided driving over the curb, between the trees, and across the corner parking lot was the best plan. Not a good plan, but better than getting stuck in hot asphalt or playing chicken with creatures that couldn't die or trying to outrun the van in reverse.
Barreling through the light, a black sedan T-boned the van in the intersection, shoving it sideways and into a utility pole. Tires squealed, glass shattered, and metal crumpled. The full-size sedan - several feet shorter than a second ago - had Lariat rental plates and an auburn-haired, female driver.
Mulder swerved around the wreck and skidded to a stop. He saw Scully pushing away the deflated airbags and struggling with her seatbelt. In the shuttle van neither of the super-soldiers moved. Yet.
The pavers came running to help.
Scully got her car door open. Mulder backed up, flipped up the center console, and leaned over to open Mason's door. He had the boy move closer to him. "Scully, get in," Mulder yelled. Scully wore a black suit, a soft-looking blouse, light stockings, and black high heels. Her nose bled. She steadied herself on a crushed fender and stumbled toward the truck. "Come on. Hurry."
As soon as she was in, Mason slammed the door. Mulder took more tread off his tires and headed toward the hospital. He watched her in his peripheral vision. Scully blinked a few times. Inhaled. In the rearview mirror, a female super-soldier missing an arm climbed from one of the vans. The paving men backed away.
Mason's big blue eyes looked cartoonish. "You're Dr. Dana Scully."
She didn't answer.
After several more seconds of staring, Mason asked uncertainly, "Are you okay?"
Predictably Scully said, "I'm fine. Are you okay-" A second later she added "-William?"
Mason held his backpack tight, stayed low, and looked at Scully like she might be a hologram.
"Where am I headed?" Mulder asked. Via Christi was the one hospital in the US he hadn't been in and the buildings sprawled acres. "The ER?" Emergency/Trauma had a sign and an arrow.
Scully blinked again. Touched her upper lip. She seemed surprised at the blood on her fingers.
He circled the block and scanned the top of the hospital, hoping to see chopper blades. Several blocks west, Mulder spotted a dark helicopter over Riverside Park.
Scully shook her head like she was trying to wake up. She looked at Mason again and said worriedly, "Mulder?"
Mason bit his lower lip and glanced at Mulder.
"She's dazed," Mulder explained. "Give her a minute."
Except they didn't have a minute. The low fuel light flashed warningly. Miles away, the same helicopter circled the park, no closer to the hospital than thirty seconds earlier. If that was their ride, the pilot could set down in Riverside Park. In any large parking lot or field.
Mulder assumed Scully called AD Skinner before she'd played demolition derby with her rental car. He trusted she'd sent local FBI agents to get Mera. "Scully," Mulder said sharply, "the Emergency Room? Is the chopper landing on the hospital roof? Are we a go?"
"Yeah." She shook her head again. "The ER. Go."
Thirty seconds later he skidded into an 'Ambulance Only' space. Grabbed his phone. Grabbed the poster and hoodie, and shoved both in Mason's pack. Felix Mullins left the school's truck with an empty gas tank, a scraped front bumper, a shattered passenger-side mirror, and a bullet hole in the tailgate. Keys in the ignition, the engine running.
"Stay between us," Scully instructed Mason, who still seemed convinced she was a trick of the light. She pulled a pistol from her holster and a badge from her pocket. "There'll be an elevator to the roof. We need to get on it."
The nurse who ran to meet them got Scully's badge in his face. Mason scrambled after Scully and, as instructed, followed close, carrying his backpack.
Scully remained wobbly in her high heels, but her badge parted a sea of green and blue scrubs, and her gun probably hurried people along. Mulder kept a hand on the boy, propelling him forward. Along the way, through the ER, Scully requisitioned a hospital security pass. They found the elevator (conveniently marked 'To Helipad') and the big doors opened. They got on. At Scully's strong suggestion, an orderly left a gurney carrying a sheet-covered corpse and got off the elevator.
The elevator doors closed. Mulder drew his weapon and Scully holstered hers.
Standing behind Mason, Mulder put an arm around the boy's chest and his cheek against the boy's temple. "It's gonna be okay. You're okay. Your mom's okay."
"They're in the hospital." Mason trembled. "I feel them."
"The helicopter's coming, Batman." Mulder flicked the pistol's safety off. "Ultron and his buddies might be unstoppable but the last time I checked, they couldn't fly."
A smear of blood remained beneath Scully's nose. She put a hand on her left shoulder and winced. The seatbelt. A collision at that speed, at her height: she'd feel it for a while.
As the elevator rose she didn't look at Mulder or the boy. She didn't speak. Mulder doubted that had anything to do with airbags and seatbelts. Where he saw aliens, Scully saw swamp gas and schizophrenia. He glimpsed a sea monster; she documented an alligator. She couldn't look at Mason and not see their son, though. This trembling, terrified child wasn't a clone. Or an experiment.
"Ultron is Marvel." Mason's voice wavered and his chin quivered, but he stipulated. "Batman is DC."
Yeah - swallows didn't need directions to Capistrano and Mulder didn't need a DNA test. The kid was theirs. "Right. Thank you for my daily dose of second-guessing."
"Ultron can fly, Mullins." Mulder's shirt sleeve served as Mason's Kleenex. "He flies all the time."
"Okay, buddy." Mulder watched Scully. Scully watched the body on the gurney. The elevator's bright overhead lights bounced off the steel interior. It chimed softly at every floor but didn't stop. Each second lasted an eternity.
"Dr. Scully-" Mason still stood as close to Mulder as possible without crawling inside his chest. "-I sent the email. That's why you're here, isn't it? Mullins- Fox Mulder didn't email you."
If the corpse - or the sheet covering it - in the elevator went missing, Dr. Scully could write the BOLO. She'd stared at it long enough to memorize every detail.
Mulder tightened his arm around his son and repeated, "It's okay, buddy."
"It's not okay." He sniffed. "You told me what would happen but I didn't listen. That thing killed people at my school. You said FBI agents have to protect my mom. Are those things after my mom, Mullins?"
"Your mom's safe." Mulder stroked the boy's shoulder. "Scully knows you sent the email. She's familiar with your progenitor. It's amazing I've only died twice. Scully should get a punch card for saving my life. Every sixth rescue or resurrection, she gets a free small beverage."
Mason turned and pressed his face into Mulder's neck. Mulder rubbed the boy's back. The blue polo shirt felt damp, but his son's skin smelled familiar.
"It's okay," Mulder repeated soothingly. "We're gonna keep you safe."
"Deathstroke." As Scully spoke, her eyes remained on the gurney. "The assassin. The super-soldier." She paused. "My nephews liked DC Comics when they were small. If I remember correctly, Deathstroke came after Batman, but in the end Batman and his friends won out."
The boy turned enough to see her. He wiped his face - thankfully, with his own sleeve. "I'm sorry."
Her eyes drifted toward them like leaves beginning to turn toward the sun. "William, you're not the reason the super-soldiers found you. I am."
Mulder shook his head. "Scully, you cannot be certain of that."
She didn't answer Mulder. Her hand remained on her shoulder and her chest rose. "The FBI helicopter will meet you and Mullins on the helipad and take you to a nearby airfield. There's a plane waiting. A team of agents is headed to your house-" She seemed to address Mason but without eye contact. "-to bring your- They'll take your mother into protective custody and transport her to a safe location. They'll stay with her as long as necessary. Another team of agents is waiting with the plane; they can arrange a safe house for you and Mullins. They'll know your mother's location. Once the coast is clear, I presume you and Mullins and your mother will enter something akin to the Witness Protection Program."
Her explanation - comprised entirely of the truth, but with the most unpleasant details sifted out - deserved an award from the Academy. The elevator rose past the sixth floor at a rate appropriate for relocating historical lighthouses, not moving a severely ill or injured patient between a helicopter and a doctor. Scully kept her hand against her shoulder and her eyes on the corpse.
"I've never been on a helicopter."
"Yeah," Mulder said, "you have. You were newborn. Similar scenario."
Scully's profile turned another few degrees, still not quite looking at their son. Perhaps Mulder imagined it, but waves of pain seemed to distort the air around her the way the air shimmered over hot asphalt.
Mason sniffed. "Dr. Scully, what about you? You're an FBI agent. Aren't you, like, coming on the helicopter with us?"
"I can't. There's a microchip in my neck - a chip those super-soldiers must be able to track. I'm endangering you right now."
"But just for tonight. At the safe house. I lived with you when I was a baby."
"I can't take that chance."
The boy wiped his face again. He asked, "You can't or you won't?" and he sounded like Mulder.
Scully watched the dead body beneath the sheet for the ninth and tenth floors.
They needed the roof. They'd pushed the button for the roof. 'Helipad.' The big steel elevator stopped one floor below the roof.
Mulder looked at his son. Wide-eyed, the boy nodded. Another super-soldier. Or two. Or twenty.
"Come out shooting," Mulder advised, and stepped in front of Mason. "Scully, any chance you're packing magnetite-core bullets?"
Scully didn't answer. Mulder assumed that meant "no." As the door chimed, she kicked off the brake on the gurney and raised her weapon. "Get him to the helicopter, Mulder."
"I'm getting all of us to the helicopter." Like he had thirteen years ago.
Scully put two bullets in the super-soldier's center of mass before the doors parted three inches. She added one in each shoulder, knocking it sideways and back each time. Another in the heart. The body recoiled but didn't bleed. Within seconds the wounds began healing.
"Knowle Rohrer," Scully said before Mulder got a headshot. Had the super-soldier been human, Mulder would have sized the guy up and decided he could take him in a fight - but he'd rather not. The hospital's alarm sounded, and Mulder added a few bullets to the soldier's chest for good measure.
"What's a Knowle Rohrer?" Mulder wanted to know. It sounded like a Christmas primal scream.
"Go," Scully yelled. "The stairs." She shoved the gurney and its late occupant against the temporarily faceless creature, pinning it against a wall. She locked the brake, turned, and followed Mulder and Mason into an emergency stairwell. Their feet pounded up the metal steps. Her high heels clicked staccato-like right behind them. The hospital alarm wailed.
After two swipes, Scully's borrowed security pass opened the door to the roof. The helipad was empty, but he heard the chopper. Mulder kept a hand on Mason's shoulder, steering the boy. The heavy door clicked shut behind them, muting the blaring alarm.
A black helicopter with 'FBI' in white letters on the side approached.
Mason turned, looking toward the elevator. He pointed. The elevator doors hadn't opened. Atop the tall elevator shaft though, the pretty, dark-haired woman who'd driven the SUV stepped to the edge and stepped off. She fell three times her height, landed flat on her feet, and came toward them, pistol raised. She'd have been hot if she wasn't trying to kill them.
Scully shot the expressionless woman twice in the heart, knocking her down.
The helicopter hovered over the pad, preparing to land.
Mulder couldn't hear the elevator chime but he saw the doors open. Their muscle-bound friend from one floor down reappeared. Mulder and Scully backed Mason toward the chopper. Mulder put three bullets in the big super-soldier, and Scully added another few. She changed magazines and shot the SUV woman again, who tried to sit up despite missing most of her chest.
Billy Miles emerged from the elevator. He, too, calmly enjoyed a gunpowder and metal casing greeting. Mulder changed magazines.
The whine of the helicopter's engine relaxed as it set down.
Mr. Big Stuff started to move. Hair whipping, skirt and suitcoat flapping, Scully made sure the big super-soldier stayed down. Mulder helped, and didn't forget about Ms. SUV. Thirteen bullets. The female super-soldier who'd been with Billy Miles in the shuttle van hadn't arrived. She would, though.
They got Mason to the chopper. Mulder jerked the door open and pushed the boy inside, toward the end of a row of three seats. "Seatbelt. Lock the other door."
"Behind you," Mason yelled. Mulder saw the kid's mouth move more than he heard the words.
Scully turned and fired before Billy Miles reached her. Each bullet pushed him back until Scully's pistol stopped firing, breech open. Empty.
From the front seat, the pilot waved urgently for Mulder and Scully to get in.
Billy moved forward again. So did Ms. SUV. So did Mr. Big Stuff. Mulder divided his dislike equally.
Ten bullets remaining. "Get in," Mulder yelled at Scully.
She pushed her hair out of her face. "You get in. Give me your gun."
Ms. SUV got too close to the rear of the little chopper. Mulder donated two bullets to her, put another in the biggest super-soldier, two in Billy, passed Scully the gun, and got in. But Mulder yanked Scully and her martyr complex in, too. He reached out, grabbed the handle, and slammed the door shut.
Mason trembled in the seat on Mulder's right. Scully clutched her shoulder on his left. The helicopter rose. Tilted. Above the helipad, the engine strained and the blades chopped at the air. Mulder checked a little window. Ms. SUV held one of the helicopter's landing skids. She must be heavier than she looked.
The pilot turned, looking panicked.
Mulder exchanged glances with Scully. He held up five fingers. Five bullets. She nodded and raised his weapon. Mulder unlatched the door and pushed it open.
In a decision Mulder considered genius, rather than shooting Ms. SUV, with three shots, Scully separated Ms. SUV's arm from Ms. SUV's wrist. Each of the male super-solders got a final dissuading bullet. As the chopper rose and Mulder risked a deep breath, the nimble Ms. SUV leapt straight up. She grabbed a landing skid with her remaining hand and hung on. The stub of her other wrist began reforming.
Mason unbuckled his seatbelt, reached beneath the seat, and passed Mulder a fire extinguisher. Because the kid was fucking brilliant.
Scully dodged aside. Kneeling, Mulder smashed the fire extinguisher down on the female super-soldier's fingers. A second time. A third. The other two super-soldiers were on their feet again.
The elevator doors opened. Ms. Hotel Shuttle Van arrived late to the party.
"Oh, shit," Mulder said. He smashed the SUV woman's fingers a fourth time. Two fingers remained around the landing skid but her other hand regrew a palm. A third hand, detached from her body, still held on. He'd lost sight of Mr. Big Stuff and Billy Miles, which meant nothing good.
"Shit," Scully echoed. The engine whined louder. The blades spun frantically, trying to lift the helicopter. "Hold me," she ordered.
Mulder didn't ask why, and it didn't seem a romantic overture. The fire extinguisher crashed to the hospital roof, hitting the female super-soldier's head on the way down. Mulder grabbed a sturdy handle near the door and held Scully's wrist as she climbed out. Her long hair blew everywhere. Seven feet below, the fire extinguisher spin in a circle on the rooftop, spitting a stream of white foam. Standing on the landing skid, Scully bent a knee and stomped the right high heel of her shoe deep into Ms. SUV's eye socket. Which would get anyone - human or alien-human hybrid - to let go.
The helicopter jerked, rocked, and rose. Mulder yanked Scully in, pulled himself in, and slammed the door shut. Pale, clutching her shoulder, and wearing a single stiletto heel, Scully collapsed into the seat on the far side of Mason. Mulder took the remaining seat and buckled in.
Outside the little window, the landing pad grew progressively smaller. Mulder counted six super-soldiers on the roof, all watching the helicopter. One still had Scully's shoe lodged in her eye socket.
The pilot wore a headset; none of them did, nor did Mulder see any extra headsets in the cockpit. Even yelling, from five feet away, was fruitless. With one hand, the pilot reached back and showed Scully his cellphone's screen. 'Mother in custody. In route to safe house.'
Mulder nudged Mason, making sure the kid saw the message. Whatever direction the helicopter headed with Mason, Mera's agents headed elsewhere. That was protocol with multiple assassins on the loose, pursuing separated families - though it usually involved turncoat mobsters running from other mobsters, not a kid from Kansas who wouldn't forge a permission slip. Reuniting Mason with his mother led any super-soldiers following her right to the boy.
Mason sat between Mulder and Scully, arms around his backpack. Even so close, to be heard, the boy spoke loudly inside the noisy chopper. "I don't get how you're endangering me. That was, like, epic." He still trembled, but his awe seemed genuine and directed at Scully. "Except for those alien things trying to kill us. Are you-" He grimaced. "Dr. Scully, are you okay?"
From Scully's breathing, posture, and ashen skin tone, her shoulder must hurt so badly she struggled not to vomit. Mulder had jerked hard enough to dislocate it. Tear the rotator cuff.
"Scully?" Mulder echoed. "You okay?"
She nodded, but a moment passed before her breathing slowed. She sat straighter, wiggled her fingers, and some color returned to her face. She kicked off her remaining shoe. Her hand remained pressed above her heart. "I'm fine. Are you okay?"
Her concern included only Mason. Mulder saw her scan the boy clinically. On the second pass, her eyes moved slower, lingering on their son's features, his hands. His wrinkled polo shirt, the dark peach fuzz on his upper lip. Her pained expression softened. By the third inspection, the swallows turned toward Capistrano. Scully looked at Mason like he was a beautiful city where she'd once fallen in love. Mulder knew that feeling. He had it the first time he held William and again, last year, when he spotted Mason in a group of sixth graders at the school. Mulder had felt a tidal wave of instinctive recognition. This was their baby. Their miracle.
