Ghosts of Christmas Present, The

by Anjou

     Date: Sunday, December 29, 2002 3:04 PM
     Title: The Ghosts of Christmas Present
     Author: Anjou ( 
     Rating: R for sexual situations
     Category: MSR
     Spoilers: The Truth; assumes that William was born in May
     2001, given up for adoption in April 2002 and that Mulder
     and Scully fled in May 2002. 
     The first story in this series, entitled 'Ghosts' and can be
     found at:
     As before, this is for the FF.

Fox Mulder hadn't had a family Christmas in almost 30 years.

The first Christmas after his sister's disappearance, it would have seemed blasphemous to celebrate anything. The years that followed were largely joyless out of habit, the new Mulder tradition.

When he became an adult, he was always an outsider, an add-on in someone else's family. Sometimes, he would muse idly on what it would feel like to be on the inside of something again.

Even in his wildest dreams, he would never have imagined this life.

The week before Thanksgiving did not begin with promise. The tranquilizer darts, and the weapons that fired them, had arrived days before. Since then, their kitchen had been transformed into a makeshift laboratory with mysterious and evil-smelling potions being brewed day and night. Their trailer, which had never been capacious to begin with, seemed to shrink in size.

Mulder took up semi-permanent residence in the bedroom with his laptop after Scully caught him swinging Will up in his arms to sniff at his diaper.

"Mulder, you know I hate when you do that," she chided. "Besides, nothing my son has ever done has smelled like that."

Will had had the presence of mind to look a bit insulted at the mere suggestion that the noxious odor had come from him.

Luckily, Will wasn't prone to holding grudges. Just when Mulder was beginning to get lonely, he and Mr. Bunny pushed open the door of the bedroom. Although more of the stench drifted in with them, it was abated slightly by the fan he'd placed on the floor to drive the smell back toward the kitchen. When Mulder went over to close the bedroom door again, he noticed that Scully had propped the trailer door open and had the vent above the stove going full blast. Her glasses were perched atop her head, but she had forgotten about them and was squinting and scowling at the screen of her laptop while holding a vial in her hand. She was also muttering, which was never a good sign.

"Will," Mulder said as he flopped back down on the bed, "do you know what the hot new soil additive for organic gardeners is in Europe?"

Will looked intrigued, but Mulder knew he was actually excited about being so close to the fan, which he loved. "Awwww..." he said to the fan, listening as his utterances got chopped up, "Ohhh..." He smiled in delight at Mulder.

Mulder was easy. "That's right!" he said, as if Will was brilliant. "It's magnetite."

"Yeeeaaah..." Will responded. His curls, and Mr. Bunny's ears, were being blown back by the breeze.

"It's being touted as a means of 'enhancing soil preparation that maximizes a plant's ability to take up nutrients that the body needs'," Mulder explained.

"Eeeh..." Will said, between giggles at the way he sounded.

Mulder was clipping and pasting swaths of text from the Internet to various documents, including ones entitled Iron States, Entrepreneur and Lobby. "Definitely something I can work with," he said, opening up Google. "There must be a newsgroup that I can start a discussion on," he muttered, finding several possibilities and settling down to read.

"Got to plant that magnetite seed, right, Will?" he said eventually, chuckling to himself. "Guaranteed to get the bad guys. We hope. Right, Will?"

In the time he'd been focused on trying to find a way into the conversation on sci.agriculture, Will had turned away from the fan and opened the door back up. He stood stock still on the threshold of the narrow passageway leading into the kitchen, clutching Mr. Bunny by an ankle, dangling his floppy ears on the floor. Mulder could feel the worry emanating from him as he watched his mother.

"It's OK, buddy," Mulder said swiftly, bookmarking sites in haste. He rolled off the bed and went over to Will, running a hand through the damp curls at the base of his neck. "It's all right." He bent over and picked Will up, holding him close.

"What is it?" he whispered, as Will tucked himself into Mulder's neck, squashing Mr. Bunny between them. He wasn't getting anything from Will other than fear.

He turned to Scully for help in figuring out what the problem was, only to meet it head on. Scully, surrounded by the detritus of another unsuccessful attempt to fill a dart with solubilized magnetite, was worrying about what total failure would mean. Mostly, she was worried that if it occurred, they'd all be killed.

"Scully," he said, stepping toward her with Will.

As she looked up, her expression changed from annoyance at being interrupted to concern in an instant. She hastily stripped off her gloves.

"What happened?" she asked, arms outstretching for Will.

"He can hear you," Mulder said quietly.

Scully's arms stilled in their motion, and she closed her eyes, then pressed the heels of her hands against them tightly. "Right," she sighed out in guilty exasperation. She turned abruptly and washed her hands in the sink. When she turned back to face Mulder, her expression was clearer.

"Will," she coaxed, running one finger down his spine, then two. "Will-ee-yum." Her fingers danced to his side, as she brought her other hand up to join in the play.

Mulder felt the tiny movement of Will trying to hold in a giggle, muffling it against Mr. Bunny.

"Will-ee-yum," Scully sang in her crackly voice. Her eyes flashed up in triumph to Mulder when Will's chuckles became audible. Mulder smiled back at her. He would never get enough of seeing her like this, laughing with their son.

William's rusty chuckle was escalating in volume and speed as Scully continued gently tickling him. He bowed away from Mulder in defense, trying to reduce his mother's access to his sides, but Scully saw her opening and promptly pounced on Will's undefended and very ticklish belly.

"My silly William," she sang to him as he laughed and laughed. When she stopped tickling him, he went limp with relief and she slipped him out of Mulder's arms. She cradled him like a baby across her chest and kissed his cheek, rocking side to side. Will had gotten so tall in the two months that they'd had him back that his legs dangled over Scully's arm when she held him in that position. At eighteen months, he was truly no longer a baby.

"William," Scully said seriously, sitting Will on the edge of the crowded counter and holding him there, "I want you to listen to me."

William's eyes went wide as he looked first at his mother, then over to where Mulder stood. Mulder nodded at him.

"Everything is OK," she stated. "Nothing is wrong."

Mulder felt William searching Scully's mind to verify the truth of this statement. He could feel the toddler relax when he realized that it was true.

"I don't want you to worry," Scully said.

"'K," Will agreed, somewhat dubiously. He seemed confused.

"I was thinking about the replicants," Scully said. Mulder was astonished that she was even going down this road with Will. He wasn't so sure it was a terrific idea, but didn't stop her. "And I was worried about them, but not because I was afraid that they were going to come here, OK?"

Mulder opened his mouth to say something, but Scully forestalled him by putting her hand on his arm. He could feel William struggling to comprehend what Scully was telling him.

"OK," Will said carefully.

"Sometimes, Momma thinks about things that are scary, but you don't have to worry about that, William," she clarified. "You don't have to worry about the replicants." Scully's mind supplied a picture of Knowle Rohrer, and Mulder's mind countered with an image of Billy Miles before he could stop it.

Mulder would have bet that William didn't understand what 'replicants' were, so he was truly startled when he saw an image of unknown man in Will's old bedroom. Somehow, Will had recognized the similarity between the men his parents both remembered and the ones that had come to his former home. Mulder stored that piece of information away for future reference, as Scully continued talking.

"Momma's going to stop the replicants," Scully said to William firmly. "Don't you worry. They won't hurt William, or Daddy, or Momma," she said. "Momma won't let them."

Mulder felt the tiny hairs stand up all over his body at her words. "Scully," he said in protest, but she wasn't lying to William. She was determined that what she was saying would be the truth.

"OK, Momma," Will said. His voice was very sure. He reached his arms out to Scully and she picked him up for a hug, then turned around to face Mulder. Her eyes were the same dark blue they always got when she was passionate; her cheeks were slightly flushed. The feral smile that she sent him over William's shoulder as she stroked the back of their son's head was chilling in its intensity.

Although he was uneasy about Scully making such a promise, Mulder had no doubt that she would be true to her word. She always was.

In what had become a routine, Will pushed open the bedroom door. This time, Mulder could only see an ear of Mr. Bunny's; the rest of him was hidden behind the bib of Will's overalls. Will's arms were laden with paper.

