CLASSIFICATION: S, A
DISCLAIMER: Not mine; the X-Files belong to CC, FOX, etc.
Beta thanks: To X-PhileChick#35 (a.k.a. UnderMySkinner) for her hard work and kind words.
Notes: This is a sequel to Hearts on the Mend. You might be able to read this without having read that one, but why would you want to? :)
Letting the front door swing shut behind him, Mulder tried his best not to slam it, but he was certainly in the mood to slam something. As he took off down the street at a faster pace than his usual jog, the pounding of his feet against the pavement yielded some satisfaction, although he knew his knees would be complaining later. His ears began to sting as he ran head on into the brisk autumn breeze, but he welcomed the distraction of the pain.
At times like this, Mulder found that the only way he could cope was by getting out of the house, and going for a run or shooting hoops at the park were the best alternatives to his first inclination: numbing his frustration at the local bar. He and Scully had been remarried and living together in her townhouse in San Francisco for almost a year now. Although they had worked through many of their previous problems, tensions still arose. And because housing was at a premium in this city, their current abode was the tightest quarters they had lived in together since they had shared Scully's apartment in Georgetown during the first few months of her pregnancy. In such a limited space, it was hard to get away from each other when they fought.
Out of the corner of his eye, an abrupt movement to his left caused Mulder to slow and turn. It was twilight now and the streetlights had just come on. As he looked around, there was no one in sight, and he shook off the familiar feeling of paranoia that was once his constant companion. Their lives had been relatively quiet since they had left the X-Files several years ago. They no longer meddled in the affairs of the Consortium (although there was little to suggest that this organization still existed after the holocaust at El Rico Air Force Base), and the lack of interference was apparently mutual.
Settling back to his original pace, Mulder couldn't help but rehash the latest argument that had driven him out of the house. It had dealt with their most sensitive subject: children. It was no wonder that this should be such a sore point for them, considering that the demise of their first marriage had precipitated from the fate of their only son. One afternoon, William had gone missing from a park, in broad daylight and under the watchful eye of his mother. Scully still struggled with her guilt over not preventing this, but Mulder had never held her responsible for William's abduction and had tried his best to communicate that to her. When their son turned up dead at the hands of the serial killer Henry Lee Vinton, the grief had torn their marriage apart. Much love and counseling had brought healing to their relationship, but it could never fill that empty place that remained in both of their hearts.
Since the move to San Francisco, things had been going so well between them that neither of them had been willing to breach this sensitive topic--until nature forced it on them. A few months back, Scully had missed her period, and when secondary symptoms set in, their emotions had been thrown into turmoil with the possibility that she was pregnant again. It had been difficult for them to talk about, but it was evident that Mulder was much more excited with this news than his wife. But their burgeoning hope had been in vain. When Scully finally went to see her doctor, she received the news that she was not with child but peri-menopausal, and the hopes that had been welling up in them were completely dashed.
After the passage of what he considered to be a reasonable amount of time, Mulder brought up the issue of adoption. He wasn't ready to give up on being a father, and he dreamed of seeing Scully as a mother again. The psychologist in him also thought that maybe this would be the final step in healing the open wounds that still remained after William's death. However, Scully wasn't interested in discussing the option. Not when he first brought it up, and not today. Although she hadn't said the words directly, it was clear that she had no interest in becoming a parent again.
Mulder knew he would do anything for this woman that he loved so much, even if it meant never again having the chance to be a father, but what he couldn't accept was her refusal to even have a reasonable conversation on the topic. Of course, in her eyes she was being completely reasonable; every contention was well articulated and she never once raised her voice. But he felt she was only avoiding the real issues beneath the surface, and it outraged him that she still held him at arm's length when it came to her grief and pain.
To compound his current distress, Mulder's knees were now screaming at him. He had been pushing himself too hard, and the adrenaline that had first shoved him out the door was now entirely drained. He had run only three-quarters of his usual circuit around the neighborhood when he slowed to a walk to give his aging joints a break. To his immediate left was a narrow alley that lay between two rows of houses; he usually avoided this path in favor of a longer run, but on days like this it provided a good shortcut back to their street.
As he came within view of the streetlight directly across from their house, Mulder could just make out the silhouette of a man standing on the fringe of its pool of light. The paranoia he felt earlier mounted again, along with the hairs on the back of his neck. Slowing his steps to come up behind the man undetected, he wished desperately that he had thought to bring his gun with him. Their neighborhood was a safe one, and he had never needed the weapon before, but sometimes old habits would get the best of him and he would strap on his ankle holster before he left the house. But not today. He had been too distracted to even consider it.
The twilight and shadows made it difficult to detect much about the stranger besides his profile, but it was clear that his face was turned in the direction of their house. The man was watching, perhaps waiting for him to return from his run, and clearly did not want to be seen. As the voyeur shifted suddenly, Mulder fell back further into the shadows behind him. But after a moment of stillness, it was clear that the agent had not been spotted. However, the change in position had brought something else to Mulder's attention--the holster at the man's hip.
Using the element of surprise to his advantage, Mulder tackled the man from behind and pulled the weapon from his holster before he had a chance to reach for it. The stranger's body hit the sidewalk hard as Mulder landed on top of him. Swiftly cocking the gun at his temple, he growled into his ear, "You better have a damn good reason for lurking outside of my house with a concealed weapon!"
As he was speaking, something out of place registered in Mulder's head. When he landed, he had grabbed one of the man's arms and pinned it behind his back. Only now did he realize why this felt strange--the arm wasn't flesh and blood; it was a prosthetic.
Violently flipping the man over on his back to face him and pressing the gun back down to his forehead, Mulder found confirmation of what his gut already knew.
It was Krycek.
Keeping Krycek in front of him and the gun lodged between his shoulder blades, Mulder had his erstwhile partner and nemesis unlock their door with his good hand, and then he shoved him into the foyer.
At first, there was no response. He had bellowed loud enough that he had no doubt she heard him, but when he left the house they hadn't been on the best of terms.
"Scully, I need you in here!"
This time the stress was unmistakable in his voice, and when his wife came bounding down the stairs a moment later, it was with her gun in hand. As she hit the last few steps, she got her first glimpse of their visitor now seated in the living room, and she slowly entered with a look of confusion on her face.
Krycek turned to look at her as she approached, but Mulder kept his gaze and his gun focused directly on the man seated before him. For the intensity of the agent's stare, their unwelcome guest looked much more at ease than he should have.
"Mulder?" Scully asked her question with that one word.
"I found him lurking in the shadows across the street. He was armed. Somehow I don't think he's here to pay a social call."
Krycek sneered at him. "Your hospitality leaves something to be desired, Mulder. And to think, I came all this way to give you happy tidings."
Scully saw Mulder's finger twitch on the trigger and decided that it was best not to let the situation get out of hand. Stepping toward him, she gently placed her hand over his, and he allowed her to lower the gun. Yielding it to her grip as she took up his position standing next to Krycek, he instead seated himself in the chair opposite the man.
Although not raising her voice, Scully made no effort to hide her hostility. "What do you want, Krycek?"
"I want to make a deal."
"I have information that you want. In exchange, I'd like to call an armistice of sorts. I want your guarantee that you won't interfere with my plans."
Mulder scoffed. "And why would we do that? You think you can bribe us? No information you give us can erase your past sins or shield you from justice."
"No? Maybe you should find out what I have to say first."
Scully took a step back and sat in the vacant armchair behind her. "I'll give you thirty seconds to convince me that your information's worth listening to. After that, you're out of my house."
A smug grin blossomed on Krycek's face. "Oh, I don't need that much time to persuade you to listen. All I need is five little words." He paused for dramatic effect. "Your son is still alive."
