The playground sand was thick and wet under his feet, damp from the heavy winter air. The temperature had risen rapidly in the last two days, and the mounds of snow that had dominated the landscape just days previously had been reduced to rotting grey piles. The ground squelched with water, and it rose and pooled around the toes of his shoes as Fox Mulder stepped back out of the sandbox. The grey sky was huge over his head, and the only object that gave any definition to the horizon was the creaking swing set that sat at the edge of the parkette.
In the sandbox, only a few yards away from him, heart-lurchingly close, a tiny shape cooed happily and reached for a handful of the thick wet particles. The small toddler was swathed in an immense blue snowsuit, abandoned white mittens dangling at his wrists, suspended from a fraying string that threaded through his sleeves. His tiny hands were red from the cold and damp from the sand. Mulder itched to put them between his own and warm them.
The brown-haired woman hovering on the toddler's far side immediately reached out and seized the wrists, admonishing gently. Mulder strained for her words, but they were whipped away by the wind that pushed constantly at his back. The little boy frowned, and then sat firmly down in consternation. The woman patiently hauled him back up again, and brusquely knocked the clinging sand off the back of the battered blue nylon suit.
Mulder scuffed at the soil beneath his feet, and the woman looked over in slight irritation. After glaring at him for a few more minutes, she took the toddler firmly by the hand and strode over to him.
"Look," she said icily when she reached him. "I don't mean to sound rude or accusatory, but may I ask why you are hanging around a children's playground without a child, and why you have been staring at my son and I for the last half hour?"
Mulder smiled as best he could. "I'm just taking in the scenery, ma'am," he said. "I'm from out of state, and I just wanted to look around the town. I was enjoying the wind and the fresh air. I don't often get breezes as crisp as this at home."
The woman seemed to calm down, and she offered her hand. "I'm sorry about that, but you were worrying me. I'm not usually so confrontational. My name is Elaine Vandekamp. And you are?"
"Sam Mulder," he replied smoothly. "And this is your son?"
The woman tugged the boy's hand, and he looked up at her sullenly. She nodded toward Mulder, and the tiny face turned to look at him. The impact of looking the toddler full in the face knocked Mulder's breath out of him with a sudden jolt. Scully's eyes, was all he could think. Scully's eyes. Their electric blue bore into his face with drilling force, and they seemed to see right into him, piercing him, knowing him. They drank him in and cut him up, and when his breath returned it rushed up and choked him. Mulder's eyes began to cloud.
The small boy tilted his head and then reached up and pushed his hood off with both hands, in a familiar tucking motion. It floored Mulder, and all he could see before his mind's eye were visions of Scully tucking her hair behind her ears over and over, the exact same motion and gesture he saw echoed by the form in front of him.
"Hi," the boy said, and his voice was so tiny and perfect and young that Mulder felt the breath go out of him again.
"Hi," Mulder echoed, unable to say anything else. I made you. You're mine.
"I'm almost three," the boy stated matter-of-factly. "But you're older than that."
"Don't be rude," said Mrs. Vandekamp. "We talked about that."
The child ignored her and continued talking to Mulder. "I'm almost three, but really I'm old. And your name isn't Sam."
Mrs. Vandekamp frowned and tugged the tiny fist enclosed in her own. "Don't be rude," she repeated. She then turned to Mulder and smiled stiffly. "I'm sorry," she said. "We've had a bit of a problem with this kind of behavior from him. My son has a very active imagination."
"That's all right," Mulder said faintly. "I don't mind at all."
The boy smiled enigmatically. "You're the fox," he continued; then he seemed to go a bit red, and his brow furrowed. "Off!" he demanded to Mrs. Vandekamp, and was instantly a normal child again.
The woman helped him unzip the jacket half of the snowsuit, and a glint of gold shone from around his neck, nestled at the back among the delicate strands of bright red hair that crowned his head.
"What's that?" Mulder asked quickly.