"What's all that, buddy?" Mulder asked.

"Maiw," Will said, reaching up to spill the pile of mail on the bed.

"I can see that," Mulder said. "How come you have it?"

"Momma," William answered.

Mulder craned his head around the half-open door to see that Scully had cleared off more space on their counters. She was fiercely focused, but her expression was concentrated, not angry. "Hmmm ..." Mulder said. This could mean progress. He closed the door again and began to sort through the mail.

"You know what, Will?" he asked.

"Whaaaaaat?" Will asked. He was standing in front of the fan again.

"I'm starting not to notice the smell," Mulder answered.

Will looked up at him with an expression identical to Scully's best 'Mulder, you're crazy!' face. "Stinky," he informed Mulder firmly.

Mulder laughed, before adding, "If you say so, buddy." Will's sudden addition of new words to his vocabulary was amazing to Mulder. "And this is downright amazing, too," he said to Will, waving the pile of junk at him.

Will had abandoned the fan and was spinning around in circles in the crowded space between their bed and his crib.

"Doing the dizzy?" Mulder asked pleasantly.

Will was holding Mr. Bunny by one of his ears. "Yeah," he answered, wobbling. After a few more spins, Will thumped heavily against the side of the bed and leaned there, presumably watching the room orbit around him.

There were at least fifteen credit card offers in the pile of mail. It amazed Mulder that his and Scully's current aliases were so credit-worthy, since they'd only been created last winter when Mulder had had the time to plan ahead. He'd spent a good chunk of the long desert winter liquidating his assets and moving them into offshore and hopefully untraceable accounts. He wondered how long it would be before Will started getting credit card and refinancing offers. He had to make sure that he used one of the better aliases where they ended up. Will Miller was definitely a name that would get a kid beaten up in elementary school. He ought to know.

He glanced down at Will, who was now fingering the geode of magnetite that was next to the bed. The simplicity of it still struck Mulder sometimes; it was the kind of solution that happened in fables and novels, not real life. Fe3O4, Iron Oxide, magnetite -- and just like in the fairy tales, iron quelled what seemed magical.

"Momma's workin'," Will announced. He looked at Mulder pointedly after he said this.

"Hey! I'm working too!" Mulder protested. "Para-magnetic fertilizer is now a trend in organic gardening in the US," he offered to Will, who looked unmoved. "People are talking about it all over the Internet. The website is getting bombed with information requests. We're expecting the orders to come pouring in any minute!"

Will had wandered away during Mulder's speech, crossing to the corner where some of his toys were kept. He began sorting through them, chucking rejected options for play over his shoulder. Mulder moved his laptop out of the line of fire and then sent a message back to Gibson over IM.

RM1961: Sorry, got interrupted by the offspring. More later?

G_boy: All right. I wish we knew if any of this will work.

RM1961: I just don't know how we'll be able to experiment. L isn't the only one who can't think of a model. Nobody else can either.

G_boy: I know. I wasn't criticizing.

RM1961: It's frustrating. All we can do is to continue what we are doing and spread it around as much as possible. Later.

G_boy: Much. Tell them I said hi.

Mulder signed off and then concentrated on the far smaller non-junk side of the mail pile. Without many bills to pay, he and Scully had a tendency to let the mail accumulate to alarming proportions. "Hey!" he said softly, when he turned over a large manila envelope. He opened it eagerly and an issue of the British medical journal Lancet from the second week in October slid out.

"Look at this," he said to Will, who turned around to look at the magazine and then turned back to his blocks nonchalantly.

"Scully," Mulder said, getting up in haste to open the door. The pile of unopened mail slid off the bed in his wake, thudding softly onto the floor behind Will. Mulder left it where it was and covered the distance between the rooms in a few steps, thumbing open to the page he wanted.

"Look," he said, holding the magazine open to the case study section. An article entitled, 'Multiple-Antiviral Usage in Unknown Infectious Disease', graced the page. Aloud, he read, "The patient, A.L., initially listed as DOA, was upon examination revealed to be a deeply comatose, hypothermic, 40 y.o. male. With no visible sign of injury, and nearly imperceptible vital signs, A.L. was diagnosed with an illness of unknown origin. A.L., Scully?"

She looked over the rims of her glasses at him. "Arise Lazarus," she said sardonically.

His shoulders dropped. "Not very funny, Scully," he said.

"I don't claim to be the humorist in this family, Mulder," she replied. "Besides, Dr. Lawrence in England was the one who came up with that. I should have told him to use something else, but I didn't think it was that important in the scheme of things. The point of the case study was to get exactly what I did to you into the medical literature without arousing suspicions. Now, when cases like yours show up in hospitals around the world, perhaps somebody else can be saved."

"Hopefully, before they're buried," Mulder murmured with a shiver.

Scully turned from the case she was packing with a worried expression on her face. She stripped off her gloves. Burying him was something she felt very guilty about, although Mulder did not blame her. He was only glad she had refused to allow the full post-mortem autopsy and embalming on grounds that he had been exposed to toxins of unknown origin. "Mulder," she murmured, wrapping her arms around his waist. She was radiating anxiety. "I wish you didn't remember," she whispered.

"It only bothers me sometimes," he whispered back. He closed his arms around her and pulled her close. She was real, he was here, he was not dreaming; sometimes, he still had to remind himself. For weeks after he had been resurrected, he had felt as ephemeral as a ghost, unsure whose life he was drifting through.

Scully was rubbing her hands up and down his back, as if to ward off the chill of the grave. "Please don't think about it," she pleaded.

Mulder closed his eyes against the pain in her voice, remembering that she had found him dead in that field, that she had seen him laid out in his coffin. He couldn't have borne it, if their situations had been reversed. "You, either," he said.

She nodded, then kissed him where his heart beat under his grey T-shirt. "I try not to," she answered. She looked up at him, and slid her arms around his neck, pulling him down toward her. She kissed him, and Mulder focused on that, blocking out everything else but the feelings of love and security that only Scully was capable of evoking in him. They lingered, sharing sweet kisses, until, from down below, a small voice said, "Hey!"

Scully laughed and broke away, kissing Mulder one last time before she bent down to scoop up Will. "Do you want some kisses, big boy?" she asked.

"Yeah," Will said in a matter of fact tone.

Scully gave him a loud kiss on his cheek and then held him up to Mulder, who did the same. Will looped his arms around their necks, making a bridge between them.

"That better?" Mulder asked.

Will nodded, and then turned to look at Mulder with his wise eyes. He smiled at Mulder, then put both arms around Mulder's neck and hugged him. "My Daddy," he said, resting his head on Mulder's shoulder.

"Right here," Mulder said lightly around the lump in his throat. "I'm right here." He kissed Will and hugged him back, then glanced down at Scully. She had tears in her eyes. Scully wasn't the only one who had to watch her thoughts.

"OK," Scully announced suddenly, clapping her hands. "Who wants some good news?"

"Me!" Will said enthusiastically, "Me and Daddy!"

"Oh, really?" Scully said, tickling Will's tummy. "What about Mr. Bunny?"

Will giggled and tried to get away from his mother's clever fingers. "OK," he said.

Scully dramatically turned, and with a Vanna White-like flourish, directed their attention to the open black case on the counter. Nestled in the eggshell foam were three dozen darts.

"Scully!" Mulder said excitedly. "Are you..."

"I'm as ready as I'll ever be," she interrupted him. "Men," she addressed Mulder and Will with military crispness, "prepare to move out."

"Aye-aye," Mulder said. He didn't salute, but only because his arms were full.

Mulder turned the laptop around so that some of the light from the street filtered in through the curtains. He could barely see what he was reading, but didn't want to move over to the other side of the room where Will was sleeping. Their motel room accommodations in Vinita, Oklahoma were hardly luxurious, but they would do for the night. He checked the map of their trip and noted how far they'd come in two days, somewhat grimly. It was a long trip to Vermont from New Mexico with a now very active toddler, but at least they were better prepared this time. They had toys and snacks and had planned plenty of breaks.