Mulder suddenly felt very bereft of his weapon, while his wife was immensely glad that she had removed it from his possession. He towered over Krycek now, grasping his lapel to jerk his face toward his own as he bellowed down at him: "What the hell kind of game are you playing, Krycek?! How dare you come into our home and toy with us like this!"
Scully didn't bother to call Mulder off this time, but she continued to speak in a level voice. "Our son was taken by a serial killer. His body was reduced to ashes in a fire. We have the DNA evidence to prove that he's dead."
"Did you run the DNA tests yourself?" Krycek was only able to squeak out the words as Mulder's grip made it hard for him to breath. He looked toward Scully as he spoke, but his words abated her husband's wrath as puzzlement and curiosity settled in its place.
Scully's response was little more than a strained whisper. "What do you mean?"
"You know as well as I do that DNA evidence can be faked. If you didn't do the tests yourself, then how can you be so sure of the results?"
As she looked toward Mulder, who looked back at her in question, her voice had a pleading edge to it. "The tests were run by the FBI labs. I even requested to have them run twice. They wouldn't let me anywhere near the evidence because of my personal connection to the case."
Mulder's hands still held Krycek's jacket loosely as he looked back down at the man. "Are you saying that our son wasn't in that fire?"
Taking advantage of Mulder's loosened grip, Krycek shook himself free and settled back in his chair before he replied. "What I'm saying is that your son wasn't taken by a serial killer."
"It was a cover-up?" Scully's voice was strained as she forced down the emotions that were threatening to boil to the surface. Moving away from Krycek now, Mulder did not resume his seat but stood by her side and reached for her hand.
"Didn't it seem a little convenient to you that a serial killer who had eluded the police for over two years was so easily caught within weeks of your son's disappearance? And then he torched himself and the evidence before you got a chance to interview him? They handed you DNA evidence on a platter, and suddenly everything was wrapped up in a neat little package with no loose ends, all in less than a month. Just like they wanted."
"Are you saying, what happened to those other boys was just a ruse to hide our son's abduction?" Mulder couldn't bear to consider this option, but he had to know the truth.
"No. Henry Lee Vinton was exactly what he seemed to be--he had already committed those other crimes. But an old friend of ours thought he would make the perfect patsy. So he helped to cover the killer's identity until your son was taken, and then he set him up to take the fall. Vinton didn't kill himself. He was executed, and his house was rigged to burn long before the agents showed up with a warrant."
Scully's voice was now laced with desperation. "If our son is still alive, then where is he? And why was he taken?"
The smugness returned to Krycek's countenance. "Ah, all in good time, my dear Dana. I think I've given you more than enough reason to hear me out. Now it's time to discuss the terms of our bargain."
Mulder took a protective step forward. "What do you want from us, Krycek? Isn't the agony over our son's loss enough? Now that you've added kidnapping and extortion to your list, you want us to turn a blind eye?"
"I simply want to offer you what's yours in exchange for what's mine."
"What is that?"
"The right of succession."
Mulder ran a hand through his hair in exasperation and crossed the room to put more distance between himself and the man that he really wanted to strangle right now. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'll give you one guess who took your son."
"The smoking bastard," Mulder spat out with all the contempt he held for the man in question.
"I'm surprised he's still alive," Scully interjected. "The last time I saw him, he looked like he was dying."
"The last time you saw him, he was looking for a reason to live. You gave him one." Krycek spoke this directly to Scully, as though his words should have great import for her.
Mulder's patience was wearing thin. "Damn it, Krycek! Quit talking in riddles! Just say what you mean!"
But Scully's gaze did not waver from her interlocutor's as his inference began to sink in. "He was looking for a legacy." Mulder now turned to her in question, and she shifted her focus to him while her mind continued to make the connections. "He was looking for an heir."
There were too many implications here that Mulder didn't want to consider. "Scully, what do you mean?"
She looked back to Krycek now, who turned to address Mulder. "You know about his 'familiarity' with your mother before you were born. Did you ever bother to ask her who your real father was?"
With both fists and teeth clenched, Mulder gritted out his response, "What are you saying?"
But Scully connected the final dots. "He believes that William is his grandson. That's why he took him. He wanted an heir." Sinking back into her chair, she shook her head at the incredulousness of it all.
Mulder looked from her to Krycek, his skepticism inscribed on his face. He was still waiting to hear the rest of the story. "So what's your interest in all this?"
For the first time all evening, the Russian became agitated. "I want what he owes me," he spat in anger. "That bastard led me on for years, making me believe that if I was a good little lackey, I would stand in line to inherit his position. Even after he tried to kill me, and then left me to die in that missile silo, I came crawling back to him when he regained his power so that I would be next in line. Then I stood by and watched him offer that power to his son, no questions asked, and even when Jeffrey failed him, I remained obedient. I did his dirty work. I put myself on the line. I covered his mistakes and earned the respect of the elders. And all that was for nothing! As soon as he saw another chance to pass the torch to his own flesh and blood, he snatched it. He left me to rot in a prison camp in Tunisia to get me out of his way. But I'm back now, and I want what's mine."
Scully spoke quietly in counterpoint to Krycek's vehemence. "And what do you want from us?"
"I want you to take him down, once and for all." He then turned to address Mulder. "And I don't want you to stand in my way when I take his place."
The picture was now complete. The sycophantic servant who had been double-crossed sought his revenge by betraying his master's secret and watching that man's nemesis take him down. He wanted to claim the throne of a crumbling kingdom, and none there coveted his prize.
From across the room, the spouses held a silent conversation with their eyes. When Scully lowered hers, Mulder spoke their verdict. "We need specific details about where our son is being held so that we can verify this information. And we'll need time to consider your offer."
At Krycek's nod, Scully handed him a pad of paper and a pen. He scribbled down a few words and then handed it back to her. Rising from his chair, he extended his good hand toward her, palm upturned. She retrieved his gun from the table behind her and placed it in his hand, but not without confiscating the clip first. He snickered in appreciation of this move and holstered the weapon before seeing himself out.
The silence was deafening in his wake as the partners were left alone to consider his words. Scully's eyes were fixed on the tablet in her hands as she finally asked, "Do you believe him?"
Looking up now at her husband to await his response, the turmoil in his eyes was all the answer she needed.
Crossing the room to her, he reached out his hand, and she passed over the scrawling that Krycek had left behind. After looking it over, he said, "I think it's time we called some old friends."
The last few days since Krycek's visit had been rather stressful around the cramped townhouse. The couple's first move had been to call the Lone Gunmen and ask them to run down the information that Krycek had given them, but the ensuing wait had been excruciating. They were people of action, and if their son was really alive and in the hands of their enemy, the last thing they wanted to do was refrain from intervention for even one more day.
On the evening of the fourth day, Scully abandoned the book she wasn't really reading and went downstairs to find her husband, who was flipping channels on the TV he wasn't really watching.
"Have you heard anything yet?"
"I called a while ago, but all I got was the answering machine. Frohike said they'd call as soon as they had anything definite."
"I know, but I didn't expect it to take them this--"
She was brought up short by a knock on the door. With a questioning glance at Mulder, who sat up from his reclined position but merely responded to her query with his own raised brows, she walked over to the door and cautiously looked through the peephole. What she saw there brought an immediate response, as she yanked on the handle and launched into her visitors before the door was fully open.
"We were expecting you guys to call. Do you know how long we've been sitting around waiting?"
Frohike didn't wait for an invitation before pushing past her to enter the room. "Well, hello to you, my dear. And yes, you're very welcome that we came all this way to give you the news in person. Now, would you like to offer me something to drink?"
While Byers and Langly stepped through the open door much more politely, Mulder came over and gave his audacious buddy a warm hug. "You're either very brave or very stupid, my man. You really shouldn't push your luck."
They both turned back to Scully to see her glaring at them, her arms crossed over her chest. Frohike moved to pull her into a hug, which she deliberately evaded as she moved past him to greet their other guests.
