The woman pulled the toddler out of the car seat and settled him on her hip. He was growing so fast it wouldn't be long before she wouldn't be able to do this. But it was just a short trip and sometimes the stroller was more trouble than it was worth.
She had topped out at five foot one, and the way the baby was growing, she was pretty sure he'd be over six feet. His hair was thick and getting dark, not at all like her red curls, but she was grateful for that. Her brothers had suffered with red hair as children; it was easier being a girl when you had red curls.
She headed for the back of the store; all they needed was milk and eggs. At the cooler, she set the boy on his feet and handed him the carton of milk. "Can you help Mommy?"
He grinned up at her and hugged the carton to his chest. "Hep."
"Thanks, Will." She kept one hand on his shoulder to aid his balance and moved to the eggs. She'd hold on to them. Just as they approached the selection, she heard the shot ring out. Startled for only a second, she grabbed up Will and crouched with him in her arms at the end of the aisle, the milk carton abandoned beside them. A second shot caused her to duck and tighten her hold on the baby. When he looked up, she pressed her finger to his lips and shook her head. He must have picked up her fear, because he obeyed her without question. His baby arms went around her neck.
"I told you to give me the fuckin' money! Now give it up or we'll shoot everyone in here!"
She closed her eyes and sent a frantic prayer upward. When she opened her eyes, she spotted the man two aisles away. He was squatting, and she saw the gun in his hand. Her eyes widened in terror for an instant before he shook his head and put his finger to his lips. With his other hand, he held out his shield.
She nodded and felt herself relaxing just a little. This man was obviously a customer like herself, but he was also a policeman and he'd know what to do.
"I know there're people in the back!" The harsh voice rang out again. "If you don't come up here right now, I'm going to blow the clerk's head off. Right now! Lemar, you go check."
More than one? She looked at the policeman and he shook his head at her. He quietly slid his gun into the back of his slacks and winked at her. What was he doing? Was he insane?
Just then, this Lemar came around the corner, his hand was shaking, but he held a gun. "You, get up!" His voice cracked, but the cop nodded and came to his feet. He was wearing jeans and a leather jacket over his t-shirt. Good, he didn't look like a cop at all. He placed his hands on his head and nodded toward her.
"Let me get my family."
She blinked but kept quiet. The cop approached them, his hands still on his head, then held out a hand to help her to her feet. She took it and rose. Lemar didn't have the presence of mind to try to stop them, and Will kept quiet.
"I didn't notice," the cop said. "I don't think so."
"How about in the back?"
He shrugged. "I've never been back there. It's for employees only."
Lemar nodded, believing him. How young was this kid?
The cop kept his hand on the small of her back and moved her to the front. She glanced up at him once, but kept quiet. Surely he knew what he was doing, didn't he? Her arms tightened again around her son.
The clerk had been shot and was holding his arm, where blood had soaked the sleeve of his short sleeve shirt. The shirt was pulled tight over his beer belly and he was obviously in shock. He was pale but conscious. A teenage boy with spiky hair and a tattoo around his throat was seated beside him. The cop motioned for her to take a seat on the other side of the teenager, away from the clerk. Will burrowed into her lap and the cop sat beside her, his arm around them.
"What are you going to do?" the cop asked the man that had shot the clerk.
"That ain't none of your business, asshole, so shut up and let me think."
The man waved the gun toward them, but didn't point it.
"Let's just get the money and go," Lemar begged the older boy.
"Shut up, besides, there's only $17 in the drawer."
"$17? Shit, let's get out of here."
"Listen, you fucking idiot! Can't you hear the sirens? The cops are on the way! This motherfucker hit some sort of alarm."
"We'll go out the back. Come on!"
A police car squealed to a halt out front then, and Lemar closed his eyes. "Fuck! We're trapped, Jerome!"
"Shut the fuck up and let me think! Those cops won't come in here while we've got hostages. This can work out."
Lemar seemed to moan, and she looked up at the cop. He didn't look down but gave his head a tiny shake. She turned back to Jerome, watching him while she murmured reassuring sounds to Will.
The loud speaker caused her to jump. "We need you to drop your weapons and come on out."
Jerome ducked down, but was watching the door.
"Is anyone hurt?" The loud speaker blared again. "We've got an ambulance here. Just let everyone out and we can talk about this."
Jerome kept quiet, but then the phone behind the counter rang. Lemar jumped as much as the teenager and she did.
"Uh, listen, they probably want to negotiate with you," the cop said quietly. "They'll need to know what you want."
