A Dream of Thaw

"In drifts of sleep I came upon you
Buried to your waist in snow.
You reached your arms out: I came to
Like water in a dream of thaw"

Seamus Heaney "The Rescue"

 
The resemblance takes her breath away.

She watches unseen at the kitchen window as her eldest grandson tries to catch his brother's pass, long hair streaming behind him.  He stretches his whole body, slender fingers straining, determined to snag the leather ball before it gets away.  She gasps as he succeeds, landing in one of the piles of neatly raked leaves that dot the side lawn.

"Mom? You okay?"

Her daughter has turned from the stove and has caught her open-mouthed with fascination, too much water running over her hands.  She twists the tap off and reaches for a dishtowel, trying to sound nonchalant.  "The boys are still playing football."

"The boys are always playing football.  Joey's going to be first string if it kills everyone around him.  Steve just goes along with it.  I think he likes to throw things at his brother."

"Steve's hair is getting long."

Her daughter snorts.  "I know. He should cut it."

She snorts back, a weathered version of the previous sound.  "I remember when you liked long hair."

"I'm not surprised.  You don't forget anything."  Satisfied as to her mother's well-being, her daughter turns back to the stove to give the butter-coated onions another stir.

She turns back to the window.  The boys are in the middle of another play.  She thinks about tapping on the glass so they can see she's watching, then decides against it.  No need to take them out of the moment.  She remembers what it was like to be young.

She turns on the tap back on, glancing at the boys as she scrubs potatoes under the running stream of water.

"Honey?"

"Yeah, Mom?"

"Steve's hair."

"What about it?"

"Let him keep it."

"Okay."

Her daughter's response warms her, like the heat coming from the stove's open flame.  Under the current circumstances, she could probably ask to give both her grandsons crew cuts and her daughter would flinch, then hand her the clippers.

She looks down at the stack of washed potatoes in the colander next to her, then back at the boys.  They see her this time.  The older one gives her a friendly salute.  She returns it, tears clouding her vision.

She remembers what it's like.

______________________________________________________

"Look at the bird!"

Sarah uncurled her arm from around Scully's neck to point a grubby finger at an oriole perched on the split rail fence.  The child's yell shattered the quiet and the bird took wing, flying a low trajectory over the graying barn.

"Bye bye, bird," Sarah shouted, waving frantically.  She tugged on her mother's lapel.  "Down please, Mommy."

Scully turned to the short man standing next to her.  "Mom says she does this all the time now.  You'd think she'd never seen a bird before."  She struggled as Sarah's pulling became more insistent.  "Frohike, will you watch her while I go see the house?"

Her friend gave a curt nod.  "Her Highness can terrorize nature.  I'll check out the property." 

"Sounds like a plan."  Scully planted a quick kiss on her daughter's cheek.  "Okay, kiddo.  You and Frohike are going to take a walk while Mommy looks at the house.  Be good.  Don't scare the birds too much."

Sarah squealed with delight at the news.  "Frokie!"

Frohike grimaced at the mispronunciation.  "That's *almost* my name, Queen Bee. You'll get it. Eventually."  He held out his arms and Sarah willingly transferred herself over to him.  He set the little girl down and she immediately ran toward the fence where the oriole had perched.  He sighed, watching her go.  "It's my lucky day.  Looks like the Queen Bee is up for adventure."

Scully smiled and watched her daughter peer into the trees, searching the sky for more avian life to shout at.  "Just like..."

Her voice died off, mid-sentence.

From over by the fence, Sarah shrieked as a barn swallow swooped into view.  Frohike laid a hand on Scully's shoulder.  "Yeah. Just like.  Only he didn't squeal as loud.  Except that once."

Scully started to lift an eyebrow at him, then stopped.  Instead, she laughed out loud; pain momentarily replaced with something sweeter.

The gunman winked at her before turning to the real estate agent.  "Where's there to walk to?"

The agent flipped through her clipboard of notes.  "There's a hundred and fifty acres, mostly woods.  It's all fenced in, if you want to walk the lines."

Frohike regarded the woman as if her statement had announced her a dangerous lunatic.  "Not with a four year old, lady," he muttered.

The agent's canned laugh was good enough for a television sound track.  "Of course not, of course not. According to this survey, there should be a clear path over by the barn that leads to a creek.  That might be a good walk for the two of you."

Frohike gave a grunt of approval.  "That's more like it."

He turned and walked over to where Sarah was trying to climb up onto the lowest fence rail.  "Don't worry. I won't let her drown," he called over his shoulder.  He plucked the little girl off the ground and swung her up in the air.  Sarah's shrieks of glee fractured the peaceful countryside again.

"Mommy, I'm a bird!"

"I see that," Scully called to her.  "Don't fly too far, okay?"  Her wave went unseen as her friend and daughter disappeared into the woods, the smaller dragging the larger.

The agent flashed a sell-a-house smile.  "Your daughter is precious."

Scully acknowledged the compliment with a tiny nod.  Somewhere in the near distance, she could hear Sarah shouting at her feathered friends.  Her mother was right.  The kid never met a bird she didn't like.

A sudden tingle of anticipation made her clasp her hands together. She turned and faced the agent.  "So.  Let's see this thing."

The woman fished a key chain with a bright green plastic dog on its end out of her too-red blazer.  "Certainly.  Like I told you, it's a fixer upper, but it does meet all your privacy requirements.  All the acreage is such a benefit."

Scully studied the house's worn facade.  "We'll see," she murmured.

Forty-five minutes later, the two women emerged from the house, chatting comfortably about woodwork and easements.  Frohike was sitting on the porch steps while Sarah searched the yard for her current must-have item, "sparkly" rocks.

After a few pleasantries, the real estate agent gave Scully a warm handshake and went down the steps.  Moments later, the agency car was headed down the long drive, out of sight.

As the sound of the car's engine faded away, Scully stood on the porch, enjoying the view of woods to the east and overgrown meadow to the north.  There wasn't a house or neighbor in sight.  There would be complete privacy here.  After the past four years, that wouldn't be such a bad thing.

She crossed over and sat down next to Frohike.  He shot her a sideways look.  "Well?"

"I told the agent I'd meet her back in town."

Frohike noticed the green dog key chain was clutched in one of Scully's manicured hands.  He looked back out over the lawn.  "I take it this means you've reached a decision."

"I cut her a check inside."

"Ah, the joys of pre-approval."  Frohike studied the worn slats on the barn. "Are you sure?"

Scully smiled. The upwards curve of lips felt rusty on her.  She would have to practice it more.  "We need a home. This is it."

A bird sang on the far side of the meadow.  The beauty in its simple song made Scully's heart ache.  Her throat constricted and she swallowed hard.  "It has to end sometime, doesn't it," she whispered.

Frohike shook his head.  "It ends when you say it does, Dana.  I just have to ask you again, are you sure?"

"I'm sure the living need me more than the dead."

"We don't know for sure he's dead."

"You're right. We don't."  Scully's eyes were too bright.  "But Mom's right, too. It's been four years and we're no further than we were when we started.  Sarah's waited long enough."

"What does Skinner say?"

Scully looked down at her hands.  "It's Skinner.  He'll support me in whatever I do.  Besides,"  The lines around her mouth grew visibly deeper.  "There's no turning back now."

From the far side of the lawn, Sarah gave a cry of victory.  She held something over her head and waved.  "Mommy, look!  Come and see!"

Frohike jerked his head in the child's direction.  "You'd better get over there."

"Sounds that way, doesn't it?"

Scully laid a hand on his shoulder and pushed herself up.  She strolled across the lawn, watching Sarah's face light up at her approach.  "This is not a mistake," she thought, looking at the child sitting in the grass.  Her mother was right.  She was doing the right thing.

She smiled as she came up next to the girl.  "What did you find, kiddo?"

Sarah grabbed her mother's hand.  Carefully, she wrapped Scully's fingers around a piece of rose-colored granite as if she was presenting her with the Star of India.

"It's for you, Mommy," she said.  "Pink with sparkles."  She gave her mother a sage look. "Its name is Ralph."

Scully stifled the urge to laugh.  She studied the little rock in the palm of her hand.  Flakes of mica gleamed like alien stars over its uneven surface.

"Ralph is beautiful, honey. Thank you."

Her daughter accepted the compliment with a grave nod.  Gift delivered, she immediately went back to hunting for more "treasures" of her own.

A slight breeze blew Scully's hair across her face.  It really was beautiful out here in the middle of nowhere, Maryland.  In time, she might be able to take to the role of rural county coroner like she had been born to it.  She certainly had the house for it.  Maybe she'd even get a few chickens.  Sarah would love that.

She looked back toward the house.  "Fixer Upper" was putting it lightly.  Even a blind man could tell the roof needed to be replaced. Two windows in the barn and three in the house were broken.  There was a rusted-out tractor parked in the meadow that needed to be towed away.  The porch latticework was a patchwork of holes and rotting wood.

But the agent was right; the acreage was wonderful.  Inside, the plumbing was in good shape and the clean lines of the rooms, as well as the plaster facade over the fireplace had charmed her.  The kitchen was huge and lined with handmade oak cabinets that still were in good condition.  The staircase was nothing less than wonderful, with a beautiful banister.  In a couple of years, she'd have to tie Sarah up to keep her from sliding down it.

She turned back to face the breeze again, drinking in smells of grass and the nearby creek.  She had the funds.  She'd fix it all.  Between her family, the A.D. and the Gunmen, she'd have no shortage of help.  Maybe it was the land surrounding it or maybe she was just tired of looking, but of all the houses she'd viewed over the past six months, this was the only one that felt like it could be home.  She would make it hers.  She would get to know her child.

Then, maybe she could get on with her life.

"Mommy?  Do you like Ralph?"

Sarah was looking up at her.  Scully knelt down in the grass next to her.  She reached out and tucked an errant strand of red-gold hair
behind the child's ear.

"Yes. Very much. Why?"

"You looked sad."

No doubt about it, the kid was sharp.  Scully turned her head to look at Frohike sitting on the porch.  He saw her and nodded, as if to
say, "now or never".

She looked back down at Sarah and put a gentle hand under the child's chin.  The mixture of Mulder and herself blended in the little girl's features never ceased to fascinate her.  Sarah tended to favor her in appearance.  Sometimes Scully wished the child resembled Mulder more.  It would be nice to have a visual reminder, a jog to her ever-fading memory of the way he looked.

She shot another glance toward Frohike for luck and took a deep breath.

"I need to talk you, Sarah. It's important."

"Okay."

"I've been thinking a lot about the way things have been for you and me."

The little girl nodded, as if she, like her mother, had spent many sleepless nights considering the dilemma of action versus consequence.  Of course, there was no guarantee she hadn't.  Sarah frightened Scully sometimes with her ability to grasp advanced concepts quickly.  Her mother said that the child was an old soul.  After all "Grandma Maggie" had done for her in the past four years, Scully wasn't about to question her mother's opinion, especially about anything to do with Sarah.

Sarah was looking up at her with an expectant look on her face. Scully cleared her throat softly, trying to a good way to begin. 
Finally, she settled on, "You know I've been gone a lot."

"Looking for Daddy."

Tears pricked Scully's eyes.  She nodded and tried to keep her voice smooth.  "Yes, looking for daddy. I've been thinking..."  She looked down at her daughter's face.  Was it right for a four-year-old to have that much intensity?  "I've been thinking for a while that you and I might try being a real family.  Together."

"Really?"  The little girl's gaze sharpened.

"Really."

Sarah thought for a moment.  "Does it mean I won't live at Grandma's anymore?" 

"Yes. You and I would live together. If that's all right?"

"Will I still see Grandma?"

Scully felt her throat tighten.  Sarah sounded so sad.  Of course she'd be concerned about Maggie.  Hers was the only home the child had ever known.

She nodded firmly.  "Of course you would, honey.  We'll visit each other all the time."

Sarah gave a sigh of relief.  That point settled, she looked her mother directly in the eyes.  "So, I'd see you every day now?  Not just when you can?"

The shame that flooded through Scully made it difficult to speak.  "Yes," she whispered.

"Did you find Daddy?"

Scully's chin trembled.  "No. No, I didn't.  I'm sorry."

"Oh."

Sarah looked down, her face unreadable.  Scully reached down and took the child's hand.  "Things are different now, Sarah.  I know I haven't been around much in the past, but that's going to end.  I thought..." She managed a smile.  "I thought we might live here.  I've told the lady who was with us that I'd like to buy the house.  This would be our home."  She put her hand under her daughter's chin and tilted the child's head back so she could see her eyes.  "But only if you'd want that.  Only if you say yes."

The little girl reached up and gently removed her mother's hand.  She stood up slowly, her face somber.  When she was eye-level with her mother, she nodded.

Scully almost collapsed with relief.  Until that very moment, she had no idea how afraid she was that Sarah would reject her.  After all that had happened, the child had every right to. 

She scooped Sarah up in a fierce hug.  The intensity of the little girl's return embrace matched her mother's.  She pressed her lips up against Scully's ear.  "Don't cry, Mommy," she stage-whispered.  "Everything'll be fine." 

A tear ran down Scully's face.  She hoped her daughter was right.

God, she hoped so.

__________________________


"It's a myth that long life actually improves us.  Life experience should have made me better now that I was when I was your age.  I'm not so sure it did."

Her grandson sits next to her on the swing, long legs stretched out. He is tall, like his grandfather.  He holds the football, flexing his hands around it, as if preparing for a deep pass.  His voice has lowered in the last year and he is closer to sounding like the man he almost is.  "You don't think people get smarter as they get older?"

"Well, technically, you have more brain cells now than you will after your freshman rush next year."

He laughs and studies the laces on the ball.  "You don't need to worry about that, Gram.  I'm serious about this med school thing.  I've got to ace college to do that."  He grins and gently tosses the football sideways into her hands, so she can't miss.  "Johns Hopkins."

She holds the football, still warm from his long-fingered hands.  "There are other places than Hopkins, Steve."

"Yeah," he grins.  "The Mayo Clinic."  He twists to look at her, concern marring his good looks.  "You don't think I can get in, do
you?"

"It's competitive."   She lays a hand over his.  "But you can do it. I have no doubt."

He smiles and once again, he is the spitting image of his grandfather.  She can almost hear her heart break.

He leans back in the swing, basking in her vote of confidence.  "You better not tell Mom you believe people don't get wiser as they get older.  She thinks I'm too much of a know-it-all now."

"Well, she's right."

He sits back up and turns to face her.  "Wait a minute.  I thought you just said we have all we need from the start?"

"No.  I think we're as smart as we're going to be when we come into this world.  It's the glorification of the idea, 'you get wiser as you get older' I object to."

"Well, it's true, isn't it?"

She smiles at his innocence.  "Steve, age has nothing to do with it. Some people are born wise.  Some people aren't.  We Senior Citizens just promote the theory that 'age equals wisdom' to keep the young misinformed."