She blinked, swallowed, and looked away. Her feet, inside her stockings, brushed the floor. She pushed away a sleek black Manolo Blahnik now a Solo Blahnik and crossed her ankles tightly.
"I'm fine," Mason called with exactly the same inflection and as unconvincingly.
Ten seconds later, no one had asked Mulder. He raised his hand. "Also fine."
"Those alien things are actually alien-human hybrids." She stipulated loudly, needlessly, and in Mason's general direction. Her palm remained on her left collarbone and her face remained ghostly pale. "They're humans who've been abducted, surgically modified, exposed to an alien virus, and left to decay externally and gestate internally. The resulting creatures don't require oxygen or rest or sustenance. They're not even carbon-based lifeforms anymore. Scientifically, they shouldn't exist."
After an uncertain pause, Mason nodded he understood. The kid's shoulders lowered a quarter of an inch. "They could be silicon," he called, "or ammonia. Plasma. Carbon's just the thing on Earth; that doesn't mean it's the thing in the rest of the universe. Those aliens in Star Wars and Star Trek - some of them are plausible." The shoulders rose a millimeter. "I know they're, like, fiction, but real scientists consult on the scripts."
While Mulder felt certain Scully had hours of arguments fueled by Albert Einstein or Carl Sagan to dissect and refute Mason's statements, she said loudly, "The silicon-based horta in Star Trek has a viable metabolism - though I can't imagine how it would move in an Earth-like environment or mind-meld with a Vulcan with copper-based blood."
As the chopper blades sliced through the air, Mulder put an arm around his son. "Mason," he called, "meet your other mother. Legend has it she rescued the Kobayashi Maru by claiming she, personally, didn't witness the Klingons."
Scully's arms remained a carbon-based pretzel of self-protection, but her ankles uncrossed. Her toes, each with a nail polished an understated pinkish-beige, touched the floor. She found her footing and shot Mulder a look that could blister paint. "This isn't fiction, Mulder. This is science." Yelling required deep breaths, each of which made her flinch. "Basic high school chemistry. Copper and silicon conduct at completely different temperatures."
Mason furrowed his brow at Mulder disdainfully. He turned and called to Scully, "I know, right?" but gasped "Cheese and rice," and cowered against Mulder as the helicopter swung sharply left, leaving Wichita behind.
If the Feds rolled out the red carpet, protective custody usually meant a Ramada Inn. A Ramada Inn offered clean sheets, working air conditioning, and a free continental breakfast. Generally though, the government dime meant a motel with a parking space in front of each room, a mattress sagging in the middle, and a noisy ice machine under an awning. The rental cars were base models, and the flights commercial and coach.
The helicopter from Via Christi Hospital delivered Mulder, Mason, and Special Agent Scully to a remote airstrip and an FBI Cessna. On a secure landline in the hanger, Mason talked to Mera long enough to know she was okay. On the plane, Scully sat up front with the pilot, seldom looking up from her cell phone. An hour later, that plane landed and turned them over to a team of FBI agents. The silent blond G-man put Mulder and Mason in one car and his partner drove Scully in another. The sedans took separate routes - Scully's via an expensive shoe store - but reunited at the back entrance of a downtown, high-rise hotel. The agents escorted them through a set of fancy doors and into a private elevator that opened to a high-roller's penthouse. Dark, sleek leather furniture, modern marble bathrooms, fireplaces, understated art. The living room had a huge white rug and an elaborate glass ceiling that belonged in a Victorian greenhouse. All the minimalist bedrooms had similar arched, metal and glass ceilings. So did the bathrooms and the dining room. The effect was of a fancy terrarium over Caesars Palace.
Mulder hadn't asked, but he bet on Dallas. The skyline had the right look, and no other city within three hundred miles of Wichita had a hotel offering stainless steel bidets and abstract cowboy sculptures.
The posh had a purpose. The ornate metal and glass grid overhead extended down inside the walls, creating a Faraday cage preventing electronic surveillance. A nice feature for anyone with secrets: politicians, billionaire businessmen, coked-out celebrities, or Mexican drug lords. Fine metal mesh in the glass blocked any electrical field. No GPS signals, or cell or radio waves got in or out. Last year the papal conclave shielded the Sistine Chapel in a similar manner, Scully informed them.
Mulder sat at one end of a horseshoe-shaped, black leather sofa, and Mason sat next to him. The boy still clutched the backpack like it contained porn. He wore the Batman hoodie zipped all the way up. On the glass coffee table in front of them a pizza box and a Dr. Pepper bottle lay untouched. Scully stood at a little desk outside the kitchen, using the landline. One G-man parked himself inside the penthouse's front door, while the blonde agent acted as the Brigadoon of room service. He'd delivered an ice pack and a stack of papers for Scully, each time seeming to magically appear and vanish. He brought the pizza and soda, and disappeared again.
Mulder put his feet on the coffee table and an arm around a tired, frightened thirteen-year-old. Dr. Dana Scully might be "epic," but witnessing murder was not. Having a herd of unstoppable alien-human hybrid killers after them: not epic. Helicopters, planes, and the miracle of flight in general: not epic. Hearing his mother on the telephone earlier, trying to reassure him when - even after Mulder talked to her - Mera sounded terrified. Not epic. And at some point, Mason realized "Witness Protection" meant never seeing his grandfather or friends again.
Scully hung up the telephone receiver and nodded to Mulder. All telephone calls from the penthouse involved an actual telephone, consulting the room's guest services binder and, in this instance, Scully's badge number.
Mason's eyes followed Scully as she walked away. Volume muted, a huge flat-screen TV showed the Yankees' game. No one except the local FBI agent watched the television.
"They'll call back," Mulder told the boy. "As soon as the agents transporting your mom check in, the FBI switchboard operator will patch the call here on a secure line. You can talk to her again." Mulder nodded toward the pizza. "Why don't you eat something?"
The pizza remained untouched. On the giant TV screen the camera panned over a cheering crowd. Scully's high heels clicked on the kitchen floor. The freezer door opened with an ominous sigh.
Whatever strings Scully pulled, they reached high. Tonight the news media reported a promising student - name not yet released - lay in Via Christi's ICU after the tragic shooting at an elite boy's school in Wichita. The student's mother suffered critical injuries while trying to reach her son. Doctors expected neither to live. The school's groundskeeper was fatally shot while helping the students reach safety. Two security officers truly died and dozens of students got injured in the melee. Though the school's surveillance cameras captured the shooter's image, his identity and whereabouts remained unknown.
Mason laid his head against Mulder's shoulder. Mulder stroked the boy's hair and stared at the silent television. Overhead, the sky began falling to pieces in fat raindrops on the arched ceiling. It dripped a slow, uneven pat, pat, pat against the glass like nature's water torture.
Scully returned from the kitchen with an ice pack against her left shoulder. She sat at the desk in a straight-back, upholstered chair and as far away as possible in the same room. The local agents swept them for tracking devices earlier. The little handheld detector had beeped once: as it passed over the back of her neck. Whatever the microchip did besides keep her cancer in remission, it continued doing it.
Mason's head remained against Mulder, but he turned. "Dr. Scully-" He cleared his throat. He hadn't spoken in an hour, let alone spoken to her. "-you use elevators. You probably ride the subway. You being here tonight is, like, okay? You won't get sick, right?"
She looked up, still seeming pale, even for her.
"The microchip." Mason shifted against Mulder. "Mullins said you have one. The super-soldiers can't detect the chip in this place, but the signal the chip receives - that's blocked, too. That's okay, right?"
Scully seemed to carefully formulate a response. "The growth of nasopharyngeal tumors varies but, on average, it's one-point-five millimeters per day, with the mass doubling every three hundred days. The size of my cancer at diagnosis suggested growth began within weeks of the first chip's removal. Once a second microchip was implanted the tumor vanished and has never regrown." Her chest rose. "Despite spending eighty hours a week in a basement office with iffy cell service."
"With Fox Mulder?"
"Here." Mulder raised his free hand even with his ear. "Present."
Across the room, Scully said, "Yes." Her left hand remained on her lap. She adjusted her engagement ring with her thumb, rotating the diamond into place.
"Mullins said you're getting married."
She glanced at her ring and nodded like she acknowledged a moral failing. Not sorting her recyclables. Illegal use of the carpool lane.
As the boy opened his mouth to ask "Who-" Mulder gave him a subtle nudge. Mr. Wonderful's identity was inconsequential; only the man's existence mattered. In the love story of how Mason came to be, in the end the fearless crusader didn't end up with the pretty FBI doctor.
"A fellow physician," Scully answered anyway. On Martha’s Vineyard, in Mulder’s childhood, he’d seen women come to farewell their seafaring men. After the final embrace, the women stood on the dock and waited for the boat carrying their entire world to depart. The craft seemed so small and the ocean so vast, and every second became both precious and painful. Scully had the same expression. "He's Chief of Staff at a local hospital."
Mulder kept his opinions to himself and his lips firmly together. Still, Mason glanced uneasily at Mulder, and at Scully.
Somewhere in the fancy penthouse a clock ticked loudly. This is all you get, buddy, Mulder thought. All I can give you: a few hours. Ask her something you can't Google.
Mason scooted higher on the sofa - more seated, less a miserable, wilted sprawl. He set the backpack on the sofa beside him. "Did you like Fox Mulder when you met him? The first case, what did you think?"
"Our first dozen cases together, I thought Mulder had spent too much time alone in his basement office staring at blurry photographs and listening to tapes of alleged Electronic Voice Phenomena." She sounded more distant than twenty feet of rug merited. "But he grew on me. Mulder is-"
"Beefcake with a badge," Mulder supplied with as much bravado as he could muster. "Admit it, partner."
"-challenging," she said. She adjusted the ice pack. "Brilliant and passionate and single-minded sound good on paper, but the reality of that in a partner is-"
Mulder helped again. "Hot. It's hot. Your taste had to evolve." He pointed vaguely in her direction. "Tell him about our trip to Cheney, Texas." He adopted an overbite and an exaggerated local accent. "You want we should stop in and see Sheriff Hartwell-" He paused. "-Dana?"
"Dr. Bambi Berenbaum," Scully reminded him, and crossed her legs.
Mulder countered with, "Eddie Van Blundht."
Had Mason not been present, Mulder felt sure Scully's retort would have been "Mrs. Aquaman."
Mason leaned forward, picked up the soda, and held it. "What's the coolest thing you've ever seen, Dr. Scully? Like, as an FBI forensic pathologist?"
Mulder raised his hand again. "FBI profiler. Lead agent on the X-Files. Beefcake with a badge. Anybody wanna hear the coolest thing I've ever seen?"
The rain drummed faster against the glass ceiling. The unseen clock ticked. No one answered.
Mulder scratched his beard and sighed. Scully put their infant son up for adoption and went on with her life. Mulder tracked the kid down and helped with homework and handled awkward sex ed talks and washed the kid's clothes. Mulder got the pre-dawn ghost patrol and to deliver forgotten permission slips. Between 3:30 and 4:00 this afternoon, with thirty-one bullets and a new Dodge truck, Mulder outmaneuvered the pack of super-soldiers, yet after witnessing one stiletto to the eye socket Mason wanted to start Dr. Dana Scully a Facebook fan page.
Again, Scully answered Mason's question like extra credit on a test and she needed the points. "In 1994 we discovered a hermaphroditic, humanoid, fluke-like creature in the New Jersey sewer system. Genetic mutations resulting from radiation exposure are certainly not without precedent, but 'The Flukeman,' as Mulder dubbed it, displayed human-like intelligence yet reproduced by attaching its scolex to the host's flesh and passing its larvae into humans."
Mason sat up straight. "Epic. Did you get to examine it? Dissect it?"
"I was able to dissect the lower half. Not the brain, the scolex, or the upper digestive system." Two decades later, she still seemed disappointed. "Mulder let the top half get away."
"It's the thought that counts," Mulder said. "I got you a genie, and knocked up, and that invisible little man you wanted."
Scully's eyebrow rose.
Mulder gave her an impish grin, though not a full wattage.
She still looked exhausted and pained but, across the room, Mulder saw a tiny nostalgic smile. "Special Agent Mulder - when he wasn't chasing ghosts, cryptids, vampires, or mechanized killer roaches - rescued me from Antarctica. From a serial killer. From super-soldiers and several garden-variety sociopaths. A liver-eating mutant. An alien bounty hunter. From being lobotomized, beheaded, digested, poisoned…" Her brow furrowed, but one red-soled stiletto slid down her heel and hung from her toes. "Why did I spend all those years as your partner?"
"I grew on you." He moved the pizza box to the boy's lap. "Eat, buddy."
The box didn't get opened but Mason twisted the cap off the soda. "Do his rescues always involve thirty-one bullets and a new Dodge truck?"
Mulder looked at the boy. Mulder dropped a hand on the outside of the sofa, where only Scully could see it. Holding up four fingers, he asked, "Mason, pick a number between one and five."
Because Mason was Dana Scully's biological child, he asked, "Inclusive of one and five?"
"Yes, and a real, whole number. As in: without looking, how many fingers am I holding up?"
Mulder glanced at Scully and changed to only his index finger up. "Now?"
After a drink of soda, Mason said, "One. How many more until I win a stuffed panda?"
Mulder switched to all five fingers, outstretched and out of sight. "Now?"
Mulder relaxed his hand. Across the room, without moving her shoulder, Scully raised her left hand from her lap and held up three fingers. Her right stiletto heel now properly encased her foot. She uncrossed her legs and leaned forward.
Outside, thunder boomed long and low, shaking the room like the footsteps of an approaching giant. Rain pattered faster against the glass.
She said, "Mulder, I take it this is atypical?"
"A hit rate in the Gibson Praise zone? A bit."
Mason's eyes widened. "I meant five. Five fingers. Keep the stuffed panda. I have one."
The agent at the door glanced away from the TV screen.
"Outside," Scully instructed.
The agent opened his mouth, probably to argue that wasn't standard protocol, but closed it again. The Yankees played but Dr. Dana Scully outranked him by about fifteen years' experience and ten pay grades. Without a word, the agent left the penthouse and closed the door behind him.
Scully stood stiffly and, holding the icepack in place, walked toward the sofa. Mulder took the plastic bottle cap from Mason. He put it on the pizza box and made a flicking motion. "Show her."
Mason looked at the little cap, and up at Scully. "You won't, like, freak out?"
She stood eight feet away, as if to maintain a safe perimeter. "I'm a scientist, William. I do not freak out."
The boy corrected her. "Mason."
She said quickly, "I'm sorry. Mason. No, I won't freak out, Mason. Mulder and I have encountered other individuals with telepathy and telekinesis."
"Did you get to dissect those individuals?"
"She's seen you do it before," Mulder said. "It's okay, Batman. This is for science."
After a few seconds' hesitation, their son's fingertips dusted the top of the box. The cap flew over the coffee table and rug, plunked against a mirror on the other side of the room, and fell to the floor. Mulder whistled softly. Either Mason was showing off for Scully or the kid had been eating his Wheaties.
Mulder fished some coins from his pocket. Mason's shoulders had an anxious set, and Scully received another careful appraisal. Outside, lightning struck something in the distance, cutting a dangerous white path through the black storm clouds.
Holding his hand over the quarter, Mason made it rise and lower like a slow-motion yo-yo. He turned his hand over, motioning like he tossed the quarter in the air repeatedly. Which he did; he just didn't touch it. "Use the force, Luke," he intoned. He quipped nervously, "Hey, Mullins: this place could be my Bat Penthouse. Do I get a hot, clueless girlfriend?"
"What happened to Miss Math Field Day?"
"I lost her number." The quarter spun over Mason's palm so rapidly it hummed. Mulder got a scornful look. "It was in my old phone."
"If only we knew someone who worked for the FBI."
Scully adjusted the icepack and took a single step closer. "The penny," she requested. "If your telekinesis relies on electro-magnetic energy, copper's the better conductor."
Still holding the soda, Mason repeated the same series of movements with the penny, but it spun rapidly as it yo-yoed and tossed several feet higher into the air. He grinned and waved his hand. The penny whizzed across the room and struck the wall like a small caliber bullet.
Mulder said, "Wow." The edge of the penny remained visible; the rest lodged deep in the drywall with a baseball-sized circular dent around it. "The Force is strong with this one."
Mason's grin faded. "Yeah. I'm the reason we can't have nice things."
Scully's expression didn't change. "It's the Faraday cage. It filters out any interference. It's like moving more easily through air than through water." She looked at a foot-high metal cowboy sculpture on the coffee table. "Can you-"
The telephone on the desk near the kitchen rang.
"Is that my mom?" Mason scrambled up. The backpack hit the rug. "That's my mom."
