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When Scully sees the little girl, small and alone by the postcards, the first thought that crosses her mind is thank god Mulder’s not here. 

She takes it back immediately in her head, not putting it past him to read her mind from wherever he is. There are so many things he will have to forgive her for already, when she finds him, from letting him go to Bellefleur alone, to letting herself continue the work, his work, with another partner. 

There are storm clouds gathering outside, and Scully had felt them like a bad omen the moment she looked up.

She takes a deep breath, and reduces her thoughts to the inertia of craving him, of believing, steadfastly, that he'll come home, to her, to their yet-unborn child.

If he knew that she’d spent even a moment glad for his absence, if he knew that she’d strayed from the steadiness of needing him, he might never return at all. 

It’s just that she can’t help approaching the girl, drawn in by familiarity, as if to a mirror. Little pink cheeks and hazel eyes, wispy brown hair and her thumb in her mouth. Little feet rooted to the ground, like someone’s told her to stay put. Like they won’t come back for her if she moves even an inch.

It’s just that she’s seen pictures of Samantha too times many before, and even though the girl isn’t her, if Mulder were here, he would go insane at the sight of her anyway. 

If Mulder were here, he’d see Scully snap into her orbit, and he’d know.

She is only in her first trimester, and already, the presence of victims and children saps the care out of her. She hemorrhages protectiveness, broken open at the wrists and the base of her skull, dragging heavier every day with the exhausting weight of her empathy.

Agent Doggett is a perceptive and kind partner, but he doesn’t know her well enough to sense the difference. Mulder would see her hands tremble with the need to reach for the girl, and he would smell the impossible heaviness of motherhood on her like blood in the water.

He’d know that she doesn’t think she can handle it.

“Hi,” she says, crouching instinctively, as if to say, I am not a threat. “Are you lost?”

The little girl eyes her suspiciously. She can’t be more than four, but her eyes are clever, fox-like. For a moment, Scully is not sure which of them she is reminded of, looking at her. 

“Your mom has probably told you not to talk to strangers, huh?”

She nods.

“You’re a very smart girl,” Scully says. “Did your mom tell you that you can trust police officers?”

Another nod, wary. She’s looking down at her feet, tiny dollar store flip-flops with tacky pink plastic flowers. Scully remembers wearing similar ones on the beach as a child, but only for an hour or so. Her mother had replaced them with sturdier shoes, ones that she wouldn’t trip in so easily.

“Well, I’m a very special kind of police officer.” She reaches into her coat and pulls out her badge to show her. “My name is Dana.”

When their child is this age, she’ll buy little sandals for the beach, secure and comfortable. Her hand moves, as if on autopilot, to her belly. She has no right to think of how she’ll protect their child, not when she is already close to failing by putting herself in danger every day. She has no right to work at all, not when the safety of their child in her body is the only sure reason to keep herself alive. And yet she does, selfishly, simply because she’d break if she didn’t. The familiar guilt hits her like a wave of nausea. 

She takes a deep breath, and stills her mind, reminds herself that there are more urgent things to focus on.

The girl reaches for the badge, and Scully lets her touch it, doesn’t reach out to brush her bangs away from her eyes. This isn’t their child, she reminds herself.

“Will you tell me where your mom is?” She asks, gently. 

The girl’s mouth twists itself into a frown, deep furrows between her brows as she shifts from foot to foot.

“Is she in the bathroom?” 

She shakes her head no, back and forth one too many times.

“Outside in the car?”

No, again. The rush of indignation in Scully’s chest makes her cheeks flush with premature rage. She can’t imagine what kind of mother would abandon her child like this, as if there weren’t other women who would give anything to have a chance at caring for their own. 

“Do you know where she is?” 

This time, when the girl shakes her head, her eyes are glossy with tears. There’s a pause, and then her thumb pops out of her mouth.

“She said she’s coming back,” says the girl. Her voice is high pitched, quiet. For a moment, it reminds Scully of another little girl, but only for a moment, before she shoves the memory back into the lockbox where it belongs. 

