Back in Play (PG-13)
Skinner let himself into his apartment, snapping on the light as he began to look through his mail. A movement made him look up, and he started. "Mu-Mulder?" It couldn't be. For the first time, he realized he had finally given up hope of ever seeing the man again.
"Where is she?"
"I don't know." He didn't even try to pretend he didn't know who Mulder was talking about. "I, we thought . . . What are you doing here?"
Mulder hesitated; just how much trust . . . No, this man had proven himself more than once. "Something's wrong. I need to know that she and William are okay."
Skinner blinked. Mulder didn't know. Well, how could he? Scully hadn't been able to reach him, even by email after that disastrous attempt to bring him back. She had, hell they all had thought he was dead. "Can I get you something?"
"I don't have time. She's not at her place and no one was at Mrs. Scully's."
"Have a seat, Mulder." Something in Skinner's voice caused a chill to run up Mulder's spine, and to Skinner's surprise, he did take a seat on the couch. Skinner dropped his mail on the bar and poured himself a brandy. Without asking, he poured a second one for Mulder and handed it to him.
"Why do I need this?"
Skinner took a sip and leaned back. "She's not in DC anymore."
"Anymore? She moved out of town? Where?"
Skinner shook his head. "A lot has happened and . . . "
"She moved away from her mother? I thought Maggie would be a help with the baby."
Skinner stared down into his brandy and didn't respond. After a moment, Mulder took a sip himself.
"A lot has happened while you've been gone."
"I wanted to get in touch again, after . . . but I didn't want anyone to trace it, to know we were in touch."
"I wish you could have contacted her somehow. She couldn't believe you were dead, but . . . "
Mulder closed his eyes, unable to stop himself from feeling the pain that would have caused him. "I shouldn't have let that happen."
"Mulder, it was . . . bad here. Things were out of control."
Skinner sighed, looked at his brandy, then sat it on the side table. "William." He watched Mulder tense. "Things became . . . complicated."
"There were people that wanted him. They wanted him badly and for a time, they had him."
"He was kidnapped. Your friends and Monica helped her get him back, but other things . . . Remember the artifact?"
His throat tight, Mulder could only nod. "There was some sort of disturbance around a piece that Scully had. Neither she nor Monica would give me the details, but it shook Scully badly."
Mulder took another sip of his brandy. "The people that took him - " his throat closed again.
"Dead? All of them?"
Skinner nodded. "That's been a little hard to explain as well. It was apparently a cult."
"Who killed them? A cult?"
"Yeah, a UFO cult."
Mulder let his face fall into his hands.
"Mulder, he wasn't hurt and Scully got him back, but she was badly shaken."
"So she decided to move away with him? Go underground?"
Skinner closed his eyes, then shook his head. "She decided that only complete anonymity would protect him. She came to me after she made her decision, but I wouldn't have tried to change her mind."
"She made the impossible decision to put William up for adoption. She decided that any link to her would keep the boy in danger."
"He's . . . he's gone?"
Skinner met his eyes then. "I helped her arrange the adoption. Her name never came up and I don't know where the boy was taken. I specified away from the east coast at her direction, but that's all I know."
"He's gone," his voice was below a whisper, but Skinner heard him.
Skinner didn't respond, couldn't respond to the despair in the younger man's voice.
"She wanted a baby, that's what finally brought us together. She - "
"You were together for a long time before that." Skinner held up his hand. "You know you were. Whatever your 'physical' relationship was, the two of you were together. Accept it."
"Where is she?"
Skinner took a deep breath and blew it out. "I don't know. I didn't know she was leaving. I've talked to John and Monica. She didn't give them any warning either. I did put a trace on her cards, her social security number, but there hasn't been a single ping. You and your friends trained her well."
"I've got to go."
"No, you don't. You need some time and a shower."
Mulder didn't even look up.
"Go on. I'll fix us some dinner and you can have some time to think. I'm not kidding about the shower and I can do a load of clothes for you."
Mulder looked up at him but didn't speak.
"You have more clothes somewhere, don't you? In your car?"
"What? Uh, you don't have to - "
"Let me do this. We can brainstorm or something. I want to help. What kind of car are you driving?"
"I'm not. I took the bus." He pointed to a duffle bag and a backpack at the far end of the couch.
"I'll take care of this." He wasn't sure Mulder was even aware of his movements, but the younger man did head in the direction of the bathroom.
"There's a robe on the back of the door. Use that and pass me the rest of your clothes." He could hear the shower running, and headed into the hall where he picked up all of the clothing Mulder had shed. It was obvious that everything needed washing, so he started a load, then began dinner.
Skinner turned when he heard Mulder enter the kitchen. The robe was a little big; the man had obviously lost some weight being underground. "Have a seat." He placed a plate in front of him, then took the seat opposite and picked up his fork. "Eat while it's hot, Mulder."