Jerome glared at him, but reluctantly picked up the phone. "None of your fucking business," he said to whatever question was asked. "We want a car and some money. Yeah I got hostages, and I'll take care of them if you don't listen to me. Get the car and the money." He looked over at Lemar. "$100,000. You've got thirty minutes." He slammed the phone down then and after a moment took his hand off of it.
"They're more likely to do what you want if you give them something."
"Shut up, fucker!"
"Hey, you're in charge, but say you send my wife and kid out; they'll know you're willing to deal."
"I’m not willing to deal. They give me what I want or I kill everyone in here!"
"And then they can come in guns blazing, because there'll be no one they care about saving. Keep me. Let the clerk go, he's bleeding bad and my - "
"Yeah, I know, your wife and kid. Just shut up and let me think!"
The cop fell silent, but his arm tightened slightly around her shoulders. She moved even closer to him, keeping Will's face away from the scene.
"It's gonna be okay. Trust me," he whispered to her. "What's your name?"
"Dana, this is Will."
"I'm Mulder. Try to relax."
"Shut up! Get over there and keep them quiet," Jerome ordered Lemar, who obeyed him silently.
They sat in silence then, until the phone rang. Jerome picked it up and listened for a moment. "The car ain't enough. I told you, money, then you guys back the hell away and let me and my bro out of here. No way, you show me that you're willing to 'work' with me. You got fifteen minutes." He slammed the phone down again.
"They ain't gonna do it, Jerome!"
"Shut up. Get over here. Keep an eye on them. Keep your gun on them." He grabbed Dana's arm and yanked her to her feet.
"No, take me," Mulder said quickly, also rising.
"Just take me, leave Dana and the baby alone." Mulder watched Jerome’s eyes. He was beginning to need whatever he'd wanted to steal the money for now, which made him more dangerous.
"Sit down and maybe they'll live."
Her eyes were on him, asking for instructions as she held her son against her chest. He nodded to her, and she let Jerome lead her in front of the windows. His gun was now aimed at her head. Mulder chanced a glance at Lemar. The younger man was terrified, and in way over his head. His gun hand was shaking and the gun itself was now aimed at the floor instead of at any of them.
"Let her go, Sir." The loudspeaker blared again. "The car's on the way and we're working on the money." Dana squeezed Will to her.
"Work faster!" he screamed at the cop. It probably did carry through the glass door.
"Hurry, or she and the kid are a memory!" He held the gun up, wagging it in the air, so that they could see he wasn't bluffing. Dana looked away and suddenly his head exploded beside her. She screamed as he crumpled beside her.
"Put the gun down, Lemar." Mulder voice came from behind her and he sounded dangerous now. Lemar didn't ask any questions, laying his gun on the floor. "Kick it over here to me."
Lemar did, then landed on his knees, his fingers locked over his head.
Mulder turned to the teenager with the tattoo. "Get them in here. Put your hands over your head so they can see you're not armed, and get the EMTs."
The teenager was already on his feet, heading for the door. He slowed down at those words and nodded. He pushed the door open and held his hands high in the air.
Police converged on him, pulling him to the side, while others raced to the door. Dana, finally able to move again, hurried behind Mulder. He nodded, but didn't take his eyes off of Lemar.
The police burst in, guns out to see the young black man on the floor, while a tall white man held a gun on him. He displayed his shield to the oncoming cops. "We need an ambulance." He jerked his head toward the clerk while Lemar was cuffed and dragged out. He surrendered his gun to the police and headed outside at their directions, his hand on Dana's back. He led her toward an ambulance, but as she realized it, she demurred.
"Let them check you out," he said gently.
"I know you are, but let they make sure. Here, let me take Will."
She looked up terrified at that. "No!"
"It's okay. I'm not going anywhere. Just let them look you over. Please, trust me."
She looked up into his eyes and seemed to relax slightly.
"He'll be right here."
"Will, can you go to Mr. Mulder for a minute?"
Will looked up at the tall man, and let go of his mother's neck for the first time since they had crouched at the end of the aisle. He reached for Mulder, who lifted him into his arms. The boy took hold of his shirt, rested his head against Mulder's shoulder and stuck his thumb into his mouth. She watched in amazement, then sagged down on the tailgate of the ambulance. Mulder's free hand came out to her.
"Put your head down. It's okay." He gently pressed her head down between her knees as the EMTs took over. He took one step back, but no farther. She needed to be able to see her son. The EMT draped a blanket around her shoulders.
"I'm okay, really. It's just reaction," she tried to reassure them.
"Which you're certainly entitled to," the female EMT said. "Let me take your blood pressure."
Dana kept quiet then, looking up to see her son watching her solemnly from their rescuer's arms.