Mulder grabbed the pizza box and got his legs out of the way. The boy barreled past Scully and hovered over the elaborate office telephone on the desk. "There are buttons. Cords. What do I do? Do I just answer?"
The possibility existed Mason had never used a phone where "hang up" was a literal, not figurative term. Mulder said, "There's a regular phone in the bedroom. Just pick up."
"Which bedroom?" The penthouse had three bedrooms. Two with a balcony, one with a hot tub.
Mason darted through the kitchen, across a narrow hall, and into the closest bedroom. The ringing stopped. After a breathless "Hello," the mattress shifted and the boy told someone to put the call through.
Scully trailed a few steps after Mason but stopped. She stood on the rug in her expensive suit skirt and new high heels, with her perfect posture, and watched their ship leave her port. Mulder set the pizza box on the coffee table, put the backpack on the couch, stood, and went to her. The ice pack's condensation dampened the white fabric of her blouse. She studied a bedroom doorway across the hall, on the far side of the kitchen.
"You're right," she said. Mason spoke urgently with Mera, but Scully's voice barely reached Mulder as he stood behind her in the otherwise silent, sophisticated living room. "I love him. He's..."
"He's ours. He's the best of both of us, sprinkled with some paranormal we picked up along the way."
"Yeah," she said, and blinked quickly.
For minutes, she watched the corner of a low bed visible through the bedroom doorway. Mason's big feet hung over the edge of the mattress. Inside faded blue socks, his toes wiggled. Mulder heard "Mullins" mentioned again and again, but not Scully's name. They were in "some fancy hotel" with "an FBI agent Mullins knows." The boy didn't lie but, like Scully and her "Witness Protection Program," Mason didn't tell the whole truth. For one night, Mulder's son cheated on his mother with his other mother.
Mulder noticed the ticking clock again, and the scent of Scully's hair and skin.
"Does he know she's an abductee?" Scully asked quietly, as they eavesdropped.
"No." Mulder stood behind Scully, looking over her head. No part of his body touched hers, but being close felt like a cup of coffee on a dark, frigid winter morning and the cool breeze on a scorching day. Scully was the sun breaking the horizon after a long night. She stilled and centered and comforted something inside Mulder. "Thank you for this: coming here, spending time with him. I know it's hard, but you did the right thing, Scully. Twelve years ago and this afternoon."
"Did I?" She still watched the bedroom.
"He needed you today. Booking an evening flight, listening to a local radio station in the car, the route you took leaving the hotel: that's not chance." Mulder reached forward and stroked her hair. "That's instinct, Scully. That's you being his mother."
As if Mulder hadn't spoken, Scully said, "She's in northwestern Arkansas. A few months ago, the DEA arrested a drug kingpin who'd built himself a vacation home inside a cave in the Ozarks. At some point, in a decision likely fueled by twenty years of recreational cocaine usage, the drug lord installed aluminum panels on the walls to prevent RFID skimming by some opportunistic hiker." She sounded professional - committed but removed from the situation. "I know the FBI agents with her; they're beyond reproach. Agents Reyes should reach her within a few hours."
"Where's Agent Doggett?"
"At his son's graduation."
Mulder did some quick mental math and came up stumped. "Graduation from what?"
"Oh my God." Mulder had gray in his beard and at his temples, but John Doggett should qualify for the AARP discount. "Tell me he has a good live-in nanny."
Again, Mulder might as well have spoken to a wall. Scully continued her quiet briefing. "We can keep her there, underground, indefinitely. She's safe. Her microchip's signal is obscured by the metal walls and the surrounding limestone, like-" Scully let go of the ice pack and gestured to the ceiling. She lowered her hand. Adjusted the ice pack. Continued watching the doorway. "She'll remove her implant, won't she?"
He smoothed her hair again. "Isn't that what you'd do, in her place?"
Instead of admitting the truth, Dr. Scully found facts to quote. "The growth rate of that type of tumor is variable. Penny Northern died fourteen months after her implant's removal, and Betsy Hagopian, eighteen. Several MUFON women had their chips re-implanted, but it didn't work. The microchip has to be new. The DARPA experiments involving those implants were shuttered decades ago; the odds of you finding a new chip are miniscule. If she removes the implant, she'll be dead by the time he's fifteen."
In the bedroom, the feet disappeared as Mason sat up. He promised his mother he'd eaten dinner, though he'd never opened the pizza box.
Using the softest audible voice as their son lied to Mera, Scully said, "We have no evidence the project that could summon me, decades ago, is the same project behind the super-soldiers. Maybe the Syndicate hacked my email, followed me, and found you."
"Maybe." Mulder stepped closer behind Scully. He put his palm on her uninjured shoulder and slid his hand down her arm. The sleeve of her blouse felt like raw silk, and the fine hair of her forearm, downy. "But Mera won't gamble with his life, and neither will I."
"Won't you?" The clock ticked. "I have a microchip; she has a microchip." Her voice remained quiet. "You're right: neither of us will endanger him. That means, however the dust settles, you end up with our son." Outside, thunder rolled into overlapping waves. Jagged lightning flashed across the skyline. "Wasn't this scenario somewhere in the back of your mind the second you found William and discovered his about-to-be-widowed mother was an abductee?"
Mulder stepped back. He stopped touching her. The air cooled and the storm intensified. "How can you even ask me that?"
"Because I know you. I know the best of you - brilliant and passionate and noble - but I also know your darkest corners." She turned and looked up at him. Tears welled in her blue eyes. "Please tell me you were selfish and single-minded in finding him, and reckless in interacting with him. That's what I want to believe. Yes, the super-soldiers followed me, but tell me you didn't feed our son the right tidbits of information for him to figure out your true identity and contact me. Please tell me I'm wrong and this isn't exactly what you secretly wanted."
"You're wrong," Mulder said succinctly. "You're what I wanted. The life I had with you. The quest I had with you." He stressed the last word. "The son I had with you. The son who never freaked me out. The son I never abandoned. How can you think I'd purposefully endanger him? Why do you assume I love him less than you do? I'm his father. I will do whatever it takes to protect him."
Mason's voice called, "Mullins."
"Why didn't you give him to me, Scully?" Mulder's face grew hot. "That was our plan. I stayed dead so I could take William and disappear." His heart thudded faster. "Answer: because you didn't think I could do it alone. You didn't trust me to protect your baby. He's not 'your baby,' Scully. He's our son. He's the future. He's the fruition of decades of the repugnant experiments my father helped perpetrate on innocent people." He pronounced each word distinctly. "But I'm not my father."
Scully held the damp icepack to her shoulder. "Do you even hear yourself? He's a child, Mulder. He's not a quest or a chance at redemption. He's not a consolation prize. He's not competition to see who'll sacrifice the most for his sake. He's a thirteen-year-old boy."
Mason called louder, "Mullins."
Mulder inhaled. He looked down at Scully. "He's a telekinetic, telepathic thirteen-year-old boy who believes the hero will save the world and get the girl. You're a grown woman who gave away our son but got on a plane a decade later with a ring on your finger and your pretty panties in your suitcase. Don't put your guilt on me. All I ever did was ask you to believe in me - which was the one thing you couldn't do. Not then, not now."
She stepped back with an angry indention between her brows.
The boy appeared in the bedroom doorway. "Mullins, Mom wants to talk to you."
Mulder still addressed Scully. "No. I didn't want this."
Mason made a "what's happening" gesture. "Mullins? Mom wants you."
Scully moved the icepack higher on her neck and looked away. "I should check in with Skinner. Call Douglas."
"You do that," Mulder said coolly.
Mason's tennis shoes lay upside-down beside a low, king-sized bed. The soda bottle on the nightstand was half-empty and the phone was off the hook. The boy flopped on the mattress, so Mulder took off his own boots and sat beside him, leaning back against stacks of pillows. He took the receiver from Mason and played his role. The nice, attractive, normal woman who loved his son and didn't deserve any of this - Felix Mullins promised her everything would be okay. He didn't mention Scully. He didn't mention the microchip.
After Mason said goodbye and hung up the phone, Mulder stayed with him, laying side-by-side, watching the storm above the skylight. Scully was wrong, Mulder assured himself. Frightened and guilty and dead wrong.
Through a shared wall, Mulder listened to her conversation with Mr. Wonderful. According to Scully, the conference she'd attended in Wichita was informative. She'd wrapped up the consultation the Wichita Bureau requested, but the Dallas Bureau had a case. Yes, she'd be home soon. They could choose a cake and figure out the seating arrangements. Yes, she'd made a diagram keeping her brother Bill far from someone's Aunt Anne. Yes, she loved Douglas, too.
Overhead, the sky alternated angry, tumbling darkness with flashes of blinding white. Mason slouched lower on the pillows until his head rested on Mulder's shoulder. A click of the remote control brought up the Yankees' game also on the TV in the living room. Instead of muting the volume, Mulder turned it up. He watched the game with the kid's head blocking the middle of the screen.
Mulder had a close acquaintance with cancer. Driving Scully to her appointments. Helplessly watching her get thinner and thinner, paler and paler. Nosebleeds that wouldn't stop. Headaches that didn't relent. At the end, seeing her in a hospital bed as monitors and IV lines seemed to feed off her body rather than help it. The hours of silent, painful waiting as Death began circling.
He didn't want Mason to watch Mera die. Slowly. Horribly. Losing an ounce of herself at a time to cancer until she became nothing and dying became a release.
Mulder didn't want to watch Mera die. She owed him a pie. She loved his son and 80's sci-fi movies and good beer. The world had a shortage of perfect breasts, and she possessed a matching set.
The bedside lamp remained on. He thought the boy nodded off at the bottom of the seventh inning, but at the top of the eighth his son asked softly, "Mullins, are you sleeping with my mom?"
After a deep inhalation, Mulder said, "Yeah," regardless of which woman the boy meant.
"She has a microchip, doesn't she? Like Dr. Scully? Those things can track her, too?"
Mason still whispered, as if the walls had ears. "What do we do?"
"She's safe. You're safe. For the moment, we all get some rest." Mulder stroked the boy's back.
Mason's breathing indicated he didn't sleep, but the Yankees struck out three times in a row without any more questions.
Mulder closed his eyes. The sound of the television faded and the rain grew louder. Mason's breathing slowed. The telephone didn't ring. Super-soldiers didn't crash through the door. Mulder didn't think about the future, with its infinite dangers and regrets. He didn't hear Scully in the next room promising she loved another man.
For a few hours, Mulder drifted. He let the tide carry him toward sleep, toward dreams that, for once, didn't have monsters at the end. Each time he shifted or opened his eyes, Mason remained beside him, eyes closed, body relaxed, breathing slowed. Safe.
Around two, Mulder woke, and Scully stood beside the dresser inside the doorway. Mason's head rested heavy and warm on Mulder's shoulder. The boy slept soundly and the storm continued out of habit rather than vengeance. A soft white light glowed in the hallway. On the television, the Yankees' game had become SportsCenter. According to the announcer, the Yankees lost to the Mets.
Without moving, Mulder watched Scully: the curve of her hip, the light glinting on her hair. An eon ago, when AOL and Windows 2000 ruled the Earth, Mulder woke to the same silhouette. Back then, he sat up in bed - in his old apartment in Alexandria, with magazines and laundry piled on the floor - and felt a hum inside him, a synchronicity, two instruments in perfect tune. She'd stepped into his bedroom, come to him, and the music quickened.
Now, at her gesture, Mulder slid out of bed. He rubbed his eyes, ran his tongue over his teeth. He turned off the TV and the lamp. Covered the boy with a blanket. Mulder's iPhone lay on the dresser beside Mason's, both unable to send or receive a signal inside the penthouse.
Scully had taken off her shoes and stockings; her feet were bare. She didn't carry the icepack but dampness made the white fabric of her blouse transparent from breast to collar; a light-colored strap and the cup of a lace bra showed through. She waved him farther down the hall, away from Mason. Barely audible with the storm, the kitchen clock ticked toward morning.
"Mulder, listen to me." She spoke softly but urgently. "Don't let her remove the microchip. All positioning devices function by transmitting a signal at some wavelength and use basic trigonometry. There are no secret wavelengths or angles. If I can determine at which frequency the microchip emits a signal, we can jam it. She could render the implant invisible with a device the size of a walkie-talkie. Also, abductee's chips are subdermal. I've never seen one in deep tissue since the Syndicate experiments from the 1980's. That may mean the signal is unidirectional. If the implant transmits in one direction - outward - it could be covered with a metal mesh patch. Even a metallic scarf might work."
He stared at her, at the earnest blue eyes looking up at him, at her pink lips moving as she spoke. He noticed the faint freckles on her nose and the little mole above her lip usually covered with makeup. She'd probably been awake all night, trying to find a solution. Scully's rescues involved science. Anti-viral medication. DNA sequences. She saved the day with stomach contents and fingerprints and moulage castings.
Maybe she was right; Mulder had wanted this. Not wanted to watch Mera die, not to endanger and upend Mason's life, but to see Scully. To be Fox Mulder one last time. To have the chance to finish all the things they'd left unsaid. To say goodbye.
"Mulder, I need some time." She stepped closer and put her right hand on his chest. At the touch, a current passed through his body. "Get them somewhere safe. Bring her here, or take Mason to the place in the Ozarks. Anywhere. Give me some time in a lab. I can figure this out. I know I can. Don't let her remove the microchip. I saw her; she'll do whatever you tell her."
He looked at the familiar, capable hand. Those fingers had stitched his wounds, fired bullets that saved his life, and tethered Mulder to reality, to life. The year changed. His name changed, but Dana Scully would always be where Mulder's sky met the horizon and his stormy sea met the shore.
Pain was finite, Mulder reminded himself. At some point, it became like love: feeling more became impossible.
Northern California, he decided. Good schools. Fresh air. Mason could go to the beach. Mulder could mow lawns for Silicon Valley's venture capitalists. Mera could- The growth rate of that type of tumor was variable, but Mera could have eighteen months.
"Are you listening to me, Mulder?"
His voice sounded tired and far away as he said, "I don't want to do this alone."
"You don't have to do this alone." She repeated, "Don't let her remove the microchip." She kept her left arm close to her body, but the fingers of her right hand stroked his wrinkled polo shirt, making electrified little patterns. He still watched her fingers. "I will figure it out."
The clock ticked. The rain slapped the skylights in angry sheets. Their son slept.
"This is our child, Mulder. She's the only mother he knows. He's right. He lived with me for a year. The times the super-soldiers came after him, you were there. Maybe they're not following the chip; they're following you. Maybe they're not after William at all. They could have killed him when he was born, but they didn't."
Mulder heard her voice of reason, but the words lingered on the dark horizon rather than reached him.
"What we know is the tip of an iceberg shrouded in lies and fog." She held the fabric of his shirt like she wanted to shake some sense into him. "Who placed William with the Van De Kamp family? Why? Do those men and their programs even still exist? What if-"
"You thought I'd go after him." Mulder spoke like he was describing a battle lost centuries ago. "When you gave him up for adoption - you did the right thing, but deep down you thought I'd go after William, get him back. One day you thought there'd be a note under your door. 'I have our son. He's safe. Go on with your life and stay out of ours.'"
She moved her hand to her injured shoulder. "That's not-"
But it was true. Their entire partnership, Fox Mulder had plunged head-first and Scully saved him from drowning. He made leaps of faith; she calculated trajectory. Every case, year after year, until unexpectedly, his partner Agent Scully became Dana Scully, who shared his bed and left little earrings in his bathroom and kept a toothbrush for Mulder at her apartment. Scully replaced that toothbrush every month because frayed bristles didn't clean effectively and harbored harmful microbial organisms. Until she loved him. Suddenly, forethought became forefront. He had to do the right thing. For her. For them. For their son.
Mulder hadn't done the right thing for their son. No more than Bill Mulder did the right thing for his son.
"I'm sorry." His words fell out in a weary, final confession. "If I had William, I could never, ever contact you." The hair blow-dried stick straight earlier curled in auburn waves. He tucked a few strands behind her ear and smoothed them in place. "I couldn't face that. Not back then. Now, you're right. I fucked up. I got caught up and ran my mouth. I wanted him to know I loved him, and-" He put his hand on her face and stroked the ridge of her cheekbone. "-I wanted you to know I still love you."
She stepped back and looked up at him. Her eyes held the entire universe. His entire universe, anyway.
She started to speak - probably some perfectly logical refute – but he interrupted. "As long as a molecule of me exists in the ether of this universe, I'll love you. I'll cherish every moment I had with you- Every forty-dollar hotel room, every case, every suture, and every fight. Every time you had my back. Every night we'd barely given ourselves permission to have before they got ripped away. You can marry some other guy, and I can marry my son's other mother, but I'll always belong to you. I'm not gonna let you down. Not this time." He touched her cheek again. "I have our son. Go home. Go on with your life. Stay out of ours. There won't be any more emails."