He laughs and stands, knees cracking on his way up past six feet.  "Well, this member of the 'clueless youth' is going to get a soda.  You want one, Gram?"

She shakes her head.  He shoots her a final grin and lopes into the house.  Watching him go, her heart breaks again at the uncanny similarity.

It's nice to sit in the quiet. Her legs have been bothering her, probably due to all the standing yesterday, and it feels good to rest.  She leans back and breathes in the crisp evening air.  She's grateful that it's not too humid tonight.  It makes it easier to  take a deeper breath than she is accustomed to.  More oxygen in the lungs means more oxygen in the blood, the doctor in her notes.  It certainly can't hurt. It will help keep her from dozing off as she did before several times earlier in the day.

A few die-hard crickets are chirping out in the meadow, determined to make summer last as long as possible.  She understands their longing to wring every moment out of life while it's still there.  At one time, she felt the same.

She hears the murmur of higher and lower voices from inside the house.  There is no doubt in her mind what the exchange is about. Her daughter is worried about her and is probably asking her son if he thinks his grandmother is all right.  In a minute, the boy will return bearing some token of daughter's care: a sweater, perhaps a cup of tea.  It's her child's covert way of caring for her.  She can almost hear her daughter's lecture,  "Of course she doesn't want a soda.  Grandma doesn't drink soda, honey, but she'd probably like a cup of tea.  Is it cold out?  A little?  Well, take her sweater out, Stevie, and for god's sake don't tell her I told you to do it."

She has to give the girl credit.  When it comes to her family, she's a better profiler than her father was.  Certainly when it comes to understanding her mother.

The voices move further into the house.  She thinks about her grandson's query about age and wisdom.  She doesn't have the heart to tell him that she meant what she said:  age is nothing but an unseen pact among the elderly, a mass effort to keep the young sweet-breathed and unequipped so they will believe there is something more up ahead, something they can look forward to.

She knows first hand what comes with advanced years.  She knows how the body's bones ache before a good frost or a spring rain.  She knows what it's like to feel the adrenal rush of panic at the slightest misstep in the tub.  She knows what it's like to attend the funerals of friends, watching the other mourners dwindle as the years go by, until at last you stand alone, the sole survivor of times only you remember.

She pushes the swing lightly with her feet and closes her eyes.  It could be years of practice or mere coincidence that the rocking motion falls in rhythm with the sound of the crickets out back.  Whatever the case, it feels right.  It is the feeling of home.

She knows.

___________________

 

"WAKE UP, MOM!  WAKE UP!"

Scully's eyes flew open.  Sarah stood in half-light next to her bed, a panicked look on her thirteen year-old face. 

"What?  What is it?"

Sarah shifted her weight from foot to foot.  "There's...there's something on the stairs.  You have to come now."

Fully awake, Scully leaned over and gripped her daughter's arms too tightly, her voice a fierce whisper.  "Is someone in the house?"

Sarah shook her head rapidly.  "Not someone, it's some *thing*."

Scully's blood ran cold.  Every bad experience from her X-files days flooded back in one great mass-memory.  She pressed her lips together for a moment before rolling out of bed.  

"Turn away, Sarah."

"Mom?" 

"Do it."

Her daughter obeyed, motivated by the unfamiliar harshness in her mother's voice.  Scully gripped the key on the fine chain around her neck and snapped the necklace off in one savage tug.  Checking to make sure Sarah's back was to her, she knelt beside her bedside table and unlocked the secret drawer she'd had built into it.  It slid open, its contents loaded and oily. 

She pulled the gun from its resting place.  It had been a long time since she'd held the SIG.  Maybe she was overreacting, but she'd worked hard for this life.  She didn't want to take any chances, not even for "a thing". 

"Wait here," she commanded.

Sarah turned around.  Her eyes widened at the sight of her mother packin' heat as she put on her robe and slippers.  "Mom..."

Scully stopped and kissed the top of the red-blonde hair fiercely.  "I love you, Sarah, but you have to be quiet now."

"Mom, REALLY..."

"Enough."

In a blink of an eye, Scully's tone had turned into a powerful mixture of law-enforcement tempered with motherhood.  It was a powerful mixture.  Sarah's mouth snapped shut.  

Scully thumbed the safety and moved as silent as a shadow down the upstairs hall, taking comfort in the SIG's weight at the end of her wrist.  She'd forgotten about the sense of heightened awareness that
came with holding a gun.  Even though she was in darkness, every detail of her surroundings was etched on her brain. 

"No chances," she thought again.  Not ever. 

She reached the stairs.  Keeping  her back firmly against the wall, she stepped down on the first riser.

snap...snap...snap snap...

She froze at the faint noise.  It was nearby, but she couldn't place exactly where.

She took another step down.  The sound grew a decibel louder. 

snap...snap...snap...

She went down another step only to feel something crunch through her slipper.  She sprung back as if she had put her foot in a lava stream.  There was a hissing noise and one large SNAP.

Then silence.

Trying to keep her hands steady, she peered down at the riser.  Her lips turned white as she pressed them hard together and counted to ten.  Slowly, she lowered the gun, clicking the safety back on. 

She strode down the hall to her bedroom and flipped on the light.  Her daughter squinted from the sudden glare. 

Scully passed Sarah without a glance and locked the gun to its resting place in the secret drawer.  She faced her daughter. 

"Tell me about this 'thing' again, Sarah."

Sarah studiously avoided her mother's eyes.  "I tried to tell you. I didn't know you'd flip out." 

"It's after three.  What are you doing up?" 

"I had to use the bathroom."

"Downstairs?" 

Sarah froze.  "Um...yeah, I uh..."

"Come on."

Scully gestured to her daughter to follow her.  She flicked on the light and on the third step down from the top, there was a flat shadow on the carpet.  The bat, she could now see, was small and
light colored, its wings folded in like a packing tent, a mouse with backpacking equipment.  It had a sweet face, like a deer, though blood drizzled from its head.

Sarah leaned over Scully's shoulder.  "Is it dead?"   

"Yes."

Sarah shuddered. "I stepped on it.  And it...it...SNAPPED.  Really loud."

"Tell me you had your slippers on," Scully pleaded, looking at her daughter's bare feet.  Sarah shook her head. "Then, I'm going to need to examine your foot."

Visions of rabies vaccinations floated before Scully's eyes as she marched her daughter back into the master bedroom.  Sarah sat down on the edge of the bed and meekly held her foot out.  To Scully's
relief, there was no sign of bite.  "You're lucky, kiddo," she said, running a thumb lightly over the un-punctured flesh. 

Sarah examined the foot herself, then gave her mother a guarded look.  "Mom, I'm really sorry..."  She paused and shot a quick glance toward the nightstand.  "You have a...a..."

"The word is 'gun', Sarah.  Yes.  I have a gun."

"Have you always had it?"

Scully stood up and folded her arms.  "Whether or not I have a gun is immaterial.  What were you doing up at 3 a.m. and how did that bat get in here?"

Sarah looked down at the beige carpet, nervously tracing circles with her big toe in the nap.  "I told you," she muttered, "I was just going to the bathroom."

Scully looked down at the girl, watching her stare resolutely at the carpet, tracing endless circles with one foot.  Damn, she was stubborn.  Was I ever that stubborn, she thought?  No.  She wasn't like that.  It had to be Mulder.

She placed herself directly in front of her daughter.  "It's apparent you know something about this.  You can make this easy and tell me now or we can stay here until you do."

Circle, circle, circle with the toe.

"Did you hear me, Sarah?"

Circle, circle, circle.

Scully let a little of the law-enforcement creep back into her voice.  "Did you HEAR me, Sarah?"

Sarah sprang up from the edge of the bed, tears rolling down her face.  "Why don't you tell me why you have a gun, Mom," she choked, then collapsed back on the bed in a sobbing heap.

Scully was stunned.  Sarah wasn't given to theatrical displays.  In fact, in the past year, she'd grown more reserved. 

Tentatively, she wrapped her arms around her, surprised when Sarah clung to her like a life preserver.  "It's okay, it's okay," she murmured. 

Sarah clutched at her wrists.  "I'm sorry, Mom.  I didn't mean to kill the bat.  I just didn't want to get in trouble.  I didn't mean to."  She choked and began to cry harder.  
Scully wiped the tears from her daughter's face with a corner of her robe.  "You didn't kill the bat, Sarah.  I did.  I stepped on it, too."

"R-r-really?"

Scully nodded.  "Really."  She let go of the girl and stood up.  "Come on."

Sarah wiped a pajama arm across her runny nose.  "Where are we going?"

"Downstairs.  We need to talk and I need a cup of tea to do it.  Do you want one or some hot chocolate?"

"Hot chocolate," Sarah sniffed, accepting the Kleenex her mother offered her from the nightstand.  

She stood up and both of them went down the hall, Scully stopping long enough to pull a faded yellow towel from the linen closet.  At the sight of the crushed bat, Scully paused.  "Stand back," she ordered.  She knelt on the steps and picked up the dead animal, careful to keep the towel between her hands and the still-warm body.  She studied it for a moment, marveling at its weightlessness before it disappeared in folds of worn terry.

"Mom?"

"Hm?"

"Can we bury it?"

Scully stood up, gently holding the little yellow package.  She really did have a good kid.  "Sure," she said, voice husky. 

"Mom?"

"Yes?"

"Can we dissect it first?"

"WHAT?" 

Sarah shot nervous glances Scully's way.  "Um.  Well, my science report is due on Monday.  The assignment is to give a presentation on a unique mammal.  Well, the most unique mammal I could think of was
the flying squirrel, but we don't have those around here.  So I figured the next best thing was a bat.  I mean, it's a mammal and it flies.  Bears its young live.  That sort of stuff."

"First birds.  Now bats," Scully muttered.  Sarah looked puzzled.  Scully shook her head.  "Never mind.  Go on."

"I wanted to bring in a real live bat and do a presentation on it.  I mean, wouldn't that be better?  To actually have a real bat there?"

Scully's eyebrow threatened to arch up into her hairline.  "How did you manage to get one?"

Sarah's toe began to twirl on the carpeted stair.  "I threw rocks up in the air so they'd think it was insects and dive-bomb the ground.  I knew you wouldn't let me do it so I was just going to tell you I found one, stunned or something.  I took precautions.  I wore gloves and a heavy coat."

"But not your shoes?" 

Sarah shrugged.  "I work better barefoot." 

Scully sat down on the stair riser before her knees gave out on her.  "And you caught one?"

Sarah nodded.  "With the net we have in the barn."

"I know I'll be sorry I asked, but how did it get loose in the house?"

A smile played around Sarah's mouth.  "I brought it inside to put it in that old birdcage of Grandma's but it didn't want to go through the little door.  Then, it got loose.  I tried to be catch it, but it flew toward the stairs and there was a smacking sound, I think it ran into something.  I didn't know they could do that, I mean with their radar and all, did you?" 

Scully shook her head.  "I'm not surprised.  It was probably scared and half-crazed.  Believe me, right now, I completely understand how it felt."

Her daughter giggled at the remark.  When Scully didn't join in, Sarah hurried on.  "Then I accidentally stepped on it."

She looked down at the yellow towel, her eyes filling with tears.  "I never meant to kill it.  Please, Mom, could we at least dissect it so I can do my project on that?  I mean, at least its life will have gone to science."

The beginning of a headache began to pulse behind Scully's eyes.  "Sarah, I appreciate you not meaning to have killed the bat but I think we've tortured it enough.  Dissection is really not an option at this point.  We'll bury it, if you want to, but that's it."

Sarah's toe suddenly became interested in the carpet again.  "Mom?"

"Yes?"

"Are you mad?"

The headache got a little worse.  "Sarah, you could have been hurt.  Bats are known disease carriers.  Besides, you scared me."

"You scared me, too," Sarah muttered.

"Fair enough.  I admit I probably did over-react.  But when you said 'thing'..."  Scully pinched the bridge of her nose to try to stave off the growing pain behind her eyes.  "Let's just say I had my reasons."

"So, what's my punishment?"

Leave it to my daughter to cut to the chase, Scully thought.  She stood up and held out the towel.  "Take that outside and put it on the porch.  Is it cold out?"

"Not really."

"Then have a seat on the swing.  I'll meet you out there in a few minutes.  Then I'll tell you what your punishment is."

Fifteen minutes later, they were both sitting on the porch; Sarah with a cup of hot chocolate, Scully with a cup of something called "Stress Tamer" tea.  She hoped it worked.  If it helped her through this, she'd willingly do an infomercial for the stuff.

Sarah gently rocked back and forth in the swing, every now and then giving a quick glance at her mother, sitting silently on the floor with her back against the porch rail.  
"So?"

Scully took a sip of tea.  "So what?"

"So what's my punishment?"

"I've been thinking about that."

"And?"

Scully sighed.  "You're right, Sarah.  I owe you an explanation for the way I acted tonight.  Your punishment is: I'm going to tell you why I have a gun and why I know how to use it."  She leaned her head back and looked up toward the night sky.  "That means we need to talk about your father."

"Dad?"

The swing suddenly stopped. 

The stars winked down at Scully.  She looked away, tired of their mockery.  "Tell me what you know about him, Sarah."

"His name was Fox Mulder.  I...I know he worked for the FBI.  I know that he liked sunflower seeds and baseball.  The Yankees."

"So far, so good.  What else?"

Sarah studiously gazed at her hot chocolate.  Was it Scully's imagination or did the girl seem uncomfortable?  "You were a consultant on a case for the FBI and you guys met and fell in love.  You knew each other a while and then you got married.  You were married a year before..." 

Scully finished the sentence.  "Before he disappeared."

Sarah stared down at the cup as if her response was printed there. "He didn't even know about me.  You found out you were pregnant...after.  They've never found a trace of where he could have gone.  There are no clues." 

"Sarah..." Scully took another sip of tea.  This was going to be much harder than she originally thought.  "Sarah, I realized tonight that you're old enough now to know some things about me.  About the past."  Scully clutched the warm teacup tighter.  "You're right.  Your father's name was Fox Mulder.  He did like sunflower seeds and the Yankees.

"You're also correct when you say your father was an FBI agent."  Scully felt herself tense up and tried to relax.  This really was hard.  "What you don't know is, so was I.  He and I were partners.  We worked together for seven years before he vanished.  I searched for him for four more years before I left the Bureau."

Sarah opened her mouth to speak, but Scully cut her off. "Wait.  Then we'll talk."  She leaned the weight of her head back against the post.  "I know this may sound odd, but he didn't just disappear, Sarah.  We worked on a division of the Bureau called the X-files.  They were your father's pet project.  He found the files and, due to a unique incident in his childhood, started to work on them.  I was sent to..."

"Debunk them.  You were a forensic pathologist that worked on the cases.  They were about aliens and unexplained phenome...phenomenomi..." Sarah gritted her teeth.  "I can never say that word," she muttered.