Mrs. Vandekamp pulled a delicate chain out from under the boy's thick red sweatshirt, and on it was dangling a tiny golden cross, an exact replica of the one piece of jewelry Mulder would know anywhere. His heart skipped a few beats.
"Well," she said firmly. "We'd better get going. We've got a long walk home."
Mulder stepped forward. "Please," he asked quietly. "Please let me give you a drive? It would be my pleasure." At the woman's wary look, he supplied: "Your son looks very tired, and I know how hard it is to walk anywhere with a tired child."
"Do you have children, then?" Mrs. Vandekamp asked.
Mulder gazed at the boy for a moment, and then answered slowly. "I had a son, but I lost him more than two years ago."
"I'm so sorry," the woman said, seemingly reassured. "That must have been beyond horrible."
"It was," Mulder replied, and then abruptly changed the topic. "Now, please, allow me to give you a ride home."
Mrs. Vandekamp nodded slowly and followed him to his rental car, shiny and new with dealership Wyoming plates. She climbed into the backseat with the toddler on her lap, and Mulder got into the driver's seat and started the car.
As she gave him directions, Mulder watched the small boy in the rear-view mirror humming to himself and stroking the upholstery. His heart felt as if an enormous weight were about to crush it completely. The boy's red-gold hair flashed in the light from the landscape rushing by outside the car window, and Mulder couldn't help feeling as if he was the most beautiful thing that he had ever seen. And we made him, he thought again. I want Scully to see how impossibly beautiful he is.
I can't, Mulder, Scully had said, weeks ago, her voice shaking in the quiet of their apartment in the charged moments after he had surprised her with the results of his clandestine search. Why can't you understand that? I said goodbye, I made the only choice I could. I died inside when he was carried out my door, and there's nothing left in me; I'm not strong enough to die again. Later, when his anger had worn her down and his resolution scratched at her guilt, she'd said: I'll go to Wyoming with you, but don't you dare expect me to set foot outside our room. This morning he'd left her hunched and soundless on the bed.
"So," Mrs. Vandekamp said finally, discomfited with his long silence. "Do you have a wife?"
"Yes," Mulder said. "In a loose application of the word. We've been together for eleven years now." His chest pounding with his own daring, Mulder leaned over and pulled something from the glove compartment. "This is she and I, about three years ago. She's holding our son."
Mulder passed the photograph back, deliberately placing it in the child's hands first. The boy's incredible electric eyes flew as wide as they could go, astonishment and something else indescribable burning out from them. Elation slammed through Mulder. He remembers, he thought. Somehow, some way, he remembers.
"Mine," the boy said. "I want it."
Mrs. Vandekamp reached out and seized the photo. "Give that back right now!" she
"It's all right," Mulder said quickly. "You can give it back to him; he can keep it. I've got more copies at home."
The woman looked wary, but handed the photograph back to the child, who clutched it tightly in one hand, spreading the other over Scully's image.
"Mine," he repeated quietly. Mulder felt his heart crack.
The horizon was rippled with not too distant mountains as they came out of the wide valley floor, and the grass seemed greener where it poked between the piles of slush. The weak March sun filtered through the uniform gray sky, and the land began to roll through the pavement, foothills swelling the ground.
Mrs. Vandekamp pointed Mulder down a semi-visible road, and the car instantly began to rattle from the pebbles that jumped and spat beneath the wheels. The toddler giggled and clapped his hands together.
"He loves this road," she said weakly. "He knows he's going home."
With a wrenching pang, Mulder remembered another car, another woman, in another state, another homecoming. In the backseat of that car had been the same child, but tinier and more infinitely fragile. Mulder could still feel the grin that had spilt his face all the way through the DC traffic jam, the grin that he had still worn as he and Scully had parked and jogged to the back door, lifting their beautiful treasure and kissing his forehead.
Scully had whispered in the baby's ear, her eyes and features alight with joy. Mulder could hear her words, soft and warm in the May sun that still shone eternally in his memory. 'Welcome home, William.' she had whispered, and the words had hung like honey in his ears.