"Oh my God, what are you doing, Mulder?" She scanned his face. "Are you telling me the truth, or are you screwing with my head again? Do you even know what the truth is?"
"Give me a week," she pleaded. "Even forty-eight hours."
He shook his head. The enemy could be anyone and could descend on them in an unstoppable horde at any moment.
"Are you planning to take William and disappear? The two of you?" She interrogated him in an emphatic whisper. "Am I supposed to cover for you? Do you want me to tell her super-soldiers found you during the night? Or does your solution involve the three of you, a razorblade, and a pair of tweezers? She will die, Mulder."
"You don't get a vote." He inhaled. "You get tonight. You get to say goodbye, which is more than I ever got."
Her determined expression changed. Mulder saw realization spread down her face and through her body: she couldn't stop him. Not with a badge, not with a gun, not with a hypodermic needle, not with a court order. Scully was right; Mera - their son's only legal parent - would do exactly as Mulder instructed.
Instead of vindication, he felt a queasy, drawn-out pain akin to a kick in the balls.
The clock kept ticking down the seconds until morning. Watching her, promises bypassed Mulder's better judgment and bubbled up from his heart: he'd contact her through the Gunmen, send school pictures and report cards. But reality returned and the words fell short of his lips. Instead, he said, "Put Mera on a plane. Get her here in the morning. Let me talk to her face-to-face. I won't make her son disappear."
A memory flitted through his mind: Mulder as a boy, watching his own parents fight over which of their children the Syndicate would take and which would be left behind.
Scully held her shoulder and seemed to watch the shadowy hall behind Mulder. After four heartbeats and another thunderclap, she asked softly, "What else do you need?"
"That's all." Mulder had ten thousand dollars in cash and a backup alias ready to go, but in Lincoln, Nebraska. His bug-out plan never factored in Dr. Scully's great escape to Dallas. Still, all he needed was a pay phone to call the Gunmen and a place to lie low until the FedEx package arrived. They'd vanish into a sea of people living mundane little lives. Until the sky fell. Or the super soldiers found them. "The less you know, the better."
Lightning flashed, making her skin surreally white and her eyes an icy blue, like an overexposed photograph. She bit her lower lip but nodded.
"Do you-" Mulder shoved his hands in his pants pockets. "You wanna come watch him sleep? Like you used to?"
When William was a baby, Mulder often woke to find her forgoing sleep during the night to keep watch. Now, she shook her head. No.
Mulder nodded like he understood, though he didn't. He examined his sock feet and the smooth wood floor. He looked at her bare toes and neatly polished nails. No matter how long he stared down, the distance between them remained the same.
The penthouse had a third bedroom and a selection of leather sofas but Mulder stepped backward, toward the room where Mason slept. "Get some rest," Mulder told her, since a handshake was bizarre and a goodnight hug vastly inadequate. "You have a wedding to plan."
As he turned away, her strangled voice said, "I always believed in you, Mulder."
His memory, typically excellent, captured the next series of events in a few frames. In the first, he stood in front of her, cupping her cheek, one hand in her hair as they kissed. She held her left arm near her body like she wore an invisible sling, but her right hand caressed his neck. His shoulder. His beard. In the hallway, everything and everyone else fell away, and they were two stars orbiting each other. He opened the top buttons on her blouse, revealing the delicate lace bra. He pushed the fabric of her blouse aside. A wide, ugly red and blue bruise stretched from her left shoulder to between her breasts. He remembered whispering "Jesus, Scully."
In her bedroom, the storm blew through the screen of a sliding door to the balcony. The damp, cool, electrified air billowed the drapes and prickled his skin. Scully was a hurricane surrounding him: the silkiness of her hair, the smell of her skin, the taste of her sex. He remembered glancing up from between her legs to find her watching him.
He recalled a straight-back chair in her bedroom, hastily yanked from a writing desk, since the room otherwise contained the Papa Bear and Mama Bear of furniture for non-missionary sex. At her request, he'd stripped to the skin. Breathless, lips stinging, he hit the chair so hard the rungs jabbed his shoulder blades. Mulder saw a wrinkled, cerulean blue polo shirt beside her bed, and the rest of his clothing strewn across the modern, minimalist rug. Scully straddled him. Blouse open, bra still on, in her prim skirt and now, at his request, the new, red-soled stiletto shoes. Hair tousled. Nipples hard beneath the thin lace. He remembered twisting that stupid engagement ring off her finger and flinging it as far as he could. He slid his hands up the long, lean muscles of her thighs, beneath her skirt, and, pushing the fabric upward again, to her ass. As she sank down, he remembered her fingernails denting the skin on his shoulder, and the hot, slick embrace, and her face contorting in what was not pain. Lightning struck nearby; Mulder felt it pass through him.
Sheets of rain slapped the skylight. Thunder shook the floor. She kept her injured arm close to her body as she fucked him, controlling the angle, the depth. They got William like this. They'd worked out the math, and it was their first time, making love while some Syndicate flunky took photos with a hidden camera.
Time looped back on itself and he was Agent Mulder again. Quietly, deeply in love with his beautiful partner, yet surprised to learn she loved him back. All he wanted to do was save the world and love her. Back then, he'd been too naïve to realize he couldn't have both.
He remembered telling her "Don't stop," and the warm pressure building in his groin. Guiding her faster, harder. The wooden chair protesting and the storm tumbling. Muscles tightening, toes digging into the rug. She gasped and cried out. The pleasure inside him erupted all at once, a cathartic release from every atom of his being. And bliss. Absolute, peaceful pleasure. Kissing her, touching her, holding her as close as he could without hurting her. He remembered hearing her say she loved him. As perspiration trickled down his chest and strands of her hair stuck to his throat, he recalled breathlessly, inarticulately trying to put into words what they had - the same mysterious, unbreakable bond uniting subatomic quarks. They started like this. Years and years ago. They took the leap of faith from friends to lovers, and they got a miracle.
An hour later - shirt, boxers, and pants back on, as Mulder lay beside Mason, he stared at the dark glass overhead, waited for morning, and credited Scully another correct call. She'd been right to give William away, and right about a final, passionate, intimate encounter. It did make saying goodbye even harder.
Agent Brigadoon worked like Santa, if Santa's elves operated a high-end mall. Overnight, shopping bags appeared in Mason's bedroom containing a couple pair of jeans and every item of clothing produced by Nike including a very, very expensive pair of sneakers. If Scully made Agent Brigadoon's shopping list, Mulder had company in assuaging guilt by throwing cash at a mall.
At 5:30 AM, Mulder figured out the pod coffeemaker in the kitchen and made a basic cup of joe with the same effort required to launch a manned expedition to Mars. He still wore a wrinkled cerulean blue polo shirt and beige slacks, and he'd developed his own fragrance line: Eau de Homeless Gigolo. His neck ached and his beard itched. His heart beat a quiet distress signal and felt closer to his throat than usual.
The storm stopped, but the ceiling above the glass remained black. Agent Brigadoon had disapparated. The other FBI agent from last night never returned to the penthouse; either Scully dismissed him or he still waited in the hall.
Mulder had grown to hate the ticking of the kitchen clock.
He sipped his coffee, stood in Mason's doorway, and watched the boy sleep. His son could stop colonization - if Mulder lived. That was the prophecy. If Mulder died, the boy joined The Dark Side. Maybe Scully was right about something else. Maybe the super-soldiers weren't after William at all. Someone, somewhere, succeeded in postponing colonization. That someone wasn't Mulder. Someone placed William with the Van De Kamp family. Someone monitored him.
Before a swarm of maybes descended again, Mulder took a final sip of tepid coffee and a deep breath. He walked over and sat on the edge of the low mattress. He switched on a lamp. Eyes the shape of Mulder's and the color of Scully's blinked open. The kid slept in his Batman hoodie.
"We're gonna meet your mom's plane in about an hour," Mulder whispered. "Get cleaned up. There are new clothes in the bags."
"What about Dr. Scully?"
"It's you and me, buddy." Mulder gave the boy's shoulder a rub. "Come on."
Mason folded an arm under his head, but didn't sit up. He lay on his side, watching his father with a half-awake, vaguely hurt expression. "Did Dr. Scully say goodbye?"
Mental Scully made a morning appearance on the far side of the bed. She stood in her Y2K regalia - tailored black pantsuit, glistening auburn bob, FBI pass on her lapel - except the 2014 red-soled stilettoes replaced the chunky black heels. A momentary cocked eyebrow and a secret smile became lips tight between her teeth and pained lines between her brows. Her eyes glistened, her chin quivered, and she turned away.
"She uh-" Mulder smoothed Mason's dark hair. "That's not gonna make it any easier. Not for you, not for her, and not for me."
Mason blinked again and studied his father. The boy's brow furrowed. In the puzzled tone Mulder would use if someone ordered steamed cauliflower if steak was on the menu, his son asked, "Aren't you two, like, old?"
Feigning innocence or ignorance inside a giant Faraday cage was pointless, so Mulder supervised the rug.
After an uncomfortable silence, Mason followed up his question with an observation. "Dr. Scully still loves you."
"I know. I still love her." Mulder's voice sounded rough. "But that's not what matters." He rubbed the boy's shoulder again. "You're what matters. Let's get out of here before you start asking about my university days. Most of Great Britain deserves a blue dot over their house."
With a stoicism that reminded Mulder of Scully, the boy nodded and got up. He gathered a pile of new clothes and headed to the bathroom. The bathroom door shut quietly. Mental Scully stood facing away, toward the ornate wall of glass and the dark view of nothing. She wouldn't stop them, but she couldn't watch, either.
The coffee Mulder consumed remained near the top of his sternum, sloshed around by his pre-dawn tachycardia. His adrenal glands prepared for fight or flight, but the mundane details unfolded in slow motion. Another crop of shopping bags in the third bedroom held Mulder-sized jeans, shirts, and underwear. A shaving kit, other toiletries. A Nike duffle bag. A charger for his and Mason's phones. A burner phone. A box of ammo. Ignoring Mulder's instructions, overnight Scully had arranged everything except money and new identities, and he didn't need Scully for those.
He loaded the spare clip and his pistol, putting a round in the chamber. Thirty-one bullets. A paintball gun or lawn darts would be equally effective.
Mulder checked his wallet. He designated Felix Mullins's driver's license and credit cards for the nearest incinerator, but kept the two-hundred dollars in cash. Northern California was nice. Redwoods, sequoias. The San Francisco Giants, the Oakland Raiders. Yosemite. As Mulder ripped price tags off his new clothing, his plan seemed reasonable. Probably, when Bill Mulder agreed to give Samantha to the Consortium, that plan sounded reasonable, too.
Water ran in Mason's bathroom. Otherwise the penthouse remained silent. Mulder sat on the edge of the unused bed, looking around the room like some better option might lurk in the shadows. None presented itself. He sighed, stood, and headed for a shower.
Texans did things on a big scale. They couldn't have a single vampire. Cheney, Texas was a town of vampires with a book club and an Adopt-a-Highway program. Dallas, Texas bombed buildings to cover up bodies that could have easily been cremated, but the city couldn't be all bad. Dallas had a Barney's.
The Barney's garment bag hung on the closet door, apart from the sea of plastic and paper shopping bags. Mulder assumed clothes for Scully got delivered to the wrong bedroom. Over the years, her taste stair-stepped from J C Penney to Macy's to Sak's. Barney's was a logical progression. She'd need a new blouse. The one from yesterday fit too tightly to remove without causing her shoulder agony. Last night, post-coitally, Mulder found a pair of scissors in the kitchen and helped her cut it off.
He might or might not have Scully's ruined blouse stashed in an outside pocket of Mason's backpack.
Something dangled from the garment bag's hanger. Close inspection revealed a badge, which Mulder opened, stared at a few seconds, and carried to a lamp for closer inspection. He held the badge at arm's length and squinted at it. This badge belonged to a dead man. Every detail, even the number. The photo inside featured Mulder clean-shaven, before his second death in 2001. His hair had no gray, and his eyes fewer crow's-feet. Unless Mulder's actual badge magically transported itself from an old furnace intake in Kansas, the one he held was a convincing fake.
He couldn't imagine Scully's reasoning. Fox Mulder died thirteen years ago. The old badge would get him as far into any top-secret government facility as Felix Mullins's Wichita Public Library card.
Two doors down, the shower switched off in Mason's bathroom.
The garment bag's zipper parted to reveal a two-button, charcoal gray Armani wool suit, along with a dark blue dress shirt and a conservative blue tie. A box inside the bag held black dress socks and wingtip shoes and a folded piece of copy paper. He opened the paper. FBI letterhead. A timestamp and telephone number along the top indicated a fax from the Hoover Building to the Dallas Bureau a few hours earlier. In handwriting blurred by a fax machine, the note read 'See if it still fits. Skinner.'
The entire cup of caffeine kicked in all at once. Heart thudding inside his chest, Mulder stared at the badge. The note. The suit. The badge again. If Skinner sent the suit, this Kobayashi Maru had a cheat code. Don't run. Don't ask Mera to forfeit her life. Use the resources of the FBI to stop the creatures chasing Mason and whoever was behind them.
Mulder thought he did pretty well at fatherhood. Aside from the gunfire and herd of alien-hybrid assassins yesterday, he kept his son safe. He made sure Mason ate breakfast and remembered his homework. But Mulder was very, very good at one thing: stopping bad men.
Still, his abdomen quaked as he thought of the super-solders. Untiring. Unstoppable. But someone created them, and someone gave their orders.
He looked at the badge a third time, at the gold shield and the old photo. He remembered that guy. Agent Mulder waded neck-deep into government experiments and conspiracies spanning decades and continents, swinging his sword at windmills. He searched for his sister. He chased freaks and monsters and rumors. He searched for the truth about why bad things happened to good people. That guy had drowned in a sea of paranoia until Dana Scully walked in and classed up the place. He had ballast, and the bad men who posed a threat-
Mulder had wanted his partner with him on every case. He wanted his friend healthy and her family safe. He wanted to see her smile. He wanted to wake in his lover's bed on a lazy Saturday morning. He wanted to protect and raise their son. Any bad men who threatened those things, Mulder would hunt down and shoot like rabid dogs, and call it self-defense in his report.
At least, back then, Mulder thought he would.
In the bathroom off the third, unused bedroom, Mulder showered. He brushed his teeth. He put on new boxers. With the scissors from the kitchen, Mulder trimmed his beard. For the first time in more than a decade, he shaved off Felix Mullins and Frank Martin and every other alias.
The last suit on Fox Mulder's body was the one Scully buried him in. The new jacket fit closer and narrower at the shoulders. The waist of the trousers hit lower, with the front less accommodating to "junk." Dress shirts buttoned and his shoulder holster worked exactly the same, though. His badge still fit in a pocket.
"You're gambling with his life," Mulder told his reflection, and threaded a tie around his neck.
The guy in the bathroom mirror looked resolved. He turned his head. The skin his beard had covered was paler than the rest of his face. The faint row of circular scars on each jaw still showed.
From nowhere in particular, a man rasped, "You can stop them."
Startled, Mulder looked around. His father's voice had spoken, but Mulder saw no one in the bathroom and his own reflection in the foggy mirror - hair damp, brow furrowed, and tie hanging loose around his neck. As Mulder grew older, he looked more like his father, as Mason bore more resemblance to Mulder over time.
The stylized lights flanking the vanity still glowed and the bathroom, even with the door open, remained warm and steamy. An unseen ventilation fan whirred. Mulder gathered no evidence of a ghostly presence, but he heard the voice again, terse, as if displeased at repeating himself. "You can stop them."
Instead of shaving cream and shampoo, he smelled rye whiskey and stale cigarettes, laundry starch and Brylcreem. Old furniture in an old house, clothing washed not quite frequently enough, and a kitchen used primarily for heating TV dinners. He smelled his father, toward the end of Bill Mulder's life, when the man answered every question with a dark riddle and blamed his own failings on his son.
Scully claimed Mulder believed in everything from lake monsters to vengeful wraiths, and from reincarnation to the immortality of Count de Saint Germain. Mulder begged to differ. As an FBI Agent, he kept an open mind to evidence of the paranormal. As a psychologist, he knew the fallacies of the human memory and psyche, and he recognized a self-serving hallucination when he heard and smelled one. At least, this morning he did.
He liked the suit; it gave him purpose in a way even his stand-on mower couldn't match. Scully still loved Fox Mulder: the G-man with the suit, the badge, the noble quest. Their son, however, regarded Felix Mullins as the guy who ran the Weed Eater, and Dr. Dana Scully as the star of some forensic TV show in which Fox Mulder once played a minor role.
Bill Mulder didn't offer cryptic advice from beyond the grave. Mulder was seriously, chronically fucked-up and, when it came to William and Scully - not a nice guy.
"This isn't about Her," Mulder told the mirror. "Or me. This is about protecting our son. Protecting innocent people."