Unfortunately, they could not plan the weather. Today had been a long rain soaked drive across largely uninteresting vistas, with the added bonus of nearly zero visibility and a strong chance of flash floods. Getting Will some form of exercise to keep him happy, and to tire him out so he wouldn't exhaust both of his parents, had been impossible. They'd called it a night fairly early and hoped for better weather tomorrow. While Scully had taken the SUV and gone off in search of a Wal-Mart and some supplies, Mulder had run with Will up and down the long hallway of the motel in an effort to let him burn off some steam. Unfortunately, Mulder had run out of steam before Will. Although he would never regret being a father for an instant, Mulder had found himself becoming wistful that he'd not had the opportunity to be a father to Will when he was younger. It was clear that he was going to have to focus on getting into better shape to keep up.

Even with the extended period of romping that Scully's trip had given Will, it had been a struggle to get him down for the night. Now that he was finally asleep, Mulder was trying to walk the fine line between not being too quiet, which still made Will wake up sometimes, and being quiet enough so that Will wouldn't think it was morning and want to get up. The sound of running water cut off in the bathroom and Mulder glanced over at it, wondering what on earth Scully was up to. She wasn't the kind of woman prone to staying in the bathroom for long periods of time, but she had disappeared into their lovely hot pink facilities quite a while ago. He could hear her moving around, but she didn't seem to be coming out.

He sighed and glanced at his watch, then toggled over to one of his many anonymous e-mail accounts. Gibson had sent him a long note, most of it obliquely referring to their efforts to spread magnetite around the world and some of it encrypted in their own version of a code. He settled in to figure it out, becoming so engrossed in what he read that he didn't notice Scully until she rested her chin on his shoulder.

"Anything good?" she inquired in her quiet voice.

"There you are," he answered, kissing her. "I was starting to wonder."

"I had things to accomplish," she said cryptically. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and draped herself over him, stretching down to turn his wrist over so she could glance at his watch. She was wearing her bathrobe and her hair was hidden under a towel turban. "Is that some good news from Gibson?"

Before he could ask her why she assumed it was good news, she anticipated him and said, "You were smiling, Mulder." She tapped his nose. "Not psychic, just observant."

He kissed her palm before answering. "We're making real progress on the highway deal."

"Oh?" Scully said. She drew her brows down. "Did you tell me about the highway deal?"

Mulder laughed. "Yes, I did. It's the reflective lane markers that will replace the painted lines."

"The ones with the magnetic caps?"

"The UV-resistant, magnetite reinforced, magnetic caps."

"I stand corrected," Scully said wryly, "but what's this deal you're talking about? Are you about to become a magnetite magnate?"

"That's The Magnetic Magnate to you, Scully. Like Magneto in X-Men, but without all that pesky evil." He was smiling.

"Good to know," Scully said, looking at his watch again. "I've been wondering what you were going to do with all those piles of cash you've had laying around since last winter."

"Do you have someplace to be, Scully?" Mulder asked.

"In a few minutes," she remarked cryptically.

"You know, I never thought I'd say this to you again, Scully, but you smell bad," he announced.

She pinched him and he yelped. Manfully, he hoped.

"You still haven't explained what the 'deal' is," she said.

"Yeah, well, you haven't explained why your towel is crinkling," Mulder said. She raised her hand to pinch him again and he hastened to add, "You remember Gibson's foster mother, Sharyn?" When she nodded, he continued. "She's a lobbyist for the group, working out of Arkansas right now. For the last few weeks, she's been trying to get the ear of the new Senator, and..." Mulder paused dramatically, but Scully refused to take the bait, "Senator Hutchinson thinks that manufacturing the magnetic caps is a terrific way to get rid of the detritus from mining that's been hanging around all these years."

"That is good," Scully said.

"It gets better," Mulder added. "The new Senator's already reached out to the incoming Senator from Minnesota, home of the world-famous Mesabi Iron Ore Range, who also really likes the idea. They're very gung-ho that these new federally mandated reflective lane markers will be American made, using American resources. They're looking at it as a way of boosting the economy in the sagging industrial sector."

"This is all very timely," Scully remarked.

"I do try," Mulder said.

She kissed him, then asked, "What's the name of the town Gibson lives in? Magnetville?"

Mulder barked out a laugh, "Magnet Cove," he answered.

"Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe," Scully smirked. She was always proud of herself when she made him laugh. "I'm sorry that we don't have time to stop by and see Gibson."

Mulder sighed. "I know," he said, "but I didn't promise him. If we want to be settled in before Christmas, we can't stop. How about if we ask Gibson to visit us this summer?"

Scully nodded. "That seems like a plan." She looked at his watch one last time then undraped herself from around Mulder's neck and began to walk to the bathroom again.

"Are you dying it red?" Mulder asked. He hoped he didn't sound too plaintive.

Scully turned and smiled enigmatically at him, before she closed the door.

"No!" came the cry from the backseat. Mulder swallowed a curse. Busted. He punched the back button on the radio and the sounds of 'Sk8ter Boi' by Avril Lavigne filled the vehicle.

He sighed noisily, but if he expected commiseration from his front seat companion, he was sadly mistaken.

Scully looked up from the New York Times, her expression amused. "Don't look at me for sympathy," she said drolly. "I told you that we should have stayed on the classical or instrumental stations. You're the one who insisted and I quote, 'a little pop music won't hurt the kid, Scully'."

"Rub it in," Mulder groused, "but the choice of bad gospel or this didn't seem so bad 500 miles ago." He switched the speakers to the back of the SUV in an effort to get the music farther away.

"And now?" she asked primly.

"It's just that I didn't realize there was only one pop music radio station left in the world," he said forlornly, "playing the same eight songs in a constant rotation."

"Give thanks it's not that 'I'm just Jenny from the Block' or whatever the name of that song is," Scully murmured, going back to her newspaper.

Mulder watched the lane markers ticking away, while Will bopped in the back seat and Scully read. Inevitably, the song changed, and Mulder groaned. "You've cursed me, Scully," he said woefully as J.Lo. unconvincingly sang about keepin' things real.

She snorted and he glanced over at her. He was still trying to assimilate her new appearance. Scully had finally given up the ghost on trying to be a brunette, but she hadn't opted for a return to her red mane. She had told him what color it was supposed to be, but for the life of him he couldn't remember the name. All he knew was that her hair was far lighter than he'd ever seen it, with blonde, brown and red all mixed together.

Today, she had pulled it back into a loose, single braid. She'd let her hair curl; bits of it were breaking free. The overall effect was soft and appealing, but far unlike the smooth, coifed Agent Scully of yore. He loved her hair longer, but he missed the contrast of her vivid hair against her fair skin.

"At least you could talk to me," he said plaintively. "Tell me about what you're reading."

She folded the paper in half and he glanced over to see that it was Science Times. "You know," she mused, "when I wrote that other paper for The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics on the possible effective use of naturally-occurring antiviral agents, I never expected the outcry it would provoke."

"I thought some of that was organized by the other doctors in the group purposefully, to get more attention paid to the article," he said.

"I thought it was, too," she answered, "but this seems to have gone beyond what was intended and taken on a life of its own."

"It was important information to get out, Scully. We know that antiviral therapy is fairly primitive in certain parts of the world. If there is a way that doctors in poor countries can arrest the creation of the super-soldiers, we have to help them."

"I'm not disputing that, Mulder, but I'm worried that we've placed Dr. O'Brien in danger by using her name on the article," she said.

"I thought Amina said that Dr. O'Brien was safe in South Africa," Mulder responded. "That the mining camp that she works at is remote, state-run and protected by the army."

"She did say that," Scully admitted, "but I'm worried that soldiers are the perfect vehicle for transformation. What's to stop them from infiltrating her guards and killing her?"

Mulder shook his head, "For one thing, it would seem suspicious," he said, "and I think the powers that be are most interested in secrecy. Besides, it seems to me that the people most infuriated by this are the pharmaceutical companies and that can only be good."

"By making them produce more antivirals at realistic prices," she finished his thought.

"That seems to be the thrust of a lot of the letters that have come in on the subject," he said.

"It just amazes me that the controversy has gotten so big that it's being covered in The Times," she said in wonder, flipping the newspaper.

"I'm not surprised," Mulder said. "I've always said that your science would save us and as you know, I'm right 98.9% of the time."