It felt like all of Scully's bones had turned to rubber.  Her jaw dropped open and the cup of tea slipped from her hands.  She heard the cup crack as it hit the boards, she could vaguely feel the tea's warmth seep in to the leg of her pajamas, but these events were inconsequential in the greater scheme of trying to get her mind around what her daughter had just said.  She slumped sideways against the rail.

Sarah leaped up from the porch swing and ran over to her.  "Mom?  Are you okay?"

"How much," Scully whispered.  "How much do you know?" 

Sarah backed up a step.  She gazed cautiously down at her mother.  "Not everything.  But most of it."

"How?"  The word came out as a hiss.

Sarah nervously pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "The Internet.  I've read the transcripts from the time at M.I.T. when he said he didn't believe it all anymore but he must have because he kept on working.  Mom, in abductee newsgroups, he's a legend."

"You know about the abduction?"

The anger in her mother's voice backed Sarah up another step.  She slowly nodded. 

Scully's heart was beating so fast she thought it might explode in her chest.  She spoke with her teeth clenched together to keep from screaming.  "All these years I tried to keep you away from this.  Do you know how important it was to me you didn't know until I told you?  Do you have any idea what I've done to keep you safe?"

Sarah's lower lip began to quiver.  "Mom, it's not what you think.  Please, don't be mad.  You never talked about him.  You wouldn't.  So I took a chance and typed his name in a search engine and all these listings to conspiracy sites and U.F.O. stuff came up.  And that television show you were on.  Although he sounded pretty crazy on that."

Scully almost choked.  "You've SEEN that?" 

"I wanted to see him, alive.  You only have the one picture of him.  I wanted to know what he was like."

"When?  How?"

Sarah's answer was barely audible.  "Last year.  I asked Frokie to get me a copy of it."

Scully stomach soured when she heard the childish nickname.  Her hands began to shake.  "Frohike knew about this?"

Sarah quickly knelt in front of her mother.  "Don't blame him, Mom," she pleaded.  "I knew you wouldn't tell me, so I called him.  I told him what I'd learned about Dad, about you both.  He had the same reaction.  He yelled at me, he told me I shouldn't be looking into this without your permission.  But since I already knew, there wasn't much he could do about it."  She gave a helpless shrug.  "I begged
him not to tell and he agreed to get me the tapes only if I promised I'd stop looking." 

"Did you?"

"Yes.  I swear I did."

"Thank god."  Scully shut her eyes and leaned her head back against the porch rail.  "What did you learn about me?"

"Not much.  That you worked together.  Although the abductee boards call you his 'war widow'."  But Mom," Sarah placed tentative fingertips on Scully's knee.  "There's something I'm not completely sure about.  Frokie told me you had to be the one to tell me.  He wouldn't."

"What?"

Sarah hesitated again.  "All the message boards don't have anything about you guys being married.  You weren't, were you?"

Scully looked up toward the stars again.  They were her enemies, not her daughter.  She could feel her anger abating, shaking hands at the door with her old friends, loneliness and longing, as they came in to
take its place.  "No.  We weren't married."

"You loved each other, didn't you?"  

"Yes," Scully whispered.  "Very much."

Sarah nodded matter-of-factly.  "It's okay, Mom.  About the marriage thing. I understand why you told me what you did.  I just wanted to know." She gave her mother a hopeful look.  "Do you think if he'd known about me, you would've gotten married?"

Scully rubbed a hand over her face.  To her surprise, it was wet.  She must have been crying and not noticed it.  "I don't know.  We'd been friends for years.  The other part of it was still so new, I don't know what we would have done."

Sarah eagerly leaned forward.  "What was he like?  Really?  Was he as wild as he was on that show?"

Sarah's enthusiasm banished the last of Scully's anger.  She gave her daughter a tired smile.  "Wild's not the word for it.  He was..."  She looked down at her hands as if they'd help her remember the way to
describe Mulder.  "...Focused.  You remind me of him in that way."

Sarah slid forward an inch more.  "I do?"

Scully continued to examine her hands.  "Yes.  He was a brilliant man." 

She hesitated, then looked up.  "Sarah, I feel I have to tell you I honestly don't know what kind of father he would have made.  The only thing he was completely dedicated to was his work.  He was always chasing the truth, trying to make sense out of things that didn't make sense, oftentimes to the exclusion of other concerns."

"You mean to you?"

Weariness wrapped around Scully like a blanket.  She looked at her daughter with a care-laden expression she hadn't worn in years.  "Yes, sometimes.  There were days that I felt I was all that mattered to him.  And there were just as many days that I felt that I didn't exist except as an afterthought.  He was a good man, but he wasn't an easy man."

She reached out and brushed Sarah's hair with her fingertips.  "Don't misunderstand.  I'm certain he would have loved you very much.  He would have been crazy about you.  There's no doubt in my mind about that."  She shook her head sadly.  "It's the biggest thing in my life I regret; that you two never knew each other; that he never knew about you."  

"You still miss him, don't you?"

Scully's world swirled and melted through a haze of tears. 

"Every day."

A lark sang somewhere in the woods nearby.  Scully wiped her eyes.  "It's late," she murmured.  "We should go to bed." 

"Wait, Mom."  Sarah slid her foot closer until her toes just touched her mother's.  "There's something else Frokie said you had to tell me, Mom.  I asked him and he said, 'it's her story, she'll tell you when
she's ready.'"

"What?"

"Why'd you quit the FBI?"

Scully rubbed a hand across her face.  "I'm amazed 'Frokie' kept anything back at all," she muttered.  She sat up straighter against the post to combat her fatigue.  "I didn't quit, Sarah.  I got out.  There's a difference."

Sarah nodded, but Scully could see she didn't understand.  "I said I'd tell you why I have a gun.  I've thought for a while that you were old enough to know all of this.  Apparently, you were ready long before.  I underestimated you.  For that, I'm sorry."  The headache reappeared with a dull thud of pain behind Scully's right eye.  "It's just that it was for your own good.  I hope you understand."

Sarah nodded.  "Frohike said it might be dangerous."

"Frohike was right."

Scully settled her back firmly against the porch and took a deep breath before speaking.   When she did, her voice was soft and clear. 

"The work Mulder and I did wasn't the kind of thing you walk away from.  It wasn't a matter of handing in a resignation or signing my rights to pension away.  Like Frohike said, there were at the time, in fact, there may still be real dangers involved in knowing some of the things I know.  I'm not telling you this to scare you, Sarah.  It's just the way things are.  That's why I tried to keep this from you until I felt you were ready."

"That's what Frokie said."

"Well, it's the first smart thing he's done in all of this," Scully snapped.  "I'm sorry.  I know he promised you, but still..."  She trailed off.  She looked down at her hands and started again.

"It had been four years and we'd made no progress at all.  At that point, I was following anything and everything. My last trip was to Peru.  There'd been a sighting of a craft similar to the one your father had been taken in.  It turned out to be a hoax to promote tourism.  Over thirty hours on the road and two weeks of dysentery for nothing."  Scully's jaw set at the memory.  "It was maddening.  In retrospect, I believe I may have gone mad.

"I hadn't stopped since six months after your birth.  I stayed still long enough to have you and make sure you were all right.  Then, I moved you in with my mother and I took off again, looking in every corner, following the slightest clue to try and find Mulder. 

"Finding your father was the most important thing in the world to me.  It was all I thought about.  It was all I cared about." 

Scully's eyes grew dark at the memory.  "Looking back on it, I can see now your needs didn't play into it.  I wasn't looking for 'your father'.  I was looking for the man I knew as 'Mulder'; my friend, my partner.  I thought I couldn't live without him and I was afraid to stop long enough to learn that I could.

"One day, I came home from the latest wild goose chase and you had learned to walk while I was gone.  I missed your first tooth; I missed your first words.  But the worst was when my mother sat me down and made me look at pictures of your third birthday party.  Do you remember it?"

Sarah frowned.  "Sort of.  Was that the one where Grandma rented that
pony?"

Scully nodded.  "That's the one.  Your grandmother had planned that thing for weeks.  I had been gone a lot, more than usual and she was already upset with me.  She insisted I participate and I agreed.  The day came and I was in Georgetown, working out of my apartment on a new lead that came in the night before.  I kept thinking there was something I was supposed to do, somewhere I should be, but I was too
busy to follow up on the feeling. 

"When I showed up to see you the following weekend, your grandmother let me have it, both barrels.  She told me that if I didn't want a child, I shouldn't have brought you into the world.  She made me look at those pictures and told me about all the things I'd missed.  I thought I knew what it meant to be responsible before that day.  She showed me clearly that I didn't.

"It was awful.  I can't remember when I've felt more ashamed.  I felt like the worst human being alive and frankly, I'm not sure I wasn't." 

Sarah's eyes were huge.  "I remember something was wrong with Grandma, but I thought it had something to do with the pony."

Scully laughed softly.  "She would have kept it from you.  Don't get me wrong, Sarah.  That wake-up call was the best thing my mother ever did for me.  She was completely right; I was so busy hunting for
something that was lost, that I'd completely neglected what I actually had.

"So, I made some phone calls.  And then, I made a deal." 

"What kind of deal?"

Scully shook her head firmly.  "That's between me and someone else. You don't need to worry about the details, Sarah.  It was more than fair."  She glanced up and tried to catch her daughter's eye.  "Did
that answer your question?"

Sarah nodded.  "Yeah.  Thanks." 

Scully sighed and ran a hand through her hair. "I guess it's my turn to ask now.  Are you mad at me?"

For an answer, Sarah stood up and offered her mother a hand.  Scully took it and Sarah pulled her to her feet.  "You were sitting in tea, Mom."

Scully looked down.  She hadn't even noticed.  She went over and sat on the swing and motioned for Sarah to join her.  "You didn't answer my question." 

Her daughter sat down next to her and to Scully's surprise, laid her head on her mother's shoulder.  "Am I mad?  No.  Not anymore." 

"But you were?"

"At first.  I didn't understand why you just didn't tell me.  But Frokie said you had your reasons.  He said to trust you."  Sarah slipped her hand into Scully's, their intertwined fingers resting lightly on her knee.  "So I did." 

"You know you can't tell anyone about this, Sarah.  Not ever.  It might still be dangerous."

"Frokie told me that, too." 

Her daughter sounded sleepy.  Not surprising, Scully thought.  It was probably close to five.  "The sun will be up soon," she murmured. 

"Mmhm." 

Sarah's head grew heavier on Scully's shoulder.  They sat, rocking gently in the early morning quiet. 

The lark sang again.  Scully shut her eyes and listened to its song, glad for the distraction.  She hadn't thought about Krycek much in the last few years, nor had she laid eyes on him, but tonight's confession brought back every nuance of her last meeting with him as if it had happened yesterday.

His terms were simple.  She would walk away from the Bureau.  She would never speak about or publish anything about her time on the X-files, especially anything to do with colonization.  Krycek assured her that since he had taken over the show that was no longer the plan. 

He also insisted she move out of D.C. and take a lower profile job as well as terminate all relationships with people she had worked with in the past.  His last and most important term was that her hunt for Mulder cease immediately and forever.  If she did all these things, he guaranteed her that she and her daughter would be left in peace.  If she didn't, well...
  
Krycek had given her a pleasant smile.  Actions have consequences, he'd said.  You want out, you have to get out.  All the way out. 

Scully understood.  She agreed to all the terms but the one about ending her friendship with Skinner and the Gunmen.  Who else did she have outside her family, she argued?  She needed them, especially now.  

Krycek considered it over a second cup of coffee, then agreed.  It would mean she would be randomly monitored for a long time.  There would be eyes upon her.  If she could live with that, she could keep
her friends. 

She assured him she could, provided those eyes never showed themselves and actively interfered with her life.  He assured her right back they wouldn't.  But...

"Remember this: if I ever get the hint you're working with the Bureau again in any sort of capacity, you get no warning." 

Krycek's eyes glittered, soulless as a reptile's.  He'd stared at her across the greasy spoon's table, then leaned forward so close she could smell his breath, sweet with sugared coffee.  "And if I find out that for whatever reason, you've been looking for Mulder again, I'll kill the girl myself.  Then, I'll come after you."

She'd swallowed hard, one more codicil to hammer out.  "What if Mulder comes back?"

Krycek leaned back in the booth.  "That won't happen.  You know it.  I know it."

She'd held her ground  "But what if he does, Krycek?  I have a child with him.  What then?"

His face turned dark, unreadable.  "He won't come back, Scully.  Not this time.  And if by some weird coincidence he does, you and your daughter won't want to know him.  Not anymore."

Her blind addiction to find her partner took over before she could stop.  "What do you know, Krycek?  What do you know you haven't told me?" 

His green eyes were fathomless.  "Nothing you don't know already.  As far as I'm concerned, he's dead.  Treat it that way yourself and you and your daughter will have safe lives.

"Happy, safe lives."

The air was lighter over the woods.  The lark's song swelled with the advent of morning.  Watching the sunrise, Scully thought about the way Mulder looked in the morning before he had shaved, the way his arms felt around her when he taught her to swing a bat, the way his lips tasted of trace salt from sunflower seeds, tempered with lip balm.  Watching the world turn from gray to dawn-flavored rose, she savored
each of the memories, trying to replace the tiny threads missing in their tapestries since the last time she had examined them with care.

Normally, she was careful not to give in to such a self-indulgent luxury.  After giving up the search, it had taken two years for her to even say his name without wanting to sob as Sarah had earlier in the evening.  It had taken six years for her to be able to really think about their time together without wanting to curse a cruel God who gave such gifts only to take them away.  Now, almost fourteen years later, she found she could sit and think about Mulder without falling to pieces.  It still hurt like hell, but either the pain had lessened or she'd learned to live with it gracefully.

Looking out over the appearing world, she thought that might be the worst reaction of all.

The eastern woods grew brighter.  Thank god it was a Sunday.  She didn't have to go work and Sarah could sleep in.  Later that day, they could have the bat's funeral and then go into town for groceries and a movie rental.  Looking around her yard, Scully thought she was close to what she'd bargained for that day in the diner: a happy, safe life, if there really was such a thing.

She looked down as Sarah nestled into her shoulder.  No, she thought, there probably wasn't such a thing as an ideal existence, but it doesn't mean you don't do the best you can. You make sacrifices.  You keep them safe.  As a parent, it's the only real thing you have to give.

She shut her eyes against the impending dawn. 

"You do your best," she told herself. 

You do your best.

_________________________
  
She decides to mow the lawn after breakfast. 

She needs her exercise almost as much as she needs to be away from the scrutiny of her family for a few short hours.  She is glad they are here, but she is used to living alone. 

She already knows her daughter will insist one of the boys does it, but she will stick to her guns.  She has always required space as she requires air to breathe or, these days, medication to keep her heart beating.

She sits at the table with her daughter and grandsons, having her usual toast and coffee.  Per routine, she rises and pulls her pill bottles out of the cabinet by the refrigerator, lining them up one by one.  They are white capped soldiers, drafted into service to help her make it through one more day.