This time, his reflection smirked in disbelief.
Mulder stared at the bathroom mirror so long his adolescent Mini-Me's reflection appeared in the doorway. Mulder turned and checked. A flesh and blood boy stood there. Clean. Dressed. In new jeans, shirt, and fancy sneakers, but still the Batman hoodie. Backpack over his shoulder, looking shaky but ready to go.
"Did anything unusual happen in your bathroom?" Mulder asked.
"Mullins, I sense a dad joke coming."
Mason seemed to scrutinize his father's clean-shaven face. Arms open, Mulder turned side-to-side. "What do you think?"
Mason tilted his head. "You look like the Fox Mulder on the internet, but old."
"Can we say 'older'?"
The boy shrugged noncommittally.
Mulder tied his necktie, checked his reflection one last time, and turned off the bathroom light. He retrieved their phones from Mason's bedroom. The keys to a rental car lay on the kitchen counter beside the fancy coffee machine. Mulder picked them up. His son followed like a puppy afraid of getting lost.
Instead of leaving the suite, Mulder went to Scully's bedroom. The door was ajar about an inch, but no sound or light spilled out. As Mulder pushed the door open, Mason leaned sideways to see inside.
Scully sat in the chair from last night, fully dressed and coifed, which meant she'd been up before Mulder. Or more likely, she'd never slept. A sling immobilized her left arm, the white fabric a stark contrast against her dark suit. She wore the red-soled high heels and her gun on her waist rather than in a shoulder holster. The engagement ring had returned to her finger.
Her chest and good shoulder rose as she looked at them, as is bracing herself for a blow. Her eyes widened.
Mulder skipped saying good morning to ask abruptly, "Are you certain you can block the microchip's signal? Can you help me keep Mera and Mason hidden long enough for me to-" The keys jangled as he gestured with his hand. "-do something. Stop someone."
"There's a-" She stood but kept one hand on the back of the chair. "I made some calls last night. The NSA has developed a device the size of a deck of cards. It jams all GPS and cellular signals for thirty feet."
"Where might we obtain one of these miraculous devices?"
Mason spoke. "I think I have it." Mulder turned, surprised. The boy tapped the side of his backpack. "Someone put your shirt in there, too, Dr. Scully. It's all cut up."
Scully tilted her head and scrutinized Mulder icily.
He gave her "what can you do?" shrug. Agent Brigadoon liked to rummage through trashcans and stow ruined women's clothing in a kid's backpack. Perv.
Sounding less like an anxious infomercial and more like a displeased professor, she continued. "The NSA's jamming device functions for seventy-two hours on a single charge. I'd still advise a subterranean environment and a rudimentary Faraday cage for redundancy's sake, and-" Her eyes seemed to focus, for the first time that morning, on their son. "-He's correct. Whatever signal the microchips send and receive is interrupted regularly by elevators and parking garages and anything that would cause a dropped cell call. It's probably designed to compensate for those fluctuations. But Mulder, I can't predict the long-term implications of completely, consistently blocking that signal."
"But we know the implications of removing the implant."
She nodded. "I can access the old MUFON records and see if there are any abductees who haven't removed their chips. If there are other women like her, I can get their medical records. There could be a fifty-five year old subway worker out there who's in perfect health." She let go of the chair and took a step toward them. "There is the possibility the implants function using some technology we can't begin to understand. Or, Mulder, if the super-soldiers find him through some other means... The ship took you. You don't have an implant. Maybe they track the antibodies we've created against the Purity virus or some other biological anomaly."
Mulder jerked his head in acknowledgement.
She inched closer. "I trust Agent Reyes. I trust Agent Doggett, but if you're talking long-term protective custody- involves other agents. I can't vet the entire FBI, or every desk clerk and maid and pizza delivery boy. Now, the Syndicate knows their identities. There's voice recognition and facial recognition software. The mother, she- She can't pick up the telephone and call her family. She can't email. She can't visit the websites she used to or TiVo the same shows or buy the same groceries every week using a store discount card. She can't slip up once or the super-soldiers will find her within hours. If that happens…"
Mason glanced between them like he watched a high-stakes tennis match.
After a pause Mulder promised, "I'll be with them."
He was a trained observer. He saw the fleeting expression - like she'd swallowed a bitter pill. "How can you protect them if you're off-" With her right hand, she imitated the gesture he'd made a moment ago, and his rather dramatic assertion. "-Stopping someone? Doing something?"
In answer, Mulder produced the counterfeit badge from his pocket and showed her the photo. "Skinner sent a welcome home present. I presume membership has its privileges."
Her surprise seemed genuine. She stepped forward again, standing half-way across the room from them. Her hair and makeup were perfect, and her new suit impeccably tailored, but her voice wavered. "This reaches higher than AD Skinner's security clearance, Mulder. The men behind the abductions, the experiments, the hybrids, the super-soldiers - We tried to take down Cancerman and his cronies, Mulder. You and I tried for years. All we did was fill graves and filing cabinets. After all this time, you think you're going to put on a suit and stop them?"
Mason stood inside the room. Mulder remained in the doorway. The boy looked over his shoulder at his father, but Mason's profile blurred as Mulder focused on Scully. "You said you believed in me."
"I do. Of course I do, Mulder, but-" Scully looked at their son again.
"I believe in you, too. This is a yes/no question, Scully. I know this isn't your life anymore. I'm not asking you to share a basement office or come over for Sunday dinner. After this morning, you won't see us again, but can you-"
She interrupted. "It is my life." Her eyes moved to Mulder, to Mason, and back to Mulder. Last night, post-coitally, as Mulder cut off her blouse and helped with her bra, Scully had proposed a plan: a sharp knife, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and a pair of tweezers. To flush her implant down a toilet and disappear with Mulder and Mason. Do what she should have done, years ago - according to her. If anything happened to Mulder, Mera was a sitting duck. Even one-handed, Scully was formidable and resourceful, whip-smart and a dead shot. For up to eighteen months.
Some couples cuddled and engaged in sweet pillow talk after sex; Mulder and Scully had argued over which one of them should die trying to protect their son.
Mason spoke abruptly. "No." Mulder turned to look at the boy. Mason watched Scully, suggesting her thoughts mirrored Mulder's. "Dr. Scully, don't, like, do that. Mullins- Mulder-"
Mulder addressed Scully again. "Can you buy me some time? That's all I'm asking."
Her chest rose. She nodded.
Mulder held up the car keys and cocked his head toward the kitchen. "We have a change of plans, partner."
On a scale of 'carefully executed plan' to 'having a vague idea,' Mulder qualified as 'totally making it up as he went.' Inside the penthouse, Mason probably knew that, and Scully had the benefit of decades of experience. Still, once again - and as always - Scully checked her weapon, picked up her cell phone, and followed Mulder. Clutching his backpack, wearing a faded Batman hoodie and three-hundred dollar basketball shoes, their son followed.
On the technicality Felix Mullen's wallet was in the hotel's incinerator and Fox Mulder's driver's license expired with the Dot-com bubble, Scully drove. The rental car she'd arranged looked identical to the one she demolished yesterday and, except for "Hey, buddy - see that plaza? It used to be a building with a bomb in a soda machine," was silent.
Early morning traffic was sparse, both downtown and in the 'burbs. The car radio couldn't pick up a station and Mulder's cell phone got no signal. The little black box in Mason's backpack worked. Their son sat in the back seat with the pack on his lap, seat-belted in, looking out the window. A sickly yellow streak appeared on the horizon, but the rest of the sky remained dark, and angry gray clouds dragged their damp fingers across the plains. In the course of forty-five minutes, Mulder decided the car's air conditioner had been too cold, not cold enough, and too cold again. Scully's windshield wipers suffered a similar malady in the drizzle.
The airstrip last night had been a grassy path in the middle of nowhere, but this one lay inside a gated community, at the end of a long paved road dotted by sleeping houses larger than some colleges. The gate's passcode was written on a Post-it note on the dashboard. Scully drove one-handed, looking straight ahead. The black pavement ended in a parking lot bordered by a series of large, square, windowless hangers. A fuel truck occupied the parking lot, and a single security light glowed on a telephone pole.
The rental car stopped. Scully shifted the transmission into park. The headlights cut two swaths in the fine rain. The dashboard clock indicated they had arrived exactly on time. Still, Mulder wished she'd make a few laps around the parking lot. Take a tour of the neighborhood. Time fell like sand through a sieve until none remained.
Mulder looked over his shoulder; Mason continued staring at or out the window.
"An app labeled 'E.T.' will show up on your phone." Mulder's voice sounded startlingly loud as he spoke to Scully. "Use it. Whatever you discover, relay it to the Gunmen. They'll know where to find me. Us."
Her hand remained on the steering wheel. She kept adjusting her grip - an unnecessary precaution in a stationary vehicle. "Will you tell them to take my calls?"
"Are you taking them back to DC?" Her "them" seemed to reference a duo, not The Triple Threat.
"I'm taking them someplace safe."
Scully looked out her window, probably focusing on the same nothing as their son.
Leather upholstery in the back seat creaked. Mason asked, "Are you going back to Washington, Dr. Scully?"
Softly and without looking back, she answered, "I live in DC."
"I know." The boy put a hand on Mulder's seat, and his profile appeared above the center console. "I've never been to Washington."
Her voice sounded like the dying notes of a sad song. "You have, William. You just don't remember."
"Mason," she amended. She inhaled. "Many small airports like this use a remote, pilot-operated lighting system. It's activated using the cockpit's radio, so you and Mulder and- You and Mullins-" Her chest rose again. "Remember to turn the jamming device off momentarily if you're in the plane and to stay at least thirty feet from the tower on the ground." She spoke faster. "Microwaves, distress beacons, two-way radios, some heart monitors: all those function using the same-"
"Scully." Mulder interrupted. "I'll do my best to avoid any situation involving our son that necessitates an avalanche distress beacon."
Her throat convulsed. She didn't look at Mulder. On the steering wheel, her right hand moved from five o'clock to two. "The implant doesn't merely track abductees, Mason. The microchips can summon abductees to pick-up points. People have left their homes and driven hundreds of miles, not of their own volition and with no memory of their actions. The super-soldiers can follow me but also, if I know your location or even your identity- I'm a medical doctor and an FBI agent. I can access medical records, the FBI's databases, classified documents. I - or the super-soldiers controlling me - can find you, and they can force me to lead them right to you. I won't even know I'm doing it. Do you understand?"
Mulder didn't hear a response from the back seat, meaning the kid nodded. The windshield wipers slapped twice, waited, and twice again. Mason asked, "Will your shoulder be okay?"
She addressed the windshield. "I'll need an MRI, but I suspect a tear in the superior labrum both anterior and posterior. If so, it's correctable via arthroscopic surgery." Turning toward the center of the car, she followed that scary recitation of the Merck Manual with, "I'm fine, Mason."
Across the parking lot the lights flanking the runway began flashing yellow, and beyond the hangers, red. An old man in dark blue coveralls emerged from one building and headed for the fuel truck.
Mulder's heart picked up the pace. Even inside the car, he felt cool mist settle over him. "Time to go, Mason."
Behind Mulder, a seatbelt unfastened and whirred as it retracted. Mason's door opened, and damp air drifted in. A plane's engines droned in the distance. "I guess I'll see, ya, Dr. Scully. Thank you for, like-" Mulder would have said "existing." Their son, Mr. Auditory Pareidolia, went with "-everything."
Barely breath with sound, staring straight ahead again, she answered tightly, "You're welcome."
Mason's door closed. As Mulder moved to get out, he told her, "He knows you're doing what's best for him. He knows you love him."
Her jaw widened. She started blinking.
Mulder's chest ached. Breathing hurt. He felt like a scab being peeled off too soon and torturously slowly. Yesterday morning he'd thought nothing was worse than watching Scully walk away. He'd been wrong. Walking away from her hurt equally but required effort. Mulder stayed in the passenger seat, door ajar, one wingtip shoe on the pavement.
Scully said hoarsely, "Go, Mulder."
Rain beaded on the right arm of his suitcoat, but his butt remained in the seat. "Scully, from the Thursday morning you first walked into my office until this second, you've been a remarkable chapter of my life. You gave me faith and balance and love. You gave me hope when I thought I was beaten and direction when I was lost. You gave me him." He nodded toward Mason, who stood in front of the car, facing away, backpack over his shoulder as a small plane flashed past. "Saving humanity might be the big finish, but you'll be where the tide crested."
"So will you." The knuckles of her hand went white on the wheel. In the same ragged voice, she repeated, "Go, Mulder," so he did.
The plane touched down, wheels squealing against the wet runway. After a few shaky breaths, Mulder put an arm around the boy and walked him toward the nearest hanger. The fuel truck rumbled past them. Mulder didn’t look back, but the beams from the headlights of Scully's car didn't move.
The little Learjet turned and taxied toward them. Nothing on the plane identified it as FBI or any other government agency. Scully never specified. She'd said the plane would be there, like the rental car, the passcode to the gated community, and every other meticulous detail.
Time fell out of joint. Some things moved in fast-forward while others dragged, yet everything jumbled into a surreal tangle. Mulder felt like he watched from outside his body but he kept walking forward, kept an arm around his son, and didn't look back.
Steps fell from the plane's flank to the pavement in slow motion. Mera scrambled down them before the bottom step was horizontal. Agent Brigadoon hadn't visited Mera's underground lair. She wore faded jeans, tennis shoes, and the old, oversized Kansas State shirt that must have been Jake's. She thanked God as her arms enveloped Mason. She kissed his cheek, his forehead and, hands on his shoulders, stepped back and seemed to inspect every visible inch.
"I'm okay. I'm fine, Mom," Mason assured her loudly. The plane's engines dropped to somewhat-deafening. "We're gonna be okay. I have something that can block the signal of the microchip in your neck. Mullins says he can stop the alien-human hybrids that came after me."
Her expression suggested the only words she comprehended were "okay" and "fine."
Mulder shook off the surreal sensation, and spoke. "The implant sends a signal. To hide the two of you, we have to hide the signal."
She looked at Mulder as if just noticing him standing three feet from her. Drizzle collected on her hair as she stared, eyes wide. She glanced at Mason, and back at Mulder. "Jesus Christ. Mullins? You look like… Jesus Christ."
Mulder rubbed his clean-shaven jaw and checked his dress shoes.
Mera kept a hand on Mason's shoulder but addressed Mulder. "Who are you? Why is this happening? What's happening, Mullins?" The steadiness of her voice decreased the faster she spoke. "There was a shooting at the school. Dad called and I woke up and started getting dressed and there were FBI agents at the door saying I had to go with them-"
Mulder interrupted. "Mera, I can explain."
"- and they put me in a car. They took my phone. Can they even do that - just take someone's phone? The news says we're going to die. My father thinks we're in a hospital dying, Mullins." She seemed to have forgotten their conversation last night during which Mulder explained everything except his real identity and his actual plan. The plane's engines quieted; her frenetic pace continued. "The news showed the security video. Mr. Buchanan shot that man, and he got back up. Mr. Buchanan goes to our church. That man got back up, Mullins. How can he just get back up?"
Mason tried. "Mom-"
"He can't be human." Rain drops and chill bumps covered her arms but her face flushed. "What is he? No one will tell me anything." She flung a hand at the plane as Agent Reyes emerged. "She talks about auras and the Earth's vibrations. Is she even a real FBI agent?"
Mulder answered. "The man at the school isn't human. There are others. Maybe five, maybe five hundred, but none of them are human, and if they find your son, they will kill him." He stepped closer to her. "I can keep the two of you safe. I can stop them. You have to trust me."
Mera's world included paisley fabric purses and church bake sales. Weeding her father's flowerbeds. Packing Mason's lunch and checking the Sunday paper for coupons. Mourning her husband and making spaghetti and picking up Mason from baseball practice. Nice things. Normal things. A normal little life, except for a mysterious miscarriage years ago, a funny bump on the back of her neck, a few nightmares, and a very bright son who could move things telekinetically. Her world didn't include super-soldiers or government conspiracies or a coming alien apocalypse.
She didn't think to ask how the super-soldiers found her son.
"I want to go home." She gripped the fabric of her son's hoodie. "Mason still has school. I have a job, Mullins. We have- We have cats. You have fish. We have to go home."
"You can't go home. Mera, there's a DARPA research facility in northern Virginia." Mulder stepped closer. "Underground, top secret. You'll be safe. We'll get settled in, go over the plan, and-" He put a hand on Mera's shoulder; she trembled. "I'll go after the things that came after your son. Once I stop them, we can go home."
She didn't ask for a timeline, or about Mulder's presumptuous "we." She stared up at him, shaking with cold or trembling with fear or both. She looked terrified and exhausted and lost. "I-"
"Mom, listen to him."