She was fine, and they gave her a clean bill of health quickly, then allowed the police to approach. "We're going to need a statement - "
"Not now," Mulder interrupted. "I'll get you a full report. Right now, I'd like to get her home."
She blinked at that, but didn't protest.
"You're not a cop."
Dana's head swiveled toward him.
"Bureau. I know the drill. You have the information you need to contact us. She needs to get the baby home and settled."
The detective stared at him for a moment, then finally nodded. "The kid's not going anywhere, and neither is Jerome, finally. He's been known around here for years. I'll need to talk to you tomorrow."
"You got it." Mulder shook his hand and turned back to Dana. "I'll drive you home."
"What about your car?"
"Not a problem. I can get a ride back."
"Really, I'm - "
"I know, you're fine. I still don't think you should be driving right now. Let me do this, please?"
She looked at Will, so comfortable in his arms. "Thank you."
He grinned and led her to the car she indicated. It was a sage green Highlander hybrid. He opened the back door. "Hey, Will, let's go home."
The boy looked at him, and then let his mother take him back to fit him into his car seat. His fist only released the gray t-shirt when it was too far away. Dana buckled him in and kissed his forehead, then moved to the door Mulder had opened for her and seated herself, buckling in. He was right; her hands were shaking too much for her to drive.
He started the engine with her key. "Just for the record, I’m Special Agent Fox Mulder. I prefer to go by Mulder."
She nodded and held out a hand that just barely trembled. "Dana Scully, and this is William." He shook her hand, and watched her relax just a little more.
"I'm gonna need an address."
She gave a nervous laugh and nodded. She gave him the address, and he pulled out. She glanced back at Will, but he was fine, watching out of the windows as he usually did.
Mulder was quiet, allowing her to relax as they drove. He pulled into her parking slot at the condo and turned to look at her. "Is anyone home?"
She shook her head.
"Is there anyone I can call for you? Your husband? Family?
"I'm not married."
He absorbed that and looked back at Will. He'd fallen asleep on the ride. Dana took a deep breath and unbuckled the seatbelt, then opened the car door. Mulder was already beside her and opened the back door to give her access to Will.
He followed her inside, not offering to carry the baby, but he did keep her keys in his hand and opened the door for her. She entered and he followed. She didn't mention it, not wanting to admit she was relieved he was still there.
"Let me put him down. I'll be right back."
Mulder gave her a small smile and remained standing by the door. She wasn't gone long. He was still at the door, but looking around the bright, homey room. They were on the third floor, so the blinds were open letting in maximum light. The walls were a soft yellow and white lacy curtains framed the three windows that lit the room. There was a plaid couch, greens and yellows with a blue thread running through it. The couch had its back to the door, facing the wall unit that held the TV. A hand knit afghan with blue and coral shades lay across the back. A matching chair was to the side. The coffee table had a couple of magazines and several children's books on it. The side table between the couch and the chair held a ceramic lamp and a phone. Bookcases lined the wall that led to the hall. The shelves were a mishmash of books, photos and some toys.
An arch led to the kitchen with a table and four chairs in a small nook. The kitchen counter was clean and there were fresh flowers on the table. Everything looked very inviting.
"He didn't wake," she said softly when she returned.
Mulder nodded. "I'm sure he'll be okay."
She nodded, but he noted she'd wrapped her arms around herself.
"Why don't you have a seat?" He led her to the couch and took the chair beside her. "Are you sure there isn't someone I could call for you? A friend, family?"
She shook her head and took several deep breaths, forcing control. "Milk, milk and eggs. That was all we needed and we nearly . . . "
"It's over. You're safe."
"I know, I know. Thank you for bringing us home."
"It was no problem, but I don't like the idea of you being alone right now. Is Will's father - "
"He's not part of the picture. We're fine. I really can't keep you here any longer. I'm sure you have things you need to be doing."
A definite dismissal and he nodded. "I'll call a cab and get out of your hair." He slipped his business card from the wallet that held his shield and scribbled something on the back of it. "Call me, if you need anything. Okay?"
"Thank you." She started to rise but he stopped her.
"I can show myself out. You just take it easy for a little while and don't hesitate to call me."
She nodded and watched him open the door. He checked the lock. "Put on the chain when I'm gone. It'll make you feel better."
She kind of smiled and nodded, watching him as the door closed. She sank back into the couch then, and pulled the afghan off the back and around her.
In a few minutes she rose, and followed his instructions about the chain. She checked on Will, who was still sleeping peacefully and then started some laundry even though she had done some the day before. Sitting and thinking was not an option.