"Byers, Langly, make yourself at home. Would you like something to drink?"
Both stood there dumbly, not sure how best to respond, but Mulder just chuckled quietly and then extended his hand toward the living room to encourage them to have a seat. He let Scully follow the three before he brought up the rear, placing a comforting hand on her back as they entered the room together.
When all were seated, Mulder addressed their visitors. "Well, boys, you didn't come all this way just to tell us you didn't find anything."
Byers took the lead while Langly pulled out a laptop and opened it on the coffee table. "As we suspected, both William and Spender are living under aliases, so it took us a while to track down the most likely candidates from the limited information that Krycek provided. But we think we've located your son."
Langly turned the computer in their direction and picked up the narrative while the partners leaned in to look at the screen. "This is the record we pulled up from a private school in Cambridge, North Carolina. The boy's name is William Kuipers--"
Mulder's eyes shot up at the sound of his mother's maiden name, bringing Langly up short. Mulder turned to his wife and muttered, "Interesting choice," before returning his attention to the screen and gesturing for the speaker to continue.
"His birthdate matches William's, and his parents are listed as deceased." Langly paused briefly and looked at the two for further reaction, but they were quietly stewing rather than surprised by this information. "His legal guardian is a Richard Johnson."
Mulder piped up again. "That's a nice generic name."
Frohike now jumped in. "We thought so, too. As you can imagine, we couldn't find much on him that didn't relate directly to William's guardianship, but we did find an address. It's an estate outside of town."
While Mulder was engaged with Frohike, Scully had been reading through the record on the computer screen. Scrolling down to the bottom, she saw a link to the boy's school photo, and a hand on Mulder's knee brought his attention back to the computer. Her eyes met his in question, and he nodded. As they both turned to the screen, she clicked on the link.
Looking back at them from the screen was the face of a sweet little boy with strawberry blond hair and hazel eyes. The chubby baby fat they remembered was gone as the once familiar face was now a little older and leaner. Neither could look away from his piercing gaze and toothy smile.
Scully felt Mulder grab on tightly to her hand that was still on his knee. The tears glistening in her eyes blurred the image before her, and she leaned forward as though to see him more clearly and reached out her free hand to caress the screen.
Mulder cleared his throat to find his voice again and looked back up at Frohike. "What's that address?" But a tug at his hand caused him to turn his head before he heard the reply.
"Mulder, I know that looks like him, but we have to verify this before we can do anything. We have to prove that it's him."
It was times like this that he really resented Scully's reasonable nature, but he was also grateful she was thinking clearly. He knew she was right; this was too important to make a mistake. He nodded his acquiescence but added, "Either way, we're headed for North Carolina."
He turned back to Frohike again. "We'll need that address and a copy of these files."
But his friend threw his hands up to deter him. "Not so fast there, buddy. We're going with you."
Scully was the one to voice their incredulity first. "What?"
Byers replied, "That's why we came here in person. This is important to us, too, and we all agreed--we want to be there to help bring William home."
Scully looked over at Mulder to see how he felt about this development, and he just shrugged in response. "You never know, they might come in handy."
She glanced at each of her new partners in turn, seeing the same hope in each of their eyes, and then she sighed. "North Carolina, here we come."
"I'm not sure this was such a good idea. Nothing against Langly, but--"
"It's done, Scully. Quit second-guessing it. The rest of us are too easy to recognize. You dress Goldilocks up like Byers, on the other hand, and not even his closest friends would know him."
"But what about this woman they brought in? Is she trustworthy?"
"Honestly, I have no idea. I've never met Yves before. But you know how paranoid these guys are. I have to trust their judgment on this."
Scully dropped her protests, supplanted by a heavy sigh, and turned her attention to the front window. She was seated in the driver's seat of a "delivery" van they had requisitioned from the local field office, watching the outside of the Brookfield Academy for any signs of trouble. Mulder was seated to her right, and the back of the van--separated from them by a divider--was occupied by two of their cohorts, manning the equipment that kept them in contact with their undercover team.
The scheme had so far progressed without complications, which put Scully even more on edge, since things seldom went smoothly for them. The goal was to retrieve a sample of William Kuiper's DNA for comparison against that of their son. The strategy was to send in a pair incognito, posing as a dentist and his assistant, who would give the first graders an important lesson on dental hygiene. Once inside, the objective was to identify William and obtain a swab of his mouth through the guise of personalized attention to each child's brushing technique. The school had been contacted and obligingly set up a time for the visit, and now the team was in place and would hopefully pull off the charade without a hitch.
Turning her attention away from the school, Scully looked over at her husband. He was gazing out the side window, the constant bouncing of his knee a testimony to the nervous energy he'd been exuding ever since their plane landed.
As though he could sense her scrutiny, he spoke without turning in her direction.
"What's the first thing you want to do when we bring him home?" At her protracted silence, he answered the question for himself. "I keep thinking about this, about all the things we've missed that I want to make up for, and I can't decide what I want to do first. Take him to the park to play catch? Go to the zoo, or the science museum? Or maybe just sit at home and play Legos or lincoln logs? Do they even make those things anymore? Lincoln logs? It's been so long since I've been in a toy store that I'm not even sure what the latest fad is. I'm sure he'll be quick to tell us."
Mulder stopped rambling and looked over at his partner. Her face was turned away from his, but he could see that her profile was as impassive as ever. This was her game face, her special agent face, not the face of an anxious mother.
She didn't look at him but dropped her gaze to her hands in her lap, so that her hair fell forward to partially obscure her countenance.
"I'm sorry. I guess I just haven't thought that far ahead."
The nervous energy subsided as he spoke to her in a softened tone. "You're afraid to admit it's true, aren't you?"
"I can't allow myself to hope yet. I'm afraid of the emotions it will unleash. I need to have the proof before I can let myself believe it."
"Scully." Her name was an entreaty, and she dutifully looked into his solemn eyes. "It's him. I can feel it. I know it in my heart. This"--he gestured with his hand to indicate their current situation--"is just a formality."
Rather than responding, she looked back toward the entrance of the school. Her own eyes were troubled, the only indication of the turbulence that brewed beneath the surface.
"I just can't help but wonder...."
Mulder remained quiet for a moment to let her continue, but when she didn't, he prodded her. "What?"
As her eyes turned back toward his, they glimmered with unshed tears. "What if we hadn't stopped looking?"
He sighed and reached over to take her hand, which she yielded reluctantly. "We can't think like that. It won't do us any good. We had no reason to believe he was still alive. And you said it yourself--we didn't just accept the results at face value but asked for the DNA to be run a second time. The only thing we're guilty of is being duped and manipulated again. We didn't abandon our son."
Scully's demeanor and lack of response showed that she wasn't ready to assent to his reasoning. In lieu of her child, the guilt gave her something to cling to, something almost tangible to cradle to her bosom and nurture as it grew. It was foreign to her that Mulder should be the one so at peace while the guilt weighted her down, yet it seemed only fitting that he should remain her polar opposite in this as in all else.
A quick rap on the panel behind them drew their attention. It was succeeded by Frohike's muffled voice through the opening. "They're on their way out. Keep an eye out for trouble."
Both agents went into professional mode and were immediately on alert. The dental duo soon passed through the double doors and down the front stairs, walking at a measured pace that betrayed both their desire for a hasty retreat and their attempt at illusory nonchalance. They made it to the parking lot without incident and piled into a rental car.
As the vehicle turned out of the lot and passed by them, Scully waited for a beat to see if they were being tailed before she started the engine and cautiously proceeded to the rendezvous point.
* * *
After the team held a brief conference about their operation, Scully rushed the swab off to a local lab to run the tests herself. It was a slow and tedious process, punctuated by agonizing waits that were necessary for accurate results. Her patience and meticulousness finally paid off, however, and she eagerly compared the data not only to their son's DNA but also to her own and Mulder's for confirmation. Once she was sure of the verdict, all that remained was for her to deliver the news to the anxious group assembled back at the motel.