"I'm an FBI agent. Special Agent Fox Mulder." That sentence hadn't left his lips in thirteen years. "A long time ago, I headed a unit that went after evil men in our own government who colluded with those space ships, and with the super-soldiers, and with the experiments that left the chip in your neck. Those men destroyed my family. They thought they destroyed me. I thought they destroyed me." He paused for breath. "Turns out, I'm not dead. I'm not promising I'm a nice guy, but there are still people I want to protect and answers I want to hear."
"An FBI agent?" She looked at her son, and at Mulder. Her grip on Mason loosened. "Mullins- Am I crazy? What's a DARPA? Aliens and super-soldiers and implants- This all sounds crazy."
"Come here." Mulder put an arm around her. Both arms. "You're not crazy. I've spent months in Crazy and I've never seen you there." He avoided meeting Mason's eyes. "You can do this, Mera. I believe in you."
In the parking lot, the rental car hadn't moved. Mason, with the little black box in his pack, stood beside Mera, but Scully was parked eighty feet away. Beyond the range of the signal jammer. The super-soldiers could detect the chip in her neck. Find her, find Mason. She endangered their son, yet the car's engine remained running, the headlights on, and the transmission in park.
Mera sniffed and turned her head, following Mulder's gaze. "Who's in the car?"
Before Mulder could speak, Mason answered. "Another FBI Agent. The one who was with us last night. Mom, listen to Mullins. He's telling you the truth."
Mera stepped back. Mulder kept a hand on her shoulder and didn't look at the car again.
The pilot stayed in the cockpit. The old man connected a line from the fuel truck to the plane. Agent Reyes exited the plane with an unlit cigarette between her fingers and gave Mulder a curious, passing appraisal. Nicotine addiction surpassed small talk, he presumed.
Mulder put an arm around Mera and said, "Let's go," as he steered her toward the plane. Mera moved like a sleepy child through the rain, but she moved and Mason followed.
Mulder told the pilot to head for Langley Air Force Base as soon as the plane refueled, and he got Mera in a seat. Mason buckled in facing his mother. He opened his backpack and, resourceful lad he was, produced three apples procured from the penthouse's kitchen.
Mulder took an apple, sat back in a plush leather seat and with nothing to do but wait, let himself look. The closed hangers offered no awnings or eaves, but Agent Reyes stood close to a metal wall as she smoked. The rental car remained in the parking lot, lights on, wipers continuing their slap twice-pause-slap twice cycle. Mulder watched the car. He couldn't see anything more than the driver's silhouette, but he looked anyway.
"What is up with her?" Mera's voice asked.
Mulder blinked. He turned toward Mera. She'd taken three bites from an apple; he'd taken none. Given her unawareness of Scully, he presumed she meant Agent Reyes. "It remains a mystery for the ages." His voice sounded smooth. Conversational. A little light-hearted banter as they waited to fly off into the sunset. Scully was right: Mulder should thank the Academy.
He considered reaching across the aisle to take her hand, but didn't.
Mulder looked out the plane's window again. The old man fiddled with the hose between the plane and the fuel truck. Scully's distant headlights cut two swaths through the miserable drizzle. The yellow dawn spread up from the horizon like a faded bruise, but the dark cloud held fast. Agent Reyes enjoyed her cigarette a hundred feet from the plane, though she could have stood beneath the plane's wing. Smoking while pumping gas at a 7-11 was a bad idea, but a cigarette didn't burn hot enough to ignite fumes from aviation fuel.
Mulder looked at the fuel truck again. Like yesterday afternoon, at the base of his brain, a little ping, ping, ping began sounding, akin to a building's security zone alarm, not an air raid siren. Not a blare. Barely a blip, but a tiny red flash of something amiss.
He heard Mera speak again and Mason respond, but only their anxious voices, not their words.
The hose between the refueling truck and the plane - at the truck, the red valve was switched off. Mason's school had an on-site fuel tank. After spraying gasoline everywhere a few times, Mulder developed an understanding of ball valves. They all worked the same. The lever, parallel to the line, opened the valve. Perpendicular, the valve closed, blocking the flow.
The valve on the hose supposedly refueling their plane remained closed, yet the old man supervised a gauge on the side of the truck. In the cockpit, the pilot checked dials, flipped switches, and busied himself with a clipboard. Mulder leaned forward. He didn't hear the pilot on the radio filing a new flight plan, but that could be done online.
Mulder checked the phone in his jacket pocket. No signal. That faint zone alarm gained a few decibels.
"Mason," Mulder said quietly, "is the box on?"
"Yeah." The boy moved to unzip the pack on his lap. "I'll-"
"Leave it on," Mulder requested in the same calm voice. Surreptitiously, as he replaced the phone, he unsnapped his holster and sat back.
After more scribbling, the pilot adjusted his headset, flipped a switch, and began reading a flight plan into a microphone. Outside, the old man uncoupled the fuel line from the plane at a leisurely pace. Yesterday, a handful of assassins hadn't been able to kill Mason. This morning, even with their target trapped, the super-soldiers must await enough reinforcements to get the job done.
Mulder's heart pounded but his mental siren silenced and became, not for the first or even fifteenth time, the odd calm of facing death. His universe focused on one detail - find Scully or take out the shooter or defuse the bomb - and nothing else mattered. Protect their son.
"We have company." Mulder looked at Mason and asked quietly, "Can you feel them?" Wide-eyed, the boy shook his head. However the box blocked the chip's signal, it must hamper Mason's abilities, too.
Mulder turned toward Mera, who shared Mason's aversion to air travel and sat across the aisle like she awaited a root canal. "You're going to make a scene. Loud, hysterical," he instructed. "You're going to say I'm crazy. Say I'm not his father, and you and Mason aren't going anywhere with me. You're going to get him off this plane, and when I come after you, struggle with me. Create a distraction. Mason-" His son clutched the backpack, blue eyes wide. "Take your pack, get back to the car, and get out of here. Do you understand?"
Both heads nodded. Mason held his pack against his chest and Mera's knuckles went white on the armrest.
Since the box remained on and the kid couldn't tell Mulder was lying, Mulder added, "We'll be right behind you."
Mera's throat convulsed. Otherwise, she sat frozen in the big seat.
"Now," Mulder prompted. Before company arrived.
She stared at him. "Mullins..."
"You can do this," Mulder assured her.
"No, I can't." Her chest rose, and her volume. "No, I can't." She unbuckled her lap belt. "Jesus Christ, this is crazy. We're not going anywhere with you. I don't even know who you are. Mason, let's go."
Mason's apple hit the floor. Mera put a hand on her son's back and hurried him up the short aisle and to the open door. Once she reached the steps, Mulder unbuckled and bolted after them.
In the cockpit, the pilot looked back over his shoulder.
Mulder yelled "Hey," from the doorway. He paused, descended the steps and, hands on his hips, demanded, "Where do you think you're going?"
Mera had Mason fifteen feet from the plane, headed toward the hangers and the parking lot at a fast clip. Scully's rental car was still parked at the edge of the gravel, headlights on, wipers clearing the drizzle every few seconds.
"I'm telling you the truth," Mulder yelled. "Mera, they'll find you. They'll find him and they'll kill both of you."
Twenty-five feet from the plane. About a hundred feet to the parking lot. The old man looked up from his gauges. Agent Reyes lowered her cigarette.
"Are you listening?" Mulder stalked after Mera. "You can't go home. These are bad, bad men, Mera." He reached for her wrist, making sure she could evade his grasp. She picked up her pace further and hurried Mason ahead of her. About eighty feet from the parking lot, Mulder grabbed her shoulder, whirling her around. He ordered, "Stop. I can't let you take him," but Mason kept walking.
"Don’t you touch me." Damp hair tousled, face flushed, Mera yelled, "I can take him anywhere I want. You're not his father, Felix Mullins. Frank Martin. Fox Mulder. Whoever the hell you are. You stay away from him and you stay away from me."
"You have to listen to me." Mulder seized her wrist, this time making sure she couldn't jerk free. "You have to trust me. I can keep you safe. Both of you."
The boy stopped and turned back, seeming uncertain. Mera made a good show of struggling, but Mulder saw her look past him, at the plane. The pilot must be out of the cockpit.
Through her teeth, Mera ordered, "You let go of me." Each time she tried to pull away she stepped backward, closer to the parking lot. Mason backed with her. She jerked away. Mulder followed and grabbed. "You have no right-"
"You're coming with me."
The engine of the fuel truck turned over. In the rental car, now within sixty feet, Scully's silhouette watched intently.
Behind Mulder, heavy footsteps approached. The pilot's voice called, "Agent Mulder, is there a problem?"
Mulder looked at the rental car and nodded to Scully. To the pilot, he replied, "No. No problem," and to Mason he mouthed "Run."
Mulder grabbed Mera around the waist and lifted her off her feet, creating a screaming banshee of flailing limbs. Before Mulder turned, he saw Mason whirl in the opposite direction and make for the rental car at a dead run. Agent Reyes had her weapon out, but by the time he faced the pilot, so did Mulder. He shoved Mera behind him as he put two bullets in the pilot's chest.
A car door slammed. Tires squealed in the parking lot.
The pilot didn't bleed.
On the wet pavement, Mera screamed and scrambled backward.
Mulder shot the pilot in the head, making a liquid Terminator-like hole. Tires screeched again. The huge fuel truck lurched forward with the old man at the wheel.
Mulder's first shot missed the truck's front tire but his second shot flattened it. For good measure, he put a bullet in a back tire as well, and in the old man. Mulder started counting: twenty-five bullets left. With two super-soldiers requiring a bullet every fifteen seconds or so, that bought Scully and Mason - and Mera - three minutes.
Tires screeched again, this time to a halt. Scully had stopped at the entrance to the meandering road through the luxurious subdivision. Headlights approached in the mist, two cars side-by-side, blocking the lane. In the big sedan, Scully could plow through a single car, but a line of headlights snaked back so far the gray morning consumed them.
The rental car reversed and swung around.
The private airstrip was at the end of the road. It was an airstrip; it ended in grass in either direction. After last night's storm, a car wouldn't make it through a muddy field. Even if she didn't get stuck in the mud, this was a gated community. Scully's car would meet a fence, not a way out.
A neighborhood lavish enough to have its own airfield probably had one hell of a fence. Scully must have realized that too because as the other cars streamed into the parking lot, her car headed for the landing strip.
Mulder shot the pilot, then the old man again. Twenty-three bullets. He caught a glimpse of Mason in the passenger seat as the rental car passed.
"I have them," Reyes yelled. She had her weapon trained on the two super-soldiers. "Go."
Presuming Agent Reyes understood she had to shoot the super-soldiers every so often, not hold them at gunpoint or perform a Vogon poetry slam, Mulder jerked Mera to her feet and ran after the car.
Super-soldiers must have poor night vision. In the herd of outwardly-human creatures encroaching from one end of the runway, Mulder saw flashlights. Dozens of flashlights. He checked the other direction. More lights bobbed like fireflies in the fog. Far more than twenty-three bullets worth.
Agent Reyes fired twice. The parking lot flooded with trucks and SUVs and minivans, a used-car lot of unstoppable death machines.
Scully had a preferred method of destruction this week: the Lariat rental car battering ram. She sped up and headed directly for the hoard of super-soldiers on the runway.
Mulder saw a muzzle flash and heard the shot. Another flash, another shot, again from the super-soldiers Scully attempted to run down. Her car skidded sideways, driver-side first, scattering the creatures and taking out the middle of the herd.
Time stopped along with that rented sedan. In the car's headlights, super-soldiers got to their feet and began adjusting limbs and heads back into their customary shapes and positions. A painful bass drum pounded in Mulder's chest and the insides of his lungs stuck together.
The dome light came on. The passenger door opened. Mason scrambled out and, still carrying his backpack, ran. Mulder let go of Mera and ran toward his son.
As the super-soldiers rounded either end of the car, Scully emerged from the same door as Mason. Shoeless. Arm still in a sling. She moved awkwardly - more unsteady than her injured left shoulder should account for. A football field away, she took a few steps and stopped. Mulder saw her glance at Mason, who'd sprinted half the distance to Mulder, and raise her pistol at an encroaching super-soldier. She stopped. The muzzle of her pistol drifted side to side. Scully didn't fire. She didn’t do anything.
"Come on," Mulder yelled. He could hit a target at a hundred yards. On the second or third shot. Even if he did, at this distance he'd only annoy whichever super-soldier he winged.
She turned toward Mulder.
Mason reached him. "Scully," Mulder called again. Mulder got the boy behind him and shot twice at a super-soldier coming around the rear of her car, hitting him neither time. Frantic, he yelled "Scully," but she didn't move.
Mulder took a step toward her.
"Dr. Scully," Mason shrieked, "come on."
Mulder took another step. "Get rid of that backpack," he ordered Mason. "Make her weapon fire."
The backpack and the black box it contained went flying. Mason focused on Scully with his brow furrowed and his chin quivering.
"Now," Mulder yelled at the kid. "What are you waiting for? They'll kill her." Blood pounded in his ears. He took three more steps. "Scully!"
Weapons fired: handguns, hunting rifles, shotguns. Few super-soldiers were armed, but any gun they carried- Not just the soldiers near Scully's car, but in the parking lot, at the other end of the runway. Not Mulder's handgun or Scully's, but around them weapons discharged over and over - into the asphalt, into other super-soldiers, into the carrier's own foot or leg - until each emptied.
Amid the chaos, Scully stood alone, seeming dazed. She lowered her gun. Mulder saw a blood-red rose blooming in the center of her blouse. Her lips produced crimson bubbles. She swayed, and fell.
The super-soldiers surged forward. Around the car, over the car, they kept coming. Mulder couldn’t see Scully anymore. The super-soldiers converged and a wall of assassins moved toward him.
An invisible hand reached inside Mulder and ripped out half his soul. Half his heart. Half his everything. Like Scully, for a millisecond he just stood. Dazed. The alien-human hybrid forces of death approached from either end of the landing strip and spilled from cars in the parking lot.
Far away, a boy's frightened voice repeated, "Dr. Scully?"
Mulder's universe jolted painfully, but it moved again. He moved again - out of habit, out of duty, but he moved.
He tried to think. In this neighborhood, gunfire should being police quickly. That meant a distraction, not a rescue. The little airstrip didn't have a tower. Mulder couldn’t see a way to get atop any of the hangers. The plane was a deathtrap he didn't know how to fly. The refueling truck was a giant bomb with two flat tires. A fence remained the best bet.
Without an implant to track, the super-soldiers - hopefully - located Mason by sight. If Mulder and Mason could beat the horde across the field on the far side of the runway and to the fence, they could disappear into suburbia.
Mulder fired shots into the three closest super-soldiers, grabbed Mason, and ran. Like barn swallows, the super-soldiers still on their feet turned. He heard two more gunshots and, in the distance, police sirens. Mulder hopefully had enough bullets to make a path, and he knew Mason could run. Hypothetically, a fence was located somewhere on the other side of the dim field.
Mulder and Mason sprinted. The swarm of soldiers and businessmen, soccer moms and sales clerks, followed. The super-soldiers ran with a slower but smooth, effortless gait. The super-soldiers weren't a frightened kid who kept looking back. They weren't a fifty-two year old man in wingtips who'd get tired.
He reached the far side of the runway. Across the field, Mulder saw fog and no fence, but no flashlights.
"Mullins, where's my mom?"
Mulder stopped and turned, keeping Mason close. Mera had been right behind him. He'd let go of her for one second. Maybe five. Ten, tops. He saw a sea of empty expressions approaching, but not the old football jersey. Not her wavy brown hair. The super-soldiers from the parking lot had converged around the plane and fuel truck, heading for the runway.
Mulder spotted Mera crouched on her hands and knees atop the plane.
Mason started toward her.
Mulder grabbed him. "They don’t want her."
But the super-soldiers would use Mera as bait. The expression on Mason's flushed face indicated either the boy realized that or he knew Mulder knew it.
"There's a red valve on the side of the fuel truck. See it?" Mulder shot a super-soldier who'd gotten ahead of the herd. "Turn it parallel to the hose."
Mulder had to stop to aim, and Mason to concentrate. The super-soldiers kept coming.
"Now, buddy." Mulder tried not to yell. "Open it."
The lever turned. Fuel belched from the hose and onto the runway. Mulder aimed at a metal tie down plate on the runway beside the truck and, as he exhaled, fired. The bullet hit the plate but didn't spark. Shooting the fuel tank would make a dent. A bullet in liquid fuel wasted a bullet. A spark near vapor though, depending on the type of fuel, might make a very big boom.
Like hungry zombies, a dozen super-soldiers reached up, trying to grab Mera. She kept shrieking and dodging side-to-side, struggling to stay atop the plane.
Mulder changed magazines and aimed again - at a little wet square of metal a hundred feet away on a dark, rainy morning. The fuel on the pavement ignited all at once, engulfing about twenty of the super-soldiers and creating a wall of fire on three sides of the plane. The fuel kept pouring out of the truck, so the pool of fire kept spreading. A black ball of smoke rolled skyward like an angry genie awakening.