Mulder brought himself back with the sharp prickle in his eyes, and found Mrs. Vandekamp staring at him concernedly.
"It's all right," he mumbled, and then cleared his throat. "I miss my son very much, that's all. Some moments are just harder than others."
The woman smiled gently, and then flicked her gaze away. "Well," she said. "This is it. Thank you very much for the ride home; I appreciate it, and so does Lee, I'm sure."
"Lee?" Mulder shot out harshly.
"Yes," Mrs. Vandekamp replied hesitantly, back on guard again. "His name is Lee."
"Is it short for anything?" he demanded, throwing caution to the wind. His name. That was the one thing Scully had managed to say to him before he had left their motel room. He's still William, she'd said faintly to his stiff back. What ever else he isn't anymore, he's still William. I made sure of that. Mulder felt the bitterness of betrayal rise in his throat. She'd broken yet another promise.
"Yes, it is a short form," Mrs. Vandekamp was saying. "It's short for Liam, which in turn we shortened from..."
Please, Mulder thought. Don't let her be lying again.
Mulder felt the breath ebb out of him again. He smiled as best he could to cover the situation, and pulled to a stop in front of a driveway crowned with a bright red mailbox, emblazoned with VDK in black stencil.
Mrs. Vandekamp began to climb out of the car, but Mulder jogged around to the back passenger side and opened the door for her.
"Please," he said, his voice slightly desperate in the heavy air. "Please, let me carry him into the house for you."
The woman eyed him for a long moment, and then something seemed to clear behind her eyes. Her expression lightened as if a shroud had been lifted from it.
"Yes," she responded thickly. "Of course you can."
Mulder reached out his arms slowly and reverentially, and with infinite care transferred the boy- the baby, really- to his embrace. The tiny body's warm weight pressed against his heart, soft and dense and faintly perfumed. As he began to walk down the driveway, he buried his face in the damp mess of the red-gold hair, and to his joyous and heartbroken astonishment, he felt the gentle press of tiny arms encircling his neck. Every emotion conceivable ripped through him, but through it all was a deep and fathomless love that he'd felt since the first moment he'd held this child in his arms.
With a sudden ache, Mulder realized that they were at the door of a low white farmhouse, a state flag snapping in the wind, and that the time had come to put the baby down. Slowly, agonizingly, he loosened his grip, but the boy did not. Mulder turned his head, and whispered into the miniscule ear beside him, his lips grazing the silken skin.
"I love you, William," he scratched out. "I always have, and I always will. Remember that."
He let the warm body slide from his embrace, to land on his feet on the wooden steps. Mulder's arms were immediately colder than they'd ever been before, shivering and naked to the wind.
He turned from the electric blue eyes before him with the speed of ripping a bandage, and he walked quickly away down the porch steps. Every step burned him anew.
"Mr. Mulder," Mrs. Vandekamp called after him unexpectedly. When he turned around, she cleared her throat and continued awkwardly. "Some day, one day, I'll tell him about you. He'll want to know."
Mulder nodded sharply, then turned and fled, his steps racing him into his car and then carrying him away down the road, out into the foothills, and out of the life of his son.
Later, Mulder let himself into the dark motel room, and took in Scully's huddled form on the far bed. Her shoulders were hunched and her back was twisted into a ball. He could see that her arms were wrapped around her chest as tightly as a vice and that her eyes were fixed on the shadowed, smudged, and dirty wall. Her hair was mussed and slightly greasy.
Every inch of him still burned and scorched with pain, his skin chafing with agony where his clothes touched him. He wanted nothing more than to fall to the floor and never stand up again. Feeling his legs begin to shake, he sat down on the stained, dilapidated armchair and stared into the distance.
"So?" Scully asked, her voice floating in a myriad of shame and hurt, thick and scratching with tears.
"They call him Lee," he answered, and it was all he could manage. As he sank to his knees, he remembered what he had said to Mrs. Vandekamp, and recognized the unequivocal truth of it.
Some moments are harder than others- and this moment is hardest of all.