Scully turned the key in the door and opened it to the following tableau: Mulder was sprawled on his stomach facing the wrong way on the bed, watching a baseball game on TV; Frohike and Langly were seated at the table opposite each other with laptops open, as though playing Battleship; Byers was perched primly on the edge of the second bed with a political biography in hand; and all four faces turned toward her simultaneously in expectation as she entered and then quietly shut the door behind her.
There was only one thing to say. "It's him."
Frohike and Langly high-fived each other across the table, and Byers heaved a pleased sigh, while Mulder bounded off the bed and had Scully within his embrace before she even knew what hit her. She had managed to remain stoic throughout the testing and the drive back, but in the security of his arms, she finally dropped the barriers in exhaustion from having maintained them for so long. She held him fiercely as the silent tears flowed freely down her cheeks.
Scully barely registered the excited chatter that had sparked around them as the Gunmen began to lay plans for their next step.
"...grab him from the playground during recess--"
"We can't just kidnap him, Langly. They'll report it to the cops and come looking for us. We need a more reasoned course of action."
"What we need is firepower. We should storm the castle. Take him right out from under Ol' Smokey's nose."
"And risk harming him? That's hardly a reasonable option, Frohike."
"Alright, wise guy, what 'reasonable course of action' do you have in mind?"
"We should take this directly to the courts. This man certainly has no legal right to custody. This is our chance to expose him. As soon as we prove William's true identity, the courts will have to concede--"
"You know it would never get that far. Smokey would be long gone before it even went to trial, and he'd take William right along with him. Our only chance is to act fast, before he's on to us. We should go in tonight."
"It'll keep until tomorrow." The three heads turned at the sound of Mulder's voice, and for the first time they noticed the private moment across the room. Scully's head was still buried in her husband's chest, and his arms remained wrapped protectively around her. "Let's reconvene in the morning. Then we can decide where to go from here."
Without further comment, the trio respectfully gathered their belongings and exited the room in silence. Only once the door clicked shut behind them did Scully dare to reveal her splotchy face and survey the damage to Mulder's shirt. She absent-mindedly started rubbing at the dampened spots, as though that would somehow dry them, while she spoke in a weary voice.
"I'm not even sure why I'm crying--if I'm happy to have found him, or sad for the time we've lost, or just feeling sorry for myself. I just--I feel like...like this is all a dream. And I don't want to wake up."
Mulder raised a hand to her face to brush away the remaining tears while the other arm continued to hold her firmly against him. "It's not a dream, Scully, it's a nightmare. Just another one to add to the list. And we're going to end it. We're going to end it and take back our son, and we're going to drive the nightmares away."
She looked up at him with a childlike trust and innocence. "How?"
His roving hand settled against her cheek as his determined gaze fixed on her eyes. "I don't know, but we'll find a way. We have to."
Breakfast brought a barrage of opinions, many of them regurgitated from the night before. The guys had apparently continued their conversation in their own motel room but failed to come to any consensus.
Scully remained relatively silent and distant throughout the conference, and Mulder's attention was peripherally focused on her while he considered and shot down the various options presented. He finally ordained that the best strategy would be for the threesome to spend the day on surveillance and data-gathering in order to provide a full accounting of William's daily agenda and movements. With that complete portrait they would be in a better position to make an informed decision.
Of course, his secondary motivation had been to get them out of the way so he could tend to his wife. He knew she hadn't slept much the night before, constantly tossing and turning as though her thoughts wouldn't allow her respite. He knew it would be useless to try to persuade her to take a nap, but he could at least provide her with the privacy she needed to process her emotions and regain her equilibrium.
After finally convincing her to stay at the motel and rest, Mulder took off with his own agenda for the day. The Gunmen were occupied with the school and the nanny, so Mulder decided to head for the Johnson estate to map out the territory.
Anticipating heavy security around the house, he was surprised to find that Cancerman had opted to go low profile. There were no gates barring the winding driveway or "No Trespassing" signs dotting the property lines. There was simply a sprawling homestead on a well-manicured acre of land, surrounded on all sides by reforested pines. The scene was quiet and private, isolated and unobtrusive--exactly the kind of place where Mulder would love to raise his own child.
Because traffic was obviously rare on this country road, he couldn't risk turning in the driveway or parking on the street after his initial drive by, so he looked for the first service road he could find, drove far enough in to be out of sight of the road, and then parked and doubled-back through the forest on foot. He was less than a mile away from the property, and so an easy jog soon brought him within sight of the house.
Crouching down in the brush just inside the edge of the woods, Mulder pulled out his binoculars to get a closer look. There were currently no signs of life, but the well-kept yard testified to a gardener--or a whole team of gardeners--and he thought it would be best to just watch for a while in case someone emerged from the house or one of the small outbuildings. Once he felt more secure that no one would notice his presence, he would take a walk around the perimeter of the property. This would give him a good idea of the layout, but if necessary, he could also have the guys obtain the blueprints.
Engrossed as he was in these thoughts, he failed to notice the ominous snapping of twigs behind him until it was accompanied by the distinctive click of a safety being disengaged and the sensation of cold metal against his forehead.
"You're slipping, Mulder. I could've shot you from 50 yards away and you never would've known what hit you."
He answered his captor, not with fear but contempt. "You're not that good of a shot, Krycek." Ignoring the gun at his temple, Mulder turned to look him in the face. "I should've known you'd show up sooner or later. What do you want?"
"I want you to follow through with your end of the agreement."
"We haven't made any agreement."
"And after my show of good faith? You can't afford to have me as your enemy right now. One word to Mr. Johnson there, and William will be whisked away again. Who knows how many years it will take you to find him next time."
"Or, I could just kill you now, and then I'd never have to worry about what you might report to 'Mr. Johnson.'"
"You should know better than that, Mulder. Who's to say there isn't a letter waiting for him inside right now that he'll definitely receive unless I'm alive to make sure he doesn't?"
Mulder just scoffed at him as he leaned back off his haunches and sat on the ground to settle in for this conversation. "Cut the crap. You just made that up to keep me from wasting your sorry ass."
"Maybe. But are you willing to call my bluff?" At the lack of response, Krycek smugly continued, "Or are you ready to start negotiations?"
Mulder glared at the man, making no effort to mask his disdain. "What do you want from me?"
"Just a show of good faith, like I offered you."
* * *
It was late afternoon when Mulder returned to the motel. He entered the room quietly, hoping that Scully would be resting, but he wasn't surprised to see her seated at the table with her laptop open. She looked only slightly more rested than when he left, and he suspected that she hadn't actually slept in his absence. However, he also knew that asking her about it probably wouldn't yield a straight answer, so he decided to keep the conversation on more neutral ground.
"Any news yet from the guys?"
Scully sat back in her chair and watched Mulder collapse onto the bed and absently grab for the remote out of habit, although he made no move to turn on the TV. "Byers stopped by a while ago to drop off the background information on the nanny. There isn't really much to note, and nothing I can see that will work to our advantage. The other two were planning to hang around the school until William was picked up and then follow him home to see what route they take. They'll call when they get to the house to see if we want them to hold there or come back to the motel. In the meantime, I sent Byers out to pick up some dinner. I hope Chinese is okay."
Mulder couldn't help but smile slightly at the nostalgia of this situation. It had been quite a while since he and Scully had been FBI partners, and even longer since they had been on the road together. But the two of them making plans over takeout in a generic motel room was incredibly familiar. He let his eyes slip closed to bask in that memory of happier days. "Chinese is fine. And we should tell the guys to head back right away. The estate is pretty isolated. There's no way they could stake it out without raising suspicion--especially those two hippies."
