a/n: thanks to those who reviewed


"Zach? Megan?" Mulder called, walking through the dim apartment. She was right behind him, just as she always was, taking in their surroundings. The state of the house made him sick, and it wasn't just from the obvious wreckage the intruder had caused. There were dishes piled high in the sink, there was laundry scattered all over the floor, a quick examination of the fridge revealed nothing more than an expired quart of milk and less than a fourth of a bottle of tequila. A mangy cat was roaming around, making Scully's eyes water (that not being the only thing making her eyes water). Tables and chairs were flipped over, glass and other items were broken on the floor. He hated that he'd met Stacie outside of the building when he gave her the money a few days before. Mulder couldn't tell what was damage and what was the normal state of affairs. One thing was plainly clear, though – everybody in there needed help.

"Mulder," Scully stopped him when she entered the bathroom. The two young children huddled together in the shower didn't know her at all, but they trusted Mulder and had called him there to help them.

He came running to the door, as his footsteps indicated, but slowed to walk through it because he understood his partner's tone of voice. There, huddled in the dirty shower, was eight-year-old Zach clutching five-year-old Megan to him like a vice. After only a split second, though, the little girl broke free of her brother's grip and ran to Scully blindly. Her cries were difficult to understand, but she could tell that developmentally the little girl was years behind where she should have been. Scully held the girl as terrified sobs wracked her body. The boy still stood in the shower, a weight seemingly lifted from his shoulders. He didn't have to be responsible for his little sister anymore. He could lose control.

"Zachy, come over here buddy," Mulder squatted, holding out his arms. It took a tense moment, but the boy's eyes teared up the same way his sister's had, and he sought comfort in Mulder's arms.

"Are you hurt?" Mulder asked, holding the little boy at arm's length as he briefly examined him.

Zach shook his head. "We were hiding."

Breathing a sigh of relief, he pulled Zach back into his embrace. "That was very smart. You did a good job."

The scene she was a part of what caused Scully to become emotional as well. Just judging by the state of the house, those two kids lived in hell. And if what Zach told Mulder about his mother were at all true, that hell was ten times worse than Scully could ever imagine. Her tears fell for Zach's lost innocence and Megan's lost sense of security. The thought that someone could treat babies that way sickened her. The thought that God would give someone like Mulder's irresponsible cousin children, yet deny her the chance to even conceive and then make her watch her child that should never have been die right in front of her was what really broke Scully. She didn't want to cry in that bathroom, especially not for her own selfish reasons, while they had two very damaged children to make sure were safe, but she couldn't help it.

"I wanna go, Mulder," Zach said against her partner's shirt. Mulder looked up to Scully, asking if she was really in this with him—could she do this without losing it?

"Hi Zach," she thought this would be as good a time as any to introduce herself, "I'm Dana. I'm Mulder's friend."

"I know," Zach sniffled, and Scully's eyes begged the question. Mulder looked down.

"I want to help you and Megan. Is that okay with you?" she wanted to make sure they played by his rules. Above all else, she wanted his trust.

Zach nodded dispassionately, eyes darting between Mulder and Megan.

"I want you two to go with Dana out to the car. I'll be right out there in only a few minutes, okay?" Mulder assured the children. He didn't want the kids there when he called the police.

Craving a mother's love and already having taken to her, Megan was fine right in Scully's arms. But getting Zach to go along with her was a different story. When she reached down to grab his hand, he violently pulled away from her and latched on to Mulder's leg. He was whining, pleading with Mulder not to leave him. It broke both of the agents' hearts because for the first time, they were seeing how truly neglected and abused those children had been.

"Mulder!" he screamed when Scully put her hand on his shoulder, feeling like he was being ripped away. The second she heard her brother screaming, Megan started screaming, scared and not knowing what else to do.

"Zach, please, go with Dana. She's very nice and she'll take good care of you."

"I want you! I called you! Don't let her take me!" tears were streaming down his face.

"I'll be right there, Zach," Mulder was still trying to reason with him when Scully knew he should be providing him with the comfort and security he never had.

"No you won't!" he screamed louder than Scully believed any eight-year-old could scream. "You're going to leave just like Mommy!"

At hearing this, Megan was prompted to start calling for her mother, red-faced and snotty from crying.