Mulder automatically picked up the fork and put food into his mouth, but Skinner wasn't sure he tasted it. After several bites, he met Skinner's eyes. "Why did she leave?"
Shit, he hadn't wanted that question. How was he supposed to put a positive spin on it when he was damned afraid to ask that question of himself?
"She wouldn't hurt herself," Mulder growled, watching Skinner's expression. "She wouldn't!"
"I hope not. I thought she was handling things okay. I knew she was depressed, hell, of course she was depressed, but she hid it well, did her job. I've talked to John and Monica. They didn't see this coming either, and they worked much more closely with her. None of us know a trigger that made her decide to leave now."
Mulder shook his head, unable to think clearly. Scully was gone, William was gone and he had no idea how to find either of them. He had always imagined them together, waiting for him. What an idiot. He should have known the boy was special, aside from being the miracle child they had created without outside intervention. All of the things Scully had been through; of course it would have affected her pregnancy. And there was no way to know that his genes were any better after what had been done to him as well. After William was born, so healthy and normal, he had shoved all of that aside. He'd seen what he wanted to see and left her in the lurch to handle everything without him.
He wanted to be angry that she had given away their child, his child, but he couldn't. Was it shock? He'd known something was wrong, that's why he was here. He'd forced her into that position and vanished so that they couldn't even discuss it. Kidnapped, William had been kidnapped and he hadn't even known. He knew her anguish at that, it was no wonder she had taken whatever steps she could to try to ensure the boy's safety. But at what cost to herself?
He shook his head. "I should go."
"You can't. Your clothes are wet and you're totally exhausted. Go on to bed."
"I can't sleep."
"Then just rest. You'll be clearer in the morning and knowing you, you'll have some idea and, and I'll be here to help you with whatever it is."
Mulder looked up then. "Why?"
Skinner shrugged. "It's what I do."
Mulder almost smiled at that. He did nod then, and rose from the table. "Thanks for dinner and, and everything."
Skinner nodded and watched him leave the kitchen with what looked like leaden feet. He'd thought Mulder had gone on to bed, but after cleaning up and returning to the living room, he saw him sitting there on the couch, staring into space. He didn't look over at Skinner, but he spoke. "Do you think she'd ever check email?"
"I don't know. She hasn't tried to get in touch with any of us. I even checked with Byers."
"She thinks I'm dead."
Skinner nodded and took the seat across from him. "Yes. We all did."
"So I need to leave her a message, one that could only come from me."
Skinner watched him for a moment. "I have no doubt you could come up with a message she would know was from you, but where would you send it?"
"To that account, the one we used. It's still open, I still check it, I just haven't sent anything."
"I hope it works. Go ahead, my laptop is over there." Skinner pointed to his desk. "Those friends of yours did something, it should be safe."
At those words, Mulder rose and booted up the computer. He thought for a minute, then typed **please talk to me, my 1in5B**. After taking a deep breath, he pressed send, then turned to Skinner. "Thanks for . . . "
"Go on to bed, Mulder. We'll see if there's a response in the morning."
After a long moment, Mulder reluctantly nodded and closed down the machine. Silently the two men made their way to the bedrooms.
Mulder did sleep, but not peacefully. Skinner made no comment the next morning, making coffee and scrambling eggs. He looked up when Mulder stumbled into the kitchen. "Coffee's over there."
Mulder mumbled a thank you. "Have you checked the account?"
"No, I thought you should do that."
Mulder took a deep breath and turned back to the living room with his coffee. He took several sips as the laptop booted up. There was no answering email, but at least one reason to be encouraged.
"Anything?" Skinner asked as he served the eggs and toast.
"It was received. Someone took it, but no one has responded."
"Give her a little time. Her grief has to be overwhelming." He saw Mulder wince and kept quiet. Nothing he could say would help this.
Finally he could wait no longer and caved to the need to try to reach out to her again. His second message to her read **Please, even with the root beer instead of tea, I knew it was love.**
He had barely removed his hands from the keys when the return message was before him.
**Who are you?**
sent his blood pressure through the roof.
**The one who can distinguish mosquito bites.**
"Mulder, you've got to give her time. She has to be rocked by this."
Mulder managed to look up and after a moment, lay the laptop on the coffee table and stood up. He had no idea what to say to Skinner, and his former boss seemed to understand that. He left Mulder alone, moving to the kitchen to give him space.
It was close to ten minutes before Mulder heard the tone of an incoming email. He made it back to the laptop in two strides.
**You should know by now it doesn't stick with me.** he responded.
Again there was no response and finally he forced himself into the other room. Skinner looked over as Mulder joined him in the kitchen. "Anything?"
"Yeah. She doesn't know if she can believe it's me."
Skinner nodded and returned to cleaning out his refrigerator. Well, it was something to do and kept his hands busy anyway.