"Jeez, Gramma," her younger grandson says, looking up from his bowl of sugar saturated cereal.  "You have to take all of those?"

Her daughter snaps too hard at the boy.  "You don't comment on things like that, Joey.  It's rude.  Apologize to your grandmother."

She fans away the rebuke with a single bend of wrist.  "It's all right.  Sometimes I think the same thing.  It seems like I have to take pills for everything these days.  Between my heart and my high blood pressure medications, it's almost seven pills, twice a day."

Her eldest grandson is looking past her into the depths of the cabinet.  "You forgot one."

She knows about the lone orange bottle, the one member of the neatly lined battalion left behind.  She shakes her head firmly.  "No.  I didn't."

He gives her a familiar look, the one her partner used to give her when she said, "I'm fine," one too many times.  Her heart contracts too hard at the memory.

"Are you sure, Mom?"  Her daughter pushes her chair back and starts to stand up.  "Let me see."

She stops her with a look.  "I'm a doctor," she snaps. "And I'm not senile yet.  I know what I'm doing."

Her daughter turns white; the way she did the time the mud hornet stung her while she played by the creek.  "I'm sorry, Mom," she says, her words measured and precise.  "I didn't mean to question your
competence."

She nods to accept the apology, hating the tension she's caused in the kitchen.  She needs to get away so they won't see her fray and tear at the seams.  There's been too much recently.  She needs space.

She turns and takes the rest of her pills, then sits back at the table, sipping her one cup of light, sweet coffee.  Her younger grandson tries to tell a joke to lighten things up, but it falls flat. Effort made, he returns to wolfing his cereal.  Her daughter buries herself in the paper, making light comments about local politics being the same as she remembers.  

She loves these people for their efforts.  At least they try to make things better. 

The older boy does not.

He sits across from her, not touching his food, staring at her with the same intense gaze that belonged to someone important in her life before him.  He is not like the others.  He is not content to join the family in happily ignoring the fact she's up to something. 

He is not afraid of her.  He is not afraid to show her that.

She finishes her coffee and takes her plate to the dishwasher, feeling his green-flecked eyes bore holes through her back.  She must get away.  "I think I'll mow the lawn today," she announces, hoping it doesn't sound as desperate as she feels. 

As expected, her daughter immediately protests.  "Oh Mom, for heaven's sake, let one of the boys do it. "

A second later, the younger boy chimes in,  prompted by a probable kick beneath the table from his mother.  "Sure, Gram.  I'll mow the lawn."

She turns around, face firm.  "I said I'll do it.  I don't get enough exercise as it is."

Her daughter sets her chin in the way that usually forecasts arguments.  "Mom, there's been too much stress the last few days. I have to insist..."

She fixes her child with a piercing stare.  "The answer is no.  I'm serious about this.  You go about your day."  She softens her look.  "Honey, I want to do this.  It will make me feel better."

It is the right thing to say.  Her daughter hesitates and in that moment, she knows she's won.  She doesn't wait for permission.  "I'm going to go change and do it before it gets too hot out."  She smiles down at her daughter, dismissing her child's worry as she heads for the stairs.  "Honestly, sweetheart, it will do me good."

Fifteen minutes later, she comes out on the porch dressed in old cotton clothes and big hat, panting from the flurry of getting ready.   Her older grandson is waiting for her.  She wills herself to find her breath.

"When you dress like that, you really look like someone's grandma," he muses, eyes still too sharp for her liking. 

"What's wrong with that?  I am someone's grandma," she says lightly. 

"You're also a doctor."

A chill runs up her spine.  The intonation is perfect.  It is like hearing a tape-recording of his voice once more.  

She continues to keep things casual.  "If you'll excuse me, Steve, I'm going to be a doctor that mows her lawn."

"Tell me about Fu-ro-se-mide."

He says it in syllables, as if he's been practicing to get it just right. 

It is not just lack of oxygen that makes her paper-thin heart beat too rapidly.  "You've been looking in the cabinets."

He shrugs and tosses the orange bottle in the air.  His eyes pin her down before she can leave.  If the porch was the side of a turn-of-the-century Taurus, she could be in another place and time. 

She returns the look like she did so many years before, all cool professionalism.  "Furosemide is Lasix."

"Which is?" 

He doesn't allow her the dodge.  She draws herself up as straight as her osteoporosis will let her.  "It's a diuretic, Steve.  It keeps fluids from building up in the system for people who have bad circulation."

He pays no attention to her matriarch act.  "It says on the bottle you're supposed to take it twice a day.  You skipped it this morning and from the date on the prescription, it doesn't look like it's the first time.  Are your legs still hurting you?"

"My legs aren't hurting me."

"Are you sure?"  His lips smile at her, but like his grandfather before him, his eyes are busy searching her veneer for loose corners and potential cracks.  "You've been limping since we came and it seems to be getting worse.  Mom's worried and so am I.  Would this help?"

He holds up the bottle again. 

After all the years, here is another sticky love, the kind that clings to practiced cold-shoulders and haughty gazes.  Like his grandfather, the boy can sense her secret tendencies toward weakness.  He can hit her where she lives.  He can find her where she hides. 

She folds her arms across her chest.  "I've cut back on my Lasix.  The prescription dose was too high in my opinion and the side effects weren't worth it.  I still take it, but in lesser doses."

The delivery is right, calm and collected.  There's no need to let him know he's caught her.  She raises an eyebrow his way. 

It has no effect.  "Did you check with your heart surgeon?"

"Unlike you, Steve, Dr. Panzer has faith in my ability to judge whether or not something is working for me.  He trusts me to tell him when something is wrong.  He also trusts my credentials enough to let me administer a cut back on my medication if necessary."

Guilt tiptoes in and taps her gently on a stooped shoulder, reminding her she has just told an out-and-out lie.  She instantly regrets it, but it is too late to take it back.  She has never lied to her grandson before, but this too-familiar invasion of her private life has unsettled her. 

He falters, not sure what to say.  For the second time this morning, she seizes the opening.  "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to mow the lawn."

He nods, not sure how he lost the battle, but determined to stay in the war.  "I've got the mower out for you already.  Are you sure you won't let me or Joe do it?"

"No."

He shrugs.  "I care about you, Gram.  I don't want anything to happen to you, that's all."

She cannot meet his eyes.  "Thank you, Steve."

She is aware of  his eyes on her as she goes over to the mower.  She can feel him pausing before going in the house to watch her turn the ignition and give the motor-cord a pull.  As the machine coughs into
life, she sees him come down the steps.  She looks over at him.  

"Gram, are you sure?"

She nods and smiles, filled with shame at his kindness.  Defeated, he turns and goes back into the house.

The lie itches her mind as she begins to walk the ingrained pattern of up and back, around trees, avoiding flower beds.  It is inflamed a half an hour later as she turns the corner into the back yard, out of breath and tired but determined not to stop.  The dishonesty nags at her, burning her conscience the way the sun would burn her skin if she'd expose herself to it. 

The mower eats its way through too tall grass.  She shouldn't have waited so long to mow, but there really hasn't been a chance.  Recent storms have littered the yard with sticks.  She picks up as many as she can see, but eventually the mower sticks on a hidden branch.  The motor makes an unhappy, grinding sound.  She turns the engine off, waiting for the blades to stop rotating so she can tilt the machine back and clear the path.  She leans against the handle of the mower and tries to catch her breath. It is hotter now, too warm for an East Coast late-September morning, too far along in the season to mow the grass. 

She doesn't know why she lied to her grandson.  She should have told him the truth.  She doesn't like the Lasix.  It drains her of all her energy, leaving her weak and listless.  It also upsets her bladder terribly.  She can hardly spend twenty minutes without the urge to visit the restroom.  Once when she was shopping for groceries, she didn't make it in time.  It was a small incident, she managed to escape the store without anyone noticing, but she could not remember ever feeling so humiliated, so old. 

In her mind, she's struck a compromise.  Since the day at the store, she takes the medication one or two times a week instead of twice daily.  The lack of regular doses keeps her a little out of breath, but other than that, she feels fine.  She's learned to sleep sitting up, adding pillows to the stack one by one over the past two months.  She considers it a small price to pay.   

The doctor doesn't know she has cut back.  She is sure he wouldn't be pleased about it.  He is a smart man, but not wise enough for her liking.  He is not interested in her complaints.  "It's going to keep you alive, Mrs. Scully.  A little fatigue is worth that, don't you think?  You don't want an edema, do you?"

DR. Scully, I'm a doctor, she snaps.  He gives her a condescending smile.  "Certainly.  My apologies, Dr. Scully, but you need to take your Lasix regularly.  It's the best drug for your condition.  Now, you're a smart girl.  You'll do that for me, won't you?"  He gives her what he thinks is a kind smile.  "There's always adult garments to help with the other problem.  Millions of older people use them.  That's what they're for."

She hasn't gone back to him since that day.  She has not forgiven him for treating her like a stubborn child instead of a grown woman with a medical degree.  Don't speak to me in that manner, she'd wanted to
shout.  You have no idea what I know.  I've seen and done things that would crush you. 

Instead, she simply canceled her next appointment.  He has continued to call in her prescriptions, saying if she's not having any trouble, she can miss a visit.  He'd see her in six months.

She does not intend to go back.

Leaning on the mower, she tries to catch her breath.  She must be patient.  Her family is only here for a few more days.  Then, things will get back to normal.

In the interim, she needs to keep herself together.  Her daughter is afraid to look too close, for fear she may see her mother fading from view.  As for her grandson, soon, he will go back to Lake Forest and she will be safe.  In time, the guilt over the lie will fade.  She sucks in a deeper breath, but the humid air makes it difficult.  Everything will be fine soon, she tells herself.  Everything will be fine.

She pulls the mower back and bends down, ignoring the sudden weakness in her knee joints.  The stick is wedged up in the blades at an inconvenient angle.  She pulls, but it does not come free.  She pulls
again.

And again. 

Harder.

Fatigue washes over her, turning all her bones to rubber.  An odd tingling starts in her left arm, radiating in waves.  She gasps for air, but the built-up fluid in her system won't allow it.  She clutches the too-hot side of the mower to keep her balance, willingly burning herself.  If she can keep upright, she'll go in and lie down for a while, let the boys finish the yard, she'll take it easy, anything to keep on her feet. 

Her body isn't in the mood to strike deals.  She falls over.  The tingling comes again, bordering on pain this time.

She can hardly take a breath.  She tries to roll on her side, but can only stare straight up at the blue of the sky.  She draws her arm in, cradling it as her heart skips to its own new beat. 

"OH MY GOD MOM!  STEVE CALL 911 NOW!  I'M COMING MOM I'M COMING!"

She is grateful for the sound of screaming.  Of course, her daughter was watching her work and witnessed the collapse.  Her child is instantly by her side, propping her up, keeping her from drowning in the sea of her body's water.  She is too weak to talk, to tell the girl what she should do.  She tries anyway.

"Heart...I need...to...need to...take some..." 

"Mom, Steve's calling the ambulance, stay quiet, oh my god, STEVE!!"

Her grandson looms into her vision, looking just as she remember Mulder did in times of crisis, all detached concern.  His eyes grow wide.  "Shit, Mom. Her lips are blue."

Her daughter nods, panic barely contained.  "Did you call?"

"Joe did.  They're on their way.  She's having a heart attack.  Here,"  He opens her mouth and puts something bitter on her tongue.  "Gran, can you swallow these?"

He has followed her train of thought.  She nods.  He places a glass of water against her too cold lips.  "Here." 

She involuntarily spits the water and aspirin out as another tingling sensation shoots through her.  She feels her strength fading away.  Like his grandfather, the boy doesn't give up easily.  "Don't worry.  I brought more."  He glances at his mother.  "If we can just get some aspirin in her, it could help."

This time, in spite of her weakness, she swallows the pills.  She tries to nod, wishing someone would wipe the water from her chin.  She manages to gasp, "Nitro...glycerin...on the shelf..."

"It's expired, Gran.  By a month.  The pills are no good."  Her grandson smiles down at her, but just like Mulder, his eyes betray his concern.  "You've opened them. They have no shelf life once they're open.  I checked.  Aspirin will have to do."  He looks up at his mother.  "Can we get her in the house?  Gran, can I carry you?  Can you stand to be moved?"

She nods weakly.  He wraps his arms under her.  "I'll try not to hurt you."  He is strong, like she remembers her partner was long ago when he was carrying her through tunnels in a frozen underground.  He cradles her close as he gently lifts her from the ground and moves carefully toward the porch.  It is hard to breath in this position. She tries her best to keep her lungs working.  She doesn't want her grandson to have the experience of a loved one dying in his arms.

He carries her in the house, barking orders as he goes.  "Joe, get some pillows."  His younger sibling speeds out of sight as they turn into the living room.  He sets her gently on the sofa, careful to keep her upright.  "The couch will have to do.  I don't want to take you upstairs.  They'll just have to bring you right back down."  

Her daughter appears by her side.  She is staring at her son as if he was a stranger.  She's crying, unconsciously brushing the tears away as if they were bothersome gnats.  "Steve, how did you know what to
do?"

Another sensation shoots down her arm.  Helpless to stop, she cries out.  Instantly, her daughter is by her side.  "Mom?  MOM?"

She hears sirens in the distance. 

She shuts her eyes. 
__________________________
  
"He was nearly dead when I found him.  It took a long time to nurse him back to health."

"Mother, don't take this the wrong way but it might have been better if he had died."

"How can you say that?"

"Let's face it.  He's not right."

"He's perfectly fine, Sarah."

"No, Mother, he's not. Whatever got at him really tore him up.  He's seriously disfigured."

"He's learned to adjust and he's not in any pain.  He has a handicap, Sarah.  Would you have every handicapped thing destroyed because it's not aesthetically pleasing?  I'm sure Stephen Hawking would have been thrilled to hear it."

"You're blowing this out of proportion.  I never said anything like that."

"Yes, in a manner of speaking, you did."

"No, I didn't.  You're trying to change the subject."

"And what is the subject, Sarah?"

"You know very well what I'm talking about, Mother.  His physical condition is not the only thing wrong with him.  He's dirty.  He never bathes.  Don't tell me you haven't noticed that?"

"All right.  His personal hygiene is not the best.  I've tried giving him a bath, but he doesn't like it.  He's very difficult about the whole thing."

"Difficult?  Mother, he's MEAN."

"He's not mean."

"Look at what he did to me this morning.  He was waiting for me when I came into the bathroom."

"Let me see.  Oh.  That *is* deep.  Did you put peroxide on that?"

"I managed, although it was hard with him sitting on the toilet howling at me the entire time.  I thought he was going to attack me again.  He's vicious."

"He's perfectly gentle with me.  You're a stranger to him and he doesn't understand why you're in his home."

"He needs to keep in mind it was my home long before it was ever his." 