"I want my Mommy! I want Mommy!"

"Come on Meggie, we're going to the car," Scully kissed her cheek.

"Zach!" the little girl reached her arms out for her brother. Scully had held squirming children before, but nothing could compare to Megan's intensity to get down to him. Finally, to keep her from hurting herself, Scully set her on the floor, and the two wrapped their arms around each other.

Since the situation had calmed down, Mulder continued on with what he had initially planned to do, which was leave a note for Stacie to call him and to notify her that he was taking the kids, which he didn't really imagine would cause her much unrest. He held off on calling the cops, though, more concerned with getting Megan and Zach out of there, and not sure what would happen to them if he did.

"Okay, I'm done, are you two hungry?" Mulder asked when he rejoined the kids and Scully outside of the bathroom. Megan immediately nodded her head, but Zach remained stoic.

"Alright pumpkin," the little girl finally smiled at Mulder's nickname for her, "we'll go get a happy meal."

Megan went willingly back to Scully when Mulder handed her to her, then he grabbed Zach and they all made their way out of the apartment. Mulder shut the door of their old lives behind them, silently promising to the two children that they would never have to go back again.

XXX

"We should have grabbed something else for them to wear," Scully sipped on her diet Coke on the way back to her apartment after visiting McDonald's. They were going back to her place because it wasn't the bachelor pad that Mulder lived in. She had a spare bedroom where they could sleep, nutritious food for them to eat, and an all-around more stable place for them to recover. Both kids were asleep in the back of his car, having eaten more than just a happy meal each. Zach had finished his hamburger and fries in under five minutes, then ate the rest of Mulder's meal. Megan had asked for another order of chicken nuggets as soon as she was done with hers. At first, they had expected it was for the small animal toy she had received in her box, but she surprised them when she ate everything in her second meal as well.

"I wasn't spending another second in that place finding something clean for them to wear. Besides, everything in there smelled like piss."

"Well what are we going to do for tonight? The clothes they have on now aren't exactly adequate, and they need something to sleep in."

"We can run to the mall really quick before it closes. They need a lot more than clothes, though, Scully," Mulder reminded her. Like she needed reminding.

"We need to contact Social Services, Mulder. We need to start an investigation, find out where their mother is, find out who broke in and why," she trailed off.

"I know. I know. It's just… it's going to be too much for them right now. Look at what happened when I told Zach to leave with you! Imagine what it's going to be like with a black-coated, funny-smelling official, or having to sit down with a bunch of cops. Kids know."

"We're required to do so not only as citizens, but as members of law enforcement."

She knew it was killing him to think of the kids going with a Social Services agent for the night. Every tremble that shook their bodies, every fear that ran across their young minds, physically tortured Mulder. But they had no choice.

"Let's just get them a few things to wear and take them back to your place. We'll figure out what to do from there."

Seeing his expression and how responsible he felt for Zach and Megan, Scully nodded and looked ahead. She couldn't be the one who helped to rip those kids out of his arms. She had to be loyal to him. She could do nothing else.

XXX

Thankfully, the kids were in dire need of a good night's sleep and were out like lights after they were dressed in their new pajamas. They slept through Mulder and Scully calling the police, and the ensuing visit they paid them. After that, it was time to call Social Services.

Cynthia Lewis knocked on Dana Scully's door at 11:58 that night. As a social worker for MSS, she had often been out on calls this late at night, but this time her boss had expressed the importance of time in this situation. Apparently two FBI agents were harboring an eight-year-old foundling and his five-year-old sister and requesting family placement and an immediate investigation into their case. She yawned. She had just been ready to hit the sack when she got the call, having had a hard time getting her own three boys to sleep.

The door was opened by a very pretty red-headed woman, just a bit younger than Cynthia.

"Hi, you must be Cynthia," the woman greeted, opening her door a bit wider to reveal a tall dark-haired man sitting on the couch farther in the apartment, looking not at all as happy to see her as his companion was.

"Yes, Cynthia Lewis with Maryland Social Services. Are you two the FBI agents?"

"We are. I'm Special Agent Dana Scully, and this is my partner, Fox Mulder. Come in please."

Over tea, the three adults discussed the situation Mulder and Scully had found themselves in. She did most of the talking, Mulder more worried about Zach and Megan's future than what the social worker had to say.