This time Mulder managed to hold out for an hour. **Please, we need to talk, we need to be together.**
The message was received, but still no answer.
The next morning Mulder was back on-line with a cup of coffee in his hand. "Nothing," he growled toward Skinner. "I have to find her. She needs me, we need to be together."
"I don't disagree with you, Mulder. But I don't know where she is."
"Maybe the guys - "
"We've all been looking for her since we realized she was gone."
"But you thought she had killed herself, didn't you?"
Skinner took a seat across from him. "It crossed my mind," he finally said.
Mulder picked up the laptop. **Please, you have to talk to me. We need to be together.**
Almost before his fingers had left the keyboard there was a tone. **We can't.**
**We can! We need each other. You have to know I love you.**
**You can't love me. You don't know what I've done, but you can never forgive me.**
**I already have, it's me that can't be forgiven. I put you in an impossible position. **
**Well now I know it's really you. Taking the blame for everything.**
He half laughed, half sobbed at the feeble joke. **Yes, it's me. Maybe you need to let me know where you are so you can kick my ass.**
There was no response to that, but Skinner had entered the room at Mulder's laugh. "What?"
"She knows it's me. She believes. Now I just have to get her to tell me how to find her without giving it away to anyone else." He turned back to the computer. **Let me know how to find you.**
**If you know what I've done, why would you ever want to see me again?**
**I see you every time I close my eyes. I love you, I'm not drugged, I love you. Tell me how to find you!**
It was an agonizing ten minutes before she replied and even over email, he knew she was crying.
**Where are you?**
**Home, I'm with the big guy.**
**You really do know what I did.**
**What I forced you to do. Don't let my stupidity keep us apart any longer.**
**I need time. Please give me some time.**
**Okay, just don't disappear on me. Don't break off contact with me. Promise.**
Mulder closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the back of the couch.
"Mulder?" Skinner approached him, purposely not looking at the screen.
"She's thinking about it. God, what I did to her."
"You did what you thought was the best thing to protect them. None of us saw any of this coming."
"I should have!" Mulder replied, his eyes snapping open. His frustration and fear caused his voice to rise. "I knew what went into that baby's genetic makeup as well as anyone. I should never have been deceived by appearances."
"Mulder - "
"He's my son, Scully's son. I abandoned him and his mother. I caused this."
"You did what you thought best at the time. So did she. You need to put it aside for now because she needs you and God knows you need her. Just wait for now. I know how hard that is for you, but you have to. Give her a little time. You are in contact now and I don't think she'll break that off, not with you. Step away, Mulder, for a little while, step away."
Since there was nothing else to do, he rose from the computer and walked into the bedroom. Skinner watched him go; there was nothing else he could say.
The next morning there was still no response from her and Skinner could see how frayed Mulder's nerves were. He silently sat breakfast on the table and after a few minutes, Mulder did sit down and ate. When he was through, he took over clean up.
Skinner did some work, checked his own email, but maintained the connection to their email in case there was any contact. The tension in the apartment was like swimming through tar. Skinner gave Mulder all the space he could, but nothing was going to help. He watched as Mulder carried his dried clothing into the bedroom and wondered if he was going to fold it or just stuff it back in his bag.
When Mulder didn't come out after some length of time, Skinner rose and approached the door. Some clothes were folded on the bed, but Mulder held a t-shirt in his hands as though he'd forgotten it, his mind obviously miles or years away. Skinner stepped back, but Mulder spoke. "What do you think she's doing?"
"Weighing her options," Skinner said without hesitation.
"She wants to see you, needs to see you. But she thinks she's destroyed what you had between the two of you. She gave away your son."
Mulder turned on him then. "I understand that! She can't blame - "
"Who else is she going to blame, Mulder? You?" He shook his head. "She made the decision and I'm sure she even knows it was the right thing, but it means she failed."
"She didn't - "
"No, she didn't, but she's depressed, she's in a depression. The two people who meant the most in the world to her are gone. Now she knows you're alive, you're back, but from inside a depression, she may not know how to handle that. I know it's hard, but you have to give her time."
Mulder sank onto the bed, not knowing how to fight, when his opponent was right. "What do I do in the meantime?"
"Rest, look after yourself. Stay here, where she can find you, and get strong again. Don't argue with everything I say," he stopped Mulder before the younger man could interrupt. "You're not well, you've lost weight and let's face it, you're depressed too. Give yourself a break. If you haven't heard any more by tomorrow, contact your friends. I don't know what more they can do, but they want to help."
Mulder seemed to think about that for a long moment. "Why aren't you at work?"
"I am working, but it's Sunday."
"Sunday?" Mulder shook his head. He hadn't even known that. So it had been Friday when he arrived. Skinner was right, he needed to get his strength back and a lot of that strength was Scully. Even he had to admit that now.