"That may be, but while you're here, Sarah, I insist that you treat him kindly. The two of you had better learn to get along.  If anything ever happened to me, you'd have to take care of him.  I'd want you to.  He'd be your responsibility then."

"Well then, he'd better pray you live forever, Mother, because if he's still around when you're gone, I'm throwing him in the creek."

"Sarah!" Scully was legitimately shocked.  "She doesn't mean it, Mr. Peebles.  Don't listen to her."  She reached down and gave the one-eyed cat sitting next to her a pat. 

"You should have named him Cyclops," Sarah muttered.  "I don't know where you got that name."

"He looked like a Mr. Peebles," Scully said, pulling another coffee mug from the cardboard box on the table.  "So that's what I called him."

Sarah slammed the cabinet door too hard and leaned back against the counter.  "All those years I wanted a pet and you said 'no'.  And the minute I move out, you find Mr. Peebles."

"It was a matter of timing.  He was hurt, I took care of him, we grew accustomed to each other."  Scully pulled a large black notebook from the box.  "It's not like I went out and got a cat to spite you. Honestly, sometimes you're so like your father.  Every action on the planet boils down to how it affects you."

"Don't pull that on me."  Sarah's face darkened.  "Every time I voice an opinion contrary to yours, you do that, 'oh you're so like your father' thing.  He didn't always agree with you."  She grabbed a butter knife out of the drawer in front of her  "At least that's what I was told."

"By who?  The Gunmen?  And you believed it?"  Scully laughed as she opened the next box.  "They'll tell you anything to give me a hard time." 

"Nope."  Sarah laughed back at her.  "By the big man himself.  He mentions it every time I see them."

"When do you see the Skinners?"

"Maria's brother lives in Chicago.  They call me whenever they come to town.  We have dinner."  Sarah spread some peanut butter on the piece of toast she'd pulled from the broiler.  "They tell me I'm like
their 'other daughter'."

"In a way, I suppose you are.  Walter was around a lot when you were growing up."

Sarah grinned.  "That's because he was hot for you, Mom."

Scully shot her a disapproving glance.  "That's enough of that," she said softly.

"It's true."

"Maybe."  A smile cracked through Scully's stern expression.  "But certainly not since he met Maria.  They love each other very much and they've been wonderful friends to me." 

With a soft grunt, she pulled a large stack of files out of the box and set them on the table.  "Well, that's it."

Sarah jerked her head toward the pile.  "You want me to take those upstairs for you?"

"Don't talk with your mouth full."  Scully leaned over and gave Mr. Peebles an affectionate chuck on the chin.  "Not yet.  I want to go through them.  I'll probably end up throwing half of them away.  Isn't that right, Mr. Peebles?"

The cat shut its eye and lifted its chin so Scully could have more room to scratch.  Sarah shook her head.  "You two definitely have some sort of understanding.  To look at him now, you'd never guess
he's insane."

"He's not insane,"  Scully purred.  "He just doesn't like you."

Mr. Peebles bumped his head against Scully's hand one last time and then stood up, taking a moment to balance on his three legs before performing a tripod-shaped stretch.  He looked directly at Sarah and,
as if to emphasize Scully's point, hissed at her. 

As Scully's laughter filled the kitchen, Sarah turned back to the sink.  "That thing is NOT domesticated."

Her mother gave Mr. Peebles a congratulatory pat.  "For a cat that lived outside up until now, he's done pretty well.  He's grown quite accustomed to nesting in my bottom drawer and he loves drips from the
faucet." 

She watched the cat beat the odds by successfully jumping down off the chair.  It walked toward the living room with an uneven gait. Scully turned back toward her daughter.  "You see?  You'd never know
his front leg was missing.  Just promise me you'll be careful around the screen door.  He loves to escape and if he gets outside, I don't see him for days.  I let him out a week ago, and spied him three days
later in the yard, dirty and matted, chomping on a vole.  Once I even caught him eating old snow." 

"Ick."

Scully smiled.  "It's part of his charm.  No matter how long he's inside, he still manages to stay true to his roots. He's as domesticated as I want him to be."

Sarah snorted.  "What, Mother?  You don't like friendly animals?"

"He's independent, Sarah.  He's not a pet that has to sit on you.  He just keeps you company and then goes and does his own thing.  I like that about him."

Sarah laughed. "You like that about everybody." 

Scully thought for a moment.  "Yes.  I suppose I do."  She picked up a thick file.  "I don't know why I kept all of this.  I kept thinking I'd publish some of these findings at some point, but I never got around to it."

"What is 'all of this?'"

"Research I did from odd things I noticed in autopsies.  It kept me busy." 

Sarah came up to look over her mother's shoulder at the neatly filed and processed reports.  "Leave it to my mother to find more work to do than she already had.  With the way you kept records, that office is going to miss you a lot."

Scully glanced back at her daughter.  Sarah had turned into such a beautiful woman.  A wave of pride swept over her at the thought.  She reached up and touched her daughter's hand where it rested on her shoulder.  "I haven't had a chance to thank you for coming.  It was nice to have you there."

Sarah smiled back.  "I wasn't going to miss your retirement bash.  They've had that thing planned for six months.  I think Ron would have killed me."

Scully laughed.  "I wouldn't put it past him.  I'm so glad they chose to promote from within.  He's going to make a good head coroner.  He's been the best assistant anyone could want." 

She picked up another file and thumbed through it.  "How long can you stay?"

"Well, I'd like to stay through the weekend but I don't go to Dallas until Tuesday."  Sarah shrugged.  "If you need me gone before then, I'll go standby out of Reagan.  Even if the loads are heavy, I can always ride in the jump seat."

Scully glanced over at her.  "You know you can stay as long as you want."  She pulled a chair out and sat down, gesturing to Sarah to take the seat next to her.  "It's good to see you.  I'm sure the people in D.C. would like a chance to, as well."

"I'd like to see them.  I talk to Frokie and the guys on the phone all the time.  I try to call them whenever I'm flying into Dulles, but I never have layovers there."

Scully flipped open another yellow file.  "'An in-depth study on the ligament damage of burn victims'.  I must have been really bored that day."  She cleared her throat slightly.  "How's work?"

Sarah's expression became guarded.  "It's fine.  Busy.  I haven't done many home rotations lately."  She picked up a file and leafed through it, her tone casual. "That's going to change, though."

Same old Sarah, Scully thought.  Subtle as a crutch.  She settled back in her chair and took the hint.  "Any particular reason?"

Sarah's eyes sparkled.  "So, what are you doing next April?"

"I'm retired now.  I suppose whatever I want.  Why?"

"How would you like to come to a wedding?"

"Who's getting married?"

"I am."

Scully stiffened.  Her intake of breath was too sharp, like she'd burned herself on the paper file.  She cautiously picked up another folder and cleared her throat softly.  

"When did this happen?"

"About a month ago.  I knew I was coming home, so I thought I'd wait and tell you in person."

Sarah's smile had faded at her mother's reaction.  Scully knew first hand that her daughter had inherited Ahab's temper.  She saw through the calm facade and kept her guard in place.

"Who is he?"

"He's a pilot."

"Isn't that stereotypical?"

Sarah flinched.  "I suppose some people would see it that way.  Some very...limited people."

Score one for Sarah, Scully thought.  She slowly leafed through a succession of hand-written memos.  "How long have you known him?"

"Three months."

Scully froze.  She could practically hear her pupils dilate.  "Excuse me?"

"You heard me.  Three months." 

Sarah's chin lifted noticeably higher, a sure sign of an impending fight.  Scully clutched the file so hard her fingers threatened to punch through the manila binder.

"What's his name?"

"Chris Thruster."

"Chris Thruster, the pilot?"  Scully shook her head in disbelief.  "You've got to be kidding."

The chair made a rough sound on the linoleum as Sarah stood up.  Her fingertips played over the surface of the table for a moment before she stepped away.  "I knew this was a bad idea.  I knew you couldn't
be happy for me," she muttered.

Turning suddenly, she headed for the kitchen door.  "Excuse me.  I think I need to go out for a while." 

Scully stopped her with a quick hand on the arm.  "Sarah, you're too young."

"I'm twenty-four."  Sarah pulled free as if her mother's touch burned her.  "And I have a job.  I'm old enough to pay taxes.  I should be old enough to get married if I want to."

"I thought you were going to finish your degree."

Sarah hesitated.  She pursed her full lips together as if considering which fruit to buy in a vegetable market.  

"I don't see the need anymore."

Scully shut her eyes at the news.  This was a familiar battlefield.  She had no desire to fight it bloody again. 

She took a deep breath and tried to count to ten.  She made it to six before she blurted,  "You're three credits away.  Three credits.  Just finish the degree."  She gazed at her daughter, love and concern in her face.  "It would be such a waste if all you could ever be was a stewardess."

Sarah flushed bright red and slowly walked away from Scully, firmly staking her territory by the kitchen counter.  "We've been 'flight attendants' for a long time."  

Scully gave a conciliatory nod.  "I'm sorry. 'Flight attendant.'"

Sarah turned a shade brighter, but her voice remained falsely pleasant.  "Could you manage a little more sarcasm when say that?  You didn't make it clear enough the first time.  And while we're at it, I would appreciate it if you didn't tell me how to live my life."

"Sarah..." 

Her daughter held out a hand in warning.  "Mom, I know you don't approve of what I do for a living, but I love it.  In the past year I've seen more of the world than most people ever get to see.  I make good money.  The airline has great benefits and great people.  It's the career I want."

"You are three credits away from your Anthropology degree," Scully pleaded for what felt like and probably was the millionth time. 

"And you know what I'd do when I got it, Mom?" Sarah interrupted.  "I'd go right back to work for the airlines."  She pinched the skin on the bridge of her nose and shut her eyes.  "God, I knew you wouldn't let this go well."

"What do you mean by that?"

"You know exactly what I mean.  If it isn't in your scope of things, you just don't get it."

For the second time that evening, Scully was legitimately shocked. 

"That's not fair or true."

"You're right.  It's not fair.  But it is true."  Like her mother, Sarah briefly shut her eyes to try to stop her escalating temper.  "Mom, you can't see the sense in my career because it's not ever a career you wanted.  Relationships were never your priority, so they shouldn't be mine, either.  Sometimes I honestly think the only way you'd be happy is if I told you I was going into medicine or criminology.  At least you'd understand that."

"You have a brilliant mind, Sarah.  I hate to see you waste it."

"I'm not wasting it.  I'm doing what I want.  I'm living my own life.  It's just not the life you want me to live."  

Weariness enveloped Scully and she lay her head on her hand, its weight suddenly too great to hold up on her stem of neck alone.  A strand of fading copper hair, heavily streaked with gray fell in front of her face and she pushed it firmly behind one ear. 

She wasn't up to this conversation.  Between the surprise dinner tonight, coupled with the month-long whirlwind of settling everything in the office before her official retirement, she was drained.  "Sometimes I wonder what your father would have said about all this," she muttered.

"Don't bring him into this."

This was something new.  Scully looked up. 

"Why not?" 

Sarah caved under her mother's directness.  She dropped her eyes to the floor, a toe beginning its old habit of tracing small circles on the white linoleum.

"We don't know what he would have said, so let's just leave him out of it."

"All right," Scully tried not to sound as hurt as she felt.  "Fine.  Forget I brought it up."

"Great. Now, I've insulted you," Sarah whispered, her toe turning in place like the point of a spinning top.

"I'm fine, Sarah."

"No, you're not, Mother.  You're mad as hell that I won't let you bring up Dad."

Something let loose in Scully.  "Stop telling me how I feel," she snapped.  "You claim I don't know what you want.  You never come home anymore.  How do you know so much about me?"   

Sarah's eyes flew wide open.  "Excuse me, Mom, but I have been working my butt off.  I was on a flight almost three-hundred days last year."

"You've had time to fall in love with someone.  You've had time to get engaged."

"That was different."

An icy smile played around the corners of Scully's mouth.  "Oh, that's right.  That only took three months."

From the look on Sarah's face, Scully had scored a direct hit.  She glared at her mother.  "That doesn't matter."

Scully calmly lifted an eyebrow, letting reason be her champion as it had been in fights with Mulder.  "I think it does.  You're too young.  You have your whole life ahead of you.  Three months is not even long enough for people to barely get to know each other."

"We know we're in love."

"Do you, really?"  Scully shook her head.  "Trust me on this, you need time to live your own life before you commit to someone like that.  In a year from now, you may think this is the worst mistake you've
ever made."

"No, I won't." 

Her daughter's icy tone could have been Scully's own.  Well, the girl had learned at the feet of a master, she thought.  She regrouped, trying to find the loophole to help Sarah see reason.  "Just tell me this.  How do you know?  After only three months, how can you be so certain this man is the one?"

Sarah tilted her head back and studied her mother, hair glowing fiery-gold in the kitchen light.  She licked her top lip delicately, as if she was savoring a foreign and not altogether unpleasant taste. 

"Because I am not you and all men are not Dad."

Scully felt her game face slip.  She wasn't prepared for Sarah to pull out the big guns.  She folded her hands on the table, letting
her bottom thumb slip over and grip the edge. 

"That was unnecessary."

"I disagree.  I think it was.  It's the truth.  It's time you heard it."  Sarah tilted her head the other way, as if searching to find something in her mother once there, now lost.  Her eyes softened.  "Mom, I love you very much.  But when it comes to matters of the heart, you don't qualify as an expert."

Scully squeezed the table edge so hard her thumb began to ache.  "I know what it's like to be in love."

"Do you?"  Sarah's eyebrow lifted in imitation of Scully's own.  "Or do you only remember what you had with Dad?  Because, Mom, even I know that was anything but normal." 

She crossed her arms.  "Don't get me wrong, I understand you two loved each other.  I certainly know you loved him.  I've watched you keep loving him for years, even though he hasn't been around to reciprocate.  It's held you back.  It's kept you alone."  Sarah shook her head sadly.  "Face it, Mother, you haven't had a real relationship since I've been alive."

Scully spoke through clenched teeth. "How would you know?  Besides, that has nothing to do with you getting married." 

"Maybe not.  But, it does have everything to do with why you don't want me to get married."

"Don't psychoanalyze me, Miss I-Won't-Finish-My-College-Degree," Scully barked.  "I've told you why I don't want you to get married.  You're being rash and impulsive.  You have a history of that, Sarah."  She gripped the table with all fingers now.  "Tell me, do you know anything at all about this man?  About his family?"

"Mother, let's get something straight.  The choices you made for yourself were fine.  But they are *not* going to be my choices.  I have met a wonderful man.  I am going to marry him.  I am not going to be like you.  I am not going to spend my life alone." 

The way Sarah ignored her questions, Scully thought she might as well be talking to the wind.  "Listen to me," she begged.  "I never said you have to give this man up or never marry him.  I'm just asking you
to wait."

Sarah gave her a look of pity.  "Why?  Because you did?"  She shook her head sadly. "I can see why you might not dive into another relationship after what Dad did..."