"Mrs. Lewis, my partner and I have dealt with several child placement issues over the years, and I assure you that we know the conditions we took Megan and Zach from were unsafe. Not only were they left alone for at least 24 hours, their home was unsafe, there was no food in the pantry or the fridge, and there was a break in just prior to our arrival. They've clearly been living in this state for awhile, and they show signs of severe neglect and abuse," Scully explained, trying to be as detached from the scene they had rescued the children from earlier as possible to keep from losing it.

"Have you heard at all from the mother since you took the children?" Cynthia asked.

"No, even though we left her a detailed message describing why we took the kids and where she could reach us before we left."

"When was the last time you last had contact with her?"

It was Mulder's turn to answer. Even though Scully had an undying devotion to the woman's children, she had never actually met Stacie.

"It's been at least a three days since I last spoke to her. She called and asked for money," Mulder told the social worker.

"How much money did she ask you for?"

"$400 to pay rent."

"Did you give it to her?"

"Yes. I wrote her a check."

"Were you expecting her to pay you back?"

"Not really. I know she's not in a very good position. She's always had a drug problem, and she told me that she was moving with her children to DC to get clean. So I've been helping her out as much as I can."

"Do you know of anywhere she may have gone or anyone she may be with now?"

"No. She was a waitress at a pub near her home, but when I called in today looking for her, her boss told me he fired her a few weeks ago. I don't know where else she could have gone, but judging by what happened in her home I'd say she's back into drugs."

"Alright," Cynthia wrote something down on a form, "and where are the children now?"

"In the guest bedroom sleeping."

"Alright, Mr. Mulder, based on what I've heard and your credentials, I'm going to grant you temporarily family placement. There will be an MSS investigation of the home and family that should be able to help you get extended custody in a hearing you will attend next week. If you do hear from your cousin before then, you may contact MSS and she can sign over her rights to you. In addition, she will face either neglect or abuse charges, or both, based on our investigation. Is this your home?"

Mulder's head was spinning, and he was struggling to follow her. It had been a long, stressful day. Thankfully, Scully seemed to know exactly when to step in.

"No, ma'am. It's my home."

"Agent Mulder, I'm going to have you sign some forms for me, and after that you should be free to keep the children until further notice. I'm going to leave some numbers here, including my own, please contact us if there is any problem with the children, and especially if their mother tries to contact you. We will begin our investigation tomorrow, and we will be working with the police department. Tomorrow I will also send you the information about your custody hearing coming up, so please provide a fax number if you have one, and all numbers you can be reached at during the day here and here," Cynthia was pointing out. In order to get some sleep, some peaceful sleep, Mulder signed where she told him to. He didn't understand the responsibility he was taking on. He didn't want to know.

As soon as Cynthia left, Scully turned around to find Mulder almost asleep on her couch. She crawled next to him, feeling like she shared something with him that nobody else could understand. There were several things that allowed her to feel like that.

"Shoes off," she muttered, laying her body completely against his.

"Are you sure you want to do this, Scully?" he asked, kicking off his black dress shoes. It was an important question, but he phrased it like an unimportant one, confusing Scully a bit at that late hour. They were in this together, she thought. They were partners. He couldn't really think she would let him do this alone.

"What do you mean?"

"You know you don't have to do this. You don't have to go through this. I know how cases involving children… affect you."

"This would affect anyone. You can't really expect me to walk away from them now. Everyone in their lives has walked away from them. More than that, it would be impossible for me to let you go through this alone."

"I just don't want you to get hurt," he had taken up a more serious tone and was lifting his neck at an odd angle to be able to see her. His arm had snaked itself around her, assuring her it was okay to say what she really felt.

"It's not about me anymore, Mulder, or you. Those two kids need people in their lives that aren't going to give up on them. They need people to hug them and talk to them and feed them and bathe them and keep them safe. And I feel personally responsible now."

They didn't need to exchange any more words. She pulled his arm tighter around her and rested her head on his ribcage. Wordlessly, they slipped into sleep.

XXX

Piercing screams shattered the serenity of the household that night, startling both Mulder and Scully from their peaceful slumber on her couch. She was the first to make it to the bedroom. Turning on the closet light revealed a confused Zach holding himself in the corner of the mattress and a still-asleep Megan, shrieking and crying as she tried to free herself from the sheets twisted around her tiny body. She hit Scully in the mouth with her flailing arms, but that didn't slow her down one bit.