"Now," Mulder yelled at Mera. "This way." If she'd scramble down the other side of the plane and run, she'd reach them. Hopefully before the super-soldiers. "Over here."
Mulder shot a speedy super-soldier approaching on their right, and one between them and the plane.
Maybe Mera couldn't hear them over the fire. Maybe she was too terrified to obey or didn't understand. She stayed atop the plane.
Mason ran toward her, into Mulder's line of fire and toward the super-soldiers.
Mulder cursed and went after him. The kid could run, but so could Mulder.
Atop the plane, Mera screamed and struggled as a hand grabbed her ankle. Mulder couldn't see the tall creature that pulled her down, but he saw her slide toward the other side of the plane and disappear.
Again, everything became distant. Even Mason's cries sounded far away.
On muscle memory, Mulder put two bullets into Mr. Speedy. Another into a super-soldier in fatigues. Sirens wailed, and red and blue lights flashed in the distance. The fire still spread. Mulder grabbed his son, turned, and ran. The airstrip became field. Behind them, Mulder heard dozens of shoes squishing in mud. He didn't look back. He heard Mason sobbing and struggling to breathe, but he didn't stop.
He passed a shadowy soccer goal. The fog became denser. The grass sloped down into a shallow stream. He and Mason splashed across it and up the opposite bank, with Mason's Nike's getting better traction than Mulder's dress shoes. Mulder slowed to shoot two men who appeared on his left and a woman in running shorts on his right. Hopefully, super-soldiers, not neighbors coming to investigate, but Mulder didn't take time to check.
He heard super-soldiers crossing the stream. Mulder released Mason's wrist, allowing both of them to run faster. The grass was mowed but the ground rougher. Over his shoulder he saw the orange haze and black smoke above the air strip. In front of them, Mulder saw a fence.
A ten-foot high black steel fence, with rails too closely spaced to get a foot between, and each rail topped with an outward sloping spike. The kind of fence ringing the White House. These Dallas people took protecting their private planes and McMansions seriously.
Heavy footsteps approached.
Mulder holstered the pistol and turned to Mason. "I'm gonna boost you." The boy, red-faced, tearful stared at him with Scully's blue eyes. "Up and over." He interlaced his fingers. "Go, buddy."
Mason seemed too frightened to speak but he looked sideways, away from the fence. Mr. Speedy, Ms. Morning Runner, and Mr. Fatigues had caught up again. It took Mulder five bullets to put the three super-soldiers on the ground.
Which left two bullets in his pistol.
An exact match for their old friends, Ms. SUV and Billy Miles. Both paused to regrow heads, but Mr. Big Stuff approached at a dead run.
"Now," Mulder insisted. He shoved the useless weapon in the holster and interlaced his fingers again. "Go. Over the fence and keep running."
Hard rubber cleats dug into his hands. He boosted Mason as high as he could. Tall, the boy grabbed the top of two rails, wedged the toe of a sneaker sideways between the bars, and climbed up. Over. And with a rustle of damp denim, dropped off the other side.
Mulder followed, though with wet hands and muddy dress shoes. He lost his grip on the first try. He wiped his palms on the legs of a two thousand dollar suit and jumped again. His climb was less Special Forces boot camp and more disabled spider monkey, but Mulder reach the top of the fence as a super-soldier approached the base. He turned, lowered himself down and let go, landing on the other side.
Mason, being Mulder's son, rather than doing as he'd been told, stood waiting. Favoring one ankle.
The security fence paralleled a two-lane road beside another subdivision. Across the road, in the growing dawn, Mulder saw houses. Cars parked in driveways. A motorcycle on the curb. On the sidewalk though, the unlikely group of three soldiers and a business woman turned toward Mulder and Mason.
On the off chance Mulder miscounted or his bullets cloned themselves, he reached for his pistol. "Run, William."
"I can't," the boy answered raggedly. "It hurts. My mom-"
Mulder yelled, "Run. Now!" but the boy was done: too frightened, too exhausted, and too shell-shocked. Mulder could pick him up, but he wouldn't outrun super-soldiers while carrying a hundred and twenty pounds of teenager.
The soldiers behind them climbed the fence, and their new acquaintances crossed the street. Mulder put an arm across Mason's chest and pulled the boy back against him - like his arm would do a hell of a lot of good. Time became unsteady again, an old movie projector cranked at varying speeds. The creatures approached rapidly around them but Mason's heart, beneath the damp hoodie and Mulder's hand, beat impossibly slow.
Behind Mulder, a voice advised, "You can stop them."
He recognized the voice. It lived in a dusty corner of his memory like his high school locker combination and an old girlfriend's telephone number. Mulder turned but, of his own accord, Mason turned toward the fence, too. In a cruel, final joke from the Syndicate, one of the super-soldiers had borrowed Deep Throat's body. Except the body was made of mist rather than flesh.
"You can stop them," the ghost said, seeming certain of it. Deep Throat nodded encouragingly. "Stop them. That's who you are." The form faded but the gravelly voice repeated, "Stop them."
Mulder still had an arm across Mason's chest. "Stop them. Push them back."
He felt Mason trembling. The boy's breathing neared hyperventilation.
"Come on, son. Like this." Mulder let go of Mason and smacked his palm against the steel fence.
Mulder struck the rail. His palm stung. Mason hit the fence, and the four super-soldiers climbing up the other side fell, landing on their backs on the muddy ground.
"Good. Again. Harder," Mulder ordered.
The boy sniffed and smacked both hands against the metal. That cleared a wide swath. Mulder turned the kid toward the street. Mason still shook, but he flung a hand toward the three soldiers and the businesswoman. All four super-soldiers fell back.
And didn't get up again. The creatures sprawled on the street, unmoving. Their people-colored skin grew metallic and pixilated into silver squares. For a second, the silvery little squares held the outline of an empty form. They crumpled. Clothes and shoes remained but contained anthills of dull, powdery ore.
Mulder pointed Mason at the fence again as another wave of super-soldiers reached it.
Within minutes, the creatures trying to scale the security fence became piles of fabric and metal shavings. Fifty or sixty super-soldiers tried. Mulder recognized some as ones he'd shot, but not all. Ms. SUV never approached. Neither did Mr. Big Stuff. Somewhere Billy Miles remained alive - or at least, animated - but either someone called him off or the super-soldiers recognized the futility of their mission.
After the last super-soldier broke into a million harmless pieces, Mason crumpled with it. Tears streamed from his eyes and nose. His chin quivered, his body shook. Mulder could have said he comforted the boy, but in truth, he crumpled with him. Mulder sank to the wet ground of a suburban battlefield with his back against the steel fence and Mason against his chest.
Sirens wailed. A mix of rain and sweat dripped from Mulder's brow, his nose, and his chin, but he didn't cry. His chest ached, breathing hurt, and his legs wouldn't move. Mason sobbed, but Mulder felt as empty as the super-soldiers right before their metallic shell caved in.
An ambulance passed. A police car. Two fire trucks. Across the road, a man in a bathrobe opened his front door, scrutinized Mulder and Mason, and closed the door. Mulder stroked the boy's back. Platitudes seemed pointless and he lacked the energy for them. Mulder looked down. In his other hand he still held the empty gun, magazine empty and breach open.
The rain eroded away at the little piles of super-soldier-shavings.
Three more police cars flashed past in a blur of blue and red lights.
Minutes crawled over each other: ugly, resented creatures with the sense to stay low to the ground. The fire continued at the airstrip; dense, acrid smoke burned the inside of Mulder's nose. Behind them, across a shallow stream, a wide field, and a little airstrip, lay Hell. Mulder kept his back against the fence and didn't look.
Like he had as a child, he closed his eyes, praying he'd open them to see - not Samantha anymore - Her. She of needless technical jargon and tofu smoothies, skeptical eyebrows and lovely white skin. Her. Pull no punches, leave no stone unturned, and piss him off like no other human being on the planet: Her. The reason he still drew breath, and the reason he held a shaking, sobbing son against him. The sun to his elliptical orbit, the logic to his intuition: she'd walk out of the mist in her perfect suit and impractical high heels, brandish her weapon, her badge, or her medical degree, and the rift inside him would stop hemorrhaging.
Mulder opened his eyes. The sky remained an angry gray, with the moon perversely shining bright behind the clouds and the eastern horizon a dull orange. Mason had stopped crying. The boy leaned heavy and sweaty against Mulder's shoulder. People in bathrobes stood on their covered porches, holding mugs and watching the fire. Dr. Dana Scully hadn't appeared.
"You didn't-" A painful lump stuck in Mulder's throat. He swallowed and tried again. "I saw the super-soldier shoot her. In the car. That's why she wrecked. You didn't-" He faltered again. "Your mom- There was nothing you could have done. Not for either of them."
Mason's head shook no, which was as close as the boy's midwestern manners permitted to calling Mulder a liar.
"Do you think either of them would want to be sitting here alive with you laying back at that airstrip?"
After a second the dark, damp head shook no again. Mason shivered and his teeth chattered. Shock. Mulder should get up. Get the boy up. Get them someplace safe and dry. Make some plan.
Mulder put his chin on his son's crown. He started to speak three times before any words emerged. "I know it doesn't feel like it right now, but you're the hero. My hero. Their hero."
In an angry, strangled voice, Mason told Mulder's shoulder, "Yeah. I just need a cape and a hot, clueless girlfriend."
"I'll wash this hoodie. The Gunmen can track down Miss Second Base." Mulder gave the boy's crown a kiss. "I love you, Buddy."
The boy's back rose as he inhaled. "I sent the email. I- I-"
"Stop it," Mulder ordered.
The urgent female voice behind him that said "Agent Mulder?" didn’t belong to Scully. Still, Mulder twisted to see over his shoulder. On the other side of the high fence, Agent Reyes approached with her weapon raised and a long sweater-like jacket flowing behind her. "Agent Mulder, are you injured? Is the boy with you?"
Behind Reyes, Mulder saw the woman second on his wish list. She had red strangulation marks on her neck and an ugly abrasion on her cheek. Tears streaked her face. The old football jersey was ripped but the wearer remained alive. "Mera."
Mason raised his head. "Mom?"
Mera stumbled to the security fence, knelt, and thrust an arm through. Her hand shook as she touched her son, and her lips quivered wordlessly. She pulled Mason to the fence. In a barely audible rasp she thanked God as she embraced the boy through the steel rails. Mera's breaths were ragged as she held him.
"He's okay." Mulder spoke but Mera didn't look at him. He doubted she even noticed him. "He's hurt his ankle."
The orange horizon bled crimson as the sun rose and pushed away the storm. Mulder couldn't imagine how the planet continued turning without Scully. In response to Mera's croaked interrogation, Mason's shaky, repetitive assertion of "I'm fine," sounded so familiar Mulder's chest ached.
He tried closing his eyes again.
In his mind, he saw her. Not in heels and a suit on some case. Not in lacy lingerie or prim pajamas in his bed. He saw Scully in maternity scrubs and tennis shoes, with her hair in a ponytail and purple shadows beneath her eyes. Not kicking ass or waving her badge, but in a lab, waddling around heavily pregnant at 2:00 AM. Obviously exhausted and uncomfortable, but driven by a feverish need that, at the time, eluded him. Thirteen years ago, Mulder, newly-undead, had dogged her from autoclave to microscope, from refrigerator to centrifuge. The machines consumed and reported on samples of her blood, Mulder's blood, the baby's amniotic fluid. DNA sequences were examined, proteins and antibodies compared. Files - his, hers, the baby's, and piles of X-Files - littered the tables. Y2K computers produced reams of data, none intelligible to Mulder but every page all-consuming to Scully. Mulder's suggestion, request, and - in a flare of temper common to men unsure why Death passed them by - his angry tirade she go home fell on deaf ears. She couldn't rest, he remembered her telling him. Their child was coming and their child deserved answers. Their child deserved a future.
Mulder opened his eyes.
Mera remained on the wet ground with an arm through the fence, holding Mason. Mud smeared the boy's jeans and covered the expensive Nike shoes. He still shivered. Mera's cheek had begun to bruise. She tried to speak, but her lips produced painful-sounding wheezes punctuated by a faint, hoarse cough.
The boy pulled back and sniffed. "Mom?"
She had a hand at the base of her throat. Her chest rose and fell faster.
"Mom?" he repeated unsteadily. He looked back. "Mullins?"
Another silent cough. This time blood appeared on her lips.
"She needs to get to a hospital." Mulder got to his knees. "Now." Before her throat swelled shut. But Mera wasn't letting go of Mason, and Mason wasn't getting back over that fence or walking far with an injured ankle.
Agent Reyes assessed the situation and for once, chose a reasonable course. "Stay with them, Mulder. I'll get the paramedics."
Mulder nodded. He moved closer to the fence, urging Mera to stay calm. Try to breathe slowly. Help was on the way. Mason held his mother's hand, but she jumped as Mulder reached between the bars to touch her shoulder.
Her lips moved "Mullins?"
"I'm here," Mulder promised. "I gonna keep you two safe." He took Mera's other hand and put his palm on Mason's back. Still, as Reyes turned away, Mulder let himself look up and ask. "Scully?"
Reyes called over her shoulder, "With the paramedics."
8:24AM June 23, 2014
FBI Headquarters, Washington DC
Wearing a suit and carrying a sidearm at work didn't feel strange, but seeing sunlight did. Back in the day, profilers got a hole in the ground at Quantico. The X-Files Division remained in the basement of the Hoover Building, down the hall from Maintenance and above the outermost circle of Hell. Either Human Resources made a huge mistake or, after thirty years - give or take a decade and a half of unpaid leave - with the FBI, Mulder merited an office with windows.
The office seemed big for one federal agent. Like the Powers That Be thought square footage contributed to saving humanity.
Mulder's windows had fancy vertical blinds and a framed Ansel Adams photograph between each window. Mulder could offer visitors a seat in two modern, dark blue chairs with shiny chrome legs. They could appreciate three more black and white Ansel Adams prints, or a four-foot high silver thing in the corner that might be a big vase, or art, or a trashcan. Mulder had a sleek, dark blue sofa that looked uncomfortable for napping, a huge cherry desk and, in the next room, a young, attractive Latino individual named Indigo who preferred the term "executive assistant" and rejected being defined by gender stereotypes.
Mulder wasn't in Kansas anymore. He stood in a corner office of the Hoover Building, overlooking downtown DC. Skinner's office, Criminal Investigations, was two floors up. The ADs on Mulder's floor ran Counterintelligence and Counterterrorism. Mulder had suggested naming the new, super-secret-squirrel department 'Countercolonization' with the honeybee as his mascot, but the brass plate on the door read 'AD Mulder.' An army of super-soldiers invading Dallas might have scared the POTUS shitless, but the Director of the FBI still had no sense of humor he was aware of.
Mulder set his briefcase on the desk and tried the chair. Cushy. It adjusted, rocked, and swiveled. He checked desk drawers. Pens, pencils, Post-its, paperclips. The phone on his desk looked intimidating, and little lights glowed and flashed. The office had a real computer but also a laptop. A TV, a conference table. Bookcases, filing cabinets. No ashtray.
Mulder's heartrate threatened to betray his cool exterior.
His briefcase held his cellphone charger, a mailing tube, three X-Files, three photos, his reading glasses, and a roll of tape. Mulder considered several locations, but bowed to tradition. He taped a new 'I want to believe' poster behind his desk, on the second of three large, silver hanging panels engraved with vertical wavy lines. The panels looked like a stylized homage to Ramen noodles, so the UFO poster improved them greatly.
Mulder exhaled. He loosened his tie. As he picked up his iPhone, heavy footsteps approached, sounding purposeful. The footsteps passed the executive assistant's desk, and a familiar man's voice said, "Don't bother."
Indigo had time to say "AD-" before Walter Skinner stood in the doorway of Mulder's new office. Skinner wore a suit and tie and his usual facial expression: as if his wife announced she'd signed them up for nonrefundable square dancing lessons. Behind Skinner, Indigo, half Skinner's weight and six inches shorter, looked ready to wrestle the AD to the carpet.
Mulder leaned back in the chair, put his wingtips on the desk, and waved Indigo away. "Skinman. Morning. Pick an uncomfortable chair and take a load off."
Skinner looked older and grayer, but as familiar as well-worn jeans. "It's still AD Skinman." He folded his arms and remained standing. "Your office is bigger than mine, Mulder."
Mulder held up a cautionary finger. "AD Mulder. It says so on my parking space."
"God help us all."
Mulder got up, walked over, and shook hands. The contact felt grounding.
Skinner leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb. "I have four months until retirement." Skinner's eyes moved over the office. "Four months, and my greatest worry becomes where to take my grandsons fishing, and whether to order an old-fashioned or a Manhattan at the club after a round of golf. When to nap. How to divide my time fairly between my wife, my boat, and my motorcycle."