Scully held up a finger in warning.  Her child did not want to bring this up with her, no matter how much the girl thought she did. 

"Your father didn't 'do' anything, Sarah.  He was abducted.  You know that."

Sarah ignored her mother's warning shot.  "All I know is he left you and me alone.  He never came back and we'll never know why.  Even Walter Skinner accepts that.  I don't know why you can't."

Scully felt her cheeks grow hot at the former A.D.'s name.  "Funny.  He's never mentioned anything to me."

"That's because he's afraid of what it would do to you.  He knows you don't want to face the truth."

"And that is?"

Sarah took a step closer. 

"That Dad is dead."

The kitchen swam before Scully's eyes.  "I don't need to hear this," she whispered.

"Why not?  It's true, Mom.  He's not coming back."

"We don't know it for sure."

"We *DO* know it," Sarah suddenly shouted.  "Everyone knows it!  Everyone but you."

She paced her corner of the kitchen furiously.  "Everyone else has gone along with you on this because they're scared of you, Mom.  They're scared that you're going to shut them out if they tell you what they really think." 

She spun around in mid-stride and faced her mother.  "Well, you know what I really think?  I think whether you'll admit it or not, you're angry with him.  Deep down, you're mad as hell he wasn't here for you.  Somewhere deep inside, you know he's dead, you just won't admit it to yourself."

Scully clutched the table so tightly her knuckles turned white.  "Keep to the subject, Sarah."

"This *is* the subject," Sarah shouted.  "Come on, Mom. If he wasn't dead, don't you think he'd be back by now?"

"We are not going to talk about this."

"Yes. We are.  Mom, THINK about it.  If he's not dead, that means one of two things.  Either he wasn't allowed to come back or he simply didn't care enough about you to want to."

Scully could stand no more.  She leaped up from table, eyes blazing.  "Don't you think I've considered that?" she snapped, advancing on her daughter until Sarah's back was firmly pressed into the counter.  "Don't you think I've looked at this from every angle there is every night for the last twenty-five years?  I was an investigator, Sarah.  Of course I've thought of these things.  Believe it or not, I've probably thought of scenarios that wouldn't have occurred to you in your wildest dreams."

"Mom..."

Scully clutched her fists so tightly, her nails dug into her palms.  "No.  You've had your say.  Now it's my turn.

"There are a million possibilities where your father is concerned and they all could be true.  Don't you think I've examined every single one of them?  That I've weighed all possible circumstances?"  A tear spilled over Scully's thinning bottom lashes.  "For instance, did you ever consider that your father might have stayed away to protect you?  Or me? 

"There are some people, Sarah, who choose to serve a higher purpose and not just do whatever they please when the mood strikes them.  There are some people that don't leave things half-finished, no matter what the cost to their personal comfort or safety.   

"Not everyone is like you, Sarah.  I'm certainly not, in that respect.  And neither was your father.  Don't do him the disservice of holding his ideals against yours."

Sarah flinched as if her mother had slapped her. 

"As for what really happened," Scully took an uneven breath.  "I choose to believe he's alive.  It helps me.  And not you or Walter Skinner or anyone in this whole world has the right to take away that hope.  You have no idea what we were to each other.  And you have no right to speak to me of these things.  You weren't there.  There is no way you could possibly understand."

She stood straighter. "Sarah, I love you.  You're my child.  Nothing will ever change that.  However, if you ever speak about your father like that again, I will ask you to leave this house.  I will not take it from anyone.  Not even you."   

Finished, Scully took a step backwards.  The two women stood inches away from each other, the chasm between them too far to bridge. Sarah looked at her mother for a long moment, then strode out of the kitchen.  Scully heard her go down the hall and pound up the stairs.  A moment later, her bedroom door slammed shut. 

Scully gave a shuddery sigh.  There was a loud thump from above, probably Sarah's suitcase hitting the floor.  
She looked up toward the ceiling.  She knew she should probably go up and try talking to Sarah again, but she wasn't ready yet.  They both needed time.  At least, she knew for certain she did. 

She went back to the table, laying a finger on the top file on the stack.  She stared down at the yellow folders, then turned and walked slowly down the dark hall. 

She flipped the lights on in the living room.  Mr. Peebles was usurping her good armchair, doing his best impression of a kitty meatloaf with all his remaining limbs tucked neatly under him.  He shot her a look of utter boredom as she sank down on the sofa and put her head in her hands.  She looked up from over her fingertips at him and sighed. 
"What are you looking at, cat?" she murmured.

Mr. Peebles blinked his one eye, then went back to sleep.  Lucky thing, Scully thought.  All it took for him to be purely content was a warm house and a soft chair.  If only that was all it took for people.

She laid her head back on the couch.  She could hear Sarah through the floorboards, talking to someone on her cell phone.  She couldn't make out the words, but the pitch clearly told her how upset her daughter was. 

She glanced back over to where Mr. Peebles sat.  The cat rolled over on his side, exposing his front stump.  She shook her head. 

"What a mess, cat." 

Mr. Peebles lifted his head and gave her a knowing glance as if to say, "You made it. You clean it up." 

Scully leaned forward, elbows on her knees.  The cat was right.  She needed to reconcile with Sarah.  After all, who did they have in the world except each other?

"And now, Chris Thruster," Scully muttered. 

She stood, ignoring the twinge of arthritis in her left knee and headed toward the stairs.  As she passed the entryway hall, she stopped, eyes fixed on a spot by the front door.  

What was it Sarah had said earlier?  "I don't want to be alone all my life?"

How odd they'd basically both said the same thing; Sarah tonight, him fourteen years before.  The only difference was their physical location in the house.  Her daughter said it in the kitchen.  He said it there, in the spot where he first kissed her.

She had been tempted to burst Sarah's bubble when Skinner's name had come up.  Her child wasn't off-base when she said that the former A.D. was "hot for her" back then.  It was actually more like head-over-heels in love. 

Scully always had known he had strong feelings for her, but during her years on the X-files, it had been easy to ignore.  It was after Mulder disappeared that things had changed.

She knew he'd felt responsible for Mulder's disappearance.  He had said more than once that if he had paid more attention, if he hadn't been so involved in setting up the electronic end of the stakeout, perhaps Mulder would still be around.  Scully knew Skinner also felt a duty toward her and Sarah.  Even though she had told him time and again they would be fine, Skinner took his guilt seriously and made a
point of helping them whenever possible

He had been a pillar of strength during her four years of searching; running interference with the Bureau higher-ups to get her the resources she needed long after the project should have been legitimately abandoned.  When she had announced her intent to retire, he'd even helped her find the coroner position she'd just retired from.

After she left his official jurisdiction, they'd still stayed friends.  Several times, he'd offered to be a surrogate parent for "Father-Daughter" events at Sarah's school, which earned him Sarah's unquestioned devotion.  He'd called regularly and been quick to offer help with the home improvements Scully was inflicting on the farmhouse.  Since Walter Skinner was a decent carpenter, wasn't afraid of heights, and didn't dread using power-tools, she'd been happy to accept. 

She had tried to keep emotional distance where he  was concerned, but that had proved harder than expected.  In addition to being an amazing weekend-handyman, he'd also proved to be excellent company.  He was such a gentleman and to Scully's surprise, outside the Bureau, he exhibited a wicked sense of humor that meshed well with her own.    
Turning away from the door to go make peace with her daughter, Scully figured Sarah must have been about nine when it all came to a head.

It had been three months after her forty-fourth birthday.  Skinner had called mid-week and asked her out to a belated celebratory dinner.  It must have been something in his voice, but she knew that this wasn't just a casual thing.  She remembered the way her palms had been slick with sweat at the idea, the fluttering of her stomach, the sudden twinge of arousal.

She'd hemmed and hawed, saying something about babysitters and heavy workloads.  He'd told her he already checked and Byers would be glad to watch Sarah.  He'd pick her up at six that Saturday, if that was all right?

She'd said yes, knowing all along that it was a dangerous idea.  She'd made a frantic trip into Baltimore on Saturday morning to buy a new dress, a blue silk sheath with thin braided straps that made her look as cool as she wanted to feel.  She still had it, tucked upstairs in her closet; an elegant thing with memories of feeling beautiful woven amidst the iridescent threads.  When he'd arrived that evening, Skinner's admiring look reassured her she was right to buy it

He'd brought flowers for her; long green-stemmed lilies that smelled waxy and clean.  She'd thanked him and tried not to notice the way his eyes devoured her in the dark blue sheath.

She remembered the dinner as a lovely affair, with candle light and expensive food and wine.  Everything was probably delicious, but to her it all tasted of ashes.  At one point in the evening, Skinner had reached over and taken her hand, a disturbingly sexy smile crossing his face.  She'd tried to stay calm, to picture Mulder across from her instead but  to her dismay, she couldn't bring his face to mind.  She'd tried harder to morph the A.D.'s face into her missing partner's, but it was no use.  The only person she had seen was Skinner.

He had driven her home, still exuding an undercurrent of sexuality previously not hinted at.  Sarah had long been in bed and Byers took his leave so rapidly, to this day, Scully suspected Skinner of paying
him off. 

Standing on the porch, she'd invited him in for a cup of coffee.  When he'd accepted, the woman in her that still waited daily for Mulder to walk up the porch steps saying, "Honey, I'm home" screamed for him to go.  The abandoned, lonely woman in her held her counterpart close and told her to be quiet.  She would handle this.  Besides, Mulder wasn't there.  Skinner was. 

Mulder need never know.

They'd walked into the dim house and then she'd been pressed against the entry wall, Skinner's lips on hers; gentle at first, then growing more insistent when she hadn't pulled away.  He'd cupped his hands around her jaw line, then let one hand find its way down her body until it rested on the curve above her hip.  He'd gently caught her lower lip between his teeth before pulling back, eyes shining in the half-darkness.  He'd looked so sweet, so unsure. 

"Is this all right?"  His voice had been a low rumble that turned her knees to liquid. 

She remembered looking up into his face, seeing the raw desire for her there.  It had made her feel powerful.  For the first time in years, she'd felt alive.

She'd reached up and touched his cheek, surprised to find it so smooth.

"Say my name," she'd whispered. 

He'd bent closer, grazing her full lips again with his own. 

"Dana."

She'd pulled him to her.

He'd reluctantly left at daybreak before Sarah woke up and explanations would be needed as to why he still was there.  Scully had watched him drive away from her bedroom window, enjoying the sated, relaxed way her body felt.  When she'd gotten up and gone to the bathroom, she'd touched her own reflection in the mirror, as if to ascertain that ravished and happy woman was indeed her.

Over the next few days, they spoke often.  They'd both agreed to keep it from Sarah.  Until they'd had a chance to figure things out, there was no sense in confusing the child.  Also, although both we eager to
be together again, neither of them felt right about having a repeat performance with Sarah in the house again.  They considered themselves lucky that she'd managed to sleep through the whole thing.

An emergency phone call to Bill and Tara had been the solution.  Bill's voice had radiated warmth through the receiver.  "Sure Dana.  Send her on. We'll be glad to take care of the Queen Bee for a while.  We're not going anywhere."  

Listening to Bill and Tara reassure her it really was fine to unload her kid on them, Scully had been grateful she'd managed to develop a good relationship with both her remaining siblings.  As her mother grew older, Bill and Charlie had visited more, bringing along their wives and kids.  She'd made an effort to spend time with them; at first to give Sarah a feeling of being part of a clan and then because she'd found she wanted them again.  To her delight, they'd wanted her too.

Scully had thanked her brother and sister-in-law profusely for the favor, then had quickly hung up the phone before either one of them had asked her why the sudden need for space?  She hadn't been ready to answer any questions about this yet.  The only thing she'd been certain of was she wanted Walter Skinner's hands on her skin as quickly as possible.

Since their date the week before, her emotional state had gone from guilty to giddy at least twenty-five time a day.  Her logical side had told her it would take time to be comfortable with this, but she had not been able to shake the feeling that she had somehow cheated on Mulder. 

Still, she'd wanted to give it a try.

They'd both cashed in vacation time and three hours after Sarah left on her extended vacation, Skinner had showed up at the farmhouse.  She'd gone out to greet him as he got out of the car, growing nervous
at the size of his travel bag.

"Moving in?"

He'd laughed and her fears receded.  He'd taken a step closer.

"Is the Queen off to San Diego?"

She'd nodded.

"Good."

He'd dropped the bag on the ground and picked her up, sitting her on the hood of the car.  His fingertips had run over the denim of her jeans, then gently up to cup her breasts through her white cotton shirt. 

She'd given in to a delicious shudder and ran her hands up his muscular back.  He'd kept himself in good shape over the years, his body hard for a man in his fifties. 

A twinge of guilt had shot down her spine but she'd ignored it, tilting her head back to look at the sky.  He'd bent to nuzzle her exposed neck and she wrapped her legs around his waist.  Suddenly, she'd laughed out loud. 

"What?"  He'd picked his head up, puzzled. 

She'd reached out to trace the outline of his lower lip with a lacquered nail

"I haven't made out on the hood of a car since I was sixteen." 

He'd grinned at her.  "I could put on some R.E.O Speedwagon.  Would that help?"

"If you actually have R.E.O. with you, we'll stay on the hood of the car."

Stepping up another riser, Scully thought it still qualified as the best bet she'd ever lost.

The two weeks that Sarah had been gone were spent in half-attire, moving from room to room in fits of sexual activity that more than made up for seven years of abstinence.  "I'm too old for this," she'd gasped on the fourth day, hair dark with sweat, hands clutching the sofa for dear life as Skinner brought her to the edge of climax for the third time that morning.

He'd smiled up at her.  "Statistically, so am I."  Leaving his ministrations between her thighs, he'd crawled up to kiss her, his lips salty with her own taste.  "Let's go for four," he'd growled and she'd moaned in ecstasy when he entered her with a long, slow stroke. 

Her former boss had been a spectacular lover.  In some respects, sleeping with Skinner was like sleeping with a domesticated wild animal.  He knew all the rules and techniques, but still, he possessed a controlled savageness in the bedroom that brought her to levels of sexual satisfaction previously unknown.  One night, watching him cook dinner for her, she'd thought to herself that he was a better lover than Mulder.  The thought left her so wracked with guilt she'd been unable to do anything but minimal obeisance to the wonderful meal Skinner had prepared.  He'd asked her what was wrong and she'd dodged the issue by kissing him.  Things had heated up and soon her guilt had been banished again by pleasure.

The day before Sarah's return, he'd proposed.

They'd been curled up in bed watching the news when he asked.  She'd turned to him, tilting her head as if he'd said something in a foreign language. 

"What?"

"Marry me, Scully."   He'd said it again. 

Her stomach had lurched.  For an instant, she'd thought she'd be sick.

"I can't."

It had turned ugly.  He hadn't been able to understand why she wouldn't say yes. 

"Why," he'd begged.  "Don't you love me?"

"It's not that."

"Then *WHY*?"