She had moved the load to the dryer, and was sitting on the couch with a glass of wine when the knock came on the door. She froze, momentarily terrified before she caught herself. Jerome was dead and Lemar in custody; and neither even knew her name, much less where she lived. She placed the glass on the table and hurried to the door. She looked through the peep hole and spotted Mulder.
Surprised, she hesitated for just an instant before opening the door. "Mulder?"
He held up a bag. "Milk and eggs. I didn't think you should go out again tonight."
"And ice cream?" She looked into the bag.
He pulled his other hand from behind his back. "It goes with the pizza. I was thinking comfort food, and pizza always does it for me."
She did laugh then and it felt good.
He spotted the glass of wine on the table. It was only one glass and he didn't see the bottle. That was good. "We should put the ice cream in the freezer."
"Oh, of course." She stepped back and let him in. He carried the groceries into the kitchen and opened the 'fridge door. The bottle was in there, the cork in it. She had only planned one glass. She was handling things, he thought with relief.
Balancing the pizza box with expertise, he grinned down at her. "Napkins or plates?"
"Plates, thank you." She moved past him and pulled two plates out of the cabinet. "Would you like wine or iced tea?"
"I'll live dangerously, iced tea."
She poured him a large glass and joined him at the table. "You know you really didn't have to check on us."
He shrugged and pulled a slice from the pie between them. As if on cue, the baby monitor on the counter came alive. "Mamamama!"
"Never fails," she smiled and rose. She was back shortly with Will in her arms. He was in fresh clothes and babbling happily. He spotted Mulder and accepted his presence, as Dana slipped him into the highchair. "You hungry too, Will? Let me heat you something up."
With practiced ease, she filled a colorful plastic plate with toddler food and slipped it in the microwave for a few seconds. "You had a big day, didn't you, Kiddo. I wish I'd gotten to take a nap myself," Mulder conversed with Will while waiting for her to rejoin them.
She sat a sippy cup with the milk Mulder had picked up in front of the boy. He grabbed it up and drank while she tested the food.
They ate together and when it was time for dessert, she shared a few bites of the ice cream with the boy and he grabbed her hand to demand more. Mulder laughed out loud at that and Will turned to watch him.
"You need a bath, little man."
Will seemed to agree, but reached for Mulder. "You want me to bathe you? I'm not sure I know how."
"You don't have to - "
"I don't mind watching," he interrupted.
She blinked and smiled. "We'd love the company, but I warn you, you might get wet."
"Not a problem."
He cleaned up the table, putting the dishes in the dishwasher while she ran the tub and got Will ready. He slipped the box with the leftover pizza in the refrigerator, then headed down the hall.
The baby sat in the tub inside a small yellow ring with rubber feet. He was splashing enthusiastically, and greeted Mulder with chortles and offered him a small plastic Big Bird. "Well, thank you." He took the bird and offered up a small plastic Elmo in exchange. Apparently that was the correct move and they played while Dana washed the baby's hair and body.
"Okay," she said finally, "that's enough water all over the place. Let's get out." For a wonder, Will lifted his arms to get out. "He likes the company," she remarked as she handed a towel to Mulder. She lifted the baby out of his circle and let him drip for moment, then turned toward the towel. Instead of giving it to her, Mulder took the baby in it and wrapped him up, drying him.
"Uh, you better face him toward the tub."
"Why - " he started to obey when the stream of urine started. "Nevermind." He cut his eyes toward her, but she was grinning.
"I tried to warn you."
"A little quicker next time would be nice."
"Yeah, I'll work on that," she said dryly. She cleaned the boy up and grabbed a diaper off the sink. She took the boy and lay him on the towel now lying on the bathmat and diapered him. "There you go, Will. Now let's get you some pj's."
He was dressed quickly and they headed back to the living room. "I don't know if he'll sleep tonight. His nap was very late."
"What would you normally be doing now?"
"Reading, sitting and cuddling to slow down into bed time."
"Try it. He might like the routine."
She nodded and settled him in her lap, picking up In the Night Kitchen, his favorite. It took several readings, but sure enough, his eyes began drooping.
His thumb found its way to his mouth and he was out. Mulder winked at her and she looked down at the boy with pride and love. "I'll be right back."
He rose as he heard her return. "I should get out of your way."
"I'm sure you have plans."
"Actually, I don't."
"Oh, would you like a glass of wine now?"
"Sure, if you don't mind."
She headed for the kitchen and he returned to the chair. She handed him a glass of the red wine and took a seat on the couch. "I'm not sure I believe you didn't have plans," she said, watching him. "I really don't need a babysitter."
"I know you don't, but today had to be way outside of your norm, and I really was free tonight."
"You're not married?"
"Nope," Mulder took a sip of his wine.