"Well, if that road doesn't get much traffic, it could work to our advantage. What else did you find out?"
Mulder kept his eyes shut, feigning fatigue. It was so much easier to hide things from Scully if he could avoid eye contact with her. "Just the basic layout of the property. I'll sketch out a rough map for everybody when the guys get back."
This was only their second day of "teamwork," but Scully already understood why she preferred working with only one partner. An argument between two people was much simpler than an argument between five. And when four of them were male and just loved to hear themselves spout their own opinions....
Silence reigned for the first time in an hour as four stunned faces turned in her direction. In that hour, they had rehashed one idea after another about how to confiscate William, and none had met with everyone's satisfaction. Scully was tired, emotionally drained, and on the verge of a migraine from the raised voices. She was a woman not to be crossed, and thankfully everyone in the room now realized it.
Finally in control again, she rose and began to pace, gently massaging her neck as she spoke. "This is how it's going to be. Tomorrow afternoon, we let the nanny pick up William from school as scheduled. Two of you will pose as police officers and be waiting on a secluded stretch of road to pull her over for a traffic violation. I'll give you something to knock her out. Once she's unconscious, you'll bring both of them back to the motel. William should recognize you, so he'll know it's okay to go with you. After he's safely in our custody, you'll stay here and watch him while Mulder and I return the nanny to the house and collect William's things."
"How are we going to deal with Spender?" Frohike was the one to ask, but the same question was weighing on everyone's minds.
"You let Mulder and me worry about that. Now, I'm tired, and we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow, so I think we should call it a night."
No one dared to voice a protest, so the threesome packed up their notes and equipment, speaking only in hushed tones as they made their exit. Scully watched in amusement as they tiptoed around her, as though she might explode at the slightest noise. It was amazing what power she could wield when she wanted to, and she didn't feel the slightest bit guilty for exploiting it as their party of five finally dwindled to two.
Mulder followed their friends to the door and chained it behind them before turning his attention to his wife. She was now slumped over on the end of the bed, still rubbing the kinks out of her neck, so he dutifully took up position behind her and replaced her hands with his own.
As Scully gladly melted into his touch, the only sounds now filling the room were her occasional sighs and hums of pleasure. Only once she was much more relaxed did Mulder pick up the conversation again.
"So, what *are* we going to do about Spender?"
Sighing, Scully dipped her head more to the right to give him access to a knot in her left shoulder. "Actually, I was more concerned with what we're going to do about Krycek. I'm surprised we haven't heard from him yet. It makes me worried that he's just setting us up, and I'm not sure what to do about that."
The hands on her shoulders slowed, and there was no response from behind her. Scully immediately knew something was up and turned her head to look back.
"Mulder?" He still didn't answer right away but tried to resume the backrub, so she pulled away from him and turned around completely. "Is there something you'd like to share with me?"
It was Mulder's turn to sigh as he pushed up off the bed and followed her earlier course around the room. After only one and a half circuits he ran his fingers through his hair and pulled up short to face her.
"I ran into Krycek today."
Mulder moved to the bureau opposite her and leaned his weight against it. "And, he wanted me to agree to his terms or he would tell Spender that we're on to him."
"And what were those terms?" From the flatness of Scully's voice, it was apparent to both of them that she didn't expect to like what she heard.
"After we have William, he wants us to confront Spender. He wants him to know that we've taken our son back, that his plan has failed. And then, he wants him taken out."
"Krycek wants you to kill Spender?"
Mulder only nodded slightly, his eyes averted.
"And you've already agreed to this?"
He didn't nod this time but only raised his gaze to hers.
"How do you feel about that?" Her voice was gentle now and full of nothing but compassion.
Mulder looked down again and shrugged, trying his best to maintain an air of apathy, for both their sakes. "There's no question that the man deserves to die for everything he's done. I've held a gun to his head before."
"But you didn't pull the trigger."
When Mulder answered, his voice had grown rough with emotion. "If I had, none of this would've ever happened."
* * *
In the familiar ebb and flow of their relationship, now that Mulder's guilt was waxing again, Scully felt hers waning. They agreed to leave their planning for the morning and fell into bed emotionally exhausted. In need of each other's touch to ground them as they prepared for such a momentous day, the pair soothed each other into sleep with reassuring whispers and loving caresses.
Just after midnight, the silence of the room was pierced by the shrill ring of a cell phone. Without hesitation, Scully quickly extracted herself from Mulder's arms and was able to grab the offending object from the table and silence it in the middle of the second ring. She had obviously been trying to keep it from waking Mulder, but to no avail. He sleepily rolled over and buried his head in the pillow she had just abandoned as he heard her answer.
"Hello?...Yeah, hi. Thanks for calling me back....No, it's no problem...."
Mulder's mind was now alert as he tried to figure out who would be calling her, and he rolled over to realize that she had taken the phone into the bathroom and closed the door. He could still hear the muted murmur of her voice but could no longer make out distinct words.
When he felt the mattress dip next to him, Mulder opened his eyes and realized that he must have been dozing. A glance at the clock confirmed that it had been almost twenty minutes since Scully had first answered the phone.
"Who was that?"
"Don't worry about it. Go back to sleep."
Now she had his attention. He looked over at her, where she had settled on her side facing him, but with her eyes closed. "You were obviously expecting a call. Who was it?"
Scully rolled over and answered him over her shoulder in an exasperated tone. "Mulder, can we just talk about it in the morning?"
He propped himself up on one elbow to face her. "No, I want to talk about it now. You obviously don't want to tell me or you wouldn't be making such a big deal out of it."
After a pause, she turned over onto her back and finally looked at him in the dim lighting. "It was Roger, okay? I left a message for him earlier, and he was just returning my call."
Mulder's voice was now full of hostility--or more precisely, alpha male territoriality--at the mention of the name, as Scully knew it would be. "What about?"
Scully closed her eyes in frustration. She had only gone out on one date with Roger during the time she had been divorced from Mulder, but her continued friendship with the man remained a sore spot. Keeping her voice as conciliatory as possible, she answered: "The man is a child psychologist. I was simply asking his advice on how to handle what is bound to be a traumatic situation for our son."
"Your *husband* happens to be trained in psychology, too. I think I can take care of my own son without Roger's intervention."
Opening her eyes, she graced him with an eye roll. "Mulder, you're being ridiculous about this. I don't know how many times I have to tell you that Roger is not a threat to you. Besides, knowing a child psychologist will prove to be incredibly beneficial when we get home. You and I certainly needed plenty of counseling to get through this. You can't expect that William won't, too. Roger's already agreed to see him once we get back--"
"No, not Roger. I agree that he may need to talk to someone, but it has to be somebody else."
"Fine." Scully rolled away from him again and settled into her pillow. She was by no means done with this conversation, but it could wait until they got home.
For a long moment, there was no movement, and then she finally felt Mulder drop back down to the mattress. She had almost drifted off to sleep when an arm wrapped around her waist and a warm body settled in behind her back. She knew it was the closest thing she would get to an apology, and she had learned to accept even such limited gestures. Threading her fingers through his, she pulled their linked hands close to her heart and let the rhythm of his breath lull her into a dreamless slumber.
Once again, the two agents were reduced to waiting, and it was driving them nuts. Since they had decided that it was too risky to reveal their presence too soon, and might be too confusing for William, they were resigned to depending on their cohorts to pull off the "abduction" (as Scully insisted on calling it--concerned that it might be reported as such if the nanny was not properly anesthetized--although the rest of them preferred the term "rescue operation").
The morning had been spent gathering the resources necessary to carry out their ruse. Their badges allowed them certain liberties in acquiring the proper disguises for an undercover operation, although they had to fudge a little on the paperwork. They only hoped that if anyone followed up and called Skinner--whom they had listed as their S.A.C. for this operation--he would be gracious enough to cover for them. They could explain themselves to him later.