She'd sat on the edge of the bed, pressed down under the weight of a double guilt, unable to hold him as he'd wept.  "This is hell," she thought and silently cursed Mulder for not being there to save her
from this.

Hours later, Skinner had stood in the downstairs doorway, bag in hand. 

"This is it, Dana.  I waited nine years.  I love you more than I've ever loved any woman, but I don't want to grow old alone."

"I understand," she'd whispered.

He'd taken a step toward her. 

"He's not coming back.  You know that."

Taking his hand, she'd raised it to her lips, kissing the palm before letting go.  Her voice was barely a whisper.

"If I knew that, I'd say yes."

He'd turned away and left for good. 

Three months later, she'd heard he was dating a woman twenty years younger than he was.  She'd sat at the edge of her bed and cried silently, holding a shirt he'd left behind.

Four months later, she'd received an invitation to their wedding.  She'd attended, wearing the blue dress.  It had hurt to go, but the devotion between Skinner and his new bride confirmed she had done the 
right thing. 

Two years later, she'd attended their daughter's christening, pleased to be named Godmother.  Skinner had beamed with pride as he handed the baby to Scully, a father for the first time at almost sixty.

It really had been for the best.

She walked down the upstairs hall, pausing outside her daughter's door.  Just as she raised her hand to knock, Sarah jerked the door open, suitcase in hand, face red from crying. 

Scully looked down at the suitcase and then back at her daughter.  She reached out a cool hand and laid it against Sarah's cheek  "Don't go," she said quietly.  "Mr. Peebles is good company, but I'd hate to
spend Christmas with only him."

Sarah smiled tentatively.  Slowly, she set the suitcase behind her and stood back to let Scully in. 


_______________________________
  
The heart monitor stops.

She loved its sound six days ago.  It meant she continued to live. Now, the termination of steady high-pitched beeps means freedom.

Dana Scully is going home.  

The nurse arrives to take her out in a wheelchair.  She gladly lets herself be pushed down the hall, careful to keep her eyes straight ahead as they leave the hospital room behind.  She sits up as straight as she's able, trying to ignore the random moans coming from her peers in other rooms.  I'm sorry you didn't beat it, she thinks.  She got lucky this time.  Maybe they will, too.

The car is waiting under the building's canopy, out of the rain.  She allows the nurses to help her into the passenger side as her daughter puts her overnight bag and flowers in the back seat.  In a few minutes, the car door shuts and they are on their way at last. 

Sarah is busy hunting for an opening in the heavy Baltimore traffic.  "How are you feeling?"

The car swings out onto the busy street and Scully watches the hospital disappear in the side mirror.  She lets out a long breath.  "Better, now."

They ride home in silence, concrete sidewalks exchanged gradually for rural countryside.  Scully didn't expect she'd ever be coming back this way again.  She looks out the window and greets every familiar
landmark with a silent hello.  When they pull into the driveway, she wishes she could run and embrace her house.

Her daughter helps her out of the car and up the porch stairs.  She doesn't need assistance but goes along with it anyway.  As she walks into the living room and sits down, the feel of home brings her close
to tears. 

Sarah stands in the doorway, watching her settle in.  "I need to call Chris and the boys.  Do you want anything?"

"No. I'll be fine."

"I'm not buying that answer anymore.  If it hadn't been for Steve, we'd have lost you the other day."

There's more than a little truth in that statement. Scully thinks.  She waves a hand at her daughter.  "There's no need to fuss.  I'm all right for now. Make your call and give them all my love.  I'll talk to them later."

"I won't be long."

"Sarah?"

"Yes?"

"Thank you for staying.  Thank you for everything, really."

Sarah grins and leaves the room.  "I couldn't very well leave you on the lawn," she calls from the hall.

For the next fifteen minutes, Scully sits on her sofa, listening to her daughter run her own home long-distance in the next room.  She takes one deep breath after another, still unaccustomed to the rush of air flooding into her lungs.  It is an enjoyable feeling.  Now that the fluid is out of her system, she has more energy than she's had in months.

Sarah is right. Steve saved her life by giving her the aspirin, surely as she had saved a battered and dying cat by blowing air into its mouth when it had stopped breathing twenty years before.  The boy's actions had been the talk of her floor.  All the nurses had stopped in to congratulate him on his quick thinking.  They all had heard the story of how he had called the pharmacy to ask about Lasix, then recognized the symptoms of congestive heart failure from the description in the Physician's On-Line Desk Reference.  Even her heart surgeon was impressed.  "He'll be a fine doctor someday," he told Sarah.  "You should be very proud of him."

Steve had sat next to her hospital bed, handling all the praise just as his grandfather would have: by dismissing it with a shrug and never letting go of her hand.

The doctor didn't have such kind words for her.

"You know this was completely avoidable, Dr. Scully," he said, pen tapping on the top of his clipboard.  "I know you don't like the side effects, but if you took the Lasix regularly they might abate."

She didn't answer.  She knew he was right.  No need to tell him so. 

Her doctor scribbled something unintelligible on her chart. "Let me make this perfectly clear: if you don't take the Lasix, you'll die. Do you understand?"

She nodded, granting him only the merest movement of neck and head. 

He hung the chart back on room's door.  "Good.  I've scheduled your follow-up for this Wednesday.  After that, you're going to see me on a monthly basis from now on.  I'm going to keep an eye on you because the next time, your grandson might not be around to bail you out."

Before he had to go back home, Steve made her swear she'd listen to the doctor.  "Promise me," he said, "you'll take the medicine.  You'll go to the appointments."  He'd held her hand, his green-flecked eyes searching hers.  "Promise me, Gram."

Scully promised.  He was so like his grandfather at that moment, she was helpless to resist. 

After a flurry of goodbyes and last minute instructions she hears Sarah hang up the phone.  In a few moments, her daughter comes back into the living room.  "Everything okay?"

Scully nods.  "It's good to be home."

Sarah smiles.  "It always is.  Speaking of which, Chris and the boys send love right back.  Steve says to take your medicine this time or he'll fly out here and shove the pills down your throat like you do Mr. Peebles."

Scully starts at the name and looks around. "Where is Mr. Peebles?  Did you finally kill him while I was gone?"

"Not this time, although it's always tempting.  He's probably upstairs on your bed."  Sarah rolls her eyes. "You know, after twenty years, that cat still won't let me touch him.  He even scratched me after I fed him the other day."

A satisfied look settles on her mother's face.  "Then he must be fine.  Anyway, I'm sure he didn't hurt you.  He can hardly see."

"Where I'm concerned, he still has excellent aim."  Sarah holds out her arm to show a long red claw mark on her arm.  "At least it's not deep.  How old is he now, anyway?"

"Probably around twenty-three or twenty-four."

"Isn't that some kind of a record?"

"No.  He'll have to reach thirty-four to do that."

Sarah laughs at the answer.  "I see you know what the record is.  Are you keeping track?"

"Maybe."

"I think he has a shot at it. I think the meanness keeps him alive."

Scully shrugs. "Then let him be mean.  Now that John Byers is gone, Mr. Peebles qualifies as one of my oldest friends."

Their lighthearted mood mutates to sadness at the mention of the last Gunman.  Sarah shakes her head.  "I was thinking this morning that John's dying saved your life.  If we hadn't come back for the funeral, no one would have been here when you collapsed."


Scully looks down at her hands, noting the way the skin has sunk around the tendons of her fingers.  "John always did look out for me," she murmurs.

Sarah gives a great sigh and sinks into the chair across from her.  "With all that's gone on, I haven't had time to even think about my executor duties.  Between getting the boys back for school and with you in the hospital, I still haven't gone into D.C. and cleaned out his apartment.  Will you go with me?"

Scully nods.  She'll go.  John would have wanted that.

Her daughter sits forwards in the chair and rubs her hands over her face.  "I told Chris I'd be back next Wednesday, but, God, I still need to get to the lawyer's.  Then, I want to plant some flowers on the grave and make sure the stone's been carved.  Do you want to go with me to the cemetery, too?"

Her mother shakes her head firmly.  "No.  I've had enough reminders of mortality lately.  If it's all right, I'm going to leave that part to you."

Sarah nods, accepting great responsibility without a second thought, just as her father used to do.  "I'll do it, Mom.  No worries."

With those six simple words, Scully sees her child take another step toward being the ruling matriarch, following in her own footsteps and her Grandmother Maggie's before her.  Her daughter is a formidable
woman now, possessing her own relentless attention to detail and her father's drive and strength.  She will be more than capable of carrying the family banner. 

She is proud to be Sarah's mother.

"Mom?  Did you hear me?"

Scully starts.  "I'm sorry, honey.  I didn't."

"Are you all right?  Do you want to rest for awhile?"

Scully  shudders.  "No.  I've been resting all week.  What I'd really like to do is say 'hello' to Mr. Peebles and since it's stopped raining, walk down to the creek."  She stands up slowly.  "Will you join me?"

Sarah looks pleased at the idea.  "I'm going to make a few of these calls first, but after that, sure."  She glances at her watch.  "It's four-fifteen now.  How about five?"

"Fine."

Scully leaves her daughter to the handle the business side of death and makes her way upstairs.  As reported, in her bedroom the ancient cat is sleeping on the quilt draped across the end of her bed.  She
walks over and gently strokes its gray chin.

"I'm back, Old Man," she whispers.

The cat does not open its remaining eye, but Scully can feel a faint purr rumble through its body.  She lays her hand on its head to acknowledge the greeting.  Looking down at the sleeping animal, she thinks without a shred of self-pity that what she said was true.  Excluding her family, this battered cat is her last remaining friend.

Since she has the time, she decides to take a shower.  She stands under the spray for a long time, letting hot water wash away the events of the past week.  It takes a while to get all the residue of I.V. medical tape off her arms.  Even though the nurses gave her two sponge baths during her stay at the hospital, she never felt completely clean.  

Afterwards, she towel dries her hair and changes into a flannel shirt and heavy pants, suitable for a hike through the woods.  She nods approval at her reflection in her dresser mirror.  It is good to be back home.  It is good to feel like herself again. 

Sarah calls to her from downstairs.  "It's five, Mom.  Are you ready?"

Her focus drops to the top dresser drawer.  The conflict that has raged inside her since the ambulance screamed out of the driveway six days ago flares up again.  Is the time right or should she wait?  She must decide. 

She looks into her own eyes in the mirror and knows she is done with waiting.  The doctor is right.  Just like John Byers, there might be no one with her when her time comes.  She should take care of this now.

She opens the drawer and pulls out a small box, placing it in her left shirt pocket, so it might be close to her heart, then goes downstairs to meet her daughter. 

Sarah is waiting for her at the foot of the stairs.  "Feel better?" she asks. 

Scully lets out a deep breath, feeling the stress from the past week leave with it.  "Absolutely," she replies and heads for the front door.
  
Outside, the air is cool from the rain earlier in the day.  As they cross the lawn toward the path by the whitewashed barn, the legs of their pants grow dark from the moisture still clinging to the grass.  "I haven't been to the creek in a long time," Sarah muses. 

Her mother smiles at the remark.  "Then it's time you went back."

The path through the woods is wide enough that they can walk side by side.  There are only quiet sounds of nature: drips of rain from the trees, the rustle of wind through the forest groundcover and, of course, Sarah's beloved birds. 

The dense foliage has blocked most of the rain and the dirt path is not remotely muddy.  Even if it were, it wouldn't matter.  After forty-four years, its bends and twists are second nature to Scully.  Her daughter may not have taken this path for a long time, but Scully has come this way often in the past ten years.  She could walk it in her sleep if she had to.

The physical exercise does her good.  When they reach the creek a quarter-mile later, she feels at peace.  Just the babble from this fifteen-foot wide stretch of water makes her feel renewed, better than any medicine ever could.

As they enter the clearing, Sarah laughs.  "You know, when I was a kid, I hated it that you brought that bench out here.  Now that I'm old and tired, I'm glad you did."

Scully snorts.  "You don't know what old and tired is."  She sits down on the bench and she pats the seat next to her.  "I have something for you."

"I have something for you, too.  News."  
Sarah's eyes are sparkling.  Whatever it is must be good. 

Scully smiles.  Her present can wait.  "Then, you go first," she says.

Her daughter sits down next to her, her excitement barely contained.  "Steve told me on the phone he got his acceptance letter into George Washington while we were gone."

Scully gasps with delight. It is an undergraduate school her grandson has mentioned to her often as one of his favorites.  She shakes her head, even as a huge grin plasters itself on her features.  "How?  It's late September.  I thought he couldn't apply yet."

"Early acceptance.  They targeted him last year.  We didn't want to tell you until we knew for sure, but right now, it looks like he'll be in D.C. this time next year."  Sarah smiles with pride.  "We've got such a smart kid."

Scully shuts her eyes briefly, savoring the news.  Mulder would be so proud of him, she thinks.  She'll have to call Steve and congratulate him later.   

Sarah lays a gentle hand on her knee.  "There's something else. He really wants to stay here with you."

Scully's pleased expression doesn't fade, but she shakes her head.  "I don't know about that.  That's a terrible commute."

Sarah nods in agreement.  "I knew you'd say that, but he wanted me to ask.  At least he'll be in reach should you need him during the week.  And, Chris says we'll send him with a car so he can be here on
weekends for sure.  You're going to have him around whether you want him or not."

Scully blinks hard to drive the sting in her eyes back.  This is happy news.  She doesn't want to cry.  "Of course I do. That would be wonderful.   He's not obliged, though.  As long as he understands
that."

"You can tell him that, but it's his idea. I don't think you'll get around him on this." 

"He's a young man.  He doesn't need to hang around with an old woman like me."

"You seem to think it would be a hardship for him," Sarah laughs. "You're wrong. He adores you, Mom.  He always has." 

Scully shrugs off the compliment.  "I'm his grandmother.  Children are supposed to like their grandmothers.  We get all the fun, you get all the work."

Sarah looks at her strangely.  She shakes her head and for a moment, Scully thinks her daughter is going to cry. 

Instead, Sarah reaches down and picks up some rocks in the dirt around the bench.  She  leans back and begins to toss them one by one in the creek   Finally, she glances over at her mother, a wry smile
on her lips. "Did I ever say things when I was a kid that unintentionally hurt you, but were still true?"

The question earns her a snort and a nod.

"Do you still remember them?"

This time, Scully raises an eyebrow.  "What do you think?"

Sarah's voice seems younger.  "I never told you this, but when Steve was five, before he really understood what a coroner did, he asked me once why I wasn't a doctor like grandma.''  She smiles.  "I cried myself to sleep for a month over that one." 

Scully puts a hand on her daughter's arm.  "Honey, he didn't mean it."

Sarah smile grows larger.  "Oh, sure he did.  He didn't mean to hurt my feelings.  He was only five.  But the doctor bit," She throws another rock toward the creek.  "He meant that completely."

Scully is lost for words.  She'd like to offer Sarah some comfort, but can find nothing to say.