"Don't you watch Justified? Breaking Bad? Every Star Trek movie ever? Do you know what happens to aging badasses if they mention retirement? Retirony. 'I'll close one last case before my pension-'" Mulder pantomimed receiving a gunshot to the chest. "Extremely well-documented in fiction."
Skinner's brow furrowed. "A happy thought. Do you know this aging badass's other happy thought for the next four months, AD Mulder?" Skinner stressed the "AD" part. "While you thwart colonization, my department isn't responsible for yours."
"If I don't thwart colonization, though, your fishing trips with the grandsons are numbered." Mulder considered a moment. "How and when did you get grandsons?"
"Excuse me." Indigo spoke in a dulcet tone and stood behind AD Skinner with an armload of manila folders. Indigo's short black hair was slicked straight back with comb marks visible, like a 1940's Hollywood actor. "Special Agent Doggett sent up some files. Should I bring them in?"
Mulder nodded and Skinner moved. Wearing a close-fitting oxford shirt, gray trousers, gleaming loafers, dramatic make-up, and a silver tie bar matching Mulder's office art, Indigo delivered the stack of files to Mulder's desk. Indigo left and returned with a dolly of banker boxes. And a second dolly. A third.
Despite covert scrutiny, Mulder still couldn't determine if Indigo had breasts. If any female had wheeled the dollies, Mulder would help. Be a gentleman. A healthy young man was on his own. From the wrinkled forehead, Mulder suspected Skinner shared his dilemma. Also, whatever perfume or cologne Indigo wore, it smelled like the skin between a woman's breasts. Warm. Soft. Maybe salty. Musky.
After delivering the fourth dolly, Indigo asked, "Is there anything you need, AD Mulder?"
A pronoun. Mulder needed a pronoun.
"Ze," Indigo said, as if reading Mulder's mind. "The possessive: 'zir.' As in 'Ze requested this job, AD Mulder. Ze types 120 words per minute, speaks four languages, did a tour in Afghanistan, and doesn't appreciate anyone barging past zir desk. Even AD Skinner."
"Okay," Mulder said slowly. He leaned closer. "Does ze always refer to zirself in the third person?"
AD Skinner's expression suggested he'd recalled a meeting he should have been at twenty minutes ago.
Indigo looked around Mulder's new office. Zir brown eyes stopped on the UFO poster taped to the center metal wall-hanging. "The poster is fabulous," Indigo pronounced. "It totally goes."
Mulder's couldn't tell if that was sarcasm, and he couldn't imagine anyone requesting a job as his secretary. "Have you had a paranormal experience? An alien encounter? Missing time? UFOs, ghosts? Shape-shifters? Super-soldiers?"
Indigo's sleek head tilted as if Mulder asked ridiculous questions. "My grandmother was a bruja. She used to take us hiking in la Zona del Silencio - the Mapimí Silent Zone - so she could hear the spirits more clearly. It worked. After the Marine Corps, I spent a year in Tibet, a month sailing the Bermuda Triangle, and a long weekend in Roswell, New Mexico. I've done the San Francisco Pride Parade twice - once on Ecstasy. I have seen shit that would turn you white."
"You're hired," AD Mulder announced.
Skinner seemed eager to leave for that meeting.
Indigo pivoted on zir toes, saluted AD Skinner, and returned to zir desk.
Skinner automatically raised his hand and returned the salute. Forehead still wrinkled, he lowered his hand slowly. He nodded to himself as his lips formed the words "four more months."
"A couple decades ago, the FBI assigned me a pretty partner who made my old job far more interesting." Mulder nodded to the next room. "Indigo will certainly liven up my new job."
Skinned didn't answer. Or ask about Mulder's pretty, former-partner. Skinner took a folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket and handed it to Mulder. "I'm glad the suit fits."
"Is this your wish list?"
"Yes." Skinner didn't ask about William. Or how Mulder spent the past twelve years. Skinner was an old-school cop and on the clock. Until a moment ago, Mulder hadn't known Walter Skinner remarried - apparently to a woman with grandchildren. "You can stop them."
"That's the consensus." Mulder spent his entire career wanting someone to listen - to believe aliens existed and did not come in peace. Now he had the full attention of all the men in high places. Mulder had the budget and manpower to do whatever was necessary to prevent colonization, no questions asked. At any cost. That "no questions asked" part, in conjunction with his desire to protect a thirteen-year-old boy, had Mulder's nervous system in the red zone. Forty years ago, Mulder was the boy who Mulder's own father wanted to protect. At any cost. Many of Agent Doggett's files recorded how that turned out. "I am scared shitless," Mulder confessed.
Skinner said, "Good. Scared shitless in this instance means you're paying attention." He added, "See you at the budget meetings, AD Mulder," and closed the door after him.
Alone, Mulder unfolded the piece of paper. In black ink, Skinner had written 'C.G.B. Spender,' and a street address in Alberta, Canada.
Mulder put the address beside the stack of files. 'Purity,' 'Resistance,' 'Rohrer, Knowle,' 'Smith, Jeremiah,' 'Simms, Emily, 'Spender, Jeffrey,' 'Super-soldiers,' 'Syndicate.' Mulder had the US and UN backing to hunt down the remaining super-soldiers and the remnants of the Syndicate. He needed to figure out why the date for colonization got pushed back - and pushed back by whom and for how long. A vaccine for the Purity virus existed; he needed to find it and get people working in a lab. He needed to know what allowed a thirteen-year-old boy to stop an army of alien-hybrid creatures. He still needed to know what a 'Rohrer, Knowle' was.
Mulder opened his briefcase and added his files to the tall stack: 'Mulder, Fox W,' 'Scully, Dana K,' and 'Scully, William C.'
He hung his suitcoat on a silver coatrack, unbuttoned the top button of his dress shirt, and rolled up his sleeves. He sat at his big desk, in his cushy chair, and picked up his iPhone again. The Hoover Building had Wi-Fi, but Mulder stuck to his data plan and Langly's E.T. app, routing the call through The Gunmen's HQ and God alone knew where else. Mulder's phone read 8:39, which meant 7:39 in Wichita, Kansas.
Mason sat at the Van De Kamp's kitchen table, wearing Mulder's old Three Dog Night T-shirt and eating toast. Mulder saw Mera behind the boy, doing something at the counter. She wore a navy blazer and looked harried.
"Where are you?" Mason asked between bites.
The top corner of the screen showed Mulder's image: his head and shoulders and the silver panels behind his head. "I can't tell you, buddy. East Coast. It's kinda classified."
"Cool." The boy glanced behind him. "Mom, it's Mullins. Mulder. He's classified."
Mera stooped beside Mason's chair. She'd cut her hair a few inches shorter. The bruises on her neck had healed, and a patch of pink skin had replaced the scrape on her cheek. A lilac scarf covered the tracheotomy incision. "Classified? It's been a week. Mullins, do you have yet another secret identity?"
"It's not a secret identity if I tell everyone." He gave her a crooked grin. "Old identity, new office. What's up in Kansas?"
"Well, thanks to Mason, yesterday Dad discovered the internet and Stan Lee's email address, so there's that cease and desist letter to look forward to." She bit a corner off Mason's toast which, Mulder knew from experience, the boy wouldn't eat. "I still owe you a pie, Mullins."
"I'll come around and collect it. In the meantime, can I send Mason a plane ticket? We have this thing out here called 'a beach.'"
She ran her fingers through her hair. "A plane ticket to somewhere classified on the East Coast?"
"The entire coast isn't classified. Only my present location. And my job. Basically, my whole existence and purpose."
"Well, as long as I know which ocean my son's at, you betcha. You guys never get into any trouble." She sounded annoyed, but he saw a pretty smile. "Please don't send him anything else preserved in formaldehyde, Mullins. My kitchen smells like a Fotomat."
Mulder wasn't aware he'd sent anything - preserved or otherwise - but he said "Okay," since that seemed the appropriate response.
Mera's head turned toward a clock Mulder couldn't see but knew hung above the kitchen sink. "Cheese and rice. I hafta go."
She kissed the top of Mason's head and waved at Mulder. Both received instructions to "Be good." Keys jingled. A distant door closed. Her purple lunch bag remained on the kitchen counter, forgotten.
In Wichita, Mason finished the center of his toast, leaving three corners of crust.
In the Hoover Building, Indigo - who didn't like anyone barging past zir desk but apparently had no issue with barging into Mulder's office - brought a cup of coffee and a bran muffin. "Thank you," Mulder said. "I didn't want the muffin."
"You need it," Indigo insisted.
"I don't like bran muffins."
"Trust me: you need it."
His assistant left the muffin, exited, and closed the office door.
Mason started a second piece of white toast smeared with butter and red jam. Mulder sat in an empty office and looked sadly at his high-fiber muffin. "Who was that?" the boy asked.
"My secretary. Indigo."
"Is Indigo, like, a boy or a girl?"
Mulder leaned closer to the phone. "I don't know."
"Indigo's kinda hot."
"I know, and he or she smells incredible," Mulder confessed. "Hey, what about Miss Math Field Day?"
The kid paused to chew. "We're going to the movies this weekend. Her mom's driving." Another bite. Mulder's muffin looked browner and denser by the moment. "What about Dr. Scully?"
Mulder tried the cup of coffee. "Buddy, you saw her at the hospital in Dallas." Mera remained unaware of this fact; she'd been in a different wing with a tube in her throat. The hospital let Mulder take Mera and Mason home after two days; Scully hadn't left the ICU for a week. "I told you: Scully's doctor said she was very, very lucky."
The corner of Mason's mouth twisted in annoyance. "No, what about you and Dr. Scully? How are things between my not-dead father and my other mother?"
Mulder took a longer sip. Indigo knew exactly how Mulder liked his coffee. He chose scrutinizing the coffee mug over answering Mason's question
The boy informed him, "Dr. Scully's home. I texted and asked when she was getting married. She said the wedding had been postponed."
Mulder pursed his lips thoughtfully.
"Dr. Scully sent me a dissection kit with a fetal pig, a cow's eyeball, and a sheep's heart. It's totally cool." In a homey kitchen in Kansas, a beautiful bite of white bread slathered with butter and jam disappeared into Mason's mouth. "She said she'd sequence my genome once she's back at work, but that won't be for several more weeks. You should, like, text her."
A green stripe appeared at the top of Mulder's phone's screen. He leaned back until the words became clear. The text from 'Scully' was 'You left 10 ml of milk in the carton. Is a Lilliputian coming over for a frosted flake?'
Mulder touched the place on the screen to make the camera focus on the office. "Check out the classified digs." He pivoted his desk chair to show Mason the poster. "Welcome to the Bat Cave. Except with windows."
"Nice. Check out mine." The screen blurred as Mason got up: beige for the kitchen floor and brown up the stairs, accompanied by big bare feet. The kid still favored his right ankle.
Indigo returned with a box of ammunition and gestured for Mulder to hand over his sidearm. Mulder frowned, pointed to the iPhone, and waved his assistant away. Indigo wasn't dissuaded. Mulder pointed again and mouthed, "My son."
Mason had an identical 'I want to believe' poster tacked to his bedroom wall, above the aquarium that until a few weeks ago sat in Felix Mullins's living room. The kid zoomed in on the fish. Kirk and Spock floated happily over their fake coral reef. After another stomach-churning blur, Mulder's screen showed Mason's face. The boy lay on his belly in his bed, chin on his fist. Beside him, on the edge of the mattress, Han and Chewie watched the fish tank and flicked their tails. Three Harry Potter books atop the tank separated Jake Van De Kamp's cats from Felix Mullins's fish.
"Thank you for taking in a competing franchise. What movie are you taking Miss- Hey!" Mulder protested as Indigo invaded his personal space.
"Quantico messengered these," Indigo explained. "I need your service weapon."
Mulder frowned again but handed the pistol over.
Indigo removed the magazine and ejected the bullet from the chamber. The bullets Mulder thought sufficient for stopping all manner of humans, mutants, and monsters got replaced with Indigo's from Quantico. "Magnetite core. All you carry." His assistant expertly replaced the magazine, chambered a round, engaged the safety, and handed the pistol grip-first to Mulder.
Indigo kept Mulder's ammunition, left the remaining magnetite bullets, pointed sternly at the uneaten bran muffin, and closed the door on the way out.
Mulder holstered his weapon. He touched the screen so his camera focused on his own face.
"That was like, hot," Mason observed from Kansas.
"I know," Mulder confided in his phone, "and you're judging without smell-oh-vision." Alone in the big corner office, he put his fist on his desk and his chin on his fist, copying Mason's pose. "Mason, Felix Mullins won't be returning as groundskeeper next fall. You know that, right? I'll visit, and you can come here, but I have some things I need to take care of."
"Like those super-soldiers?"
Mulder threatened national security by nodding. "Will you be okay? Give me time to figure out this job, and I'll send a plane ticket. The Yankees play the Red Sox in a couple weeks, and this classified gig comes with good seats."
Mason shifted on his bedspread. "What about Dr. Scully?"
"She's not a baseball fan."
"Quantico is in Virginia. Are you close to Virginia? Could we visit her office?"
"Buddy, I can't speak for Scully." Mulder could attest a book the size of Webster's Dictionary and entitled The Encyclopedia of DC Comics had been delivered from Amazon.com and now lived on Scully's nightstand. She had her left arm in a sling, a concussion, and a four-inch incision in her upper abdomen. That in no way impaired her ability to review medical journals, order off the internet, or order her assistants, medical students, and Mulder around. Her apartment looked like Sigourney Weaver's hospital room in Working Girl, except with crime scene photos and lab reports.
A shaggy brown blur passed between Mason and the phone. Either they'd captured new footage of Bigfoot or Chewie gave up on a fish breakfast. Mason's voice said, "I'll text her. I want to see her do an autopsy."
Mulder held the phone at arm's length again. His abdomen developed a warm glow. In a green stripe at the top of his screen, Scully ordered, 'Dairy mitosis will not occur in my refrigerator. Bring home more milk, Mulder.'
"Do you still love her?" his son's voice asked.
"Mason, I loved her two decades ago, I loved her three weeks ago, and I love her now," Mulder answered honestly. "But it always has been, and I think always will be, complicated." He adjusted his chin on his fist, moved the phone closer, and told Mason, "This isn't one of those simple stories where the hero saves the world and gets the girl."
The hero had a blanket and pillow on the sofa, and the "girl" still had sutures and seven weeks of physical therapy.
For a moment, Mason didn't respond. "I miss the beard."
"You know, I kinda do, too." And store-brand spaghetti and middle school baseball practice. Even the stupid cat on the hood of his truck. Mulder missed a simple little life that was never truly his, but he wanted for his son.
Mason's phone chimed. The boy's face had an urgent expression. "Hey - it's Miss Math Field Day. I gotta go."
"What's her name?"
"Allie," Mulder echoed. "No sexting, Cinco. Your fairy godfathers are watching."
The boy said "Bye" impatiently and ended the call before Mulder could respond.
Mulder leaned back. He texted Scully he'd bring home milk (though technically, Mulder's only home was The Marriott, and two suits belonging to Mr. Wonderful still hung in Scully's closet), and pivoted his desk chair to take a picture of his poster. On the third try, with reading glasses, he managed a photo in focus and excluding his thumb.
As he deleted the two useless photos and prepared to text the remaining one to Scully, a picture on the second row caught his eye. He tapped the image so it filled the screen.
Mulder recognized the hotel bed in the Dallas penthouse - the bed in Mason's room, not Scully's. Mulder and Mason made a tangle of beige and cerulean blue atop the white sheets, and the boy didn't fit on Mulder's chest anymore. Mulder, in his work uniform, barefooted, bearded, lay propped on a stack of pillows, sound asleep. His head lolled left, but Mulder's right arm remained across Mason. Mason wore the same outfit as Mulder, and slept in a mirror image pose.
Agent Brigadoon hasn't passed in the hall a few weeks ago and decided to capture that moment. Scully must have taken the photo. Post-coitally, given Mulder's bare feet. With Mulder's phone. Mulder thought he hadn't slept, but he must have. And she'd kept watch. Like she used to.
Mulder propped his iPhone against the computer monitor. Beside his poster, he taped a photo of Scully, the old photo of himself and Mason, and a recent one from their ghost-hunting adventures featuring Mera with them. He added a picture of Samantha, forever a little girl. With the photos side-by-side, Mason resembled Sam more than Mulder.
At 8:51, Mulder took a grudging bite of bran muffin. It tasted like a regular muffin with sawdust and cardboard dumped in by mistake. He drank several swallows of coffee and turned on the computer. Mulder opened the 'Rohrer, Knowle' file and, with the aid of reading glasses and the photographic supervision of everyone who mattered to him, got back to saving the world.