Scully smiled, but it was a sad, slow smile. She was silent for a few minutes.

"What?" he asked gently, suspecting where her thoughts were going.

"I just wish my mom knew that it was me doing these things," she said quietly. "I wish there was a way we could let her know about all of this," she gestured to Will in the back seat, who was lethargically bopping. "I want her to know that we're all right, that we're together, that we're still fighting."

"She'd be proud of you, Scully," he said surely, "just like I am."

She gave him a watery smile, and reached across the front seat to hold his hand.

"Hey, Baby, Hey, Baby, Hey! Girls say! Boys say!" the radio belted out. Will shrieked in pleasure, and Mulder groaned.

"I actually don't think this one is so bad," Scully remarked.

This time, it was Mulder who gave her the eyebrow of disbelief.

She laughed quietly at his consternation.

"Momma!" Will piped up from the back seat.

Scully turned around, "We're almost there," she said.

How Scully understood what Will was asking for was a mystery that she refused to solve to Mulder's satisfaction.

"Momma," Will insisted. Even Mulder knew that he meant lunch this time.

Scully looked at Mulder. "Another 15 or so miles," Mulder said. "Do you want to give him a snack?"

Scully made a face; it was awfully close to lunch.

"Momma?" Will asked hopefully.

"How about some nice fruit?" Scully asked.

Mulder could see Will winding up to yell in the rear view mirror.

"Fish!" Will said.

Mulder watched Scully calculating percentages in her head, trying to decide whether or not fighting with their toddler was worth it. Finally, she said, "Only a couple, Will." Then she gave Will some goldfish in his own tiny Tupperware container. He still thought it was weird that they made Tupperware that small, and that goldfish were now pink, orange and purple.

"Did I tell you there's a group in Norway trying to using a granulated form of magnetite in concrete?" he asked, trying to change the previous subject.

"That's a good idea," she said.

"More," Will said.

"More please, Momma," Mulder prompted.

"More please, Momma," Will mimicked sweetly, adding a "T'ank you," with his mouth full when Scully complied.

"That's it, Will," she informed him.

"Yeah," Mulder said, "I just wish we had some idea of how high the concentrate of magnetite has to be for it to be at all effective in stopping the replicants."

The conversation fell off for a while as they both brooded. Scully absentmindedly began to eat some of Will's goldfish and Mulder put out a hand for his share. "Don't give me any purple or pink ones," he said.

Scully rolled her eyes.

"It's just wrong," Mulder said firmly. "They're goldfish, not pink fish."

Scully held up a few of the purple fish and ate them quite deliberately while Mulder elaborately shuddered. She quickly put them away when Will began yelling for more from the back seat.

"Well," she said eventually, "I think the magnetic nanotechnology ideas we've been talking about could bear some interesting fruit. If we end up in Vermont, I'll be able to work at MagnaTech and explore some of those ideas more fully."

Mulder made a negative noise in his throat. "Considering what happened to Skinner with the nanotechnology, I'm still a little wary of it," he said.

"It might help us refine my weapon," she pointed out.

"True," he said, "but it still weirds me out that we're working with people that Krycek worked for."

"Or with," Scully said. "And possibly against, at times. Let's face it: Krycek was a mercenary."

Mulder signaled for the exit lane just as Justin Timberlake began caterwauling that somebody should cry him a river. He guided their car to the highway gas and food plaza.

"Fries!" Will said ecstatically from the back seat, as Mulder pulled into a parking space and shut the car, and the radio, off. Blessed peace reigned for a second until Will bleated "Fries! Fries! Fries!" again from the back seat.

"Scully," Mulder said. He reached over to take her left hand as she got out of the car. She turned back to him with a questioning look and he smiled. "Ten years later, I still love being in the car with you."

He tucked the uplift of her smile in his pocket as she turned away.

"I think we can make it to Vermont the day after tomorrow," Scully said at a diner near Erie, Pennsylvania.

She'd been studying the map of their route while Mulder tried to jolly a fretful Will out of his bad mood. He'd had only limited success. Will was just plain tired of being trapped in the car. Mulder couldn't blame him. The fact that they had to stop every couple of hours to let Will roam around freely had added days to their journey. After nearly a week in the car, recess periods weren't really cutting it with Will anymore.

At least Will's ornery mood wasn't ruining the meals of too many other diners. They'd had to venture off the highway to replenish the food they kept in the car. Roadside gas station snack shops weren't repositories of wholesome, toddler-suitable food. Set high up on a hill down the road from the grocery story, they'd found this quiet, family friendly restaurant and taken a chance that there'd be something other than burgers and fries on the menu.

"What about tonight?" Mulder asked, putting down a forkful of pasta in resignation after Will pushed it away.

"I hate to say it," Scully sighed, looking over at them. She ran a hand through Will's hair, "but I think we have to move along. It's Thanksgiving weekend, and all the rooms on these local roads will be booked. We'll probably be able to find something off of the main highway more easily."

Mulder looked at Will, who was rubbing his eyes. With any luck, he'd fall asleep once they got back in the car. The long climb up from the parking lot seemed to have tired Will out; maybe they should keep driving tonight, and get as far as they could.

"OK," he said. He double-checked the amount of cash he'd left on the bill. "I'm ready when you are."

Scully nodded. She was already wiping down Will, who was protesting vigorously. "All right, all right," she crooned to him. "I just need to clean you up a bit."

While she got Will's hat and coat, Mulder unlocked him from the baby seat. He was surprised that Will didn't immediately demand to be put down so that he could run around, but stayed quietly in Mulder's arms. Mulder held onto Will while Scully zipped him into his jacket and then passed him to Scully so she could wrestle his hat onto him. He put on his own jacket and went up to their server with the bill, slinging the baby bag over his shoulder.

A few steps down the long staircase into the dark and nearly empty parking lot, Mulder patted himself down for the keys without any luck.

Scully watched him, one eyebrow quirked. "My mindreader with the photographic memory," she remarked ironically.

Will whined when Mulder turned to head back up the staircase.

"I'll be right back, buddy," Mulder soothed, but Will was not appeased. His thin whining followed Mulder back up the stairs as Scully continued down. He could hear her trying to quiet William as he pushed open the door of the restaurant.

Across the main room, a busboy had just picked up his keys. "Those are mine," he said, getting his attention. Mulder crossed the room swiftly, meeting the kid in the middle. Scully hadn't succeeded in quieting William; even this far away Mulder could still hear him crying. Suddenly, he realized that he was hearing Will's whimpering in his head. He spun around to see Walter Skinner standing by the doorway.

"Hurry, Mulder!" Skinner urged.

Mulder broke into a run. When he burst through the doors, it took his eyes a few seconds to adjust from the bright of the restaurant to the darkness of the parking lot. He scanned the lot below frantically looking for the danger. When he found it, he felt his heart constrict in his chest.

Halfway across the parking lot, a man was advancing on William and Scully. There was still a good 30 yards between them, but there was no question of the threat the man represented. William was clinging to his mother, with both arms around her neck. His round baby face was white with fright and he was utterly still. Mulder dropped the baby bag at the top of the steps and sprinted down them. Scully had drawn her weapon and stood with her right hip forward, trying to shield William. He resisted the urge to shout Scully's name as he drew his gun.

An agitated Krycek flickered into existence next to him. "Jesus Christ, Mulder," he said, "Not that gun!"

It was then that Mulder realized that Scully was holding the dart gun level against her assailant. His breath left him in a horrified gasp as he realized that his own dart gun was tucked in the baby bag, now far above him. The car, with its geodes of magnetite, was on the other side of the parking lot. It seemed it was too far away from both him and William to be of any use.

"Scully..." he whispered in agony. Her grip on the gun was sure and she was unblinking.

"Stop where you are, or I'll shoot," Scully warned. Life as a federal agent was not so far behind her.

The replicant ignored her warning.

Mulder could feel her fear, but it was overwhelmed by her staunch determination as she pulled the trigger.

The dart hit the replicant squarely in the chest, and the super soldier glanced down at it in puzzlement, then swatted it away. The fear radiating from William was almost deafening in its intensity.