"But you're seeing someone," it wasn't a question.
"Yeah, Diana. She works at the Bureau too."
"Is it serious?"
He shrugged. "It's convenient." She winced and leaned forward. "Sorry, that did sound callous."
"She'd be lucky. I can already tell you'd make a great father."
"That would probably send her running in the other direction. She's . . . ambitious. Diana's heading for the fifth floor as fast as possible. Me, I'm gunning for a basement office with intermittent heat."
She looked the question at him and he shrugged again. "I have a project I'm working on, and she doesn't really approve. What about you? You didn't want to marry the father?"
Her smile slipped slightly.
"I'm sorry, I - "
"No, it's okay. The father didn't want the job. In fact he's convinced he's not the father."
"There was no one else. Yes, we were careful, but nothing's foolproof. He didn't want a DNA test, so he bought me this condo and signed away all parental rights."
Mulder took that in. It did explain how she could afford this place in such a nice neighborhood.
"He could better afford this place than giving his time," she seemed to respond to his thoughts. "I didn't ask for anything," there was a touch of defensiveness in her voice. "When I realized I was pregnant, it felt like it was meant to be. I wanted him, Allen didn't."
"That was his mistake. Will's cool."
"Thank you. He was on his best behavior for you."
"How old is he? I'm not real good at guessing ages."
"He'll be a year old next week, May 10."
"Wow. Do you have a big party planned?"
"Not really. I thought we'd go to the park and swing, maybe have a picnic if it's nice."
"What about the grandparents? Won't they want to make much over him on his first birthday?" Mulder took another sip of wine.
"They don't live here. They, they weren't thrilled that I wasn't married."
"They love him, really, but they're pretty disappointed in me. I mean, I wasn't supposed to get pregnant and have to quit school." She shook her head. "I can't believe I'm telling you all of this. You're too easy to talk to."
"We shared a traumatic experience this afternoon, we bonded."
“You said you had to quit school?”
She nodded. “I’m studying to be a doctor. I was interning at Georgetown. I have a long way to go, but right now . . .”
“Wow, beautiful and smart.”
She blushed lightly, then smiled up at him. “Maybe not so very smart.” She shrugged. “I still have my hand in, at least a little. I may not have to pay rent, but there are lots of other expenses. I work at Georgetown now, transcribing medical records. It keeps me familiar with what’s going on at the hospital and gives me time to study. Will goes to the daycare there, so he’s close by.”
She chuckled, but it was cut short by the sudden screaming from the bedroom. She was on her feet instantly, racing toward his room. Mulder rose, but didn't follow her. The baby was still crying when Dana brought him into the living room. When he spotted Mulder, he reached for him and Mulder didn't hesitate. He took him into his arms and the boy rested his head on Mulder's shoulder again. After a couple of hiccups, the thumb was back in his mouth and he relaxed.
Dana was still standing there, stunned. "He's never cried out like that. Could, could it have been a nightmare?"
"Have a seat," Mulder suggested. This time he sat beside her on the couch rather than in the chair. "I doubt it was a real nightmare. Children this age usually don't - "
"How would you know that?"
"Uh, my child psych courses. It's not something that should be long term. He didn't see anything. You were very careful to keep his face hidden, and kept him safe in your arms." He saw the tears fill her eyes.
She blinked them back and groped for composure. "You're a psychologist?"
He nodded. "I'm a profiler at the Bureau. They recruited me out of university."
"Wh-where did you go?" she asked, wanting to change the subject.
Her head came up. "Oxford? England?"
He smiled slightly. "You’ll get your education too."
She nodded. “I'll go back, when he's a little older."
"What kind of doctor?"
"I'm not through my rotations. Now I'm going to need something with more regular hours, and I'm pretty sure that doesn't include pediatrics which was my original goal. It wouldn't be great bringing every germ home to Will either."
"Well, he'd be exposed and get immune in a hurry that way."
"I hope I get the chance to find out."
"You will. You're a strong woman." He seemed to realize what he'd said then, and looked back down at the boy. "I think he's out again. Do you want me to put him down?"
"What? Oh, yes, thank you." She rose and he stood beside her. He followed her into the nursery, which was painted a bright blue with white furniture. There was a Big Bird lamp by the crib and a tub of toys beside a white platform rocker with blue cushions.
He lay the boy gently in the crib. Will sighed and slept on. They both watched him for moment, then Dana turned back toward the living room. Mulder followed after a second. "I guess I need to head out."
"I had a good time. You're a very good mother." He saw her eyes moisten again, and held out his hand. "You've got my number."
She nodded and walked him to the door. It had been one of the nicest evenings she'd had in a very long time.