She is with child, Mulder’s child. She cannot go on if she allows herself to think of the one she lost, the one who was never intended to be kept or loved in the first place. She cannot go on if she is not absolutely convinced that this child is the one who is meant to live.

“Okay,” Scully says, nodding. “Do you know when she said that, sweetie?”

The girl shrugs. “It was light out.” 

“I see.” As Scully remembers, sunset was hours ago, long before the clouds had blocked out the sky. “Where did she go?”

The girl points at the door, her fist twisting at the hem of her shirt, and Scully bites her lower lip. 

She takes a deep breath, carefully creases her anger and tucks it away. 

They’re only about twenty miles out of the nearest town, and it won’t take long to get to the sheriff’s station, but already, the idea of leaving the child with someone else is loathsome. She’s always grown attached too fast, and it’s worse these days, now that she’s got so little to hold onto. Invariably, she’ll end up cancelling her own flight back to D.C., calling Skinner to explain that no, she won’t be coming back until this is sorted. 

“Will you tell me your name?” 

“Natalie,” the little girl says. 

“Okay, Natalie. We’re going to try to find your mom.”

There is a child to protect, even though it isn’t their child, and she is nothing now if she is not a mother. Doggett can file the case report alone. If she lets down yet another person who needs her, there won’t be much left of her worth anything.

“We have to leave here, and go to the police station,” Scully tells her, voice pitched gentle and calm despite the rolling nausea in her gut. “Is that okay?”

“Mommy said to stay here,” Natalie murmurs, looking unsure. “She said don’t move.”

“I know,” Scully says. “But your mommy would want you to be safe, and it isn’t safe for you to be here by yourself.”

She feels as if she’s lying through her teeth. There’s always a chance that something’s happened to the girl’s mother, or that she really will come back. But the air is sour like bad news, and there’s a tear making its way down Natalie’s cheek, storm clouds gathering over the desert outside. And Scully knows how this will end. 

“What if she’s mad at me?” Natalie’s voice is tinny, and Scully is reaching to wipe away the tear before she can stop herself. She knows that feeling all too well.

“Don’t worry about that, baby,” Scully soothes her, unsure of whether she’s comforting Natalie or herself. “We have to take care of you first, okay?”

It’s the same thing she says to herself every morning, palm under her belly button, as she struggles to find the will to keep going, to continue her day-to-day work. We have to take care of you first. I have to take care of you. Everything else comes second, even if Mulder will be angry at her for not stopping the world to find him, for carrying on without him. Failing to care for his child is the one thing she's certain is unforgivable, and she cannot care for his child if she stops working, stops moving, and loses her mind. 

“Okay,” Natalie says, and then, “My tummy hurts.” 

“We’ll get you something to eat,” Scully assures her. “And then we’ll go outside to the car.”

As if on cue, the bell above the door jangles off-key, and for a moment, Scully thinks that the girl’s mother has come back. But it’s only Doggett, his brow furrowed with consternation.

“Dana? You get lost in here?” His gaze lands on the two of them, and his eyes narrow. 

The little girl’s thumb returns to her mouth nervously. 

“It’s okay,” Scully tells her. “That’s my friend. His name is John.”

“Hey there,” Doggett says as he approaches, a friendly nod as he eyes Scully inquisitively. 

“This is Natalie,” Scully explains quickly, standing up. “We’re going to take her back to the sheriff’s station and look for her mom.”

“I’ll go start the car,” Doggett nods, and without even asking, Scully knows that he’s caught on immediately, just like always.

He, too, understands what it means to need to protect a child that isn’t his, and there’s more history there than Scully will likely ever know. His mouth is tense with anger, and Scully realizes it was foolish, to think that he wouldn’t feel the same way that she does. He won’t fly back without her, and they’ll ride this out together.

As she clutches Natalie’s hand in hers, the windows flash bright with lightning. The thunderclap is quick to follow, and Natalie doesn’t flinch, even as Scully’s other hand flies automatically back to her abdomen. 

“You’re very brave,” Scully tells them both. “Are you ready?”

Natalie nods. 

They take a deep breath, then a step forward. Together, they break the inertia.