If all was currently going according to plan, Byers and Frohike were dressed as cops and waiting in an unmarked car to pull over William's nanny on the way back to the estate. Langly's job was to park at a distance where he could watch and then serve as backup if anything went wrong.
The most difficult and unpredictable variable, however, was William himself. There was no way to take the boy without him somehow being traumatized by the situation. Mulder and Scully just hoped that he would recognize Byers and Frohike, whom he had known by name (or at least, in his childish locution, as "Byes" and "Froggie"). If these two could earn his trust, then perhaps the transition might go a little more smoothly.
But it didn't make the wait any less excruciating. After some terse words from Scully, Mulder had abandoned his incessant channel-flipping for a similar assault of the mouse as he ostensibly played solitaire on the laptop. And after an equally terse retort from Mulder, Scully had abandoned her incessant pacing for a deliberately motionless pose on the bed as she switched on a news channel and then tossed the remote away from her reach.
When he finally looked up from the computer screen and glanced over at his wife, Mulder's frustration gave way to compassion. Scully's knees were drawn up close to her chest, held there by hands clasped so tightly that her knuckles were turning white, while her eyes stared unseeing at the television set. She looked as tense as he felt, and he realized that once again they were working against each other when all they wanted in the end was the same thing.
Shutting the computer, he positioned himself on the bed behind her and gently pulled her back into his embrace. At first she resisted a little, but then he felt the tension begin to drain away as she yielded and let her body melt back into his. When he saw her eyes close, he reached over to grab the remote and silenced the final distraction in the room.
He spoke quietly into her ear. "I have complete faith that the guys can pull this off. If something had gone wrong, Langly would've called us by now."
"That's not what I'm worried about."
Stretching his head around, Mulder looked her in the face. "What, then?"
Scully sighed, her eyes remaining closed. "William."
Mulder understood what she meant, but he waited for her to elaborate.
Opening her eyes now, Scully continued to face forward. "We're ripping him away from the world that he knows, and as much as I want him back, I can't help but wonder if we're doing the right thing. What if he doesn't want to go home with us? What if he thinks that we abandoned him and that we don't love him anymore? It's hard enough for me to understand what's happened here, so I can't even imagine how difficult it will be for him."
"Kids are often better at adapting to changes than adults are. If he's been told that we're dead, he might have some difficulty accepting that we're real, and that we're here to stay, but I don't think he'll doubt our love for him."
Scully turned in his arms now to look plaintively at him. "But what if he doesn't want to go with us, Mulder? Are we going to force him? Is that really the best thing for William?"
"In the long run, yes. I don't think that Spender would physically harm him, but we both know that in time he would poison his mind. And it would be just as reprehensible to allow our son to be raised in that environment as to leave him with a child abuser."
Closing her eyes against this truth, Scully resignedly slumped back into his embrace. "I know, and that's not what I want. But we might have to at least consider bringing the nanny with us. She's his primary caregiver right now, and she may be the only one that he'll really trust."
The words rung far too true and painful as they lingered between them in the stale air of the motel room. Trust was as vital to them as breathing, and the thought that they may have lost the trust of their own son because of the lies of the enemy pierced them to the core.
Silence reigned as each became lost in thought, but their previous anxiety had been replaced with the temporary peace of one another's embrace. They knew it was but the eye in their storm, but it was this stillness that enabled them to reestablish their bearings before the next onslaught. They had needed such peace so badly after the disappearance of their son, but it cost them much time and effort to actually find it.
The silence was broken by an abrupt knock on the door. The partners both tensed in anticipation, but neither moved just yet.
"It's Frohike. Anybody home?"
Their inaction was finally over as the two scrambled for the door. Mulder reached the knob first and wasted no time in turning it. Eagerly anticipating their son, the pair was surprised to find themselves staring back at Frohike alone. Before they could start asking questions, however, a movement behind him caught their attention.
Without a word, Frohike, looking very unnatural still clad in the blue police uniform, looked down to his side as he gently pulled forward the young boy clinging to his hand. It was the first time that the two parents had seen him in person since the day he disappeared, but the moment they laid eyes on him, they had no doubts that he was their son.
Scully immediately dropped to her knees, bringing her down to the boy's height, and extended her arms toward him. Through eyes blurred with tears, she watched as he drew back from her and nestled closer to Frohike's side. She tried her best to hide her disappointment and remain understanding as to how disarming this must be for him, but his reaction still hurt her deeply. The comforting hand behind her, now stroking her hair, was able to soothe that hurt only slightly.
None of the adults spoke yet, waiting, rather, to see if William's shyness would abate. After a long moment of watching the couple in the doorway while continuing to shield himself behind his protector, he looked up to Frohike and broke the silence.
"Is this heaven?"
Taken aback by the question, it took Frohike a moment to respond. "No, Will. What makes you think that?"
"Grandpa said Mommy and Daddy are in heaven."
Scully could no longer contain her silent tears as the knife within her twisted deeper. But as Frohike looked at the two, unsure how to answer the boy, she was the one who spoke.
"No, William. But for a long time, your daddy and I thought you were in heaven, and we missed you very much. As soon as we found out you were here, we came for you right away."
As the child processed this quietly, the other three watched and waited. When it seemed he had finally accepted the truth of this, he started to pull away from Frohike and moved toward his mother.
Wasting no more time, Scully reached for him and pulled him into her embrace. No longer hesitant, he willingly came to her and threw his small arms around her neck. She spoke soothingly into his ear as she held him tight with one arm and gently stroked his head with the other.
"Yes, William, we're here now. It's okay. Everything will be okay."
Thus far, Mulder had been restraining himself, knowing how important it was for Scully to make this initial connection with her son. Now, though, he could no longer hold back. Dropping to his knees alongside them, he wrapped his family into his tight embrace. His paternal instinct taking over, he joined in chorus with Scully's crooning to the boy.
"We love you so much, Will. We've missed you so much."
Frohike knew there was important work left to be done, but he also understood that these three needed some time together first. Feeling like an intruder on the private moment, he quietly walked away and returned to where he had left his two buddies guarding the unconscious nanny. He knew that Mulder and Scully would know where to find them when they were ready to move forward with the plan.
Mulder was leaning against the car chatting with Byers when Scully finally appeared. She had left Frohike and Langly in the room; the trio would now stand watch over the boy so that his parents could head for the "Johnson" estate and finally bring this matter to its conclusion.
As Scully approached, Mulder couldn't help but take note of her body language. The woman he left behind in the motel room was an emotional mother; the woman who strode toward him now was a special agent who meant business. She wasted no time in putting things in motion as soon as she was within earshot.
"Is the nanny in the car?"
Pushing away from the vehicle, Mulder took a step forward to meet her. "Yeah, we moved her to our backseat, but I'm not sure how much longer she's going to be out. We may need to give her another shot."
"No, I don't want to compromise her health by administering a third dose. Besides, I want to get this over with as soon as possible. I intend to be back here in time to tuck William into bed." Her attention now shifted to Byers as she continued with her agenda. "I'm holding you personally responsible for whatever is playing on the television in front of my son. If the other two insist on watching something inappropriate, they can do it in their own room."
Byers meekly nodded in reply, looking like a chastened child. He didn't venture to speak because it was clear that Scully was pausing only long enough to receive an affirmative response.
"Langly was ordering pizza when I left, so dinner should be here soon. Try not to give William too much soda. And we would appreciate you guys leaving us a few slices since we haven't eaten yet." Her business with Byers concluded, Scully turned again to Mulder. "Let's get this show on the road."
Wisely complying without hesitation, Mulder held the keys out to her. She gratefully took possession and opened the driver's door as Byers moved out of the way and slowly backed toward the motel. The outcome for the remainder of the evening was far less certain than what had been successfully attempted that afternoon, but the two agents did not let that dissuade them from their task. Whatever fate awaited them at the estate, they would face gladly. It was time to avenge the wrongs inflicted upon their family.