After a moment, Skinner turned and left the room. Mulder finally rose and finished folding his clothes putting them carefully back into his bag. It was habit now, in case of a quick departure. He didn't remove it, but let his fingers trace over the bottom of his duffel where the picture lay protected by the cardboard at the bottom. The one picture he had of the two of them, Scully and William. William had been a day old, his features still mostly unformed and so damn tiny. He didn't need to look at it to see it any longer; he had stared at it for countless hours since he had left.
Now it would be the only picture he would ever have of his son.
Skinner looked back once and shook his head. He had thought he'd seen the pain Scully was going through. Turns out he had been wrong, but he knew he was seeing it now with Mulder.
A knock at the door startled him and he turned in that direction. He checked the peephole then wrenched the door open. Scully stood there. He reached for her as she hesitated. Her face was colorless and when he took her arm, he felt the bones in her too thin arm. He didn't hear Mulder enter the room, but felt her tense against him.
Skinner turned as Mulder headed their way, he faltered as Scully pressed back into Skinner as though fearful of him. "Scully?"
He looked at her then, really looked at her. She looked scared, scared of him and physically exhausted. She had lost way too much weight, almost as much as when she'd been sick, and seemed at the end of her tether.
He needed to hold her, so he took another step. Without warning, she went limp and Skinner took her into his arms before she could hit the ground. Mulder reached for her, but he bypassed Mulder and turned into the guest bedroom. There he lay her gently on the bed.
Mulder followed on his heels. "Do you want me to call 911?" Skinner asked.
"No, let me look after her for now."
Skinner nodded. "I'm see what I have that she can eat." He left them alone, looking back once as he shut the door.
Mulder climbed onto the bed beside her and curled around her, gathering her into his arms. She felt half the size she should be. His lips to her throat proved that her pulse was strong at least. He just held her, trying to pour his energy into her.
He was dozing off when he felt her stir, then she jerked away from him before he realized her intention. She didn't go far, kneeling on the foot of the bed watching him, but on the point of escape. She jerked back when his hand came up.
He had no idea what to say to her. Finally she broke the silence. "You should hate me."
He blinked at that. "Why?"
Her eyebrow rose in a familiar arch.
"I'm angry, hell I'm nearly furious at you, but I don't hate you."
"Furious . . . "
"Look at what you've done to yourself! I'm angry because you've hurt the woman I love. You haven't eaten, you haven't slept, you . . . " He met her eyes in horror. "You were committing slow suicide."
She flinched but didn't dispute his words. "I thought you were dead and . . . "
"If I had thought you were dead, I wouldn't have chosen a slow suicide. Why didn't you try to reach me?"
"How? I didn't have a grave to exhume this time."
He closed his eyes at that. "I'm sorry."
His eyes snapped open.
"Don't you dare take this on. Not after what I've done - "
"William." He read the word from her lips, no sound escaped. He saw the tears swimming in her eyes.
He reached for her again and this time she didn't jerk away. Gently he pulled her to him. She only resisted slightly, then collapsed in his arms and wept. He had no idea whether it was her tears or his own that dampened his t-shirt.
When she pulled back, he held on to her. "He's safe. We have to hold on to that. You did the right thing, distancing him from us. He's alive and safe and, and happy. And he's not lost forever. He's not and we both need to know that," he said quickly when she started to speak.
Silently, she leaned back against him. They stayed that way until a tap on their door interrupted them.
"Mulder, she needs to eat something," Skinner's voice came through the door.
"We're coming," Mulder said, helping Scully to her feet. Skinner had fixed a light meal, but Scully struggled to finish even that.
They ate in silence and Skinner insisted on handling clean up himself, sending them to the other room. Mulder and Scully took a seat on the couch, where he finally coaxed her into resting against him. "We've got to get you back in shape."
"We have things to do. Neither of us can go on alone. Look at us, without the other . . . we need each other. I know it, I think I knew it before I was off your block when I abandoned you - "
"You didn't - "
"I did and I know it. Don't cut me slack there, Scully, I don't deserve it."
"I should have been able to - "
"How? Scully, how could you have handled things 'better'?"
"I, I would have disappeared with him, gone underground."
"With a baby. You wouldn't be able to hold a job, you'd be noticeable. No, I should have taken you with me. This is my fault and someday I hope you'll let me start to try to make this up to you."
She hid her face in his shoulder, the fight out of her now. His arm held her tight to his side.
Skinner stopped at the doorway, watching them for a moment. He'd overheard some of their conversation. At least one thing Mulder said was right, they needed each other. They sustained each other as no other couple he could even imagine. Mulder had been wrong to leave them, but he had really thought it would be for their protection. Apparently the child was the target now and he would be there to help them protect him. Yes, everything would start in earnest now.