"Oh God," Mulder moaned. "No, please." He grasped the cool metal of the stiletto inside his jacket as he finally made it to level ground. He broke into a dead run toward Scully and William, intending to attack the replicant from behind, even if was futile. If he could distract it, she would have a chance to get herself, and William, away.

"Hold on, baby," he heard Scully instruct William. Will clung to her like a monkey as she reloaded with one of the spare darts she had insisted on sewing inside her coat and his. And his --he fumbled for his own ammunition, hoping against hope. If he got the chance, he could stab it.

"Stay away from us!" The warning was louder this time, and there was an edge to her voice, but her arm was steady.

The replicant advanced on Will and Scully with the unhurried steps of a predator sure of the kill. Scully raised the gun, deliberately aiming higher this time, but she did not pull the trigger. Mulder got a hold of the dart and pulled it out of his jacket, gripping the stiletto in his teeth for safekeeping. He was almost there.

Scully waited until the super soldier was just ten feet away from her and Will. Her normally warm alto was as pitiless as a winter evening. "You should have stopped," she said coldly; then, she pulled the trigger.

The replicant staggered backward, clutching its face. It spun around, shaking its head as it roared in agony. Mulder just saw the tuft of the dart sticking out of the socket where its right eye had been, before it blew apart in a whirling cloud of minerals. Its empty clothes hung suspended in mid-air for a second, then collapsed impotently to the ground below.

Scully reholstered her gun and wrapped both her arms around William, pulling him forward on her body. Will was whimpering softly. She looked up at Mulder over Will's head and then glanced around the parking lot. "It's OK," she said to Will over and over, "It's all gone. Momma took care of it." Up close, he could see how shaken she really was.

"Scully!" Mulder was still running. He tripped over the clothes in his desperate attempt to reach them. He wrapped them in a crushing hug, but his eyes, like Scully's, were looking for others.

"Mulder," Scully said urgently. "We have to go now."

He gave her the car keys and ran back to get the baby bag.

"Get my darts," Scully yelled from the car. He turned around to retrieve them.

Krycek was standing there staring down at the pile of clothes; he looked stunned. Skinner was nearby, but he was scanning the periphery of the parking lot.

"Is there anybody else?" Mulder demanded.

"No," Krycek said, slowly. "I don't think so."

"That's not good enough!" Mulder snapped. He was pissed off that there had been no advance warning. Krycek winked out; Skinner maintained his post.

When he got to the car, Scully was still trying to coax a reluctant William to let go of her so she could put him in the car seat. She had left the keys on the front seat, and Mulder climbed in, willing himself to stop shaking enough so that he could drive. Scully was beginning to come down from her adrenaline high as well. He could see her hands shaking. William was crying quietly, which upset Mulder more than an hysterical outburst would have.

"Just get in, Scully," Mulder urged, and she complied. With William still clinging to her, she strapped them both in just as Mulder peeled out of the parking lot.

It was crowded in the Motel 6 bathroom. Mulder was still infuriated and frightened. They'd driven almost all the way to Albany in an effort to put real distance between them and their last known location. He could have easily driven the remaining 200 miles to Vermont and in fact, had wanted to get to the security of the mountains as soon as possible, but Scully had refused. She didn't want to drive on the snow-slicked mountain roads with Will out of his car seat.

Will had slept fitfully off and on, still clinging to Scully. After they'd checked into the motel, he'd woken up crying when Scully had lain him down to take off his jacket. They hadn't even bothered to set the crib up, but had got in bed together after everybody was cleaned up and changed into nightclothes. Will was finally asleep again, after another bout of fretful crying.

When Skinner and Frohike had winked into his line of vision, he had carefully rolled out of bed, signaling them to join him in the bathroom. He'd seen the flash of Scully's eyes blinking sleepily as he got up; he knew she wouldn't go back to sleep, but would lay out there worrying.

Much to his surprise, Langly, Byers and even Krycek were already in the bathroom, although Krycek was standing apart from the group. The Gunmen were technically standing in the tub while Mulder leaned against the sink, with Skinner facing him and Krycek skulking by the toilet. He was too tired and too pissed to appreciate the sheer lunacy of the scene.

"I want to know what the hell happened back there," he said in a harsh whisper. He didn't want to disturb Scully anymore than was necessary.

"It's Thanksgiving weekend, Mulder," Byers said in his earnest tone.

Mulder nodded wearily; if it weren't for the danger, and his fear, he would have been really pleased to see Byers and Langly. Only Frohike had made a habit of stopping by to speak to him.

"The fact is, they've been all over the place the whole way, man," Langly added. "They've crossed your path over and over again."

"What?" Mulder's blood pressure had risen sharply.

Frohike shot Langly a murderous glare. "Not literally, Mulder. It's usually been miles away, but they've been circling, looking for you."

Mulder rested his head in his hands.

Skinner spoke up. "It only makes sense, Mulder. This is the most highly traveled weekend of the year. If you were going to make a move, this would be the time to do it. And for the most part, there hasn't been any danger."

"Except for back there where that thing almost killed my family!"

"Scully killed it, Mulder," Skinner reminded him.

"That's not the point, Sir, and you know it," Mulder argued. "It was too close, and now Will is traumatized again." Mulder's throat closed up. "And so is Scully."

He looked at Skinner and Skinner nodded grimly.

"Where the hell did it come from?"

Frohike spoke up. "As far as we can figure, it got off the highway to get gas."

He looked at Frohike in amazement, but it was Krycek who answered.

"The guy it replaced must have been really cheap. The replicants seem to have trouble losing some of their originals' habits."

"Is that exploitable?" Mulder asked.

"I don't know," Krycek said. "Nobody does. Up until now, there's never been a weapon to use against them, and certainly no way to study them. Anybody that's ever gotten as close to them as Scully did today has been killed, Mulder." Krycek stared at him. "Every single one of them."

Mulder stared back, jaw clenching. "Thanks for reminding me of that," he spat out. He turned back to Skinner. "What about the road ahead?"

"You're pretty close to the mountains now, Mulder," Skinner said. "They've learned a bit more about their limits since the attempt was made to get William. The replicants' handlers don't want to lose more personnel."

Mulder nodded. "Have they noticed that they're short a creep?"

X winked into existence suddenly by the door. He glanced around their crowded quarters with distaste and glared at Skinner for being too close to him. Skinner stared back implacably.

"They won't notice anything until it misses its radio check tomorrow at dawn," Mr. X gritted out.

"Are they telepathic?" Mulder asked.

The ghosts looked at each other.

"Wouldn't you know if they were?" Frohike asked him.

Mulder shook his head. "I mostly pick up emotions," he said. "And I get nothing from them. Nothing. I'm wondering how or if they communicate with each other."

X's response was rapidly delivered. "The original recruits were all military personnel in top shape. They had little or no family and profound antisocial traits. These are not people who are going to make social phone calls when they're on assignment. They check in when they're supposed to." Even as a ghost, X managed to sneer.

He began to flicker out after making his pronouncement.

"Wait," Mulder said, "there were two of them at Will's house in Wyoming."

"Yes," X answered. "They lowered their standards once the technology was perfected. After all," he looked at Mulder significantly, "anybody can be replicated." He disappeared.

"And remember, they weren't expecting that Will would blast them," Skinner said.

"So they don't know that Scully has an effective weapon," Mulder said slowly. "OK." He looked around the tiny room. "I'm going back to my family now," he said.

Mulder had shut the bathroom light off before he opened the door, but Scully stirred in the bed when he slid in carefully.

"What did they say?" she whispered.

"Not much," Mulder said. "They think it was random, that it was looking for cheap gas off the highway and that it blundered across us."

"But that's the thing, Mulder," she whispered. "How did it know us?"

"The guys say they're not telepathic," he said.

"They're wrong," Scully said emphatically, looking down at their sleeping son. "It knew Will." She was stroking his hair again. "It wanted Will."

Mulder watched her closely, sensing something below the surface. "What is it, Scully?"

He heard her trying to swallow her tears. "I didn't know what it was, Mulder," she said. "Will told me."

"What did he say?" Mulder asked.