* * *
On the way to the estate, the partners stopped by the service road where the Gunmen had hidden the nanny's car, which Mulder commandeered and then led their two-car caravan toward the secluded property. Upon their arrival, they found the place to be just as quiet and lifeless as the day before when he had reconnoitered it. Parking in the circular drive directly in front of the house, the two disembarked simultaneously and shared an uneasy look. There was something far too menacing about the silence, as though its very intent was to foster a false sense of security.
While Mulder stood watch, one hand resting on his holster, Scully took the nanny's keys and tried a couple on the front door until the lock finally yielded and the large, oaken door swung open. No alarms sounded. No guards or Dobermans came rushing toward the intruders. The eerie quiet still reigned.
Since their passenger remained slumped over in the back seat, the two agents made a quick inspection of the entryway, looking for signs that their presence was detected or that they had walked into a trap. They found none. Although still on her guard, Scully was quickly beginning to weary of this place, desiring to return to her son without further delay. She broke the silence first.
"Why don't you go get the nanny. I'll find the bedrooms."
Although the house was considerably smaller than some of the plantation homes that dotted the county, the vaulted ceilings and majestic stairwell made it feel more spacious than it indeed was. The first floor was impeccable and decorated with expensive antiques, including many ante-bellum pieces, and showed no signs that a child lived there. Mounting the wide, carpeted staircase, however, Scully finally discovered the living quarters, along with clues to the life that her son had been leading since he was ripped from her care.
The first door on the right had a clearly feminine touch, and a few framed portraits on the dresser testified that this was the room where their child's caregiver slept. Upon this discovery, Scully returned to the top of the stairs, waiting for Mulder to reappear through the front door with their charge slumped over his shoulder. When she caught his eye, she gestured toward the bedroom in question and then returned to her investigation.
Across the hall from the nanny's room, she discovered a large bedroom, nearly twice the size of the other, that was clearly a child's domain. Along one wall stood two large bookcases, stacked with colorful books and toys. Next to them rested a large plastic crate overflowing with stuffed animals. In the corner was an easel, bearing a dry erase board sporting childish scrawl. The far wall was occupied mainly by a closet with double sliding doors, one of them currently standing open to reveal a selection of neatly pressed school uniforms, a colorful array of play clothes, and the edges of more toys protruding from the half still hidden from view. The walls were illustrated with a Peter Pan theme, and the large bed that dominated the side of the room closest to the door matched perfectly with the hues and characters of the decor.
It was a child's playground, no expense spared--but well contained within the confines of this room.
At first immobilized as she took in the grandeur of the setting, Scully was spurred into action when her eyes fell upon the framed school photo of a sweet little strawberry-blond boy. She could not preserve for him all the treasures of this room, nor would she want to. But she could at least gather up enough of his belongings to help make the transition a little easier. Swiftly digging through the closet, she unearthed a suitcase, which she started to fill haphazardly with her son's clothes. Before long, she sensed Mulder's presence behind her in the doorway, stopping to take in the surroundings just as she had. She addressed him without pausing or turning around.
"Can you come finish this for me? I want to pack up a few of his toys."
Mulder crossed the room to her and silently took over her task, so Scully was freed to turn to the other project on her mind. After briefly considering her options, she decided to empty the plastic crate and fill it with an assortment of toys and books that looked the most used and loved. She made a quick circuit of the room, pausing every now and then to consider a book with worn edges, a ragged teddy bear that sat atop the neatly-made bed. Within moments, such treasures had filled the crate. The journey around the room brought her finally to the framed school picture, which she carefully caressed for a moment before gently securing it between two stuffed animals, and then she turned to face her partner.
But she was brought up short by the sound that they both noticed simultaneously: the jingle of keys opening the front door.
The partners froze in place, reading each other's eyes, as they listened to the noises below. The jingle of keys. A door creaking open and then closed. Footsteps in the hall. A voice calling up the stairs.
There was no mistaking that voice. They had both heard it too many times, in too many unwelcome situations. It was time to silence that voice.
Moving as one, the pair silently unsheathed their weapons and moved toward the doorway. The muffled noises below were no longer coming from the hall, so the two dared to move toward the staircase. After one quick peek around the corner, Mulder determined that the way was clear, and they gently worked their way down the carpeted stairs.
Once at the bottom, it wasn't difficult to locate their prey--they only had to follow their noses. The lingering trail of cigarette smoke led them to the library, just off the front hallway. They silently took their stand on either side of the wide entryway, guns trained on the man who stood across the room with his back to them, his attention focused on some pages that lay on the desk in front of him.
"Hands up where I can see them, and turn around slowly."
Was that a flinch of surprise at the sound of Mulder's voice?
The old man let a page flutter from his hand, and he slowly turned to face them. His hands were not held high in the air, but he did keep them slightly out to his sides. As the two finally got a glimpse of his face, they could see it was a ghostly shade of white.
But the man quickly regained his composure, taking another long drag from his cigarette before leaning over to the ash tray next to him and snuffing it out. As his initial look of surprise was replaced with his usual smugness, both agents came to realize that his pasty coloring had nothing to do with his reaction to them.
It had been over seven years since they had last laid eyes on their nemesis, and Scully remembered how sickly he had looked back then. Krycek had implied that the very technology Spender had offered to her on that trip, he had hence used to save himself from the illness that beset him. Even so, the years had apparently not been kind to him. His countenance was withered and drawn, the pallor accentuated by the tufts of white that framed his face. If it were possible, it seemed that he been infused with the coloring of the very smoke that he breathed like oxygen.
Already in need of his next fix, he removed another cigarette from the open pack on the desk and lit up. The flare of light on his face only highlighted the deep lines, and at the sight, Mulder felt his vigilance wither. The man that stood before him no longer seemed the pillar of power and control but a weak, pitiful man, crumbling into a pile of ashes.
After another long drag from his cancer stick, Spender broke the stifling silence.
"Agent Mulder, how nice to see you again. It's been a long time."
Hearing that voice once more dispelled any pity that Mulder had been feeling and recalled years of bitterness and pain.
"Only because you stole what didn't belong to you and went into hiding, you sick bastard. But it's over now. We're here to take William home with us, where he belongs."
"Are you sure that's such a good idea, Fox? Just look at this place. Look at what I have to offer him. I can provide for him everything he'll ever want or need. Do you really think the boy is better off with his alcoholic father?"
Mulder was seething and advanced slightly, not bothering to control his rage or his volume. "We can give William the one thing you can't--love! What that boy needs is his family!"
In contrast to these impassioned words, Spender remained quietly arrogant. "But I *am* his family, Fox. Surely you must realize that by now. He's my flesh and blood, just like you are."
"Flesh and blood don't make a family. Love does. And you took that away from me, too, when you stole my sister. I know what it's like to grow up without the love of a father, and I won't let you do that to my son. No amount of money or gifts can make up for that loss."
Scully quietly closed the gap between her and Mulder, still standing slightly behind him as though to continue watching his back. She placed a soothing hand on his arm as she heard him fight back the emotions in his voice. His pain was so tangible that she could feel it radiating from him in waves, but she knew he was determined not to let the tears escape while in front of his enemy.
As Mulder sensed her hand, he drew the strength from her that he needed and took a deep breath to compose himself.
They were both surprised when Spender's response was not gloating but resignation.
"Ah, well, I suppose it's for the best that you're here now. I'm not sure how much longer I'll be around to look after him."
Never one to mince words, Scully shot through his ambiguity straight to the heart of the matter. "Are you dying?"
He took another drag before responding. "The doctors say it's only a matter of weeks."
"What about the chip? I thought you used it to cure yourself."