They sit in silence, only the sound of the creek burbling until Sarah tosses another pebble and continues.  "I didn't tell anyone about that for years. I just told myself I was being stupid about the whole thing, that I had a perfectly fine career."

Scully seizes the affirmation.  "You did.  You still do."

"The only bad thing about accepting the management position was I didn't get to fly as much anymore.  Still, it's a good job."  Sarah sighs.  "But I never forgot about Steve saying that.  Finally, about four years ago, it came out when I was talking to Chris one night."

"What did he say?"

"First of all, he couldn't believe I'd been upset about it all those years.  And you know Chris.  He just laughed and said, 'Honey, what did you expect?  He's just like your mother.  Those two have known their minds since the day they were born.'"

"Chris said that?"

Sarah throws another pebble in the creek.  "Mm hm."

"I knew there was a reason I liked him.  He's a smart man."

Her daughter laughs.  "Sometimes."

Her mother raises an eyebrow and Sarah's grin broadens.  "No, you know Chris is great. And damn it, he was right.  Steve is one of those kids who has always known what he wanted.  Since he couldn't imagine any job cooler than a doctor, he didn't understand why everyone couldn't be one, including his own mother."  She tosses another pebble toward the creek.  "But, I also believe that Steve said what he did because even then he couldn't imagine anyone else he'd rather be like than you."

Scully tries to protest but Sarah stops her with a raised hand.  "Mom, it's okay.  I didn't tell you this to make you feel guilty.  It's just..." 

Sarah stops momentarily, a muscle in her jaw giving notice to her struggle to find the right words.  "When I thought I was... going to lose you this week, I realized you're the best role model my children could have. I mean, look at what you accomplished.  You had a successful career, you raised me on your own, you worked your hardest to give me every opportunity, whether I took it or not..."

Scully stops her with a raised hand.  "Sarah, you've done all right for yourself."

"Yes, largely because of what you taught me."

Scully snorts. "What's that?  Be a recluse?  Live alone?"

Astonished, Sarah turns to face her.  "Does it look like that?  Mom, you proved it doesn't take two parents for a child to have a real family.  You taught me that your family is something you make for yourself out of the people around you, not necessarily who you are related to.  You also taught me that family is the most important thing in the world.  You were right.  It is."

Scully cheeks grow hot.  "You didn't always think I was so great back then," she says.

Sarah rubs a hand over her mouth before she speaks.  "No.  I didn't.  And for the record, I still think you stink when you refuse to take your medicine like you're supposed to."

Scully flinches.  Still, Sarah's point is deserved.  "Understood," she whispers.

Sarah throws her last rock toward the stream.  "The point is, the Gunmen and Skinner were my fathers.  With John, we've just buried our last original male family member.  Then, when you collapsed I thought, 'this is it, I'm going to lose them all.'"  She turns toward her mother.  "Please, Mom, you've got to promise me to take the medicine and do what the doctors tell you to. I don't want you to die."

The fierceness of Sarah's love is like Scully remembers her own to be.  "I hadn't thought of it in that light," she says.  "I'll do it, Sarah.  I've already promised Steve and I'll promise you as well."

Sarah sighs and bows her head slightly.  "Good.  It's probably stupid, but it helps just to hear you say it."  She sits up straighter. "Now, you said you have something for me?"

It is Scully's turn to hesitate.  She takes comfort from the weight of the little box in her pocket before saying,  "I want to give you something, but it needs an explanation."

Sarah groans.  "Uh oh.  Every time something needs an explanation from you, it's life-changing."

Scully's face is somber.  "Then this will be no different."

She pulls the box from her shirt pocket.  For a moment she is not sure she can let it go.  "Goodbye," she thinks, and hands it quickly to Sarah before she has a change of heart.

Sarah opens the black velvet lid.  She looks down at the contents, then back up, a puzzled expression on her face.  "I didn't know you owned a cross."

Scully stares down at the necklace.  Almost a minute passes before she can speak again.  "Walter Skinner returned that to me five years ago.  The person who had it heard he was ill and brought it to him for me.  It's yours now.  I want you to have it."

Sarah picks up the fine chain, unaware she has only learned half the truth.  The gold cross dangles at the end of it, shining in the evening light.  "It's beautiful, Mom.  But why did someone return it to Walter?  Where had it been?"

Scully studies her daughter a long time.  She hopes she isn't making a mistake.  Sarah should know.  It is her right. 

She turns to look out towards the creek.  Her eyes are distant, her tone clinical and detached.  "From what we were told, an abduction victim brought it back.  They didn't remember who gave it to them, but they knew it wasn't theirs.  The last time I saw it was when I put it around your father's neck the day he left for Oregon."

"What?"

Scully turns to face Sarah before telling her, "It's mine.  I gave it to your father.  It's been returned to me."

Sarah stares down at the cross, her eyes wide with shock.  Watching her, Scully thinks how her daughter will never know the real truth of how she got the cross back.  She will never hear about how Skinner had been too busy dying to go meet Alex Krycek for an established meeting at the Reflecting Pool one Sunday afternoon.  She will never know how Krycek had smiled as Scully made her way toward him, parting tourists like draperies to be at the designated place at the designated time.

He'd been handsome for a man in his late seventies.  She could not help but notice that where age had taken over Skinner and the Gunmen and turned them into wizened old men, it had simply made Krycek
debonair. 

"Long time no see," he'd purred.  He'd smiled at her and the illusion of his good looks shattered.  His teeth were still white, but his gums had receded far enough that it made his incisors seem prominent and sharp.  She'd heard once that people tend to resemble what they really are.  How fitting that he now looked exactly like a snarling wolf. 

She'd greeted him with a curt nod, as if she'd last seen him yesterday instead of over thirty years ago.  "Walter Skinner is dying.  He sent me instead."

Krycek had smiled again.  She had to stop herself from shuddering at the sight of it.  "I know.  I agreed to it.  Poor Skinner.  Looks like he's next."

Her temper had flown to the surface.  "I didn't come here to reminisce, Krycek.  Walter said you had something for me.  Let's get this over with.  I've got a long drive back."

Krycek had seemed delighted by her response.  "What a relief to know you're still the same after all these years," he crooned.  "Fine.  Have it your way."

He reached in the pocket of his jacket and held out his hand.  The cross shone bright in the afternoon sun. 

She'd stared at it for a long time before holding out her hand to receive it.  When he'd dropped it in her palm, she'd flinched as if it were red-hot.  Krycek's  eyes flashed with pity.  "Well, Dana?  Why don't you leave now?  What happened to the long ride back?"

She'd finally found her voice.  "Where is he?"

The smile never left Krycek's face.  "Dead." 

  She'd willed herself to stay calm, not to scream.  "When?"

"I don't know.  I didn't kill him."

"Who gave you this?"

"He didn't, if that's what you're asking.  Besides, does it really matter?"

"No.  I suppose it doesn't."  She shook her head involuntarily, keeping her growing hysteria on short leash.  "I don't understand.  Why are you returning this?"

Krycek looked down at the cross again.  "It's yours.  I thought you'd want it. "  He took a step closer and laid a hand on her arm.  "But, who knows?  Maybe it's because I really wanted to see you one more
time."

She'd stepped back, immediately severing the physical connection between them.  "Touch me again and I'll kill you where you stand," she growled.

The frightening grin flashed at her again.  "You haven't changed a bit."

"Is there anything else or am I free to go now?"  She'd looked him in the eye, desperately trying to keep her facade of calm in place. 

It had made Krycek laugh, an old man's cackle that split the air.  Several passers-by looked at them with curiosity, probably wondering what they could find so funny at their advanced age.  "You're something else, you know that?" he chuckled.  "You were worth all of the rest of them put together.  I think that's why I let you live.  That and I felt sorry for the girl.  By the way, Sarah's turned out beautifully.  You must be very proud."

Scully eyes grew wide.  "Leave my daughter out of it, Krycek, or I really will kill you," she hissed.  She held out her fist, tightly clutched around the necklace, hiding it from view.  "If he really is dead, all agreements are off.  Stay away from me and stay away from my family."

Krycek's eyes were still bright green, just as deep and dangerous as she remembered them to be.  "Your family has nothing to worry about.  You should know that by now.  I kept my word.  You had your life."  He glanced down to her clenched hand.  "Consider that your reward for keeping your promise to me."

Her free hand itched to slap the condescending smile right off his face.  Instead, she turned around and walked away. 

His voice drifted to her from across the crowded mall.  "Good to see you, Scully," he called.  "Say goodbye to Walter for me, won't you?" 

She had not turned back.  She'd never wanted to see him again.  Thank God, she hadn't.

She'd made it all the way to the hospital parking lot in Georgetown before she had to lay her head on the steering wheel and sob.  She'd sat there for over an hour with the windows rolled up as she cried loudly, not caring who saw her.  Finally, she emerged from the car and went up to see Skinner.  When he saw the cross, he'd sent Maria from the room and they'd cried together.  She'd held his hand, careful to not dislodge the I.V.s., wiping the tears from his face as they rolled down from above his oxygen mask. 

Two days later he was dead.  For Scully, it had been a banner week for losing people.  She hoped she never had another like it in the time she had left.

"Mom?  What does this mean?" 

Sarah's distress brings Scully back to the present.  Her daughter is staring at the cross much as she herself did the day at the mall, tears rolling down her face. 

Scully tries to make the words as kind as she can.  "It means he's dead, Sarah.  Walter and I were in agreement that it was sent back to let me know for sure that he's gone." 

"Are you sure?"

She lays a hand on her daughter's back, a conciliatory gesture that probably means nothing in the circumstances.  "I'm sorry I didn't tell you before now.  I needed some time to grieve alone.  I wasn't even sure I was going to tell you, but all the time I was in the hospital I kept thinking, 'what if I die and she doesn't know?'  It wouldn't have been fair."

Sarah wipes her streaming eyes.  "Did...did the person who gave this to Walter...did they see the body?"

"No."

Sarah looks confused.  "Then how do we know for sure he's dead?"

Scully looks down at the cross again, remembering the last time she put it around her partner's neck.  "Considering the circumstances and the way it came back, I'm positive of it," she says quietly.

Sarah cups the necklace in her hand.  She runs her thumb gently over the surface of the cross and stares at it for a long time.  Finally she looks over at her mother.  "You know, this changes everything for me."

"What?"

Another tear runs down Sarah's cheek and she wipes it absently away.  "All those years, I was always the one that doubted.  You never gave up on him.  Then you get this and all of a sudden, you're sure he's dead. 

"But for some reason, this gives me hope.  I mean, this is proof he lived.  Who knows?  He may have survived the abduction.  Maybe you were right all those years ago.  Maybe he did stay away to protect us.  He could have sent it as a sign.  Mom, I know you believe that he's dead.  Intellectually, I know I should believe it too.  But now that I see this, for the first time in my life, I *don't*." 

Scully's throat tightens. She has never seen Sarah so hopeful.  She makes a vow to herself that no matter what she personally may believe, she will not take this feeling from her child. 

She puts her arm around her daughter. "It's good someone else carries the faith now, just in case I'm wrong."  She smiles as she looks down again at the cross in her daughter's hand.  "Just don't ever give
that to Steve.  You may think he's like me, but he's really just like your father.  The last time I put that around a man's neck, he disappeared.  I don't want to lose another one."

Her daughter gives a watery laugh.  "It's a deal."  She wipes the last of her tears away.  "You know, I've always thought Steve resembled Dad."

"Inside and out.  It takes me by surprise every time I see him. I wish you knew how alike they are."

Sarah studies Scully closely.  Her eyes are bright and hopeful.  "Maybe someday I will," she says softly.  She leans forward and kisses Scully.  "Thank you, Mom."

It has grown much darker in the clearing.  Night will soon be upon them.  Sarah carefully returns the cross to its box and tucks it inside her jacket pocket.  She shivers.  "It's getting cold.  Ready to head back?"

In truth, Scully isn't.  There is a part of her that would enjoy sitting in the silence of the darkening woods, thinking of friends and family now lost.  If she sent Sarah ahead, one by one she could relive them all: Byers, the only one that died peacefully.  Both her brothers, Bill from a heart attack ten years ago and Charlie from a series of strokes when he was in his fifties.  Frohike from the terrible battle with prostate cancer.  Skinner of complications from pneumonia.  Langly at only forty-two, a victim of a car accident. 

And Mulder.  The first one lost, the last one buried. It would be easy to sit alone and mourn being the last survivor of a now dead time.

Years of internal isolation almost make her give in.  Scully starts to tell Sarah to go on without her; she'll be along shortly.  But she can't. She gave the cross to Sarah because she wanted to be able to loosen her aged fingers from around the edges of her partner's memory, to un-anchor herself from the ghosts of the past.  If she chooses to stay behind with the dead, she might as well become one of them.

Scully looks into her daughter's eyes.  Krycek was wrong that day on the mall when he said that she'd "had her life."  Scully knows her life is far from over.  The future stands in front of her, hand offered, eyes hopeful.

All she has to do is reach out and let it help her stand.

She takes her daughter's hand.  Sarah's grip is warm and strong.  Scully smiles as her daughter helps her to her feet.  "Let's go call the boys," she says. 
They turn and go up the path, arm in arm, towards home.

_______________________

Finis

_______________________


Thanks: There's a lot of it.   I'll start with Galia, for impressions and keeping me true to my school.  Then, there was SE Parsons who helped me finally find what I was trying to say.  K. Keil's expert pharmaceutical knowledge and precise attention to detail was invaluable.  Much bowing and genuflecting towards the brilliant Marasmus for fabulous insight, exacting beta and another great title.  Maria Nicole did some amazing fine-tuning.  Alicia was wonderful enough to help me work out what was bothering me about it.  And Livia, who confirmed what I knew was true.

And of course, the Virginians for their constant bonhomie and letting me clog the list with this a couple of times.

This was a quote challenge from wen to get me through my writers block, so the deepest thanks goes to her.  The quotes were:

From "Birds of America" by Lorrie Moore

This taboo regarding age is to make us believe that life is long and actually improves us, that we are wiser, better, more knowledgeable later than early. It is a myth concocted to keep the young from learning what we really are and despising and murdering us. We keep them sweet-breathed, unequipped, suggesting to them that there is something more than regret and decrepitude up ahead

'Beautiful Grade'

She was accustomed to much nesting and appreciation and drips from the faucet, though sometimes she would vanish outside, and they would not see her for days, only to spy her later, in the yard, dirty and matted, chomping on a vole or eating old snow 

 Agnes of Iowa

She sank down on the steps, pulled her robe tighter. She felt for the light switch and flicked it on. The bat, she could now see, was small and light colored, its wings folded in like a packing tent, a mouse with backpacking equipment. It had a sweet face, like a deer, though blood drizzled from its head. It reminded her of a cat she'd once seen as a child, shot with a BB in the eye.
Love it?  Hate it?  Let's talk:  msebasky@yahoo.com
 



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