"He didn't talk," Scully whispered in a choked voice. "When I saw the man across the parking lot, Will was whining, so I only glanced at him. Then I saw a picture of Knowle Rohrer in my mind."

"Scully," Mulder shifted so that he could see her in the bed.

She kept talking, in a rapid, clipped voice. "I looked at Will and then I saw a picture of Billy Miles," she took a breath, "and then there were pictures of men I didn't recognize."

"Men?" Mulder asked, incredulously, "more than two?" He reached across Will and put his arm around them both.

"Men," Scully said with a shiver. "Lots of men, Mulder. And a couple of women, too, but they kept being interspersed with pictures of Rohrer and Billy Miles. It happened in an eye blink, Mulder, even less. It was," she shook her head, looking down at their son, "it was a thought."

"It was a thought Will had," Mulder said.

"Yes, it was," Scully agreed, "but I heard him." She looked up at Mulder again. "What's happening to me, Mulder?"

He was quiet for a moment too long.

"Mulder?" she prompted.

"I don't think anything's happening to you, Scully," he said.

She made a demurring noise in her throat, but he plowed forward.

"Back before any of this started," he said, "you had some ability."

She shook her head negatively.

"You did, Scully," he insisted. "You saw your father."

She stared at him angrily.

"And later you saw Emily, and Harold Spuller, you heard Melissa," he said. "I'm not saying that it isn't possible that you've been changed by what's been done to you over the years, but the possibility was always within you. It was probably always within me, too," he conceded grudgingly.

Scully rubbed the back of her neck over and over, like Lady MacBeth.

"Scully," he said, stopping her hand. "It's not there anymore. There isn't anyway that it could have found us through the implant."

"I know that," she snapped. "It's been gone since I found out I was pregnant with Will, but I think you're ignoring the facts. We don't know what Parenti did to me when he was supposed to be treating my infertility." She paused. "And we don't know what he did to me when I went to meet Cobra with him."

"Whatever he did, it doesn't seem to have harmed you, Scully," he said. "It's been more than two years since you took out the chip and nothing's happened. I'm not saying we can ignore either of those things, but there's more than that. We were both exposed to the artifact."

She made a negative noise.

"Just because I had the more profound reaction doesn't mean you weren't affected, Scully," he said sharply. "And, you were exposed to an intact ship, on the Ivory Coast."

"Yes, but there's also the vaccines, my branched DNA when I was returned, the ship in the Antarctic -- the variables are huge. I've said it before, but I wonder what would happen if we were able to get our current DNA profiles and compare them to the results of the human genome project. What would we be?" She glanced down at their son.

"And what is he?" he asked gently. He reached up to touch her face. "He's our son, Scully and he's an innocent. I think that's all we can focus on." He waited until she looked up at him. "I know that you've always insisted that you don't have any latent psychic ability, Scully, but I don't think it's true. You've often said exactly what I was thinking, long before we had Will, and..."

"And what?" she demanded.

"He's been communicating with you mentally for weeks," Mulder said quietly.

She sucked in a breath. "What are you talking about?"

"He thinks things at you, and you often respond," Mulder said. "He thinks that he wants a kiss, and you give it to him. Most of the time when he seeks your attention, he seeks it mentally first."

"Mulder!" She was truly shocked. "Are you telling me that he's been manipulating me?"

"No," Mulder said firmly. "When we first got him back, he used his connection with you to get you to pay attention to him. When he has tried to manipulate you, it hasn't worked. He thinks about cookies all the time, Scully -- you never give them to him."

She was staring at him. "Why haven't you said anything?"

He sighed. "Mostly, because it's been unimportant. If I thought he was manipulating you, I would have said something, but when we got him back, it didn't seem like it was a big deal." He paused. "What I should have told you is that the day you talked to him about the supersoldiers, you thought about Knowle Rohrer. I thought about Billy Miles."

"Yes?" She prompted.

"Will thought about one of the men in Wyoming, Scully." He shook his head helplessly. "I don't know how he knows who they are, but he does."

Scully got up out of the bed suddenly. Will made a protesting noise, and Mulder scooped him closer until he quieted.

Scully stalked around the small motel room, fuming and worrying. He waited silently until she spoke.

"What I don't understand is why they didn't take him when he was born. Why, Mulder?" She was agonized. "They were there. Why is he a threat to them now, when he wasn't then?"

Mulder shook his head. "If our theory that Parenti was trying to impregnate you with a replicant is correct, then I think that they were surprised when he was born human. But you said it yourself, Scully. So much has been done to us both, even before I was kidnapped, that we have to have been altered genetically, maybe multiple times." He shrugged and looked down at Will. "I think he's some kind of antipode to them."

Scully sighed in exasperation. "Evolution does not work that swiftly, Mulder," she said. "I know that we don't understand 10% of what's been done to us, but that would mean that all of this occurred within one generation." She came back over to the bed and sat down next to Mulder. "It's just not possible."

"None of this is possible, Scully." He looked up at her in the dim light of their motel room, and reached a hand up to touch the cross around her neck. "And I think that's where this comes in," he said simply. "Somebody up there, whether it's your God or something else, does not want them to win."

Her face crumpled and she closed her eyes.

"I'm not trying to upset you more, Scully," he whispered, cupping her cheek.

"It's not you," she said in a tear-filled voice. She opened her eyes and he could see, as well as feel, the agony in her. "He's just a baby, Mulder. He's just a baby."

He pulled her forward onto his chest. "You kept him safe, Scully," Mulder whispered back. "Just like you promised you would."

She shuddered against him. "It was too close, Mulder, too close," she whispered.

"But you did it," he said. "You killed it." He felt her tears soak a small spot through his shirt, but she was crying noiselessly in that same frightened manner that Will had earlier in the day. He cradled Will in his right arm and picked him up, moving over in the bed. "Come to bed, Scully," he said. She remained slumped over for a moment, then he felt her pull herself together.

She slid under the covers and rested her head over his heart. He moved Will into a more comfortable position on his chest and Scully ran her hand over Will's back. Will sighed in his sleep and turned his head to face his mother. Scully picked Will's hand up and kissed it.

"I need a stronger dart, one that can pierce their breastplates," she said. The resolve was back in her voice.

"Tomorrow," he said, kissing her hair. Exhaustion had finally caught up to him. "We'll think about it tomorrow."

Mulder watched as Will bounced a leg in time to Bruce Springsteen singing 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town' on the radio. Since they had entered the mountains the night before, Will had appeared relaxed and happy. He seemed to have had no lingering effects from the frightening scene in Pennsylvania. Mulder glanced over at Scully. He wasn't so sure he could say the same about either of Will's parents.

Will hadn't even protested getting into the car again for the short drive across town to meet with the realtor. Mr. Bunny had fallen down onto the seat beside Will, but he hadn't even noticed. He was much more interested in things going on outside the window. He was as enchanted by the snow today as he had been by the houses decorated for Christmas last night when they'd entered Stockbridge, Vermont at twilight.

"'No!" Will said excitedly, as they drove past the town green, glittering in the cold morning air.

"That's right," Scully said to Will, "Snow. It's pretty, isn't it?"

"Oh, yeah," Will said, nodding.

"What do you think, Mulder?" she asked.

"I think it's pretty, too," Mulder said distractedly, looking at the Green Mountains.

Scully stared at him.

"That's not what you meant?" he asked.

"Mulder," Scully said, "if you're not sure this is the place, why are we going to meet with the realtor?"

"I'm not not sure," he answered nonsensically, "I'm just..." he spotted the realtor's office across the street and slowed to take a left across the light midmorning traffic. "I guess I'm a little thrown by everything that's happened," he said.

"I know you are, Mulder," she said. "How do you feel about this town?"

He glanced in the rear view mirror at Will, who was still looking at the scenery. "We passed a certain point on the highway yesterday, where I just felt different," he said. "I can't explain it, but I can feel the magnetite."

She nodded. "Will clearly does."

He turned off the car and looked at her, quirking an eyebrow.

"That's not a psychic observation, Mulder," she scolded as he grinned, "just a general one."

"So you say," Mulder said.

Scully leaned over the console and kissed him on the nose. "I do, and I do like this place, Mulder."