"Oh, I did. But the cure came with a price, you see. The technology could heal the damage to my brain and my lungs, but it couldn't erase the addiction. And the cure could only be sustained by eliminating the cause. However, a man cannot abandon his oldest companion." He held up the cigarette nestled between his fingers and smiled at it with nostalgia and fondness. "Controlling the future isn't all it's cracked up to be. It's a lonely existence, Dana, and it is a man's closest friend who is the one destined to betray him."
His eyes left the smoldering stick and focused on her, the same fond smile now aimed in her direction. "I still have the technology. If you were to join me, Dana, I would no longer be lonely. I could still live a long, healthy life if I chose. And you could become the greatest healer the world has ever known."
Scully's hand on Mulder's arm clenched tighter as she responded: "You can go to hell for all I care, you son of a bitch. All I want is my son." She took a deep breath and then turned her head to address her husband. "Let's get this over with."
Mulder's arm raised again, gun trained strong and steady on the man across the room. Spender, to his credit, did not flinch or pale. He merely continued to puff away.
Staring down the barrel of the gun, Mulder flexed his finger on the trigger. But something within him stopped him from completing the action, and he let his arm fall to his side again as he reengaged the safety.
Although his words were directed to Scully, his eyes did not stray from Spender. "Leave him to the cancer. I want him to die a slow and painful death, utterly alone. Killing him now would be too merciful."
As Mulder took one step back, intending to turn and exit, a shot rang out. Spender's face crumpled in surprise while bright red liquid began to blossom from his chest. At first, Mulder assumed the shot had come from Scully, and he looked back at her, only to find her weapon down and her eyes focused somewhere beyond him. He turned and followed her gaze, recognizing then what she already knew.
In the far corner of the room was another doorway that they had not bothered to cover, the one leading to the kitchen. And standing in that doorway now was Alex Krycek, his gun and sight focused on the dying man.
Krycek approached slowly, coming to stand right in front of the Cancer Man to be sure that he got a good look at the face behind the trigger.
"Give the Devil my regards." The bitter words were followed by another shot, this one straight between the eyes, and the target collapsed to the floor in a lifeless heap.
Pausing to snuff out the smoldering stub that had fallen to the floor, Krycek then turned to address his enraptured audience, who stood watching the scene with fascinated disdain. "It was a noble thought, Mulder, but I guess I'm not as patient as you."
Taking these words as a conclusion to their business, Mulder holstered his weapon and turned to Scully. "I'd better go check on the nanny. She must be awake by now."
But Krycek spoke before she could respond. "Don't bother. I've already liquidated her."
"Damn it, Krycek! Killing innocent people wasn't part of the deal!"
The Russian snorted in derision. "Innocent? Are you really that naive, Mulder? You should know by now there aren't any innocent players in this game. Who do you think took your son from that park? It wasn't a couple of goons dressed in trenchcoats. It had to be someone that wouldn't look suspicious hanging around a playground. You should thank me. Now everyone involved in your son's kidnapping is dead."
Mulder's jaw visibly clenched as he stewed over this news. They were FBI agents, trained to take their revenge in the courts, not with their own hands. Once again, the only justice they could take solace in was an eye for an eye, not a public conviction.
Feeling his partner's hand settle on his arm again, he relinquished his angry focus on Krycek to turn and meet her gaze. He saw there the same determined look that he had seen so often in the past, reminding him that while it was time to concede this round, the battle was far from forfeit.
Her voice was gentle yet decisive as she spoke.
"Let's go home."
Startled by the finger that swiped at the corner of her mouth, Scully looked over at her husband to catch his amused expression.
"Ketchup." He held up his finger to show her the evidence before popping the digit in his mouth and licking it clean, removing it a little more slowly than necessary since her eyes seemed to be riveted to his mouth. As his lips curved up into a smug grin at her fixation, Scully graced him with an eye roll and then went back to eating her hotdog.
Normally, the health-conscious physician wouldn't go near such a sinful thing--nor would she let her family--but Mulder had insisted that it was all part of the experience, so she made an exception. ("It's not a day at the ballpark without hotdogs and peanuts, Scully.") Truthfully, though, it had been not his reasoning but his enthusiasm that had won her over. The threesome was finally going to a baseball game together, and Mulder had been bouncing off the walls all week in anticipation.
Licking the last remnants of the greasy snack from her fingers, Scully set her garbage beneath her seat and then affectionately leaned into Mulder's arm. He dutifully took the hint and draped his arm around her shoulders, looking down to grace her with a warm smile, accompanied by a gentle squeeze, before returning his attention to the field below.
But it wasn't the game that held her attention. As she snuggled closer into her husband's embrace and rested her head against his chest, Scully looked beyond him to the boy that was seated on his other side and under the protective care of his other arm. In profile, he looked so much like his father, especially now, donned as they were in matching caps and jerseys. Yankees, of course--even though they were at the White Sox' home field. Yet another detail that Mulder had insisted on, despite his wife's protests. She mused that probably the only reason they weren't getting lynched by opposing fans right now was that the Yankees were currently behind by three runs.
Watching her son watch the game, Scully couldn't believe how much had changed over the past eight months. One day, they were still mourning their son's death, and then the next, he was alive and returning with them to San Francisco.
As much as this seemed to be a dream come true, the transition was by no means an easy one. Each day brought new conflicts and challenges. It hadn't taken long to realize that the tight space of their townhouse was too cramped for the three of them. But more than that, there was something about the setting that was all wrong. San Francisco was the place to which Scully had escaped when their family fell apart; it had never been a place that belonged to the three of them together. So they had decided to set out for unknown territory and make a fresh start.
Fate, in the form of Scully's job, chose the location for them. She asked for a transfer, and the Chicago field office needed a pathologist. Mulder, on the other hand, found himself once more being offered a dead-end position as a concession to his wife's career. It seemed the FBI had little use for him anymore, so he had decided to call it quits. Still a legendary profiler, however, he was occasionally called in by the Bureau for a consultation, and he obliged. But it was clear that he had no regrets about walking away from the daily grind.
Never one to sit still for long, though, Mulder had designated his newest challenge to be a doctorate in Psychology. He had already been accepted into the University of Chicago, and after spending some quality time with his son over the summer, he would start as a full-time student in the fall.
And so, after celebrating William's seventh birthday in December, the family had packed up and moved to Chicago--although, more than once they regretted not waiting until the summer to do it. But Scully was willing to endure any number of Chicago winters in order to have a precious moment like this one with her son.
The crowd around them started to buzz with tension and anticipation as the bases were loaded and a big hitter stepped up to the plate. But Scully never once looked down at the field. She could read every play through the expressions on her son's face. His eyes were glued to the diamond below, but his hands never ceased their motion as he absent-mindedly shelled peanuts and popped them into his mouth one by one. Replace those nuts with seeds, she considered, and he was the spitting image of his father.
The batter struck out and the inning ended, and as Scully continued to watch her son, she soon realized she had an audience of her own. Looking up, she met Mulder's eyes, and they smiled contentedly at each other. They held each other's gaze for a long moment, until his eyes dropped to her mouth, and then his lips followed suit and closed the distance.
"Are you guys kissing *again*?"
The pair broke apart, laughing softly, before looking over in tandem at their son's exasperated expression.
Mulder turned back to his wife with a smirk. "Oh yeah, I'd say he's shaping up to be a normal kid."
Final notes: I made up the town of Cambridge, NC; if such a town does exist, I couldn't find it in my atlas. Also, on the issue of Mulder's degree in psychology, I know that many people think he already has a doctorate, but I don't, so now I'm letting him get one.
In case you're wondering, I always intended this story arc to be in two parts, fully knowing when I started out that Mulder and Scully would get their son back (despite what you may think, I'm not really sadistic enough to kill off William). However, as I wrote Ashes, I came to realize that it was more of an interlude, part 2 of 3. The series concludes with Picking Up the Pieces.