"Meggie… Meggie, shhh. It's just a dream, darling. Everything's okay," Scully cooed, trying to gather Megan in her arms. The little girl's eyes flew open, the still-unfamiliar surroundings startling her even more. As she cried and fought her way back to the waking world, Scully noticed that Megan was wet. She'd had an accident. Not long after realizing this herself, Megan started mumbling something.

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry! Please don't be mad! I'm sorry!" she wailed.

"Nobody's mad, sweetie. It was an accident." By then, Mulder had arrived and was taking Zach into the living room. It was just Scully and Megan. The agent wanted to cry just as hard as the little girl was. She was obviously traumatized and now feeling extremely guilty for something she had no control of. Megan was going to need years of intense therapy. Both children were.

"I'm sorry Dana," Megan was calming down and admitted in a pitiful voice. Scully hugged her tightly, then scooped her up and took her across the hall to the bathroom.

"There's nothing to be sorry about. That's why we call those 'accidents.'"

"I had a dream about the place with the big barking dogs."

Scully could only imagine what type of places Megan had been to her in young life. The only thing she could do now was try to help her get through her painful memories—be the loving figure in her life that her mother had failed to be.

"How about some bubbles to make it all better?" Scully asked, then dumped the rest of her expensive bubble bath into the warm water of the tub.

In the living room, Mulder was sitting on the couch with Zach.

"Does Megan have a lot of nightmares?" he asked, knowing that nightmares were par for the course for abused children. Furthermore, when he heard the bathtub start to run, he knew exactly what had happened.

"Yeah," Zach said quietly, looking intently at his hands.

"And what happens?"

"When Mommy's home… she makes her sleep on the floor on top of the sheets," he admitted. But Mulder knew he was hiding something.

"What happens when Mommy's not home?" he inquired, knowing by now that that was usually the case. Zach pulled his knees up to his chest and shook his head.

"Zach, you know you can tell me anything. I only want to help you."

Shaking his head some more, the little boy said in the smallest voice Mulder had ever heard, "I can't."

"I won't get mad at you. There's nothing you could do or say that would make me not want to help you anymore."

Tears escaping from behind his glasses and down his cheeks, Zach looked like he was seriously considering telling Mulder what he was hiding. It would only take a minute for him to come clean.

"I… I hit her. I know it's bad but she wets the bed all the time! It's gross and it smells! I hate it!" he vented, looking more disgusted with himself than mad at his sister. The tears were coming faster and faster and his breathing became more and more frantic before he eventually lost it and threw himself against Mulder's chest. Dumbfounded, it took Mulder a second to grasp what the little boy had told him. The way Megan looked to her brother, the way she trusted him and needed him, he would have never thought that Zach hit her when she wet the bed. Of course, it was through no fault of his own. He was only eight-years-old and had so many responsibilities that didn't belong to him. He shouldn't have had to be his little sister's protector. He was just a little guy himself and needed one as well.

"You hate me," Zach cried once Mulder hadn't said anything for a few minutes. This only made the man tighten his arms around him, though.

"I don't hate you, Zach. I could never hate you. You shouldn't have had to take care of Megan all by yourself. That's not your job. I understand that you don't know what to do sometimes and you lose it. Everybody loses it once in awhile. But Megan is younger than you. And she's just as scared. From here on out, it is never okay to hit anyone, especially your little sister. She loves you."

Zach nodded sadly, still feeling like he was being scolded. Mulder wiped the boy's eyes the best that he could, trying to assure him that it wasn't his fault. God, if only he knew that.

"Let's go get the sheets off the bed, big guy. Then we'll put you in Dana's bed."

"Can I sleep with you?"

Mulder knew he should be getting the boy to sleep on his own. Always coddling him wasn't going to do him any favors in the long run. Not only that, but if Zach was sleeping out in the living room, then Megan would no doubt want to sleep there too. And then both he and Scully would get no sleep. And they'd be tired the next day, already with so much to do.

But it was not in Mulder that night to tell Zach no. So he got some blankets out the hall closet and started making up the couch for the four of them.