He nodded, "I know." He closed the small gap between them and kissed her.

"Ah," Scully said, "so it's my day to be hopeful?" She got out of the car.

"You know," he said, as he peered at her across the roof. "I never said I agreed with your theory that we switch off days worrying about the future."

"Uh-huh," Scully said with a huff, as she picked up Will. "Hello, big boy," she said to Will. "Once again, Mulder, I'll repeat: it's an observation."

He laughed at her as a cheerful woman came out of the door of the real estate office, pulling on her coat. "Are you the Ferrises?" she asked.

"Ms. Bank?" Mulder said by way of greeting as he walked toward her. Her hair was the exact same color that Scully's used to be, he noted wistfully. "I'm Michael Ferris," he said, "This is my wife, Sarah Scott, and our son, Will."

She nodded and shook his hand. "I'm sorry you took the baby out to put him back in."

"Hi!" Will said, waving at her as Ms. Bank waved back.

"He's a cutie," she observed. "I have a couple of places I think you'll like," she said to Scully across the roof of the car. She pulled out a sheaf of papers and handed them to Mulder. "Just in case we get separated, these are the directions. My cellphone number is on the top page."

"Great," Mulder said, as Ms. Bank strode over to her car.

"Let's go look at some more snow!" Scully said to William.

"OK!" he readily agreed.

The drive through the small city toward the mountains wasn't long. Mulder had told the realtor that they were interested in houses near Windham, which was the site of many now-closed talc mines. The mines, which burrowed through the innards of the ancient granite mountains, had expanded on the extensive cave system already in place and exposed veins of magnetite. With active mining a thing of the past, Mulder and Scully felt that the caverns themselves might serve as shelter if worse came to worse.

The realtor took them to several houses before they came upon one that looked promising. The first houses had been perfectly nice, but they had tended to be in the villages clustered around the base of the mountains and more traditionally styled. This last house was different. Nestled about a third of the way up one of the mountains, it sat on an east-facing ridge. It overlooked a long meadow that had been fenced off from the road and the drop off of the ridge below it. The meadow, as well as the pine trees around it, was dusted with snow. It was nothing like the city snow Mulder had grown used to seeing in DC. This snow had never seen a plow blade, or even pollution. It covered the grass in crystalline piles and swirled around in whorls and eddies from the disturbance of the cars pulling up the long snow-covered driveway.

The house itself sat up on stone pillars. A long porch ran the length of the wooden lodge structure, which had a peaked roof. Mulder could see that there were two large stone chimneys jutting out from the roofline at the lowest points. The facade of the lodge was completely encased by windows.

The realtor pulled in front of what looked like garage doors under the long wooden porch, but Mulder stopped halfway up the driveway to gape.

"It's a little Von Trapp," Scully observed dryly, looking at the house, but she twisted around in her seat to look across the meadow. "But I really want to see what it looks like inside." She turned to face him. "What?" she asked.

He must have had a really strange expression on his face. "I don't know, Scully," he said. "I have such a strong feeling right now."

She was smiling at him. "A good feeling, right, Mulder? One of those things you've gotten unused to?"

He stuck his tongue out at her as Will piped up from the backseat. "'No! 'No!"

The house inside was simple but beautiful, with high wooden walls that extended up the entire structure. It was built on two levels, but only the second floor was enclosed. The first floor was a huge great room. They unloaded their gear in the front hall area, hanging their coats on pegs and shedding boots. Will and Mr. Bunny immediately toddled toward the two steps that led down into the living room area. Mulder swiftly followed him, holding his hand while Scully stayed with the agent.

Mulder turned around to face the wall of windows that rose nearly three stories high to the peaked roof and caught his breath. The view of the foothills and the towns below was beautiful. In the distance, he could see the white of a church spire rising from the hills and he smiled, surprised to realize that after all of these years away, he had missed New England. It would be gorgeous here in the fall.

"Those windows are treated so that you can see out, but still have your privacy, Mr. Ferris," Ms. Bank informed him. She and Scully were in the kitchen and dining area, which was set up a couple of steps higher than the level he and Will were on. Will pulled at him, wanting to go further across the room and down to the massive fireplace, which was set at the lowest level.

Will tugged at him insistently until Mulder walked over to the fireplace and stepped down the two steps to the hearth. Will immediately toddled over to the fireplace itself and patted the rocks in the huge hearth approvingly. Mulder looked at the enormity of the fireplace in awe. The exposed stone chimney extended the height of the wall and the actual hearth was huge; Will could easily have stood inside it. The floor surrounding the hearth was stone, but it had a half-moon of built-in seating in the form of a low ledge covered by carpet. It was designed as a kind of backrest to accommodate people sitting on the floor.

The real estate agent was talking to Scully in the kitchen area, which was open and well appointed. The oven appeared to be built into the second massive chimney on that wall, but there was no opening for a fireplace.

"I'm sure you noticed that the second floor is more of a balcony than a full floor," Ms. Bank said, leading Scully out of the kitchen to one of the two staircases that went upstairs. Mulder went to the one nearer to him, scooping up Will on the way. The balcony, like the front of the lodge, and the seating area around the hearth, was shaped like a half moon.

"The builder had children, so the staircases have latching gates to keep smaller children safe. There are three bedrooms upstairs and two baths, although one is attached to the master bedroom only. The owner used that open space over there with the bookcases as an office," Ms. Bank gestured toward one end of the balcony, then pointed to the opposite side. "He used the other one as a reading room."

Mulder crossed the balcony, following her and Scully for the rest of the tour. There were smaller versions of the fireplace downstairs in two of the bedrooms, which made Scully quirk an eyebrow. Mulder couldn't blame her. He wasn't that sanguine about putting Will in a room with a fireplace, either.

The child in question was wandering around the second floor, trailing Mr. Bunny and singing to himself softly. He walked over to the railing and peered down to the first floor. Mulder was relieved to see that his head didn't fit between the spokes, a point not lost on Ms. Bank.

"As you can see, the house is modern, but very child-friendly," she said.

"Yeah," Will answered seriously.

Mulder looked at him in surprise.

"You like this house, Will?" Scully asked before he could.

"Yeah," he said, nodding. "Nice." He pointed at the fireplace that loomed on the northern wall and turned and looked at Mulder.

"You like that fireplace, Will?" Mulder asked.

Will walked over to the staircase nearest the fireplace in answer. He looked back at Mulder.

"You know, the fireplaces were built entirely out of stones from these mountains," Ms. Bank told them.

"Really?" Scully said.

"The original owner was the scion of one of the old Yankee families that ran a talc mine just north of here. He was quite the rockhound, as they say." Ms. Bank walked down the staircase next to the towering fireplace. "At his request, both fireplaces are supposed to be full of prime examples of the stones native to the Green Mountains. This particular fireplace, however, is supposed to be quite special."

"How so?" Mulder asked, letting Will go at the bottom of the staircase.

"It's supposed to have a lodestone built in it somewhere," she said, then leaned forward to share the rest of the story with a wink. "The owner thought that the magnetism would confer certain properties on the house and its occupants. Long life and," she glanced over at Will and lowered her voice, "virility."

Scully and Mulder laughed politely. "Is there a lodestone?" Scully asked.

Ms. Bank shrugged. "I can't say for sure," she said, "but the original owner did live to be 97 years old. His wife was even older when she died last year."

Behind her, Will stood next to the raised hearth and patted a stone placed at the corner gently. "Hi," he said, then smiled at his parents.

Fox Mulder had never spent a lot of time thinking about the parents he'd been born to with gratitude, but he had to admit that if not for them, and the path they'd set him upon, he would not be where he was. It was a strange thought, replete with many levels of irony, but it occurred to him as he checked the front door of their new house, then crossed to make sure that the kitchen door that led below to the garage was also secure. Without them and their associations, there would have been no quest, no Scully, no William -- none of this. He passed back to the windows and drew the long drapes mostly closed, leaving just enough of the view exposed so that they could see the snow falling. It was going to be a white Christmas. More than that, for the first time in more years than he cared to remember, it was a holiday in which he would truly be participating.

He poked at the logs in the fire and carefully put the screen back in place. He could hear Scully murmuring upstairs to William, who was still not asleep despite the late hour. Their trips up from the garage where William's Christmas presents had been hidden had been interrupted by a call for 'Momma!', which when not immediately answered, had turned into an imperious declaration of 'Scully!', William's new trick for getting his mother's attention. Mulder had to admit, he found it pretty funny -- both he and Scully frequently found themselves attempting to school their features and their thoughts at William's antics.

The Christmas tree glimmered in the firelight, reflected and magnified off the windows. The trip across county seemed very distant to Mulder now.

In the three weeks since they had been in Vermont, they'd accomplished much of what they'd set out to. The house had been bought outright with some of the money that had been left to Mulder by his parents. They were still in the process of furnishing it, but they had most of the basics in place. If not for his parents and the money he had inherited from them, he would have been unable to do any of this.

He had thought a lot about his parents these past months, about how they had shaped him, for better or for worse, about the lies and omissions that characterized their relationship. He lived in a world peopled with the ghosts of friends, agitators and the occasional enemy, but of all the people who could have come to give him aid, his own family, the one he'd been born into, had never appeared. It was a fact he had grieved on more than one occasion, but today, he thought he understood why. This house, now their home, was tangible proof of their final assistance. Even more important, he found comfort in the fact that there was nothing that his parents could tell him about the present struggle that he and Scully were engaged in. It relieved him to believe that whatever they had been involved in, his parents knew nothing about the replicants or the new approach to colonization. This house was their last word in his life. And he was fine with that.

He turned from contemplating the fire as heard Scully crossing the balcony above. She came down the fireplace staircase, shaking her head and hiding a smile. "He may be too little to really understand about Christmas," she said, "but he knows we're up to something."

Mulder smiled at her as she surveyed the area next to the fireplace where he was standing. A number of oversized pillows covered the floor, making a more comfortable nest of the space. A bottle of champagne stood icing, with glasses next to it.

"Or trying to be," she said wryly, crossing the room and stretching out her hands to him. He leaned into her for a kiss.

"Your powers of observation are remarkable, Mrs. Claus," he said. He made an encompassing gesture of the area and said, "Welcome to the Love Pit," before he sat and drew her down next to him.

She muffled a snicker against his shoulder at his horrible impression of Isaac Hayes, then said, "I'm warning you right now, Mulder. If you start singing to me like Chef again, all bets are off."

He grinned at her and started humming one of Chef's songs instead, but cut it off at her stern expression.

"Tell me the truth, Mulder. It was that virility thing that sold you on this house, wasn't it?"

He leaned over and kissed her until they were both breathless before replying. "Woman, it isn't a rock I need to make me har--"

"Mulder!" She covered his mouth with her hand, but she was still laughing when she kissed him.

They drew apart and Mulder poured them both some champagne. A moment of silent communication was their only toast.

Scully looked over her shoulder at the tree. "Did you get everything organized while I was up there?" Will's presents ringed the bottom of the huge tree that Mulder had insisted on buying. It stretched almost all the way up to the balcony, which was also graced by a smaller living tree that they were going to plant in the spring. Both were loaded with decorations and the lights, although not blinking, were multi-colored and copious.

"I think so," Mulder said. He could tell that she was trying to figure out which boxes were hers, but he wasn't really interested in store-bought presents at the moment. He kissed her neck where it curved away from him, pushing her hair out of the way.

He could feel the pleasure radiating from her as she turned toward him, so he was a little surprised when he felt her hands on his shoulders, gently pushing him away. He drew away from her and looked at her questioningly.

Scully held his face in her hands and studied him with love, her fingers splayed over his cheeks.

"What?" he whispered.

"This is the first Christmas in a long, long time that I feel happy," she said. "And, I wanted to thank you."

She kissed him and he wrapped his arms around her, stroking his hands up under the back of her sweater to feel her silken skin. He felt none of the urgency that he'd felt all those months ago when they'd first been reunited, none of the hectic desire to be with her to blot out the other darker feelings of loss and desperation that surrounded them. They kissed for long minutes, lingering together, stoking the fire that always sparked between them with sweetness and affection, not the grief that had marked them for so long.

"Thank you," he whispered back when they paused. Her white fingers, so strong and sure, were working the buttons of his shirt open. She looked up at him, her eyes heavy-lidded in the firelight, asking the question. "Thank you for being my family," he said simply. "For giving me Will."

She smiled at him and ducked her head. "That's funny," she said shyly, after a minute "because I think of him as the best present you've ever given me."

He chuckled, "Kinda makes up for key rings and Super Bowl videos, huh?"

She drew his shirt down over his shoulders. "Not that I didn't appreciate those at the time, Mulder, but..."

He kissed her laughing mouth as she smoothed her hands down his back, running up and over the long muscles there. She drew him down to rest on top of her, but he resisted, wanting to feel her skin against his. He pulled her up to a sitting position and drew her sweater over her head. Her hair fell down around her shoulders, tousled. She shone, white and pink, watching him look at her.

"I'm right here," she said, smiling at him indulgently.

"I know," he said. "I see you. This is just ... I had this fantasy, Scully. I used to dream about making love to you in front of your fireplace in Georgetown." He shrugged. "And now, here we are," he said.

She smiled at him, then reached out a hand for the buttons on his jeans. "I'll take reality over fantasy any day, Mulder," she said. "Besides, this is better."

He raised his hips to slide his pants off. "How so?"

"This is our fireplace," she said, smiling. "All of this," her hand waved a sketch in the air, gesturing upstairs to where Will lay dreaming, "is something I doubted we'd ever have." Her hand returned to caress his cheek. "But like you said, here we are."

He nodded, then dropped his head to place a kiss over her heart. He took his time, kissing his way down between her breasts and over her body as he moved to finish undressing her. When he was done, he paused at her feet to look up at her, circling her ankles with his hands. She lay back against the pillows, one arm propped behind her head so she could see him. The lights from the tree dappled her flesh with color. A knot in the fireplace popped and hissed. She reached out her other hand to him in invitation and he slid his hands up over her skin as he went, dropping kisses along the way.

Mulder settled himself over and then against her, closing his eyes for a moment as he shivered with pleasure. He opened them again to stare down into her blue, blue eyes. They gleamed with the happiness he had longed to see for so many years. He leaned down until he was just a hair's breath away from her mouth and whispered, "You're right, Scully. Reality is so much better."

Author's notes:

When I started these stories, weeks ago now, I never expected that they would grow from a couple of pages of notes into ... well, this. My original intention was to create a plausible continuation of the series for those of my friends (Suzanne, Laney, Sharyn and even Jane who claims not to care anymore) who were dissatisfied by the ambiguous finale. We were left with hope, but hope for what, exactly? With most of their allies dead or out of their reach, what would Mulder and Scully be doing for the next ten years? I could not envision Mulder and Scully passively waiting for an invasion, nor could I envision them being separated from their son. With these thoughts in mind, I sat down to write a story.

Some have protested the killing of William's adopted parents, but in truth, I did not see how anything other than death would be their fate. As my sister Suzanne put it, 'in a world where the bad guys have unimpeded access to information, discovery of William's locale is only a matter of time'. I concur, and truthfully, I doubt that their murderers would have been so merciful, but didn't see the reason to torture them unnecessarily.

As to the other character death, I do regret killing Walter Skinner. I tried and tried to find a way to incorporate Skinner into the story where he was alive, but I could not convince myself that Skinner survived for long after the ominous closing of that office door. Which stinks. And, for the record, so does killing the Gunmen, which I had nothing to do with!

My sincere thanks to Sarah Segretti for her sharp eyes, beta assistance and laughing at my jokes. Thanks to my sister Suzanne, not only for her thoughtful beta, but for also giving birth to some excellent examples of toddler cuteness that came in quite handy, as it turned out.

My apologies to Elanor G, who was supposed to get the whole story on December 18th in the E-muse Secret Santa Swap, not a truncated 40%.

As always, thanks to Shari and Kris for making me a great website.

Extra special thanks to all you readers who take time to send feedback -- it really is appreciated.

Happy New Year!

     Shari made me a gorgeous home for my stories:

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